Rhythm & Riffs Interview with Marcus King: Royal Mayhem front man, Marcus King, sits down with Miles Townsend for an exclusive, in-depth interview about life, family, the Mayhem Foundation, and Jaybird.
By Miles Townsend
Marcus King doesn’t shy away from the cameras. In fact, he’s been deemed “The Gentleman of Rock ’n’ Roll” by the media for a reason. King always makes time for his eager fans, whether it’s an autograph or a quick selfie. He even takes time to answer questions from the paparazzi about his latest projects. But his personal life is off-limits.
“The media and I have a mutual understanding,” King says. “Being in the public eye comes with the job. I’m happy to talk about my music with anyone, but my personal life—my family—is private.”
In this exclusive two-part, in-depth interview, Marcus King opens up about his life, family, and what’s next for Royal Mayhem.
Marcus King and I are far from strangers. In fact, our friendship goes back nearly three decades to a place called Davie’s Dive Bar. I’d been ten years old at the time, but I remember as if it was yesterday, when Marcus King and Andrew Wild walked into Davie’s. I was sitting at the bar, doing my homework. My father and owner of Davie’s Dive Bar, Dave Townsend, stood behind the bar taking inventory when the door opened and two teenaged boys came strutting in. One had dark hair and the other blond. The dark-haired one stood a few inches taller than the blond. Both wore determined expressions on their faces.
“We’re closed,” my father said as they approached the bar.
“I’m looking for Davie,” the one with the dark hair said, as if he hadn’t heard my father’s warning.
My dad tucked his pen behind his ear and leaned with his forearms resting on top of the bar. “That’s me.”
“I’m Marcus.” The dark-haired one held out his hand, and my dad shook it. He nodded to his blond friend. “This is my best friend, Andrew, but we call him Drew.” The blond kid extended his hand and shook my dad’s.
“What can I do for you?” Dad asked.
Marcus straightened his shoulders and said, “We were wondering if you had any openings for a house band.”
Dad paused, taking in their appearance. “You look a bit young. How old are you?”
“Eighteen, sir. But we’re not looking for a place to drink. We just want a place to play our music. You don’t have to pay us or anything. We just want a chance to be heard.”
My dad was all about giving chances. “Life is all about chances. Taking chances. Giving chances. Second chances. Chance encounters. Chances lead to possibilities,” he’d said often during my childhood.
So, he gave them a chance.
The next day, Marcus and Drew were back with their two other bandmates, Tommy and Chaz.
They called themselves Royal Mayhem. Marcus King was the front man. It was obvious from the way he presented himself the previous day that he was their leader. Andrew “Drew” Wild was the drummer, Tommy Stone played the bass guitar, and Chaz Vargas was lead guitar.
I wasn’t allowed in the bar during business hours, so I never got to see them perform live for the patrons, but I did often get a front row seat to their practice sessions.
Even at ten years old, I knew Royal Mayhem was destined for success. Dad knew it, too. In just a few months, they had become a fan favorite and a regular paid gig at Davie’s. Patrons were lining up at the door, and it wasn’t long before the music executives began to surface.
Royal Mayhem’s success story inspired me to become a writer. Four kids, barely out of high school, who went from playing for free in a dive bar to becoming one of the biggest rock bands in the world.
On day one of our two-part interview, Marcus enters the lobby of King Records surrounded by security with two young men in tow. He’s dressed casually in a pair of worn jeans, black Chucks, and a faded black T-shirt with LAW printed in white across the front. He holds out his hand to shake mine, then introduces the younger men as Dylan, Marcus’s nephew, and his friend Alex, who are interning at King Records for the summer. After the brief introductions, Dylan and Alex walk off, and Marcus leads me to one of the recording studios, which is currently occupied by Andrew Wild. On the opposite side of the glass are three twentysomethings in the middle of a jam session.
“Andrew.” I extend my hand. “Good to see you again.”
“You too, Miles.”
I turn my attention to the three boys inside the studio. “Is that Lucas?”
“It is,” Andrew answers. “He and his friends started their own band, LAW.” He gestures to Marcus’s T-shirt. “We’re working on their first album.”
