An Interview with Karl Denson

By Paul C. Doyle Jr.

If anyone is in line for the throne as king of boogaloo sax funk, it is Karl Denson. A joy to talk to as well as a wealth of information, I caught up to Karl at his home in Southern California. I had to compete for attention with his cooing eight month old who he was holding and his 2 2/3 year old, and 3 year old who he was able to bribe with Rug Rats.

With the resignation of their drummer, Zak Najor, who is entering a new career, the Greyboy Allstars are taking some time off to focus on other projects. In the meantime, The Big D has got a new outfit, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, who will be touring the country as well as recording a new CD.

Vermont Review- This fall, your new project in Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe. Who is in this band?

Karl Denson- I am playing with this really ripping guitar player named Joey Carano. Alan Evans (Moot Boot Lover) is playing the drums, and he’s also the new Allstars drummer. David Veith is playing the keyboards, and Ignacio Arango is playing the bass, and Carlos Washington on the trumpet, I got Dizzy Gillespie on the trumpet, he’s really funny.

V.R.- Are these the same guys we saw on the Side Car Project?

K.D.- This is my Sidecar Project. But from the last time I was in Burlington only Joey and Ignacio remain. Only the bass and guitar are the same. Everybody else is changed. I kind of jumped into it a little quickly. I already had some shows booked and stuff at the beginning of the summer, and so I just kind of threw it together and started feeling the material out and now I finally got a band that I’m happy with.

V.R.- You mentioned that Alan Evans is the new Greyboy Allstars drummer. What is the future of the Allstars?

K.D.- Zak left, so everybody decided let’s take some time off, sort our stuff out, musically, just where we want to go with it. So we just finished doing a bunch of shows for the month of August that we already had booked and now we are just taking a break and everybody’s working on their solo projects. We got some gigs in December and then we will decide what want to do next year, but we are still officially the Allstars.

V.R.- I see Robert Walter’s also touring (Greyboy’s keyboardist)?

K.D.- Yeah, he’s got his own little project going. He’s got a four piece going, piano, bass drums, and saxophone.

V.R.- The new band is not called the Sidercar Project anymore really, it’s Tiny Universe.

K.D.- It’s the Tiny Universe. I am trying to separate from the Greyboy Allstars thing just because the promoters start advertising it all messed up. The first advertisements, —which I think was half due to Erik’s (manager), you know, behavior— they wanted to play up the Allstars angle so much that it ends up being the THE GREYBOY ALLSTARS side car project. (Shout-Whisper) So I just don’t want the people to get the wrong impression of what we are trying to do. We are not trying to trick them into coming to see me.

V.R.- How does this band compare stylistically compare to what you have been doing recently, with the Allstars and such?

K.D.- For one thing, it’s a little more varied in one way, it that it’s my whole spectrum of style, and in a way it’s less varied because it is so "concentratedly" me. There’s a little bit more straight R n’ B influence in this than the Allstars would probably allow, and at some points it’s maybe a little more jazzy harmonically. But it’s still pushing in the same direction as the Allstars. The hardest part of this is having such a reputation already and having such a ripping band that you play with and then trying to start over. The band that I am playing with now, they don’t really understand the style as well as I do, or as well as any of the guys in the Allstars do. So they are trying to figure out what I am getting at most of the time.

V.R.- But you are pleased with the development of the new band?

K.D.- Yeah, yeah, I’m totally pleased with it. It’s a different idea. One of the things I really wanted were some guys who played jazz on their own before doing it with me. On a certain level the playing’s a lot better, on another level it’s not quite as raw. It’s not quite as raw in one direction and in another direction it’s totally raw. It’s taking a bunch of jazz guys and totally dictating what style for them to play, which is like a funk style that they are not that familiar with so it’s kind of cool.

V.R.- So these guys in the Tiny Universe are primarily jazz guys?

K.D.- The guitar player is totally a jazz guy. Actually, the keyboard and the bass player are both Latin players. The bass player is Cuban. The trumpet player is a jazz guy, but he it also a hip hop guy, cause he’s a kid. The drummer comes from a jazz funk background, more of a heavier fusion background.

V.R.- Sounds like all the elements of an excellent band.

K.D.- Yeah, it’s actually really cool. Everybody’s really strong in their own way, so we’ve been just working hard at learning to play together. I think that’s really the big part. Everybody plays their own style of music well, so now you’re bringing them into a different style of music and then they have to learn how to play together. So that’s a trick

V.R.- You are the elder stateman in the Allstars. Is that the same way in this band?

K.D.- Yeah, Ignacio is close to my age, but everybody else…the trumpet player’s 22, the drummer’s 24, the guitarist’s 27 and the keyboarding is 28 I think.

