DJ Williams’ emergence in the music scene has been a measured, steady ascent; we’ve had the pleasure of enjoying the guitarist come of age over the past decade-plus. The lead guitarist of the venerable funk-rock juggernaut, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, recently, Williams unveiled a solo endeavor he calls Shots Fired. A collection of troubadours dispersed in all four corners of the land, Williams brings together this revolving assembly of funk-jam heavy-hitters to explore his own rapidly expanding songbook. With one platinum boot in Blaxploitation soundtracks, and the other Doc Martin rock ‘n’ roll sexy as Mama Said-era Lenny Kravitz, Shots Fired has developed some tangible momentum. DJ has taken different versions of the band on the road to some raucous rooms around the country. He recently released Live From Over Where, a live record culled from roughly thirty different Shots Fired gigs, boasting bandmates that assemble into a murderers’ row.
A KDTU super-fan and longtime admirer of DJ’s guitar work, I’d been meaning to catch up with the axe-slinger to hear all about Shots Fired, and get the scoop on the critically-acclaimed “Eat A Bunch of Peaches” Allman Brothers review that KDTU unveiled this Spring. More than anything, I wanted to check in with him on a far deeper level, to honor his unflappable mojo, as the guitarist rebounded from unthinkable personal trauma.
On April 17, 2017, DJ was arrested at Abu Dhabi International Airport for a cannabis vaporizer cartridge he absent-mindedly left in his luggage. For six long, agonizing, nightmarish weeks, DJ was in custody, held in dangerous, decrepit, and unsanitary quarters and subjected to unspeakable treatment. After he was (officially) deported from Abu Dubai, DJ returned to his native Richmond, Virginia, and retreated to his parents home to regroup and reboot. From there, he began the long, hard road out of hell. The soundtrack to that journey starts with Live From Over Where; however, clearly there’s more to the story, and much more music to come.
This man’s story of a rise, fall, and rebirth profoundly resonated with me. Without any further adieu, here’s my sit-down with DJ Williams.
B. Getz: Over the past calendar year, you have put a lot of energy into Shots Fired, particularly focused on Live From Over Where, the album you released with Shots Fired. It’s a bit of a departure from DJ Williams Projekt, yet still cut from your artistic lineage and vibe. How did Shots Fired come to be? How did this live album from a brand-new endeavor take shape?
DJ Williams: As an artist, Shots Fired—and that record—has really been my main focus right now. Live From Over Where, it’s something that I hold very dear to my heart, and that’s for multiple reasons. For starters, feels like the first time I feel I’m putting out something that is purely me.
B. Getz: Let’s get into how it all came together. Take us through the process for this project.
DJ Williams: I have a few recordings of my previous band, DJ Williams Projekt. I just got lost on my computer on the road one day and stumbled upon them, and just thought, “Wow, this is really cool.” Usually, I am in a studio setting, and I end up chopping things to a point where I don’t really dig it anymore.
I started to realize if I am going to put out an album, I would love to put out a live one where we just capture these raw moments of music. A record that is not overthinking things. I really wanted to be getting the “best of” these different performances and lineups, so when I started Shots Fired, I recorded pretty much every show, whenever possible, for about a year. Beginning in October 2016 all the way to December of last year (2017).
BG: Like an aural history of the evolution of this band, onstage each and every night. That’s brilliant, man. So how many shows did you guys capture in this process?
DW: 30 shows, roughly. We didn’t multi-track. A lot of the recordings were done by this guy, Aaron Bowers, who came out. I found a few on archive.org, some we grabbed a live feed off the board—the audience matrix vibe! I think it’s important in a live record for the crowd to be heard in some way. Because without sounding cliché, the audience is just as much a part of the show as the show.
BG: On live albums, you wanna feel the vibes and the warmth of the audience, so it’s good you can hear the people cheering and that sort of stuff.
DW: I kind of like the fact that there are little mistakes on that record, and you can hear things in the background. There’s flubs in the songs and certain things. In post-production, I was asked if we wanted to take that stuff out, and I said, “No, let’s keep it. Let’s have people take home exactly what they heard.”
