Clem burke

The Blondie leg­end on the band’s ace new al­bum

Rhythm - - CON­TENTS - Words: David West pho­tos: Colin McMa­hon/ dei­dre o’cal­laghan

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.”

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