Casino King

The intense and soulful fuzzed-out sounds of Gary Clark Jr are fast gaining fervent fans across the world. Steve Bailey meets the man being hailed – with good reason – as the new force of Texas blues.

The list of esteemed figures queuing to endorse the talents of Mr Gary Clark Jr is becoming a long one. The shrewd eye of Eric Clapton spotted him early, the Rolling Stones couldn’t wait to get him along for an onstage blues jam, and the president of the USA himself, Barack Obama, heralded Clark as ‘the future’ after a performance at the White House.

Clark’s style is rooted in blues and soul but integrates grungy space rock, modern R&B and roaring, cascading fuzzed-up wig outs. It’s a heady, ambitious concoction that promises great things. The bold new album Blak & Blu contains nods to heroes like Hendrix and Albert Collins, but this quietly-spoken Texan has been fortunate enough to mix it with guitar greats face-toface right out of the blocks. Back in his home town of Austin, some 15 years ago, an underage Gary badgered his father to take him down to the legendary Antones night spot, and there a whole new world opened up for him.

‘It took me until I was about 14 or 15 to realise that all this great blues and rock was coming from just up the street,’ Clark laughs. ‘Once I’d figured it out, I was in it! My old man had to drive me down and then hang out with me because I wasn’t old enough to be there.’

The first time he walked into Antones, local luminaries the Mercy Baby Revue, Johnny Moeller and Mike Keller were all ripping the place up. Gary was transfixed. ‘They were all young guys – in their early/mid 20s – up there, playing just badass blues.’ It was a stirring introduction that drew Clark to return again and again, witnessing legends like Buddy Guy, Jimmie Vaughan, and Doyle Bramhall II. Soon Gary brought his neighbour and schoolfriend Eve Monsees along, and both were inspired to work even harder on their own playing.

Before long, proprietor Clifford Antone began to take an interest. One night Gary and Eve were on hand to witness Hubert Sumlin playing an amazing set with a regular who’s-who of blues greats in his band, including Calvin Jones, James Cotton, Mojo Buford and Pinetop Perkins. ‘Clifford said “Well, you want to get up? Either you’re in or you’re not, kid!” So that was the gig that kinda changed it all,’ Gary recalls. ‘They let us get up there to play T-Bone Shuffle. Hubert let me play his goldtop… it blew my mind, man! So my first time on stage at Antones was with all those great musicians. From that point they kept inviting us back and we got to open up for people that we had seen like Jimmie Vaughan, Doyle Bramhall and Robert Cray.’

Gary was still only 15 years old at this point, and one of his favourite memories is hooking up with Hubert afterwards to just hang out. ‘We sat at his hotel for a couple of hours talking about what it was like playing with Howlin’ Wolf. To hear those stories from him, to watch him, to trade licks and talk about music with someone that I looked up to so much was a privilege. Clifford Antone would always say “This guy invented rock and roll guitar!”’

Clark quickly made a name for himself locally, and at the age of just 17 he was first awarded the prize of ‘best blues and electric guitarist’ at the Austin Music Awards. Austin’s mayor at the time, Kirk Watson, even made 1 May 2001 ‘Gary Clark Jr Day’, such was the youngster’s impact.

It’s been a long road since, with distractions along the way – the main culprit being the lure of Hollywood. Gary’s finest celluloid moment saw him starring in the 2007 film The Honeydripper with Danny Glover, Stacy Keach and Keb’ Mo’. An invitation to play Eric Clapton’s prestigious Crossroads festival in 2010 brought Clark’s focus squarely back around to his music – although it was very nearly a harrowing experience. ‘I’d never played in front of that many people before, and I’d never played within earshot of all my favourite guitar players either, so I had a lot of stuff going on in my head. It was intense!

‘The main sound in the venue during my set cut off while we were playing Bright Lights and we didn’t realise until afterwards what had happened. I could hear people yelling and giving me the thumbs down. I thought they just were not enjoying what they were hearing, so it was quite devastating… for a moment.’

Things happened very quickly after that fateful set. The Red White And Blues gig at the White House – alongside the likes of BB King, Jeff Beck and Buddy Guy – followed in 2011, and a major record deal saw Clark’s Blak & Blu album come together in 2012, co-produced by the chairman of Warner Bros records himself, Rob Covallo (whose credits include Green Day, Kid Rock and My Chemical Romance). The production team was completed by Mike Elizondo (Eminem, Dr Dre, Snoop Dog) who also played bass.

The three assembled at Covallo’s studio in LA with drummer JJ Johnson, and the incendiary blues-driven When My Train Pulls In was immediately committed to tape. ‘That was the first song we played and we just kept everything as it was from the very first take. We all looked at each other and went like… yeah! I think we were all kinda amazed. That started up the momentum. It was like: “Great, let’s just keep doing stuff like that”.’ Basic tracks were all laid down quickly and then added to in breaks between tour commitments.

