Kirk Douglas — or “Captain” Kirk Douglas, as he’s affectionately known — is certainly aware that his name is something of a head-turner, but for his first solo album, Turbulent Times (Whole Leap Records), the longtime Roots guitarist is billing himself as Hundred Watt Heart. “I’m not trying to be tricky or anything,” he explains, “but I would really like the music to stand on its own and be disassociated with the actor. If I called it the Kirk Douglas Project or something like that, it would get a little confusing. So it’s Hundred Watt Heart. That makes it easier.”
As one might assume, the guitarist is partial to 100-watt amps, particularly his 1978 fawn Marshall and an assortment of Mesa/Boogie heads, but he also used a host of other amplifiers on Turbulent Times, such as a Divided By 13 RSA 23, a Supro Black Magick and a Gibson Skylark. “There’s no one amp sound on the album,” Douglas says. “I approached each song as its own vehicle and applied the tones that fit. That’s a difference between my main gig and this album. In my day job, I use one amp that can deliver the sounds I need. On this album, I could pull out all the amps I wanted and have a lot of fun.”
Douglas’s day job is an enviable one. As a member of the Roots, he’s part of the house band for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, but between the demands of taping shows and raising a family, he had to squeeze solo recording time into a packed schedule. Assisted by Roots bassist Mark Kelley and Earl Greyhound drummer Ricc Sheridan, he tracked the album at New York City’s famed Electric Lady Studios, an experience he calls “a bucket-list thing.” “First and foremost, it’s just a great studio,” he offers, “but for a guitarist, there’s just a certain magic to the place. If you have songs that are near and dear to your heart, and if you have the option of working there, you have to go for it.”
Which he does with considerable alacrity throughout Turbulent Times. As its title suggests, the album doesn’t go easy on subject matter. Douglas takes on politics and personal strife with striking candor. Throughout it, his guitar playing runs the gamut from Zeppelinesque stompers (“I Used to Be in the Circus”) to deep-pocket soul (“Come Alive”) to psychedelic rock (“Easy,” which comes complete with a fake-out ending). “It took me a while to make this record, so I wanted to make every song count and let my guitar rip,” Douglas explains. “I don’t get the opportunity to play a lot of the styles here, so it speaks to the kid in me that loves this kind of music.”
I understand that Kiss and the Jackson 5 were the first bands that piqued your interest in the guitar.
Absolutely. Guitars were featured heavily on those early Jackson 5 records — a lot of fuzz tones — and they took up most of the sonic real estate on Kiss records. Kiss had some serious grooves, too. Songs like “Detroit Rock City” and “Strutter” really move. I was drawn to anything that had heaviness and some funk to it. The sound of an overdriven amp was soothing to me the same way that some people like to hear the roar of a motorcycle.
At what age did you start playing? Were you a natural, or was learning the guitar something of a battle?
I was 10 when I started. Playing never really felt like a struggle to me. Once I found a D chord, I was off and running. I could just play it all day. Then when I discovered how to move from one chord to the next, everything opened up. I never minded difficulty, though. Whenever I encountered things that were hard for me to play — learning early Randy Rhoads solos and what not — the joy was in the difficulty. The joy was in not quite getting it, and then, through repetition, getting it. That, combined with the sound of it.
Did you have a protracted period where you emulated other players, or did you try to craft your sound and style fairly quickly?
I learned from a lot of guys while I was putting my own thing together. Once I got a Floyd Rose, that’s when I really went wild for Steve Vai. After that, I went back to Hendrix and Van Halen. I had definite periods where I would become obsessed with certain artists. Discovering Living Colour was a mind-blower. It was like, “Oh… I see a place for me!” After Living Colour, I got into the Smiths and a lot of British shoegaze bands. It was refreshing, because it wasn’t about technique. There was less bravado and it expressed different emotions. Alienation, mostly. Shoegaze got me into “anti-technique” for a while. I got into my chorus and delay pedals.
You seem to be a Gibson man all the way. Was that always the case?
No, I went through my Fender period. I played a Strat, and then in my teens I had a Kramer Elliot Easton signature model. After my shoegaze period, I kind of rediscovered bluesy rock, and I got into the Black Crowes. Because of that, a Les Paul and a loud amp really spoke to me. Vernon Reid gifted me a goldtop Les Paul, which was just incredible. I put that guitar with a fawn Marshall 100-watt, and it was everything I was looking for. From there, I had a P-Funk epiphany. I was into them heavily. So all of this swirled together, really, and yeah, by then I was playing Gibsons.
Was the Jimmy Fallon gig appealing when it first happened? It certainly cut down on the band’s ability to tour.
It appealed to me, because at that point I was a dad. My second child had just been born, and my wife was ready for me to be home a lot more often. Musically, I was a little skeptical. I just didn’t know if the Roots fit into the typical kind of late-night bands. But once we started the gig, I realized that we were the perfect band for the situation.
I imagine that having to learn so many songs and types of material each week keeps you on your toes musically.
It definitely does, because you’re not sure what’s going to get thrown at you. Luckily, because Jimmy is a musician and he’s from our same era, he’ll call out a song reference and somebody in the band will pick up on what he’s doing. If he starts singing “Panic in the Streets of London,” I’m going to know what to play, and the rest of the band will follow along.
You pack two styles into the title track of your album. It starts out as acoustic folk, and then it explodes into gonzo guitar rock.
Yeah, that second half rocks pretty hard. Funnily enough, I wrote the whole thing on an electric, but I played it on an acoustic for my wife late at night. Our kids were sleeping, so I had to keep things quiet. She really liked it that way, so I thought, Okay, I’ll do the song both ways. People are going to have to adjust their stereos when the heavy section starts.
“Little Friend” is built around the use of tremolo. I hear a lot of Johnny Marr there.
[laughs] That’s cool, but I’m not using tremolo at all there. I’m doing a fast plucking thing, very much like what Van Halen did in “Little Guitars.” It creates such a cool effect, and when you add chorus and [MXR] Phase 90, it sounds awesome. I guess it does sound like tremolo. I love doing stuff like that. It’s fun to solo, but it’s also cool to develop a sonic signature.
What were your main electrics on the album?
The main one was my 1961 Epiphone Crestwood. There was also a Gibson Rich Robinson Signature ES-335. I sprinkled in a bit of an SG Junior, and I played my signature SG. It’s a three-pickup custom. Those were the main guitars.
The Crestwood is the one that Prince famously broke when he borrowed it from you to use during a Tonight Show performance. After he passed, was it hard for you to pick the guitar up again?
That whole incident was strange at first, but it didn’t take me long to have a sense of humor about it. After Prince passed, all I felt was sad, because I would never have the chance to see him again and have a laugh about it. I made it a point to pick up that guitar and play it the day he died. Playing it made me feel closer to him.