Interview – Mark de Clive-Lowe

Mark de Clive-Lowe is one of the most respected and prolific figures in the world of electronic music, and is credited with ushering in the broken-beat scene along with London cohorts 4hero and Bugz In The Attic.  With a revolving door of top-notch vocalists, and improv being the hallmark of his live shows, it’s impossible for him to put on the same show twice.  In anticipation of Mark’s upcoming show at Liv in DC this Friday, I got a chance to talk to him in-depth about switching up coasts, bringing the best out of true soul divas, going back to the future via jazz, and being a worldwide music ambassador.  And in all seriousness, Mark definitely brings the LOLs.

Mark de Clive-Lowe will be performing at Liv w/ special guest Sy Smith on Friday, July 30, 2010.

Unkle Funkle:  What prompted you to move from the U.K. to L.A.?

Mark de Clive-Lowe:  I was in London for 10 years, and I felt like it was time to start a new chapter.  I’ve actually always been interested in living in America but the opportunity didn’t really present itself.  Things were good in London, it was a great creative synergy there with my community.  To be crystal clear, I’ve always aspired for America.  My last full album Tide’s Arising was released on ABB Soul out of Oakland, so there’s various connections there and I kept going back to collaborate with folks there.  So it just seemed like the right time to make a move.  New York was always one place I was gunning for, but being originally from New Zealand and being so used to the beach and the sun and that kind of thing, it just felt like California was just the right place to come.

UF:  Are there any parallels that you can draw between the music scene in L.A. versus the music scene in the U.K., or are there any differences?

MdCL:  Oh, they’re completely different.  I think every city’s got its own vibe and its own kinda community, energy, and spirit to them.  I was just in Atlanta for a few days doing shows and recording there, and that place has its own vibe.  I just think wherever you go it seems to have differences.  One thing with the U.K. is there’s really a great Caribbean culture there, a lot of West Indian culture, and you’ve got a lot of people who are from different countries in Africa and they’ll be first generation or second generation, so there’s a lot of cultural references in the music there.  Whereas in L.A., it seems to be so much more [music] industry here, and I think a lot of people are above the underground very much doing certain kinds of music.  And then there’s the whole Flying Lotus and the Brainfeeder scene that’s really unique to here, and that does actually remind me of a little bit of the vibe of London.

UF:  You are a pretty busy man these days, and there’s a lot of exciting things going on.  You’ve recently  collaborated with Sandra St. Victor, Nia Andrews, and Sy Smith.  Tell me how you ended up working with Sandra.  She’s such a legend in the industry .  The music that you did for her is amazing.

MdCL:  Great man, I’m glad you dig it.

UF:  Yeah, I’ve never heard her sound this good actually.

MdCL:  (laughs)

UF:  She’s always had one of the best voices in Soul and R&B period, but you’ve kind of put her on that “next” level.

MdCL:  I mean, for me, there’s so many great voices out there who aren’t always collaborating with a producer who’s as good as they are a singer, or they might have great voices but they’re not great writers and they’re not working with great writers.  When you get all those elements in place I think something really special can happen.  The music I’m really inspired by, it all works by that method.  You have Charles Stepney producing records and Quincy Jones producing records and those records are head and shoulders above everything else.  Those kind of creatives who can really pull focus and also bring a skill set to the table that’s unique, I think that’s when you start getting something really special happening.  So with Sandra, I was….I mean, I know what I like to hear people do.  It was just nice since the first time I met her.  She just caught it all and it was great.  When I first heard her, she was doing a Chaka Khan gig, Sandra and Karen Bernod.  And Chaka was…Chaka was okay.

UF:  (laughs)

MdCL:  (laughs)  Chaka was cool.

UF:  That’s so funny.  I’ve never heard anybody say that Chaka Khan was just okay.

MdCL:  Chaka was cool.  At the end of the show, the background singers got 8 bars each.  And Karen Bernod stepped up and was just incredible, and I was thinking Wow, what is there left for this other girl to do?  And then Sandra steps up and just re-wrote the book completely, so I mean both of them just blew my mind.  The highlight of the Chaka Khan show was two background singers doing 8 bars each kinda thing.

