Saxophonist, flautist, singer-songwriter, and bandleader Karl Denson rolled into 2019 with many things to be thankful for. On March 8th, the San Diego-based musical mastermind unveiled the latest LP with his Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe project, Gnomes and Badgers, marking the first KDTU release in five years as well as the first release on his own imprint, Seven Spheres Records.
In addition to two-plus decades with KDTU and funk/jazz/soul quintet The Greyboy Allstars, Denson was given a life-changing opportunity to join rock & roll legends The Rolling Stones following the death of longtime saxophonist Bobby Keys in 2014. The Rolling Stones recently postponed their highly-awaited North American tour due to a Mick Jagger health issue, but should be back on the road soon with rescheduled dates, marking the band’s first extended run of shows in the U.S. since 2015’s Zip Code tour, though they played Desert Trip in Indio, California, two Las Vegas arena gigs, and two private shows in 2016.
Despite decades of involvement with New Orleans’ music scene and the annual Jazz & Heritage Festival, Denson’s 2019 Jazz Fest itinerary leaves the veteran musician more excited than ever. In addition to Denson’s variey of late-night endeavors, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe is returning to the Jazz Fest fairgrounds for the first time since 2005. With his massive wave of recent success and accomplishments, Live For Live Music‘s Sam Berenson had a chat with Karl Denson to discuss the inspirations behind Gnomes and Badgers, personal time with Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, his love for the game of football, and more.
Sam Berenson: The new record, Gnomes and Badgers, sounds fantastic. What sparked your desire to get back into the studio after five years?
Karl Denson: Well, I’m kind of always in the studio—in and out of the studio, really. It takes me that long to complete a work. I’m kind of slow. Touring so much, it’s hard to balance it all out sometimes with trying to make records, trying to tour, and all the other stuff. For this record especially, there was a real process of a learning curve that was forcing itself on me. I knew I needed a new record, and I knew I needed a lot of new vocal tunes, so that was a big part of the challenge for this record, writing vocal tunes.
SB: With that, I wanted to hear a little bit about the recording process. I know the new release marks your first release on your own imprint, Seven Spheres Records.
KD: I did this record, and I really thought it was a good record. We talked to a few record companies, and nobody really was biting. I just told my manager, I was like, “I don’t really wanna wait around and try to get approval from somebody else,” especially the way things are now, where you can do your own thing. Early into the process, I just told him, “Let’s not bother. Let’s go ahead and do this ourselves. I’ve got another record in my head, and we’re gonna just forego all the nonsense, and do it ourselves, and take it right to the people.” From there, the record’s out now.
Karl Denson – “Change My Way”
SB: Did doing everything on your own ramp up your workload?
KD: It’s definitely a bit of a workload, in terms of spending my own money to promote it and do all that stuff. My manager’s working a bit harder than he would normally work, ’cause he’s taking care of all the ins and outs of actually releasing a record, so kudos to him. I think, in this day and age, it’s kind of like we are able to do what we wanna do, in our own space and time, so I’m just taking advantage of that as a citizen of the inter-web.
SB: Totally, yeah, it’s awesome that that opportunity is always there. Let’s talk Stevie Wonder for a minute. I know you mentioned him being an inspiration for Gnomes and Badgers.
KD: Stevie Wonder, among other people, but Stevie Wonder’s just been a seminal influence on my life; as a black man and a black person. That was my youth, growing up and listening to Stevie Wonder. On this record, once I got the band really locked in and felt like we were all on the same page, I think it just led to being able to look at Stevie Wonder, Rufus & Chaka Khan, and Labelle, and these bands that are the original funk bands, as kind of what we were aspiring to.
SB: Anders Osborne has been a long-time friend of yours, a collaborator with Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, and he also joined you for some of the songwriting and recording on the new album. How did you guys get to know each other in the beginning?
KD: I met him through mutual friends and the New Orleans connections, but I think Robert Walter is how I actually met him. We didn’t really hang out or anything, but it was more of a cold call that I made. I was looking for a guitar player/singer to do The Rolling Stones tribute with me, years ago, and we called Anders. Anders was available, and so that’s really how I met him. He popped up, and it was awesome. It was just a match made in heaven. To see how talented he was, it was just really fun. We did a Sticky Fingers tribute together, he was amazing, and then we became friends. We’re also both avid football fans.
Anders, Ivan Neville, and I are always in close communication throughout the football season. Over the years, we’re always texting each other, during football season especially, just to see what’s up, and what happened with the game or whatever. So, Anders became a friend, and then when it was time to do the new record, I dug up an old version of “Change My Way” from when my band was first working on it, which is really funny, because it’s totally different. The band was a little confused by that song, but then I went down to New Orleans and did a writing session with Anders, he totally got it. He’s been a really great resource for me over the years.
SB: Switching gears to The Stones, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are larger than life figures in the music world. I was curious what your relationship’s like with them, on more of a personal level.
KD: They’re the bosses and they’re the Rolling Stones, so they’re super nice, man. Mick is all business, so I don’t really bother him. He really has his work face on, all the time, and he does a lot. His day is jam-packed. Keith is way more laid back, so I’ve had a lot more time with him, in terms of just kicking it. The whole band, they’re amazing cats, and it’s really fun to watch them now. They’re enjoying each other, they’re enjoying their catalog, and it’s just a pleasure to watch.
