Q&A with Ariana Grande Saxophonist Justin Klunk

11 Jun, 2016

* Interview by Brandon Eng *

When you think of the sound of a saxophone, we conventionally think: romantic scene, rose petals all around, a candle-lit table for two, and the soft, melodious, and jazzy instrument playing in the background. But music is about pushing the boundaries of conventionality and creating sounds that do not fit the norm. Music encompasses the innovation that comes with developing one’s own unique sound and the ingenuity that comes with setting one’s self apart from the millions of other musicians around the world. That’s exactly what saxophonist Justin Klunk does when working with Top 40 Pop artists such as Ariana Grande. A skilled saxophonist, Justin has developed a niche for his music by combining the retro, old school saxophone sound with new wave, electronic distortions and melodies. He is able to take formal saxophone mechanics and blend them with funky and up-tempo pop rhythms, allowing his saxophone to flow seamlessly within the sounds of some of the charts biggest pop hits. Using a self-built pedal board system to distort the sound of the saxophone, Justin has been able to experiment with tones and pitches, creating a sound that is truly unique and accessible for whoever is listening. Continue reading to find out more about Justin.

Dig In Magazine: What drew you to the saxophone?

Justin Klunk: Well, this is always a funny story. It wasn’t actually my choice to play the saxophone at first. My parents made me do the whole piano thing when I was little and I was kind of unmotivated. But when it came time for middle school, I decided to join the middle school band, but only to go to the competition that was held each year at Knott’s Berry Farm. So I begged my parents, “I want to join the band!” just because I wanted to go to Knott’s Berry Farm. I had no idea what instrument I was going to play, I actually wanted to play the guitar but the middle school band was more oriented towards marching band so they said, “No guitar.” My parents actually brought up the idea for the saxophone and I was like, “What is that?!” At the time I had no idea what it was, it was literally as big as I was. My parents suggested it, but I actually really liked it playing it in the band after a couple years. I even found myself practicing it on my own, which was really weird because I never had done that with piano – I avoided practicing like the plague! Now I play a bunch of different types of saxophones, some keyboard stuff, the flute, and that’s about it.

DIM: As a saxophone player, what is your role in the grand scheme of the band’s sound on stage or on a track?

Justin: You know, it depends on the band. What I enjoy doing is I enjoy being a utility guy. For most Top 40 artists, usually they’ll hire an entire horn section. So I’ll be there with two other horn players, usually a trumpet, trombone, and a saxophone. Situations differ. Sometimes, we have sheet music given to us that was prearranged by the music director. Sometimes we get to rehearsal and they tell us that the horn parts don’t exist, so you have to make them up. Or the recorded music has horn parts already in it, and we just have to learn them by ear. It’s similar to how singers do it, we divide the harmonies up and say I’ll take the top, you take the middle, and I’ll take the bottom one. But for other types of singers and artists, I’m the only horn player. A lot of times, these artists will be grooving along to something and I have to make up parts that aren’t necessarily traditional horn parts. I have a whole effects pedal board that I use with my saxophone. I actually bought a whole bunch of guitar pedals and built my own pedal board and I have a wireless microphone to bring all of the sounds together. I’m not the first person to have a saxophone pedal though; I took a lot of inspiration from other saxophone players and even asked a few of my guitar buddies to help me out. Specifically, this one saxophone player out of Florida, I hope I’m pronouncing his name right, Dean Mongerio, and Jeff Coffin who plays in Dave Matthews Band, do some cool stuff with pedals. So I kind of wanted to take bits of information from all of them and create something that sounds different. Usually what I try to do is find every which way possible to make it not sound like a saxophone. I go for more aesthetic sounds rather than strictly notes. I turn on a lot of crazy, weird, echo, and spacey effects to add some ear candy to the music. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s interesting. I really like that mental challenge of not doing things that are ordinary. It’s fun. It’s a lot of fun.

DIM: How did you end up working with Ariana Grande?

