When Live For Live Music caught Marcus King by phone in December of 2019, he was in Detroit with The Marcus King Band as their worldwide El Dorado Tour continued. Two nights prior, they had performed in Philadelphia at the Theatre of Living Arts, a venue with which the band is quite familiar.
“That’s one of my favorite spots to play, man.” King reflected with a laugh, “I remember being there last year, and it almost got snowed out. It sold out, but the snow kept, like, more than half the crowd from coming, so we had just this little gathering of hardcore patrons. … We are blessed with some of the greatest fans in the world.”
Soon, the band’s fans will get a chance to hear King in a new light on his Dan Auerbach-produced debut solo album, El Dorado, out today, January 17th, via Fantasy Records. But while this new record will feature a different band and a different sound, it still marks a conscious step forward for both King and the MKB.
Marcus King – El Dorado – Full Album
Over the course of our conversation, we spoke with King about the creation of El Dorado, how he’s tying the solo record back in with his “home” group, and the band’s continued ascent toward the upper echelon of rock n’ roll stardom. We also talked about public perceptions of his youth (he’s not yet 24) and reckoned with comparisons to some of his biggest idols as we discussed his graceful transition from “child phenom” to “veteran musician.”
You can read a transcript of the conversation below, edited for length and clarity.
Live For Live Music: Before we got on the phone, I was looking back at the times I’ve seen the band play over the last few years, mostly in New York, and the ground you’ve covered in just a few short years is staggering. The first time I saw you play was at Brooklyn Bowl opening for Sun Ra Arkestra in late 2015. There were maybe 15 people in the audience.
The next time was at the Rockwood in 2016. While it’s a small room, the growth in the crowd was clearly apparent. It was so packed, I had to watch the show standing behind the bar. I still remember watching you do crowd control as you lugged the organ in through the crowd and thinking, “This is the last time I’m gonna see these guys in such a small room.”
The next few years were a blur of bigger and bigger venues. The Hall at MP. Gramercy Theatre. The Capitol Theatre. In the fall of 2019, you headlined three sold-out nights at Brooklyn Bowl, the same place you had opened a show to an empty room just four years prior. Now, you’re selling out The Beacon Theatre. What’s it like to so quickly climb that ladder? To consistently come back to markets you played just last year but play a room twice the size?
Marcus King: Well to us, it’s all about perspective, you know? ‘Cause when we truly take a step back and look at where we are and how far we’ve come, it can kind of seem like it happened quickly. But for us, we’ve been living together in vans and buses and hotel rooms for these past six, seven years, and it can feel like a long time. [laughs]
Live For Live Music: True. I guess most people are only seeing you when you come through their town. But the Marcus King Band does 200, 300 dates a year. You’ve put in hundreds of nights of grinding in the interim between visits to a given city.
Marcus King: Yeah. It’s a lot of growth that’s happening between these visits. It’s kind of like, you go home and see your nephews and they’re a foot taller than the last time you were home, but they’ve been living every day [laughs]. It’s kind of the same thing. But we had so much fun along the way, it’s also felt like it’s sort of flown by. So there’s this constant contrast for us. The only thing that we can all agree on is that it’s a real blessing, where we are and where we hope to go.
Live For Live Music: And where is it that you hope to go?
Marcus King: I really can’t be sure where we’re headed. I know arenas are not out of the question. I would love to play arenas. Madison Square Garden, baby, let’s go!
Live For Live Music: When we spoke with you in late 2018, your mind was on your upcoming move. You were preparing to leave your childhood home of Greenville, SC and set up shop in the Music City. At that time, you said you were looking forward to tapping into the East Nashville Bohemian/artistic community and spending some time and writing with the many talented folks out there. So, a year in, is Nashville life shaping up like you thought it would?
Marcus King: It’s great, man. There’s direct flights to New York and stuff like that [laughs]. The finer things in life, as a traveler. A major airport’s nice, but also the scene there is just really friendly to me, and the people have been quite welcoming and warm. There’s just such a positive vibe there. One of the only [places] I’ve seen that’s close is, like, Detroit, where we are right now. I can feel that same kind of vibe: a town that’s being pulled back up by its bootstraps.