SB: That’s interesting how differently they operate. Where’s the most memorable place you’ve played with The Stones since joining the band? I know you’ve visited some really cool international destinations.
KD: I would have to say Havana. The Cuba thing was… unfortunately, it was very short. What’s so fun about playing with The Stones is that we play only two days a week, so most places we go, we get to stay for three or four days. When we traveled to Havana, we only spent two nights there, so that was a little bit of a drag, but that was still something that I’ll never forget. I’m gonna definitely go back at some point, but going there for the first time with The Stones and seeing all of those people was something I’ll never forget. I think it was a half of a million people, or a quarter of a million people out there watching the show, and they were really incredible. The best thing about that show, really, was that the crowd’s reaction wasn’t a normal reaction. I think part of their reaction was sheer awe. By having something that big come to them, half of the time, it wasn’t just claps or cheers, it was just jaws dropped.
SB: With that, you’re talking about enormous stadium crowds when you’re touring with The Rolling Stones. Deep down as a musician, do you feel any differently on stage with The Rolling Stones, opposed to playing a local San Diego show or a late-night show in New Orleans during Jazz Fest?
KD: Well, the biggest deal with The Rolling Stones is those four guys. That’s the weirdest part of it, is just being on stage with those four guys. The show, musically, it’s not as challenging as my shows, because I play the whole time, and I sing, and I’m jumping around. With them, I play a third or a quarter of the time. It’s much easier, in terms of that, but still, it’s The Rolling Stones, so that’s the biggest deal. I feel like I’m part of the audience, in a certain way. I’m there with 70,000 people, and we’re all watching those four guys.
SB: Had you ever seen the band before you joined them, live?
SB: Speaking of Jazz Fest, despite The Rolling Stones unfortunate cancellation, Tiny Universe is returning to New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Fest proper for the first time since 2005. You must feel a little extra excited about Jazz Fest this year.
KD: Yeah, I mean, this year in general is pretty epic for me with the release of my new record. We’re wishing Mick a speedy recovery. Everyone was sorry to hear about the shows being postponed, but obviously health comes first in a situation like this. This is just a little bump in the road. That being said, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe is ready to get down to Jazz Fest. This will be our third official fairgrounds performance, which is a major milestone for the band. And, as always, we have a handful of after hours shows planned around the city during both weekends that will be big fun for everyone!
SB: I wanted to end on a more personal level. San Diego is where you call home. With the little free time you do have when you’re not on the road, recording, or rehearsing, what do you like to do with your free time?
KD: I am a world-class putterer. I just putter around the house.
SB: Oh, putter-er. I thought you meant putting, like golf.
KD: Nope. I thought you might think that. I’m talking puttering, like my dad. Today, I’m gonna practice a little saxophone. I’ve been practicing guitar again lately, gardening, some Tai chi. I’m gonna walk to the ocean and climb the stairs until I get a nice sweat up. Oh yeah! Cooking, I’m really into cooking, I just kind of hang out at my house, and I’ll get out and walk to get out of the house, but I’m really pretty content here by myself.
SB: You mentioned bonding over football with Anders and Ivan. Lets talk a little football since you’ve expressed your love for the game. Who do you root for?
KD: I am a lifelong Kansas City Chiefs fan.
SB: This year was an exciting year for you guys, continuing on the up-and-up.
KD: This year is the beginning of my dynasty, that I’ve been waiting my whole life for.
SB: Do you get a chance to go to games?
KD: Yes. Actually, just in the last few years, I’ve started doing it with my son. It’s become one of our fun things to do. We hit a couple of games a year, so we’ve gone to Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City a few times now. We were lucky enough to catch the opening game here in L.A. against the Chargers, as well. Also saw that crazy Rams vs. Chiefs game in L.A. Yeah, so it’s a fun thing. I told my son, I go, “You’re very lucky with this Patrick Mahomes thing, ’cause you could very well have 15 years of great football before you go back to the dark ages, which I’ve just come out of.”
SB: Yeah, he’s one of those athletes that you don’t see every day. He’s kind of like a LeBron James in terms of his freakish athletic ability.
KD: Yeah, he’s a bit of a freak, and I was a little nervous that they actually got rid of Alex Smith this past season. I like to see the rookies sit on the bench as long as they can. I think it’s something that they don’t do enough of now, because they give them so much money, but I think a lot of times they get wrecked by the speed of the game, and they’re not ready for it. I think they did a really good job, and kudos to Alex Smith for taking things so well. I read a few interviews with Mahomes and his family, talking about how much of a professional Alex Smith was, and how much of a mentor he was for Mahomes, so I think Mahomes is ready for the whole thing. Next year is gonna be a big year for me.
SB: Well, I look forward to seeing how they do, and I’ll be thinking of you when I watch the Chiefs. Thanks for taking some time to chat, Karl.
KD: Anytime, it was my pleasure.
Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe’s Gnomes and Badgers is streaming now on all major platforms. For more information and a list of Denson’s upcoming tour dates, head here.
If you’re heading to New Orleans during Jazz Fest, don’t miss all the exciting after-hours shows Live For Live Music has planned to keep the party going all night throughout both weekends and the daze between! Check out a full list below. For more details and ticketing information, head here.