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Progressive Rock Interviews

Clark Colborn

Interviewed by Larry Toering
Interview with Clark Colborn from 2012
MSJ:

It has been some time since your previous release. Would you like to share the cause (or causes) of the delay with our readers?

Well, it’s a long, complicated series of sometimes interconnected things, but I’ll try to just hit the broad strokes. When I made the Clark Plays Guitar album I wasn’t certain if I wanted to put another live band together. Having a band can be very, very difficult.

So I thought “I’ll just write and record, and that will be that.” I was looking at it as being a hobby, rather than a career, even though most of my life I have been a career musician. Well, it did not take long for people to start asking me to perform my music live, and at the same time I realized that the sale of recorded music was on the decline.  So it seemed logical to return to performing. And that started one of the most time-consuming projects of my life – putting a band together to support me as a solo artist.

The first issue was that it turned out to be quite hard finding people that could really play well. That took time. But each time I got a few guys together, some band member would quit, or go to jail, or get married, or get divorced, or I’d have to let someone go for some reason. And this cycle just went on and on! So that ate up all kinds of time.

Then my wife and I had some extreme things going on with the family. We had family members become very, very ill, with life threatening conditions. I would sometimes take six months off to focus on dealing with everything that comes with a loved one being so ill. Caring for a family member that you think is terminal takes precedence over everything. Sometimes they bounced back, but in the end we lost some loved ones during a period of five years or so.

There are so many more things that would push the recording process back. I moved and had to build a new studio and nearly everything that could possibly go wrong did. I injured my hands and wrists so severely a couple of times that I could not play for months; and on and on it went. Sometimes I would be in such deep despair that I could hardly get out of bed, for fear of something new trying to crush me. Then one day, late in 2010, after my latest bassist quit, I made a vow to start recording in January (2011) and either finish the album or die trying. My wife is very happy the album is finished!

MSJ: Being aware of most of your credited influences, I hear some factors in your playing that could be attributed to the previously unmentioned. Who are some of your favorites rather than specific artists who've influenced you, ones that you listen to but perhaps don't emulate in your playing?
I have a really hard time knowing who I play like these days. In the beginning I wanted to be a cross between Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, and Tony Iommi. Then I became a fan of King Crimson, Deep Purple, John McLaughlin and some bands I think no one ever heard of, like Captain Beyond, The Flock, and others. Around that same time I tried to develop my own distinct sound, but everyone you hear has an influence on your playing. So I may have bits of Billy Gibbons, B.B. King, Jeff Beck, Brian May, Eddie Van Halen of course, and Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, etc.

But lately I have been listening to OSI, Porcupine Tree, John 5 solo stuff, John Petrucci’s solo stuff, and some classical stuff.  Bach, Haydn, Handel are really good. I listen to Dream Theater sometimes, and I love the new solo stuff Paul Gilbert has put out the last few years. I don’t think I play at all like Paul or John Petrucci. They are so articulate, so fast. I can only dream…

MSJ: We asked what you thought concerning the digital landscape and how it has affected the industry in a previous interview. Is there anything you would like to add to that now?
Since the Clark Plays Guitar CD came out the music industry has been gutted by some aspects of the digital revolution. There are good things, though, that simply would not be possible if it wasn’t for digital technology.

The negative side of course, is the ease with which music can be stolen. The pro-piracy people will say that it costs nothing to make and distribute music because of digital technology, which is not true. If I wanted to make an album that sounded like it was an amateur recording, yeah, I could get by on the cheap making the initial recordings. But to make an album that sounds like it belongs next to Avenged Sevenfold or The Foo Fighters you have to spend some money. Unfortunately the general public has come to believe that all recording artists are ripping people off because digital duplication can be practically free, and so stealing music has become socially acceptable. While the loss of a hundred or a thousand sales might not be a big deal to Dragonforce, for me it means not making my house payment.

Now, on the good side, this ability to distribute music all over the planet without the huge manufacturing costs allows guys like me to put our music in online stores right next to the superstars. We can use digital technology to perform “virtual” concerts without leaving the studio, and the biggest thing is the quality of recording equipment and software. If I would have had the studio I have now, when I made my first album – well, it would have been a lot easier, for certain.

