“I am the fucking influence.”
In our pre-interview conversation, I’d asked Kaki King about her not-so-memorable experiences with press, specifically the questions that are most frustrating to her. After a few examples, the least favorite moments, she said, included writers who failed to do their homework. The giveaway? “So who are your influences?” Hence the aforementioned correction.
I lead with that for good reason. It’s the best summation of Kaki King’s demeanor and ability. She’s confident for good reason. She knows her place in the musical world (at the top), and she owns it as she should. If you read that as anything other than the straightforward fact that it is, you’re reading too much into it. She’s a delight. She’s just also exactly what she says: an incredible guitar player whose legacy is being forged with each new project.
Lately she’s bringing her multisensory tour for The Neck Is a Bridge to the Body around the United States. Using projection mapping, Kaki’s new show explores the guitar in intimate, imaginative ways. As you talk to her, you realize the guitar is simply an extension of herself. To learn more about the instrument is to grow in self-awareness. It’s a rare relationship, but it’s what makes her such a special artist. Or, I should say, the fucking influence.
Stereo Subversion: The premise for The Neck Is a Bridge to the Body feels like something that an artist could only make after a certain amount of time and experience and perspective. Does that feel true for you?
Kaki King: Yeah, I think I know what you’re asking. Well, first of all, the technology had to be available. And I had to have my career established enough to do this. I did this with other people’s money with a Kickstarter. I needed a giant fan base in order to support that, for which I am eternally grateful. So the infrastructure of my life had to be ready for this.
It’s also about my relationship with the guitar developing to a certain point. For me, it’s about what the guitar is and what my job really is as a guitar player. It’s really to showcase the brilliance of the guitar and the never-ending possibilities of the instrument. That’s really important, but that doesn’t happen on day one. So I think the timing was very, very right for this kind of show for me.
SSv: How long has this been in the works, then?
Kaki: When I look back, it felt like an eternity, but from the initial concept to the first performance was under a year. I discovered projection mapping in the spring of 2013. Projection mapping is the basic term for multiple different options or pieces of software you can use to project light from a projector onto a very specific surface — in this case, the guitar. When I discovered that, I thought, ‘Can I do that on the guitar?’
It wasn’t a long time, but it was more about the trials. It was about getting to the point where I had talented people who knew what they were doing in a room who were willing to come with me to hear my ideas and figure out what I was trying to do from a technical aspect and do it. Once I saw the guitar lit up, I knew it would be great. I knew the show would be great. It was so beautiful. There’s something about it that’s remarkable to see and open up another infinite source of options from the visual world that I could use on the guitar.
In addition, there are times when I’m using the guitar that the guitar is almost like a paintbrush. When I play a note, it paints a different color. This note is a purple spiral and the next is a blue spiral. I can go between pink and purple and I can change the color on the rear screen behind me. I have full control over what you’re seeing via the guitar. In my opinion, this show has merely scratched the surface for what I am doing and creating around it.
SSv: Earlier you said that you knew what your job was — to showcase the guitar. When did you figure out that was your job as a performing artist, and did you ever think you had other jobs than that?
Kaki: Interesting. When I say “job,” it’s more like my curse. [Laughs] It’s the thing that I was set on the planet to do. I love my life. I love my career. I love my fans. I love everything. And at this point, I have zero skills other than playing and touring. But it doesn’t mean that that’s the only thing. It’s not like it was that or nothing. It’s just more about who I am every single minute of the day. If I have to figure out life at some point, I’ll go do that. No big deal. I can figure out something.
I’ve had three small jobs in my life, although the last job I had, the last job I quit, was a job with Blue Man Group. I was in the band in Blue Man Group in New York City, and it’s funny because I just had a reunion of people who’d been at the New York theater in the show for a long time. They’re all still there. They all still make a living doing that. I could have stayed there and I could’ve continued to be in the show and gotten some pay raises and maybe gone out on tours, but that was the last job I quit. That was very telling because at that point it meant that I could leave my very cool off-Broadway show and make a living just making my own music.
