An Interview with Karl Denson and his Tiny Universe

Paul Caparotta
Karl Denson (Photo: Robbie Jeffers)
Karl Denson may not be a household name... yet! But his work, along with the artists he's performed with over the past 30 years, speak volumes to this man's sheer talent as a vocalist and saxophonist. Karl's recorded as part of Lenny Kravitz's original band, co-founded The Greyboy Allstars, oh, and by the way, since 2014, has been the touring saxophonist for the biggest rock band in the world, The Rolling Stones. It's hard to fathom where Karl finds time to write and record his own music, but he's built a substantial catalog as Karl Denson's Tiny Universe. Their new album, Gnomes & Badgers (iTunes), will be released on March 8th and he'll be making two stops here in San Francisco on March 16th at Amoeba Records and then a full set later that evening at the Indy (tix here). Karl graciously gave his time to answer a few of our questions which you can find below, and whatever you do, make an effort to get over to Amoeba and/or the Independent on Saturday, March 16th!

SFBayAreaConcerts: You have such a deep catalog of material across your various bands and musical partnerships—it’s staggering! Whether you’re accompanying Lenny Kravitz, breaking ground in jazz, or reinterpreting R&B, it feels like the word 'soul' might capture a common thread. What do you think?

Karl Denson: That’s a pretty good way to look at it—it's definitely how I look at. I've always considered what I do to be first and foremost dance music, whether it's jazz or funk or anything in between. That pretty much always puts it in the realm of having to be soulful; being able to get people to dance.

SFBAC: This year represents the 30 year anniversary of Let Love Rule—looking back at that album, how do you feel about the trio of albums you worked on with Lenny Kravitz? Many of those songs still sound very vital today.

Karl Denson: When I first heard the initial tracks from Let Love Rule, I knew Lenny was on to something brand-new. I was probably as excited as he was for what we both saw coming. I still listen to those records from time to time, just like I would go back to a James Brown record or a Wayne Shorter record. It's just good music and it stands up to everything else. It was an honor to be part of it.

SFBAC: A Town Called Earth (iTunes) was one of those albums I used to spin pretty frequently in the '90s. Whether you were a fan of jazz, funk, experimental, or classic rock there was something there to appeal to you. What was your inspiration behind forming The Greyboy Allstars?

Karl Denson: I didn't form The Greyboy Allstars, DJ Greyboy did.  I was just there at the right time. It was a cosmic convergence of sorts. I had been working with DJ Greyboy for a year or so.  I just showed up for a rehearsal that turned out to be a pivotal moment.

SFBAC: The Elbo Room was a frequent venue for you in those early Allstar days—how did the San Francisco musical community initially respond to your live shows?

Karl Denson: For a long time people thought we were from San Francisco. Actually, our first gig was the Elbo Room back in ‘93. It was a great set up because they allowed us to take the whole door, so that made it possible to play other shows in the Bay Area without losing money. Shout outs to Dennis Ring, the then proprietor!

SFBAC: Over two decades later you continue to bring your live sound to the Bay. We can’t wait to hear the new album live. Where did you come up with the album title "Gnomes and Badgers"?

Karl Denson: Elgin Park from The Greyboy Allstars thinks I came up with it, but I think he came up with it. Anyway, it was kind of a castoff from the Allstars that I took and turned into a concept. That concept being communication and civil dialogue.

SFBAC: We are really enjoying the new album. There are two singles on Spotify right now. "Change My Way" is heavy, distorted, driven, deliberate. "I'm Your Biggest Fan" is sleeker, fun, and fast. They both have this great funk sound but represent two different sounds. We'd love to know more about your mindset when it came to building and tracking the new album.

Karl Denson: "I'm Your Biggest Fan" is an older tune that never made it onto an album. "Change My Way" is an idea that had been floating around my head for a while, it just took a bit of work to realize. Anders Osborne was a big help with that. The album as a whole is really about what the title suggests—a dialogue between people about real stuff.

SFBAC: And that video--man. It's powerful because it is relevant both topically and musically. Did you have this inclusive vision of America in mind when you wrote the song? Or, as it came to life, did you see the relevance of the music in the context of people struggling to change their lives?

Karl Denson: "Change My Way" is about a message of compassion. People are just a little bit too stuck on looking at themselves to identify how the world works. I think we'll have a better idea of how things work if are looking compassionately at others. 

SFBAC: The Indy is a really fantastic venue—it’s been through a ton of changes over the past few years. Do you have a favorite story about playing in the Bay?

Karl Denson: I just love San Francisco. I've been coming there consistently for 25 years, so there are too many stories to count. My very amazing saxophone got stolen from the tenderloin years ago. I've thrown rocks at cabs that wouldn't pick me up. Eaten thousands of dollars of dim sum and been so cold on the corner of Van Ness and California, in the middle of summer, that I wanted to cry. Me and San Francisco have some history.

SFBAC: Fantastic Karl! Thanks so much for making the time and we'll see you next week!

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