The Okayplayer Interview: Booker T. Jones On the Future Of Soul

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.Booker T Jones - Sound The Alarm Interview

Tuesday, Booker T. Jones released his new album Sound The Alarm, his first album since the Roots collaboration The Road From Memphis in 2011--and his first in decades to be recorded for his original label Stax Records. Far from a nostalgic return to the famous Memphis Sound that he helped to establish as Booker T & The MGs, however, Sound The Alarm opens up whole new territories of soul for the this pioneer to explore and enlists a who's who of soul's next generation--including Anthony Hamilton, Estelle, Gary Clark, Jr., Mayer Hawthorne, Luke James and Vintage Trouble, not to mention some bona fide second generation soulcats like Kori Withers (Bill Withers' daughter) and Booker's own son Ted Jones--to give the album a youthful urgency to the unmistakable Booker T sound. Looking over the tracklisting, its easy to imagine Booker as a sort of Professor Charles Xavier of soul music, appearing mysteriously in the lives of young people with extraordinary powers to recruit them for his Academy For Gifted Soul Mutants. Speaking by phone, Okayplayer had the chance to talk at length with Booker T--who gave generously of his time and his game--to get the real life story of how he assembled this incredible team of young talent around him; the best of soul music's next generation--and how they fit into the sound and his vision of this powerful record. Get a taste of the barbecue by streaming the title track ("Sound The Alarm" featuring Mayer Hawthorne, via OKP premiere) while you read, then hit the link to purchase

>>>Purchase Booker T. – Sound The Alarm (via iTunes)

Okayplayer: Looking at your career from the outside, it seems like the previous album that you did with The Roots was sort of a comeback moment. Does it feel like you’re into a second chapter of your career?

Booker T:  There was a hiatus, there was a period when I was languishing, but now I’m awake again, I’m on fire, and the music is burning inside me. I’m actually working with new people and old people as well, I’m still working some with Steve Cropper, I’m still doing that music and a lot of occasions. We just had a concert at the White House, where we did songs with Queen Latifah, I had Eddie Floyd there, that music is still vibrant.

But I feel that Stax lost its way when it was purchased by the big company in New York City, by Gulf & Western--the bigger companies buy the record companies and the lawyers start to take over and look at the money instead of the music. I think that kind of happened with Stax. But me, being one of the original ones, like Cropper and Dunn, Al Jackson--one of the original creators of the company, the music, and the vibe - we were able to continue that, in its true essence, without considerations for how many records we’re making, or how much money it was going to make. So in that sense, its just kind of built into my musical soul, my musical self.

OKP: I was sort of surprised to hear you say "old and new people" because just looking at the tracklisting of the album, it seems like a very young group of people that you’ve surrounded yourself with...

Booker T: The focus is on new R&B. and I seem to have attention from a new group of soul artists and fans that have focused on me, like Mayer Hawthorne--who was introduced to be by Daryl Hall--and Anthony Hamilton, who are people I’ve made friends with over the recent years. And Estelle and the Avila Brothers. So that’s a circle of friends that’s come around and the music has come with it. It’s influenced my writing, and of course the recording.

OKP: Can you tell us the stories of how you linked up or recruited some of the collaborators on this album?

Booker T: Of course, well it’s great, it’s exciting for me - it’s a combination of people, like I said that I’ve made as friends since I was standing in line. I won 3 Grammys these past few years, and each time I won one of those Grammys I was standing in line in front of Anthony Hamilton. I looked around after the show, and Anthony’d be standing there, and it happened a third time. And so I said, We have to stop meeting like this! And you know it turned out Anthony had wrote a song for me, for my album. It’s just a way I’ve been following my life path, and it’s just been leading me to new young players. For instance, I met Gary Clark, Jr. at Cupertino, when I was doing a benefit for Apple up there--which was basically a demo of my album--and he was playing downstairs. But I keep talking about the old - if you listen to what I did with Gary, and with my son [Ted Jones] that music comes right out of what I was doing in the 60s, almost pre-Stax. It’s mixed right in there. It’s a new blues/R&B mix, like the stuff I did with my son Ted. And Ted is only 22, but we spend a lot of time together listening to guitar players--and you know I mistook [his playing] once for Joe Bonamassa, who I played with over in England.

OKP: In the recording of the music, were you ever riffing on or covering things the way that the some of the MGs compositions would adapt material that was out there into an organ cover?

Booker T: Some more so, and some less. On "Father Son Blues," there’s no variation at all on that song, from what I played at a club in Memphis in say, 1960. No variation at all. This is all influenced by Bobby Blue Bland blues from Texas, or B.B. King blues. This is how I made my 6 or 7 bucks a night, playing all night. On a song like, "Can’t Wait," [featuring Estelle] I’m thinking, I want this score to be different. I want it to sound different. I want it to feel different. I want her voice to be soaring. This is like Stax, if she had some to Memphis and recorded with the group there after all these years have passed. It’s the whole gamut.

OKP: I’m curious about Sheila E.'s involvement. What was that connection like, have you guys known each other for awhile?