I nod. “I’d love to hear it.” I turn to Marcus. “We should probably set up an interview… soon?”
Marcus grins. “Absolutely.”
Marcus and I have an unspoken agreement that Rhythm & Riffs gets the first interview with all of King Records’ new artists.
Andrew leans into the mic. “Okay, boys, let’s take a break. I want you to meet someone.”
The large studio space looks like it’s had a makeover since the last time I was here.
“What’s up, Uncle Marcus?” Lucas says, clasping hands with Marcus and bringing him in for a hug.
“Lucas, this is Miles. He’s an old friend and runs a magazine called Rhythm & Riffs.”
Lucas nods. “I’m familiar with it.” He grins and gestures to the kid behind the drums. “That’s Ace.” Then he points to the kid holding a guitar. “And that’s Wes.”
“Good to meet you,” I say.
“Boys, let’s go grab something to eat,” Andrew insists before turning to us. “I’ll be back in a few.”
Once the boys and Andrew have left the studio, I quietly take in the spacious room.
“You’ve redecorated,” I observe.
Two large sofas are situated in the middle of the room, a coffee table between them. A drum set is against the back wall with various amps and other instruments strewn around. A shiny black grand piano sits on the far side of the room with electric and acoustic guitars lining the walls.
“My wife did,” Marcus admits with a chuckle. He gestures to one of the sofas before taking a seat on the one across from me. “My daughter and I were spending long hours in here working on a secret project. My wife wanted her to be comfortable.”
And so we began our interview.
Does this mean your daughter is following in your footsteps?
Marcus: I wish I could say definitely, but I’m not sure she’s ready to commit to it. She’s young and ambitious, but she’s also curious. I expect she’ll try on several hats before choosing her career. As much as I’d like for her to thrive in the music industry, I also want to protect her from it. It’s a tough business, and as with any job, there’s always an ugly side to it.
When did you decide you wanted your own record company?
Marcus: About fifteen years ago. I’d witnessed too many talented artists passed over because they didn’t fit a certain mold. We didn’t bust our asses just to become another fad or flavor of the month. We were here to stay.
What or who inspired your love for music and made you want to become a musician?
Marcus: Music itself inspired me. It had been a part of my life for as far back as I can remember. It was my first love, my true love, and, at certain times of my life, my only friend. I loved all kinds of music, from classical to country to heavy metal. There isn’t a band or musician out there who hasn’t inspired me one way or another.
If you hadn’t become a musician, what would you be?
Marcus: I believe I was born to be a musician, but if it didn’t work out, I’d be a teacher. I love the idea of teaching, and in a way, I guess I am one. I mentor a lot of inspiring musicians.
Where do you commonly find new artists?
Marcus: Clubs, college bars, word of mouth, social media, but mostly YouTube. Many aspiring musicians have a channel on YouTube. If I like what I hear, I’ll get in touch.
Let’s talk about America’s Voice, the most watched show on television today. What’s it like being a guest judge?
Marcus: I’m honored to be a part of America’s Voice. It’s been a wonderful experience so far.
Do you have any favorites?
I’ve got my eye on a few contestants, but we’ll have to see what America thinks. The competition is tough.
Thirty minutes into our interview, Andrew returns with the other two members of Royal Mayhem, Tommy Stone and Chaz Vargas.
“It’s good to see you guys again,” I say. “Would you mind hanging out for a bit?”
“Not at all,” Chaz replies, propping his feet on the coffee table.
“Anything for you, Miles,” Tommy adds.
What’s new with you guys?
Chaz: Nothing special. Hanging with the family and enjoying some time off. Tommy’s wife just had their twelfth kid.
Tommy: Fifth, asshole.
Congratulations. Boy or girl?
Tommy: Girl. Her name is Ruby. She is perfect and, thankfully, our last.
Let’s talk about Royal Mayhem. How did you guys meet?
Marcus: Andrew and I met in foster care.
