The Popdose Interview: Kevin Eubanks
Kevin Eubanks is a guy that you’re probably most familiar with because of his 15 year stint as the bandleader for Jay Leno and the Tonight Show and that’s okay. But there’s so much more to know about Kevin Eubanks as a complete artist. For one, he’s a big fan of Swedish heavy metal. We’ll be honest — we didn’t know that either. It’s just one of many things that came up in conversation as we were discussing The Messenger, which is the latest solo release from Eubanks, available in stores now.
The Messenger finds the guitarist branching out and as he says “I didn’t want to be as concerned with the ‘jazz sound’ as much, I wanted to let out a little bit more of what I’ve been musically exposed to. Joined by members of his quartet, the album also features a guest appearance from Alvin Chea of Take 6, something that was a personal thrill for Eubanks who has been a longtime fan of the group. But The Messenger also has a family vibe running throughout, as Eubanks is joined by his brothers Robin and Duane, who add additional contributions to the album.
Eubanks wrote the bulk of the material on the album and as he shared with us in the conversation that follows, the loose spirit of the album is intentional. Born out of spontaneous jamming, worrying about genres, labels and connecting themes was never the focus. It was all about the music.
I happened to hit your website last night and saw that acoustic video that’s on the front page and boy, that is some serious pickin’. You’re a bad man.[Laughs] Thank you!
When you’re lining up projects, is something like that a piece that you would ever send out as a sort of demo reel?
Um, depending [on the situation], yeah. We have that and some other reels, you know, something maybe smaller than that. This year I’m going to have about five solo concerts to do and something like that would be appropriate for that particular kind of thing, yeah. But not for everything, no.
That seems like a zone that you really enjoy being in, playing acoustically.
Yeah, the one thing about that is that sometimes it’s hard to balance it. You know, you get in your zone so far that you have to remember that….or you don’t have to, I mean, it depends. But sometimes you want to remember that there are other people in the room and you just start creating and going that way and you internalize it so much and it becomes so much about yourself that sometimes you lose connection with….is everybody going to follow this or do you care if everybody follows, or is that the magic that you don’t care? So on a good day, it all works together.
You are aware of your surroundings, aware of your audience and aware of yourself as being of the whole not just about you, because I think sometimes, certain types of music, jazz being one of them, can become kind of self indulgent and that’s okay if your people are with you, if you’re taking a journey together. But I think one of the critiques I have about certain periods of jazz is that it can become so self-indulgent that you’re the only one in the room, so to speak. And you kind of cut yourself off from the connection of real time [and] the social connection with things too. And there are places where that is perfectly fine, but it’s just something to be aware of.
Do you find that you have flaws like that within yourself as a player that you have to watch out for?
Not so much. I kind of went through those phases and not so much [anymore]. Because it’s not really…you can’t isolate it as just in music — it’s kind of a lifestyle kind of thing, so I’ve kind of gone through that, whatever kind of art artists are or try to aspire to be and I would say people in daily lives [go through it too]. You know, we want this, we want a wife, we want kids, we want this, we want that — you know, do you do that in a bubble? Or do you do that going “well, that means there’s rent, there’s mortgage, there’s two cars, there’s schools.” You know, am I ready for this?
It’s all part of a process. So once I started understanding that music was an internal process that is also connected with the society and the people around us, that kind of found its own level and I love of course, totally getting into the music and the whole thing, but I learned “okay, do that because that’s the energy you have and you’re blessed with the spirit and talent to pursue that, but don’t be upset if nobody in the room is listening but two people.” Just make sure you don’t start saying “oh, the audience is silly” or “the audience is that,” don’t start blaming other people because you are in this bubble doing this, which maybe you need to do to get to the next thing — just somehow be aware that you are in this world with other people and it has to be a shared experience on some level.
You seem to have a very modest personality that comes through in the way that you play, but you can certainly throw down as well. It seems like as a player, you’ve found a nice balance between the two. You know how to leverage that properly depending on the song and the moment.
Yeah, the slippery slope is not going on the other side of artistry and I don’t care what anybody says, we’re all entrepreneurs one way or another. Whether you’re “Mr. Creativity” or whatever, it still costs money to buy a carton of orange juice. [Laughs] So, we’re not all trying to aspire to be Van Gogh where we don’t sell anything our entire lives until hundreds of years or whatever after the fact. So you can romanticize certain things to a certain level before it becomes impactful to you and your family and everything in a negative way.
So it’s really a little bit of common sense, allowing your artistry to flow, find levels what you can do at a hundred percent [like] I am playing at some little hole-in-the-wall club and I can do whatever I want and in some instances, you go through a period where that’s what people want. I can go on stage and create whatever I want and that’s what the whole audience wants. I’m doing a concert and they just want me to go for mine. Boom! Okay, great — it’s there. So you just have to kind of be aware of all of it. But I always tell people, like if I could talk to the 14 year old Kevin now, what would I say to him? [Laughs]
I was listening to one of these Lifetime Channel [television programs] or something, really, women talking about women’s issues and this, that and the other, but one woman was saying “well, if you could talk to the 14 year old daughter that’s inside of you, what would you say?” And I said, “well, that’s an interesting question.” So that’s where I got the question from [and] I said “wow, that’s an interesting question. So I said, “well, what would you tell the 14 year old Kevin if you could sit and have five minutes with him.” And one of the things I’d say is “don’t worry about fitting in — just make sure you’re fit.” So if you can create and do all of that and be 100% creativity and pure, make sure you’re always fit to be that, but also that you’re always fit to be able to access society and be a part of the whole as well. So you might not fit in, because you’re this artist thing — so don’t worry about fitting in, but make sure you’re fit.
