In 2015 guitarist/producer Gideon King formed City Blog, a cast of stunning studio musicians that has included John Scofield (Miles Davis, Mavis Staples, Herbie Hancock) and Donny McCaslin, who was a saxophone sideman on David Bowie’s swan song, Blackstar. King has also collaborated with members of Steely Dan, Marc Broussard, Grace Weber, and many more.
Gideon King & City Blog’s latest work, Love Knot, is comprised of “inside out love songs,” as King puts it. The EP marks the first collection recorded with pianist/music director Bryan Reeder; bassist Jeff Hanley; drummers Jake Goldbas, Diego Ramirez and Zach Mullings; and vocalists Caleb Hawley, Alita Moses, and Sonny Step.
Recorded over the course of three days at Hudson Valley Studio, the three-song EP plumbs the rough-hewn realities of relationships. His compositions have been compared to the likes of Steely Dan, Seal, and even Sade. But don’t fence him in. Writing abstract depictions of love against the sophisticated backdrop of the City that Never Sleeps, King traverses the worlds of jazz, rock, pop, and folk all at once and all his own.
Lauren for American Blues Scene: How do you feel Love Knot compares to your previous works as far as the direction you took?
I would say the music is two-thirds what I always write and one-third a little more emotionally accessible, a little bit more relatable. And actually I’m really happy with how it came out because I think the music felt like pretty honest expressions. And it felt like it was very organic, the studio process was really organic. The singing on the tune Love Knot, the duet, is killer.
Yeah, I especially love Alita’s vocals.
Yeah, she’s amazing, she’s ridiculous. I would say that it compares differently in a sense of trying to be more relatable and I would say it went a little less jazz, a little more pop folk rock. Just a little bit less, not totally. And yeah, I’m happy with how it came out and you know, it’s cool. And then the tune before this CD, “Just Remember,” also had that vibe and that did well and got on some playlists and did all that stuff.
But in terms of the recording — for me the recording process is we recorded it in a studio in the deep woods and got everybody there. And what I do is I write the music — I wrote the lyrics, and I write the music, the chord changes in some parts, but I do have a band that of people that are truly amazing musicians. They read music, they write music, they’re all good jazz musicians, they’re all good funk musicians.
And I bring the tune in, like a patient that needs surgery, and I sort of just to lay it on the table, the skull and bones, if you will, of the tune. And then our drummer, Jake Goldbas, will do his thing percussively and add his salt and pepper percussively and Alita and Sonny Step and, all of which are just completely, really no bullshit, just incredible singers.
Yeah. And then it takes on a life of its own?
Yeah. And it begins to turn into something that slightly deviates from the original, what I originally envisioned, but usually 95% of time in a really positive way. And then I let our musical director, Bryan Reeder get to send some keys.
And then we just sit in the studio and just obsess over it for three days. It’s sort of a crazy experience because it’s all these frankly, pretty confident, pretty creative people in one tiny little space trying to do it. So it’s a great process, an interesting process.
And sometimes it just sails right through and it’s perfect and then other times it’s a battle to get it right. It’s a battle — it’s embattled by the end, and you almost have to get away from it afterwards. And then after that’s done there’s tons of post-production and there’s editing and there’s typical music stuff. But we do like to record, I don’t want to say in an old fashioned way, but I’m not totally sold on the recordings I’m hearing for the most part right now.
Oh, do you go reel to reel?
No, we didn’t do reel to reel. Although, we do an analog summing mixer. But what do is we use mics. We don’t go direct as much. We really try to be electro-acoustic in the way that we record because, I don’t know, there’s just so many drum beats out there and drum software and stuff is sounding to me like it’s so direct in without any air being moved around by the music, by the sounds. I want to avoid that, I don’t want to sound like I’m in my living room plugged in.