Andrew: We all grew up in the same neighborhood, but Marcus and I didn’t really hang out with Tommy and Chaz until high school. We were all in the same band class together, so we knew they were capable of playing the guitar. And when Marcus and I decided we wanted to start a band, we asked if they wanted to join.
How did you come up with your band name?
Marcus: Drew had originally come up with the name Kings of Chaos, but with my last name being King, I felt like the name was centered around me. It wasn’t just my band, it was our band.
Andrew: I played around with a few names, and Royal Mayhem is the one that stuck.
How does it feel being one of the most famous rock bands in the world?
Marcus: Our goal wasn’t to be famous, it was to be successful. We’re grateful to everyone who has played a part in our success, including our fans.
Chaz: Without our fans, we wouldn’t have been able to do what we love.
Have any of you ever suffered from alcohol or drug abuse?
Tommy: Chaz and I enjoy the occasional joint and maybe a beer or two, but….
Marcus: We all indulge in a drink or two, but music is our drug of choice. We’ve seen what drugs can do to people we care about. We’ve lost several friends to drugs. My parents were addicts. We made a pact back when we first formed our band that we’d never allow alcohol, drugs, or women to come between us and our dreams.
What’s the craziest thing that’s ever happened on tour?
All fingers point to Andrew.
Drew: Fuck you, guys.
Care to elaborate, Andrew?
Drew: During our second tour, ironically called Consequences, I’d been hooking up with a groupie—for legal reasons, I can’t give you her name. We’d become a sort of steady thing until one day she just stopped coming around. It wasn’t uncommon because that’s what groupies do—did. They got bored and moved on to other musicians. Many months later, said groupie showed up with a three-month-old infant and left him outside our tour bus for Marcus’s wife and one of our bodyguards to find.
You confirmed the child was yours?
Drew: I did. After I freaked out, of course.
Marcus: I believe that sometimes even our biggest mistakes turn out to be blessings in disguise.
Drew: Lucas is the best mistake and biggest blessing of my life. If I could go back and do it all again, I wouldn’t change a thing. He’s a good kid and my favorite human. He’s going to do great things with his band, LAW.
Chaz: (coughing) Shameless plug.
Marcus, you mentioned you’d been working on a secret project with your daughter. Can you tell me more about it?
Marcus: About a year ago, my daughter came to me with a notebook full of songs she’d written and asked if we could collaborate and put them on an album. It was definitely one of my proudest dad moments. Jayla had been writing songs since she was a little girl, but it was the first time she wanted to share them. I brought her into the studio, and we worked day and night for months. I gave her the full experience of what it’s like to produce an album. I wasn’t easy on her. I pushed her the same way I would push any new artist. The same way I pushed the contestants on America’s Voice. Some days I pushed her to the point of frustration and tears. But she’s strong and stubborn just like her mother and determined like me. When the album was complete, I decided there was no way I couldn’t share it with the world.
You’ve kept Jayla away from the media thus far. How do you feel about sharing her with the world now?
Marcus: I’m torn. Jaybird is talented, and as her producer, it wouldn’t be fair to her or potential fans to hold her back. As her father, I’m excited to experience this with her, but I’ll always worry. I want her to be happy. Her happiness always comes first.
Will this be a solo album?
Marcus: No, this will be a Royal Mayhem album featuring Jayla. We all had a hand in putting this album together, and they’re just as thrilled about it as I am.
What’s the name of the album? And when will it release?
Marcus: Jaybird is scheduled to release next summer.
What’s the significance of Jaybird?
Marcus: Jaybird is what I’ve been calling her since she was born. Jayla is derived from Jay Bird. It means “one who is special.” My daughter isn’t just special, she’s a miracle. She’s my Jaybird.
Will the album be different from Royal Mayhem music?
Marcus: No. It’s still us and our sound. The album is a mixture of new, old, and even a few covers of our favorite songs.
Will there be a tour?
Marcus: Most likely, but no dates have been scheduled.
Drew: Since this was Jayla’s project, we’re leaving the decision to her.
Tell me about the Mayhem Foundation.
