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Progressive Rock Interviews

Clark Plays Guitar

Interviewed by Gary Hill
Interview with Clark Colborn of Clark Plays Guitar From 2009
MSJ: This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2009  Volume 3 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Can you catch the readers up on your history – both personally and in terms of your various bands?
I was born and raised in Rockford IL, lived on the west side until I was in my twenties. When I was in my early teens my parents gave me a radio-alarm clock for Christmas, and I would listen to music late at night, when I supposed to be asleep. Up until then I had not really paid much attention to music, but once I got this radio everything changed. Late at night I could pick up stations from cities far away, stuff we couldn’t get during the day for whatever reason, and I would hear all these really cool guitar based songs. The sound of the guitar on these recordings just totally captivated me and I knew that was my future.
I bought myself a guitar and began to learn; eventually taking lessons for a while, and started playing in neighborhood bands almost immediately. The first band that I was in that actually played some gigs was called Pride and we were an all original band! Everyone else was playing Cream songs, music by the Stones, the Doors, Jefferson Airplane, and the like and here we were writing our own stuff. It was a blast, and maybe shaped my attitude forever, in that the experience gave me the confidence to continue writing music.

By the time I finished high school I had decided to be a musician for a living. I had a band called Tugboat Annie at the time, playing a mix of covers and originals. Our singer was a guy named Gary Schuder, who had been the singer for Rick Neilson’s band, the Grim Reapers. Gary left Rick’s band when he was drafted and joined ours when he came back from Viet Nam. He was a great singer, but unfortunately ‘Nam damaged him terribly. Over the years I had several other bands: Burnt Umber, Mad Dog, Blackjack, Triskelion, and some others. Then I joined a band called Cheater, and saw some real potential there. I talked my former singer from Blackjack into moving back to Rockford and joining Cheater, which was a really good move. Cheater became a very popular, very busy band, for many years. We had some tunes on the radio in the some of the Midwest markets; we opened for some big acts, and were moving towards national recognition.

 Eventually all the same crap that kills most bands killed Cheater. The singer and I started some other bands – Rogue and Sleight of Hand- but we just couldn’t get the right mix of members and management. He gave up music and moved away, and I pursued a solo career, eventually ending up back in Rockford, and released my first CD, called “Clark Plays Guitar,” which somehow became the name of my band as well.
MSJ: I know artists are not crazy about having their music pigeon-holed, but how would you describe your sound?
Generally I refer to it as progressive hard rock, or progressive metal. I have heard other people call it melodic metal, as well. The sound is mostly high energy, aggressive, guitar based, and very heavy at times. Think of the raw power of early Van Halen or Randy Rhodes era Ozzy, combined with the sophistication of Yes. Other artists that people mention after they see us perform are Steve Vai, Dream Theater, Joe Satriani, and King Crimson. But not everything I write is aggressive sounding; I like to explore ethereal sounds, experiment with unusual time signatures and harmonies, and find ways of making beautiful songs out of ugly combinations of notes. My first CD is entirely instrumental, with a guitar performing all of the melody work, along the lines of something Joe Satriani or Jeff Beck might make. The new one has vocals in some songs, and lots of really interesting stuff rhythmically and sonically; it ranges from clean, gentle solo guitar pieces to furious full band extravaganzas and everything in between. 
MSJ: Who do you see as your influences – both personally and in terms of the band?
Musically, it’s many of the usual suspects: Jimi Hendrix, Clapton, Jeff Beck, B.B. King, Jimmy Page. But there are some less common names there, too. Bands like Aorta, Love Sculpture, the Bowery boys, Captain Beyond, and Blue Cheer all inspired me. Plus classical composers like Edvard Grieg, Beethoven, Mozart, Rimsky Korsakov and Aram Khachaturian influenced my tastes noticeably. And Frank Zappa! Both musically and personally, really; Frank shaped my sense of humor, my guitar playing, and my ideas of what can be done with song composition and live performance. Non-musical forces were of course my parents; one of my older brothers; my high school philosophy teacher Ernie Stokes, who taught me a lot about thinking for myself. And people like Edison, Louis Pasteur and Alexander Graham Bell, who all persevered in the face of ridicule & failure; they taught me about the pursuit of dreams & goals.
MSJ: What’s ahead for you?
I’m working really hard to get my new album done. That’s top priority at the moment, but we’re also working really hard at getting out to perform live. I really love to get up on stage and work up a sweat; put it all out there for the audience. And I’ve got a cracker-jack band right now. White hot! Darryl Andrus on bass and vocals, and Joel Baer on drums and vocals, and we are just smokin’ hot together. I’d like to just spend the rest of my days making music and performing, and be with my family on my days off.

