Marcus King Band
With influences from all points of the musical compass and playing experience way beyond his years, Marcus King initially found it “hard to get people to take me seriously”. But now they do.
With influences from all points of the musical compass and playing experience way beyond his years, he initially found it “hard to get people to take me seriously”. But now they do.
Marcus King isn’t what you might expect as the youngest in a Deep South musical bloodline. His father and grandfather are popular players in South Carolina, but the 22-year-old has long forged his own path. His third album, Carolina Confessions, is no bog-standard rootsy fare; his take on southern music is richly textured, nodding to Little Feat, the Isley Brothers, Steely Dan, Stevie Ray Vaughan and many more. And it’s crammed with worldly character (reflecting on the breakdown of a relationship, like all his records).
Ask him about his favourite records and he veers between eras and styles. “Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys would be one,” he begins thoughtfully. “Lonerism by Tame Impala is another, Live At Fillmore East by the Allman Brothers… I’m all over the place as far as inspiration goes.”
He’s an articulate interviewee and exudes kindly southern courtesy, despite having the sort of hazy
voice that’s either like he’s just waking up or been steeped in pot. A massive Stetson and bright blue shades add to his look that’s part Warren Haynes, part spiritual guru.
So far things are working out well for him. Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes are fans and mentors. Back home he’s hosted his own two-day festival, The Marcus King Band Family Reunion, for the past two years. Tonight’s London gig is packed, and record-label types chatter excitedly about bigger shows in the works. When he eventually goes on stage, the shades come off and he and his band deliver a dextrous fusion of southern rock’n’roll, soul and jazz. This is where he’s most at home, and has been for most of his short life.
King’s old-soul quality has deep roots, and doesn’t apply just to his music. The youngest of two, his childhood was split between suburban Greenville, South Carolina, and the rest of his family up in the Blue Ridge Mountains. There, King would jam old gospel hymns on the porch with his father, aunts, uncles and grandparents. There was always a guitar in the house, and music was part of the fabric of life. “I was also getting spoonfed the Allman Brothers, Marshall Tucker Band,
Elmore James, Robert Johnson, what my dad was into,” King explains. “And my grandfather was turning me on to George Jones, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings…”
Enviable musical foundations for sure, but it left him out of step with his contemporaries.
“I didn’t have any friends my own age,” he tells us. “All my friends were people like my grandparents. And when I did start making friends, when I’d go over I’d end up playing cards with their parents, cos the conversation was more stimulating. So I just had to grow up really quickly.”
Performing in his father’s blues band, and at the local pentecostal church, aided the process. But although by this point he was listening mostly to powerhouses vocalists like Billie Holiday, Janis Joplin and Aretha Franklin, he was too shy to sing
himself. So he stuck to the guitar, or drums, whenever he could. Then, when King was 13 a close friend was killed in a car accident and his perspective shifted forever.
“She was a dear friend,” he says. “I realised at that point that I couldn’t express myself any further with just guitar.”
Armed with this new resolve, he started his own band and began singing and writing his own songs. Soon he was making decent money playing gigs in local bars, “enough to help with bills an’ stuff”, for which he did all the booking and promoting himself.
“It was hard to get people to take me seriously,” he recalls. “I was fifteen and all the cats in my band were between thirty-five and fifty, cos I wanted older professional people that wanted to work.”
He’s since replaced them with the younger band he has today, who he “poached” from other groups.
School life didn’t improve, however. Disinterest, tardiness and falling asleep in class after gig nights led to threats of juvenile detention centres.
“I’ve always loved learning, if it was something I felt was gonna benefit me later on,” he reasons. “So in English I would excel because I wanted to expand my vocabulary to benefit what I’d already decided to be. But it became frustrating, because they would treat me as if I was a delinquent. I really wasn’t, I was just disinterested.”
In the end the thing that got him through high school (“well, almost”) was an elective class in jazz theory and performance. There he became immersed in the kind of sounds that form a big part of his music today.
“That was my saving grace, man,” he beams.
“Five times a week I’d go to learn about this fantastic style of music that was birthed on American soil. I thought it was such a hip thing, I’d be learning all these cool jazz standards and really learning music theory. That’s what got me through.”
Although he has happy memories of family jams and supportive relatives, King’s early life appears to be shrouded in a cloak of sadness. His mother left when he was four, but remained “in and out of the picture”, and he concedes that there was “a lot going on at home”. As a child he saw a therapist a few times, and at one point (much later) contemplated pursuing psychiatry himself – or the priesthood. He keeps the details guarded, but it seems safe to say that the emotional weight of his music is informed by real pain.
“I love my mother dearly, but that was a hard thing for me when I was younger,” he says.
“Those were difficult times, and there were a lot of things that happened when I was a kid that weren’t ideal, y’know, and it kinda seemed like things would never get better at some point. But they did, so I was able to create from that pain. All I ever want to tell people is if you have any kind of hurt, you need to find some kind of outlet or else you will implode.”
On the back of Carolina Confessions, King and his band are poised for more shows in 2019, and he’s looking to move to Nashville, having fallen in love with the place while recording there.
“There’s still things that are on my heart, that moulded me into who I am, that I still haven’t figured out how to put into words,” he muses, part anxious youth, part wise old sage. “And that’s a constant reminder that sometimes the journey is more important than the destination.”
“Sometimes the journey is more important than the destination.”
Marcus King: saved by studying jazz.