Marcus: The Mayhem Foundation focuses on putting music and performing arts back into schools. The foundation provides scholarships, instruments, and the necessities to teach students about music and performance. We’re currently working with a private school in Florida that will host the first Project Mayhem class next fall. If all goes well, we hope to expand Project Mayhem to other schools.
What does Royal Mayhem want to say to their fans?
Marcus: Thank you for always supporting us.
Day two. It’s late afternoon when I arrive at the King residence, a modern, two-story home made of stone and glass.
Marcus’s housekeeper, a woman named Grace, greets me at the door, invites me in, and gives me a quick tour. The King residence isn’t the ostentatious display of wealth and fame you’d expect to see from a rock star. It’s an Italian-inspired five-bedroom, four-bath home. The entire bottom floor is an open floor plan with marble floors and a glass wall overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
Grace leads me out to the pool deck, where Marcus is lounging on an outdoor sofa looking completely relaxed. His bare feet are propped on the coffee table and crossed at the ankles while he strums a royal blue acoustic guitar.
“You have a beautiful home,” I tell him as I sit on the adjacent love seat.
“Thank you,” he says while continuing to strum lightly on his guitar. “It was my first major purchase after Royal Mayhem signed their first record deal.”
I stare out at the ocean, the sound of the waves crashing against the shore bringing a sense of calm over me. I imagine Marcus spends a lot of his free time out here.
Is this how you would describe your perfect day?
Marcus: (chuckles) Pretty much. This is my favorite spot. I’ve written dozens of songs right here.
Emerson, Marcus’s wife, steps out onto the deck with three bottled waters in hand and Grace carrying a tray behind her.
“It’s good to see you again, Miles,” Emerson says as she sets the bottled waters on the table. I stand from my seat, and she greets me with a hug before taking a seat beside her husband.
Marcus lowers his feet to the ground as Grace sets a tray on the table between us. Meats, cheeses, pretzels, crackers, and olives are artfully arranged on the tray.
“Thank you, Grace.” Marcus smiles fondly at his housekeeper before she disappears inside.
Leaning over, I pluck an olive from the tray and pop it into my mouth.
How long has Grace been working for you?
Marcus: Since the beginning. After our foster mom passed away, Andrew and I moved into an apartment with Tommy and Chaz. Grace lived across the hall with her husband. They hadn’t been in the States very long before he was mugged and killed on his way home from work. Grace had no family here. So, we became her family.
Emerson: I remember the first time Marcus brought me here. Grace hated me at first sight.
Marcus: She didn’t hate you. She was being protective. She thought you were a groupie.
Emerson: (rolls her eyes) It was pretty evident from the start that I wasn’t a groupie. She warmed up to me and eventually grew to love me.
How did you two meet?
Marcus: (smiles at his wife) We met on an airplane. I was catching a last-minute flight back to LA after the tour bus took off without me.
Emerson: I had just graduated high school and was on my way to spend the summer with my cousin before starting UCLA in the fall.
Marcus: When I sat down beside her, I noticed she was crying.
Emerson: Because I was nervous and scared.
Marcus: And heartbroken.
Marcus: I’d only gotten a brief glance at her profile before she looked away, but I knew she’d be the most beautiful woman I’d ever see in my lifetime. And when I finally got her to look at me, I was right. Even through her tears, her eyes were the brightest shade of green. She took my breath away. I was obsessed with her before I even knew her name. I was in love with her before the plane even touched down at LAX. I was afraid if I didn’t make my move, I’d never see her again. I all but begged her to spend more time with me.
Emerson: A week later, we eloped in Vegas.
Marcus: We recently celebrated our twenty-first wedding anniversary.
Do you believe it was fate?
Marcus: Absolutely. I believe that things happen when they’re supposed to. We were two strangers on different paths who happened to be in the right place at the right time.
Emerson, what’s it like being married to one of the most famous rock stars in the world?
Emerson: (smirks as she side-eyes her husband) That’s a loaded question. Our first week together—before we were married—it was just the two of us existing in our own little bubble. After we were married, Marcus went back to work in the studio to finish up Royal Mayhem’s second album, Lovesick, while I prepared for my freshman year at UCLA. About a year into our marriage, Royal Mayhem had become pretty famous. Suddenly, there were paparazzi lingering on the sidewalks outside the restaurants where we dined, and before long, they were hanging around outside the gate of our home.
