The Roots guitarist takes a musical turn he’s long hinted at with his heavy-rock solo project, Hundred Watt Heart: a loud, funky power trio of the first order.
At a hotel café around the corner from 30 Rockefeller Plaza (also known more affectionately to New Yorkers as 30 Rock), “Captain” Kirk Douglas is taking a break between rehearsals for NBC’s The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. He stirs his tea with the practiced calm of a been-there-done-that studio veteran, but even with 15 years under his belt as lead axe-slinger for the Roots, his eyes light up like a kid’s when the subject veers toward the first time he spied an electric guitar up close.
“I had a friend whose older brother played guitar,” he begins, smiling at the memory. “We’d go over to his house after school, and there was this beautiful instrument, a tobacco sunburst Les Paul, you know? I’d only seen them from afar in the local music shops, but the other thing is, he was also listening to KISS. And at that age, when you’re into superheroes like Spider-Man and Batman, you see these guys playing instruments that are like a spaceship or a cool sports car. Then it becomes something you can actually hold in your hands, and it just comes to life. That’s when I discovered the sound that it made, and then after that, with Van Halen and Ozzy [Osbourne], I’m hearing this sound taken to levels of mastery.”
Along the way, he discovered Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix (“That was a big aha moment, like ‘Oh, you can be black and make heavy music, too?’”), and then Led Zeppelin, U2, the Smiths, the Cure, the Cocteau Twins, and many more. By the time he left his idyllic Long Island hometown of Holbrook for the urban jungle of New York City, Douglas had matured into a Strat-toting rocker, eventually adding his distinctive clean-picked sound to the trippy neo-psych washes of Binsey Poplars, a local band with a shoegaze fix.
After years in the trenches, in the summer of 2003 he became a full-blown member of the Roots, having joined the hardest-working band in hip-hop in the middle of their now-legendary Phrenology tour, which featured a rotating phalanx of guitarists that included Ben Kenney, Martin Luther McCoy, and Living Colour’s Vernon Reid. And it didn’t take long for Douglas to uncover one of the hidden bonuses of hitting the road with Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter, and the rest of the Roots posse: everyone shares an insatiable thirst for musical knowledge, no matter the genre.
“Joining the Roots was like being immersed in a fascinating article about the Roots, you know?” he recalls with a laugh. “I was a fan, and I’d read magazine articles about them, and then to be in the band, what was probably the most fun was going from one place to another on the tour bus, and hearing what Black Thought would be listening to, or what Questlove would put on the radio. I mean, that’s the same to this day. We still have those moments when somebody plays something, and it’s like, ‘Alright, what is that?’ Except now I don’t have to ask anymore, because I can just quietly Shazam it!”
Of course, it’s one thing to pull the basics of a song from an iPhone app, and quite another to learn it at the drop of a hat and play it on national television. Since 2009, when Jimmy Fallon first hired the Roots to be the house band for his stint on Late Night, Douglas estimates the band has learned literally hundreds of tunes, from classic rock to R&B to pop.
“You’re kept on your toes on a pretty consistent basis,” he says, “and that’s definitely helped my musicianship. I mean, I’m not a jazz player, but there are times when I have to mimic jazz. But what the show mainly draws from tends to be popular music throughout the years, and that’s something that I've been an unintentional student of my whole life. Luckily we’re in the same generation as Jimmy, so it’s rare that he’ll draw from a reference that we’re not familiar with. And what’s cool about the different members of the band being into different styles of music, there’s always somebody who’s more well-versed on a particular genre. When that happens, we follow that person’s lead. And that happens quite often.”
All this and more feeds into Turbulent Times, the debut album of Douglas’s own trio Hundred Watt Heart. Although the project has been percolating for years—it started around 2011 as a loose live unit called the Dust Rays, with Roots bassist Mark Kelley and drummer Ricc Sheridan from the Brooklyn-based rock trio Earl Greyhound—the music delivers a gut punch of immediacy in songs like the Zeppelin-esque “I Used to Be in the Circus” or the hypnotic, hard-driving anthem “Come Alive.” Douglas likes to refer to it, in a reverent nod to the album’s ominous title cut, as the record he had to make.