SSv: So you would reframe how you even said that earlier.
Kaki: I would. My vocation pays the rent, but my purpose… Sometimes, some things get chosen outside of you. I am no mystic and I don’t believe in invisible powers at work, but there’s something so compelling about that instrument. I grew up with it. I’ve played since I was 4-years-old. I can’t conceive of a life without playing every day. That’s just nonsense. I can conceive of a life without a lot of things I do regarding that, but playing? No, I’m always going to play.
SSv: You said you’re not a believer in an invisible power, but the way you describe the guitar is the way someone would describe a book that is holy to them — something that is finite and yet somehow people over history continue to explore this thing from all angles. Your devotion almost sounds religious.
Kaki: That’s a cool way to put it. That’s a cool picture. But I wouldn’t say it’s religious. It’s more like a family member I have to deal with. [Laughs] I’ve just learned to deal with them. I put up with their shit and I don’t have a choice. But what I do like about what you said is this very limited finite thing — you’re right — with six strings and, yeah, there’s all these modifications, but it’s basically the same thing. They all function basically the same way. If you know something on this guitar, you’re going to be able to do something on another one. But the infinite, just rings so true. There’s never a minute where you go, ‘I’ve got it all. I’ve learned it all.’
You can’t even do that within a genre. You learn everything there is to learn and then you start playing your own thing. Then you start writing and then you spend the rest of your life putting your own personality into this thing that is so much bigger than you. At the same time, it limits your choices in a way.
As a player, I can tell you that guitar is painful. You have to stretch your hands in very bizarre ways. I’m often frustrated by what I can’t do. Like, ‘I wish I could hit that note up there, but it’s impossible if I want to hold these bass notes down.’ I have my workarounds that look pretty crazy, but the guitar has this magical way of saying, ‘You’re not going to be able to do much, but with the options I’ve given you, with this tuning, this concept or whatever you’re into, you’re going to make something that is infinitely interesting.’ I like the fact that the guitar is a self-limiting system.
SSv: Everyone has something they started when they were a kid but few of us would speak of that same thing with such devotion. Do you remember when you fell in love with it?
Kaki: My early teens were when I could go into a CD store when I could buy what I wanted and listen to what I wanted. There were little bits of freedom. Now it was all crap, because I was 11 and Vanilla Ice was cool. That’s terrible. But I had this autonomy where I started to decide, ‘This is what I like, not because my dad likes it.’ All of my music in my life to that point was whatever my dad liked, but I had this knowledge from childhood of playing guitar. I didn’t take lessons for long, but I always played and I’d learned how to play. I had a good ear, and I’d picked out things really easy. So I could listen to Top 40 radio and play the guitar along with it.
I think it was a couple years after that when looking back, I had no idea why I started looking at these VHS tapes of guitar artists teaching you to play their songs. I don’t know why. It’s so weird for a queer kid in Atlanta, Georgia who is in every other aspect of life into Brit-pop and kids doing crazy things and I was one of those kids, but this guitar was so interesting.
It was totally private. There are several years of my life where no one even knew I played guitar, because I’d played drums and bass and played in everyone’s bands. I was that kid playing and going to gigs and that, but this little part of the guitar world was so fascinating to me. So it was probably then. It was when I was developing a social life that was consumed by music but there was the pull of this guitar.
I will also say this: once you reach a level of competency with the guitar and you know what you’re doing, you say you want to you get better but what does that mean? For me, in the early ’90s, there was speed metal, early jazz fusion, which was for some reason the only jazz I’d known on the guitar, or classical. None of these weren’t what I wanted to do. But this fourth way was shown to me early on through my dad and the records I’d listen to and guys like Nick Drake, Alex De Grassi and Michael Hedges… even though the lifestyle movement was really silly, like new age whatever, some of the guitar work was amazing.
I have no idea why I felt like I did, but the minute I would learn to do something intersting, it would open all these doors to new things I could learn. I just kept opening those doors.
*Photo: Randy Gunter