Booker T: It was great. Well I had a connection with her family, because of her uncle Coke Escovedo, who I met when I was playing with Carlos Santana, we toured together. And there’s a whole, huge family and legacy and style that was sort of started by Mongo Santamaria and Tito Puente, people who kind of congregated around the Oakland area where I lived for a long time. Of course, my association with Carlos Santana through me right into that, playing with Tito and Ria...and all those guys, the band was just dynamic. Her family, those guys brought me into that, in the 70s when I moved from Memphis out to California. Those were some of the first people I met. And she’s one of them, and she plays like one of them, she is one of them. And just to have her and her electricity, it gives it that authenticity to that. Well I only got one song of that genre on my album which is "66 Impala," and I got Poncho Sanchez to play on it. But its something that I’ve always loved, it’s always influenced us in the 60s when we were doing the MGs, you know, and I was a big Tito Puente fan and of course Mongo Santamaria when he came out with "Watermelon Man." We were never the same after that record. So that’s what Sheila did, and her family, and they still do it. You know, we talked about - at the studio it was great, talking about the old times. And she felt close to me because I knew her family so well.

OKP: How about Estelle, how did that link up? (cont'd on next page...)

>>>Purchase Booker T. – Sound The Alarm (via iTunes)

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.

Booker T: That happened through the Avila Brothers. I was an Estelle fan, you know, ‘cause when she did "American Boy," that new sound coming from Britain - that continually happens - I was excited by it, and I’m excited about "Can’t Wait," which we wrote for her. Just the way she does melody, and her whole attitude, that’s a contemporary edge there. And for me to have that on my record is really fortunate.

OKP: Is there a difference in the approach that you bring to soul music with this new kind of young crop, second or third generation soul singers. Do they have a different approach or different vibe that you had to adjust to? Or what was the feeling like in terms of bridging that generation gap?

Booker T: Hmm. I have to say that I’m right there, I’ve always sort of tried to be right there because I’ve pushed the edge. I never wanted really to do the same thing twice in my career. And I love the music with the different txtures and time signatures - that edgy feeling, you know. So I guess they pick up on that, and they like the idea of working with a legend for whatever reasons [laughs]. And of course, I did have my period of you know, getting into the new technology, the drum machines, the MPC - that whole idea of changing the beats and sound of soul and R&B. I’m into it.

OKP: So would you say this is a continuation of that experimentation? Or is it back to a more organic sound?

Booker T: Well for Sound The Alarm, it’s both. I have both. I have a lot of drum machines on the album. And I have a lot of melodic experimentation. The public has proven and told us that’s what they like and that’s what they want. They don’t want the predictable anymore. And it pushes musicians to be experimental. But at the same time, there’s a whole group of - there’s a whole segment of people and kids who just love the predictability of a song like "Austin City Blues." So there’s both; music is so huge.

OKP: I’m curious, would you consider this as compared with the previous album, which The Roots were very much involved in. Would you consider this a continuation of what that collaboration was about?

Booker T: No, this is a different approach. The Roots were disciples of mine, they were hip-hop musicians who don’t use drum machines. Working with them was sort of like working with a young set of The Meters. It was a New Orleans feel, and kind of a jazz, hip-hop feel. It was I think, an outgrowth of Memphis and New Orleans that they continued in Philadelphia. But it was sort of like my first album with The Drive-by Truckers, where I had a huge desire to do rock music and they sort of facilitated it. The Roots sort of did this with my ideas for The Road From Memphis. But this record, Sound The Alarm, is a total departure from all that. Which is what I need to do right now. For where I am spiritually, mentally and musically, it’s not that.

OKP: Would you say that you were more in the driver’s seat as a producer on this record?

Booker T: Yes. I’m at the center of this record. My tentacles reached a long way this time because people - even the record company and my manager, feel my need to be innovative and so I don’t think anybody really felt any limits about what we were gonna do. There were no limitations. I was happy about that, I just want that to continue.

OKP: How did producing an album in 2013 feel compared to --you’re justifiably famous for some of your production work on Bill Withers' records, and other projects. Was that a departure from the way you’ve done things before?

Booker T: Yes, there’s a lot more flexibility now, a lot more possibilities. A lot more people from different areas around the world. Before, I was physically and musically sequestered inside the studio, at Memphis or LA. I was restricted as far as how far the music could go. Now that restriction is gone.

OKP: Do you mean physical restriction as in you can take a mobile studio with a laptop or something with you when you travel? Or what do you mean?

Booker T: Yeah, we collaborated over the internet, and we collaborated physically, people flew in. And then the record company wasn’t saying, “This record has to sound like this.” or it has to be all instrumental. The record company just basically gave me a free slate.

OKP: That leads me to wonder, would you say even though this is a Stax record, is it a Memphis record--or is it kind of a citizen of the world, so to speak?

Booker T: It’s a Memphis record, ‘cause I am still rooted there, I am one of the original Memphis people. I was fortunate enough to be born there, and to live two blocks away from a recording studio. But people like me, that are born in Memphis and raised on the Memphis music down on Beale Street get the gospel, and the blues, and the country - that never leaves you. It stays the same. So it’s my record. It is Memphis music. I think - I hope people can identify it, I hope my essence comes through.

OKP: You can take Memphis with you wherever you go.

Booker T: I do, I do.

>>>Purchase Booker T. – Sound The Alarm (via iTunes)