The Blondie legend on the band’s ace new album
Blondie have just arrived in London from Paris, where they played the night before, when Rhythm meets Clem Burke in a West London hotel. Stepping out of a taxicab, luggage in tow, Burke seems quite unfazed by the travelling, but then he’s practically a one-man rock’n’roll institution. While Blondie might be the band for which he’s best known, he’s worked with an exceptional collection of artists including rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson, The Eurythmics, Bob Dylan, The Romantics, Pete Townshend, Nancy Sinatra. When not with Blondie, he has two all-star supergroups, The Empty Hearts and The International Swingers, or he’s inside a laboratory at Chichester University for the Clem Burke Drumming Project, exploring the physical and mental benefits of drumming. “There’s more to it than having a beer and walking on stage,” he says. In a world of identikit session musicians, Burke is a star in his own right. Perhaps it’s the influence of his heroes, Keith Moon and Ringo Starr. “They were rock’n’roll stars, they weren’t just the guy in the back,” says Burke. “I find that very inspiring. Keith, he had a presence, a style, he stood out. For drummers, that’s a pretty unique thing.” You can’t miss Burke behind the kit. The first track on Pollinator, Blondie’s new album, begins with Burke putting his unmistakeable stamp on the proceedings. It’s a return to form for the band on their 11th studio album, recorded at The Magic Shop in their New York City hometown.
Pollinator opens with a drum break! Whose idea was that?
“When we were in preproduction, Chris [Stein, guitarist] said, ‘Why don’t you do a little drum intro?’ Usually I’m the one like, ‘Hey, why don’t we start it with the drums?’ but it was Chris’s original idea. This album is a little different, it was done more like the way we used to do albums, we all joined in together in the whole arrangement, pre-production process. That actual song, ‘Doom Or Destiny’, is as close to a classic Blondie sound as you can get, so it was between that and another song called ‘Too Much’ which starts with synths. We were proclaiming that this was going back, somewhat, to an updated classic Blondie sound so I said, ‘Well, you figure if people hear the drums like that, they’re going to realise there are real drums on the record for starters.’ I thought it would be a real attention-grabber.”
Many people’s idea of the classic Blondie sound will depend on when they first heard the band…
“That’s the confusing thing. I was speaking to someone who said basically if you ask 10 different people of 10 different age groups from 10 different places in the world they’d all have a different opinion of what Blondie actually is: a disco band, a so-called punk rock band; a woman, a band. We like to confuse people, it makes it interesting. But you’re right. I would categorise ‘Maria’ as a classic Blondie song but some of the biggest hits whether it might be ‘The Tide Is High’, ‘Rapture’, were atypical in some ways but in other ways not because we’re always experimenting with different styles of music. We always thought that was cool instead of traditional punk rock just being one sound. I definitely grew as a drummer as time went on, doing different things, being influenced by hip-hop or Chic, Kraftwerk, things like that. In the States, we’ve had four Number Ones, none of them were of the same genre. If you categorise ‘Heart Of Glass’ as a disco song, then you had ‘Call Me’ which I would call a dance-rock song, ‘The Tide Is High’ – reggae; and then ‘Rapture’ being a song that has a rap in it.”
Had it been a while since the band played live in the studio?
“It had been a while since we recorded like that. The album prior to this, Ghosts Of Download, was computer generated with me adding drums later. I wasn’t very happy about it but that was the way
“If you ask 10 different people of 10 different age groups from 10 different places they’d all have a different opinion of what Blondie is: a disco band, a so-called punk rock band; a woman, a band. We like to confuse people, it makes it interesting”
we chose to work on that particular record. This is the record I’ve been anxious to make forever. The
Pollinator record, we’re all really proud of it. The other two records that we made prior to this, the songs really came to life in the live situation, when we basically reinterpreted the songs for a rock’n’roll band versus computer-generated tracks. I think we finally came to the realisation that we have these great songs, let’s play them as a band. But then you know, certain people are more interested in the newest technology where I’m very old school. Drummers are somewhat of a dinosaur in some ways unfortunately, but things always come around.”
