The Core: Karl Denson
photo by Dino Perrucci
The saxophonist on rolling with the Stones, bonding with Bradley Nowell and rebuilding his own Tiny Universe.
I’m always in some sort of flux, but I started playing guitar about five years ago and that changed my writing style—the second guitar became key to the sound of my band [Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe]. I was on a rock-and-roll cruise playing with Slightly Stoopid, and we were rehearsing with George Porter Jr., Eric Krasno and a bunch of other cats. I just thought, “The saxophone is very lonely.” [Laughs.] You can’t really talk while you’re playing it; you can’t sing. They were all directing each other, running the rehearsal, so I decided that it was finally time to learn how to play guitar. I’ve also been trying to learn how to write more simply, and the guitar has led me in that direction.
This is the band I want. I’ve been rotating second guitarists for the last few years and finally settled on Seth Freeman, this kid out of Arkansas that I ran into in Alaska. And I got Zak Najor, my old drummer from [Denson’s longtime group] The Greyboy Allstars back in my band. The Greyboy Allstars are, hands-down, my favorite players and the first place I look.
Chris [Stillwell of The Greyboy Allstars] has been playing with me in Tiny Universe forever—no matter what I’m doing, I’m always gonna use him on bass because he brings this weird, naïve understanding to what he does. Zak had stopped playing—he went back to school—but I told him he had a job when he needed it. Finally, he was looking to play again. I’d already done a couple sessions with my old band and with Anders [Osborne] and Ivan Neville, but it wasn’t cohesive. Then, last summer, we went into the studio and totally figured it out. The process got way easier—we understand each other. I feel really freed up by this record [Gnomes & Badgers] now. We are moving really fast and I want to move on to making another record. We are also making a Greyboy record right now—we’re just not sure what the time frame is yet because we have to figure out [guitarist Michael Andrews’] schedule as far as making movies.
I’m trying to pay attention to what’s going on, so that informs my writing viewpoint. My initial idea for this album was to make a blues record about human relationships—male-female relationships and political relationships. They both fall into the same category. As couples, we are at odds with each other all the time; people are at odds with each other. Communication is what is really missing.
I got to know Anders when he did a Sticky Fingers tour with my band a few years ago. There were a few songs I was having trouble translating to the band, so I flew down to New Orleans to see what his process was. And it was incredible and intuitive; he takes an idea and goes very slowly and simply.
I’m gonna do the same thing for the next record. We co-wrote “Change My Way.” I had the melody and hook for that song, but I took it to the band and it just confused them. He just sat on the riff, learned what it was trying to say and made some great statements in it. I like to pay attention to people when they’re confused because, sometimes, you say your most poignant things in confusion.
The only member I had met before joining the Stones was Bernard [Fowler], the lead background singer, but Chuck Leavell and I have become good friends. He’s got great stories, so it’s always fun hanging out. I mentioned my record, and he said, “Man, I’d love to be on it.” It’s a learning experience for all of us playing with those “alumni guys.” We don’t get to play together very much offstage during [a Stones tour]—it’s pretty much all business—but, every once in a while, Tim [Ries], the other sax player, will put together a jazz gig on a day off. He’ll find a local club, and we’ll all go down and play. And once, I actually played the blues with Charlie Watts in Mexico City, which was awesome. I was trying to get Keith Richards to play on “Something Sweet” [on Gnomes & Badgers], but that was an unwieldy beast, so Lukas Nelson cut the solo. We connected at a festival a couple of years ago. We started talking, he sat in with us that night and played the Cyril Neville tune “Gossip,” and we kept running into each other.
The main thing I’ve gotten [from the Stones] is their work ethic. They still work really hard, and I was amazed how much energy they put into preparing for their tours every year, at their age. We’ll do five-hour rehearsals—working four and a half of those hours. Mick comes in and sings nonstop the whole time. I’m always getting little tidbits, as far as how great the catalog is, by being able to sit there and watch them rehearse.
Sublime were Greyboy Allstars fans and, just before Brad [Nowell] died, we did a couple of shows in LA with them. We stayed in touch with their manager and he introduced us to Slightly Stoopid. When we finally connected, it was more as friends because we are all from San Diego, but then their sax player DeLa got sick and had to have some surgery. So they called me to cover for him, and we became family. I’m his son’s godfather. I came back from my first or second tour with The Rolling Stones and told Kyle [McDonald]: “You guys are on your way to that, too.” He laughed, but I was serious. They write great songs and they’re very prolific; they put their records out on time. They’re at that point where they’re starting to build a really great catalog.
This article originally appears in the January/February 2019 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.