“Really it’s Paul who was a huge motivating factor for me to get anything done,” he says, referring to co-producer Paul Klimson. As monitor mixer for the Roots, Klimson brought a set of ears that could help capture the sound Douglas was chasing in his head. “It was during one of the breaks at the Tonight Show, he was like ‘Hey, we should work on something.’ Because there’s a whole album that we recorded before this, but I just never got it together [to release it]. I guess as time goes by, just feeling the fleeting nature of life, you feel more of a motivation to really do it. And at some point, Paul was like, ‘We should record again.’”
The band convened at none other than Electric Lady Studios to record the basic tracks for Turbulent Times. Douglas leaned heavily on his ’61 Epiphone Crestwood, which has its own nutty history as the guitar that Prince tossed and broke after performing his rocked-up classic “Bambi” on Late Night back in early 2013. Fittingly, that selfsame axe occupies a place of honor in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s widely touted Play It Loud exhibition, while Douglas and HWH have immortalized the entire incident in the catchy, clean-picked song “Little Friend.” It’s easy to imagine Prince finding it all just a bit … smirk-worthy.
Captain Kirk recorded Hundred Watt Heart’s debut album, Turbulent Times, at Electric Lady Studios with Roots’ bassist Mark Kelley and drummer Ricc Sheridan, with Paul Klimson as co-producer.
“When I wrote that song, it seemed like a fitting way to retaliate,” Douglas quips. “But I hope it’s documented, and I hope people know that Prince did pay for it. He didn’t just do it and split, you know? And whether it was premeditated, or whether he was lost in the moment, it still obviously worked out far better than I could’ve imagined it would. That guitar had so much resonance with me before the Prince thing happened, and of course after that, it grew. That’s the fun thing about that exhibit [at the Met]. Every instrument in there has a story.”
In the end, Douglas’s work with Hundred Watt Heart documents a very personal journey, from the sky-touching riffage of “Uma” (dedicated to his daughter) to the quiet, bluesy introspection of “Our Year.” Just as almost every Roots project is in some way a concept album—and their next one, which will be their first full-length since the passing of the group’s visionary and charismatic manager Rich Nichols, promises to be a particularly heavy load—there’s also a guiding mantra that seems to link all the songs on Turbulent Times: gratitude.
“I’m just super thankful for it, and I’m fully cognizant of the fact that this album gets to people through my involvement with the Roots,” Douglas says. “That’s what got me into Electric Lady, and that’s what allowed me to fund it. I mean, I would be doing music regardless, but being in the Roots has allowed me to take my music to a higher level. Of course, I want to be the best band member I can be—that’ll never change. But what do you want to do outside of that? What do you want to use this opportunity for? I feel like doing my own project is the logical answer to that. It only makes what we do collectively as the Roots that much stronger.”
Did you rehearse any of these songs before you went into Electric Lady?
It was mostly banged out by the three of us, because some of the songs we had done in a live context, and there’s a few that me and Ricc had played together, but that Mark hadn’t heard. Just from our training on The Tonight Show, I knew he could come into the studio and pick it up relatively quickly. You know, it’s not like Gentle Giant or anything like that! [Laughs.] It’s not too intense arrangement-wise, and since you’re only dealing with three pieces for the most part, the gel happens pretty quickly.
So with songs like “Come Alive,” “Flesh and Bone,” and “Our Year,” Mark probably heard those for the first time when he came to the studio. We never played those live. The initial rhythm tracks took place over two days; it’s everything else that took time afterwards—guitar overdubs and vocals, and all that was done whenever time allowed, or whenever the Roots weren’t on tour and things were calm enough at home to get a chance to work.
Though he started out on Strats exclusively, Kirk Douglas doesn’t discriminate when it comes to 6-strings. Among his other favorites are his Trussart SteelTop shown here, and a repaired ’61 Epiphone Crestwood that Prince borrowed and smashed on The Tonight Show.
There’s a language that the three of you share already that maybe makes it a little bit easier, right?
Oh, yeah, definitely. That’s what I love about Ricc’s style of drumming. He’s very much about the feel of things, and Mark, when he plays, his bass lines are like singing. They’re both just so expressive and so funky, and I love that feel applied to heavier music, because in my opinion it makes it that much more heavy. And when it’s applied to guitar music, I just like the language of the three-piece, because I love guitar sounds and I love the sonic bath that can happen from loud electric guitar playing through a beautiful-sounding amplifier, and really just being immersed in that. I wanted to have an album that really celebrated that.
