Same As it Ever Was: Karl Denson on the Greyboy Allstars Reunion
Karl Denson handpicked the members of the Greyboy Allstars< for a series of 1993 gigs during DJ Greyboy’s weekly residency at San Diego’s now defunct Green Circle Bar. At the time, Denson had already made a name for himself playing both on hit records and in high-profile arenas as part of Lenny Kravitz’s most famous touring/recording ensemble. Through a former schoolmate, San Diego Padres second baseman Gary Templeton, Denson met rising San Diego-star DJ Greyboy and the pair quickly formed the experimental label Greyboy Records. Soon after, Denson assembled a dream team’ consisting of keyboardist Robert Walter, guitarist Mike “Elgin Park” Andrews, bassist Chris Stillwell and drummer Zak Najor, to serve as the label’s houseband. The quintet initially intended to support Greyboy and other artists on his fledging label, but quickly found its own feet as a hard touring jazz/funk party ensemble. In 1995, the group recorded its first studio album, West Coast Boogaloo, with DJ Greyboy at the helm and issued another standout disc, A Town Called Earth, two years later. But, before the group truly hit its stride, the Greyboy Allstars went their separate ways, perusing such divergent paths as film scores (Andrews) and organ-combos (Walter).
For his part, Denson become a successful solo artist and one of the more familiar faces on the jam/jazz circuit. The band which bares his name, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, found its niche on the festival circuit, helping the saxophonist scores spots everywhere from the inaugural Bonnaroo to New Orleans’ famed JazzFest. In 2001, he reunited with the Greyboy Allstars for a series of shows and, over the past six years, the group has toured with increased regularity. In recent months, the supergroup decided to make its reunion more permanent, entering the studio with DJ Greyboy to record its first studio album in a decade, What Happened to Television?. The disc was written and recorded in about a week’s time, without the use of computers, and, as Andrews says, “no one was allowed to bring any ideas that they had in. We had to sit down and all create together.”
Below, Denson discusses the Greyboy Allstars’ unexpected return, his longtime friendship with DJ Greyboy and the future of his own Tiny Universe.
MG- When the Greyboy Allstars first started playing together again a few years ago your gigs were considered special “reunions.” At this point, a few years later and with a new album on the horizon, do you feel this reunion is permanent?
KD- We are officially reunited. We were doing other stuff, but we were always still thinking about playing together. I think the main thing which kept us from touring was that we didn’t want to hit the road until we had a new record. We didn’t want to blow the steam out of this stuff by playing the same songs over and over again.
MG- You knocked out What Happened to Television? in a relatively short period of time. What were your recording sessions like?
KD- In February of 2006 we went into the studio for ten days—-everyone set aside ten days—-and we knocked it out in that time. We went into the studio without any songs and wrote them on the spot. That was kind of the concept: go into the studio and see what we come up with. It’s actually pretty amazing. We pretty much just sat there, worked out the parts and would throw ideas out there. We were averaging about a song-and-a-half a day.
I think that’s why we never really considered the band completely gonebecause we had so much fun with it. It’s something really special to create something like this on the spot. The songs on this album are pretty much presented exactly as they were recorded. And it was kind of cool having Greyboy in there, acting as a producer. He kind of did the same thing he did at the beginning: we sat around and he told us when it was funky and when it wasn’t.
MG- Looking back a bit, when the Greyboy Allstars first formed, did you think DJ Greyboy would be part of your live show?
KD- I think we did in the beginning. As the band was coming together, he was really instrumental in helping the sound develop. So, at first, we kind of thought we were going to be one of those early acid-jazz bands with a DJ. He really wasn’t interested in doing the live thing. He was more interested in producing the project. So, I think the Greyboy Allstars is sort of based on him being the producer of the project.
MG- Since the late-1990s, the last time the Greyboy Allstars toured this heavily, you have all pursued very different paths, from film scores to funk jams. How do you feel all these learning experiences have helped the group’s sound progress?
