Young singer-songwriter and blues-guitarist extraordinaire Marcus King – who plays the Boulder Theater on February 14 and the Ogden Theatre on February 15 – recently moved away from his hometown of Greenville, South Carolina, to branch out musically in Nashville. King was contacted by Black Keys frontman and esteemed producer Dan Auerbach – a Nashville resident himself – and the resulting collaboration, which includes performances by a slew of legendary Nashville musicians and songwriters, is the excellent new album, El Dorado.
Tracks like “The Well” have a tinge of the Black Keys’ dirty garage blues, but King retains his own character – soulful, Southern, intermittently sweet and scorching – throughout the record, which represents his first time writing and recording without the Marcus King Band.
King, who has really only had a few weeks off here and there from touring since he was a teenager, spoke with me by phone before a recent gig in Eugene, Oregon.
Westword: You just got back from playing Jam Cruise and jamming with Widespread Panic in Mexico.
Marcus King: Oh, it was great, man. It’s always a good time.
What’s it like to have a few toes in the jam-band scene but still embrace, and be embraced by, the larger music world?
I guess the way I would say it is, “We like to go where people will have us,” you know? We’ve been really blessed to be welcomed in a multitude of musical communities.
And now, collaborating with someone who has his tentacles in as many places as Dan Auerbach – obviously you’re breaking out, but working with someone like him should offer much more exposure.
One could hope.
How did you work with Auerbach and make sure not to lose any of yourself as you were starting to write and record with other people besides the Marcus King Band?
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I think one reason Dan and I like working with each other is that when he does a project, he does it with absolute sincerity and allows his self to really shine through, and I kinda have the same thought process. I don’t like to do anything unless it’s absolutely 100 percent me, and anything I do, I just…I’m not good at being contrived. I always put all of myself into any project, and I think that’s what ends up sounding original or like me.
What did you learn from working with him that you brought back to your core band?
He’s obviously a fantastic producer and just a killer dude, a great person. So it’s always an honor to work with someone you look up to like that. He’s got a very big scope; he can see really far down the road, you know, as far as production’s concerned. Little touches on the record make a real big difference later on.
You’ve said some of the songs on the new record didn’t feel right with your band originally, before you brought them to Auerbach and the musicians who played on El Dorado. What’s it like to hone them in the studio with new musicians and then bring them back to your band?
It’s crazy. It’s kind of, like, a complete regurgitation. These songs came to life at [Auerbach’s Nashville studio] Easy Eye, and then to bring them back to my guys, they’re taking on a completely different life as live material. It’s a really beautiful thing. I love hearing the band’s interpretation, and they’re sounding really great on my songs.
You played a very late show at the Boulder Theater last July, after Dead and Co. finished at Folsom Field. I was impressed you were ready to start rocking just before midnight.
Anytime I can get a nap, that’s a good thing. That’s a good old mantra.
You’ve played Colorado a lot.
Oh man, it always brings back a lot of memories. When I think of Colorado, I think of the first time we all drove out there in our van – the first time we had ever seen recreational marijuana. That blew all our minds, coming from South Carolina. That’s still in the distant future for us. The first trip out there and how beautiful it was, how overwhelmed we were with the state itself and how beautiful everybody was, and how beautiful the state is itself. Fond memories of Colorado.
You recently moved away from South Carolina for the first time. What part of it do you take with you to Nashville and around the world?
It always stays with me, that feeling of home. I don’t know how to explain it, I guess. You can find certain aspects of home anywhere you go or travel to. It’s a feeling; it’s a nostalgic memory or an idea of what home means to you. And Greenville will always be my home.
Does the song “Goodbye Carolina” have another connotation to you now?
Yeah! I wrote that song from the perspective of a friend of ours who committed suicide a couple of years ago, so it kind of was supposed to take on a double meaning originally, because I had planned on moving. Every night I sing it, I think about my friend, and I think about Greenville.
What’s your relationship like with your father as you eclipse where he and your grandfather got to with music?
He’s such a proud father. It really makes me feel good, you know? I think everybody wants to see their parents proud of them. It’s a great feeling. My folks are really proud. It’s great to have something that you really bond over, and music is like that for my family.
You just got your own signature Gibson guitar. Whose signature guitar would you have wanted, growing up?
When I was growing up, I always kinda wanted an Eric Johnson signature Strat. I always asked for one.
Many people are surprised to hear that the psychedelic influence on your playing comes more from “out there” jazz guys like Eric Dolphy than rock-guitar heroes. And you’ve said that getting “out there” musically gives you “sort of an ego death, to let your mind be free.” Is there a major spiritual influence on your music?
Yeah, I think music is very much so a higher power than any of us. You have to be willing to just be a spectator, really; even though you’re the performer, you’re kind of a part of something larger than anything, larger than anybody in that room. It’s a really spiritual experience to stand back and let something that powerful move through everybody. We’re just messengers of a higher message, and I don’t know exactly where it’s coming from, but it’s a really powerful church.
You were raised in the church, in large part. Is that something you keep with you?
Yeah, man. I think growing up in church gave me such a strong moral compass, and it gave me a really good upbringing, a good sense of right and wrong. It gave me values that I carry with me still.
I don’t know where you stand politically, but right now things are so tense, everyone on one side of a fence. With the election coming up, do you think musicians have a responsibility to speak out or at least urge people to vote?
I think it’s a tough place right now, you know? People get upset just because you have an opinion, and we’re kinda at a place right now where it's such a divided country that none of us want the other one to have an opinion. Everything’s so volatile now; I mean, it’s so just fuckin’ tense, like you said. It’s a divided state. I think you can’t really be angry at someone just for saying how important it is to vote. Your voice does matter, and it’s something that you should do. You should get out there and vote.
Being from the South, do you feel like maybe you straddle two worlds politically, between the entertainment world and where you’re from?
For me, I’m blessed to be around a lot of open-minded people. You just surround yourself with people who have similar values, and for me the road has kind of become my home. When I’m on the road, that’s when I feel at home, and the people I’m on the road with are just beautiful and free-thinking and open-minded, so I’m very blessed to be surrounded by that.
And you’re only 23.
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What’s it like to kind of grow up on the road?
I’ve been performing live since I was eleven, and I’ve been on the road really ever since I was, like, seventeen years old. Pretty formative years, but I’ve learned a lot, man. One of the greatest teachers is just being out here on this open road, man.
Marcus King plays at 8 p.m. on Friday, February 14, at the Boulder Theater, 2032 14th Street, Boulder. Tickets are $32.50; he also plays at 8 p.m. Saturday, February 15, at the Ogden Theatre, 935 East Colfax Avenue. Tickets are $32.50.
Listen to Marcus King and more favorites from Westword writers on our Westword Staff Picks playlist.