V.R.- With the Greyboy’s everyone was in charge somewhat equally. In this new band are you the boss.

K.D.- (Laughing) I’m the president, I tell them what to do. That was one of the perks for me of doing this, is that I get to do what I want to and not really have to….(interrupted by trio of children "Sadie’s too small for me to tell her that to do, so you guys be quiet.") That was the one thing with the Allstars that was kind of hard sometimes. Sometimes you bring in a tune that you really like and it may be a little bit too much in this direction or that direction for some of the other cats so it gets vetoed. There’s a tune called Can You Feel It that we play. It’s like a straight R n’ B Kool and the Gang pop tune and people love it, but when I brought it to the Allstars they couldn’t relate to it. It’s fun, you have a song [that you] really think is a good tune and you finally pull it out and it works.

V.R.- People may not realize that you have been around awhile, played with some great players, Fred Wesley, Lenny Kravitz. You have taken directions. What is like being bandleader rather than "hired gun"?

K.D.- It is definitely what I have been working towards. My in between career in the mid to late 80’s was leading my band up in Orange County, playing jazz clubs in a quintet or a quartet. Hold on. ("Rug Rats is on, go push 33") It was one of those things where I have been working towards this. Before I did Lenny Kravitz, I always looked at myself as a guy who would play a side man in some popular band and do a pure jazz thing for my own enjoyment. When I did the Lenny Kravitz thing, that was kind of like the perfect situation, and I expected that that was going to be completely satisfying. And then I got my jazz thing going and I was like, ok, I’ve arrived. But the pop thing which was paying most of the bills was run by a megalomaniac. So as far as feeling like I was a part of something cool, it wasn’t really like that, it was more like just completely being a hired guy. Wheras with Fred, I felt more at home doing that. The way his leadership style was more relaxed. But then, you know, he wasn’t really bringing in a lot of dough. So when we started the Allstars, that was my main intent. We got a cool thing going and we could make this work. It’s really been the best experience of my life. I got in a band with these guys and I didn’t know them and they just happened to be super talented, like every single member, which is a pretty weird thing. It taught me a lot about leading, that was kind of my final training in how to be a leader.

V.R.- They (Greyboy Allstars) seem like a tough group in terms of group dynamic.

K.D.- They are. Everybody is self driven. It’s pretty much a band where everybody in it could be a leader and kind of wants to be a leader. It’s a cool dynamic when you are working together because you got way to many ideas. You never run out of ideas. But it is also hard on each individual’s creativity sometimes. The democracy part of it can wear you out creatively sometimes.

V.R.- The Greyboy Allstars have a live album coming out?

K.D.- Yeah, it’s coming out in November. Actually it’s going to be available through the web site in another week or two. I think it’s really good, it’s a good little snippet of history.

V.R.- How soon will you be recording with Tiny Universe?

K.D.- As soon as we can. We’re hunting for a deal right now and I’m just trying to get the band cleaned up. I really want to go ahead and build on the fan base. It’s not going to be an MTV deal, it’s still going to be based on just making music and getting it out there. I’m either going to get a deal really soon or I’m going to put it out myself (on Greyboy Records). I hate sitting waiting around for record companies to say "your cool". What I’m looking at is I really just want to get a record done in the near future because I hate the idea of sitting on my music, playing the same tunes over and over again for two years because you don’t have a record deal yet. I’ve already written enough original material for a long record and we’ve only been together for three months. The main thing I am trying to do with this band different than the Allstars is the Allstars did a lot of cover material, and my band is about 80-85% original.

V.R.- How many copies has A Town Called Earth sold so far? (Greyboy Allstar second album.)

K.D.- It’s probably up around 25-30 thousand.

V.R.- I still feel that that is one of the best albums of the nineties. But it almost came out too early, in the sense that you still don’t have the major distribution for that album.

K.D.- I think so too. I think it’s really a pretty groundbreaking record.

V.R.- . It’s a shame that the timing of it was a little early in the sense that you still don’t have the major distribution for that album.

K.D.- Right. You know what, the way we look at it, when the Allstars do their next record it’s going to be with a major label and it’s just going to make A Town Called Earth, West Coast Boogaloo (first album), and Robert’s (Walter) record (Spirit of ‘70) and my record (The D Stands for Diesel), it’s going to make them worth a lot more. We feel like in the long run, we’re going to sell another hundred thousand records of all those titles just because we really feel like they’re really good records and there’s no reason why we can’t just keep distributing them. I’m totally happy with the quality so far of Greyboy Records. We’re actually working on a project, the drummer (Alan Evans) had a band called The Elements, it’s more of a hip hop thing. We are getting ready to start going through their ADATs and we’re going to put horns on some of the stuff and put a record out on The Elements. From what I have heard, it’s some serious funk.