One thing Marcus King guarantees fans who come out to his concerts, they won’t hear strict studio version reproductions of the songs on his new album, El Dorado, or for that matter, from any of his previous releases.
“My least favorite thing is to hear someone basically put a cassette player on when they get on stage,” King said in a mid-December phone interview. “That’s no fun.”
In the case of some of El Dorado, King and his band have been pretty much forced to divert from the studio versions. On ballads such as “Break” and “One Day She’s Gone”, King prominently incorporates strings while thick retro-styled female backing vocals are a big part of “Beautiful Stranger”. These elements are not generally in the MKB’s arsenal– which includes singer/guitarist King, drummer Jack Ryan, bassist Stephen Campbell, trumpet/trombone player Justin Johnson, sax player Dean Mitchell, and keyboardist DeShawn Alexander– but it hasn’t taken long for those songs to transition into their own entities live, King said.
“We’ve been test-driving them for a while, and they’re just becoming different songs out here, staying true to what they are, but obviously, we don’t have a string section out here, and we don’t have as many vocals, and we don’t have a full horn section,” King said. “So it’s a lot different out here, man, and I think anybody that comes to see the live show would agree.”
I had to make a decision, and I’m glad that I did it. I feel it’s important to step away from the norm every now and then. It refreshes you in all senses of the word.
The ballads on El Dorado have a lushness not heard on the three previous Marcus King Band albums. Meanwhile, other songs, like “The Well” (a full-on bluesy rocker), “Turn It Up” (whose percolating textures and driving tempo create a welcome tension), and “Young Man’s Dream” (which shifts from a gentle acoustic opening to a full-bodied, country-tinged tune), provide a nice musical variety.
The latter song is one of several on which King sings in falsetto– something he had never done before. King discovered his falsetto range quite accidentally during the recording session for El Dorado.
“I was just a little tired one night, and the concept of the microphone… Think about it, they can turn it up as loud as you want to go,” King explained. “Some of my favorite singers whispered their [vocal] tracks pretty much. It doesn’t sound like that [on the album]. So I did that [falsetto] just because I was a little tired one night, and I just took that approach of ‘my voice is tired.’ I’m sure as hell glad I did.”
Along with introducing strings, horns, female backing vocals, and the falsetto into his sound, something else makes El Dorado different for King.
It’s the first Marcus King solo effort. Although the Marcus King Band is very much intact, circumstances led King to step away from his group to make the new album.
“The opportunity availed itself to be able to work with some legends, like (drummer) Gene Chrisman and (keyboardist) Bobby Wood,” King said, mentioning two musicians who were original members of the Memphis Boys, the house band at Chips Moman’s famed American Sound Studio (they played on Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man”, Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds”, and many other famous songs). “I had to make a decision, and I’m glad that I did it. I feel it’s important to step away from the norm every now and then. It refreshes you in all senses of the word.”
It makes sense that King would have been well aware of Chrisman, Wood, and the production work of Moman.
I like to take a microphone and lower it down into my soul, into the depths of it. Whatever’s jangling around in there, that’s what you hear.
King, 23, grew up in Greenville, South Carolina where his father had a band and his grandfather was also a musician. He was introduced to a wide range of blues, soul, country, and rock n’ roll as a kid and has built a deep knowledge of those genres. By age four, King had his first guitar and was learning to play. He did his first performance at age 8, and by age 10 or so, King had joined his father’s soul-rooted band, which taught him key lessons about music, performing, and running a band.
King didn’t waste time striking out on his own, forming his first band at age 14. But it wasn’t until 2014 that he got his big break. That’s when he met Warren Haynes, guitarist/singer in Gov’t Mule (and previously the Allman Brothers Band), who was impressed enough by King to sign him to his Evil Teen Records label and re-release the first Marcus King Band album, Soul Insight. That album, originally self-released in 2014, featured a substantially different lineup than the present Marcus King Band.
The current edition of the group came on board in time for their first self-titled release on Fantasy Records in 2016. Produced by Haynes, The Marcus King Band reached No. 2 on the Billboard magazine Top Blues Albums.
For 2018’s Carolina Confessions, King worked with Dave Cobb, one of today’s most in-demand producers, who helped the MKB create a more song-focused album that flowed smoothly between bluesy rock and Memphis soul while also delving into more country-flavored acoustic fair.
King teamed with another in-demand producer for El Dorado– Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys.
“Well, we started writing together a couple of years ago. He [Auerbach] called me out of the blue, or his manager called me out of the blue and said, ‘Dan wants you to come to Nashville and do some writing’,” King said, explaining his history with Auerbach. “That really sparked a good friendship and a good writing partnership. I ended up moving to town about a year later [in late 2018].”
Despite the wide range of instrumentation, the album came together quickly. King’s writing sessions with several respected tunesmiths (Paul Overstreet, Ronnie Bowman, and Pat McLaughlin) took only about a week and a half, and recording was finished in three days. Auerbach, it turns out, is anything but fussy in the studio.
“Dan’s very similar to me as far as he likes to get in there early in the morning and work until late at night. So you’re getting a lot of hours in,” King said. “There’s not a lot of thought to what else can we add to this track. ‘The Well’ is a prime example of the way this album came to be because what you hear on the record is what we cut that night. The only thing we added to it was the handclaps, which we did that night, and when we left the studio we had a finished
track that night… That’s the nature of Auerbach. There’s no need to overthink something. Just let it be what it wants to be.”
The presence of so many ballads on El Dorado (a half dozen in all) wasn’t premeditated either.
“I’ve never sat down with a kind of song in mind. I like to allow the song to be whatever it needs to be, how ever I need to say it. That’s been the way for all of my writing,” King said. “The soul ballads were just what I like to do, man. I like to take a microphone and lower it down into my soul, into the depths of it. Whatever’s jangling around in there, that’s what you hear.”