Gideon King Talks New EP ‘Whatcha Gonna Do’, NYC Collective City Blog and More (INTERVIEW)

Gideon King & City Blog are a New York-based collective of musicians, all of whom have built up followings in various genres and their connectedness to different musical worlds is part of what they bring to the group in their collaborative recording sessions and live performances. The current lineup includes songwriter and guitarist Gideon King, and an eight-piece band including Caleb Hawley, Alita Moses, Ashley Hess, Sonny Step, Jake Goldbas, Jeff Hanley,  Zach Mullings, and Bryan Reeder. Each song they create is individual in its sound, bringing together genre elements like Pop, Jazz, Classic Rock, R&B and Soul. 

The band has been following a road of releasing singles and then collecting them as EPs for some time, a model that many bands are now adopting, and their latest EP, Whatcha Gonna Do, arrived recently, with more singles to come in 2022. Their most recent songs have a universal appeal but also echo observations about life in New York during the pandemic, like “Whatcha Gonna Do” and “Dealing”. I spoke with Gideon King about experiencing the past two years as a New Yorker, what contributes to the overall identity and productivity of a collective group like City Blog, and why Netflix may have taken over his life. 

Hannah Means-Shannon: Have you had the full experience of Covid from the vantage of New York City? 

Gideon King: I had Covid a couple years ago and I got pretty sick. It certainly shut everything down and everything that I like to do. It certainly hurt a lot of people and created an incredible amount of unemployment. As my wife has commented, it’s something that should have brought people together, but it did not bring people together. It became very political. New Yorkers have very strongly held beliefs and tend to be convinced that they are right. Meanwhile, there was even more homelessness and crime. It really changed everything, with people working from home. It did not bring out the best in people, sadly. 

HMS: Are you finding that you can play again now?

GK: Shows are slowly coming back. We’re starting to book up again. We’ve had a few in the last few weeks, though we had one at Joe’s Pub cancelled in February and rescheduled for July.

HMS: As far as recording and releasing, you all have been focusing on singles and then EP releases in the past and are currently doing that. Whereas a lot of musicians have moved toward that model during the pandemic, this was already your route. 

GK: We actually really hunkered down during Covid and were recording one song a month, which may not sound like much, but it was. We had to write them, produce them. We have ten to fifteen new songs that we are going to continue releasing. The latest was “Dealing” on the EP Whatcha Gonna Do? We have a remix of “Whatcha Gonna Do” coming out. 

The days of doing a full album seem like they are over in music. Thematic, full expressions are few and far between. It’s almost not rewarding commercially, to be honest, to do a full album. So we put out singles and bunch them into EPs. That’s not to say that we won’t do an album again. We will. But this is fun, honestly, because each song has a chance to flourish.

HMS: Something unusual about your group is that you have a lot of members, and each of them has their own professional accomplishments they continue to pursue. Does it help that each of the members has their own following and can reach their fans too?

GK: It’s a true collective. It helps us and it hurts us. It helps us because I truly believe the music is really good, and you have seven or eight musicians in a band making sure the music is great. I write the lyrics and the music then I bring it in and we do surgery on it. My pianist is a killer in various genres. We have three-part harmony singers who are really great. It truly makes the music special. The flipside of it is that it’s not just one personality dominating social media, so in that way I guess it’s less focused. If you look up a particular singer, it’s just one person usually. But what we have is a big group on stage with a big sound. It’s pretty intense and I’m proud of it. 

HMS: It’s clear that you’re not selling a cult of personality the way that a lot people are.

GK: No, and that could be a flaw in the end. But I want people to really listen to the music. Listening to music, to me, is an auditory phenomenon. That’s not to say that visual elements aren’t part of it, like dance and screens at concerts. You go see U2 in concert, and it’s as much visual as it is auditory. But for me, the greatest bands are auditory in nature, for the ears and for the mind. That’s one reason I love Steely Dan so much. Adele is pretty auditory, too. If it’s humanly possible, I would like our band to continue to progress based purely on the music. Like the way it was for me at age 15 when I would go to the record store and buy my record or CD of Neil Young and then spend a week listening to it. 

HMS: What are the major challenges facing a collective group and what enables a collective to work well?

GK: It’s the same principles that you find in business. If you can’t take criticism, for instance. Basically, I think we’re comfortable enough with each other that when we record, my drummer can say to me, “Your guitar solo kinda sucks.” The musicians in my band are next-level kind of people, so if one of them criticizes me, I really listen. You have to be able to put your ego aside. That’s the key ingredient. But the other thing is not to work with assholes. If someone has an idea, and then everyone says that it sucks, they need to come up with another idea. There shouldn’t be hurt feelings or human garbage. We’re just writing a song, so everyone should just relax. Sometimes I do things by poll. If some people really like something, even if I don’t, and I get outvoted, I just had some talented musicians telling me something I should accept.