I think if we could have conversations with our younger selves, it would certainly change how some things ultimately work out. But I guess that’s why we have real world experience that helps us to learn those things.
I know you played some other instruments before you got to guitar. But when you picked up your first guitar, where did you start? Was it an acoustic?
No, I was electric all the way.
Yeah, I started with electric. I started playing guitar with James Brown, Kool & The Gang, Grand Funk Railroad, Chicago [and] Terry Kath — one of my all-time favorite [guitar players] — when I started playing guitar, he was my favorite. I loved his tone, the rawness and grungy tone that I was chasing forever. Wishbone Ash even and Todd Rundgren and all of that, Isley Brothers…..I was just [really focused on] R&B and rock and roll and funk, really, so that was all electric guitar.
Where did the Led Zeppelin albums come into the mix? Because I saw your version of “Four Sticks,” which just burns.
Zeppelin, that was all a part of it too — Zeppelin was all in that mix. All of the rock bands from that period, I was way into all of that. I got into jazz a lot later and then I started getting really into blues. I’m talking about blues like with, you know, Buddy Guy, B.B. [King] and people like that. But I definitely started out with funk and rock and roll on guitar. I played violin for years before I started playing guitar and grew up around a lot of classical music more than anything else.
What was the moment that really made you want to pursue music as a possible career?
I don’t think there ever was a moment. I think that was just always there. I don’t think I had to decide at all. I was just living it before I even had it as a conscious decision. At some point, as a conscious decision, it was whether I was going to go to college for music or not, but I was always going to be a musician whether I went to college or not. But once again, we get into the practical side and your parents going “are you going to college?”
You know, we were so into the neighborhood band thing, playing for weddings and dances and that kind of stuff that it’s like “man, can we break up the band? I don’t know if I want to break up the band and go to college!” You know, we had our orange truck and we had “Sundown” written on it and we were so proud of it and at that time, it wasn’t about leaving Philly, it was like leaving the band [that was a concern]. We were playing cover tunes and it sounds kind of silly now, but we were so entrenched in that, that I knew prior to going to school, I always knew without saying it that music was going to be [my career]. I guess I wasn’t going to play third base for the Phillies — that wasn’t going to happen, so I guess it was going to be music.
So it never was really an out and out conscious [decision where] I had to to decide if I was going to go right or left, you know. I think for a lot of kids, the sooner that you know what it is you want to do from your heart, the more direct a line it is to it. There’s not a lot of ambiguity once you really feel it, so assuming you know what it is you want to do, I think that increases your chances of having that happen.
Was location for you, as far as being in Philly or not being in Philly an important thing as far as how you went about making things happen?
I think it was important in the beginning, because I was just around music all of the time. At that time in Philadelphia, there just neighborhood bands — there was either a band or a gang in your neighborhood. So you knew you were in that part of town by that gang or by that band. Black Gold, oh man, you’re over there. Oh, you play in Sundown, you play in Pitch Black or you’re in Germantown and you’re over there. That’s the way Philly was back then and the interesting part was that because I wasn’t driving — I was too young — I would walk through neighborhoods [or] hitchhike through neighborhoods and because you were a musician, nobody bothered you.
There were gangs — I don’t want to paint Philly as this big gang thing, but it basically was! [Laughs] People don’t want to read about this, “why are you putting Philly down, man” and I was like “well, I grew up in it and that’s what it was, sorry.” But nobody bothered the musicians, you know? We played all of the dances, so you kind of got to know the cats that hung out in the street, because they were there — they called them cabarets back then. So I think growing up in that environment absolutely was a great base. You were working and it didn’t feel like work, but I was 13/14/15 years old and I was working every week. We were rehearsing or whatever and I think that was just what was going in Philly at the time. It was great to be a kid/makeshift musician back then. I think that was a good starting place.
Ultimately did you have to leave though to make the career connections happen?
Well, I left because I was driving my parents crazy and I was going to go to college or else I would be considered a failure in the family, if I didn’t go to college. Plus I was a very energetic and curious kid, so I wanted to get outside of Philly and see what else was going on. So it was just time to kind of halfway strike out on your own. Which college isn’t really striking out on your own, but it’s kind of half your first big step, I guess. I wound up at Berklee College of Music, which really was the beginning of the professional thing, because I met everybody there that was integral to going on further — I mean we all met each other there — so it was a good thing to do. I never looked back after that, after I went to Boston. I never looked back at the thought of moving back to Philly — that never came in my mind again.