B. Getz: In recording 30 shows in under a year’s time, you had a revolving unit of cats that did the gigs, depending on when, where, and how the stars aligned. Did you feel like a core unit was coalescing with the band, or was it a situation where you just handpicked players?
DJ Williams: There’s definitely a core unit amongst us with the guys who have done the most shows. There’s this vibe where we don’t even have to talk about anything, we just go. We just hit the stage, and we go! As the Shots Fired family got bigger, I started to take notice of who was getting that vibe.
Different cats would ask what I wanted them to play and the positions and stuff like that. They asked, “How do you want me to play that?” Shots Fired is all about me saying, “No, I want you to do it however you feel it.” I wanted them to interpret the songs themselves—that was way more exciting for me. The more we did it, that approach helped things from getting stale from night to night. Many people might get bored really easy when it’s the same thing every night, so this approach helped right away when we started really rolling with Shots Fired.
BG: Tell me about who you called and why. I know this krewe is a mixture from your Richmond, Virginia roots, plus cats from Los Angeles, Denver, and points between.
DW: The very first show we did at Winston’s in San Diego was my drummer Dusty [Simmons], my trumpet player Mark [Ingraham], and my sax player Gordon [“Saxman” Jones]. They had all flown out to Cali and were staying with me, and then I added a few others like Chris Stillwell from the Tiny Universe and also Andy Geib and [Daniel “Dela” Delacruz] from Slightly Stoopid. So it was like this perfect storm of my East Coast guys and my West Coast people coming together. We are all close friends, my three bands, and it feels like a family unit. That’s when I knew it was going to be a really cool thing. And we had a four-piece horn section.
BG: A four-piece horn part. Are you writing horn charts?
DW: Dela has written some horn lines… Well, I wrote them for “91 breaks”, but so did he. That’s been fairly new to me, and I have learned a lot from Karl [Denson] on the right and wrong ways of approaching horn-section writing. “Monkstrap” is the first horn-section line that I really delved into writing. Going from there, I got more comfortable about approaching horn-section writing. “Grove Ave” I wrote the horn sections for.
BG: Wild guess: is Grove Ave. somewhere in Richmond? I’ve been digging that tune. I’m just feeling that RVA vibe, like this is some hometown shit.
DW: Yeah, you know it! Grove Ave. is the last street in Richmond that I lived on before I moved to Cali. So right before I left Richmond, I moved into an apartment by myself, I got divorced, and I wasn’t writing anything for a while. But then I got to Grove Ave., and Dusty was my neighbor. We would just be creative all the time, we would go over to each other’s places and play records all the time. I was so inspired the couple years I lived there, and it was one of the first tunes I wrote.
Shots Fired – “Grove Ave” – Ardmore Music Hall – Ardmore, PA – 3/3/2018
B.Getz: You mentioned “‘91 Breaks” earlier. That’s another personal fave on Live From Over Where.
DJ Williams: “91 breaks” actually came out of the sessions I did with Alan Evans—the Agent Three sessions. That was me, Alan Evans, and Darby Wolf up in Alan’s Playonbrother Studios. “91 Breaks” was one of those things that kind of came about in the studio and just wrote itself.
B.Getz: First time I saw Shots Fired proper was earlier in 2018. You played a gig here in the Bay after the Greyboys show, and you guys absolutely rocked the Boom Boom Room. What were some of the highlights with this most recent incarnation of Shots Fired? Did you notice people vibing the tunes, engaging with the material that’s on the record, when you would bust them out?
DW: Literally, it came together, and it was perfect. I got the record shipped to my parent’s house in Richmond, thinking it would get there in time for the first show, but it actually showed up a day after. We had a day off, so I went to my folks’ house to pick it up and was able to have it out for the rest of the tour. Definitely noticed people responding more and more to the material as it got out there.
As for highlights, one that really sticks out is we got to open up for Soulive at Ardmore Music Hall just outside of Philly—that was a record-release party too. The people in Philly can rage! We were definitely very well-received by that city. I think that the Philly crowd had never heard of me or Shots Fired before, but the response was sick, and so it was great night overall. Also, Burlington, Vermont, at Nectar’s. Last time I played there was 2007 with the Projekt, so it’s been over a decade since we were in that room. It felt really good to be back in that town again; I forgot how much I loved it.