The drums sound great. How did you and producer John Congleton work together?
“I think John had a lot to do with that, where we would be changing up the sizes and changing up the snare drums. My tech that was working with me on that builds drums, this really amazing guy Ismael Baiz. They’re called Maelo Drums, we mostly used his snare drums. We used the DW drums but we changed up the snare drums a bit. We were going for different sounds on different songs that John focussed on. It’s the same thing as people switching out guitars, I never really was particularly interested, I just wanted to have a good drum sound. The drums sound amazing on this and when we mastered it they boosted them up too.”
What was it like recording at The Magic Shop?
“The Magic Shop is a studio that’s no longer there. Dave Grohl, after he did that film about Sound City, he did a series of TV shows where he’d go to a city and feature a studio [ SonicHighways]. When he was in New York, the studio that they featured was The Magic Shop and that was the studio where David Bowie had been in seclusion for the last couple of years and he recorded his last two albums there. Bittersweet to say the least. When we started the record before Christmas in 2015, it had been known that it was where David had been recording for the last couple of years, you could really feel his presence in the studio. Then we took a break at Christmas and that’s when David died, then we went back to the studio. Pollinator is informed by David’s influence. He’s always been a touchstone for us, he helped us very early on, our first US national tour was supporting Iggy Pop with David Bowie on keyboards for TheIdiot album. They were very supportive and they laid the ground rules for actually how to treat other musicians on tour. We had played in Max’s Kansas City in New York and got into a caravan with one bed, we all just crashed out. To this day I still have no idea who was driving. We went to Montreal, we got to the theatre where we were
playing, we were all laying around, the door opened and David and Iggy walked in and introduced themselves. They didn’t have to introduce themselves, obviously, but they said, ‘Welcome to the tour, we’re going to have a great time.’ Debbie and I saw David backstage at one of his last shows before he got ill. He’s always been a major inspiration for me. It’s a real crazy twist of fate because David is no more and the studio is no more. We were probably the last band to make a full album in The Magic Shop. Like a lot of places between the cost of running a studio and the rent rise, it’s gone now. Sonic Youth recorded there, The Ramones, Lou Reed, a very New York place. It was like a friends and family studio, really great.”
There are some cool guest contributors on the record, including Joan Jett – you played on ‘Wooly Bully’ from her first solo album!
“We were playing at Hammersmith Odeon at the time and Joan was here, they had The Who’s Ramport Studios. Frank Infante, the guitarist in Blondie at the time, and myself went over to the studio, we played on a handful of cover songs between the soundcheck and our gig that night. Joan has been a friend for a long time, I thought she’d be perfect for that ‘Doom Or Destiny’ song. I called up her manager and I said, ‘You owe me!’ ‘What do you mean, you owe me?’ I’m like, ‘Remember back when?’ Of course, Joan is friends with all of us, we’ve known each other since the Runaways days. There are more collaborations in the songwriting than actual guests, but there are a few. Laurie Anderson is on a track that’s not listed on the album, if you’ve got the CD there’s a hidden track called ‘Tonight’, and Johnny Marr is on the song he wrote for us, ‘My Monster’.”
You’ve done a lot of work with Wanda Jackson over the years. How did that happen?
“A friend of mine called Danny Harvey was producing a record for Wanda and he brought me in to play drums. He and I have worked together over the years, he’s like a true rockabilly type guitarist. He also played with me when I was on tour with Nancy Sinatra and he and I have collaborated over the years. It was amazing to work with Wanda, she’s a true rock’n’roll legend. Most of the gigs I get come about through word of mouth, when I played with Eurythmics for all those years I met them and it just fell into place. It’s good like that.”