Jumping back a bit — you mentioned Todd Rundgren — did you see at the time how much work he was doing both as an artist and a producer? I look at all of the production work that he was doing and it’s amazing to me that he even had time to be an artist in that same period of time.
Yeah, at the time I didn’t know the difference between…..I didn’t know what a producer did — I just saw the person’s face on the album cover and I liked it, whether it was Todd or Emerson, Lake and Palmer or whatever. I didn’t know what a producer did. I just thought the guy did everything or whatever, so I didn’t have any appreciation for all of the other stuff at the time. It was just how do I learn that lick and where are they playing and I want the record. That was my whole life when I was a kid, was buying records and going to the Spectrum in Philly and watching them play. So I never looked at who produced it or what went into the whole making of it, I was just so bent on reproducing the music or learning from it or something like that. I didn’t know all of the moving parts.
Did that become important to you later though? Because I know that for me as a music fan, the little details really became important and interesting to me.
Yeah, it came to me in a strange way, because I always thought that people wrote their own music and then when I started seeing [credits], it was like “Whitney Houston didn’t write that? So how does the singer make money if she doesn’t write it.” Or how does the person who wrote it, how do they make money when somebody else is singing it? And then that opened up publishing and producing [and stuff like that], because I used to see these things on TV and it would have all of these songs going by and it would be from somebody I barely [knew], usually country artists, the back in the day country artists — the best of this person or that person — and they didn’t write anything. It was always somebody else’s songs and I was like “well, that’s really weird.” I started investigating that then, [to find out] “well how do they make money then or who makes the money?” Does the artist even get any money? Does it go to the producer or the record company — whoever is making these commercials, “for $19.99, you get 50 greatest hits from blah blah,” so that started making me wonder. You don’t know what’s going on here, so that kind of caught my interest.
I think that blew my mind when I saw that with country music, the amount of material that was being written by other writers — and it still seems like that is kind of normal in Nashville.
Right, and I found out about Sly Stone — he used to produce a lot of bands and write music for a lot of groups that you never would associate him with. It’s like “wow, man — Sly wrote that?” And it was for a white pop band! [Laughs] “He produced that song?” and they said “yeah, he produced their whole record” and it’s like “Really?” [Laughs] So then I thought “okay, now there’s a whole thing that I don’t know about” and then I started to think “oh, well, yes Kevin, you were always interested in music” and now you’re starting to go “well there’s a music business behind all of this music.” And that’s a whole another world obviously, but yeah, it took me a while to take note of all of that.
This new record, tell me a little bit about how it came together for you.
It started because one day, I was hanging out with some blues cats and I was starting to sit in with them on the shows, because I really [had] started to get into blues years ago. We had been hanging out and the whole thing and I had this natural feel [for it]. I just loved playing the blues. Even Buddy [Guy] got me up one night and had me singing. We had fun and then we started talking about what you grew up playing and I said “you know what, doing the Tonight Show made me kind of go back to my roots a little bit of playing funk and pop music and all of that” and I said “you know, I forgot that I can play funk!”
I forgot that was the first big time music that turned me on, really. The first record that I did for Mack Avenue was pretty hardcore creative, really expressive kind of jazz stuff. And I said you know what, I want to do something that brings me back home a little bit to my Philadelphia roots where we grew up playing “Led Boots” and playing stuff like that. We’d turn it into our own thing and we just made arrangements out of things so we had fun doing it. I just want to remember myself, but at the same time, I want to embrace, doing nice arrangements with them and having some fun and things that will lead itself to having fun on a gig too. But at the same time, I don’t want the level of musicianship to become condescending.
So the challenge is how do we do these forums and still encourage everybody to play your ass off and do it through this forum. We’re just going to really concentrate on grooves being a big part of the record but I still want everybody to play. I still want you to create in the whole thing and let’s just see how it goes. I started having people come by the house and we were jamming and we’re doing this and everybody said “oh, okay cool — it’s a jam, let it loose, man! Don’t think about playing funk and don’t think about the grooves, just play!” So then we felt like we had a center and everybody was starting to understand the vibe of it and that’s how it got to be called The Messenger, really.
The message is just in the music, whatever it is. The message is in the spirit of what you’re bringing. It doesn’t matter if it’s over here, if it’s bluegrass or country or Republican or Democrat or Socialist or whatever. The spirit is in treating each other well and being able to communicate on this level, whether it’s straight ahead jazz or funk. The spirit is in the person’s belief in what they’re doing and having fun and creativity in delivering that message that we’re all here together, whether we like it or not. [Laughs] We all live in this same place and the message is in the music. It’s in the people. It just kept developing and we started having so much fun that I said “man, let’s just keep going and we’ll do the record like this.”
It sounds like things were pretty loose. Did you have any sort of clear-cut thoughts or structure as far as who you wanted to work with on this?