Shots Fired – “Monk Strap” – Ardmore Music Hall – Ardmore, PA – 3/3/2018
B.Getz: I’ve noticed on social media, the record has been getting some love. What are you looking to do moving forward, now that Live From Over Where is released?
DJ Williams: We have been getting really great traction. We get daily plays on Jam_On; I keep getting texts from people saying, “I can’t believe this song is being played again.” We are sort of regrouping in April and May, as I relocated to Denver recently. Karl has been around the world with The Rolling Stonesin May and this month, so I am going to try and hit it really hard with Shots Fired now, going to keep the family going.
I have a wish list of people I’d like to get up with: Nigel [Hall], Nikki Glaspie. I would love to have like Nikki Bluhm or something pop-up. We would do something funky, get her out of her element. See what cool things we could do. That’s the beauty about this band—it’s limitless and it’s lovely and I love it.
B.Getz: I’ve been hearing amazing things about KDTU’s “Eat a Bunch of Peaches” Allman Brothers tribute. You guys did a run that included NOLA over Jazz Fest as well as a historic hit at Wanee in Florida. The great reviews are coming back, from ABB family to hardcore funkateers and all folks found between. Can you take us through “Eat a Bunch of Peaches” a bit?
DJ Williams: Yeah, man. We headed to Atlanta for some rehearsals and had a really great Southeast run. Karl brought out Stanton Moore from Galactic and Kenneth Crouch on keys who played in Lenny Kravitz’s band. I feel like a lot of what Karl does is about stepping out of what feels too comfortable. He is traveling outside of the world of funk into something you aren’t as comfortable with, but still, always trying to make it funky. When we do these tributes, we are trying to put our unique sound into whatever we are playing. We are going to make it danceable, no matter what we cover.
I had never dove head first into the music of the Allman Brothers. I’ve seen and heard it done countless times but never actually learned any of it until this run, but I do have the most respect for that music now. I’ve learned a lot from dissecting it and from stepping outside my comfort zone. It’s about taking what I’ve always respected and making it me, for the people who come to these shows. I think that is what the Tiny Universe wants to do here, collectively.
Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe – “In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed” – Wanee – 4/21/2018
[Video: matt hodges]
B.Getz: On that note, what are some songs on Allman Brothers’ gigs that you find yourself digging into? Seems like this material has really found a unique alchemy with the dual guitar attack with Seth Freeman.
DJ Williams: I really love “Whipping Post”—that’s definitely one of my favorites. It’s gotten to this point where me and Seth can dig in and really do what we do. He’s been in KDTU for two, three years now, and we are really starting to gel together. I’ve got the funk, jazz, hip-hop vibes, and Seth has got the bluesman, the delta guy, and he can sing. We’ve learned so much from each other, from playing on stage together.
Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe – “Whipping Post” – Park West – Chicago, IL – 11/17/2017
[Video: Nunu Zomot]
B. Getz: It’s been a calendar year since your international nightmare transpired, as May 31st, you marked a year liberated. For those who are unfamiliar, you were arrested at the Abu Dhabi airport for a cannabis vaporizer cartridge mistakenly left in your luggage, and subsequently incarcerated for six grueling weeks in unspeakable conditions. If you are comfortable doing so, I’d like to hear about your rebounding and stepping back into the world, the music scene, and your community, after what you lived through.
DJ Williams: It was a year since the arrest on April 17th of 2017. I came out on May 31st, so yeah, man, just over a year now. I’ve been so focused on Shots Fired, plus moving to Denver, and always being on the road with Karl; I didn’t really think about the one year on the calendar until it was here. Since then, I’ve reflected on things quite a bit.
B. Getz: You have already spoken on the horrors of the ordeal to another publication, so today, we can just go ahead and acknowledge that prison in Abu Dhabi really is your worst nightmare: a bunch of people locked up in close quarters, police who don’t speak your language, living in and eating filth, fearing for your own safety, with no idea when you would be getting out. After being held in custody in those conditions, thankfully, you came out the other side, wiser for the time. What were some things that rose to the surface right when you got back to the States?
