Captain Kirk, guitarist for the Roots, says he likes to wear Puma sneakers while performing because they make it easy to dial in killer effects. Photo by Sol Allen

The Roots has a new bassist, Mark Kelley, who has been onboard a few months now. As far as writing guitar and bass parts, what’s the dynamic like between you two?
A large part of what the Roots is now is being a house band for Fallon. The time we spend onstage together, where the audience pays to see the act the Roots and the Roots alone, that’s sort of the past. So when we do a show where people are paying to see the Roots only, that’s a very special evening. But we’re writing all the time—every time we go to commercial, that’s an original composition.

What are those writing sessions like?
Well, for instance, right now Questlove is sick, so he’s out from the Fallon show for a week. So Frank Knuckles, our percussionist, is writing the set. It’s a very well-oiled machine, as far as coming up with stuff at the drop of a hat. Because the only intent is to take us in and out of a commercial, we don’t feel like we have to change the world with every piece of music we write. But because that pressure is lifted, you can come up with some really cool stuff—because we all want to make stuff that we enjoy playing. By virtue of that, sometimes really good stuff happens, and sometimes that stuff also finds its way onto albums.

What’s it like to jam with so many great musicians?
It’s fun. Work can definitely be a box of chocolates. Yesterday, we were the backing band for Hunter Hayes, a fantastic guitarist/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist who’s, like, 20 years old and a formidable player. I only heard about him through the show. I went on YouTube to check him out and saw that he’s already played the Grand Ole Opry, and he’s got a big hit that we backed him on yesterday. But I only found out about that from being in the Roots and being on Jimmy Fallon. That sort of scenario happens pretty regularly. You get to see people’s fingers up close— all these people like John McLaughlin. It really enriches your musical experience.

Percussionist Frank Knuckles and MC Black Thought wax while Captain Kirk looks on. Photo by Tim Fortner

What are some of your favorite performances so far?
Springsteen, definitely. I get chills just thinking about that. Playing “Late in the Evening” with Paul Simon was magical. We played with Tom Jones. We’ve played with Jimmy Buffett, Todd Rundgren, Elvis Costello. All of those had an element of magic to them.

The Captain makes his custom Les Paul sing at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis. Photo by Todd Owyoung

Which situations were the most surprising or difficult?
We played a piece with Mos Def called “Casa Bey” that was more complex than what you would expect from a hip-hop artist. When we collaborate with hiphop artists, they tend to be repetitive, loop-based things. But when we did this with Mos Def, it was sort of a The Rite of Spring-like arrangement. There were a lot of parts, and we’re not reading when we’re up there [on air], so you have to do a lot of memorization. It’s a best-case scenario to play things many times to get it in your head and in your fingers, but sometimes you don’t have that opportunity. So it requires a lot of focus.

Let’s talk about your weapons of choice a little bit.
With the Roots, I use Mesa/Boogie amplifiers. They’re just very versatile, sort of like a Swiss Army knife, but without getting into the digital world—which I’m not opposed to, but I just haven’t gotten around to it yet. I like the feel of tubes, and I’ve just found a situation that works for me and allows me to worry about other things. My setup is extremely basic: I use a Dunlop Jimi Hendrix Wah, an Ibanez Tube Screamer, a Line 6 DL4 Delay Modeler, and a Maxon Phase Tone.

Yes, there is stomping in hip-hop. Douglas puts his foot down at the 2011 Montreal Jazz Fest. Photo by Rebecca Dirks

When I’m not playing with the Roots, I do a much more guitar-centric thing. I have a band called Hundred Watt Heart, and I use Divided by 13 amps with that. I really like the feel of just using one amp. With the Roots, I’m required to play clean a lot of the time, so I’ll use different channels. I’ll have my cabinets turned around, too, because a loud guitar is not favorable in a hip-hop band.

Although you guys have done a “Machine Gun” cover that was pretty guitar-intensive.
It totally has its moments in the show, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not like going to see the Mars Volta. That’s way more of a guitar experience, where the guitar takes up a lot more real estate in the bed of the music. Because of that, I definitely have a need to play music on my own that’s more guitar-centric.