Kind of. In general, now that everybody’s really so busy doing projects and everybody’s got studios and they’re working on this and the whole thing, but I definitely wanted Alvin Chea on it, because I’m a huge Take 6 fan. Alvin wrote a book a few years back and I read it and he said “man, could you just put a little liner note in there for me if you feel like it?” So we kind of hooked up then and he was so impressed that I knew so much about Take 6, I was like “man, I remember when you guys first came out with your very first record, man. And I took it to the gym I used to train in and made everybody listen to it! It was a cassette at the time and all of that” and I said “I’ve been following y’all for…” and he said “really?”
And I said “yeah, on this record when you did this” and I started singing some of the stuff and he’s like “Really!” I said “yeah and for a while, y’all changed the members, because the harmonies started to be a little bit top-heavy” and he said “wait a minute man, you’re kidding.” I said “man, I’m a big fan of Take 6.” So he said “if you ever want me to do something with you, let me know.” So I was trying to find something that would feature him, because people kind of know him from being the bass voice and I’m sure he can do other things too. So I said let’s just try and incorporate him in the vibe. I had a few ideas and said “what do you think about that?” And we talked about it and tried a few things, where he’d feel comfortable, being a bass, but also having the freedom to do what you want.
The “Led Boots” song, I said “anchor it down but feel free and we’ll all follow each other and I’ll use rhythm guitars to keep the groove going, so don’t worry about having to lock it down like that all of the way through. I’ll keep the wah-wah or percussion thing behind it to be a little bit different and we’ll just jam. And when we’re really feeling it, the message will be in the spirit of it moreso in the I don’t want to do the screaming guitar solo thing. If I want to hear that, I’ll put Jeff [Beck] on. So it kind of locked in so we got a good feel for that and then when we did “Resolution,” the ‘Trane thing, I said now I’ve gotta watch out here. Because people are going to say we’re messing with the classics and we’ve got kind of a jazz/hip-hop beat behind it and all of that and I said “man, just bring the spirit to it — that’s all I’m asking.”
I don’t care about the labels and titles and people saying that it’s sacrilegious to do this to “Resolution” and all of that. And I’ve played with Roy Haynes and Art Blakey and Billy Higgins, so I went through the whole [thing], through New York and [playing with] McCoy Tyner, Slide Hampton, Sam Rivers and blah blah blah. So I feel like I’m okay. [Laughs] I still have my jazz shoes intact and I can still bring our thing to this classic beautiful song without competing…..obviously, how can you? It’s silly to think that. I’m not comparing it to ‘Trane’s thing, it’s just…let’s try it this way. I always liked that hip-hop swing groove thing, because I’m still trying to stay in touch with my catalyst when I was a kid, which was funk and rock and roll and I still love that. I still imagine being in a rock band to this day.
A real good friend of mine, Poncho [Frank “Poncho” Sampedro], plays with Neil Young. He plays with Crazy Horse and he’s been my best friend for like 20 years. So I go to a lot of Neil shows and I go to the ranch sometimes when they’re rehearsing and all of that. I was like “man, I want to jam with you” and he was surprised, he said “you like…” and I said “man, I love rock and roll music!” I’m talking about from Little Richard to some metal. I like the metal bands that come out of Sweden and Norway, because their lyrics are a little bit different. Especially the stuff that’s coming out now, like Clawfinger. Their lyrics still have the edginess and the rhythm section and all of that, but their lyrics are more environmental, they’re more peace and they’re more about taking care of each other. But it’s metal! Plus, I play guitar, so hey, guitar — we can go anywhere. I grew up listening to [find out] how did Terry Kath get that sound? Mark Farner — how did he do that on E Pluribus Funk?
I would be at the Spectrum all of the time after school. [I’d] catch the subway, go on up and get my ticket — that was what I did. I’ve got all of this as part of my legitimate catalyst for playing guitar. That’s what made me want to pick up the guitar the next day and the next day and the next day. It wasn’t Wes Montgomery. That came later and it came big in full force and I had the same kind of feeling when I started [hearing that], “oh my God, what is this?” That’s the same feeling that I had when I was playing rock and funk music. More rock, because the funk, there wasn’t a lot for guitar to do. Funk was a bass and the drummer thing. Rock music, guitar had everything to do, so it naturally brought me there, because guitar was the center of that world, really.
So that got me into all of the other stuff and then piano and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, when I started having more technique and the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Zappa and that whole area opened up. Finally, I started [thinking] I’ve got to learn more harmony, because I don’t know, I’m just feeling a little boxed in. Then I started getting into jazz and I said “oh, my God!” It’s either classical or jazz and then it’s like man, this is a whole universe of stuff. And then I started knowing who my uncle was, Ray Bryant, I was like “that’s Ray?” I started learning Ray’s stuff and I was like “oh, my God.” All of that came up, so when we were doing this record, I said “man, I just want to simplify everything” and I missed playing some funk and I missed playing some rock and all of that, but at the same time, I’ve got all of this other stuff, I’ve got all of this other stuff that has been so much a part of my life all of these years. Let’s just get in here and let’s not talk about it so much. Let’s hit these grooves and we’ll build on them and if it comes together as art and music, that’s just what it’s going to be.
You really open a can of worms when you decide to explore the world of jazz. There’s a lot to take in there.
