Gary Clark Jr. on Playing Live

The absolutely live album with no overdubs, edits, or other fixes remains the guitarist’s equivalent of high-wire walking without a net.
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Photo Credit: CBS Photo Archive/Getty

The absolutely live album with no overdubs, edits, or other fixes remains the guitarist’s equivalent of high-wire walking without a net. And yet, Gary Clark Jr. chose to fade completely out of the mix for Live North America [Warner Brothers], and hand total control over to his house engineer and producer Mark Corben.

Gary Clark Jr. (right) and William Bell perform “Born Under a Bad Sign” at the 59th GRAMMY Awards on Feb. 12, 2017.
CBS Photo Archive/Getty

“It was super easy for me,” says Clark about the project, “because I wasn’t involved. Right now, I don’t know what’s on the record, or which performances were picked.”

That’s a position many of us would find difficult to take, but Clark isn’t lazy, over confident, or indifferent. It’s just that thousands of hours of gigs have taught him how to go with the flow.

We uploaded an Instagram video of you at the GRAMMYs with that TV Yellow SG armed with three P90s, and it just blew up.

That’s my newest guitar. It’s just a prototype. My guitar tech, Dave Holman, linked up with Patrick Genovese at Gibson, so it’s a group collaboration that might turn into a dream.

As you’re known for semi-hollow guitars, what led you to the SG?

I was filming an episode of the Foo Fighters’ Sonic Highways series on HBO, and I showed up with a Gibson ES-125. I thought I’d be different. Wrong move [laughs]. Luckily, Pat Smear [Foo Fighters co-guitarist] said, “I’ve got this Gibson SG ’61 Reissue.” I guess I played a killer solo on their song, and Pat was like, “Well, I don’t want nothing to do with that guitar anymore. Just take it.” I had never paid SGs any sort of mind before, but I fell in love with it. Pat Smear, man, he changed the direction of my guitar-playing life.

Your previous live album in 2014 was very successful. Why do you think people are attracted to your live performances?

Playing live is a testament of your honest skill and talent. A lot of my supporters are guitar players, so they’re like, “I mean, he’s alright, but what can he do live?” I also feel like there’s so much happening now that a stripped down live show is nice to hear. It’s raw—a captured moment. I think that’s a big draw.

A fair amount of bands these days go from the studio to the stage, rather than the other way around.

That’s not the way it worked down here in Austin. I’ve been playing live shows since I was a freshman in high school—doing five-hour gigs, five nights a week—and the older guys tested us. They’d say, “Shuffle in G. Start from the five.” And I was like, “What? I don’t know what that is.” But they would start it off, and you had to roll with the punches. It’s definitely a skill to perform live. As a band, you have to compensate for the different energies in different venues. You’ve got to play to the room. The main conversations we have as a band are about paying attention.

What was the main surprise, performance-wise, when you first went from bars and clubs to arenas and stadiums?

I realized that volume is not necessarily your friend. One of the first big shows we played was a soccer stadium in Brazil opening for Eric Clapton. We brought out these huge amps, turned them all the way up, and it just sounded like mush onstage. We were used to playing in tight quarters in blues bars, and, suddenly we were all spread out and worried about hearing each other. But we figured, “You know what? Let’s reel it back and listen. We don’t need to compensate for our lack of volume onstage—that’s what the monitors and front-of-house speakers are for.” Don’t get me wrong—we love to play loud, but we don’t have to be up to 11. The louder you get in a bigger place, the less musical it becomes.

Did you really stay so clear of Live North America that you’re currently unaware of the performances on the album?

It’s not that I didn’t have the patience to listen to everything. It’s just that I was there. I played the show. There’s nothing I can fix about it. It was just easier for me to let it go. Also, if I were in charge of it, I’d probably break down, and be like, “It’s crap. Let’s scrap the whole thing.”

Interesting. Do you have that high of a level of self-criticism over releasing live tracks?

No. I used to. That was my fear of failure and not being perfect. But I’m not perfect. I’m a human being. It’s not for me to control or manipulate. It’s just real life happening. When I finally go back and listen, maybe I can learn something from what I did, or didn’t do. But I just kind of let things lie. I’m living my life, I’m comfortable, I’m confident, and there’s no fear at this point.