Kaki King On The Mechanics, Excitement, and Resentment of Never Not Being a Guitarist
This article originally appeared in She Shreds Issue #14, which was released in February, 2018. Receive a copy as your first issue when you subscribe here.
A self-described pragmatist with an almost otherworldly respect for the guitar, Kaki King has been anointed as a guitar deity by publications such as Rolling Stone and Guitar World. Since releasing her debut album, Everybody Loves You (Velour) in 2003, her technically complex and gorgeously rich playing has won herself fans ranging from academic composers to the producers of TED Talks.
She Shreds spoke with King about her new studio, her new album, Live at Berklee (BIRN Cooperative Recordings), and the impact Lasik eye surgery had on the way she approached her work.
Update: Since this interview was held, Kaki King has gone on to launch her own label, Short Stuff Records, including the debut of her work as a producer for classically trained multi instrumentalist Treya Lam.
She Shreds: Tell us about your studio, Other Cathedrals.
Kaki King: I realized I had far more guitars than I could play or maintain. I’m not a fan of people who collect guitars and don’t play them. I had become this person I didn’t like, so I built the studio. I made a place for almost every guitar. I cut down and curated my own collection. I commissioned a guitar that is new. Some of the guitars are older. I have a beater guitar with some dead strings. And I’ve got some very nice handmade acoustics that are one-of-a-kind pieces, a harp guitar, and a jumbo 12-string. I invested in studio gear, and now I’ve become an engineer and producer. So over the last year my role has changed from polisher and string-changer to running a proper recording studio.
What has the process been like becoming a full-fledged engineer?
Experimentation and letting go. It’s kind of like how there’s no proper way to play guitar; there’s no right way to engineer. It’s a lot of guesswork. Engineering and producing is all about a personal style you develop over the years. People think you need a lot of tech knowledge to understand processes, but you actually don’t. You just need to plug stuff in and start recording. It’s been super fun helping the artists I’m working with. I’ve been on the other side of that process for many years.
Do you feel that Other Cathedrals has enabled you to approach how you play guitar differently?
Having immediate access to guitars has made a difference. If I want to have three similar guitars and see how they work with different tunings or string gauges, I can do that. It’s become an experimental lab that allows me to work quickly.
What an astounding set of equipment. It sounds like a total dream.
Yeah! I want to turn it into a non-profit. I don’t need to make any money off of people if they want to play guitar—preferably young people or women that don’t have this kind of access. For certain people, even walking into a guitar store is terrifying. Just to be able to come and talk about guitars, and be comfortable—I’d rather do that than make $40 off of some dude that has sent me 80 fucking emails.
There’s no information or education about the guitar when you first get one. It’s knowing about the wood, the size of the neck, the length of the scaling. If you’re knowledgeable, you may spend a little more money on a slightly better guitar that might make your life so much easier. I see so many people struggle on a terrible guitar. You’re given all these hurdles—plus a shitty guitar you’re supposed to get good at. I’m not saying a guitar is economically available to everyone. I’m saying I can show you what a nice guitar sounds like and you can make your own decision.
There’s certain ways people gain knowledge. A lot of it’s from friends. And let’s face it, [the world] has changed fundamentally since I was a young lass. There’s now more women buying guitars than there ever have been. But there should be more education about why certain guitars work and are easier to play than others.
Tell us about your new record, Live at Berklee, which involved you working with Berklee students and faculty to revisit your famous compositions. How did it feel?
There’s this very awesome professor named Tony Brown at Berklee. This was his idea: “Let’s get an artist who is already established to come do a project with students, release an album, and then students have credit on an internationally released album.”
But how do we make it exciting? His idea was to do a live record, so what we were rehearsing for was a live performance. I chose a number of pieces. I orchestrated [some], Tom Hagerman from DeVotchKa arranged some, then some students arranged some. Then we rehearsed with a 13-piece ensemble. It was a pretty neat thing to do. But then I was also like, “Oh, here I am, a person who never went to music school with a conductor in front of me.”
How did that exercise change your relationship to those songs?
I realized that my arrangements were more conservative in terms of supporting the song. The other arrangements were really more about reinventing and taking the lead on the music already there. The process didn’t change my relationships to the songs themselves, but I certainly realized that arranging is not simply putting slow strings behind a piece of music. You can take it in so many directions. It’s cool that you can have something that you did years ago and come back to it with new eyes.
What’s your pedal setup?