Yeah. A tremendous amount. And that makes you move. I said “okay, you’ve gotta go to New York!” That changed where I lived, how I lived….in some shit place in Brooklyn for years and the whole thing. And going to the clubs and being broke — I moved to New York with 800 dollars in my pocket. Four of us lived together in a one bedroom apartment. Four musicians and one was a drummer who practiced on drums — not a practice pad. I can’t believe these people let us live in their basement apartment! You’d go upstairs and it’s like “how did you let us move in here?” [Laughs] “Does he have the rent?” I couldn’t even hear what she was saying, the drums were so loud. I was like “I can’t believe you let us stay” and she said “oh you all are nice and we have kids and they love hearing you guys practice and everything — it’s okay.” We really got lucky, you know?
So jazz took me to Brooklyn and playing with all of these artists and learning so much. What it also did was it made me relate to an older generation. Not every [type of] music allows you to be 20 years old and work with somebody who is 60 years old. So you learn a lot. You learn about what happened in their day and you learn about how they solved problems or how they don’t solve problems. How they handle a situation and you handle it this way and you’re onstage with them, you see how they travel, what they do and what you feel like I shouldn’t do or you feel like “damn, they handled that so smooth with so little stress.”
The monitor system would be freaking out and we’d say, “I can’t hear the monitors, Hank!” and he’s [Hank Jones] just like “just play your music, man and people will feel your music. The monitors — that’s not what they came to see. So play your music and they’re gonna feel it anyway and as long as they feel the music, that’s what we’re here to do. Y’all caught up on this little technical thing that the speaker don’t work and I can’t hear the drums right and I can’t hear the bass right,” he said “man, just play the music — play your instrument and let it out and the people will feel it.”
You learn that from somebody when you’re 20, 24 or 25 and somebody who is 60 years old says that to you, you learn it in a different way. You can not skip, but you can see the wisdom in it and you mature in a different kind of way. Jazz allows you to do that and a lot of other musics do not allow that to happen. That’s one of the more beautiful things about salsa music, Afro-Cuban music, jazz music, classical music — some of these real cultural “drift in culture” types of music allow generations to share and in a lot of other genres it doesn’t. The demographics just don’t work, because of whatever it is, the sales, the this that and the other, or you’re too old to do this, etc.
So jazz really brought a lot of things together and you go home and you go “Dad, you know” and he said “oh yeah, we used to go see Nat Cole here and we used to go see blah blah there and all of that” and I’m hearing about it with the guy I’m working with. So it broadens your scope and it makes you less afraid of age and it makes you respect what your parents went through a little bit more. Because you’re sharing experiences with somebody that much older than you in such a creative way and they’re paying you. So it’s a privileged place to be. So when you talk about jazz opening a whole can of worms, you’re absolutely right!
As somebody who did a heavy metal radio show for 10 years, I’m curious to know how the Swedish metal wound up in your stacks of music. Where does that come from?[Laughs] That came from a road manager that road manages for Dave Holland. We’re doing a tour and he’s like “Kevin, you play with a lot of edge on your guitar, man” on some of the songs that I was writing. I said “well, do you think some of the music that we’re playing, we could get on different kinds of festivals other than just jazz festivals, [like] some jam bands or some metal festivals?”
He said “The energy will hold up — I don’t know if you guys can drink that much booze, but the energy will hold up on some of the festivals.” It turns out that this guy manages some metal bands, so I said “can you send me some stuff to listen to? He said “really?” and I said “yeah, I want to check what’s out.” So he started sending me all of this stuff. I was kind of hip to some of the [stuff like] of course, Megadeth and people like that. But I started getting into some other things that really started getting into more stuff like Rammstein and other things.
So I started getting into more stuff and he started sending me things and I started finding things, that this person played with that band and I start following that and I just got into it more. Again, it’s so guitar-driven that half the battle is won right there. And it didn’t feel foreign to me, it felt just like some hiked [Led] Zeppelin or hiked Jimi [Hendrix], maybe if Jimi hadn’t moved to England, who knows what would have happened? I think that was a bigger deal than people think. Because he took the r&b and blues thing and hiked it up with the rock and roll and moved to England and then a lot of things happened after that. So it’s all kind of the same river of music. It’s all in the same stream if you connect the dots and follow the history of it, it’s all kind of cool.
Yes and I would think that as a musician, you would look at something like that as something that it’s just a different kind of art to explore. It’s always interesting for me as a music fan to look at that stuff and peel back the different layers and see how they’re doing it on the metal side of things, because it’s no less impressive than however somebody is doing a rock song or a country song or whatever.
Yeah. And it’s amazing how many people somehow are trying to find a way to hold that against you and I just go “it’s just some more music, man.” Why are we cutting it off? It’s just some more music. You dig it or you don’t. And you get into it. But I think that guitar is just such a pervasive instrument that it allows you to access so much if your mind is open. And since I grew up really wanting to play rock and roll, really, because it was so strong and I was so happy when fusion music came out because it allowed me to be more harmonic and still express the same kind of energy at the same time. That’s how I really started getting a little bit deeper and deeper and just meeting people that I bump into and they’re saying “man, you’ve got an edge [to your music], are you listening to this?” And I go “oh, well I used to listen to this music” and they said “well, check this guy out, you might dig it” and before you know it, I’m checking out a whole bunch of metal. So I asked him, I said “when you’re managing your metal bands, what’s the biggest difference between our band and their band?” And he said “the booze, man, definitely. I don’t know if you guys can hang on the booze side!”