And man, I mean, even some of the biggest music today is made like that. We use some of those techniques for sure, of course we do. But there is still something beautiful about an amp blaring sound into a microphone and to me it comes out, it’s still there’s a human element to it that comes out. But anyway, that’s a whole five hour discussion. And so the recording process is that and then the post production of course is typical. But again, I bring music like a patient that needs surgery to everyone. And they’re all so good that pretty much something good usually happens.
Would you call this a concept EP, lyrically?
I would say that these are inside out love songs that are set against the backdrop of New York City and talk about the tortured nature of relationships. “Go Along to Get Along” is about a contract killer in New York City who has a girlfriend. And then “Love Knot” is just about the madness and various jagged edges of relationships. And I usually don’t write long songs because everybody writes love songs but I thought I’d write a few this time. And then “Cliff” is just a crazy one about a breakup and that one is just…
That’s my favorite one, if I’m being honest.
Yeah, your music has been likened to everyone from Seal to Sade to Steely Dan, and I was going to say I get the Steely Dan comparison when I hear “Cliff ” because the jazz-rock intricacies, layers, and even the vocals sound like a Steely Dan song.
That’s one of the few songs that I’ve ever sung, so I sang “Cliff.” I don’t know which one is mine. I like “Go Along to Get Along” maybe the best just because of the chord changes. I like “Love Knot.” I don’t know; it’s hard to tell. But yeah, there’s definite jazz crossover influence in that stuff without that. There’s a common thread: inside out perversions of love songs. And lyrically I don’t try to tell a direct story of any kind, I just try to hang together some abstractions that make people think.
Exactly. And the best ones are ones you can feel where the artist was coming from, but you can actually ascribe your own meaning to them.
Exactly. That’s right. I was an English major and there was that deconstructionist concept that the text reads you, meaning you read something but really you’re just almost projecting what you are onto the open architecture of these words. And that’s really what I liked to write about and that’s how I like to write. I don’t want to tell a story — I went out with you, you broke up with me, and then went out with my best friend. Who gives a shit? You know what I mean?
Sometimes it’s not that easy to get out what you really want to say. It’s not as easy as they tell you.
No, it’s really hard. So that’s how I write lyrics.
Expanding upon jazz, surely the New York city jazz scene has influenced your music in some way. Would you agree with that?
Big time. I mean, listen, my brother is a prodigy jazz pianist who has performed with Josh Redmond and Christian McBride when he was 20-something years old. So I grew up around jazz; I grew up hearing jazz. And I would not say I’m a jazz musician, but I’m heavily influenced by jazz. I almost can’t write a song without something happening that references some modern jazz harmony. It’s almost like I can’t write a song without doing that. And I’ve worked with some jazz musicians I’ve recorded with John Scofield and…
I was going to ask you about that, as well as Donny McCaslin.
Donny McCaslin. Yeah, amazing.
Donny played with Bowie, right?
That album right before Bowie died, Donny was on that. But Donny was such a ridiculous powerhouse monster saxophone player, it’s just like a sonic boom coming out of that horn, you know? He’s amazing. And Scofield is probably my greatest guitar influence just in the way he plays and how quirky, how cool it is. And he’s also just a really cool, funny guy.
Yeah. And City Blog is a rotating crew, correct?
So the first CD was City Blog, the second CD was ‘Upscale Madhouse,’ and then it was a rotating crew. Then three years ago I really started to take this whole thing live, almost the way Steely Dan was a studio band and then decided to go live eventually. But, yeah, I started to go live and I did tons of auditions and by trial and error and weeding out assholes and scaling everything down to really talented, really fun, smart, participatory people I arrived at this band. And three amazing singers who also have solo careers. I mean, Alita, she sings with the top people, Chris Botti and Shawn Mendes…
And Sonny Step is amazing. He writes tunes, and he’ll pack venues and has millions of streams. So, I mean, they’re amazing. We just did a cover of a three-part harmony, very difficult cover of Crosby, Stills, & Nash’s “Helplessly Hoping.”
