Roomful of Blues

Marcus King lays it down live in the studio on 'Carolina Confessions.'
Publish date:
(Left to right) Dean Mitchell, Justin Johnson, Stephen
 Campbell, DeShawn Alexander, Jack Ryan and Marcus King

(Left to right) Dean Mitchell, Justin Johnson, Stephen  Campbell, DeShawn Alexander, Jack Ryan and Marcus King

As we went to press last issue with a Performance piece on Marcus King, we discovered his new album, Carolina Confessions (Fantasy), drops this month. GP checked back with the rising star of blues-rock to get the inside story on tracking this incredibly deep and soulful record at Nashville’s fabled RCA Studio A with producer Dave Cobb (Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson).

How’d you find time to prep for the sessions with such a busy schedule?

This record has been a lot different from past records I’ve done. I had a lot of material that I’d been writing on the road in hotel rooms and green rooms, in the bus or wherever. I got in the studio with my band and our producer, Dave Cobb, and we sat on the couch in the lounge area at two o’ clock in the afternoon, every day, and built the songs from the ground up. We had a process going where we would start and finish a tune in one day. Sometimes it would be multiple songs, and sometimes we would go back with other ideas for overdubs. But for the most part we would cut each tune live after working it out on the couch.

I understand you cut everything live to tape.

Yes, we all cut live together, start to finish, and we’d do each song two or three times. I’d say 90 percent of the vocals and the guitar solos were live takes, with the exception of some vocal harmonies and things like that. We were tracking to tape and then dumping it back into Pro Tools. That’s how Dave runs his operation, and we love the sound of tape.

Tell us about the guitars you used.

I brought my ’57 Fender Esquire and a ’66 Esquire. I also played a ’52 Les Paul that someone tried to turn into a ’57 by putting ’57 PAF humbuckers in it. I used it on “Welcome Around Here” and for the slide parts on “Where I’m Headed” after I laid the rhythm track down with an Esquire.

What guitars did you play on “Remember” and “Goodbye Carolina?”

On “Remember,” Dave had this old Epiphone that he thought would really make the magic happen, and that was the only thing I used it for. I also used an old Gibson that he had set up for Nashville tuning. “Goodbye Carolina” and “Autumn Rains” feature my Rockbridge Smeck model acoustic with a short-scale neck, which is my number-one acoustic.

How about amplifiers?

I brought a couple of things that I always have in the studio with me: my ’65 Super Reverb, which has Weber speakers, and my 1970 Marshall 50-watt head. I ran it through Dave’s ’67 Marshall cabinet, and it sounded really great. Those two amps were used a lot throughout the recordings. But another amp that I played a good bit was a 1970 Kustom with the rolled-and-pleated covering on the cabinet. It was a 1x15 solid-state combo, and it just had that vibe. It was funky sounding, and I fell in love with it. I paired it with my ’62 Gibson ES-345, which was my granddad’s, and that’s what you’re hearing on “Homesick” and “Side Door.”

Were you using a distortion pedal with the Kustom?

No, I was just cranking the hell out of that thing, and it sounded great. I think the speaker needed to be reconed. It was kinda telling us, “Hey, I’m not okay!” But we got a great tone out of it. For the most part we just cranked the amplifiers. Every now and then we would put some Tube Screamer on it, because I use one all the time live. A lot of what you might think is fuzz on this record is a Les Paul through a cranked Marshall.

I’m hearing modulation on some songs too. Was that coming from a pedal?

It was a Uni-Vibe. On the slide stuff we also had two Fulltone Tube Tape Echo machines that we used in postproduction to put some warble on the solos. But I don’t know how much of that I should give away.

You wrote “How Long,” which is a great R&B tune, with Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. Tell us how that came about.

That’s the first writing session I ever did, which was with Dan and [veteran songwriter] Pat McLaughlin in Nashville. We came out of there with a few songs, and that one really jumped out at me, so I called Dan and told him I was going to cut it. I’d never done any writing with somebody else — songwriting has always been a real personal thing for me. But I made an effort to try and do it, and I’m happy that one of the songs made it onto the record. Writing with other folks is something I’d like to do more of.

What’s your takeaway from making an album in such a storied recording studio?

There are some very friendly ghosts in those walls. It’s just a really incredible vibe, and when you go in there you can feel the gravity of where you are. It makes you not afraid, but ready to work. We all felt that going in, and that’s what we mainly tapped into. We didn’t really have to do much to the material either. I think one of the most beautiful things about Dave’s production style is letting the room live in the track and letting us live in the room.