The Road to The Royal Family Affair: Interview with Karl Denson

bill bodkin continues traveling the road to The Royal Family Affair

The music of Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe is the definition of infectious. The combination of funk, jazz and soul wrapped together in a improvisational, jammy package is a piece of aural ambrosia. KDTU’s sound evokes so much out of the listener at the same time — it inspires you to dance, it can brighten your day and it can be the soundtrack to that hip caper film that you’ve been writing in your head for the past decade. Their sound has landed them onstage with Dave Matthews Band, Maroon 5, Michael Franti and Slightly Stoopid, as well as becoming staples on the festival circuit.

Denson has made his mark in the music industry, not just with his Tiny Universe but also as a member of the legendary Greyboy All-Stars and as a member of Lenny Kravitz’s band during the Let Love Rule era.

Pop-Break’s Bill Bodkin caught up with Karl Denson and spoke to him about his music and performing at the upcoming Royal Family Affair Music Festival this weekend.

Pop-Break: Karl, why make the decision to pick up the sax?

Karl Denson: When I was growing up, there was a lot of great sax players and being kind of a jazz kid growing up … it made sense. Where I lived [Santa Anna, Calif.], we were into jazz and what is now called soul jazz. Eddie Harris, Gene Ammonds, that kind of stuff. It was a natural thing for me to pick up.

PB: You were part of Lenny Kravitz’s band during the early part of both your careers. What kind of impact did performing with Lenny have on your career when you left the band? Were there things you learned from being in a big, national, signed band that helped you down the road?

KD: It’s a great opportunity to see how things work on a bigger scale as well as the connections that you naturally get. I got my first record deal while on the road with him. I was able to use his name to my advantage when I was on my own. It was nice to say I played with Lenny Kravitz for four years and people paid attention. There’s lot of perks.

PB: When you started out on your own, can you talk about the difference between the scene you’re in, back then and now?

KD: Right now, I think the difference is, there’s definitely an audience shift now, towards a younger audience. The audience that was there when I started out has kids and has gotten older. Now, the audiences have started to get younger, which is cool. Then you’ve got the jamtronica stuff — Pretty Lights, Bassnectar — that is starting to take hold.

PB: I’ve heard from a lot of artists in your scene that the money is to be made touring not album sales. Do you feel this way?

KD: No, I think that’s pretty much everybody. No one’s selling records anymore. Taylor Swift sells a tenth of what she would’ve sold 10-15 years ago. So it’s pretty much everyone. When you were planning on selling 60-100,000 records and now you’re selling 10-15,000, it makes a big difference. Touring is pretty much how the money is made, but that’s the way it’s been for a while, not just right now. That’s been true for decades. It’s just more so now that record sales are puny.

PB: I’ve noticed that a lot of musicians in your genre of performance work in a lot of different bands and projects, yourself included. My question is: What do you get out of being in all these different bands? For instance, what do you get musically and creatively out of being in The Greyboy All-Stars as opposed to Tiny Universe?

KD: Well, Grey Boy All-Stars is a band and it’s run by everyone in the band. So I have a lot less direct responsibility, it’s more of a shared responsibility, more shared writing, more shared effort whereas Tiny Universe is my thing. If it succeeds or fails, it’s pretty much on my head. Musically, Tiny Universe is more of what I want to do directly. It doesn’t have to go through a band filter to the fullest extent. The band still gives me their opinion on what we’re doing, and if it’s a good idea or not, but I still have the final word which is an interesting situation.

PB: Any difference between musically and creatively between Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe and The Karl Denson Trio?

KD: They’re all different. They all have their own characters. I think that goes with the players.

PB: In June, you released a new track on your Facebook page. Any chance we’ll be seeing a new record soon?

KD: Yeah, we’re working on it right now, and we’ll be hopefully dropping it in the fall.

PB: How is this record going to be different than your last album, Brother’s Keeper?

KD: I think the biggest thing is that it’s a lot more collaborative. We’ got together and let each other throw up ideas and we went at it that way. [Guitarist] Brian [Jordan] had a guitar riff and we turned it into a song. [Trumpet player] Chris [Littlefield] had a tune and we fleshed it out for him. [Keyboardist] Dave [Veith] came in with a really great track, it was an electronic track and we’re doing it like an old-school ’70s soundtrack track. So it’s much more collaborative.

PB: You’ll be performing this weekend as a special guest on Soulive’s Royal Family Affair Music Festival in Vermont. What is it about this band and this festival that made you want to perform at it? Also, who are you looking forward to seeing perform?

KD: Well, they are some of my favorite people who perform in this genre. They have such a great report, such musicality and they are just super fun to hang out with. I am most certainty looking forward to hanging out with Soulive at the festival.

Pop-Break’s Road to the Royal Family Affair Series:

Interview with Break Science

Interview with The London Souls

Interview with John Brown’s Body

Interview with Karl Denson

Pop-Preview: The Road to the Royal Family Affair

Bill Bodkin is the gray bearded owner, editor-in-chief and co-founder of Pop Break. Most importantly, he is lucky husband, and proud father to a beautiful daughter named Sophie. He can be seen regularly on the site reviewing The Walking Dead, Doctor Who, and is the host of the site's podcast, The BreakCast. He is a graduate of Rutgers University with a degree in Journalism & English. Follow him on Twitter: @BodkinWrites

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