Karl Denson answers the phone with a hearty, “Macon, Georgia!” There’s an enthusiasm about him that makes it plain that this is not a man who rests. Indeed, when he’s not on tour with the Rolling Stones (alongside local hero Chuck Leavell), Denson stays on the move with the San Diego-based Greyboy Allstars, the Karl Denson Trio, and his funkin’ rock n’ roll outfit, the Tiny Universe. Somewhere, in between all of that, he finds time to write and record new music with a who’s who of the planets best musicians and songwriters. The latest album from Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, Gnomes & Badgers, is an expression of the artist as he tries to make sense of the current political climate while offering compassion and hope for the future.
AI- New album– Gnomes & Badgers. And I gotta tell you that’s a pretty strong, dialed-in classification of where we’re all sitting right now. Would you agree that funk music has always been a combination of activism and entertainment?
I think music in general when you get the artist’s mind, you’re going to get more, you’re going to get a little activism with it. I think funk being black music, there’s a little less time for nonsense– you know what I mean? We don’t always have the luxury of singing about castles and kings and queens when stuff’s going on in the streets that’s impacting us.
On the album, you mentioned that you have quite a bit of heartache in there, but that you have it concealed, disguised. Why not let some of that heartache… Expose it for what it is and let it be sad?
If you listen to it, there’s some sadness in there, but I’m a dance man. I want people to dance– and probably because I’m not a natural singer. I’m not what you’d call a crooner. So there’s a little art in me concealing my vocal limitations. If I was Susan Tedeschi, I could make you really sad!
You’ve got quite the ensemble of musicians with this record– and across a spectrum of generations as well. Lukas Nelson, Adrian Quesada, Anders Osborne, Ivan Neville, and of course Central Georgia’s own Chuck Leavell… I wanna know, was there a great deal of structure with that crew or did y’all just plug in and let the tape roll?
We were all familiar enough with each other that it was a pretty easy process once we got in the same place. Chuck and Lukas did their work kind of remote. Lukas was coming through town to San Diego working on a festival, and I was on my way home. And so he literally just stopped in the studio and dropped that guitar solo on “Something Sweet”. And then Chuck Leavell was at home in Georgia. I sent him the track for “Smart Boy” and he laid the piano on it on his own.
Those other guys have got some great new albums out as well. Lukas Nelson just put out a new one, Adrian Quesada’s got that new Black Pumas record. And did you call Anders Osborne your songwriting mentor?
Yeah! Yeah, I did. I’ve had some songs… Like “Change My Way” for one was one of those songs that when I first sang the hook to my band, they didn’t really get it. We did a version of it that wasn’t quite “it”. And then I took that song, I took a few songs actually… Another one I’m working on right now that Anderson and I did together– we’re going to record that one probably in the next few months for the next record that we’re doing. But Anders is just that guy, you know? You bring in a song and no matter how weird it seems to anybody else, he figures out what’s the important part of it.
Now, your album Gnomes & Badgers— that came out back in March. Have you had any time to actually get out and do any touring for it? ‘Cause I know you’ve been busy with the Rolling Stones. Have you had the opportunity to sort of stretch your legs with it onstage live?
Yeah, we’re doing quite a bit. We’ve been selling a lot of vinyl– we did a lot of vinyl on this one– but we released it in April. So through Jazzfest, through the middle of May, we were kind of touring the record and then over the summer, we did a handful of festivals and little hits in between the Stone’s stuff. But we’re still dealing with it. I have a meeting later today. We’re going to talk about a second single with the radio guys. So we’re still pumping it.
With the Tiny Universe, you’ve called it funk with a rock n’ roll edge and you’ve had musical relationships the guys in the band for years. What was finally the recipe that put you guys together and got you where you wanted it to be?
It’s a 20-year process… It’s just funny how things finally come together. Right before New Ammo came out, my last record, which was about six years ago, I started playing guitar. And that led me to realize that I needed another guitar player. We went to two guitars, but we didn’t have anybody permanent– and we kept rotating that chair to see what we could find. In the meantime, Zak– my favorite drummer from the Greyboy Allstars, Zak Najor– he went in and finished his college degree as an adult and then decided he was ready to play music again. So I got him back and that was a really big deal, ’cause he’s my favorite drummer. Then Seth Freeman was up in Alaska… He’s from Arkansas and he comes from the Duane Allman school. I ran into him just on a lark, and he joined the band about three years ago. That really sealed the deal because it allowed me to not worry about the rock n’ roll thing. When you got a great slide guitar player, it puts that rock sheen on it that I wanted. Now I’m really thinking of the band more like a LaBelle or Sly & The Family Stone– and just let the rock n’ roll seep out.
So is that going to be the trajectory going forward with the next batch of songs and the next album that you’re working on?
Yeah. It’ll stay where it is now. I feel like I got a band that I can build with. I mean, my taste is still very eclectic. That’s what we do in the Tiny Universe– keep everybody on their toes! But I’m writing a batch right now of a cross between what we got on Gnomes & Badgers… And I’ve got a reggae tune that that’s coming out and a bit of Afrobeat. So I’m always looking at it kinda like a DJ in that we play a lot of different styles, and we’re writing around ourselves all the time.
You’ve got Anders Osborne collaborating with you on some songs. May I ask– any other folks that will be involved with the project?
The next round? I am not sure yet. I want to do something with Lukas. And right now I’m actually planning on some writing sessions with people. That’s really what’s going on. I’ll probably get together with Adrian, and I’d like to get together with Lukas. I got a tune that Anders helped me write on the next round. This reggae tune, I’m not sure what I want to do with it, but I definitely wanna get somebody from that field to help me out with that one. It’s gonna be an interesting little transition to the next phase.