DJ Williams: Looking back to when I was released, initially, I was just lost in non-belief, struggling to understand that I was free. I originally planned on going back to L.A. to get back to things there, but at the last minute, I changed my mind. When I got back, I was in Virginia, and I stayed at my parents’ house for the first couple weeks. I wanted to take my time, to get over these feelings—the surreal feeling of being free again.
I didn’t do a long time, not as long as others have, but man, it is just the intensity of like… always having to look over my shoulder, just having to be “on guard” for almost two months, around the clock, for the whole time I was there. I gotta say, it was hard to shake that. Especially, because when you are in there, all you have are your thoughts. Just you and your thoughts. All I could think about was re-packing my bag and re-checking things. I was replaying it over and over in my mind, and all the things I could have done to prevent it, and what could have happened instead… But obviously, there’s nothing that could be done. I made this mistake, and I owned up to my mistake. I paid the price for it, and it was a lot bigger price than what I expected it to be. But that’s life.
When I could get to sleep, which didn’t come easy, I would have dreams of being on the outside, dreaming of when I was free, and then I’d wake up behind those walls again. So it took me a while to truly believe that when I was free, I was finally, actually, totally free!
BG: Thank you for that reflection. At what point did you pivot to this sort of personal rebirth that we all have enjoyed watching over the past year? Was there a tipping point, or was it a gradual thing? Did you feel inspired, or maybe scared, or both?
DW: I came out very inspired, and I came out very humbled, and I came out—at least I think I came out—a better person than I was before this happened. I wanted to take every bit of that energy and every bit of this whole ordeal that would possibly be affecting me negatively and put that towards something positive. I even made a list of everything I wanted to accomplish in the first year after I got out. I think I did it all in almost the first weekend!
BG: You also mentioned your parents. There is nothing on earth like the unconditional love of a parent. But being in another country, so far from home, with uncertainty as to the duration of this ordeal, their support must have been tantamount. Your mom was actually living this over there with you. What was it like to finally put your arms around your mom and your dad?
DW: Yeah man, my mom was over there the whole time. She said, “I’m not leaving until I am taking you home with me.” So when I finally got out of that jail, I was deported directly from my cell, transported for a couple hours as they drove me to Dubai, and I was escorted all the way to my gate at the airport. My mother was the first person I saw when I got there. She sat next to me on the plane.
We didn’t really talk much on the plane… I think she just saw that I was… I don’t know, she just understood. We were kind of laughing at jokes and stuff on the plane ride back. I specifically remember that when they brought food to us on the flight, I lost it emotionally. Something just triggered me—I don’t know what it was, but they just sat hot food down in front of me, and I just broke down… Yeah man, my mom, she was there the whole time, and she helped bring me back home. She was right next to me until I landed back in the States again in DC. Then we drove back to Richmond together from there.
B.Getz: Wow. Again, thank you for that intimate reflection on something so personal. From there, you mentioned you spent some time with your folks in RVA, but then jumped back into life and music. How did you go about making your way back to the music? What was it like reconnecting with Karl afterward?
DJ Williams: Getting back to the music, well, that’s really the first thing I wanted to do. But I want to say that I’m glad I took a little time to myself and my family before diving back into it. The very first KDTU show I did after I got back was at a festival, and I remember getting there and seeing the band for the first time. Of course, they all had a million questions, but everyone was super cool and laid back about things.
They all helped ease me back into the scene. For the first few shows, nobody was allowed backstage. I was given the proper space, so I could kind of transition. There’s a photo of the first time I saw Karl after I got out. He just gave me the biggest hug ever, a hug that lasted a whole, like, ninety seconds. It felt like, “I’m seeing my Uncle Karl.” Like, this isn’t just my boss; it’s my mentor, this is family, and it just felt great.
BG: At any point in time did you find yourself feeling ashamed or embarrassed? Maybe even defiant?