Are you going to get the opportunity to play some band shows around this album?
Yes. We’re going to get out and play. I think we’re going to play a lot this year.
Are you going to send a copy of your version of “Led Boots” for Jeff Beck to hear?
No. I won’t do that. I wouldn’t be that presumptuous to do that really. And it’s so completely different from his version. But I’m a big Beck fan. I think just doing it, everybody can appreciate that. I love the way Alvin kept a soulful thing on it, which helped me, [because] I didn’t have to fight to stay away from the rock feeling. The whole time, when we first started doing it, I said “man, I just feel like I want to do some heavy guitar stuff on it” and the more we got into the groove, it just started fading in my mind, having to do that. I didn’t feel any responsibility to have to inject “remember Jeff’s vibe” in it. It just kept it into a whole different thing. I think Alvin really helped that, [by] just keeping it kind of soulful/R&B-ish soft funk vibe on it and Smitty [drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith] holding the groove. It was very simple but we had a lot of fun. I said “man, I want to do ‘Led Boots’” and they were like “really?” and I said “yeah, man!” [Laughs]
I had fun with it, so I hope people will get it for the right reasons, you know what I mean?
Oh yeah. I’ll tell you, that first Take 6 record knocked me on my ass when I got it in the ‘80s as a kid. It was just an unbelievable record to hear in the midst of everything else that was coming out in that decade.
Oh man, to this day it blows me away, man. They’ve been one of my favorite bands since day one. I would love to do a record with acoustic guitar and Take 6. I would love to do that.
It sounds like you’ve got one to put down on your project wish list then.
Yeah. [Eubanks sighs] That’s like a dream record for me. It would be so easy — all I gotta do is hold one note and have these guys voice it and [people would say] “man, the guitar sounds beautiful.” If you’ve got these guys singing underneath you, you don’t have to do much!
You made an interesting comment in the notes for this album that I’d like to ask you about. You say that if you had the opportunity, you’d play more blues. Theoretically, why is that opportunity not there for you to do just that.
Part of it is a logistical problem, because you have commitments to do this and that and when do you fit the other stuff in? Usually, that happens if I go to Chicago and hang out at Buddy’s club and I play there. I’ve done some gigs with Joe Louis Walker. When I do play blues I want to play with the cats, right? I didn’t grow up playing blues and I’m not an authentic blues player by any means, other than my connections through rock, jazz and gospel — my mom playing gospel my whole life. So we’re feeling it and like I said, it’s just some more music. But at the same time, when I want to do something like that, there are some people that are haters about it and “oh, you think you can play blues.” Not from the cats — not from Buddy or anybody like that — they’re completely encouraging me like “man, whenever you’re in town, come by. Because you can play anytime. If you’re in town and we’ve got a gig somewhere, let us know and we’ll have a guitar onstage for you and we’ll bring you out to play a couple of songs with us.”
But it just seems like for a lot of people, they have an aversion to you playing this kind of music and then playing that kind of music. It’s like “oh man, what do you think you’re doing now?” And it kind of discourages me a little bit from really having to breakthrough that nut. I don’t feel like having to deal with that too much. I do it with the people that like me to hang with them. B.B. [King] or Buddy, etc. But I would like to play more. Like if there’s a blues club — that’s the only time that I ever sit in with bands is if they’re a blues band. If I’m at a club or a show or something, I won’t even sit in at jazz clubs.
But if it’s blues, you don’t have to ask me twice, because it’s a whole different thing. It’s blues first of all, so once you know where the feel of that particular blues is coming from, you can find a spot and get in there and it ain’t about playing this or playing that. It’s just about playing the blues and you just give them that feel. It’s not the same kind of thing in the jazz world, “his chops are down or he didn’t know that song at all” and you know, I’m so tired of that. In blues, that kind of stress and pressure isn’t there. It’s just about the feel of it and keeping the groove. I’ve been in blues clubs where the leader of the band handed me the guitar. “We’ve got a young man you all know” and he just steps to the side and gives me his guitar. In jazz, it’s like “well, the strings are too light and I can’t get the warm feel” and I go through all of these gymnastics in my head. In a blues club, it could be just the slinkiest strings and it doesn’t even matter.
