Interview: Gary Clark Jr. Discusses His New Album, 'Blak and Blu'

by Chris Gill, Photo by Justin Borucki
Posted Jan 7, 2013 at 12:52pm

If you went to a music festival this past spring or summer, chances are pretty good that you saw Gary Clark Jr. perform.

From Coachella and Lollapalooza to JazzFest, the Newport Folk Festival and even Metallica’s Orion Music Festival, Clark appeared at more music festivals in 2012 than any other performing artist this year.

Of course, chances are pretty good that if you saw Clark you’ve also already become a fan of the young singer/guitarist from Austin, Texas, who is earning rave reviews for his distinctive blend of blues, soul, hard rock and R&B that defies categorization.

By playing to new and diverse audiences at nearly every major music festival imaginable, Clark has steadily built a devoted following nationwide and made the release of his first full-length major-label album, Blak and Blu, one of the most highly anticipated events of the year.

Although he already released several acclaimed independent albums and EPs over the past eight years, Blak and Blu presents Clark at the top of his game, capturing fresh and fiery studio performances that benefited from all the hours he’s clocked doing live gigs over the last few years.

“I came into the studio with a lot of attitude from playing live,” Clark says. “The band we used for the album was different from my live band, but I’ve played with [drummer] J.J. Johnson before, so he was familiar with the kind of energy that I was going for. We just had a good time and cut loose.”

Part of the challenge of making Blak and Blu was finding a producer who not only was adept in the various styles of music that characterize Clark’s music but also could give him the bold, modern sound he wanted to capture. The solution was to form a team consisting of Clark, Rob Cavallo (Green Day, My Chemical Romance, Dave Matthews Band) and Mike Elizondo (Dr. Dre, Mastodon, Maroon 5), who also played bass on the album.

“Mike’s name came up as a possible producer,” Clark explains. “I was already familiar with the work he had done with Dr. Dre, Eminem and 50 Cent, so I thought it would be great to work with him. Mike really took things where I wanted to go, especially on the tracks where I wanted things a little more funky, and even on the things that I wanted to be really heavy and hypnotic. He made a big difference in how the album sounds sonically. His musical taste is all over the place, like mine, so he was very enthusiastic and always encouraged me to try different things.”

While Clark is often described as a blues artist, Blak and Blu reveals that he’s less of a staunch purist and more of an adventurist who is redefining the genre for a new generation in a manner similar to Jimi Hendrix in the Sixties. “Most of the songs I do are very different from the typical I-IV-V blues thing,” Clark says, mentioning his song “You Saved Me” as one example. “That’s funky soul with a heavy rock vibe. At first I wasn’t sure whether I should do a song like that on this album, but Mike said that I might as well give it a try. I used my Epiphone Casino through a Drop Tune pedal, a Super Fuzz and an Analog Man Astro Tone pedal to get that tone, which sounds like butter to me.”

Another fine example of Clark’s unique sound is the album’s title track, which is driven by sampled loops and electronic R&B beats with only a subtle taste of guitar. “Most of my songs start out as being very aggressive and guitar driven,” he says. “But when I’m at home I usually sit around and make beats, and I don’t play guitar that much. When I was growing up I was into guitar players, and I was always jamming to rock and roll.

But at the same time I was listening to hip-hop, so I soaked up how those productions sound and how sampling works. It’s a really cool way of flipping things up and putting your story over it. When I wrote ‘Blak and Blu,’ I wasn’t sure if it would fit in with the rest of my live set, but I decided to do it anyway. It’s not guitar heavy, but I snuck in some slide guitar. I loved the melody, and I knew that if I didn’t record it this time it was going to haunt me. I just needed to put it out there so I could move on.”

However, guitar plays a dominant role on the rest of Blak and Blu, from the massive fuzz-tone riff that drives “Numb” to his raunchy rockabilly-style solo on “Travis County.” Most of the songs are Clark’s original compositions, with a few previously featured on his independent albums (with very different arrangements), but Clark also included a tribute to Jimi Hendrix’s “Third Stone from the Sun,” which segues into a slinky, funky cover of Little Johnny Taylor’s “If You Love Me Like You Say” (best known for the version that Albert Collins recorded in the Eighties).

Clark previously quoted the melody of “Third Stone from the Sun” in his live performance of “When My Train Pulls In,” featured on last year’s The Bright Lights EP, but he says that he initially intended to introduce his interpretation of the Hendrix classic the way it’s heard on Blak and Blu.

“I don’t know why I decided to throw that Hendrix riff in at the end of ‘When My Train Pulls In,’ ” he says. “I actually meant to introduce this version of ‘Third Stone’ first, but that’s not how things worked out. I’ve been playing ‘Third Stone’ with ‘If You Love Me Like You Say’ for a while now. I’m really into productions where the whole vibe will change through the song, which is something I’ve developed from playing live. I’ll just yell out to the guys in the band, ‘Let’s do it like this!’ and they’ll switch right into it. We thought it was a crazy idea to throw those two songs together, but it worked.”

Although Clark’s live sidekick guitarist, Zapata, did not play on Blak and Blu, his presence is felt throughout, namely in the way that he influenced Clark’s newfound passion for effect pedals. Clark’s current pedal board consists of a Teese Real McCoy Custom wah, Analogman King of Tone overdrive, Analogman Astro Tone fuzz, Fulltone Octafuzz and Analogman ARDX20 dual analog delay.

“I’m obsessed with fuzz pedals,” he admits. “I wasn’t all that familiar with fuzz before, but Zapata is on it. He’ll bring new pedals over to my house or to rehearsals to show me. Every now and then he’ll make suggestions about what he thinks I should use. I strayed away from distortion for a while, but now I’m back into it in a big way, and I’ve been experimenting with a lot of different distortion and fuzz pedals.”

To record the album, Clark mainly relied on his favorite Epiphone Casino although he also played Elizondo’s Gibson ES-335 on a few tracks. His main amp was the Fender Vibro King that he uses onstage. While he occasionally employed several fuzz pedals at once to generate the luscious distortion tones heard on songs like “Numb” and “You Saved Me,” most of the special effects came from Clark’s fingers, like the Tom Morello–inspired “record scratching” sounds heard on “If You Love Me Like You Say.” “Next Door Neighbor Blues” showcases Clark at his stripped-down best, accompanying his singing by stomping out the rhythm on a kick drum and plucking and sliding on an acoustic resonator guitar.

With the release of Blak and Blu, the upcoming 2013 festival season and a guest collaboration with Alicia Keys on her upcoming Girl on Fire album, Gary Clark Jr. is going to be nearly impossible to ignore over the next year. As exciting as the upcoming prospects sound, Clark wonders how he can top the year he just enjoyed, which culminated in his performance at the White House for the “Red, White, and Blues” concert in honor of Chicago’s blues pioneers.

“It was an honor to be invited to the White House,” Clark says. “When I looked to my right and left on that stage I was surrounded by legends. I never thought that I’d ever be standing onstage next to B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Jeff Beck, Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks, and then I’d look out in the audience and see the President of the United States. That was a really special moment for me.”

Although Clark spent nearly a decade as Austin’s greatest “undiscovered” treasure, he thinks that he finally hit the national spotlight at exactly the right moment, when his craft was perfected and audiences were truly hungry for the style of music he offers. “It feels strange to be getting this much attention after all of these years of being unknown,” he says, “but it’s good timing. I’m grateful for the way that things have worked out. I don’t think that I could have planned things any better than what’s actually happened.”