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Kirk Douglas: Soul Reviver

As backing guitarist for everyone from the Beastie Boys to John McLaughlin and the Boss on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, the Roots’ “Captain” Kirk Douglas stands in the unique position of spearheading a soul-music resurgence and taking guitar into genres heretofore untouched by his funky brand of 6-string badness.

Photo By Sol Allen

Seeing neo-soul band the Roots on tour is entirely different from what you see during their main gig as the house band for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon or when they’re collaborating with pop titans like John Legend. Performing live as a stand-alone entity, the eight-member outfit led by famed producer Questlove (drums/vocals), Black Thought (MC), and guitarist “Captain” Kirk Douglas shows mad diversity—everything from schizophrenic jazz stylings to deep, hip-hop-tinged grooves, strutting funk, and ripping rock jams. It’s safe to say the Roots could solidly back virtually any act, given that they’ve done so for everyone from Jay-Z to Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Elvis Costello, and Fall Out Boy. Needless to say, the group possesses a dynamism that few can match, and over the course of their career they’ve managed to evolve while still playing from the heart and remaining true to the music that inspires them. And that’s why the Roots is largely responsible for both a renaissance in, and a major re-imagining of, soul music.

Kirk Douglas, looking happy during the University of Vermont’s Springfest 2011. Despite losing partial power, the Roots packed the school’s gymnasium. Photo by Jennifer Murtha

Just as you’d expect from such a diverse band, each member of the Roots has kaleidoscopic musical interests. As a budding preteen guitarist growing up in New York, Douglas was simultaneously influenced by funk forefathers like James Brown and rock icons like Kiss and Van Halen. The self-professed Led Zeppelin devotee rocks a prototype of a Jimmy Page signature Les Paul—same relic’ing and all. Douglas performed with the Dave Matthews Band prior to joining the Roots permanently in 2002. Apart from the Roots, he plays in a very different vein with his side project, Hundred Watt Heart.

Douglas is a hard player to explain— though in the best way, because you can’t pigeonhole him. His role in the Roots takes him from picking über-nuanced, barely there background riffs to cranking out fiery, 10-minute jams and incredible call-and-response solos where he scats phrases into the mic and then mimics them on guitar.

Between rehearsal sets for a performance backing Johnny Gill on Fallon, Douglas recently chatted with Premier Guitar about the Roots’ first concept album, Undun, his more rocking Hundred Watt Heart repertoire, and what it’s like to be a cutting-edge funk revivalist with serious chops.

Douglas channels the funk at the Marquee Theatre in Tempe, Arizona, in October 2008. Photo by Sol Allen

How did you first get into playing guitar?
I had a close friend in the second grade whose older brother was into a lot of heavy music, a lot of rock ’n’ roll. A lot of Kiss and Van Halen. I guess I was attracted to that because, when you’re 7 or 8, you’re interested in superheroes. And just the sound of the guitar—it sounded so powerful, and the guitars looked so incredibly cool. So there was really no escaping that attraction to the guitar. And their tunes were catchy, as well.

Captain Kirk plays his burned Les Paul (signed by its namesake) with the Roots at Montreal Jazz Fest 2011 (keyboardist James “Kamal” Gray is in the background). Photo by Rebecca Dirks

The Roots’ founding members Questlove and Black Thought have formal music training. How about you—would you say music theory has a place in your playing, or are you more of a gut-level player?
I’m definitely playing by instinct. In high school, I gravitated toward jazz band. I got into Prince, and there was a vacant seat in the guitar position in the jazz band. They asked if I’d play with them and I accepted, but I would really play mostly by ear. I guess I had that situation when I was younger, too, when I had formal training. I couldn’t help but memorize the things I was learning to sight-read. And that would just continue by muscle memory and the combination of how things felt and sounded. Of course, theory plays a part when you’re coming up and learning how scales connect—majors and minors and the modes—but I guess I sort of just modified them for my usage.

Although Undun is a little bit different for the Roots—it’s your first concept album—what’s the songwriting process usually like for you guys?
The way the Roots operates in the studio and in a live format is completely different. We stretch out more, live—we’re putting on a show. The album is a more cerebral experience. The studio itself is a member of the band. We’ve gotten more collaborative as a result of doing The Jimmy Fallon Show, and that’s made us more of a cohesive band and created an opportunity for real-time interaction to make its way onto the record. But still, at the end of the day, to put together a cerebral experience for the listener, the studio itself is more of a member of the band.

So are you saying that being able to create a vibe with various studio treatments is just as important as the instrumentation? For instance, Undun is very atmospheric, with lots of piano and strings.
Yeah, I mean, it’s whatever suits the song. The guitar is very sparse on this album, but it’s the end product that’s most important— there are so many other opportunities for me to get my playing out.

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.

Douglas and Damon “Tuba Gooding Jr.” Bryson catch a vibe during the University of Vermont’s Springfest 2011. Photo by Jennifer Murtha

I’ve watched some YouTube videos of you playing 10-minute solos where you accompany yourself vocally. Is that something you do more on your own or with the Roots?
It’s a cool effect—like an organic way of playing through a talk box. I’ve done that with the Roots mostly, but last week I did my first gig in five years at Brooklyn Bowl, and it was just me and my band. I wound up having to do two sets, because Questlove was supposed to DJ later that night but he got sick. So we had original music planned for the first set, but when I realized we had to do two sets I could either say, “Sorry, we’re not prepared to do that,” or I could rise to the occasion. That required us to do some covers and a lot more jamming and fleshing-out of things.