You get to wear a lot of different hats – a rockabilly drummer with Wanda, a rocker with the Empty Hearts, is that what makes it fun?
“The success that we had with Blondie let people know about me and it does make it fun. As a drummer, I try to play as much as I can with as many different musicians as I can. Having said that, if it was completely up to me, I would do 200 shows a year with Blondie because it’s like going on vacation in a way. We could play all over the world. Last night when we played in Paris, there were people there from Poland, from Wales, from Greece, it’s pretty amazing when you think about it. I’d like to do more stuff in Eastern Europe. I think it probably goes to the diversity of sounds in Blondie. We had a song on our second album called ‘Kidnapper’ that was like a rockabilly song that our keyboard player at the time wrote for Robert Gordon, an American rockabilly singer that used to play at the same clubs that we played. When I was working with Nancy Sinatra it was really amazing because the MD, Don Randi, was in the Wrecking Crew with Phil Spector and he played on PetSounds. I learned a lot from Don and Nancy has all the charts for her musicians, so she had the Hal Blaine charts that I could follow along with, not that I can play like Hal. He’s a big inspiration, him and Earl Palmer, Ringo and Keith Moon. With Nancy, there’s a lot of diverse styles, so that was really fun.”
You must have that Earl Palmer album, Backbeat: The World’s Greatest Rock’n’Roll Drummer?
“Yeah sure, that album is great. I interviewed Earl for
Rhythm about 10 years ago now. I used to follow him around LA, he’d be playing in little bars for the most part and then when I had the opportunity to guest-edit Rhythm he was the first person I wanted to interview. So that was great and coincidentally, there seemed to be a resurgence in Earl’s prominence and acknowledgement after that. He got
“You’ve just got to open your mind up and not have things be so rigid in how you conceptualise making music or making art”
in the Rock’n’Roll Hall Of Fame, amazing stuff, he was a real nice guy.”
How has your approach to drumming developed over the years? What have been the touchstone moments?
“When we started, aside from Debbie singing, we were a trio and there’s always a lot of space in a trio for a drummer, whether you think of Mitch Mitchell, Ginger Baker, or Keith – The Who was a trio with a singer. There was a lot of space that I could fill at the time, so it started from there. The turning point was when we did ParallelLines with Mike Chapman producing. He’s always on about how he had to whip us into shape, it was such an arduous process and all that, but I was very, very up for working with Mike. I loved all that glam rock, bubble-gum stuff that he wrote and produced. He definitely helped with the sound of the band and I suppose he helped to rein me in somewhat. Mike concentrated on each song, added a lot to the arrangements and was very hands-on in the studio whether it be playing guitar or doing a scratch vocal or cracking a lot of crazy, dirty jokes, just making the atmosphere a lot more conducive to creativity and to hard work in a fun way. After we had that success with that album, when we went back it was almost like a psychological thing, all of a sudden Mike wasn’t as labour intensive in the studio and that’s how we came up with ‘Dreaming’. When we did ‘Dreaming’, everybody talks about the drums in that, that was like a run through. I never really thought that was going to become the track because it’s all over the place as far as all of the rifs that I play. I was just having fun going through the song, then Mike said, ‘That’s going to be the take.’ Okay, wow!
“The next stepping stone would be when I did the Eurythmics stuff, like when we did the Revenge album and I got to work with Dave Stewart and with Conny Plank (German producer) getting into a more experimental mode, playing a drum beat in a different way, whether it be using a tom instead of a snare, using a milk bottle instead of a cymbal, which is kind of what Conny did when we did the Eurythmics stuff with him. You’ve just got to open your mind up and not have things be so rigid in how you conceptualise making music or making art. It’s good to have that whimsy and you have to keep in your mind’s eye the reason why you did it to begin with. Get back to your inner child where you can sense what you’re doing is what you always really wanted, and be happy that it’s happening. We’re all well aware of that. We’ve had so much success and we’ve had the classic ups and downs.”