Gary Clark Jr. Riffs On Eric Clapton, Hip-Hop & Fatherhood
The long lineage of electric guitar blues masters, from Muddy Waters to Bonnie Raitt, have left very few stones unturned. Yet somehow, Gary Clark Jr. continues to find new ways to push the instrument, and the genre, forward.
His impassioned, unhinged guitar prowess and soulful songs have vaulted him into the upper echelon of next generation blues troubadours. Fresh off the release of a new live album earlier this year and the tour of a lifetime with Eric Clapton and Jimmie Vaughan this summer, Clark is truly riding high.
Vaughn/Clark Jr./Clapton Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images, Gary Clark Jr. Photo: Cynthia Edorh/Getty Images
We tracked down "Sonny Boy Slim" himself in Los Angeles in advance of his shows with Clapton at the Forum to talk about his love for live albums, touring with his heroes, life as a father, and more.
With two blistering studio albums now in your catalog, why was the time right to record and release a live album this year?
I grew up listening to live albums. Some of my favorite albums are James Brown, Live At the Apollo [and] Jimmy Reed, Live At Carnegie Hall — it's kind of like I feel like I'm a part of that club. Especially blues and jazz music, I think that it's very important to capture those moments because songs can change and evolve. For me, I love to capture that and I just thought it'd be cool. A lot of my fans are super guitar fans and like to hear me switch it up, so I thought it was the perfect thing to release Live North America 2016.
Your playing and singing seem driven by deep-rooted passion and sheer inspiration. When you really let go, what are you drawing upon that puts the power of music in your hands and in your voice?
When I'm singing, I'm driven and inspired by things in my life. A song like "Our Love" could be sung very different depending on my relationship at the time or if I'm having a good day or a bad day, you know. I just put it all out there on the stage and it's freeing, it's liberating, to get that feedback from the audience and know that I'm kind of connected, and they feel the same thing. It just kind of pushes me to put it all out there. Nobody wants to come see you be half-a**, you know what I mean? So, give it all. Little Richard said, "Give it all or none," so that's what I'm doing.
You're in the middle of a run of shows with Eric Clapton and Jimmie Vaughan. What has Slowhand meant to you as an inspiration for your music?
To be touring with Eric Clapton is literally a dream come true. My life having some sort of circular path — I was 12 years old when I started playing guitar. And it seemed like a week or two after that there was a show on TV, "Austin City Limits," and I was watching a Stevie Ray Vaughan performance and then that was followed by a tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughan, an incredible guitar player from Texas, and on that tribute it was his brother Jimmie Vaughan, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Bonnie Raitt, Robert Cray and Eric Clapton. And he did this song "Ain't Gone 'N Give Up On Love" and just his tone and his singing, his guitar solo, it floored me, so I was like 'I want to do that one day.' Whatever that is, I feel like I need to be a part of that.
I wasn't the best athlete, wasn't the best student or whatever, but this was something — I was like, "I want to connect with that." So to be here 20 years later, and be playing these massive venues with Clapton, is very validating for me. I feel proud and I'm honored. It's one of those things: If you put your mind to something you can accomplish it. It's made me feel more confident in my decisions despite the pushback I've gotten from people, you know, "Are you sure you're gonna take that path?" … "Yeah!"
"When I'm singing, I'm driven and inspired by things in my life. I just put it all out there on the stage and it's freeing."
What's it like trading licks with Clapton and Jimmy Vaughan? Any surprises?
Man, to be up there on stage with Jimmie Vaughan and Eric Clapton, going back and forth, sharing solos, it's amazing. It's also intimidating. I'm not as smooth or disciplined as a guitar player so I kind of gotta watch myself and not get a little bit too excited.
It's funny, the first night I sat in with them on the encore I had my reverb all the way up and Clapton goes, 'Man, you're like the king of reverb,' and I was like, that's not a compliment (laughs). So I was like, "Noted." So it's fun and educating.
The other night we were up onstage and I walked out and [there was a] major surprise. You know I've got a signature guitar, an Epiphone Casino, and I walk out and Eric's playing this guitar that I gave him a while back, and it was just kind of —it kind of got me a little bit. I was like, "Wow."
You've jammed with many legends, but who would be the one musician you'd want to share the stage with, living or dead, and why?
I got an invite to go to Paisley Park, and I didn't end up making it, and that hurts a little bit. I absolutely love Prince, and I think that would have been amazing, just to be able to sit and talk and converse about music and you know, maybe somehow it would rub off. Yeah, that's the big one. I think about that every day.
Your recent "Come Together" cover gives the Beatles classic a nice thick coat of grit. What was the inspiration for that treatment of the song?
The approach for the Beatles' "Come Together" track was basically a great artist, Junkie XL. That was basically his blueprint, his foundation. He was already working on the track and had this industrial, powerful, futuristic vibe, and he came in and was like, "You know that fuzzy stuff that you do, let's do that." And it came together — I was thinking about that [pun] before I said it, it was too late (laughs). I gotta give it up to him. He's super creative and [he] let me do my thing and guided me in the perfect way. I think the track is super heavy and it was awesome to work with him, so big up to Junkie XL.
Your son, Zion, is 2 now. How has fatherhood changed you as a man?
Yeah, my boy Zion is going to be 3 in January. It's incredible to see this little guy grow up and soak up the world and spit it out in his own way. It's incredible to watch and it's funny! I'm just laughing all the time. The stuff that comes out of his mouth, you know. His new thing is, "Um … OK … maybe, no." (laughs). I'm like, I want to be upset, but it's awesome, man. He knows what he wants. It's the most amazing thing ever. I could go on and on and on. I love that boy.
Over the summer you hit Snoop Dogg with a shout-out on Twitter. What do you like to listen to outside of the blues genre?
I love hip-hop. Snoop Dogg is one of my [favorites] — you know, I heard Doggystyle when I was a kid and I was like, "What?" Dr. Dre, The Chronic. I grew up listening to Nirvana. But stuff I listen to now, I like Little Dragon, whatever Beyoncé does is fine with me, Kendrick … Courtney Barnett. It's all over the place. I'm all over the place. And I roll around with a bunch of people on a bus and they've got their own influences and so stuff would just kind of seep in. I love it all. I appreciate artists willing to put that forward and [give] their own take on this stuff.
What do you like to do on your day off on tour?
When I have a day off on tour I like to sleep, man. I like to catch up on some sleep, go hang with the boys, go break bread, just vibe and have some laughs, go see some comedy. I love stand-up comedy.
Got any favorite comedians?
[Dave] Chappelle. I'm a big fan of Joe Rogan, I like his perspective, his take.
You posted a picture of your Lincoln Continental on IG last week. What is your dream car?
My dream [car] would fly. So, it'd be like a Continental with wings like a Transformer, something like that. That would be dope. I want that UFO street stuff.