Mike Elizondo’s mid-’60s ES-335 was put to good use, but Clark’s main squeeze has long been his cherry Epiphone Casino – and his attachment for that particular model has become something of an obsession. ‘It’s a bit mad at this point,’ he grins sheepishly. ‘I’ve probably got about 20 or 25 now.’

It’s a love affair that began in Musicmakers guitar store back home in Austin in 2008. ‘I just walked in, picked the Casino up off the rack, plugged into a Super Reverb and it was game on from there. I still use it. I threw a Bigsby on, and that’s about all I’ve done to it. I get carried away sometimes and abuse the Bigsby. It does make it go out of tune and outta whack, but it’s fun!’

Clark began on Ibanez guitars – a Blazer and an ARC series model – and moved on to Strats and Teles, but the Casino has become his talisman during his recent rapid rise. Just what is it about those guitars?

‘The Casino changed my approach. I keep feeling inspired every time I pick one up. Hollowbodies just make me play differently. I love the way that Casinos can be sweet and mellow, and then you slip it down to the bridge pickup and they just bite and scream at you. Often I like sitting around and playing unplugged. Basically, it got me closer to the music that I loved when I first started playing guitar, like T-Bone Walker and BB King. I use my Gibson 330 from time to time; it’s a lot lighter and it bites a little bit more, but the tone is not quite as rounded as the Epiphone.’

Clark’s favourite live amp is a Fender Vibro-King but a selection of other Fenders were put to use on the album including a Princeton, a Twin and a Super Reverb. However, it’s pedals that really make his eyes light up. His wah gets a regular workout throughout the record; ‘It’s one of those trippy sounds that I never got sick of. It’s outta this world,’ Clark says. ‘For me it automatically adds a colour. I had this beautiful white Crybaby, but it disappeared at a gig in Austin. Since then I’ve been using a Real McCoy RMC wah.’

Other pedals include an Ibanez Tube Screamer, a Strymon reverb/vibrato, an AnalogMan ARDX20 delay and Astrotone fuzz, and a Fulltone Octafuzz. ‘I like fuzz pedals and I’ve got a lot. I’ve been fortunate to have people send me a few because they know I love ’em so much. The Astrotone is a great pedal. It’s pretty simple, just a volume, fuzz and a tone. I don’t really use the effect so much, I use it as more of a boost. I have the volume pretty much all the way up and fuzz on like 1 or 2, so it’s not too overpowering – just enough to boost it up and make it a little more fierce.’

Not too many of Gary’s own pedals actually made it onto the record, though Mike Elizondo offered a few new toys for Clark to peruse. ‘By the end of it my rig was a little bit dusty,’ laughs Gary. ‘He had this Morpheus DropTune DT1 pedal. It has eight or nine settings, each one giving you another half-step down, or a full octave, which I used. It’s got a fuzz too, and I used that with Astrotone. It makes things sound really weird. That sound is kinda what the song You Save Me is about. It’s real crunchy – like a baritone guitar. I just loved hearing that through an amp, standing right in front of the speaker, it just shakes your whole being!’

As we caught up with Gary he was in the middle of his run opening for Eric Clapton at his latest residency at the Albert Hall, and the restraint of the British crowd was taking a little getting used to.

‘The first couple of nights were a little shocking to me because I wasn’t prepared for everyone to be so attentive,’ he admits. ‘Coming from the States with kinda wild audiences, for people to actually sit there and pay attention was quite strange. I can hear my tuning pegs squeaking when I’m tuning my guitar! But it’s been great, we’ve been getting a good reception, and it’s a beautiful venue.’

The respectful Clark has been at pains not to be a bother to Clapton and has kept out of Eric’s way, but he did sit in one night at the end of the great man’s set for a rendition of Sunshine Of Your Love and a version of Joe Cocker’s High Time We Went. ‘I got up there with my reverb tank just cranked and he called me “the reverb king”,’ Clark laughs. ‘He was messing with me. I guess he’s not too big a fan of reverb! I noticed he doesn’t step over to his pedalboard too much. I’ve been watching, and with him it’s all about this rolling back the volume on the Strat. It goes clean and beautiful, and then he cranks that thing up and it screams at you! I’ve been taking notes. Man, he played this blues the other night and it blew my mind. He is truly amazing to watch.’

It’s been a fruitful trip all round, as Gary has also added to his Casino collection. ‘I wandered into this shop down on Denmark Street and found myself an all-original ’66 – a beautiful, beautiful guitar. It hasn’t left my side since I’ve been here. It’s cherry, but faded like it’s been in the sun for a while – kinda natural with a red tint. I took it off the shelf and straight to the Royal Albert Hall for the gig, no soundcheck or anything, just tuned it up, adjusted the action a little bit, and there it was. A great find. My old Casino is competing with my new-found love. It’s an ongoing battle for the number one spot at this point.’ A battle, we would suggest, that is well worth following.

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