There’s a really strong sense of community there and there’s no hangup with… Like, when you’re on the road and you go home to see your family, it can be difficult because a lot of people don’t understand why you’d be gone so long, why it is that you’re never around. You can almost seem like you’re just not the greatest person. But when you’re in Nashville, that family that you create there with your friends… It’s an overwhelming sense of understanding because everybody’s going through the same thing. When you see those friends that are also on the road all the time and you both happen to be home at the same time, what a great feeling that is. It’s so nice.
Live For Live Music: Speaking of the friends that are out on the road doing their thing and coming home to Nashville, we’re all very excited about your new solo album, El Dorado, which was produced by fellow Nashville resident and The Black Keys member, Dan Auerbach.
You’ve been working with Dan for a while. He co-wrote a song on The Marcus King Band’s Carolina Confessions (2018), and you mentioned last year that it was him who advised you what kind of car to buy when you moved to Nashville: a Cadillac Eldorado. Of course, you took that advice, and the image of your Caddy and your tour bus circling the country have been omnipresent in the world of the Marcus King Band ever since. Now, you’ve got an El Dorado album on the way. Clearly, his friendship has had an influence on you and your work of late. How did you initially link up with Dan Auerbach?
View this post on Instagram
Marcus King: I was in Phoenix, Arizona and I got a call from someone I was working with at the time that said, “Dan Auerbach wants you to come to Nashville and do some writing. So I said, “No shit” [laughs]. I flew directly to Nashville from there. I was supposed to have three days off in Greenville—I was still living there at the time—but I canceled those plans and went off to Nashville and did some writing and went straight to Paris from there. So, not a lot of downtime [laughs], but we wrote a couple of tunes and really just sparked a great friendship. I ended up moving there and the next step was, “I got to get to work,” so we got started on that record immediately.
Live For Live Music: You’ve mentioned that El Dorado is not a Marcus King Band record but rather its own, separate thing. The Marcus King Band’s ongoing tour, however, is also called the El Dorado Tour. What was the intention there?
Marcus King: That was a way of me marrying the two things because I didn’t want anybody to think there’s any kind of inner turmoil [in the band]. It’s just something that’s important to any relationship, to have your side projects, you know? We all have other projects. The Shady Recruits, [Drummer] Jack [Ryan]’s band, which also has [trumpeter] Justin [Johnson] in it, just put out a new project, too. It’s their debut one. So everybody’s working on different things, but [The Marcus King Band] is our home.
Live For Live Music: Of course. It’s not like you’re “going solo,” you’re just broadening your palettes.
Marcus King: Yeah. I mean, Gregg Allman had Laid Back, Tom Petty had Full Moon Fever. I’m not comparing myself to those musicians, but the scenario, I suppose, I am comparing to that.
[Photo: Alysse Gafkjen]
Live For Live Music: So will the El Dorado material make its way into Marcus King Band shows despite being a separate sort of thing?
Marcus King: Oh yeah, man. We’ve been road-testing a lot of them and they take on a whole new life. Jack is just such a powerful drummer. There’s no horns on the record, but there’s a lot of vocals, and the horns are picking up a lot of really cool things. It’s just such a different vibe. They get a little “jammier” live.
Live For Live Music: That must be an interesting process for these songs, since you tend to lean toward the “jammier” side of things and Dan sort of tends not to, as a rule, with the Keys.
Marcus King: I told somebody recently that for me, jam music is just… If we’re feelin’ it, it will go there. We arrange the night to be song-oriented, and if the vibe is there, it’s going to get to that place. But you’re really no better than the person playing the same show every night if you feel like you have to jam because that’s what you’re known for, you know what I mean? There’s a level of contrivity there, too. You gotta do what feels right in the moment. I always tell people that people who know nothing about music still know when you’re faking it, when you’re bullshitting them.
