I’m sitting in one of the spacious, ornate dressing rooms deep within the bowels of the iconic Forum in Inglewood, California. Down the hall in another room, Eric Clapton is gearing up to perform the final night of his four-evening run in the building, a venue he’s returned to numerous times since playing here with Cream at the tail-end of the 1960s. But that’s not who I’m here to talk to. I’m here to pick the brain of one of the great artists of the next generation of musical wizards; the pride of Austin, Texas, Gary Clark Jr., who in a few hours will blow the minds of 18,000 people with his blazing guitar work, and guttural, emotion-packed singing.
Gary Clark Jr. is your favorite guitar player’s favorite guitar player. He’s got four studio albums to his name, the standouts of which are 2012’s Blak And Blu that netted him two Grammy nominations, and 2015’s The Story Of Sonny Boy Slim. He’s put out a pair of incendiary live records, including Live North America 2016 which hit just a few months back. He’s also touting a new single, a cover of the Beatles’ “Come Together” that manages to give the original a run for its money, while blowing the Aerosmith version clean out of the water. Then, there’s his take on Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s protest anthem “Ohio,” alongside Jon Baptiste and Leon Bridges that was recently put together for Ken Burns’ series The Vietnam War.
He is also, without a doubt, one of the coolest motherf*ckers you’ll ever meet in your life. Pictures and video don’t do his aura justice. He looks cool, acts cool, plays cool, speaks cool, even stands cool. The actual atmosphere in the room noticeably shifts as soon as he enters it. You can’t help but feel like the lamest person in the world as you shake his hand. That’s not his fault of course. It’s just the way things go.
Sitting diagonally from me on the L-shaped couch, Clark seems open to talking about… whatever. There’s really no subject that he’s ill-equipped to speak on. Blues, rock, hip-hop, soul, film, Austin, sports: The man does it all, and he does it better than you or I could ever hope. This is someone who can go from jamming in the studio with Donald Glover one night, to ripping it up in front of 60,000 people next to Keith Richards the next, then wake up the next day for a session with Alicia Keys, before a meeting of the minds with Tech N9ne. In other words, he might just be the perfect avatar of the genre-less, streaming millennial, to whom the only thing that matters is, “Is it good?” In Clark’s hands, the answer more often than not, is “Hell yes!”
So you’ve got this new single out, a cover of the Beatles “Come Together” that you put together for the Justice League film. How did that opportunity come about?
I heard Junkie XL was doing the music for it, and I guess that they had me in mind for it.
Oh, so they came to you?
Yeah, I got the phone call. He raps for a minute, told me his idea, and I showed up in the studio at the village and I heard this track, it was just like cranking through the speakers. He was like ‘Do your thing over it.’ We just vibed man.
The melody, the basic background tracks were already put together?
Yeah, he was already putting it together but I guess he put it together in mind that I was going to play guitar over it. He definitely flipped it, you know what I mean? Which was totally badass for me. It was a nice magic carpet that he laid down. I just did my thing.
You know, there’s a bombastic, hip-hop element to that version of the song, especially in the drums. I know you’ve collaborated with a few people from that world like Donald Glover and Tech N9ne. How cool is it for you to break out of the blues and dip your toe into those new realms?
Man, it’s amazing. It’s like coming into playing music I always was into everything since I was a kid. I was always like this rebel, you can’t ever put me in a box, or do this or do that. My lane has been blues. I’m going to always honor that and know that that’s the foundation but if Tech N9ne calls and says ‘Hey, I want you on my track.’ Or Willie Nelson is like ‘Come sit in.’ Go get your keys. I’m able to, for some reason, be able to move around and cross these boundaries and these genre lines that I don’t think a lot of people get to do, so it’s a unique perspective.
It’s a good place to be in.
It’s a great place to be!
I don’t know if there’s anyone else out there crossing those genre boundaries in the same way.
It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I feel like once I was put in that box or whatever, it’d be hard to move around in that, so I’ve always kind of pushed those because I’ve always wanted to be in a place where I could have that flexibility and be that guy.
I’m sure you had the same experience as I had growing up where you derived your identity from what you listened to. You’re either the rock guy, or the blues guy or the hip-hop guy. Those lines didn’t cross and it seems like these days, people, especially young kids, don’t care about that at all.
Right, you know what? I’ve got to give it up for Steve Jobs and the Apple team with the iPod Shuffle. It really changed the game.
I had a conversation with my bass player, Johnny Bradley about how there’s no real regionalism anymore just because people have more access.
Apple Music, Spotify, Soundcloud, Bandcamp
Yeah, all of it. You can get whatever you want and share it immediately from all over the world, you know what I mean? Here’s, check this song out from this Swedish group. Oh cool. Check out this, have you heard Kendrick’s new thing?
What are some of the hip-hop acts that hit for you? Some stuff that you listen to that, you know, you might want to take elements from here or there, if not necessarily sonically, aesthetically?
I really like what Big K.R.I.T. does. J.Cole. I like rapper producers. I like guys who can put the whole thing together and have a full-on vision and present that.
