From forming a new band in a new city to enduring human rights abuses in Middle East prisons to releasing a new album, the last two years have been a whirlwind of high musical peaks and soul-crushing lows for guitarist DJ Williams.
Nearly a year after enduring a month-and-a-half of incarceration in the United Arab Emirates, Williams is changed for the better and, along with a renewed life perspective, is bringing reinvigorated musical energy to his young band, DJ Williams’ Shots Fired.
The band’s debut album, “Live from Over Where,” was released March 13.
When Williams launched this new project in Los Angeles, he didn’t want to be just another L.A. band in a huge city with inexhaustible talent.
“I wanted to make a big splash and do something big and grandiose to bring my music out into a whole new scene,” the 36-year-old guitarist said. “So I thought about putting an all-star group together.”
So shortly after moving to the City of Angels about two years ago, the Richmond, Virginia, native grabbed an impressive roster of friends he’s made over the years as a member of funk outfit Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe and from his previous solo endeavor, the DJ Williams Projekt, and DJ Williams’ Shots Fired was born.
“It’s a call to be heard above the noise, that’s what the Shots Fired meaning is,” Williams, who is now based in Denver, said. “It has nothing to do with guns or weapons.”
The band’s (mostly live) debut album features members of the Dave Matthews Band, Trey Anastasio Band, Slightly Stoopid and Dumpstaphunk as well as Tiny Universe and the Projekt. The recordings were culled from the first year of Shots Fired shows.
The album cover art’s old-school look, with a circle reminiscent of a worn record sleeve, is a good indication of how much soul Williams poured into the record. While a funk album on its surface, Williams brings all of his influences to the table, from jazz to grunge, and dresses them up in a package of upbeat songs that showcase the band’s stellar musicianship without losing an accessible, danceable feel.
“It’s all original expect for three songs, and I specifically picked three covers because they’re the biggest inspirations of mine,” he said. “‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’ ‘All I Do’ by Stevie Wonder and ‘Power of Love’ by Jimi Hendrix.”
From the heavy riffs off opening track “Grove Ave” to the pocket funk of “This World” to the booty-shaking syncopation of “The Keeper,” Shots Fired captures Williams flexing his chops in his element, flanked by the flavors of the musicians he’s surrounded by.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” is given a jazz treatment, with Williams singing the vocals with a talkbox. The “pretty monstrous horn section,” as Williams put it, for that recording includes Denson and the Trey Anastasio band’s James Casey on saxophone and Rashawn Ross of the Dave Matthews Band on trumpet.
“All I Do” is given an upbeat funk treatment, and the Hendrix tune blasts into epic rock ‘n’ roll territory with the help of horns and keys.
The album also achieved Williams’ goal of marrying his East and West Coast families of musicians. Former Projekt members, including trumpeter Mark Ingram, drummer Dusty Ray Simmons and bassist Todd Herrington, are featured on the album. Simmons and Herrington now play with Baltimore’s Cris Jacobs Band.
“It’s been really nice having this rotating cast of musicians. I give them the song and I don’t really tell them what to play because I want everybody to interpret it in their own way, which makes it more fun and refreshing for me each night,” Williams said.
If it sounds like Williams is grateful to be where he is, it’s because a little less than a year ago he was thinking about nothing but day-to-day survival as he found himself staring down a two-year prison sentence in Abu Dhabi.
Williams was flying to Dubai last April to visit his sister and meet his newly born nephew when he was detained at the airport for having a cannabis refill cartridge for a vaporizer pen.
“It wasn’t even a pen, it was refill cartridge. I didn’t have the means of using it if I wanted,” he said. “It was a refill cartridge in this backpack that I had taken and it was in a small pocket that I never go in, and they pulled it out, and I was sent to four different prisons before we finally were able to get me out of there.”
Williams detailed the decrepit conditions and abuses he endured in an interview with High Times, which included overcrowded cells, brown drinking water, spoiled and scarce food and deplorable bathroom facilities, if you could even call them that. After refusing to eat, guards forced him so he wouldn’t die of starvation. He witnessed a man die in his cell. He was attacked by other inmates for being American and had to have wounds on his head stitched up without anesthesia. At another prison, he was placed in solitary confinement in a dark room with rats and roaches.
“If someone told me I would ever be in that situation, I’d be like ‘there’s no way I could survive it,’ but when I was in that situation, I completely went to a place where every single day, I was like ‘alright, I need to do this to survive to get to the next day, to get through this to the end,’” Williams said. “When you’re forced to that mental capacity where you have to survive, you actually surprise yourself, the things and the limits your body will go to in order to get by.”
Williams started having dreams about being free in America playing music, and would wake up still behind bars.
“It was the most depressing feeling to the point that I didn’t even want to go to sleep anymore just to avoid that let down,” he said.
While there was no music in the prisons, he did manage to write two songs that appear on “Live From Over Where:” “’91 Breaks” and “She’s No Good.”
“I’d never really written songs without a guitar in my hand,” he said. “So I wrote these songs in my head and I formed bridges and choruses. … I do it today a little more than I used to because I actually could concentrate better on songwriting without having an actual instrument in my hand.”
Back home, friends, family and fans were rallying for Williams. A GoFundMe raised more than $26,000. While originally sentenced to two years, Williams’ charges were reduced, and he would wind up spending 48 days in prison, fined $10,000, deported and banned from the United Arab Emirates for two years.
Once back home, Williams spent a few weeks at his parents’ house in Richmond with just family and really close friends. He didn’t go out much because of anxiety and panic attacks, the latter of which he’d never experienced in his life. At his first gig back, with Tiny Universe, he didn’t roam around in the crowd to speak with fans like he usually does because he wasn’t ready to discuss his experience.
“It’s kind of hard to put into words. It’s just weird and surreal,” he said. “I just wanted to play my show, enjoy playing music and go to wherever I was going to be sleeping, and that’s kind of how it was for the first few weeks.”
Almost a year removed from the situation, Williams can say, “I am definitely changed.”
“I’ve always had an appreciation for everything, but it’s gone well and far beyond that. Anything that used to bother me doesn’t even come close to rubbing a nerve anymore, and I just strive more to treat people differently and just take my time to enjoy the many great things I have.”
And Williams is looking forward to the future. Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe has a new album in the works, and Denson recently wrapped up mixing, Williams said.
And beyond the tour that just finished, Williams wants to put out more Shots Fired content on the regular.
“Not just to make music to put out an album, but to keep pushing myself creatively,” he said. “And I want to keep building the Shots Fired family. … I definitely still have my wish list of people who I’d like to bring into my circle.”
About THE BEAT: Marc Shapiro, a lifelong musician and concert-goer, writes about regional and national musicians, concerts, festivals and the music industry. He is managing editor at the Baltimore Jewish Times, a sister publication of Baltimore Style.
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