Gnomes and Badgers is sax legend Karl Denson and his band Tiny Universe’s first album release in five years and Tahoe awaits with bated breath in anticipation of their show at the Crystal Bay Club on Saturday Sept. 14. The legend of woodwind soul has played with Lenny Kravitz and The Stones but you wouldn’t know it talking to the funny and down-to-earth guy himself. I caught up with Karl D in a moment of relaxation while he was at home in San Diego and got the chance to talk to him about life, musical collab and inspo, and what’s on the horizon for music and projects beyond the sonic realm.
MOONSHINE INK: I went to High Sierra Music Festival this year and noticed that you changed your scheduled showtime last minute from Saturday night to Thursday night. Word at the festival was that it was because you were about to head on tour with the Rolling Stones. Were the rumors true?
KARL DENSON: Yup, The Stones’ scheduling got pushed around because Mick had to have a small operation so they flipped the tour around. They put the last few dates at the front end. It forced me to condense some of the things I had going on.
MI: What’s it like going on tour with The Stones?
KD: Ha, it’s alright … [laughs]. It’s freaking amazing!
MI: Did you see this coming?
KD: No, it was totally out of the blue. I got a call from Lenny Kravitz and he was having dinner with Mick Jagger. He told me that sax player Bobby Keys was sick and he was throwing my hat in the ring. From there it was a vetting process. I sent them a bunch of my material and they dug it! A week later, I’m talking with Mick and a week after that I’m on a plane on [the] Stones Tour.
MI: What’s it like going from playing shows under your own name to playing sax with one of the most legendary bands of all time? Is it an easy transition? Were you nervous or was it business as usual?
KD: It’s a little of both. Playing the music, I’m not nervous about, but hanging out with The Rolling Stones … That’s a little different. It’s more about the hang. When I’m playing for 60,000 people it’s just those four guys on stage that I’m focused on.
MI: Were there many practice sessions?
KD: They rehearse three to four weeks for every tour and the horns, myself, and Tim Ries, are usually there for one to two weeks.
MI: Besides The Stones, and I know you have played with Lenny Kravitz back in the day, who have been your other musical sit-in highlights?
KD: I’m playing with Phil Lesh a bunch these days. I played with Bob Dylan when I was with Lenny Kravitz back in the day. Those are probably the biggest ones. I’ve worked with Fred Wesley from James Brown through the years and Macio [Parker], my favorite.
MI: Seems like you do a lot of shows where you cover the music of other bands? Is that just an “in” thing right now or do you have a specific reason for doing that versus your original material?
KD: It’s something else to do when you are touring a lot. It helps to keep the audience interested especially when you are coming into towns multiple times. It’s a fun thing to do. We are done with that for a while. We released a new studio record, Gnomes and Badgers, and are focused on writing new material right now. It’s a good idea for anyone coming to the show to have a listen to the album beforehand and get acquainted with the material.
MI: What band are you bringing to Tahoe?
KD: My same band, the Tiny Universe. DJ Williams, Zak Najor, Chris Stillwell, David Veith, Chris Littlefield, Seth Freeman … on slide guitar. We are having a great time touring off the record’s new material.
MI: Besides playing with The Rolling Stones, how do you keep things fresh?
KD: I keep listening to new music and keep that aspect fresh. I try to listen to the right stuff. I like to write music, so I keep writing. It’s that process that keeps me fresh. We are going to focus on putting out singles over the next few months with collaborations. The next record will be a series of singles instead of a full length. People’s attention spans are short and there’s so much out there for people to listen to. I put my record out and I feel like I got a lot of traction on a couple of tracks because of the freshness of it when it came out. People tend to move on to the next thing real quickly. It can be harder to move out an entire record compared to a handful of singles. It’s a sign of the times.
MI: Do you find a difference when you play in mountain communities vs. urban areas?
KD: Being in the mountains is always really fun in general. Musically, the mountain folk get the most effort out of the band based of a lack of air. My horns don’t play as easily as they do at sea level, breathing is not quite as easy. You always get a little bit more realness that comes with being in the mountains.
MI: What music do you find yourself listening to these days? What’s driving the Karl D bus?
KD: A mixture of four different things these days. A bunch of hip-hop, a bunch of afro beat, a bunch of Joni Mitchell and a bunch of old funk. It keeps me grounded as I am learning to write lyrics better. That’s where the Joni Mitchell thing comes in. The Band is in there too. I have a lyricist playlist, an afro beat playlist, a hip-hop playlist, and a funk and soul playlist. There’s always a learning curve on what I can improve on.
MI: Are you currently working on anything new?
KD: I’m working on a bunch of stuff. I’m planning to start a podcast which is in the organizational phase. I’m writing a script for a sci-fi film and I’m writing music.
Featured image caption: THE SAX MAN: A local legend who has played his sultry woodwind runs with global musical phenoms. Photo by Robbie Jeffers