Are you a Kanye West fan?
Yeah, I am a Kanye fan. I like how he’s another one who pushes the boundaries, you know what I mean? ‘What’s that guy doing?’ The next thing you know people are like… it worked!
I respect that. Jay-Z is just swag, you know what I mean? Just attitude. Flavor. Nas. Let’s see, Run the Jewels, of course. Kendrick, I think whatever is going on with him, we’ve just reached the surface of what he’s going to do, not even just as a musician but as a dude.
Have you sat with him?
No, no, no. I’ve never met him. Let me see, coming from Texas, Trae the Truth, UGK, Slim Thug, Paul Wall, all those guys kind of taught me the hustle of it because growing up as an artist, sometimes you, for me, I wasn’t paying attention to that. I was just trying to keep the lights on. They’re thinking beyond this. Have a fan base and create product.
Branding, yeah! All that kind of stuff. That kind of lit that fire for me.
I want to talk to you about your approach to live albums, which are both just phenomenal. I read somewhere where you said that you thought people don’t know how to play live. What’s the secret to creating a great live show?
I think that there’s a couple of genres, blues and jazz-based music that there’s room for improvisation, you know? Things kind of change shape and change form. You can give them a new life, and I think that that’s something that I’ve always appreciated when hearing blues guitars. You hear Albert King playing “As the Years Go Passing By” on the record and then you see him do it live and it’s different. It’s a different take and I think that it takes a certain type of performer to switch it up and keep it exciting every night and not just feel like you are listening to the record. That’s something for me personally, that I, being a musician, I appreciate that and I’m inspired by that.
Every night is different. You want to make a connection and you’ve got to sometimes bust your ass.
Exactly. It’s about being sensitive to the energy and what’s happening in the room and there’s energy being exchanged and I think it’s cool.
You just filmed the music video for “Come Together,” how’d that go?
That was next level for me. It was exciting and I tried things that I had never tried before.
I mean, I don’t want to give it all away. I just kind of let loose and it’s very visual, it’s very big, it’s bigger than anything I’ve ever done before. The vibes were great. Everybody was cool. Kris [Merc], the director and the whole crew was great. It was amazing. I’m excited to see it myself.
What’s it been like sharing the stage with Eric Clapton on a semi-nightly basis? Can you even put that into words what that’s like?
22 years ago, I was sitting watching TV. It was Austin City Limits with Eric Clapton and Jimmie Vaughan, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Bonnie Raitt, Robert Cray, doing a tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughan. I was sitting there with my guitar and I was like ‘I want to do that one day.’ To be here right where I’m at, playing these shows with him and Jimmie, I feel like this sense of accomplishment, but I also feel like I’m just getting started. For them to be so cool and welcome me in is like, I feel like the new kid so I’m trying to be cool and not say anything stupid
What’s he like to play with?
Honestly, I just kind of, I just fall back and I let him take control. He’s the captain, you know what I mean?
He’s “Slowhand” for a reason.
Exactly. I’m just watching him. All eyes on him. Turn around look at the band, look out at the audience and go ‘Damn!’
What’s your favorite Clapton record?
I’ve got to say my favorite Clapton record is Pilgrim because that’s the one that I was introduced to in the ’90s. I’d known him for certain songs and friends had played Cream records and this but that was the thing that kind of blended all these worlds, the hip-hop kind of sounds, the R&B tones, slide guitar, It was also kind of rocking and blues-y at the same time. It was kind of everything that I liked.
Pilgrim is an interesting pick. Most people usually choose something like Layla or The Bluesbreakers record or something.
There’s some beautiful songwriting. “My Father’s Eyes.” I didn’t realize he was playing slide. I was like ‘What is that?’ That was one of the things that first got me interested in slide as well and taking it to a different level. It was different than Hound Dog Taylor or Elmore James.
You just put a live album out. You have this single. What’s next? What are you working on now? Are you writing or are you just kind of taking a year off…
Sh*t no! I’ll go home and I work on my album. I’m also finishing up a project with a couple artists, Zeale and Phranchyze that is a little bit different. Something that you won’t necessarily expect from me, or if you really know me you might expect it and go ‘Oh finally.’
Are you handling production on that project? Adding guitar parts?
I’ve got my hands in this pretty heavy. These guys are great. Great vibe. Hip-hop artists. Great rappers. I’m working with them and a lot of other people. I’ve been in some studios with some folks that you’d be like ‘Really?’ That’s pretty much it. Touring with some shows here and there, but I’m really just focusing on this next album. There’s a come up behind this “Come Together.”
Flavor-wise, where do you want to take things on the next album?
I’m going to keep that. Sometimes I talk too much and I start to share my ideas and I think that there’s something very powerful in just sticking to your guns and not putting it out there. I’m very sensitive as an artist. Any little conversation. I might be in the studio, I might think of it and say, ‘Goddamn it, why did I talk to that asshole?’ You know what I mean?
I’m in my zone. I’ve got the blinders on. I’m rocking.