I sort of formed the band, went live, and our drummer had an incredible knack for suggesting people for the band who would just somehow work in this setting, who could be music, write music with great pop musicians, R&B musicians, jazz musicians. And I really, really want people to have incredible skills, it’s like if you play pick up basketball, you want to pick someone who can shoot, dribble with their right hand, drive hard with their left hand, then right hand and rebound and pass and stuff, you just want it all. You know what I mean?
And I feel I get that with this band, incredible musicians, incredible. And so I solidified the band and we started playing small venues a few years ago and now… Well, COVID obviously, it has shut things down for the last few months. And we just started playing bigger and bigger venues, getting more streams on Spotify, and finally getting recognition, which is cool.
Each musician brings something really special to the table?
Oh, for sure. Our piano player Bryan Reeder is a ridiculous jazz and classical piano player, amazing harmonically. Our drummers is so good, brings so much energy. The three singers are ridiculous, there’s nothing I can’t throw at them, there’s no harmony I can throw it to them that will phase them.
Our bass player, Jeff Hanley and Nathan Peck, they’re killer jazz and rock. I mean, you’re just talking about people that can hang at any level. And that makes it more fun because then when I write music I’m almost writing for them to challenge them. And I can usually tell when I bring a new tune whether it’s a piece of shit or whether it’s pretty good by the reactions, or in between, you know what I mean? So it’s good; you want that around you.
Yeah, definitely. What artists would you say have an influence on your stylings and overall sound? Other than Steely Dan, because we’ve already talked about that.
I would say Neil Young, lyrically.
I would say, of course we mentioned Steely Dan, but I would say Wayne Shorter harmonically and chordally. John Scofield in the way I play guitar. I would say — man, I sound a weepy old man, but I love Divas, man. I love Barbara Streisand, I love Nancy Wilson, I love Blossom Dearie from the seventies. I love Whitney. I love Mariah.
Oh, I love Whitney.
Yeah, she was killer.
And early Mariah? That’s my favorite.
Yeah, early Mariah is some of the greatest from the greatest R&B shit ever. I like it more than Chaka Khan’s stuff.
Oh yeah. I mean, I was a little girl singing those songs into a hairbrush. I had all of Mariah Carey’s cassettes and I played them over and over again, winding the tape with a pencil.
Right, exactly. And I’m a huge Amy Winehouse fan. So I’ve been influenced by those guys. And then, man, just so many fusion musicians over the years. I mean, rare guitar players. Michael Brecker is my favorite classical guitar player. And all the way up to Beck, I love Beck. It’s all over the place with Earth, Wind, and Fire. I mean just lyrically, honestly, the lyrical equivalent of Shakespeare is Bob Dylan.
I don’t know, I like these tunes and these pieces of music that sound a little more labor-intensive. Believe it or not, I really love, one of the better modern songwriters around is this woman Kacey Musgraves. Man, she kicks ass.
There seems to be poetic structure to your writing. Is that usually your songwriting approach?
It is. Honestly, I just want it to be imagistic, I want it to be abstract. I don’t want to tell linear stories.
That’s art; there’s enough of the linear.
Yeah, I don’t want to do that, I would like to hang together some abstractions. And I like poetry; it’s fun to write, it’s fun to read, it’s very freeing, and I like it. And so for sure there is that element to my lyric writing, for sure, for sure. Very influenced by that poetic approach without a doubt.
And that’s what constitutes a great song, in your words?
Forget about my writing. I mean think of Bono, right? Whether you like U2 or you don’t like U2. And think of all of the things he said. “Let me in the sound” and “Stop helping God across the street like a little old lady.”
And just all these wonderful, lovely, cool images. And that turns me on a lot more than someone saying, “Put a ring on it.” You know what I mean? And it turns me down a lot more than, I don’t know, most pop music. So yeah, it’s just nice to have there be an intelligence and an entity.
