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City of Gold: Marcus King on the Road to 'El Dorado'

Wednesday, 19 February 2020 Written by Simon Ramsay

In the life of every ambitious musician there comes a time to take leave of the mother ship and boldly head for unexplored space. Unlike Marcus King, though, most of those pilgrims don’t venture into new territory before they hit their mid-20s. Yet such a bold move only highlights how, in conjunction with his recently released autonomous bow ‘El Dorado’, this singer, songwriter and guitar prodigy from South Carolina is anything but an ordinary young man.

King began his professional career at the tender age of 11 as a side man to his father. A fourth generation musician who’s carrying the family baton forwards in fine style, this precocious gunslinger formed the Marcus King Band in 2013. Since then he has sculpted three acclaimed albums that have seen him and his five equally impressive lieutenants evolve and expand their artistic palette with each release.

Where his hard-touring group play a dazzling line in soulful southern rock and rock ‘n’ roll that regularly dives head first into rambunctious jam band waters, King’s debut solo album finds him settling into a different kind of singer-songwriter groove where his sweetly scorched voice and revealing storytelling take centre stage.  

Working in close conjunction with the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, who co-wrote and produced the album, and flanked by some of the finest musicians from Nashville’s glorious past, ‘El Dorado’ is a picturesque and heartfelt jaunt through the long forgotten lands of classic soul, R&B, blues and country.  

Executed with unwavering authenticity and the kind of stellar craftsmanship that makes it feel like an unearthed gem from the 1960s, it’s nigh on impossible to avoid using the cliché ‘they don’t make ‘em like this any more’.

Ahead of King’s return to the UK and Ireland for a run of shows, we caught up with the troubadour to discuss the new record, the importance of music from over half a decade ago, and why, aside from establishing himself as one of the hottest guitarists on the current scene, he’s spent much of his life acting like Forrest Gump. 

What did you hope to accomplish with this record that you couldn’t with your band?

I got presented with a great opportunity to work with these living legends and Dan Auerbach, who’s another living legend. It was a treat to get in the studio with them and tell my story as it’s happened so far. I had an opportunity to bring in these architects to help me build a very sound foundation for this record. Dan has a really broad artistic scope. When he stands in the control room it’s like seeing an adventurer standing behind the helm of their ship. It’s a sight to behold. 

He’s got a very grandiose vision in front of him that nobody else can see and you trust what he’s saying because you can see in his eyes that there’s a city of gold in his perspective. It’s also important to have someone who, like me, is into all sorts of different music. The band itself is a great example of that.  They’ve played on country records to soul records and everything in between. That’s what we have here. 

A lot of guitar players see their instrument as a shield, so was it intimidating to step forward and let your voice assume the starring role?

It was exciting, but intimidating is also another way [of putting it]. It’s always terrifying when the shield, as you put it, is not there. The other day I broke a guitar string and my guitar tech didn’t see. I took it off to switch and he didn’t realise what had happened. So I had to keep singing without a guitar on. I felt pretty naked. My natural way is reserved and introverted, a little stage shy.  It’s how I am. I’m always nervous. It has, maybe, changed the way I approach my live shows now. I try to bring more dynamics and showcase the vocals a little better.  

Was making this record partly to demonstrate that there’s a lot more to you and your artistry than just being a great guitarist?

It becomes a very specific kind of genre, the whole guitar world thing, which I’m a fan of because I’m a guitar player and they’re great fans and always intuitive about the rigs and guitars I use. That’s one of my favourite fanbases, but I feel I have a lot more to offer than just a guitar-centric thing, even though that is a big part of me.

You co-wrote with a number of great songwriters on the record. How did they help shape the material in a way that might have been different than if you’d been writing on your own?

This was a little more premeditated within the writing process, getting together with Dan and other writers who could truly get across the point I had in mind, which was a coming of age story. The writing style was a little different because I was working with writers I look up to, like Paul Overstreet, Pat McLaughlin and Ronnie Bowman, and  saying that I wanted to, with the help of these guys, build it structurally to the point where there were no cracks in the finish. They helped me tell a story.  

My journal, that I’d been writing in, just spilled onto this record. There’s a little more structure to it. More new techniques. For me, I’d never known, or ever seen, the blueprints of how to write a song. I’ve been writing for a long time but no one ever told me the right or wrong way. They didn’t do that per se, but just having them in the room was very comforting because they know how a song is supposed to be structured to make it sound right to the listener.  

You’ve also said Nashville had a very big voice on this record. Can you expand on that?

The buzz and energy I feel from this town played a hand in my approach. It’s the first I ever cut here as a resident. By doing that, and having the comfort of my own bed to go to after each session, it gave a sense of home and an energy that makes you feel you don’t have to get on an aeroplane after the session’s over. It’s a safe feeling of being where you live. That’s why Nashville is a strong character on the record. That and because of the session players we have. The amount of work they’ve done out of this town…if there was a Mt Rushmore in Nashville, Gene Chrisman and Bobby Woods would certainly be on it.        