UF:  Wow, that’s crazy.

MdCL:  So Sandra and I…and this was back in the day when MySpace was still hot…so we kept in touch through MySpace.  Nothing came of it immediately.  Then last summer I was doing a show in Brooklyn, and it was one of those funny situations where I couldn’t bring a featured vocalist with me and so I wasn’t sure what to do.  I heard Sandra was in town so I was like, why don’t you come down and jam a bit?  I don’t have a vocalist, I need a vocalist.  So she came down and she did the whole show with me, did an hour and a half of straight improv and she had no idea how I liked to do my live thing, so we just dove in the deep end together and that captured me immediately.  Her ability…like, she was going from soul to funk to jazz to opera and bringing it all together and it was an amazing bit of ability and the creativity was there.  She had no shortage of ideas.  So we were like, let’s do some music, so we recorded 3 tracks for her new EP, so that’s out now.  And then she was like, well Mark, we should have done a whole album together.  And I’m saying, yeah I know we should have done a whole album together, how about this?  So I sent her 14 tracks, basically a whole album written to go.  So now we’re doing that.  There’s a whole album in the process.

UF:  That’s incredible.  When can we expect to get that?

MdCL:  Aw, come on now, you just got the EP! (laughs)

UF:  (laughs)

MdCL:  We’re in the demo stages.  All the music’s basically done.  I just had Freddie Washington laying bass on it.  He played bass on Forget Me Nots and all the Patrice [Rushen] stuff.

UF:  Oh wow!

MdCL:  Yeah, we’re pulling in a couple of people and then we’re starting to work on the vocals on that, so I imagine we’ll have that ready next year.  And then more than just being an edgy club album, it’s more of a soul/hip-hop record.  It’s definitely twisted in the way that I like to twist things.

UF:  Hopefully, there will be an American release of it?

MdCL:  I imagine there will be.  We’ve got our eyes on two labels so I guess we’ll invite them to a couple of parties (laughs).

UF:  Let’s talk about Nia Andrews.  I saw the YouTube video that you’ve got up on your blog.  It was her, you on acoustic piano, a bass player, and a drummer; just a classic jazz combo.  It was pretty incredible.  It kinda brought you back full circle because your debut album was mostly straight-ahead jazz, right?

MdCl:  Yeah, totally.  I grew up as a piano player.  I’ve played piano since I was 4.  Before I turned to the Roland MPC, I was aspiring to be in New York as an acoustic jazz piano player.  And it’s funny because there’s a lot of people who know of my work now that already know that, so we have people at the shows just freaking out because I was always with a grand piano (laughs), so it’s like, well you know, that’s my act.  But it’s really nice to be working with someone who wants to do that kind of work as well.  She kinda kicked me back onto the instrument, so that was cool.

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UF:  Are you guys gonna do a full length album with her on the vocals and you on acoustic piano?

MdCL:  Well, not necessarily.  The joint that’s on YouTube, “Now or Never,” there’s a studio version of that which is being mixed next week.  And then she’s working on her own project which I’m getting involved in a little bit, but it’s more on the singer/songwriter tip.  It’s definitely got me thinking more about playing acoustic music again as well.  You know, it’s just a natural part of who I am.  It’s been a shame not to express that in some way.  With Sy Smith as well, once her album is done, then we’re looking  at re-recording an unplugged version of it.  That kind of format is definitely a step in the picture, yeah.

UF:  Do you think you would ever merge your acoustic sensibilities with your electronic beats?

MdCL:  I do that very often.  There’s an album called Journey to the Light which I put out, it’s a Japan-only record, and I play a lot of piano on that.  There’s actually a great YouTube video of the album launch for that in Japan.  I did the first half of the tour on piano.  I really do dig bringing those elements together.  I think that as passionate as I’ve gotten into electronic music and production, in a way sometimes I use that as a way to not have to be all musician all the time.  I can use different brushes, so to speak, with the palette.  Now I’m feeling like it’s time to pull back the curtain a little bit and begin again (laughs).

