Marcus King is all of 26 years old, but he plays rock’n’roll as if he was genetically engineered in a laboratory from bits of Duane Allman, Jimmy Page, Billy Gibbons and Stevie Ray Vaughan. King’s music feels timeless, especially when he’s laying waste to concert stages with his longtime mates in the Marcus King Band. A different side of King emerges on his solo albums, the newest of which, Young Blood, arrives Friday (Aug. 26) as the first in a new deal with Rick Rubin’s American Records/Republic.
The project re-teams King with the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, who previously produced King’s 2020 solo album El Dorado. Both that album and Young Blood were recorded at Auerbach’s Easy Eye studio in Nashville. This time around, King is backed only by bassist and longtime Auerbach collaborator Nick Movshon and drummer Chris St. Hilaire, who played percussion on El Dorado.
Throughout, the music is lean and mean, and King’s vulnerability amid a devastating breakup is on full display. First single “Hard Working Man,” opener “It’s Too Late” and the cowbell-laced “Dark Cloud” are invigorating rockers gleefully beamed straight off the ’70s FM radio dial, while the Desmond Child co-write “Blood on the Tracks” funnels peak Creedence Clearwater Revival into a glorious kiss-off and closer “Blues Worse Than I Ever Had” finds King emoting the kind of pure soul that would make Otis Redding proud. “A lot of influences went into this album, and it ended up sounding like something new to me, even though it was inspired by music I’ve listened to for a long time,” King says.
SPIN spoke with the guitarist about his simpatico working relationship with Auerbach, how cutting his teeth in clubs continues to pay dividends and why he’s glad he didn’t buy one particular guitar a couple years back.
SPIN: For listeners who might be more familiar with what you sound like on stage, will this album be a different experience?
Marcus King: It’s interesting, because a lot of people who were introduced to my music through El Dorado, which was my first solo record and my first time working with Dan, see this as a departure from my usual thing. In reality, it’s kind of the opposite. It’s interesting to explain that this goes way back more to my roots, this kind of music. I grew up on Creem, Hendrix, Sabbath and Zeppelin. I became obsessed with the band Free, who played a huge part in this record, as did ZZ Top and Creedence.
I know Dan often likes to hit the studio with no songs written in advance. Was that the case here?
As far as the sound of the record, it was plug and play. But we wrote everything beforehand. We wrote everything during and after a breakup, and then we cut the record after the breakup in my really down period. I was really able to use that as inspiration. That’s where a lot of the anger and low points of the record come from.
Was there a song you feel like you guys nailed right off the bat?
I love that question. I’d say an example of one that took off immediately was ‘Good and Gone’ or ‘Lie Lie Lie.’ That one, I came in with it almost finished and then we tweaked it. “Good and Gone” took off on its own. It didn’t take hardly any effort, it felt like. The one we wrote with Desmond Child, ‘Blood on the Tracks,’ is the only one that took more than an hour or two to write. It took a couple of days and a couple of different sessions, because he’s very specific.
Desmond has of course worked with big rock bands like Kiss and Aerosmith, but it was still pretty unexpected to see him as a collaborator on this album.
That’s Dan. I didn’t even know Desmond was going to be there. That’s the first write we did, with Desmond, other than just the two of us. I didn’t know Desmond personally. I was unfamiliar with his track record, I hate to say. After we met, I was like, this guy is larger than life. He got mad at me for clicking my pen and took it away from me. I lost pen privileges (laughs). He told me something I wanted to write was corny, and that made Dan laugh really hard. It set the tone for the record as far as it being a cathartic release, enjoying ourselves and not taking ourselves too seriously. It also set a high bar for the caliber of creativity and the caliber of hit song that man has written or taken part in writing. That’s the standard we wanted to hold ourselves to, and I think for sure that was Dan’s intention to set the bar that high.
What did the other musicians bring to the table here?
