Karl Denson’s Not-So-Tiny Universe

Pollstar got an inside look at the latest album from Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe by talking to the saxophonist/flutist/vocalist about making the LP, including covering The White Stripes and drawing inspiration from rare grooves in 1970s exploitation film soundtracks.

Denson discussed recently making time to add the guitar to his list of musical skills in between touring with Tiny Universe, fronting The Greyboy Allstars and playing sax on the road with Slightly Stoopid.

Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe put out the 13-track New Ammo earlier this month, marking the act’s first LP since 2009 and its debut on Slightly Stoopid’s label, Stoopid Records. The album features Tiny Universe’s take on The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army,” Cold War Kids’ “Hang Me Up To Dry,” and The Beastie Boys’ “Sure Shot.” Special guests include Nicki Bluhm, who shares vocal duties with Denson on “My Baby.”

With its fusion of jazz, funk and rock, New Ammo will make you want to dance, attend a Tiny Universe show, or maybe even learn to play the saxophone.

Pollstar caught up with Denson before Tiny Universe’s Feb. 13 gig in Sacramento. Interview below …

Photo: Alicia Rose

How’s the tour going so far?    

It’s been really great. The band’s really kind of hitting a good stride. We got a little tragedy going on at the same time. My bass player’s wife got sick and he had to go home. So we have Tony Hall from Dumpstaphunk subbing for him. So it’s been good and bad. Hanging out with Tony’s always fun.

I was looking through the tour schedules for Tiny Universe and Slightly Stoopid and saw that both acts have spring dates booked March through May. Are you going to be on Slightly Stoopid’s tour as well? How is that going to work out?

You know, they’ve been nice enough to kind of let me come and go. So I will do as many as I can and then I usually block off the summer to do their summer tour. I’ll do a handful of their March and April dates when they don’t conflict with mine.

In your bio on your website you mention that Tiny Universe has finally figured out how to capture in the studio what Tiny Universe does live. So what made the difference? Was it just trial and error? New recording techniques?  

It was really a lot of trial and error. It’s kind of like we finally figured out what we do well. “Grenadiers” starts out the new record and that kind of was the beginning of us figuring this thing out. There’s a little bit more orchestration and soundtrack-y kind of stuff is really where we excel. So we figured that out this last year and a half. … So it’s been a fun process.

This is your first album since 2009. When did the recording take place for New Ammo?

This whole thing was recorded in the last year. So probably like a year ago we did a session and we did “Hang Me Up To Dry” and “Malgorium” and “Cheerleader,” a couple other tracks. And then about six, eight months ago, we did another session and recorded “My Baby” and “Seven Nation Army,” stuff like that. After the Brother’s Keepers record the band was still kind of in flux as far as what we were doing and then the last two years we really got to work on this record, started writing together and bringing in tunes.

My new guitar player D.J. [Williams] joined the band two years ago so that was another crucial part of the plan.

Your publicist mentioned that you recently revamped the band.

In 2009, right after [we released] Brother’s Keeper, Chris Stillwell, my bass player, came to the band. [He’s] been playing with me since Greyboy Allstars so we’ve been together 20 years. My guitar player’s only been here a couple of years. And then my drummer is only about eight months in.

Photo: Marc Millman

How does the songwriting process work with Tiny Universe? Do the other members write songs on their own and then show the group or do you write together?  

It depends track by track. Let’s see, like “Cheerleader” David [Veith] wrote, and that was a track that he had done at home. He brought it in and we liked it so we learned it. “New Ammo,” the title track, D.J. had written it and then we kind of put our spin on it. [For] “Everybody Knows That,” D.J. brought in the riff and then we wrote that together as a band. So it can be any number of things. It really depends on how much time we have to be creative when we’re not touring.

A few 1970s soundtracks inspired a couple tracks on New Ammo. I was wondering, were you trying to switch up the band’s sound and looking for inspiration? Or was it something where you were watching one of those movies or listening to a soundtrack and that’s when inspiration hit?         