I hope to record a wide variety of music, some real symphonic stuff, maybe some guitar-pop, and lots more of the weird time signature, full throttle, prog-metal from Mars kind of stuff that’s on my new album. By the way, I use the word “album” as in “a collection of works,” not necessarily meaning a 12 inch vinyl disc. Anyway, I plan to record a lot more, and scorch hundreds more stages, and not let up.
MSJ: Are there musicians you’d like to play with in the future?
I would love to collaborate with guys like Steve Vai, Dweezil Zappa, Tony Levin, Mike Portnoy and Derek Sherinian someday. I would really like to do a project with my old friends Pat Betts (drums) and Curt Johnsen (keyboards) someday too, if time permitted.
MSJ: Do you think that downloading of music is a help or hindrance to the careers of musicians? It’s been said by the major labels that it’s essentially the heart of all the problems they are having in terms of lower sales – would you agree?
This is a very complicated issue, but downloading is not what really hurt the majors. They shot themselves in the foot by turning out cookie-cutter artists, and by putting junk on the albums, and through their stranglehold on radio stations. They assumed the buying public couldn’t tell the difference between filler and quality music. They would put 2 or 3 singles on a CD, with 7 or 8 mediocre tracks, all of which were over produced, over compressed, recycled sludge. They would hammer the airwaves with the singles, using their grip on corporate radio, which would drive sales, but the buyers would end up not liking anything on the disc except the single. Music buyers got tired of that, and since the option to buy a single was no longer there for the most part, the buyers either illegally downloaded tracks, or bought a video game or something else that they felt was a good value. iTunes has proven that people will buy music they like, but the major labels have created such an adversarial situation now that many people still steal music on principle.

This really, really hurts guys like me. If Metallica loses 10,000 album sales, whether it’s CDs or downloads or whatever, they are still making a ton of money because of the sheer size of their fan-base. If an artist like me loses 10,000 sales or 1,000 or even 500 sales for some artists, it means we are out of business as a musician. My new CD has been delayed many times due to budget issues. If I had been paid for every boot-legged physical copy or illegal download of my first CD from just one Asian market, I could have financed 2 or 3 new CDs by now.

That all said, though, I still think an artist should give away some tracks. I do it, and I don’t even mind if someone who is totally strapped for cash gets a down-loaded copy of my CD. What I do mind is the guy who just dropped $12 at Starbucks for coffee and a pastry screwing me out of a sale because he thinks I’m getting rich from music, or that it doesn’t cost me anything to make a recording. That guy can afford to pay for it and should. That way I can afford to make more music for him to enjoy. I buy all my music. I have never illegally downloaded music, and never will.

