"You could plug me into any guitar and a $50 amp, and you'd know it was me playing." ~ Wilson T. KingWilson T. King has been lauded by every guitar mag from here to there - he's probably being read about aboard some alien starship as I type this. King is one of the very few 'blues rock' guitarists I can listen to without shuddering - mind you, I've loved blues rock since I first heard The Jeff Beck Group's Truth back in the very early seventies, but that's about the last time anyone pushed the genre further along. Don't start on me, SRV fanatics - I love Stevie Ray, but he didn't really take Albert any further than Albert did - he just did it better than anyone else, and while that's admirable, it's not particularly innovative.
Last year I labeled King's latest record, The Last Of The Analogues, one of my top twelve albums of the year, and in my review I coined the phrase, 'Blade Runner Blues.' Wilson T. King manages to take a wealth of well steeped blues history and meld it with many years in the creatively rich British indie rock scene, dip it in some solid psychedelia, and come up with something new, exciting and vibrant. His playing is audacious, melodic, edgy, and at times shocking - his bends are closer to to Coltrane than some 'same thing as yesterday's' neophytes seem to be coming up with these days. His songs are closer to Radiohead and Philip K. Dick than the three Kings.
I had the opportunity to catch up with King a few weeks ago, and we spend some quality time hashing over his history, what he's doing now, and where it's all going. He has as sharp an intellect as you'll find, and he has no shortage of opinions - he reads like a professor of real music and musicianship - as I transcribed this interview, I realized that it reads like a great lesson in what to do, what not to do, and how to get there with your soul and pride in tact. I wish every budding six stringer could read his words.
After some friendly chat, we got down to brass tacks, and I asked him to tell me in his own words exactly what it was that he did, and how and why he does it:
Wilson T. King: "I liked your description, Tony - Blade Runner Blues, I couldn't have come up with better myself, that's brilliant.
"I think the reason for what I'm doing is two-fold: I didn't play a lot of lead guitar for a long time from the mid '90s to the late 2000s. I was doing indie bands, and trying to get record deals, touring, and it just wasn't part of the equation. Through that period, I just didn't buy many blues records, or many guitar records - they just didn't interest me.
"I was moaning about it to my friend Wayne Proctor, who plays drums on my records, and he's a big blues producer in Europe, and he was like, 'Shut up and play guitar. Stop moaning and make the record that should be made. I think that was the challenge of the first record (2010's Follow Your First Mind) - could I find spaces for the guitar and the blues to resonate in for me that were new and fresh, not just going over the same old ground?
"I did that first record, and it got a lot of critical acclaim, so I thought, OK - this gave me encouragement for this record (2012's The Last Of The Analogues), which is inevitably a cross pollination between the music I was influenced by in the '90s - The Black Crowes' The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, Radiohead's The Bends, in that period of time, from like 1989 to 1997 there was like three classic rock guitar albums, or four coming out a year. And those were a huge influence on me as a songwriter. Obviously, my musical influences were John Coltrane, or Led Zeppelin, they go back through the space and time of rock music and blues."
"There was a period of time where I had to get my songwriting chops together, and I started to become a producer, as well. And that era was very melancholic - it was that, mixed in with my guitar playing, sort of Hendrix, Gilmour, Albert King, Jeff Beck influences - this all sort of served to make a Wilson T. King sound come about.
"I can't explain it, other than I try to wrote stuff that is interesting and, can I put some great guitar in that? That's what I'm looking for all the time.
"The next record is probably is probably going to shock people. It's very sci-fi. You have some Amnesiac/Radiohead keyboards in with some of the heaviest guitar playing I've ever done in my life. Some New Order type grooves in songs with some incredible guitar playing - there's drony synths with harmonicas and slide guitar playing! I'm just going to keep pushing it. That's the challenge for me - can I keep pushing into these new spaces?"
New spaces, indeed - one thing I love about Wilson's records are that they sound very topographical, like a full tilt travelogue. I was curious as to how he has arrived at such a retelling of the blues - if the blues had a spaceship, this is what it would sound like:
Wilson T. King: "My thing is, I love listening to the blues, but do I need to hear another blues record where somebody's going to play the same blues, the same old lyrics that they change just a bit, and I don't need to hear Albert King, I've got him - Clapton, BB, Stevie Ray records, what are you going to do in that genre?