DW: You know, I never really felt embarrassed about my situation, not until the first time High Timesprinted the story. I saw it going up and getting some really mean comments from people. I took it really to heart, man. All these random people online were like saying that I was a drug smuggler and all kinds of stuff, but no one had any of the details of the story or knew what happened. More importantly, these people didn’t even know who I was. I think that was the first time I felt any sort of embarrassment from my situation. That’s when I just decided to stay away from the internet altogether for a while. This was right when I was starting to feel good about being home again, getting my life back, and getting back into the music.
BG: When you did get back to the music, you didn’t waver. You dove in full force and, all things considered, are only just now coming up for air a year later. Many of us were both impressed with how prolific you became, and also a little concerned by your pace, given the trauma of what you had so recently been through. Do you think subconsciously you adopted a “Go, go, go” modus operandi—where you just buried yourself in your work, your craft, your art, and just being on the go?
DW: Yeah, I definitely dove all the way in. I definitely engulfed myself in music, in keeping my mind busy and trying to be creative. I had to pull myself together, get an idea of what I was going to do with my life, and balance that with the shows I had planned—gigs for myself but also for other people as well. The key is still that I have to work hard, just as much as anyone else. Idle hands… I get bored really fast! Though as you mentioned, I finally slowed down and took the last few weeks off, and it is just what I needed.
BG: But downtime to you means moving to another city. After departing RVA for L.A. a couple years ago, once you got back to life and the road and KDTU, you pulled up stakes and moved to Denver. Do tell.
DW: Denver is beautiful. It’s such a great place, man. A really great sense of community here with the musicians. Not just music either; there are a lot of industries doing well here. I like the really progressive scene here in general. It’s a forward-thinking city, and I am always in awe of the environment around me. To wake up and see these mountains and vast open fields and a great city in the middle of it all, it’s very inspiring.
B.Getz: What were some of the major factors in the music scene that made you want to relocate to Denver?
DJ Williams: There are a few actually. Before I lived here, every time we came and played shows here, some of the best crowds always were our Denver shows. They were just really engaged in the show, really good vibes in the crowd. There aren’t just a bunch of people out there on their phones—no, they are dancing and getting down! Lots of music lovers down here, especially in our scene. People are very supportive, encouraging us to be creative on stage and embracing improv—not shouting out to play “Freebird”, if you know what I mean.
Shots Fired – Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox – Denver, CO – 9/16/2017
BG: So now you are sinking into the Denver scene. Who are you stoked to hook up with for random jam sessions and new projects in your new hometown?
DW: There’s just so many cats out here, it’s crazy. The other night, I went to the PJ Morton show at the Larimer Lounge. I ran into Derrick Hodge, bassist for Robert Glasper. We exchanged numbers, so I am hoping that we are going to be working with him soon, because he is one of my favorite bass players. I was stoked to find out he is living here in Denver. I also recently linked up with Jason Hann, percussionist for String Cheese Incident. Also hooked up with Joey Porter of The Motet the other night at the Belly Up in Aspen. Plus, I’ve been working with Jeff Franca from Thievery Corporation.
BG: I’d like to end on a positive note with a nod towards your bright future. I’ve got to think that the rollercoaster ride of trials and tribulations will result in some phenomenal songs. When can we hope to hear some super-fresh, super-vibey, super real-life art come from DJ Williams? Is there new studio material from Shots Fired on the way anytime soon?
DW: I contacted Alan Evans and booked some studio time with him, so we can start working on the next Shots Fired record. I’ve got some things I want to record, and my goal is to put out an EP every six months—just short EPs of quality tunes, instead of trying to bring up ten to twelve tunes to fill up space. I really want to just keep content pumping out.
I’m also looking to pump out some content every six months, too. My manager, Benjy [Eisen], and I are talking about doing an anime video. I think we are going to be filming our Cervs show at the end of this month, which will be the end of Shots Fired summer run.
B.Getz: Word. We will be on the lookout for all things Shots Fired. I’d like to add that I think that what we live through, we do so for a reason. It’s almost our duty to show people that there is a comeback trail—that we can rebound and revolutionize our lives. Way to lead by example, DJ Williams. You are a living, breathing, guitar-slayin’ phoenix.
As Told to B.Getz