The last time I sat in, I was hanging out with the band in the dressing room and [later] I was sitting by the stage and they called me up to play and Buddy gave me one of his guitars and I was playing with them and they said “Kevin, you can’t get out of here unless you sing.” And I said “oh, here we go.” So I get on the mic and I said “y’all know I can’t sing, but I can talk, so I’m going to talk through these blues. This will be like a conversation blues rap or whatever you want to call it.” We had a blast — but you can’t do that in a jazz club. It’s not that loose and it’s not that [same] camaraderie there. It’s too many haters and too many [people saying] “you sound better than this” or “you don’t sound good” or “I remember we did this gig five years ago and you dissed me” and I was like “you guys and the drama.” Maybe that’s from being in a whole different thing in Hollywood for so long and hanging with blues cats and all of that, but in jazz, we have too many hangups and personal things that get into the music. To be so creative, there’s a flipside that’s very myopic that kind of pushes me away in some areas.
So I wish I could play more blues, because I just have so much more fun, to tell you the truth. It’s a lot of fun.
On the blues side of things, do you think that your perceived authenticity or lack of authenticity is colored a bit by people’s perception of what you did on the Tonight Show? Does that play into it at all?
It might. It’s hard to delineate it like that because some people got turned onto me from TV. I’ve had people say that “you should make your own CDs!” I don’t see it as an insult, just because they don’t know that I’ve made CDs for so many years — I just see it as another fan that’s just getting turned on by way of television and I just say “yeah, I’m going to do some CDs and thank you very much and I hope that you get to listen to it when I do it.”
But then there’s other people that go “oh, you’ve been in Hollywood, you’ve been on the Tonight Show and you’re weak now. You can’t play anymore.” You know, all of that childish stuff that you do have to face when you’re out in the world and thinking that “well, I want to play this.” [Things like] “You played behind comedians — you can’t play no blues,” so you’ve got to deal with that. But that’s short-lived as soon as you get an opportunity. You just can’t take that stuff so seriously. It slows the process and all of that and maybe some people want to be haters about it, even when you play and everybody’s enjoying it, they still want to hate on you because you were in a genre of late night television for so long that they just refuse to accept you anywhere else. But you can’t do anything about people that think like that.
As you acknowledge, the television work was certainly beneficial. Because from my side of things, the first time that I heard about Kevin Eubanks was when I started watching the show at the time that Branford was leading things and then suddenly he goes away and you’re leading things. I was aware of you being on the show prior to that, but at the point that you took things over, that was really the moment where I started paying attention to this Kevin Eubanks guy and I wanted to know more about what he was all about.
Yeah and to me, that’s really cool. I’m so happy about that, because a lot of people, I have a lot more fans now because of the Tonight Show. At the same time, in some people’s minds, it kind of cluttered their sense of credibility towards me. And to me, all it was was just another plateau to learn stuff from and to get good at doing arrangements everyday. I was so happy that I played a lot of the music when I was growing up. We played a lot of different kinds of music on there that I was familiar with because I grew up playing it! I said “well, how wrong can this be?” The beginning of my interest in music came from this kind of music [that we were playing on the show] and it did turn me onto a lot more country music, bluegrass and blues. Because B.B. would come on or Solomon Burke would come on or Buddy would come on or Robert…
Yeah, Robert Cray. And it turns out, we’re distant cousins. I’m sitting there and I go “you look a lot like my older brother, man!” And he said “Kevin, I have cousins in my family named Eubanks” and I said “you’re kidding.” He said “yeah, there’s an area there” and I said “yeah, because you look a lot like my brother.” He said “I’ve seen pictures of your brother Robin and somebody in my family said the same thing!” [Laughs]
And then I started, because we would back the bands up or if they wanted to play this song with us on the show and stuff like that and I just got into it more and more and more. I started hanging out with Clint Black, because he sent a CD and said “you know, we’ve gotta work on arrangements — I’m going to be on the show and I want your band to play.” So I started playing in more and more country groups because we got really good at doing the country bands that came on. So I got more and more into country music, because I kept listening to it and I said “man, this is some really nice stuff.” Especially when it got into more of a pop/country thing, that was a lot easier to access and they were just very nice people too. They didn’t come into the studio with an attitude or anything.
Like Vince Gill — the first time Vince came in, he just came in with his amp, a guitar and a clothes bag and said “do you know where I go?” And it was like “yeah man, you’re playing with us — come on over” and we’d work out arrangements. Vince would always say, many years after, he said “Kevin, man, the first three times I came on the show, you guys played behind me and worked out the arrangements and those were the records that really put me on the map.” So he says “man, I always feel like in part, you guys really helped get me going to where I am” and he always said “man, I’ll always thank you for that.”
When Vince gave us the okay, everybody else [began to ask] “can you play behind us?,” like LeAnn Rimes [and lots of other people]. And I just said “man, how could somebody put me down for doing this? I don’t understand.” Shouldn’t this be like “wow, he can play this” or I can learn to play it — I got better and better at it — there’s a learning curve in it to play just what’s there, listen to the music. I mean, all day, let me put country music on while I’m around the house, while I’m exercising, while l’m jogging, etc. and try to make it a part of my musical environment. Not just because Willie’s coming next week so let me play this one song….and I started going to their concerts. Me and Clint Black used to hang out, actually — I’d go to his house.