"In terms of playing, some of it is composition - on the records there is this weird composition. Like Dave Gilmour - because it's clear that he writes his solos, they are composed, but at the same time, it's a free form as well. Jimi wrote his solos, you can tell that also, that he worked on them, but at the same time you have this free form thing going on.
"I'm somewhere in between the two, I'm not saying I'm as good as those guys, I'm saying I approach things somewhere between the two. Some of the solos on Born Into This, I did in a few takes and it took me a week. Every night, I'd go in for a few hours and figure out what I was going to do. I did that - I wrote it, replayed it a few times, got it better, and on the end solo I did like three takes. So, it's really between those two approaches.
"But it's gotta be good. I think that what you find is a lot of players with a ton of technique, who can phone it in. Does that make sense to you?"
Phoning it in is not a possibility with Wilson T. King. In a time in which every guitar player talks vibrato and bends more uniformly by the moment, King is boldly invigorating - his bends swoop, they scream, they squawk, they whisper and howl - more akin to a great jazz sax player than most guitar playing. In fact, his technique is so compelling, I had to enquire as to its origin:
Wilson T. King: "To me, that is the apex of the guitar player. There's a lot of people that can bend a lot of notes, but the technique I have, there's more than a slight time where I've mimicked Jeff Beck - he does it with his bar, but I do it with my fingers. I bend and pull off from these odd, different fret positions - they are not normal fret positions. I play a lot out of position - I'm pushing and pulling the notes into these different places and using vibrato in a different fashion. And I get all these myriad different sounds. I love doing that - it feels freer."
It's not just his technique, Wilson also employs sound tremendously to his advantage - it's a strange and beautiful beast, his tone. I wondered if he had intentionally abandoned the more obvious blues rock tones:
Wilson T. King: "I think for me, and that's a very interesting question, because it comes to the whole boutique amp and guitar thing. I've got a '69 Fender Strat that's great. I prefer a Gibson plugged into a Fender amp, and I prefer a Strat plugged into a Marshall.
"They just seem, those combinations seem a little bit more aggressive, they seem more exciting and the midrange is more....Brit. The Fender amp is too smooth sometimes, I think they sound too conservative. And the guitar, to me, is something to prime people - something to jolt people out of normal life. You can say that David Gilmour has that sweet tone, and that works on Comfortably Numb, but the lyrics are so dark - the solo is sort of soothing. But the second break he takes you off! It's all balance.
"Mountains of Fire, a track on the second album - the vocal is quite drifty and dreamy, but the solo is very aggressive. I try to have all these elements in the tracks."
In addition to a barebones rig, King has also followed in the footsteps of Jeff Beck, Gary Moore, and other greats who have abandoned plectrums for the intimacy of using his fingers alone:
Wilson T. King: "I'll tell you something now - I got rid of the pick after playing for probably near 20 years, OK? And, I always played with my fingers, but I used to pick mainly.
"I used my fingers more and more, and suddenly it was transformative. A huge difference for me, especially in my mid 30s when I got rid of the pick. Over two or three years, all of a sudden the style came - I started working these bends in....
"The only way I can describe it is sort of like a John Entwistle vibe! You'd watch him play bass, and you're like, 'What is he doing?'
"If somebody said to me, 'What kind of fingerstyle technique do you use, I'd say that I have absolutely no clue what I'm doing, but it works! I still practice a lot, even while I'm doing my other businesses, at the end of the day."
King's music avoids cliches and challenges the listener in ways that are incredibly refreshing in these days of crass radio conformity, so I asked if it was a problem to get his rhythm sections onto the same page:
Wilson T. King: "Well, I write all of the bass parts on the records - so a lot of the songs start with the bass. The way I demo, it might be that I have a song finished before the drums are on sometimes, and I'll put on the drums last.
"Wayne Procter, the guy who does the drums on the records, he and I have been working together for almost twenty years, and it can get a little crazy. We're always trying to push - I think he's one of the finest players out there, he's a world class drummer, and we're always pushing each other with new ideas.
"Live, (bassist) Jim Hartley and Wayne - when I play with them, the low end is Band of Gypsys, do you know what I mean? They've got that vibe!
"It is difficult, and I've played with a lot of musicians over the years and it''s hard to find that synergy. These great bands, The Beatles, The Who, it's four people - they may even hate each other at times, but they're making something musically and they all know it's so important - it creates moments."