What is it like to work at Electric Lady?
You’re just in these hallowed hallways, you know? I don’t know if it’s over-simplifying it, but it seems like a place where Jimi Hendrix would want to make a record. I remember we were there a couple of years ago working on the next Roots record, and there are all these studios and hallways where you can duck in and duck out, so it’s a cool place to be if you have an idea. You can just go in the hallway with an acoustic and work on it. It’s the most creative environment you can imagine. I mean, one of the murals there looks like electric ladies operating the controls of a spaceship. That’s not an exaggeration.
You started out playing Strats, but now you’re a Gibson endorser and you have a signature SG. How did that relationship start?
Well, it depends on how far back you want to go. When I moved to Manhattan in ’95 or ’96, I was playing a Strat, and around this time, I started to get to know Vernon Reid. My first gig in the city was playing acoustic guitar with a drag queen named Hedda Lettuce. One night I was on my way to the gig and I saw Vernon randomly in the street. I told him I was going to see the Roots play afterwards, and he’s like “Oh, I’m actually sitting in with them.” And in the same exchange, all of which takes place in two minutes, he asks me, “By the way, when’s your birthday?” This is in July or something, and my birthday is in September.
So around then, I hear from Vernon again. He told me he had something for me, so I went up to meet him at his building, and he came out with a huge flight case. He laid it down and opened it up, and I see this goldtop Les Paul, maybe late ’60s. I’m like, “This is incredible!” And he’s like, “Well, this is yours now.” And he made it a point of saying, “Listen, I’m not trying to buy your friendship. If we never talk again, that’s totally cool. But one day, you may want to give this guitar to somebody.” I really couldn’t believe it, and he’s like, “You should really just take it before I change my mind!”
It was the most incredible thing that ever happened to me. I had this Les Paul now. At the time, I was really timid and shy, but I loved the way that I could get such a big, forceful tone from that instrument. It helped me overcome my shyness, because it sounded so commanding. It’s not like you can’t get that out of a Strat, but it seemed to cut through everything. It made it easier for me to come out of my shell. I had just started listening to bands like the Black Crowes and the Verve, but I never fancied myself a Les Paul player at all. It was like discovering another side of myself.
It’s a bit of a weird leap if you were playing Strats exclusively.
Yeah, that’s what I found—but it was fun. I had my Strat and I had my Les Paul, and I loved using them both and discovering what each instrument brought out of me. From there, when I joined the Roots, it felt more like a Strat type of gig. I didn’t really think of the Les Paul having a place there, and then somehow I got this Heineken commercial back in 2005 or so. The premise was I’m auditioning for a band, and I’m doing everything I can to get this gig. I’m supposed to be shredding, and then I throw the guitar on the ground and I light it on fire, much to the amazement of the people that I’m auditioning for, but then I put the fire out with a Heineken. I wasted the beer—major party foul in their eyes!
Anyway, in order to do that, I needed a guitar that I could burn. I had just met the people from Gibson, and they gave me one to burn and one to keep. Of course, I wound up burning both guitars because the director wanted to get different angles [laughs]. So I was like, “Hey, I would love a non-burned guitar,” and they were really accommodating. They made a copy of a Pro, like a black Les Paul with P-90s, which I still use on The Tonight Show. And one of the guitars that I burned is probably one of my main guitars that I use live with the Roots. Matt [Brewster] from 30th Street Guitars restored it.
And the relationship blossomed from there?
Yeah, once The Tonight Show happened, our mutual appreciation for one another grew, and my visibility grew, and I was able to acquire some of the guitars that I use nightly on the show. In 2006 or so, I happened upon that Epiphone Crestwood, and it works out perfectly that Gibson and Epiphone are sister companies, and I was able to bring my love of Epiphone into the spotlight with what happened with Prince. For a while I was using that Epiphone a lot with the Roots, too. When we covered Dylan’s “Masters of War,” I used that guitar a lot on those tours.
Then in 2013, Gibson asked me if I’d like to do a signature guitar. I had a brown SG Custom with three pickups—one of the walnut ones—and I wanted to do an updated version. I think it’s based on a ’69 SG, but their take on it was to make it more of a dark cherry, and I love it. I’ve used that a lot. I mean, each of these guitars brings something a little bit different out of you. You’re attracted to different ones for different reasons, but it just makes it more fun because ultimately you’re trying to find songs in there.