Justin: It was funny, because I went to USC to study pop music. I did that for 4 years and I graduated and I moved back home and was trying to figure out what now? So I went on a few auditions and the thing about auditions is that about 90% of them, you don’t ever make the cut. I did about 6-10 auditions for groups and I didn’t make any of them. Some things would come up, managers would want a particular style of musician or schedules don’t work out. But I think it was in July, I joined a competition for Asian-American musicians called Kollaboration. They’re really cool, I did my own solo act with them and competed. And a few days before the actual competition, I had gotten the call from Ariana’s music director at the time. He mentioned that management wanted horn players and that he got my name from another music contractor and told me to send him what I had. So I sent my information in and the morning of the competition I got an email back from the music director saying “Due to the situation I don’t have time to audition people, I just screened your stuff and you’re in! Monday we start rehearsing, here are all the songs, learn them. There’s no horn part, learn the songs, you and a trumpet player are going to come in on Monday, make up parts for this tour, and make them good, because by the end of the week we leave for the first city.” We had 8 – 10 hour rehearsals a day to learn all of the songs; it was crazy. It was such a fast turn around that I was kind of panicking. So Monday comes, we rehearse that whole week, and towards the end of the week Ariana stops by for the rehearsals and she loved the band. I think she tweeted how much she liked the band and we were so relieved that we did a good job. We did that tour for a month or two after that and then just continued on from there…then the band took a little bit of a hiatus, but the cool thing about Ariana is that she always calls back the crew. Even if we aren’t working for a little bit, we know that we’ll come together when she’s ready again. The following year AMAs rolled around and the music director wanted to put together a more acoustic setting for Ariana’s portion. This was around the time when Ariana and The Weeknd put out their single “Love Me Harder” and that was like number one. The music director did this really awesome arrangement where it was just the piano, myself, and Ariana. And we just did an acoustic version of “Problem”–so crazy. It was super cool. Ariana and the music director, Troy, let me do a small solo in it. I think it was the 2nd time I had ever done a TV thing, but only the 1st time I was going to be soloing on TV. We rehearsed a lot and the anticipation made me almost panic – the curtain going up and the guy counting in your ear 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 go! I felt like I forgot how to play music at that point; but it worked out and it was so much fun. We rehearsed so much that it was muscle memory. We also did the AMAs this year. We did her new song “Focus.” She brought the whole horn section out and we did this bit where we just did the last bits of the song with her in the front of the stage. It was so much fun.

DIM: Have you worked with any other artists?

Justin: In terms of that KISS FM/top 40 type of artist, Ariana Grande is the only one that I have worked with more than once. When guest artists come in, we technically have “played” with them but it’s very different than working with them. Other than Ariana, not too many, let’s see. Big Sean came up and performed with Ariana. Nathan Sykes was really cool. He did the first tour with us for a hand full of the shows because he and Ariana had a duet at the time. He’s super nice, he came up and introduced himself to the band. Same with The Weeknd at the AMAs, he went up to everyone at rehearsal and said “hi.” It was so genuine. It’s really nice to see an artist of that status be so humble.

DIM: Who else would like to work with and what are your upcoming plans for the future?

Justin: Oh man, too many to list. Back when I was in college I had a goal that was I’m going to play with Bruno Mars before I graduate. So definitely Bruno Mars at some point, because of the old school mixed with the new school sound. Beyonce is definitely on the list. And musically like in terms of improvisation, one of those groups that I would like to hopefully play with some day is the Dave Matthews Band. They’re great. Dave Matthews is really good to his musicians too, he just gives them a lot of time to jam and create things on the stage. It’s a different vibe. I really enjoy the Top 40 pop vibe because you know what the music will sound like before you hit the stage, but on the flip side it’s nice not to know what you’re going to sound like as well. I just want to be able to play with groups that do different things. Moving forward, I’m still working on my own personal projects on the side when I have time. I’ve been working on an EP for a little longer than I wanted, but things have just caught up and pushed back the progress of the EP. But I know it will be out by March [2016]. I’m going to market this EP as contemporary jazz. So hopefully by mid-March it will be out on Spotify. Basically what I like to play and write is R&B mixed with pop rock but with a saxophone lead. I’m super excited about it.

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