HMS: So open communication, to some extent a lack of ego, and negotiation abilities keep things working? 

GK: A complete lack of ego. But we have been through musicians who weren’t like that. If people aren’t happy, I tell them to leave. The current band in the current construct has weeded out the people who don’t seem to be able to coexist and just have fun with. Also, you genuinely have to think that the other people you are working with are good, or you won’t be able to accept things.

HMS: Are you a focal point, as the glue that holds the group together, or are you more a facilitator?

GK: I’m a driving force, and I’m often the architect of the vibe and the sound, but not always. In some ways less and less. There’s a lot more R&B than there used to be due to one of our singers. You can write some lyrics and they will sound completely different depending on who you have in a room doing it. What really sculpts the sound is the rhythm section, too. I get everyone together, but the music is a lot better now than it was four years ago, and that is because of the presence of this collaboration that we’ve embraced in the past few years. It’s because of the other people and their input.

HMS: How do you choose between vocalists on songs?

GK: Basically, they have to be able to handle the tricky stuff. We have a lot of three-part harmonies and non-standard chord changes. So our vocalists are assassins and are all musically trained. Then it’s just about vibe. 80% of the time I have the vocalist in mind when I write a song, but sometimes I change that in the studio. 

HMS: This EP, like most of your work, shows that you don’t really gravitate towards story-songs as a lyricist. How do you gather images that you want to put into songs?

GK: Right, there are no linear narratives. I’m always writing things down and listening. I remember once my wife called me “Mr. Tail Light Man” because I’m always walking out of the room during the fight, and I said, “Oh my god. That’s so great.” But millions of things and little cool impressions give me ideas. I went to Savannah, Georgia, and walking around Savannah gave me a great idea for a song. That city is beautiful, and creepy, and scary. It has great food but was also the site of the biggest slave trade in history, so it’s impossible to love that place on a completely pure basis. But that was an idea for me. 

Any experience or complexity in a relationship feeds in. I just want to present images to people. They don’t have to hang together as some kind of perfect song. I hate all those lyrics that are, “I went out with you for a year, then we broke up.” Instead, listen to “Lyin’ Eyes” by the Eagles, or even Snoop Dogg, who’s a great lyricist. I argue a lot about U2, but honestly, Bono is an amazing lyricist. There are so many cool concepts. I find this “faux honesty” of artists right now really boring, saying, “I’ll let you into my vulnerability. I’m so scared.”

HMS: That’s definitely the flavor of the hour and can be taken a little too far sometimes. 

GK: Vulnerability has become this kind of currency on Instagram.

HMS: It absolutely is a currency right now. Authenticity has been the brand of the past few years in music and in other arts, but I have seen people doing it in a self-aware way that’s a little too artful. They know it’s a selling point. 

GK: It can become boring. There is a world outside yourself and you could write about other things. You could write about other people or concepts. That’s why it was fun to write a song about Savannah. I prefer not to have every song be about my personal feelings.

HMS: “Whatcha Gonna Do” sounds like a place-based song, too. It’s a very New York song.

GK: It is. It’s about what you’re going to do next after sitting around your house in your sweat pants with your French bread pizza. Life started to kind of fester. “Dealing” is about that too. The streets became horrible and we almost started embracing not going outside. That stuff about being “ghosted by the man and cancelled by the street” was about being told what to do, and the streets emptying out. But the question is, what are you going to do next? Are you still going to be yourself? It’s nothing too deep.

HMS: Or will you be a changed version of yourself? 

GK: I can say that what I have learned from the whole Covid thing is essentially nothing. [Laughs] I’ve not grown as a person. I’ve not gotten better. What I’ve basically learned is that without Netflix, I’m not sure I would survive. Without shows like Yellowstone and The Crown, what would I have done? My wife and I would finish The Queen’s Gambit, and ask, “What do we actually have in our lives now? I guess we should eat.” 

HMS: I considered cancelling one of my streaming services because they were raising their rates yet again, but when I started to do it, I felt a kind of visceral fear, like I wasn’t sure if I could survive it.

GK: Yes! When The Crown was over, I was suffering some kind of weird grief about, just sitting on the couch. [Laughs] I realized that without Netflix, my life could very well be meaningless. 

HMS: What should people be looking out for from Gideon King & City Blog in the next few months? 

GL: Well, they should check out our catalog. The EPs, Whatcha Gonna Do and Winter Soldier are out. Those were both more funky, Pop tunes, though the song “Dealing” went more fusion. We also have a bunch of things that are a total mix between Gospel and almost Eagles-like stuff. We also have a song coming up called “Splinters” that’s like a mixture of Jackson Browne and Pat Metheney. 

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