MSJ: Speaking of “digital,'” your website contains quite possibly the greatest idea known to me concerning music distribution and that’s the ability for the consumer to choose the type of media (physical disc or digital – and if digital specific tile type) to get.  The question is, how is that working for you, as well any others you know of that are doing it?
You know, I think it’s starting to build momentum. By offering the buyer a choice of .wav or MP3 or whatever, I can let the listener choose how they want to hear the music. By offering them an instant download when they buy a CD I can give them instant gratification, plus a physical product. And by offering bonus tracks and other downloadable perks I can reward fans for choosing to pay me directly. To do this I use the same platform as Amanda Palmer, Sufjan Stevens, and other well known artists, because it gives me control. While I love iTunes as a sales platform, I have to give around 40% of my income to Apple and my digital aggregator, plus I have zero control on pricing, bonuses, etc.  By using the BandCamp engine on my site I can give a different bonus track every week, if I choose, and I can give a track away if I choose. This is what I’m doing with the first single, “Lie to Me.” Or I can send a code to someone for a free album, if I choose. I can’t easily do that with Amazon or iTunes. But it is slow going in the beginning. Amanda has done quite well with it, and I’m certain that with time it will do well for me, too.
MSJ: Is there anything about Again that you feel doesn't surpass your first CD Clark Plays Guitar or, do you find it as progressively charged as I do?
No question, Again raised the bar for me in every area. While I am still satisfied with Clark Plays Guitar, especially given what I had to work with at the time in terms of my studio and the health of my hands and wrists, I feel like my playing on Again is better. I let the songs be what they wanted to be. The recording quality is far better; and of course my good friend Joel Baer took the drumming into the stratosphere.
MSJ: I find the assortment of instruments you play to be equally matched with the percussion work of Joel Baer. Did that all just happen or was there a lot of difficulty getting such a fantastic chemistry between the two of you? (He is a massive talent as well)
Joel came into my live band about three and a half years ago, so we have worked together quite a bit. When it came time to make the record I would lay down some rough ideas for the drums myself, and send the recordings to Joel to absorb. Then when he would come into the studio to record we would talk about different things we could do in every section of each song. On a couple of the tunes things came together really fast, because the guitar and bass parts almost dictated the drum parts, and I could just let Joel play what he felt. On other tunes we would be overflowing with ideas, so Joel would record multiple takes, each one quite different. Then we would listen back and decide which take we liked for any given part of the song, and then go back in and record the drums with all of those parts put together. We did over 30 variations on one of the tunes, I think.

Joel is just great. He would take my ideas, and noises I would make with my mouth, and turn them into the perfect drum part for each song. Over the years Joel has really picked up on my rhythmic quirks and my unusual way of approaching songs and how the drums work within the songs. You’re right; he really is a massive talent.

MSJ: Is there a part one for the brilliantly composed and delivered track “Mr. In-a-Hurry, part 2” or is that just some applied metaphor attached to being in a hurry?
There is a part one, I wrote it for my band Cheater, many years ago. I never felt like I took the song to where it was meant to go. I kind a banged it out in a hurry. (laughter) And, even though it was kind of cool in its own way, it seemed like the lyrics were weak, bits of the music were clunky, and it had not reached its true potential. Not too long after the first album came out I decided to pull it out of mothballs and take it where it should be. Rather than totally rename it I just called it “part 2” because it really is an extension of that earlier composition.
MSJ: There are a fair amount of vocals on this disc, and they're unique sounding to say the least. Was it all naturally applied, or did the songs need  arranging differently somehow when it comes to putting lyrics and voice to what are already such lyrically felt tunes you play?
The vocals came very naturally to the songs. I hadn’t set out to write vocal songs, but it was like the songs were asking for them. The opening track was meant to be an instrumental, but as I was arranging the end section one day, lyrics and a melody just popped into my head. I wrote them down, and they weren’t quite complete, but I knew they needed to be there. As I sat reflecting about lyrics and singing popping into my head, I thought “That was unexpected.” This, of course, gave me the title and the rest of the lyrics. It sort of broke the ice, and I opened up to the idea of singing. 

I have no illusions about being a vocal pop star. So for me, singing is just a way to fulfill the needs of the composition - giving the song what it wants. It may help me reach a broader audience as well, and adding vocals to my palette definitely allowed me to complete a couple of tracks that had been in limbo.