Along those lines, one thing that leaps out from the album are the gorgeous instrumental textures, backing vocals and arrangements. You cut the album in three days, yet everything sounds unhurried.

That’s the beauty of these cats that played on the record, man. They have this effortless approach. We wrote the record, brought all of our demos in and played them for the house band. They’d write out a Nashville number chart, pass it around and then we’d go out and I’d sing it down. Everything is mixed so brilliantly and everybody is playing their parts at the same time. You have three piano players, a drummer, percussionist, two acoustic guitar players, me on electric guitar and singing, Dan on electric guitar, and a bass player.  

There’s not room for much more production. We’d finish the track and that would pretty much be a take, which allowed us to do six tracks a day. I left, went on the road, and when I came back Dan had put the backing singers on and he’d put Paul Franklin on the pedal steel and Mickey Raphael on harmonica on a track. He added all these little extras and the record was complete.

When you’re making an album like ‘El Dorado’, which tips its hat to the greats of yesteryear, how do you keep it authentic without either slipping into parody or merely copying what’s gone before?

It’s because it came from a true place. An organic place. There was nothing contrived in the making of this record. We all have a mutual respect for these artists that came before and, in many cases, the cats on the record actually worked with those same artists. They’re the backbone of a lot of those sounds, like Bobby Womack. So there was never any room to slip into any form of imitation. 

I’ve never been good at imitation or impressionistic work. I like to be me.  Whenever I try to go for someone else’s sound it comes across as contrived and gets thrown away. For me, the most beautiful thing is making music for people that maybe don’t understand a lot of the subtleties of the record, or a lot of the musical prowess the band has. People that don’t see those things, they can still hear bullshit. Everybody’s born with a strong bullshit detector and I’ve never put any of that on a record.  

A lot of your influences come from the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. What is it about music from those periods that appeals to you?

During that time there were a lot more open prejudices towards people and a lot more closed-mindedness. So for an artist during those particular times, I feel what they were saying was a bit more potent and coming from a different place. Those mentalities, as hard as it is, are still around today. You just see it a little bit more covered up, you know what I’m saying? It was more blatant in the time of the artists I look up to so frequently for inspiration. I feel they were a little closer to the source, as far as heartache and pain is concerned and I’m pulling from that same well of hurt, loss and pain.  

Are you ever self conscious about exposing so much of your own pain in your music?

No, man. I want to offer something true and want to be an open book for people to read. That’s my therapy. It’s good for me to get it off of my chest and, mentally, be able to say this to people that want to listen. Those are the people I’m making music for. I probably should see someone professional too because music will never talk back. It’ll listen to you but never give you any negative feedback and, sometimes, it’s good to hear a devil’s advocate voice.

You’ve said that in your youth school was like being in prison, which must have been very claustrophobic for you. So it’s interesting that the life you’ve gone on to live, being out on the road so much, is the polar opposite. Are the two linked?

For me, school was absolutely miserable and I hated being there. I always felt like I had a ball and chain around my foot and would try to breach the security gates as often as possible. Three or four nights a week I’d go as far as I could to play shows, leaving enough time to get back and make it to school the next morning. I was always trying to get further and further from my home town because that’s what everybody wants to do when they’re a kid. I followed through with that. I’ve been running, not looking behind me, with no rear-view mirrors, going completely forward with blinders on. Sometimes it feels a little like Forrest Gump, y’know? You run so far and find yourself where there’s nobody else around you. 

Your band were happy for you to record ‘El Dorado’ without them, but you’re now touring the album with them in tow. How are they bringing the new material to life on stage?

It’s so exciting, man. It’s breathing new life into something that was already alive and well. It’s unreal. They play the material with a lot of respect to the cats that played on the record, but they also bring their own vibe to it. We’ve replaced a lot of the backing vocals with horns arranged by Justin Johnson and Dean Mitchell, our horn section, and there’s also a lot more room for improvisation. One Day She’s Here has evolved into something that kind of lets loose. It’s an opportunity for us to lay it all out.

Marcus King's 'El Dorado' is out now on Snakefarm Records/Fantasy.

The Marcus King Band Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Fri February 21 2020 - LEEDS Wardrobe
Sat February 22 2020 - GLASGOW Oran Mor
Sun February 23 2020 - DUBLIN Whelans
Tue February 25 2020 - LONDON Electric Ballroom
Wed February 26 2020 - MANCHESTER Manchester Academy 3
Thu February 27 2020 - NOTTINGHAM Rescue Rooms
Fri February 28 2020 - BRISTOL Thekla

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