KD- We didn’t try to reinvent the wheel. We are trying to do the same exact thing that we always did and that’s make music that suits us individually. The fact that it was made all together makes it even easier to perform. For instance, everyone made their own parts up on this record. It’s not like Robert brought in a tune and I had to learn my parts. Every part on the record was created by that player.
MG- That being said, where do you see the group progressing from here?
KD- I think the main focus is going to be on making records. We made this record and are going to tour behind it. We are about halfway through the touring part of it and then we’ll make another record and see where it goes. I think that’s the main thing: we really want to build up a catalogue of new music. Mike, Elgin Park, is scoring movies, so we won’t be able to tour full time. So, we will all still be able to do our own thing.
MG- Speaking of which, you recently spent time flexing your jazz muscles with the KD3. What did you take from that project?
KD- It’s a about playing a lot of musicwithout the singing and stuff. I find it is more of a muscular endeavor, just saxophone playing. As a playermy main goal is grow as player. So, the more I play my horn, the more I grow and a musician. At JazzFest, I did this gig with Robert and Skerik. We played a bunch of Robert’s tunes and a bunch of standards, kind of like a jazz gig. I kind of just follow along with Robert on that. He’s gotten so strong at the organ-trio thing now that I just hop along and follow.
That’s the thing about Greyboy now. I think everyone is just better and that is the cool part. Everyone is out playing none stop and everyone is all about getting better on their instruments and playing in all these different groups helps that. So, everyone plays better on their instruments. The whole process of making music just gets easier.
MG- Can you tell us what inspired the title What Happened to Television?
KD- That was Elgin and Robert. I think it has something to do with the fact that they are old school guys, so I think it has something to do with this analogue verses digital thing [laughs]. But, it is probably a good thing for everyone to ask themselves every once and a whilewhat happened to television?
MG- I find it interesting that one of television’s biggest stars, Taylor Hicks, came out of the bar/jam scene before he reached American Idol fame. He was actually a passenger on Jam Cruise its first year and would walk around playing his harmonica.
KD- That’s funny, I didn’t know that. Jam Cruise is my yearly vacation with my wifea chance for just the two of us to get away. We took the kids on the ship the first few years, but they’ve seen enough drunk people for the time being [laughs].
MG- You seemed to part Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe on hold last year. What was the reason to slowing down that project?
KD- The last management move I made was a little bit of a mismatch. I think we were going for something that wasn’t really realistic as far as the record goes. So, over time, I just kind of got frustrated with the album-making process and just kind of up-and-ended it. So, I kind of just took and break and figured I’d go back to the drawing board as far as the record goes. We didn’t have a record and it didn’t make sense to be touring without a record, so we kind of put it to sleep for a while and I gave myself some time to think out my next phase. I just finished my new record with the trio, so my next goal is to get the Tiny Universe record done and get them back out. I’m hoping to do that by the summer of ’08 or sometime around then. So, now, I’m hoping to get it up and running and trying to hammer it all out.
MG- What Happened to Television? is the first Greyboy Allstars album produced by DJ Greyboy since 1995’s West Coast Boogaloo. That album featured former James Brown musical director Fred Wesley. I remember seeing you play with James Brown himself a few years ago at Madison Square Garden. Can you talk about the experience of playing with one of your biggest idols?
KD- I played with James Brown with Dave Matthews. It was definitely one of the high points of my career. He is definitely one of my biggest heroes from when I was a kid. So, it was pretty amazing. To see him holding the microphone while I soloed was a total blast. That moment wasn’t lost on me. The whole thing that you have to call him Mr. Brown or you will be hit by the firing squad is all true [laughs]. It was the funniest thing. Dave Matthews got a little comfortable with him, called him James and his guitar player kind of sided up to him and just said, “It’s Mr. Brown.”
_Senior Editor Mike Greenhaus has never played with James Brown or DJ Greyboy, but he’s probably spelled both of their names wrong on his blog. For more on Karl Denson, please listen to a recent episode of his podcast, Cold Turkey