As last names go, King has been a pretty good one for blues guitar greats, with B.B., Albert and Freddie.
The latest King on the block is the 20-year-old frontman for the Marcus King Band, roaring out Greenville, S.C., as a six-piece group of Southern rockers with a feel for blues and swampy soul.
The Marcus King Band released a 2014 debut that caught the attention of Gov’t Mule frontman and former Allman Brothers Band member Warren Haynes, who produced the outfit’s second album (released in the fall) and also brought in Derek Trucks to play on a track. Mr. Haynes noted in the bio, “Marcus is the first player I’ve heard since Derek Trucks to play with the maturity of a musician well beyond his age.”
Mr. King chalks that up to being part of a musical family, playing as a teenager with his dad, bluesman Marvin King. For the past two years, the Marcus King Band has been a big, unwieldy touring machine, playing notable gigs like SXSW, Mountain Jam and Austin City Limits Festival. On Saturday, the band returns to play the WYEP Summer Music Festival. Earlier this week, Mr. King checked in during a few days off at home.
Was it always obvious to you that you were going to be a musician?
Yeah, I never had any other aspirations as a kid. It wasn’t like a conscious decision where at one point I said, “This is what I’m going to do the rest of my life.” I just knew that already. Not in a pretentious way, I hope. It was moreso I never thought about what I was going to do.
Kind of nice to not have to worry about that kind of thing.
Especially, in high school, all my friends were freaking out. George Carlin said, it was the best line, “You got kids who have to ask permission to take a [leak] and then three months later, they’re supposed to decide what they want to do the rest of their lives.” I was glad I didn’t have to go through that kind of pressure.
Once your dad showed you some things on guitar, how did you go through the process of learning, and what guitarists did you look up to?
My dad still is my favorite player. Growing up, he and my grandad were my gurus: listening to their road stories, and learning about country from my grandfather, and rock and blues and soul from my dad. My early influences were Stevie Ray Vaughan, Warren Haynes, I really loved Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Hendrix. Then I started getting into [John] Scofield and Eric Krasno and John McLaughlin. After that, I don’t want to be a watered-down version of all my favorite players, so I made a decision to stop listening to guitar players in terms of influence and started obtaining a lot of vocal runs from Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding and Sam Cooke and using their vocal lines on the guitar, and also listening to more horn players like Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, Eric Dolphy, trying to pull inspirations from anyone but guitar. There’s so much to listen to.
How did you hook up with Warren?
We had a lot of mutual friends, unbeknownst to me. I was writing with some folks and playing a lot of music in Greenville. I did my first record, “Soul Insight,” by myself in 2014 and I got a copy to my friends up there, and they were like, “Man, we gotta get our buddy Warren on to this.” I was like “Oh OK, Warren. You got a buddy named Warren.” They were like “Warren Haynes.” He really dug the music and we got together down in Athens, Ga., the Georgia Theatre, and we just hit it off right off the bat, and ever since then, he’s been Uncle Warren to us.
How would you compare the first two albums?
You can hear the growth. The first one was self-produced by me and the way of cutting a record for me was everything live, one-take kind of stuff. On the second record, we took that same approach with a little more knowledge of how things work, but at the same time, you still can feel the freshness of the group, because of it was a completely new lineup. Me and the drummer were the only ones left after the first record.
How did you find the replacement musicians?
We started scouring all the dive bars in Greenville, S.C., and finding our favorite players and we just approached them.
And they’re looking at you like “You’re only 17.” You must have spent a lot of time in your life having to prove yourself to older players.
When I was 13, 14, there were people in Greenville who were really like well-known, established musicians playing on the weekend, and you kind of learn this really reserved style of playing. If you’re the young kid, and you get up and start acting foolish, playing behind your head and stupid stuff like that and trying to play over everybody, that’s not fun. Music is a conversation and it was evident that I could get booted off that stage really quick. So, I learned how to deal with older folks like that. When was 15, all my friends were like ages 25 to 65. That’s my crew.
Why travel with such a big band, especially when you’re just starting out?
That was something everybody said: “You guys are never going to make any money with all these people.” First of all, it’s not about money, but obviously you need money because no one wants to say, “Hey, they’re cutting off our power today.” Me and my drummer, we’ve been renting a house for the past four years and we’ve definitely had a lot of those. We were on the road, like “Oh man, I think the water’s off. Pipe’s are gonna freeze.” My dad really helped us a lot. We have a really big band because that’s the sound I wanted. I wanted the Chicago intensity. I didn’t want to limit myself to what I could accomplish musically in live performance.
Do you sometimes go out smaller?
Yeah, sometimes I’ll go do an acoustic, and sometimes it’s fun to do a bass-drums-guitar trio set to get out some of my more Mountain influence.
So, knowing Warren, did you ever cross paths with Gregg Allman?
I did, but I was always scared [expletive] to meet him. I was like that with Warren till I met him and I was still scared to death. But, Gregg Allman, he walked by me a few times and in a lot of situations like that, I just clam up. I’ve had some bad experiences with heroes of mine that were kind of rude. I’m like, “I’ve been on the road for two years and I’m tired. He’s been on the road for 45! I’m not going to bother him, I’m going to let him to his thing.” I kind of [screwed] up, I think, honestly.
Seems like he was a big vocal influence on you.
He’s always been a huge vocal influence on that. That whole band, the [stuff] they went through, being an interracial group and everybody having long hair, in the late ‘60s in Alabama and Georgia and Mississippi. To hear about the tenacity of Duane Allman as a bandleader, that was a big part of how I started to operate. And people like James Brown. Their whole style of leading, like that phrase of “The leader needs to eat last.” Take care of those who take care of you, and treat each other with dignity and respect.