Marcus: I chose to keep our marriage private mostly for safety reasons. A few photos of Emerson and I had also surfaced in some of the magazines, and there were speculations about our relationship. She was still a student at UCLA and exposed to the general public, so our publicist gave some bullshit story that Emerson was just an intern working for the record label.
Emerson: Of course, with fame come the stories and the lies. I wasn’t prepared for the photos of my husband splashed all over the tabloids with other women and their tell-all stories. I was still a teenager. I remember reading that garbage when I was in high school and believing every single word of it. I loved the drama. Never in a million years did I think one day it would be me at the center of that same drama. It put a lot of strain on our marriage.
Marcus: It was my fault. I hadn’t taken into account that Emerson came from a different world. She was young and had been sheltered her entire life. We both had a lot to learn about each other, but it was my job as her husband to protect her.
Emerson: (grins) It’s a good thing we’re both stubborn and determined.
Marcus: Failure wasn’t an option.
Emerson: One of the most important things I learned about Marcus King, my husband, and Marcus King, the rock star, is they’re the same person. The man you get on stage and in the media is the same man we get at home. He’s kind, charismatic, and genuine.
Marcus: There are too many fake personas in this business, and I can only imagine how exhausting it must be to keep it up. I’ve always prided myself on just being the real me.
What was your relationship like with the rest of the band?
Emerson: Andrew and I hit it off immediately. Tommy eventually warmed up to me a few months after Marcus and I were married. Chaz and I have a love-hate relationship. Most days, we tolerate each other. Other times I want to strangle him.
Marcus: Chaz adores Emerson, but he loves to push her buttons.
Emerson: I think he gets off on it.
Marcus: (chuckles) Probably.
How long have you been managing Royal Mayhem, Emerson?
Emerson: Sixteen years.
Marcus: She also manages me, our daughter, our home, and our everyday lives.
What was life like for young Marcus?
Marcus: The first eight years of my life were pretty shitty. My parents were drug addicts, and most of the time, they forgot I existed. The only good thing I remember about them was the one time they took me to a thrift store and bought me this little Walkman and a few cassette tapes. We moved around a lot and never stayed in one place long enough for me to make any friends. But I had my Walkman. One day my dad got pulled over. He and my mother were both high, and the cops found drugs in the car. My parents went to jail, and I went into the system. I never saw them again. I’d moved to nine different homes in four years, until I settled in with the Franklins when I was twelve. They were an older couple who were only able to care for kids who could fend for themselves. They were the first couple who treated me like a human being and not a paycheck. They made me feel safe. They were the closest thing I had to real parents. Six months later, Andrew moved in, and I had a brother. It didn’t matter that we weren’t blood. We were a family. The following Christmas, the Franklins bought me my first guitar and Andrew a drum set. Andrew and I would put on concerts for them. Mr. Franklin died during our senior year of high school. It was the first time in my life that I can remember ever feeling grief. Even after my parents had been taken away, I hadn’t felt the loss. I don’t remember feeling anything. Mr. Franklin loved Drew and me as if we were his own. He recognized our potential and encouraged us to chase our dreams. Losing him was the driving force to put ourselves out there. Sadly, Mrs. Franklin died less than a year later. I believe she was just too heartbroken over losing her husband. She passed away in her sleep, and Drew and I had to grieve the loss of the last person who ever gave a shit about us.
Do you know where your biological parents are?
Have you tried reaching out to them?
Marcus: No, and I don’t ever plan to. Just because someone shares the same blood as me doesn’t make them my family. I have a family, and I’m very protective of them.
Is there anything in your life and/or career that you wish you’d done differently?
Marcus: No. Every crucial choice, every decision I’ve ever made in my life, career or otherwise, has always been well thought out. I can be impulsive at times when I’m feeling passionate about something, but all of my choices and decisions are made with a clear head. I never want to look back and think “what if” because it all circles back to fate. Every choice, decision, good or bad, is what led me to this point in my life.