UF:  I’ve read a few interviews that you’ve done where you were speaking pretty passionately about how young people who are making music today don’t really know their music history and so they don’t have a point of reference.  Do you think that you would ever teach music history to young kids?

MdCL:  I do workshops and master classes whenever someone asks.  I really enjoy that.  It gives me a chance to really break down what I do and how I do it.  Formal teaching, I’m not so attracted to because I’ve got a huge anti-authoritarian streak that wouldn’t  do me too well in a school environment (laughs), but  I’m big on mentoring and passing the torch and sharing the knowledge.  And that’s a big part of being in touch with your history.  When I was growing up in New Zealand even, there were older players, older jazz musicians who were always coming through with the younger, next generation and they would support us, invite us to play, throw a bit of work our way.  That’s a really important part of any tradition and keeping the tradition alive.  It’s funny because when you say, to paraphrase you, “the young people today,” it makes me sound like the old dude (laughs).  But, I just think it’s so important to know the history.  It’s like, a producer today who listens to Hot 97 or some other mainstream radio.  If that’s their point of reference, then there’s not much hope for the culture to proliferate and blossom further.

UF:  Yeah, it’s like with Michael Jackson for example.  As a kid, his points of reference were James Brown and West Side Story, so he had great inspiration.  If you look at his career, it’s a no-brainer.  You see exactly how he got to be as great as he was.

MdCL:  Totally.  He’s a classic artist, and classic cats always come out knowing the classics, you know? (laughs).

UF:  Let’s go back to one of my favorite albums, The Politik, which is a collaboration between you and Bembe Segue.  I think of her as your vocal “rock.” She always just puts it in the pocket for you.

MdCL:  (laughs)

UF:  I think the two of you together is like magic.  The chemistry and spark between you is always there.  Why did you guys decide to do it as The Politik, as opposed to a Bembe Segue album or another Mark de Clive-Lowe album?

MdCL:  Well, at that time, Bembe had been featuring with me a lot.  I had the Freesoul Sessions project, which is the fully improvised club project, and Bembe’s got her own band.  We felt like we wanted to try to do something collaborative where it’s not about being me, it’s not about being her.  It’s about meeting in the middle and seeing what comes out.  And it wasn’t even intended to be what ended up being a mostly mid to downtempo soul kind of album, but that’s just how it came out.  We were on tour in Canada and recorded about half the album in Vancouver on some days off.  It just fell into place like that.  I guess it could have been a Bembe album or my album, but at that time we felt like if we don’t put our own name on it, then the pressure’s off and we can just have fun with it.  I guess that was kind of the premise, and it turned out lovely.

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UF:  You’ve got a pretty hectic tour schedule.  What do you do for fun on your downtime when you’re not producing or doing shows?

MdCL:  I’m chillin’ (laughs)!  When I’m here at home in L.A., I’m hanging out with my son.  We’ll go swimming, enjoy the sunshine, go bike riding.  I think I’ve kind of suffered from a workaholic-ism…a workaholic-ness in my 20s.  Now I’ve found how to balance it all.  That’s really important to me now.  As I mentioned before, I’ve been in Atlanta for three days and yesterday I had the studio for five hours, and 8 new tunes came out of that.  They’re all good too (laughs).  I feel like I know how to really focus my work when I work and come up with a quantity of quality, and that allows me when I’m not working just to chill which is a really nice combination.  Incidentally, when I’m touring Europe, pretty much everyday that I would have off, I’ve popped into the studio in different places.  When I’m away from L.A., I’m just doing work.

UF:  You’ve been around the world so much.  How does it feel to get love from every corner of the earth?