If Willie was in town, I’d go on the bus and hang out and watch the show until I started getting a flavor for what it was. What makes this music click? Why is it so popular? And then I started feeling it and then I didn’t have to talk about it anymore. I dig it and that’s all. So I think playing the Tonight Show was perfect for me, because I have a love of a lot of different kinds of music and I’m not trying to compartmentalize them either. If I like it, it’s just some more food, you know? It was great experience for me and I couldn’t understand it — I said, “how could you be hating on me for this?” And I’m learning how to….you think it’s hard comping behind a sax player, try comping behind a comedian. That’s what I saw it as — Jay’s telling jokes and either you punch in with the band or you punch in with a one-liner to help the energy of the monologue move along.
Anyway you look at it, my job is to comp behind Jay, whether it’s verbally or musically. It was to punctuate where it adds energy and doesn’t take away from the star, which is him, but gives a lift to what is happening. I started realizing that you’re good at complementing, just do the same thing with Jay. It all started to make sense and that was my way of getting into every other kind of music. Start from the rhythm part. When we were playing behind Clint Black, [we’d] start at the rhythm section part — how do we make him sound better? How do we fill it in without being too much and give him space to be Clint, but putting our thing on it. It all started from behind the scenes and then grew into being able to direct it a little bit more, if that’s necessary. It was a complete learning experience, which was a beautiful thing.
When you left the Tonight Show, what was the reentry process like into the “real world” after doing something like that? Because that’s a serious daily routine that you had going on.
It was kind of scary leaving, because I didn’t have another vehicle to jump into, so it was kind of reorganizing a team together and starting kind of from scratch again and the whole thing. But by that time, there was a lot of different things happening. My parents being older, I wanted to spend more time with my parents, who I thought they would be like “oh, that’s great” and they go “wait a minute — you’re not going to be on the show anymore? Get your ass back to L.A. — we’re fine, because we want to see you on TV. You can come visit us!” It’s like “Mom, don’t say that!” [Laughs] So I said “well, for me, I need to see you all, okay? I need to be here, for me, not for you, Mom. I need to come back home.”
I’d been there 18 years so just inside me, it was like “okay, we gotta do a different box.” The thing that struck me the most though…of course you’ve gotta do your logistics of getting a record deal again and getting re-established, but besides that, what struck me the most was that the world was way more vicious. People were meaner. They had less patience with you and they didn’t take suggestions. They talked down more and their sense of humor wasn’t the same. Like, I’d been inculcated in this place for so long that when I came out, there was a noticeable difference in the way that people communicated. Television had grown a lot more violent and flight attendants on planes weren’t as kind. Getting in and out of the airports which I had become basically a stranger to — I mean, I still did a few gigs here and there, but nothing like full-fledged tours and things like that. We really have to interface with “service-oriented” jobs.
Things were noticeably harsher and it took me a while to deal with that. I was like “wow.” And part of it is “yeah, you had the Tonight Show,” [but] it’s a lot of work, which people don’t really get — they just feel like it’s a cushy job and in some ways, it is. You get things because you’re endorsing or you can afford to have this assistant — but you need these things, it’s not being indulgent. You’re working five days a week and at any moment, somebody can say “oh, this person is coming, write an arrangement and we’ve got rehearsal at 10 o’clock tomorrow and we’re shooting for cameras at 1.” So you’ve gotta do it — that’s your job. So you’re working hard, but somehow, you see all of the moving parts. And then when you leave that, it’s like a hundred times many more moving parts and it’s not the same people you interface with everyday, it’s different people.
It just felt like things…like everybody felt compressed — I feel that even more and more now that people just feel like they’re under more and more pressure. They measure themselves by the level of their misery instead of the level of their happiness. There’s not a refreshing feel about people, the way the government has been handling things, the way the banks [have been handling things] and all of that. They want people to work more for less. I just feel that it’s so unfair. I’m not judging people, because it’s something that’s being pushed onto them, not like that’s the way they are personally. It’s not like people are bad but they’re being pushed into a bad situation. They’re just trying to deal with it.
When I do some artist-in-residence [appearances] at music camps or colleges, it’s like “we want you to do this, this and that and then we want you to do this, this and that and then we want you to do this” and I say “wait a minute….how much do you want me to do in a week?” [Laughs] It’s like “well, that’s what people do when they come here” and I said “well, that’s too much” and it’s just another example of people wanting you to work more for either the same or less money. And I said “well, I’m not going to do that because I think it’s unfair” and fortunately, I have an option to not do it. Not everybody has that option, I understand that.
But it’s noteworthy that people in general are asked to work harder for less and we’ve long had this standing around the world as a country that works too much and we don’t get the enjoyment out of life because we’re so busy working our way through life. We haven’t found the balance of some European countries. Japan found that out. You actually go in different parts of Asia where governments are consciously trying to keep an equilibrium of work and happiness in their society. Here, I think as individuals, that’s something to strive for now, because certainly the government has decided not to do it. I try and find a balance in life where I love to work, because it helps my spirit, because I love what I’m doing, but at the same time, I don’t think that burning out on it…..so that’s one thing that struck me more than anything else is that “wow, man, this is like being in the ocean! You could be dinner in a second, man!” [Laughs]