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Mick Clarke Interview

Tell us the brief history of your band or musical career.

Well it's a long story - I'm 72 now and my first gig was about 58 years ago. My first professional band was Killing Floor, formed in 1968. We did a lot of work with some of the big names of the 60s, and crucially got to back Freddie King on two UK tours. We made two albums which have become cult items over the years. In the 70s I had a band called SALT who did extremely well on the London and UK circuit - we had a huge following at clubs like the Marquee in London. We played at the Reading Festival in 1977 and also opened for Muddy Waters at his big London concert at the New Victoria Theatre. Later in the 80s I formed the Mick Clarke Band and we've toured all over.. everywhere in Europe plus tours of the USA and Asia. These days I still play the occasional club or festival date, but am mainly to be found recording here at my home studio in Surrey.

Who are your musical and non-musical influences?

To try and keep it brief I was influenced from a young age by the collection of records we had at home - humorous stuff like 'The Laughing Policeman' or show tune albums such as 'My Fair Lady'. Great tunes and witty lyrics. Then the hit records of the 50s and 60s.. Lonnie Donnegan, Buddy Holly. Then the early beat groups and of course the Beatles. Then the R&B bands - the Animals, Pretty Things, Stones, Yardbirds - then the great British blues players - Clapton, Green, early Jeff Beck. Then the great American players, BB, Albert, Freddie, who I was fortunate enough to work with - Wolf, Muddy, Hubert Sumlin - all of whom I was lucky enough to play gigs with and meet. On and on.. still learning.

For non musical I would nominate.. my Mum. She taught me to read because I'd lost some schooling while we were moving house.. and she taught me to at least try and be a good person. She even told me about 'artistic license'. I can't remember how it came up, maybe reading a poem where they'd twisted the grammar to fit the line, and she said 'that's alright, because it's called artistic license'. And every time I employ a piece of terrible grammar into a lyric because it works with the song, I think of her words.

What’s your favorite accomplishment as a musician thus far?

I was pleased, in recent years, to go and play in some interesting places, including India, which was a great experience, and something that not many British or American bands have been able to do. And on another trip I particularly remember a festival date in the town of Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina, where I played with a rhythm section from Serbia. Mostar is a beautiful, atmospheric town and it was a great gig with a terrific crowd. There were signs all around the town of the conflict back in the 80s, holes in walls from tank shells etc, but on the wall by the stage were the words 'Playing for Peace - Bringing the Love'. I found it very moving to be able to perform in a such a place and I hope very much for continued peace in that part of the world.

Tell me about your favorite performance in your career.

Of course there are many, but I was thinking about a particular one, because it shows both sides of the story. We played a festival in Belgium, back in the 80s, and that night the whole thing just took off like a rocket. The band was hot and the audience were 100% with us from the beginning. We had Rod DeAth on drums, (Rory Gallagher's drummer) and when he was good, he was really good, and I think that they probably had a good sound balance out front that night - I've no doubt the band sounded great. Anyway, so there we were, and the gig was at 100% intensity from the word go. The trouble is, where do you go from 100%?

I normally like to start a gig at around, say, 80% - maybe dip down to 70% for some slow stuff and usually hit 100 about three quarters of the way through. From there I just wobble about a bit until the end.

So from starting at 100 the only way is down. And I actually found it quite stressful - I felt that I was on a high wire - I couldn't afford a slip. I think we did get through it OK, but it was actually quite an uncomfortable experience at the time, trying to maintain that level, although you would have thought I was having a wonderful time. Of course afterwards it felt great!

How has your music changed over the years?

My first professional band, Killing Floor always tried to take an original approach to the blues. So we'd take a Chicago Blues song but add influences from contemporary rock bands - complicated rhythm changes and so on. I continued that approach with my own band in the 80s and was very much a rock blues player, but in recent years I find myself going more and more back to the blues, concentrating much more on the groove and the feel. So when I think.. mm, I could put a little twist in there, I think does it really need it? Probably not. The groove's the thing.

What's new in the recording of your music?

It's constantly evolving. Since I started home recording I've been free to take the music wherever I want, although I'm aware that there's an audience out there who expect a certain style from me. But still, I've become confident enough to stretch out sometimes.. an example being my version of the old Gene Pitney ballad 'Something's Gotten Hold Of My Heart', which I did in a weird kind of 60s disco beat group fashion. I was fully expecting it to die a death with listeners, but in fact it's proved popular. I've got more nutty ideas in the pipeline, including 'if Cole Porter formed a garage band'.. but I shouldn't give too much away. And in between it's always back to the blues.

