Interview with Karl Denson

We have been big fans of Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe for a long time. If you’ve ever been to one of his shows, you know it doesn’t take long for the funk to infect your soul. Before long, even the most timid audience members find themselves compelled to dance. If you haven’t seen Denson, the sax & flute legend, and his band in person before, you’ll have a chance this Thursday (January 30th) when they play a show at the TLA in Philly.

Their latest album, ‘New Ammo’ is out on February 4th and will take you on a funky journey from start to finish. New Ammo features a selection of new tracks, some favorites from live-shows in the past, and some stellar covers. The first single, ‘My Baby’ features guest vocals from Nicki Bluhm and is so downright catchy we can’t funkin’ stand it.

New Ammo is a gem from start to finish. It incorporates the best elements of funk with tinges of reggae, hip-hop, and rock. It appears that the band has finally found the secret to bottling the experience of their shows so that your ears can drink in every last drop at home. Of course, there will never be anything that 100% lives up to the feeling you get at a Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe live show.

To helped get us as psyched up for the show as possible, we chatted with Karl Denson about the album, his live shows, how he got his start in music, and quantum physics.

Independent Philly: How did you come up with the name ‘Tiny Universe’ for your band?

Karl Denson: It was from the idea of a macro/micro metaphor. We have a lot of different influences, a lot of different styles, so you know, it’s a tiny universe.

IP: Your album, ‘New Ammo’, is due out February 4th. What can you tell us about it?

KD: The best thing about it is it’s more like a band collaboration; it sounds like a band. We wrote tunes together, and, it’s the closest of what I’ve done, to people getting what they actually get when they come see a show.

IP: Several band members wrote different tracks for the album. Was it really important to you for it to be a full collaborative effort?

KD: Yeah we’ve been moving in this direction for a few years. This is our first work where I feel we’re really hitting a different stride now, as far as the way we write and the way we approach our music as a band.

IP: We really liked the three cover songs you did on the album (‘Sure Shot’ by the Beastie Boys, ‘Seven Nation Army’ by the White Stripes, and ‘Hang Me Out To Dry’ by the Cold War Kids). How did you chose those particular songs as the ones you covered on the album?

KD: Well, ‘Sure Shot’, that came out of a Beastie Boys tribute we did last year with the ‘Slightly Stoopid’ guys as the Beastie Boys. When we were rehearsing it, with me playing the flute already, we just decided to keep it and I just kind of gave it a ‘Yusef Lateef’ response as far as the flute goes. Then ‘Seven Nation Army’, I’ve always been a Jack White fan. We started doing that and I thought it would be interesting to do as a flute tune because it’s a heavy tune, so people don’t really expect the flute to be the lead on that. Then the ‘Cold War Kids’ tune, I think my manager recommended that tune, and, when we heard it, the way they play it is kind of simple, and as far as the musicianship goes, very delicate, compared to how we play it. So we just kind of decided to make it really muscular, with that big riff before the solo section.

Karl Denson cover-art

IP: Is there a reason you chose to use vocals on ‘Hang Me Out To Dry’ but not the other two covers?

KD: No particular reason; I wanted to sing it. I mean, actually, there’s no way I’m gonna try to sing ‘Seven Nation Army’. I can’t sing like Jack White. So there you have that.

IP: We’ve been to several of your shows in the past and they’ve all been funk-fulled dance parties. How would you describe one of your live shows to someone who’s never experienced one before?

KD: A funk-fulled dance party (laughs). I think that’s what we do; we’re a dance band.

IP: Do you have a favorite memory from a past show?

KD: I would have to say my favorite memory from a show would probably have to be the ‘Baby New Year’ incident. I think only Dave in the band right now would remember that. A guy came to our New Year’s show in San Diego, this was back in 2000, and he was dressed as ‘Baby New Year’. He basically had a banner on, a sash on, and a diaper. A drunk woman, midway through the set, on her way to the bathroom, stumbled, and diapered him. She tore his diaper off. So he was forced to wait the night out, standing against the wall with the diaper in front on him. I would have to say that was one of my favorite memories. We had a lot of trouble maintaining our composure.

IP: You’ve been a saxophonist and a flutist for several decades now, and we’ve heard that you’ve also recently picked up the guitar, how did you first get your start playing music?

KD: I was a junior high school band kid. I just picked it up because it was something to do. “You wanna take band class?” Yeah, I’ll take band class. I had an older brother who had played a little bit of saxophone and another brother who had played a little bit of flute, and my other brother played bass. So, it was just kind of something you did, back in the days when school systems actually encouraged everybody to play an instrument, for some amount of time.

IP: Those were the days.

KD: Yeah.


IP: If you could go back in time 20 years and give yourself some advice, what would you say?

KD: Twenty years? Hmmm, I think I would have finished college.

IP: How much time did you have left?

KD: A lot (laughs). I attended for four years but I didn’t do very much work. I mainly just hung out in the music department and practiced.

IP: That decision certainly seems to have turned out well.

KD: Yeah.

IP: In addition to your own projects, you’ve played with guys like Lenny Kravitz and Slightly Stoopid. Who are some other artists you’d like to collaborate with in the future?

KD: I’ve always wanted to play more with Derrick Trucks. He would be my first choice for sitting down and working on an actual project.

IP: Can you tell us something about yourself that would surprise, or even shock our readers?

KD: I like to read books on quantum physics. 

We can’t wait for Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe to bring the funk to the TLA on Thursday night. Seriously, we’d make the quantum leap 48 hours into the future right now if we could. Alas our hot tub time machine has been on the fritz here at Independent Philly so we’ll be forced to wait impatiently, listening to New Ammo on repeat, for the next few days. Join us on Thursday night, Philly. You won’t regret it.

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