Kevin Eubanks on his new album and his life since leaving The Tonight Show
In May of last year, guitarist Kevin Eubanks (due this evening at the Soiled Dove) stepped down from his gig leading The Tonight Show band after a fifteen year run. Although Eubanks performed a bit on his own apart from the show, he's been touring a lot more these days, and he just released a new album, Zen Food, this past November.
In advance of his shows tonight (the guitarist is playing two sets, one at 7 and one at 10 p.m.), we spoke with Eubanks about his life since leaving The Tonight Show, and he told us about growing up in a music family, listening to Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin.
Westword: How have things been going since you left The Tonight Show?
Kevin Eubanks: Good. We're on the road quite a bit and writing music for the next record. It's going really well. I miss seeing Jay, and I miss the show and all that, because it was just part of my life for so long that I just miss seeing my friends. I miss performing on the show and all that because it was fun.
Any particular memories of working on the show that stick out?
Of course. Just working with all the different artists and you know, doing the monologue with Jay. It was kind of fun. Having Barack Obama come shake my hand on national TV was really fun. My parents loved that. That was a huge, big time memory. And also sitting in a dressing room, hanging with George Bush. We sat and talked for about twenty minutes, and he was just telling me what it was like being on the road. He was doing this train tour. It's just funny -- I met all these presidential candidates and presidents. It's like, "Wow, that was a pretty cool day at work!"
You were still gigging while you doing The Tonight Show, right?
Whenever we had time, we still did as many gigs as we felt comfortable doing. It was doing a lot of double duty so you can only do it so much.
You've talked about how, musically, you're at a different level, as well as personally. Can you expand on that?
I guess that things just get deeper musically because you're playing with your band and you're on tour and you're working on the next record. You just have to do your new job, which is taking care of your band and writing new music and stuff like that. It's like any job. When I was doing The Tonight Show it was like, "How do I do better at this? How do I become more effective in the monologue?" Now it's: "How do I work this song into the band?" It's your main focus. You do whatever you need to do to get better at it.
Having to play all the different styles on The Tonight Show, did that sort of seep into your own music at all?
Well, I was doing that before The Tonight Show. It wasn't like I started playing The Tonight Show and then I learned, like, "Oh wow, there's Led Zeppelin. Who are they?" No, I mean, "Wow! Jimi Hendrix. Could you spell that for me?" I knew all of that stuff before going on to The Tonight Show. That was the easy part of the show was playing the music, because I played all of that stuff growing up -- like a lot of people my age. So it didn't seep into my playing at The Tonight Show. I was already playing that stuff before The Tonight Show.
The one thing that I probably got more fluent with was country music. I hadn't realized how much I liked country music until I started playing with all these different artists on the show. It was like, you know, "I really really like LeAnn Rimes and Vince Gill. I really dig their music." So that was really nice. That was something that I did get to appreciate more being on the show was working with a lot of country artists.
Can you tell me about your latest release, Zen Food?
As we were talking about earlier, the band would do a lot of shows, and we would travel whenever we could, and that was the music we were playing. It made sense to record that music, since that's what we were doing at the time. So we released it, and now people really seem to like it. So, that was good. It fell right in line. We were just recording what we were playing.
You come from quite the musical family.
Yeah, fortunately, I grew up in a very musical family. It's really easier when your parents don't mind you having a house full of musicians and your friends are banging drums through the front door and scratching the walls up with equipment and stuff like that. You know the drill. And playing loud, since I grew up in a musical family, they were like, "Well, I guess that's just the way it's going to be.
What kind of stuff did you start off on when you first started playing guitar?
More rock music. Stuff like Grand Funk Railroad, Deep Purple, Jimi Hendrix, Zeppelin, Wishbone Ash, Chicago... all the stuff when you're a kid that guitar players gravitate to. I mean, I grew up listening to James Brown and all that, but it wasn't much for a guitar player to do. So I started drifting more towards other stuff that was more interesting for guitar players. So I started playing more rock music, and then it just kind of went from there. I just played a lot of the stuff that anybody my age that was playing guitar was probably doing.
Was there a particular album that got you into jazz?
I started really getting into the guitar player from Chicago named Terry Kath, who people may not know. Some of the stuff was a little more interesting than the average rock guitar player. And that kind of got me into Chicago, and they had the horn section, but they were playing more jazzier type things, but not quite. It was just a little bit different. I think having my brother Robin being more into jazz sooner than I was, he kind of opened my eyes to some things. I started getting into groups like Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Yes and the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Frank Zappa and stuff like that. So that kind of got me into that kind of thing, and from there, it just kind of led me into jazz. Jazz came a lot later.