Getty Images (2) Sharon Jones has the Dap-Kings to thank for her growing…
- Posted on May 10th 2011 12:05PM by Mike Doherty
Michael Buckner, Getty Images
And yet he's still been under-recognized. In 2009, his blues-rock solo comeback, 'Potato Hole,' featuring the Drive-By Truckers with Neil Young on guitar, brought him closer to the spotlight. He gets right in it on his new album, 'The Road to Memphis,' (due out May 10) which harks back to his soulful Stax days, but with the Roots as his backing band, and Lou Reed, Sharon Jones, My Morning Jacket's Jim James and the National's Matt Berninger on vocals.
Spinner caught up with Jones at his new home in Los Angeles, and discovered how the musical legend is not only keeping up with the times, but helping to fashion them.
You've had a real renaissance in your solo career recently. To what would you attribute it?
Well, the new music and the new creative life inside of me. It always was there; however, I wasn't able to bring it to the forefront. The business changed from being an analog recording environment to a digital environment, and I was left behind years ago, being an old-school recorder. The business model changed, too, so I had to update myself. I had to go to school and learn digital recording, and then I had to figure out how to express myself musically again. I took five courses in San Francisco, starting about six years ago. It was exciting -- I met new people.
Stream Booker T. Jones' 'Road From Memphis'
Having said that, you worked with Gabriel Roth of Daptone Records on this album, who's known for his old-school recording techniques.
Exactly, yeah. It was a 360-degree journey, because I was very happy to record on the studio analog tape recorder that they used. The sounds were fat, real and warm, and we transferred them to digital. I think that's the way to do it. You end up where you start out. The digital stuff has given us a lot of benefits; it's exciting, and it just took us a long time to find out that for certain music, it's best to record it on tape.
The Roots were your backing band. How did they become involved?
I was jamming with them on the Jimmy Fallon show about three years ago. I love jamming with them -- they were coming up with original music for walk-ons, and it was just very natural playing with them. They're very quick, excellent musicians, and I asked if they would do something with me.
'The Road from Memphis' seems to have a more soulful sound than 'Potato Hole,' recalling the MG's days. Would you agree?
Yes, definitely. It's in the writing. I try to follow the creative muse, which I don't understand, but I just try to write what's in my head and my heart at the time. So knowing I was going to be working with the Roots helped me to change that kind of attitude.
We're at a time where there's so much confusion and hand-wringing about the economy and health care and jobs. Yet on your album, Jim James sings an optimistic song called 'Progress.'
Yeah, that's the beauty of Jim James. It comes through shining clear. He's able to see on so many different levels. I sent him this music, and he just nailed it. It's a reassuring song: his voice is reassuring; what he's saying is reassuring; and it's true. We have to make progress at this point. Our backs are against the wall in so many areas.
Do you see parallels between the time of unrest in the late '60s and early '70s and now?
I hope so, because things don't seem to happen unless there's an impetus or force that makes them happen. So I hope this will be the '60s coming back again.
You've said you feel Neil Young's guitar sound is "political" and "in your face"; what makes a sound "political"?
That particular sound is the sound of the rock guitar, starting with the late '60s. That was just the nature of the music -- not being ['Tonight Show' bandleader] Skitch Henderson or Woody Herman [laughs]. [During the recording of 'Are You Passionate?'], Neil was emotionally upset by 9/11, and that was when I really got a firsthand look at how [Young's guitar tech] Larry Craig and Neil tuned his guitar, for the big sounds.
Rock music is a political statement in itself: "This is loud. It's too loud; we want to be heard; things need to change; we need attention." The same with rap music.
Do you feel that your own music has a political sound to it?
Some of it does, because it's a reflection of the internal parts of me and I'm, of course, not satisfied.
There are a couple of songs about Memphis on the album, and as it's called 'The Road From Memphis,' is it looking back at Memphis and how far you've come since then?
It definitely is -- especially songs like 'Down in Memphis' and 'Representing Memphis,' and the nature of the sound itself. The road from Memphis has taken me so many different places: from Los Angeles to Detroit to New York and Philadelphia, and then back to Memphis -- the music and myself.
Since I was a young boy, the city has somewhat put itself down, but now it's come into its own. It always needs to be recognized as a place where progress is being made, especially in music. The world owes Memphis so much. There's something special there. The world just needs to recognize that, and so does Memphis. Memphis always considered itself behind Atlanta and Nashville, and they finally got FedEx [headquarters] there. There's a lot to give there, and I hate to see it put down.
You've got Matt Berninger from Brooklyn and Sharon Jones from Augusta, and later New York, singing about 'Representing Memphis' -- are they more representing the city in a symbolic way?
Well, this is is show business. It doesn't matter who the messenger is as long as the message gets through. When they sing that song, they're from Memphis. And when they were in the studio, when we were getting that together, they were Memphians. This is showbiz, and that's real.
And then there's Lou Reed singing the song 'The Bronx,' in a more soulful, funkier mode than we're used to hearing him. How did the feel of that song come about?
The Bronx is a place that has given us so much -- so many writers and so many musicians. I explained all that to my daughter, Liv Jones, when we were headed for New York, and played the music for her. She put the lyrics together for me, with Lou in mind. He was able to see the beauty in it and pull it off. He has always listened to my music, according to him, so it was a chance for us to come together there and do something that we both thought was pretty cool.
When you look for people to collaborate with, do you sometimes look to bring together people from different worlds and different styles, and see what's going to happen?
Well that was the case with Sharon and Matt, and with Lou and myself, but we also were looking for convenience, people that were in New York at the time we were there.
You've been talking on your Twitter feed about exploring synths -- is this something you're getting more into at the moment?
Yeah, it's something I've never understood. I have a Hammond organ as a "synthesizer." I never understood the physiology of how they worked. I'm finding out how to build them in order to better understand the architecture. I'm going to build one inside a computer. That way I can have my own sounds.
You got your start as a teenager, when most musicians feel they have to prove themselves in terms of technique. Yet you've never been known as a flashy player, even in your younger days. Was that natural for you, or did you have to rein yourself in?
That's a good comment; I appreciate it. I don't really know where that comes from. Maybe I'm just frugal as a person, or try to be frugal, and that comes through. I don't feel like I have to prove myself, but that's just a natural tendency to not say more than is necessary.