I think they brought the table! There was no table there and they showed up. Fuckin’ a, man. They’re blistering musicians. Nick played with the Keys for awhile and did a lot of stuff with the Dap-Kings and The Arcs. He’s one of the greatest bass players. He cracked us all up. We had the greatest drummer for my money besides my touring drummer, Chris St. Hilaire. I knew him from years ago up in New York. He played with the London Souls. That group disbanded and he played percussion on my first record. He and I go back a little ways. Those two guys and Andy Gabbard, who plays with the Keys now, they have such a reverence and key understanding of the music we were playing, and such a natural feel, but with a studious mindset. They nailed it, but did it in their own way.
Your music conveys a lot of emotion, both from what you’re saying and what you’re playing. Are you still finding new ways to express yourself?
I appreciate you saying that, man. That’s really kind. On this album, the lyrics are what we wanted to focus on. It was the same approach as the first record we did together, but on that one, I wanted to be more soft-spoken. I always had to learn how to wail because I grew up playing in bars where nobody is paying attention and the PA sucks. I learned how to sing loud. Your body trains you not to wear your voice out, because you have to do it again tomorrow. You build up these ways to sing like that. Dan taught me how to sing low, which was a challenge. On this record, I went back to the bar thing. I completely reverted back to how I came up playing. I was able to truly release and sing live and play live. I wanted the guitar to sound like a tattoo gun, with the fuzz pedal. I think we nailed that in a couple of spots. I wanted the music to be as intense as the shit I was going through mentally.
Well, with that in mind, did you ever self-censor?
Man, I do my best never to hold back. I don’t like anything to ever feel contrived. That’s why I’ve never said we’re a jam band. If we’re not feeling it, a song that’s usually 20 minutes long will be three minutes long. I’m not going to jam for jam’s sake [Laughs]. I want it to take off and go there if it’s supposed to. If it’s taking me to that place, I’ll lay on the floor if I need to [Laughs].
It seems like you’ve already been playing some of these songs live, well before the album comes out.
Yeah, for sure. Even before we mixed the record, I was road testing some of them. It’s a testament to Dan’s skill set as a sequencer. He’s the best at that, for my money. We were opening the show with ‘It’s Too Late,’ and when I came home, he’d mixed the album and sequenced that as the opening track. A lot of synchronicity there. I never played any of them on the road until after we recorded them, so when we play them live now, any derivation from the recorded version is just the live version. We do that a lot anyway, because we have the horns. They play percussion on most of this stuff, but sometimes they play horns in certain new areas. It’s fun to take these three-and-a-half minute packages and expand them.
Have you found yourself able to reflect on this body of work yet?
I think it helps that I’m currently working on the next record. I’m still in that kind of headspace. The next record is almost like a prequel to Young Blood. It’s all the songs I was writing when I was in that tumultuous relationship. It’s pretty much the prequel, where Young Blood is the end result. I can put myself back in that headspace because that’s how I’ve compartmentalized pain growing up — through music. Whenever I play those songs, I take myself back there so I can completely relive it and give my full range of emotion to the crowd. It’s also easy to step back and look at it in the past tense because I’m so happy now. It would be a lot harder to relive it every night if I hadn’t found this joy in life.
What helped you find that joy?
After we cut the record, I fell even more into the deep end. We went on tour with Nathaniel Rateliff, and on the second night, I met my wife-to-be in Raleigh. A year later, I asked her to marry me at the same venue. That was a real blessing, and so is she. Life’s happy. She just came home with two kittens we adopted (laughs).
Amid all of your fall touring plans, do you think you’ll make a dent in this next record?
There’s some real strong markets we’re playing, and it will be the largest tour we’ve done, in terms of the size of the shows. We’re doing a couple nights at the Beacon, a couple nights at the Ryman and also the Tabernacle in Atlanta. These are some iconic venues and this will be a really big step forward for us, touring-wise. I’m taking some time off in the winter to work on a separate project. We’ll get the band together here in my studio and kick around some ideas. At the start of the year, after the wedding, we’re hitting the road again real hard.