Persona: Chris Thomas King
For many, life doesn’t take them far from home. For others, their journey is more like Odysseus’ in The Odyssey: Not easy – but even upon the return, it has been ultimately rewarding – or one hopes. Homer, author of The Odyssey, was among the many who chronicled such stories, a tradition which continued through the ages from wondering troubadours singing of love and loss during Europe’s Middle Ages to the blues musicians in the early 20th century South, who also told their tales of life’s pain and passion through music. Chris Thomas King has continued this age-old custom. For King, musical and personal journeys have taken him from Baton Rouge, across the U.S. to Europe, New Orleans and now, Prairieville, just outside of Baton Rouge – the city where he grew up.
King pioneered a fusion of blues with hip-hop and other musical genres. Ahead of his time, King’s innovations have been either embraced or overlooked. Discovered in the early 1980s, while in his early 20s, by a folklorist who was visiting from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. – you may know him as Nick Spitzer of “American Routes” – King has evolved much since those days, musically and in his professional roles – two of which are producer and composer (his own work and for film). His studio is equipped with a drum set, various guitars (acoustic and electric), a trumpet, the MPC 2500 (which King says is a classic piece of hip-hop equipment – or in his words, “it is to hip-hop what a harmonica is to the blues”), computers and lots of machinery that looks very complicated to me but looks at home in a recording studio. He played me a few songs from a new album debuting later this year – a completely different direction for King that is unexpected and will again keep music writers and critics guessing on what he’ll do next. He has already won a number of Grammys and a Country Music Award.
King is also an actor – his most familiar roles were as blues musician Tommy Johnson in O Brother, Where for Art Thou? and Lowell Folsom in Ray, both of whom are musicians King admires. And be on the lookout for an action movie he just finished filming with Steven Seagal. It’s his biggest role to date.
One part of King’s journey is still evolving. He is living in Prairieville – in a house he bought after Hurricane Katrina – but he and his family want to come back to New Orleans. The problem is a pending lawsuit with a bank concerning a construction loan he got before Hurricane Katrina for his New Orleans home. It has kept him from completing the work on the addition (which was in the works before the storm) for which the loan was meant.
For this self-made man, it’s frustrating. “I can’t get home,” says King. Odysseus would understand.
Profession: Blues musician; music producer; record label owner, 21st Century Blues Records; actor; composer Family: Married, with children Born: Baton Rouge
Grew up: Baton Rouge. My mother is from New Orleans and we would go back and forth often to visit family.
Resides: Prairieville, La. Before Katrina, I lived Uptown. Favorite book: I am currently reading Chocolat, and Temples of Sound: Inside the Great Recording Studios by Jim Cogan and William Clark. I also read books about recording equipment and studios … the nuts and bolts of them, since I have my own. Most of what I read I’ve found on the Internet – everything from politics to entertainment. Favorite movie: Superfly is my all-time favorite. I can recite almost every line. I also like The Graduate and Midnight Cowboy. All of these movies have great [musical] scores. Curtis Mayfield did the score for Superfly. Favorite TV show: I don’t watch too much TV. However, my guilty pleasure is Family Guy. Favorite food: Sushi. I can tell the quality of a restaurant on how they make spicy tuna. Favorite restaurant: There are so many great restaurants in New Orleans. I’m happy that Dooky Chase reopened. Favorite music: Depends on my mood. Favorite musicians: I admire Tommy Johnson, Blind Willie Johnson, Lowell Folsom … As a kid I looked up to Jimi Hendrix [and] legends such as Stevie Wonder. I also look at producers, such as Mark Ronson, who worked with Amy Winehouse. He mixes old and new in a special way. I like late 80s and ’90s hip-hop: De La Soul’s first album, 3 Feet High and Rising – it was very creative, psychedelic; NWA’s Straight Outta Compton; and Dr. Dre’s The Chronic is a classic.
Hobby: It used to be music all the time. I’ve begun to relax and learn how to take vacations – it’s good to take time out so I can recharge my creativity. Last summer, my family and I went to China.
What is the state of blues music? Blues is on its deathbed. Where do you buy [albums] now? There’s no commercial radio playing the blues. It’s got an older fan base, many who don’t know how to download from iTunes.
What are your thoughts about the music business? It’s not for everyone. It’s a business and musicians have to be “Artist Inc.” It’s the new reality.
Early in my career I recorded for Warner Brothers and BMG. I don’t own those masters. I wasn’t happy with my deal, so I started my own production company/label, 21st Century Blues Records (it’s trademarked), and since then I’ve produced my own music, as well as others, and own my masters. If I want to put out a “Best of” album, I can release it when I want to; I can put it on iTunes. The only problem is that I don’t have the money to market like the big guys do.
Tell me about how you started changing up blues music? In 1984, I made a 45-rpm, “Soon the Morning Blues” and we used electric drums – which was totally a coincidence, because when we got to the studio, that’s what they had.
Even when I started playing the blues, I always leaned towards electric. When my second album for Warner was coming out, 21st Century Blues … From da Hood, the label didn’t want to release it – it was the same time that Ice-T had released the [single] “Cop Killer.” My mix of blues and rap was too controversial. I moved to Europe, where I was embraced and felt like I could make a living in music. I stayed there for three to four years and then moved to Los Angeles when the House of Blues was supposed to start its own record label, which never happened. I ended up in New Orleans, before Katrina made me move.
What are you working on now in the studio? In April, Live on Beale Street is coming out. It’s only available online, with a few CDs for the press. I had never done a “Best of” or “Live” album before. So this album is like closing the book on the first 20 years of my recordings and I’m planning to move forward creatively. Later this year I will have a new studio album – it may even be a double – coming out. One side might be up-tempo and rowdy, the other side more “wine and candle” music. People will see a jazz influence. Jason Marsalis and Roland Guerin are on it and Jay Weigel has composed some songs. It’s a huge creative leap – about 90 percent of the songs will be original.
I’m also working on composing the score for a short animated children’s film, The True Story of The Three Little Pigs, which will be released this summer.
Your father is musician Tabby Thomas, who also owned the renowned Tabby’s Blues Box and Heritage Hall, which is now closed. How did that influence your music? I was already playing music before my dad opened his club. I never had lessons – you picked up an instrument and you learned it. I played with him and other musicians – we went around southern Louisiana playing juke joints. (And I hope to do a juke joint tour soon.) Dad had a day job then, as he did when he first ran the club – you didn’t make money solely from music back then.
Right now, my dad and I are collaborating on a book about the club. There will be lots of photos and good stories. Before the club, there were no blues clubs in Baton Rouge. My dad’s club was unique in Louisiana history. It brought races together and gave musicians, such as Tab Benoit, a start.
You have another career – acting. You are best known for your role as blues musician Tommy Johnson in O Brother, Where for Art Thou?. Have you ever taken acting lessons? I had never taken acting lessons and I had to take a screen test for the Coen brothers.
How did the movie affect your career? This movie was my first opportunity to play in an old school style. I really had to learn that style of playing – I had to get into character to do it. But now it’s part of my work.
Also, before I got that role, I had started pursuing a shift into film – to be a film composer – which I’m still doing. I started going to Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra concerts and studying other films’ music.
True confession: Most people believe I sleep until noon and play my guitar all day. Well, I wish I could. But the truth is I rarely get to sleep late and I’m lucky if I get to spend an hour or two with my guitar during the week because I work long hours running my record label and film businesses.