Live, I have abandoned all pedals. A lot of it has to do with the show I’m touring, The Neck Is A Bridge To The Body. I realized that having a pedalboard didn’t work. I use Logic MainStage and I set up each song. It doesn’t deviate and it’s more controlled. It’s a theatrical thing that’s happening. My laptop is on at my feet, I don’t touch it with my hands—it’s barely on. I use a MIDI foot pedal with three buttons. I’m practical to a fault [laughs]… I know some of your readers might groan at the idea of playing through a laptop. It’s changed my budget. It’s opened every sound I could ever need. The plugins you can use! In The Neck Is A Bridge To The Body, I’m in character. If something happens with the pedalboard with clickity-clackity buttons and lights, the show just wouldn’t make sense. So I let go of it.
Can you tell me about the work you’ve done previously at art spaces, including MoMA? Did this work inspire your audio-visual show, The Neck is a Bridge to the Body, at all?
No no, I’m not gonna lie to you. I did a bunch of tours. Then I made a record called Glow. I went back to being so starkly lit on stage. I’d be asked by a lighting director how I wanted the lights and I’d say, “I just want one spot on me.” Everything else was blacked out. It was too much. There was not enough beauty in it. Friends said that I should have a lighting design and set some atmosphere for people who don’t care about how fast my stupid hands move or want to see some serious masterclass. I found out about projection mapping. It’s mostly done on a fairly large scale. I thought, “How do I make it tiny? What if we do this on a guitar? Can I afford it?” Once those questions were answered, then it was, “I can make a show on this.”
In 2008 I had Lasik surgery on my eyes. [Before] I wore contacts and glasses. I was not very interested in the visual world. I had corrective lenses. It was hard to take in things. I didn’t go to museums; I didn’t look at art. With glasses I had no peripheral vision. With contacts, ugh. At the end of the day I was taking my sight out and staring at blurs. So I finally got Lasik and it changed everything. Suddenly I had really great vision and everything looked good. At the age of 28! I think that was the beginning of a desire to create a show with a visual narrative.
I do feel like I’m still figuring it all out. I’m running one of the most technically complex shows out there in terms of guitar players, with two giant projectors, and the guitar controls what you see visually. I could talk about software for ages.
Are you using processing?
I’m using MIDI. The main controller used to control the video is called Resolume. Before my guitar goes to my computer I split the signals, and I send that signal directly into the video computer, [which] receives a totally dry guitar signal—no effects. We run that to a program called MIDI Guitar. It picks up your guitar notes and turns it to MIDI notes. That routes out to Resolume. So if I play MIDI note C3 on the guitar, that will say to Resolume to trigger a video clip. This way I can control exactly what you see. We’ve mapped that to the screen behind me that’s running the whole show. I control the color wash that goes across it. It’s very basic, but it has to be at the beginning of the show because I’m teaching the audience that the guitar is controlling what they’re seeing. That’s one of many things we do in the show to turn the guitar into a visual being and become a controller.
Please tell the readers of She Shreds about the Chicken McNugget technique you use for teaching guitar.
Think about a chicken nugget. Maybe it’s some meat that’s been boiled down to its essential amino acids once you process it and strip away all other characteristics.
When you learn something, it means find the core of what you’re trying to learn. A lot of time people try to learn a lick and play too fast. Clearly their fingering is bad—they’re not slowing down enough to examine it. The Chicken McNugget is getting it down to the basic thing, the primal nugget. Then you bread it, fucking deep fry it, and put it in your mouth! [laughs] It’s a reminder that every single complex thing that can be played has some fundamental simplicity to it that must be examined all the time.
What role has the guitar played in your life?
I examine this question in The Neck is a Bridge to the Body. It’s about how the guitar takes center stage. It directs me and tells me what to do. When you’ve played it as long as I have and are familiar with it, the guitar tends to want to go in certain places—your fingers find where they need to be. It’s not about me forcing my will of a genius composition on top of the instrument. It’s letting go of the idea that I’m in charge. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing with this thing. It’s defined my life. I will never not be known as a guitarist, and there’s a little bit of strange resentment there. The guitar calls the shots and I sort of fucking figure it out.
How do you identify and think of your place in the world outside of being a guitarist?
I’m a gardener. I get very excited about compost. I also think of myself as a drummer—I play drums on all of my albums. The whole wife and mom [thing] I don’t do as much, but I guess I am. I say that because man, the fucking energy these children take!
The thing I get to have that most people don’t get is the guitar. There’s so few people that can make their living playing solo guitar. The guitar is the individualizing and defining thing. I know a lot of moms, a lot of gay people, a lot of women. But I don’t know a lot of people who somehow figured out how to play guitar without doing a hell of a lot of singing. So that’s put me in a very small category. Being able to pick up an instrument and make music instantly is a special thing. There’s many ways to shred. I love guitar. I’ve played for 34 years. I want to do it every day. I’ve never lost interest. I’ve never run out of things to do, explore, discover, or learn.