MdCL:  I really appreciate every opportunity I get to travel and, especially to take the music to somewhere new, somewhere I’ve never been before.  That’s always an extra treat.  Some places like Japan and the more main cities in America and western Europe, I kind of expect people to already be hip to the music.  Maybe not my music, but that vibe of music.  But then I’ll go to somewhere like Estonia or Georgia just south of Russia, or really small places.  I played in Winnipeg one time in Canada, places I wouldn’t think of going.  And when they work, that’s really encouraging to take the music to places where people have no point of reference whatsoever.  That’s fantastic.  With me growing up in New Zealand, my mom’s Japanese, I did a bit of college in Boston, and spent 10 years in London, and I’ve always felt very kind of global in personality anyway so, it suits me nicely to be able to work globally.

UF:  Do you have a guilty pleasure as far as an artist that you listen to that’s on the pop side?  I know you listen to and have been influenced by many great artists, but is there somebody that’s on the radio that you go and sneak to listen to?

MdCL:  (laughs)  That “Boom Boom Pow” song was big you know? (laughs)

UF:  The Black Eyed Peas are pretty awesome.

MdCL:  I’m not even super-hip to all of the stuff they’re doing right now.  I know that Will is a great musician.  I know he’s got a great business and marketing concept and he’s pulled it all together and I kindly applaud that.  That’s fantastic. When I was younger, maybe 14 or 15, I wanted to be Teddy Riley.  That was it for me.  And not that it was pop at the time, this was way before Dangerous.  That was really inspiring to me.  If I hear a great song on the radio, then it’s a great song.  I’m a huge fan of quality craftsmanship, whether it’s a piece of furniture, a pop song, or a 12” record.  At the same time, I’m also working on some pop collaborations with some people here, and that’s a whole ‘nother side of what I like to do.  It’s pretty under wraps at the moment.

UF:  Under wraps?  Damn! (laughs)

MdCL:  And you know, what’s pop to me might not be pop to someone else (laughs).

UF:  So it’s all top secret?  You can’t reveal any names right now?

MdCL:  No, I can’t reveal any names right now actually.  There’s some I’d love to, but until everything’s signed, sealed, and delivered, it doesn’t really exist (laughs).

UF:  You’ve worked with a huge, wonderful roster of artists that range from the underground end of the spectrum all the way up to legendary status.  Is there someone that you have on your wish list to work with?  If there was one artist that you could work with, who would it be?

MdCL:  There’s two:  on the musician side, Herbie Hancock, and on the artist side, D’Angelo.

UF:  That would be so cool.  D’Angelo is one of those cats that can do no wrong.  That would be cool for you to put your spin on his voice.

MdCL:  Yeah, I’d love to (laughs).  It’s funny.  Ten years ago, if someone said to me, you’ll be making music with Pino Palladino and Sheila E. and Jody Watley, I would’ve been like no, that’s not gonna happen.  So, it’s kind of taught me that anything can happen and usually it does.  I look forward to the times when I can sit down with those cats and knock out some music.

UF:  One last question.  What does Mashi mean? (pronounced mash-ee)

MdCL:  Mashi is a nickname that was given to me by a great friend of mine, Kaidi Tatham [of Bugz In The Attic].  He’s a great musician and producer, I love him.  It just came about on tour.  In our mid to late 20s going on tour and getting extremely over-indulgent (laughs), I ended up being called Mashi and it just stuck (laughs).

UF:  I love Kaidi Tatham too.  He’s a great keyboardist.

MdCL:  Oh he’s fantastic.  Because we both play keys, it took us a while to look at how to collaborate.  I took him on tour playing drums and he’d never toured on drums before, so I was like naw mate, come on play drums.  By the end of the tour he had drums, congas to the right, a Moog bass to the left and just playing them all at once.  He’s fantastic.

UF:  Well Mark, it was a pleasure talking to you.  Thank you so much for your time.  I look forward to seeing you on Friday at Liv.

MdCL:  Alright, I’ll see you then.  Peace.

Mark de Clive-Lowe will be performing at Liv w/ special guest Sy Smith on Friday, July 30, 2010.

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