MSJ:
Which do you prefer most, working on your craft recording music or, getting out and performing it live, as both have ups and downs?
That’s a very hard question. In a way it’s like asking if I prefer to inhale or exhale. (Laughter) I have always approached the two as different facets of the same gem. I love writing and recording, and treating the studio as an instrument in its own right. Some things that I compose are really meant to be recordings only, and other tunes that are pretty good recordings make great live material. I need to do both to feel complete as a musician. I like having a relatively permanent record of my efforts out there, so that long after I’m gone people can hear it and say “Oh, so that’s what he was like.”  But I am also an applause junkie. There is nothing like getting up on stage with a couple other guys and just lighting things up. Giving people an evening of exciting music and helping them forget about the day-to-day worries of their lives for a little while is really rewarding.
MSJ: I feel a common thread exists through the songs and, I especially feel it between 'Lie To Me, “ “It's Your Life” and “Stop Talking.” If I'm on here, what is the entire concept, if you will?
That’s really perceptive! I see two trends that disturb me. Our society has lost all sense of shame. Just look at the ridiculous things politicians do, the reality TV shows that have people eating worms – and we have become completely self absorbed, obsessed with ourselves. These songs deal with our modern society’s self-centeredness. In “Lie to Me” the protagonist desires to be loved to such a degree that he would rather this woman he’s with lie to him than admit there might be problems. Does he love her so much that he can’t live without her? Or is he so self-centered that this lie is necessary to justify his empty relationship? In the lyrics it’s all about him and his perceptions and how he needs the lie to feel better about himself. The song also addresses the nature of lying and when it might be justified, but that’s sort of a sub-theme.

In “It’s Your Life” the lyrics address the lyrics of another band, actually. My band had been booked to open for a national act, who had at least one tune on mainstream radio, and at the last minute they had us taken off the bill because we were progressive hard rock and not “alternative” enough for them. Through a fluke I ended up at the gig anyway, helping to record another band on the bill, and I was struck by the lyrics of that headlining band. To say they were self-centered and whiny is probably an understatement. In fact their lyrics were so self-absorbed that it made me angry. I wrote “It’s Your Life” the very next day. The gist of it is to take control of your own life, and quit being a whiner. Do something positive and you might find fulfillment.

“Stop Talking” kind of addresses the same self-centeredness, where people are convinced that just because they find themselves fascinating, or inane subjects to be fascinating, that you will, too. It also addresses my own tendency to talk too much. I often tell myself to stop talking because I just can’t seem to shut up sometimes! (laughter)

MSJ: The card sleeve artwork for Again by Michael Morris is stunning. I gather it's from a film but I haven't seen it. Would you care to share what the sleeve is all about, or does it have nothing in particular to do with the music?

Michael did a great job, didn’t he? He took my wild rantings and turned them into a great CD cover. I told him I wanted a very futuristic, fantasy world landscape for the background, and a metallic, robotic population. I wanted the main character to resemble me, with a “Terminator” feel, but maybe a tad whimsical. Michael had me send him photos of the inside of my studio, and he actually created the landscape utilizing imagery from my studio! The buildings are created from tubes from the inside of an amp, some of the background shapes are switches from my effects pedal board, and the red, customized grille of my Randall amp makes up much of the “sidewalk” or pavement the characters are standing on.

I think he drew a little inspiration from the animated movie “Robots,” but the overall concept was mine, and the artwork is all Michael. He really did an amazing job. My goal was to have an image that would convey the metal aspects of my music, yet not fall into the now cliché gruesome realm, and also inspire some curiosity, and imply that this is not a typical progressive hard rock/metal album. 

Or… Would you believe that it is meant to symbolize the dichotomy of the musical diversities and freedoms imparted by the very same conditions that have imposed a post-industrial dependence on an electro-mechanical, Jungian surrogate which provides the vicarious social proxy now embraced by the collective and undiscerning pawns of an elitist, affluent minority?

MSJ: How do you see industry economical growth impacting record sales lately, and does formatting play a particular role (for instance turning back to vinyl actually increasing sales for some artists), yet others not even suggesting record companies offer such financially varying options?
Some music business sources say overall income is up this last year for the industry, but they are now counting concert tickets, t-shirts, TV ads, meet-and-greet events, etc, and that is the realm of the superstars for the most part. That said, I do think the success of “American Idol,” “Glee,” and similar programs is helping to rekindle an interest in music, and services like iTunes are making the barrier to ownership low enough that people may be buying more music than they have for a while. All of which is all good news.

