Karl Denson: Play On, Player
Tiny Universe’s decade-plus of touring has made the band a festival fixture and a fan favorite, simmering somewhere just below the mainstream but also a constant presence at High Sierra, Bonnaroo, Bumbershoot and JazzFest.
Their busy schedule and an overall explosion in the summer festival scene across the country is good news for journeyman player Denson who says he draws much of his inspiration from what he sees as resurgencing interest in live shows.
“It’s great to watch this scene blowing up,” he says. “You’re starting to see better performances out of bands…the quality has really gone up. In the old days, bands sold a lot of records and weren’t really touring, but now that the recording industry has been decimated, everyone’s got to tour—and play—like the little bands. The jammy stuff—Warren [Haynes] and Soulive—has always been [about their ability to play] live first and foremost. And even the advent of jamtronica, like Pretty Lights, is exciting. I prefer when there are at least a couple of guys onstage actually playing, but Beats Antique is one of my favorites. They seem to be the perfect blend of both of those worlds.”
The through-line of all Denson’s musical projects is jazz-like structures that center on improvisation. “I’m in constant flux, but I’m a jazz guy at heart, a true solo player,” he confesses. “You don’t hear solos very much anymore, especially extended solos, and sometimes it seems like you have to trick an audience into listening to a lot of solos. “Maybe that’s why we’ve been embraced by the jamband community. I think there’s a certain jazz aesthetic in jam music—it’s a scene that crosses the genres between bluegrass, soul and rock, and there’s some improvisational nature to the music. That’s where people connect with us.
“At the same time,” he adds, “I was just watching a Time-Life ad on TV for one of their country [music] compilations and I was tempted [to purchase it], though my wife would kill me. I really do like all different kinds of music.”
At 54, Denson is no longer a kid on the scene, though he recently ditched his trademark graying Fu Manchu goatee for a cleaner—and younger looking—moustache. Finding the balance between a busy, multi-headed musical life and a healthy life on the road has been crucial to both his creativity and staying power. Especially when his job is providing a soundtrack for everyone else’s summertime party.
“I am a family guy and I try to stay out of trouble,” he offers. “Most of the guys that I play with tend to be 10 to 15 years younger than me. I didn’t start to get a lot of success until my 30s and that probably saved me. Most of the guys I knew back then who partied too hard have mellowed out. I certainly get to hear the guys from Slightly Stoopid telling me about their exploits, but that whole rock-star thing is definitely not where I’m coming from. It’s probably also good that I don’t have any serious addictive qualities, whatsoever.”
Denson says that he’s anchored by a relatively normal home life with his wife and three kids—ages 16, 15 and 13—and the ability to pick and choose the gigs that he wants to play. Still, this past summer, Denson was out on the road for longer stretches than he’d prefer.
“Normally, I only go out for a 10- or 14-day tour a couple of times a year,” he says. I am a true weekend warrior—I try to line things up so I’m out Thursday through Sunday, but then I can be back with my kids. And I see that there could be benefits to my career if I was out longer and did those barnstorming kinds of tours, but that’s a tough life. At my core, I’m still just glad that I can feed my family doing what I love.”
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