Well the soundtracks come from Chris Stillwell’s collection. He’s an avid vinyl collector and kind of his specialty is old soundtracks and finding where the funk is in those things. I have gone to him many times over the last couple of decades and I’ll say, “I need a rare groove that nobody’s heard that’s really funky.” He’ll go into his bag of tricks and find something. So that’s kind of where the soundtrack stuff comes from – it’s from his record collection. And I think [that] in the process of him digging in the crates and finding cool things for the band, we realized that it was something that we all really enjoy doing. The kind of stuff that we were pulling out of his collection … everybody agreed on it pretty much. So it kind of became a default direction for the band.

Photo: Miles Doughty

It’s easy to see why you included the Beastie Boys cover in the album because I know that you’ve done tribute shows to the band. But what about the other covers? What about those artists or songs spoke to you and made you want to put your own spin on them?  

Well, The White Stripes cover is just because I’ve always been a Jack White fan from the very beginning. There’s two or three more that I want to cover eventually. [“Seven Nation Army,”] kind of came out really good, I think, because we really tried to make a big departure from The White Stripes. We changed the bass line up and I’m playing flute on the melody because there’s no way to sing like Jack White. It just became a fun little thing.

And then The Cold War Kids tune was actually from my manager. He sent it to me and I liked it, so we started covering it. I wasn’t a big Cold War Kids fan at the time – I am now. At the time I didn’t know that much about them so it was kind of a cool thing. We tried to make that one kind of muscular with a big riff in the middle.

The White Stripes track really does sound totally different.

Yeah, we just started to make it into a funk tune. As if Herbie Hancock was covering it or something.

Did you know right away that you wanted a female vocalist in the song “My Baby”? Did you have Nicki Bluhm in mind right off the bat?

No, no. We’ve been playing that song for years. It was really kind of an after thought. We’ve become friends in the last year. We have a really good mutual friend [who] introduced me to her. I sat in with her last year on Jam Cruise and that was my first real introduction to her. Since then, when we see each other we hang out. So it was kind of an after thought. It was like, “Well, I wonder if Nicki would sing on this?” And I called her and she was totally up for it. It’s a nice little perk of meeting the right people.     

I think the female vocals really add something to the song.

I know. … I couldn’t even believe it when I heard it. Her voice is so beautiful.

You recently started learning how to play guitar last year. How is that going?  

You know what, it’s going great. I kind of know my way around it now. I still don’t have a good strum, but as far as the basics go I can figure things out on it now, which is really awesome. I’m not planning on, you know, doing a one-man show yet or anything (laughs).

Are there any other instruments you’d like to try out one day?  

Eventually I want to play drums, get decent at drums.
When I read that you were learning to play guitar, the first thing that came to mind was – how do you have time for that? With all of your commitments, do you have free time to just relax?  

Not very much. My trick to the guitar last year was I stopped practicing saxophone. I just decided, you know what? I know how to play saxophone, I’m not going to practice. So I spent like a year and a half, whenever I had time to … practice or just have fun time with music, I was playing guitar. So that’s how I got myself … on my feet a little bit with it. Now I’m back practicing saxophone. 

Photo: Alicia Rose

Upcoming dates for Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe:

March 7 – Solana Beach, Calif., Belly Up Tavern     
March 12 – Santa Ana, Calif., The Observatory     
March 13 – West Hollywood, Calif., The Roxy Theatre     
March 14 – San Francisco, Calif., The Independent     
March 15 – San Francisco, Calif., The Independent     
March 19 – New Orleans, La., Lafayette Square     
March 20 – Las Vegas, Nev., Brooklyn Bowl     
March 21 – Las Vegas, Nev., Brooklyn Bowl     
March 22 – Las Vegas, Nev., Brooklyn Bowl   
March 27 – Jackson, Wyo., Snow King Center (Jackson Hole Rendezvous)
April 5 – Chicago, Ill., Park West
April 11 – Vail, Colo., Solaris  
April 20 – Denver, Colo., Sculpture Park (Daze On The Green)
April 30 – New Orleans, La., One Eyed Jacks     
May 1 – New Orleans, La., House Of Blues     
May 3 – New Orleans, La., Tipitina’s Uptown     
May 24 – Martinsville, Va., Blue Mountain (Rooster Walk)    
July 3 – Las Vegas, Nev., The Joint @ Hard Rock Hotel/Casino (Widespread Panic)
Sept. 13 – Danville, Ill., Kennekuk County Park (Phases Of The Moon Music & Art Festival)

For more information please visit KarlDenson.com.