And right now we’re talking about doing another updated version. It’ll have a different color and hopefully involve a volume knob closer to the bridge, which is something that I always liked about Strats, and what I also like about the Les Paul, so I can do fade-ins and violin-style effects in ways that it’s not so convenient to do on an SG. I have that modification on my prototype, where I have a global volume knob over everything, so hopefully we’ll include that on the next one.
Do you play the Crestwood on “Little Friend”?
Yes. That’s the guitar on that song. I also used it on “Uma.” That guitar has a very distinctive sound. I’m playing the rhythm part through a Divided By 13 RSA 23 amp, and I just love the way they interact together. But yeah, that guitar is very dear to me, so when it was initially broken, I was just concerned that I wouldn’t get to play it again, you know? I was excited that Prince played it and everything, but I was really concerned about the prospect of him being the last person to have played it. Luckily it didn’t work out that way.
How did you dial in the clean sound on “Little Friend,” and what were you listening for in your head?
Well, at the time I think I was listening to a lot of Unknown Mortal Orchestra. I’m a big fan of Ruban Nielson, so the types of chords that he uses are kind of present in that song. And you know Prince, he’s so many things, but one of the ways he gets to everybody is by being this master popsmith, so I thought it was fitting to represent him in a pop tune. And I guess because I was playing some of the Unknown Mortal Orchestra stuff, I wasn’t playing with a pick, but I also didn’t want to straight-up bite him, so I found a way of playing those chords that gives it a keyboard-y sound. Then when you add chorus and phasing, it just accentuates that keyboard sound—or it can move through an amp tremolo, like a Johnny Marr effect.
What were some of the other go-to guitars you used?
Well, there’s a Rich Robinson ES-335 that I used a lot on the record. That’s on the title track. There’s also an acoustic on that song—a ’68 Gibson Hummingbird. And the song “I Used to Be in the Circus” was done with my signature model Gibson SG. But you know, Rich and I actually traded signature guitars. I gave him my signature SG, and in return he gave me his, so I made sure I had it on the record.
Is there a solo on the album that you’re particularly proud of?
Well, let’s take “Uma,” because there aren’t that many guitar solos. That was actually recorded where Gibson had their showroom, on 54th Street between 9th and 10th.
Was that the old Hit Factory?
Exactly, the old Hit Factory. We actually tracked most of the overdubs and the vocals there, and I played the solo for “Uma” on one of those Supro Black Magick combo amps. I think that they had just come out at the time, and I was getting a particularly good sound with that and the Crestwood. I just wanted a solo that you could sort of sing. The melody just kept coming to me, and I love solos that are like songs within the song. Some things just feel good, like comfort food, and some of those bits in the solo that you might recognize from old blues songs just drive the point of the rhythm home. That’s why they’re there.
Was that a first take?
Well, that’s the solo that I always played live. When it came time to record it, I just wanted to get the best possible performance. It probably took a few takes to get it to the point where I was really happy with it. I wish I could say yeah, that was a first take, but I’d be lying to you [laughs].
There’s a thickness to the sound of this album that recalls ’70s hard rock—you know, some of the classic albums from Zep and Aerosmith. And I’ll throw Thin Lizzy and Nazareth in there, too!
It’s funny, the records that I played Paul [Klimson] for reference were pulling from that deck—just stuff that ultimately sounds good when it’s played loud, you know? I mean, these performances are steeped in loud volume, so the goal is to hear it the way that you hear it, and I don’t hear it softly. I can’t listen to it softly. Some kinds of music are just for that.
This album needs to be cranked.
Yeah, it’s definitely meant to be. I think that’s why we switched our name to Hundred Watt Heart. It suggests the power that I’m always searching for.
This raw footage of Hundred Watt Heart’s “Open Your Eyes” was taken by an audience member at the band’s record release show in Brooklyn in May. This track isn’t on Turbulent Times, but is a great representation of what the trio can do.
Captain Kirk details his Gibson SG signature model, which has his name on the tailpiece, a dark cherry finish, gold hardware, three ’57 Classic humbuckers, push-pull tone pots, and a TogPot control for the middle pickup.