As to the question of whether it helps an artist or not, I just don’t know. There are studies that show that it does, and other studies seem to prove it hurts artists, and I don’t know who is right. Maybe both, as it could depend on the individual artist’s situation. As I said, it’s a very complicated issue. I would just ask music fans to support local and independent music financially, and continue to tell the big-business music industry to get real.
MSJ: In a related question how do you feel about fans recording shows and trading them?
The fans should respect the wishes of the individual artists, but in general it’s probably okay. The Grateful Dead, Dave Mathews and others have built huge fan-bases that way, and those fans do support the artists by buying tickets to concerts, t-shirts, etc., as well as studio recordings. This in turn, again, allows the artist to bring value to the lives of their fans. And that is really what it is all about in the end: making music that people love.
MSJ: If you were a superhero, what music person would be your arch-nemesis
and why?
I call him “Clear-channel-man.” He is the personification of the corporate entities that have forced the homogenization of music on the radio. Local stations will no longer play local music because of Clear-channel-man. He has convinced the program directors and music directors that the only way to be popular is to play the same songs as every other station across the country. (Or maybe these directors are Clear-channel-man!) Without regional radio support artists like ZZ Top, Alice Cooper, Ted Nugent, Jefferson Airplane, the Ramones and scores of others would never have made it to national prominence. They all started on regional radio back in the day when that sort of thing still happened. It doesn’t happen now. Help me beat Clear-channel-man by calling your local radio stations and demanding local music!
MSJ: If you were to put together your ultimate band, who would be in it?
Wow, that’s tough. Maybe Carmine Appice or Mike Portnoy on drums, Tony Levin on bass, or Dusty Hill, maybe! I heard this guy named Billy Wolf once, he was a monster bassist. Top it off with Robert Plant on vocals and me on guitar. Or if I can’t be in it, then Steve Vai or Robert Fripp on guitar. Or how about all 3 of us? That could rock!
MSJ: If you were in charge of assembling a music festival and wanted it to be the ultimate one from your point of view, who would be playing?
I would be all over the place; I’d like to see Dream Theater, the Dio version of Black Sabbath (now going under the name of Heaven and Hell – ed.), Kansas, Steve Vai, Mattias “IA” Eklundh, Dweezil Zappa, King Crimson, Motorhead, Michael Schenker Group, Paul Gilbert – solo or with Mr. Big, ZZ Top, Judas Priest, Alan Holdsworth, Al DiMeola, Johnny Winter, Amy Lee, King’s X, Bond, and the Blue Man Group, just for starters. What a whacky festival I would create, but it would all be superb music.
MSJ: What was the last CD you bought, or what have you been listening to lately?
The last CD I bought, I think, is XV by King’s X. And as for what I have listening to lately, no question, Guitar Shop by Jeff Beck. I had forgotten what a great album that is, and have that and Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar by Frank Zappa going all the time lately.
MSJ: What about the last concert you attended for your enjoyment?
I need to get out more! The last concert I went to was Gary Hoey, in Chicago, before Christmas. We actually ended up talking before his show and exchanging t-shirts. Not the ones we were wearing, of course! Gary is a great guy and a hugely entertaining performer. We hope to do some shows together, maybe later this year.
MSJ: What has been your biggest Spinal Tap moment?
Where to start? I have had so many! I swear that parts of that movie were right out of my life. When I was in Cheater we played an Air Force base and it was exactly like the scene where Tap plays the base. The officer joking about his hair being so long he might be mistaken for a band member, the wall full of promo shots, my guitar picking up radio transmissions during the show, it was all there. Only we did it first! When the Spinal Tap movie came out the singer from Cheater and I went to see it, and we nearly died laughing when the scene came on the screen.

Another time we had a drummer vanish onstage, in the middle of a song! We were really cooking on a song, when suddenly the drums just stopped. Naturally we all turned to look at him, and he was just gone. Nowhere to be seen, and there was no way he could have left without climbing over the drums to get to the front of the stage. It turns out that there was a small gap between the back of the stage and the wall. His drum throne had one leg slip into that gap and it tipped. Curt, our drummer, fell off the throne and through this little gap! There was no way he should have fit though this little 8 inch gap, but he did, and went under the stage. It took him 2 or 3 minutes to force himself back up through that gap, and he was covered in dust and cobwebs, and all scratched up, but he climbed out and went back to drumming. It felt like a disaster at the time, but we laugh about it now.

And so many more stories about falling down, setting the stage on fire, backstage antics and strange people that we could fill a book! Fun times!
MSJ: Finally, are there any closing thoughts you’d like to get out there?
Yeah, a couple things, if you don’t mind. To all the fans of live music: get out and support local music; support touring acts that are not on major labels, buy their CDs and t-shirts. They are not getting rich, they are struggling to pay the bills and every little bit helps. And to venue owners: don’t put all the responsibility for drawing a crowd on the bands. When a band that is from several hours away comes to your venue, do some advertising! Let people know what you’ve got going on! And to other musicians: don’t be a clone, make your own sound, and engage your audience! The fans deserve nothing less than our total commitment to giving them a couple hours of good times. When my band plays live we give it all. We have this spectacular 9-headed spinning drum thing, we play the world’s biggest guitar medley with more than 50 songs in it, we sweat, we pull out all the stops, and we push ourselves to the very edge. Sometimes it ain’t pretty, but it is always from the depths of our hearts, and it is always highly entertaining. So come on out and join us sometime for the ongoing freak-show-musical-party-extravaganza that is called “Clark Plays Guitar!”
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