Captain Kirk takes a moment to savor the tone coming from his Trussart SteelTop. Photo by Jennifer Murtha

I never thought I would be doing all of that scatting stuff that I learned from watching George Benson, but as far as stretching out and seeing where you can take the music, I found myself doing that and it felt really comfortable. But that’s something that I learned by playing with the Roots. “Here’s your guitar spot—do what you want with it.” I tried it one night just for the hell of it. A while later, Questlove said, “You know, you stopped doing that scatting thing. You should do that.” And I was like, “Oh, okay.” Sometimes just a little positive reinforcement can go a long way.

The Roots’ jazzy, improv vibe gives guitarist Captain Kirk Douglas the space to solo and scat in the vein of one of his influences, George Benson. Photo by Jennifer Murtha

George Benson is featured in this issue as well.
He sat in with us, too, and I told him, “Y’know, I feel like I owe you a lot of money for that scatting-and-playing thing I do—I totally ripped that off from you.” And he’s like, “Well, son, you better pay up then!”

Let’s go back to your guitars for a second. Is the Gibson CS-356 your primary guitar?
I use that mostly with Fallon. I got that guitar when I got that gig. My primary guitar is a Les Paul that got burned during a Heineken commercial. I use that one a lot with the Roots when we go on tour.

And you had it signed by Les Paul, right?
Yep, it’s signed by Les Paul on the back. But my main guitar is a white ’61 Epiphone Crestwood—that’s probably what you saw on that Hendrix stuff. For Hundred Watt Heart, that’s my favorite. It just feels so good, and it’s got mini humbuckers so the sound isn’t as thick. It’s not like thick magic marker—it’s more like crayon. When you’re using a distorted amp, the Crestwood offers more string-to-string clarity on complex chords.

Guitarists can typically be pretty closed minded about hip-hop—they tend to lump it all together in a very narrow niche and stereotype it as dominated by crappysounding drum machines or repetitiveness and inane rhyming. What do you have to say to players who might not have an open mind to your style of music?

Captain Kirk playing his Trussart SteelTop at Mesa Amphitheatre, Mesa, Arizona in 2008. Photo by Sol Allen
Well, I feel like the name of our band, the Roots, is very fitting. Yes, samples are used to create the music in a lot of hiphop, but I feel like that’s also the doorway to discovering a lot of other kinds of music—music that you otherwise would not be exposed to. Hip-hop also places a lot of emphasis on rhythm and the word. I’ve gotten better as a guitar player from being in the Roots, and rhythm is a huge part of it—discovering that, wow, maybe I have issues with speeding up and it could do me a lot of good to concentrate on a rhythmic beat. Concentrating on a repetitive rhythmic beat is way more soulful and interesting than concentrating on a metronome.

When you’re looking at the roots of hip-hop, you’re looking back at James Brown—that’s like the original hip-hop. The dude was generally rapping a lot of the time. You could say the same for Dylan and a lot of his stuff. He’s storytelling— he’s rapping. Listen to, “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” Listen to “The Big Payback.” That’s like rap before rap existed. So if you’re dismissive about hiphop, then you’re being just as dismissive to forefathers like James Brown, Johnny Cash, and Bob Dylan.

There’s a lot to learn from hip-hop, too, and I’m really grateful that the Roots saw a relevance in what I was doing and found a place for me in the band. Before I joined, I had cassette tapes with Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, and the Roots all on one tape. I saw a continuum from what all those people were doing to what the Roots were doing. The fact that we’re doing what we’re doing now and seeing this steady progression of exposure and success makes me feel I was right in seeing that.

Captain Kirk's Gear

’61 Epiphone Crestwood,
various custom Les Pauls
(including a Jimmy Page prototype),
Gibson CS-356, ’69
Gibson SG Custom, James
Trussart SteelTop
Mesa/Boogie Stiletto Ace
(on Late Night with Jimmy
Fallon), Mesa/Boogie Lonestar
Special (with John Legend),
Divided by 13 amps (for Hundred Watt Heart)
Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer, Durham Electronics
Sex Drive, Maxon PT999 Phase Tone, Empress
Tremolo, Line 6 DL4 Delay Modeler, Dunlop
Jimi Hendrix wah, original MXR Phase 45, Boss
TU-2 Chromatic Tuner

Youtube It
Watch “Captain” Kirk Douglas unleash seriously soulful tones in these high-octane live performances.

This clip showcases Douglas’ screaming, Hendrix-style chops.

This particularly bluesy groove sees Douglas backing Robertson on guitar (with some shine from Robert Randolph) and adding impressive vocal harmony to a song from Robertson’s How to Become Clairvoyant.

Captain Kirk shows his edgy side to vocalist Estelle with a calland- response breakdown, even wrapping his, er, guitar around her.

With a huge nod to George Benson, Douglas scats along to his own versatile picking.