The truth is is that I remember I was young and we would get an album and we would look at the album art, we’d look at the liner notes. We’d see what Neil young was saying, we’d see what Dave Mason was saying and all this stuff. And there was an intellectual component to listening to music. And there was a way to have it thread into your life and be a narrative element of your life. And, man, I miss that, you know? I miss Eagles lyrics like, “Boy, oh, boy, she sure knows how to arrange things.” And all those great lines that were nasty and bitter, but subtly nasty and bitter. And so I missed that.
Yeah, yeah. I’m not saying there aren’t artists nowadays who don’t do that, of course.
It’s funny that you said Dave Mason while we’re on this very topic. Because I interviewed him one time and I asked him, “What do you think happened to the radio song?” And we had the same conversation.
It’s brutal, man. But the thing is it would be nice to have some standards, to have some labor intensive… I mean name what’s the most typical classic ever, “Hotel California” or “Comfortably Numb” by Floyd. I mean, just really think about the lyrics, there’s just beautiful in those songs.
Of course. What do the songs on Love Knot mean to you?
They’re just talking in an abstract way about the jagged edges and the weirdness of all relationships between all people. And the crazy perversions and the lack of sincerity, the danger and also everything from passion to. I wouldn’t say they mean anything specific, I’m not trying to make any statement whatsoever, I’m merely trying to get people to look at a sonic canvas and enjoy it and find it relatable in some way and say, “What the fuck? Those are some pretty good musicians and I like those lyrics. I don’t know why I like those lyrics, but I like them.”
That’s the other thing that (Steely Dan) did, is they brought the whole studio recording concept and they really emphasized that ethos of sonic perfection in the studio. And I love being in the studio because you can achieve things in the studio that you can’t achieve live ever. And it’s this wonderful collage-making process, it’s really cool.
You can judge a band by how they sound live, but nothing sounds like the studio recording.
And the studio experience is an interesting experience because you have to avoid the decadence that’s possible. Meaning there’s so many toys, there’s so much technology. And if you can pull back a little bit that’s where really the studio is the ultimate test of taste because it’s like that thing that Coco Chanel said, was put everything you own on and then take it all off and just leave one or two pieces on.
And it’s kind of like that because that’s the studio, you have so much fucking technology around you that you can do whatever you want but that doesn’t mean you have good taste. So it’s sort of like a boxing match between taste and decadence, is what the studio — that’s how I think of it. I never thought about that, but that’s what it is, it’s a boxing match between taste and decadence.
Lastly, music in the time of Corona. As far as touring to promote the new stuff or playing at local venues, how do you think you’ll navigate that in the coming weeks and months? Having you taken to the live stream platform?
I mean, we’re going to be doing some live stream stuff. That certainly has changed the model and it’s not going away. But man, I’m in prayer mode because there’s nothing to replace the live musical experience. These live streams on Instagram, and Twitch is doing it even better for sure. It will get refined and it will get better and better. And this model of life; it’s not going away. I mean, artists can reach their fans in a cheaper way, in a more comprehensive way.
And it’s keeping some people afloat.
And it’s keeping some people afloat economically and that’s really good and it’s really important. But it’ll get better, people will put the music on through their Bluetooth, there’ll be ways to pay people. But it’s still, man, I don’t want to sound old but…
No, I’m with you. There’s nothing like being on a stage and there’s nothing like being in the front row, let’s be honest.
Let’s be honest, there’s an energy to music. There’s a physical reality — and you’re moving air around in a room with your instruments and your amplifiers. And so that experience is somewhat unique and it’s more human. And so, man, I’m just fucking hoping — I’m in prayer mode hoping it comes back. But if it doesn’t come back I’ll do live streams and I’ll do what everybody else does because that’s what you do.
And there’s no excuse not to be writing music, I mean, if you’re sitting alone doing nothing but watching your hair grow too long you might as well write some music. So I have been writing music and we have recorded some new music. I think this cover we’re doing, I’ve never done a cover before on Spotify, but we’re covering “Helplessly Hoping,” and I really think it came out amazing.
Listen to the title cut, “Love Knot,” a duet between Alita Moses and Caleb Hawley.