You’ve been working in this industry for nearly thirty years. What would you say is your biggest accomplishment?
Marcus: Success. I’ve accomplished everything I set out to do. I’m living my dream.
As the sun begins to set, the three of us make our way down to the beach. Marcus and Emerson walk alongside me, hand in hand.
What is life like for Marcus King these days?
Marcus: Surreal. I have good days and bad days. But most days I’m exhausted.
A year ago, Marcus was diagnosed with Glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), an inoperable brain tumor. After months of aggressive chemotherapy treatments, there was nothing more that could be done. Marcus was given a year, give or take.
Stopping nearly five feet from the shoreline, the couple squats down on the sand. “Sunset is my favorite time of day,” Emerson tells me, leaning her head on Marcus’s shoulder. “On the evenings when we’re home, Marcus and I come down here to watch the sunset and reflect on our day.”
I stare out at the orange and pink sky. “It’s a beautiful sunset,” I say, dropping down in the sand beside Marcus.
The three of us sit in comfortable silence for a few minutes, enjoying the tranquility of the waves rolling toward the shore and the backdrop of the California sunset.
“This is where I asked Emerson to marry me,” Marcus tells me.
Emerson hums in agreement. “I thought he was joking. We’d only known each other a week.”
“But I convinced her otherwise,” he adds with a chuckle. “Since that day, this has become our spot. We’ve done a lot of thinking here. Had a lot of in-depth discussions and made a lot of important decisions in this very spot. It’s also where I accepted my own fate.”
What was your first thought after you’d been given the devastating news?
Marcus: I went into planning mode. Thanks to Emerson always being on top of things, my life and business investments were already in order. I started making a mental list of all the things I needed to do. Time wasn’t on my side, and I had a lot of loose ends to tie up with lawyers, accountants, business partners. I already had a will in place; it just needed some updating. The Jaybird album was complete. I wrapped up my last season on America’s Voice in May. Emerson will be taking over the Mayhem Foundation. And Jaybird will eventually take over Project Mayhem.
Marcus: Now I’m just taking life day by day, spending time with my family.
Are you afraid to die?
Marcus: No. I’m afraid of not being around to protect my family, particularly my daughter. I’m mostly sad that I won’t be here to see her experience some of the most pivotal moments of her life.
How is Jayla handling it?
Emerson: She’s not.
Marcus: We’ve been seeing a therapist. She comes twice a week to the house. One day she comes to talk with us as a family. The other is reserved for one-on-one sessions with each of us.
As a father, what do you want the world to know about Jaybird?
Marcus: She’s just as beautiful on the inside as she is on the outside. She’s talented, smart, kind, funny, and she has the biggest heart of anyone I know. She trusts freely and loves wholeheartedly.
If you could have your fans remember one thing about you, what would it be?
Marcus: That I loved them back.
Sadly, six months after this interview took place, Marcus King passed away at his Malibu home. He was surrounded by everyone he loved until he took his last breath. During his celebration of life, his daughter, Jayla, his Jaybird, stood before the congregation and paid a beautiful tribute to her father. With Jayla’s permission, I’ve included part of that tribute here.
“Marcus King was just a man who loved his family. Music was his life, but family was his everything. He was an amazing father and husband. I can only hope that one day I’ll be lucky enough to have a man love me as much as my dad loved my mom. What I’ve learned from this experience, this loss, is that at the end of the day, we’re all human. Our titles, our social status, our money—none of that stuff matters when it’s our time to go. I know he’s in a better place, and he’s at peace. I’m relieved that he no longer feels pain. Call me selfish, but that doesn’t make me miss him any less, nor does it dull the pain of having to let him go. A pain so fierce it hurts to breathe because my heart is broken. I speak for my mom as well when I tell you that my dad was the moon in the night sky. The sun on a cloudy day. He was our life. Our world. He was our everything. I’ll miss you, Daddy.”
Marcus’s presence in this world will be missed by all. Rest in peace, my friend.
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