Breaking all the rules is not an easy task - I asked Wilson how much time he invested in learning the ropes before he cut them:
Wilson T. King: "A lot of time. I was a blues head, completely, a massive blues head, and then, when I started doing originals after years and years of playing, I did all this stuff - I learned the SRV records, I learned the Hendix songs, Clapton tunes, BB, Albert, Freddie King, I learned all that stuff.
"So, I had all that down - so when I started being in original bands, there was no use for it. Do you know what I mean? Throughout my musical career I've always tried to write original riffs and original ideas that I'd not heard before.
"I still kept playing the blues, working on my leads and stuff, but that wasn't the dominate thing. There was probably six or seven years, maybe longer of doing indie music, and it's more Radiohead type stuff we were doing.
"That helped me to write songs, write lyrics, and produce records, which made me play better. Because it made me realize what is not worth playing, if that makes any sense. I played a lot of bass in that period as well, so when you're writing you get the idea of context. What's the point of great solos if what I'm playing over is a load of rubbish? Without that experience, I'd probably be another blustering blues guitar player, but there's a million of them.
"There's so many guys out there who I look at and go, 'Wow!' There are some young kids in England who are amazing - great players, awesome. But after about twenty seconds, you go, 'What's going on there musically?' They are just playing blues licks over blues licks."
Clones. That's what drives me away from blues rock as a genre so often, the dull repetition of pentatonia from vapid, but dextrous youngsters (and many not so young). I asked Wilson what he thought responsible for the mountains of blues CDs that merely echo the past:
Wilson T. King: "Well, that's interesting, because I've been a little harsh on some people, and some genres. I think it goes back to that 90s period of time, where all my peers - people who were making it as musicians were doing something new. Whether that was Kurt Cobain, or Radiohead, U2, they were all making these challenging records.
"That made me think, 'I've got to work my ass off here,' and I don't think these young kids today have got any musicians like that around them. You've got people like Joe Bonamassa who do this conservative, sort of Gary Moore/Clapton blues thing really well, but it's not anything new. So look - these kids really haven't got anything - there's no one in their age group challenging them."
Not content to be just a shit hot axeman, King is also a very compelling lyricist and singer. His tunes are filled with dark, cinematic tales that reflect our times. I asked if he relied on books and films for inspiration, in lieu of cliched blues tunes:
Wilson T. King: "Oh yeah, of course! Totally, I mean the lyrical inspiration on Bukowski with Born Into This, with his books - He's a big influence in that area.
"You touch on an interesting point there - if you look at any of the real rock stars, Lennon, Cobain, they are all well read people, they may not have had a great education, but they are inquisitive and well read. That's part of being an artist, you can't just play music - if you play an instrument, then you are a musician - if you write and create new ideas then you are an artist.
"A lot of ideas can be grabbed from other art forms.
"So yeah, it is cinematic, and I'm sure if I listed my film choices, it would be things like The Hill, Apocalypse Now, those sort of things, when that revolution in Hollywood started happening. That was a big influence on me."
While searching endlessly for an inspirational ocean, King choose to stay grounded in his choice of gear. He's been with his trusty '69 Strat and Marshall setup for some time, and there's no change coming in the foreseeable future:
Wilson T. King: "Yeah, I've actually just bought a '77 Marshall JMP off a guy who is a fan of my music. I am actually going out to get a 2X12 cabinet for that today.
"See I think the thing is, Tony - you play guitar, and we've all been down that tone indecision mayhem and literal depression, and we've all did it as guitar players. And you know, if you came up to me and said, 'I'll build you an amp that's the end of the world,' I'd say, 'No thanks, I'm happy with my Marshall and Strat.' If someone brought me 16,000 different pedals, I'd say, 'Sorry, I'm happy.'
"Because the last thing I want to do is mess up something that I think is really exciting and makes me happy. We've all swapped amps, we've all swapped guitars, and then six months later go, 'Why did I go and do that?' I'd rather focus on the playing and writing. Really. I can't even think about it.
"You need good gear if you are recording. But you could plug me into any guitar and a $50 amp, and you'd know it was me playing."
And you would. Wilson T. King is nothing if not recognizable - he sounds like no one else on the scene, and how many guitarists can you say that about these days? I wanted to hear some of the details of the new record that he's currently prepping (remember, he said it would shock people):
Wilson T. King: "I'm demoing this record, which I think will take me....see, one of the luxuries I have is that I can produce a record. I don't have to go into the studio in four days and cut it, or two weeks, which doesn't always bring out the best.