But the major labels are still afraid to invest in things like vinyl releases, box sets, or deluxe DVD/CD packages for anyone but the legacy artists. This is just one more way they are shooting themselves in the foot. They need to make available everything from a 99 cent MP3 for the casual listener, to the $199 deluxe package that contains a CD, a vinyl record, a t-shirt, a DVD of the artist making the album or on tour or something, plus anything else the super-fan might want. If I had the resources there would be a vinyl edition of Again out right now. I still need to grow my fan base to a large enough size that those sorts of expenditures can be recouped, but I am still working on a couple “deluxe” packages right now because I know that’s what some folks will want. The big labels need to start thinking like fans and figuring out ways to meet the needs of the fan, and we’ll see things turn around.

MSJ: If you were ever asked to join any existing band, who would it be, and why them?
Wow. Another tough question. If Frank Zappa were still alive, I would love to be in his band. I love Frank’s sense of humor, his amazingly complex yet soulful arrangements, and his relentless courage in writing and performing. Frank was also a remarkable businessman, recording engineer, and guitar tinkerer. There would be so much to learn from Frank. If I have to choose someone still around, I think I would like to be in Steve Vai’s band, because he was so close to Frank, and I think many of the things I said about Frank are also true of Steve.
MSJ: What do you think of so called “supergoup” line-ups being a thing lately? Do you feel it's generally a thing that can bring back what a lot of fans feel is missing in rock music these days, or can you explain if not perhaps what it really is that accounts for such losses being expressed in the first place? (is this a product, consumer, or just an inevitable sign of the times thing?)
I’m not certain I understand the question completely. If you mean bands like Them Crooked Vultures, I wonder about these things myself. I suppose that once an artist gets to a certain level of fame they can reach out to other famous performers that they admire and fulfill some sort of lifetime dream, perhaps. Or maybe someone said “You could make a truckload of money if you were to collaborate with this guy or that guy” and it’s as simple as financial gain. Or it could be that someone somewhere is hoping to bring some of the magic back to rock music that seems to be missing these days.

With the band Chickenfoot, for example, I think for the most part they are just having fun together, and they thought “Why not?” and took it out to the world. Unfortunately I don’t think their first record lived up to the hype. I haven’t heard the new one yet. Their first one was okay, but I think the press or label or someone oversold it, and it disappointed me.

With the vast majority of radio stations and mass media still being hand fed music from the majors there is very little truly innovative or exciting stuff reaching the mainstream. Again, this is the majors playing it safe: if  “artist A” is selling well then we will keep pushing “artist A” and only promote “artist B” if they sound pretty close to “artist A.” It’s the “known quantity” concept. When music was fresh and exciting the labels took chances. They helped establish new sounds by good marketing strategies. That was when the labels were run by music fans that also happened to be good businessmen. These days it is all about safe investments, and the majors are run by guys that don’t care at all about music. Luckily technology is giving people access to new, exciting music ignored by the labels. They just have to dig a little to find it.

MSJ: Any future plans to share, touring, other recording projects, etc...
I am in the process of searching for a new bassist with an eye towards a summer tour. If I find someone relatively local I hope to do a few one-offs and or opening slots before summer rolls around. I’m also working on some music for an app, with a company called “StoneRaven” that will be a bit of a shocker for some folks. Additionally, I just started the ball rolling on a video for “Lie to Me,” which will be just the first of several, I hope. Since I have no giant record company bankrolling me, I have to finance everything myself, so the future output is very dependant on selling enough CDs and downloads to be able to make these things happen.

Plus I am always writing, and with my new studio being fully functional I am actually recording stuff for the next album, already. I may trickle some singles out via my website over the next year if I’m happy with the recordings. I think in about 15 months or so the next album should hit the streets. If anyone wants to stay up to date on those things and get some tracks I have not released to the general public yet, they can sign up for my newsletter at Clark Plays Guitar dot com, and I’ll give them a free track, something not available anywhere else.

 

MSJ: This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2012  Volume 1 at lulu.com/strangesound.
You'll find concert pics of this artist in the Music Street Journal members area.
You'll find extra content from this artist in the Music Street Journal members area.
 
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