Describe your creative process when you write new music.

Writing can be hard. It's a job and you have to sometimes sit down and be disciplined, and say right I'm going to work on this and come up with a song. However there are other times (my preference) when an idea just appears in your head. When that happens I hum it straight onto a little old fashioned cassette dictaphone which I keep in my desk, because otherwise it won't be there the next day when I try to remember it. And then maybe I might record it in a basic fashion and play it and sing it over and over and gradually get some lyrics and arrangements. But it's all a fascinating and enjoyable process.

Are there any artists outside of your genre that have not had much influence on your music that you enjoy?

In the old days if you wanted music you had to save up your money and buy the record. These days you can stream it and although the sound quality is definitely not the same, I love the flexibilty of listening to who I want, when I want. So I have nights when I go off exploring different kinds of music and might spend hours going from one artist to another. It could be anything from the Kingston Trio to Annie Ross.

Also on Youtube. Recently I really started to learn more about Buck Owens, who I'd always liked, and particularly his great guitarist Don Rich. Who is this guy, coming in with these great licks and faultless harmonies, and always with a great big smile on his face? A kind of country Eddie Van Halen. Turns out him and Buck were very much a team, right from the start, until Don was tragically killed in a motorcyle accident. I know that country music fans already know this stuff, but for a little blues guitar player from London it's all a voyage of discovery.

What do you think the best aspects of the music business are?

The music business is full of interesting people. We're definitely not a dull bunch. Misfits and drop outs possibly, but not dull. And even though some musicians and agents etc can seem quite outlandish and extreme, there's always a central theme driving them.. the music. I was recently struck by this while reading Keith Richard's autobiography (for the second time). Even through the wild times and the drugs and bizarre lifestyle the most important thing shines through. All he really wants to do is make the next record, and make it as good as he can possibly make it. And that's why music people are a bit special.

What is your favorite piece of gear and why?

Well if there was a house fire, God forbid, I suppose the first thing I'd grab (after the wife) would be Gnasher, my 1963 Gibson SG. We have been through a quite a lot together. I originally got it by swapping Freddie King's guitar for it. I'd bought Freddie's guitar from him at the end of the tour, but regrettably I couldn't get on with it. So Gnasher became my main guitar from mid Killing Floor period onward, and I've very rarely done a gig without it - only once when it developed a wiring fault and another time when I went off on tour to Europe and left Gnasher in the hall cupboard at home! In the mid 70s it got stolen but came back nine months later with all the red varnish stripped off, so that's how it's remained. It's actually not the easiest guitar to play, but I suppose I'm stuck with it now.

How would your previous band mates describe you and your work ethic?

Ha ha! I think they've always thought I was bit manic, and to be fair I probably am. But as the front man of my own band I always have one foot on stage and one foot in the audience, metaphorically speaking. That's my job - connecting the two - being a kind of energy conductor from the audience to the band and back again.

So particularly back in the 80s and 90s, we were playing to some high energy crowds - the same guys who would go to see Rory, Stevie Ray, Johnny Winter and so on. So I'd always pick up on that energy and be in step with the crowd, even if I wasn't necessarily in time with the band!

I will say that if we're just playing a pub or small club I can be quite laid back, and am very happy to actually sit down and just play the blues. But the next night if we're playing a rock festival I'll try to channel my inner Rory Gallagher once again.

I should also mention that currently I haven't been on a stage for two years - so goodness knows what I'll come up with when I do get back up. Probably somewhere in the middle - lively but bluesy!

What's the best piece of advice another musician ever gave you?

I've never been offered much advice - maybe people are scared to! Although Freddie King did point out that I wasn't winding my strings on properly, which was causing me some tuning problems.

Actually the best advice that comes to mind was from a professional engineer on one of those online forums. Two words: Mix Gnarly. I love it. To me that's saying don't get hung up on clarity and perfection and doing everything 'the correct way' - get those levels up and in your face - on the edge of distortion if necessary. In fact I often run my tracks through a tape simulator so there's not too much clarity. I know I'm not a great engineer, and an even worse mastering engineer, but I like a rough kind of sound, and if the end product is coming out 'gnarly' that's fine with me.


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