Live For Live Music: Can you talk a little about the writing process for El Dorado? Was there any sort of unifying theme you were going for?
Marcus King: It was a really great experience and one that I’m so glad that I had, as far as working with the musicians like Gene Chrisman and Bobby Woods and the songwriters that would come through. It was such a treat and such a damn fine experience.
We got together for two weeks and we just wrote, whether it be Paul Overstreet, Pat McLaughlin, Ronnie Bowman, or Bobby Woods. We’d sit down around the table in the kitchen with the guitars and notepads and write from ten to two, and then from three to six. Two weeks, full days of writing. We came out of there with more songs than we knew what to do with, but the recurring theme we saw in these sessions was a coming of age story of a young man, and it kind of told my story. And with these incredible architects of songs that came in and wrote with us, we were able to really tell the story in the light that I would have wanted it to be seen. Then the band got ahold of them, and we’d just plan the work tape and then we’d go in and cut like six to seven songs a day. So 18 songs in three days, man, and we had a record.
Live For Live Music: That’s efficiency right there. That’s how Nashville does it, I guess. Everyone’s gotta go back out on tour next week…
Marcus King: It’s well-oiled up there, brother. Ain’t no time to be messing around [laughs].
[Photo: Alysse Gafkjen – Dan Auerbach and Marcus King in the studio]
Live For Live Music: Over these last six or seven years, the way in which the average music fan perceives you has changed significantly. The first few years, it was like, “You’ve gotta check out this kid Marcus King, he’s so great and he’s so young.” I remember talking to you when you were about to turn 20, and you were lamenting the fact that you weren’t going to be a teenage prodigy anymore. We were all like, “Now, you just have to settle for being really, really good” [laughs].
And even that was a few years ago now. Now, you’re a successful, seasoned bandleader on a global level, and the fact of your relative youth has sort of faded into the background. Did writing this sort of “coming of age” story with El Dorado get you thinking about that growth we spoke about earlier?
Marcus King: Well, I mean, it’s nice for people to make that distinction now. [“Prodigy”] is an honorable title. I never thought I was a prodigy or anything. I thought, “There are kids out there that hold that title more accurately than me.” I saw Derek Trucks go through the same thing when he came to be my age, [when] he was already an esteemed bandleader. And now, if you hadn’t followed him since he was 11, you’d never call him a “prodigy,” because he’s a man…with a beard [laughs].
But people are starting to see me less as that and more as an adult with adult ideals and a band. It’s nice to be accepted solely for your merit and not because you’re doing good for a certain age or anything like that. Sometimes, the older generations can get on this trip about, “You don’t really know where you’re at yet because you ain’t been around the block as many times as me.” And I’m like, “I totally agree” [laughs].
But all I can say is that Duane Allman played at the Fillmore East when he was 23, 24 years old. He passed away when he was 24, and these are the same people that multiple generations still look up to. 70-year-old men waving their finger at me, but also looking up to someone that was my age at the prime of their career. It’s something to think about, you know? And again, I’m not comparing myself to that musician. He’s my idol, but I feel he felt the same things that I did as a young man.
Live For Live Music: Absolutely. And I hear you backtracking, being reluctant to compare yourself to greats like Gregg and Duane and Petty. I understand that—they’re your idols, you don’t want to presume to put yourself on that same level. But if you’re looking at the facts, as you mentioned, there are certainly similarities that you can’t deny.
Marcus King: Well, I will say, on the whole tip of categorizing something, that the moniker of “southern rock music” wasn’t even a term before Duane Allman passed away. So he created a style of music and then he left us—way too soon, I might add. He didn’t even know that he was “southern rock” because nobody had told him yet. So, I mean, there’s no reason to put a stamp on people’s forehead. Just let people be.
View this post on Instagram
El Dorado, the debut solo album from Marcus King, is available to stream now via the platform of your choice.
For a full list of upcoming dates on The Marcus King Band’s El Dorado Tour, head here.
[Originally published 1/6/19]