"I have my laptop, I have an iPad, I have ProTools on there, if I'm home for a few days, I get my guitar out and work out some solos - I can work on the record. Then I'll get together with the guys, and we can work it out. It's not something where it's two weeks, and that's it. I have the luxury of being able to do the record on the same budget as other guys, but I can do it by myself, and get a lot more out of it.
"These kids that contact me, I've told a few of them - go in, put down your backing track, get yourself ProTools, and do it at home. Give yourself all that time to make it sound amazing! It's not rocket science!
"I think this new record is going to be interesting, because it's going to be something more. I think it's going to bring in a lot of people who used to buy guitar records, but have really not bought any for 20 years.
"It's interesting because I have so many guitar friends who just never buy new records. They still love that music, but there's nothing for them - they think that anyway.
"This record is going to widen what I'm doing, so I'm very excited. The last record, I am so proud of it, this record is just going to take off into space! The guitar playing is stupendous, so I'm already happy with that. Hopefully, you'll think the same!"
As King goes about his business of never repeating himself, and challenging himself and his listeners, I wondered what his thought may be on why more artists are not doing so, instead relying on homogenized, staid product:
"You're right - it's become a little safe, and predictable, but the focus, as we've spoken already, is on the wrong areas. The focus should be on originality and ideas - taking risks, not on, 'Can I play Joe Bonamassa's track better than him', or playing better than Gary Moore, it doesn't matter. There are literally hundreds of guitar players out there who can really, really play, but without ideas, you are not an artist.
"It's tough on guys. If you've got an engineer, a producer, and mixing guys - if you are on a budget, there's definitely a lot of compromise there.
"Look - The Beatles took a lot of time to cut their records. Look at Yesterday, or Strawberry Fields, those records went through tens after tens of renditions. Jimi - Voodoo Child (Slight Return), he worked on that tune for a year, jamming it, doing different versions, getting his solos down - he was working on it!"
The state of the art now gives way to the state of the industry - as you may know, I've recently been asking every artist I interview what they think about the current state of the music business:
Wilson T. King: "I think it's disgraceful the way that the music industry lost control of its intellectual property. I think it's disgraceful that governments in the west have been so slow to protect the industry. I think it's disgraceful that people think that music is something they can download for free and steal, while spending $6 on a pack of cigarettes, or $8 on a beer, $20 on a video game.
"There's no excuse for it, it's disgraceful. Music is something that can help - incite change and growth. For the last 60 years, from where it was to where it is, it would probably be the only thing the aliens would be interested in if they landed. Surely not the iPad - they'd be interested in Coltrane, and Hendrix, Miles Davis, Beethoven.
"But I can tell you one thing - they are not going to be interested in the Internet, iPads, etc., etc....
"Music - it's the greatest pure thing that man has come up with - it's just been treated badly.
"I'm very passionate about this. The state of music, there's just no excuse. I get it, I get it, but how many times have I bought Achtung Baby, Electric Ladyland? On CD, tape, vinyl - I must have bought seven versions of those records over my life. From that perspective, home taping is one thing, but stealing new records you've never bought? Completely wrong."
We covered a lot of ground on that Saturday afternoon, and I had just two more things to ask Wilson T. King. If there was anything else to communicate to young guitarists and musicians looking to make their mark, and if he had heard from King's X frontman dUg Pinnick - I had recently spoken too dUg, and he had asked for an introduction, as King was a new favorite on Pinnick's home playlist, he thought maybe King's death defying guitar would sit well next to some Pinnick solo material:
Wilson T. King: "Make sure these young guys out there are taking risks, and trying new stuff. It's one of the big things we try, and if I can get any message across, it's to take risks, don't be afraid - that's what it's all about, you know?
"Yeah, I did hear from dUg! He's very cool and we had a great chat - I said to him, 'I'm here if you need any help!' And he said, 'If I come across a chromatic, cyclical Band of Gypsys bass line, I'll be sending it to you. King's X - those guys have never gotten their due - that guy is unbelievable."
Well, that makes two. Wilsson T. King is the real deal - a Hendrixian wizard of a guitarist/songwriter/singer who is looking fearlessly into a brilliant musical future.