Interview with MICK CLARKE
(MICK CLARKE BAND / KILLING FLOOR)
Mick Clarke doesn't seem to like the 'guitar hero' stance but he's written some nice pages into the British blues history - first in the late '60s with THE KILLING FLOOR and then with his own band. So it's no wonder that one of the most revered musicians on the scene prefers to hide behind the music and cuts an intriguing and interesting figure to talk to - especially now, when there's both ensembles in action.
- Mick, how does it feel to be touring with KILLING FLOOR again after all these years?
The KILLING FLOOR reunion has been good all round. It was great to meet up with the guys again, and I think the new album, "Zero Tolerance", turned out really well. The six concerts that we've done around Europe were also a lot of fun. I don't know how much more we'll do... There are no definite plans but anything is possible.
- You and Bill Thorndycraft started as a pop duo. What did initially draw you to the blues? Only the fashion?
The pop duo never existed. I've no idea where that story came from. We met in a little local blues band in London. We did one gig and it was horrible, so the band immediately broke up. However, I got on well with Bill and we decided to put a new band together which became KILLING FLOOR. But I don't know why I was drawn to the blues. Some people are - others not. I remember the first song I heard where I really "got it". It was Sonny Boy Williamson's "Help Me". Something about the smoky Hammond and the harp... The whole track has a fantastic feel to it that gets right into you - no other music does that in that way. Being the fashionable upcoming music of the day was certainly a help in getting the band out there, but I think I would've been a blueser regardless.
- THE YARDBIRDS played with Sonny Boy Williamson, THE GROUNDHOGS with Champion Jack Dupree, KILLING FLOOR with Freddie King. Were these a kind of master class for the young British bluesmen?
For sure, and I was particularly lucky that we backed Freddie. What more could a young aspiring blues guitarist ask for than to play fifty dates with one of the masters of the art? Fantastic! We were originally booked to back Jimmy Witherspoon, which would have been great too, but I'm glad it got changed.
- What, in your eyes, made the FLOOR different from, say, FLEETWOOD MAC or SAVOY BROWN?
We really made a conscious effort to be different. There were a lot of bands around who were really trying to emulate the original bluesmen note for note, and we didn't want to do that. So we drew influences from the rock world and pinched any idea that we liked from any source to incorporate into the music. Of the two bands that you mention, FLEETWOOD MAC did indeed sound exactly like the originals in their early days, with Jeremy Spencer doing a perfect Elmore James impression and then Peter Green taking his turn to play a BB King song. But they were all so good, [Mick] Fleetwood and [John] McVie included, that it didn't really matter, and of course they later progressed to a more original approach. We were closer to the style of SAVOY BROWN, who were, like us, setting out to make their own statement about the blues.
- Unlike other blues groups, KILLING FLOOR didn't keep to the standard lyrical idiom. Whose idea it was to write such an original, informative stanzas?
Definitely, Bill's. Bill Thorndycraft has a totally individual approach to lyric writing - often based on his sense of the many injustices in this world. I don't always agree with his sentiments, but always respect them. He is also very honest about his own emotions - I think "Prozac Blues" on the "Zero Tolerance" album is an amazing lyric.
- The FLOOR's first album had to be abridged. Did the tapes of the full version survive?
I don't know. If anyone has them it might be the producer, John Edward. I'll have to ask him. Normally these things would be kept at the studio, but since it shut down many years ago they would have had to be moved. It would be great to get hold of the tapes to work on.
- Why did the band cease to exist after only two albums?
They were turbulent times. We were all young and ambitious and things moved fast. If we didn't feel things were going right there would be arguments and people coming and going from the band all the time. But the reason that it finally finished really was that the blues boom in Britain was well and truly over and the European market hadn't developed yet. If we had managed to relocate to the USA as some of our contemporaries did, we might have found a new market and continued.
- Was it hard to fill Ken Hensley's shoes in TOE FAT?
Not at all. I didn't know who he was! And the version of TOE FAT that I joined was really a brand new band formed after Cliff Bennett had done a spell back on the cabaret circuit doing his old hits. We were a whole new line-up with a whole new set list, so there was no sense of having to continue a particular style or standard.
- How did you get involved in Chuck Berry's London sessions?
I didn't - there's more false information. But my friend Lou Martin did play two long European tours with Chuck and has many stories to tell.
- What was the main idea of SALT - to play hard rock or heavy blues?
It was a very natural thing - there was no master plan. As soon as I started jamming with Stevie Smith it just came out as high energy rocking blues - it was natural. And when we brought Mac [Stuart McDonald] in on bass the whole heritage of the KILLING FLOOR years came into it as well. But to answer your question, we definitely thought of ourselves as blues players rather than rock.
- Was it you who brought Stuart into the band?
Yes. Just took a phone call - I knew it would work.
- What was the main difference between SALT and RAMROD, except for some line-up changes?
SALT's music was very hard, fast and raw. There was really no other band around the time doing that kind of thing... The nearest equivalent, perhaps, in England was DR. FEELGOOD, but they were coming out of that whole Canvey Island rhythm-and-blues thing. My personal influences were coming from America - ZZ TOP - combined with Steve's determination to just be himself! RAMROD, I think, would have developed more as a classic mature blues based rock band with good songs. Nothing was ever released but I have some excellent demos on tape.
- ZZ TOP? How could that be? Didn't you find their Texas boogie thing less adventurous than the things you'd done before?
No, I think ZZ TOP had a totally fresh way of using riffs in their songs. But that's an interesting question. It's true that we'd been playing a more complicated kind of blues rock riffing for some time. Maybe it was ZZ's simplicity that I liked.
- That simplicity... Do you write guitar lines and leave spaces with a vocal part in mind?
No, I think I get the whole thing in my head at once. The lyrics usually get changed half a dozen times before it finally gets recorded.
- You have a great rapport with Lou Martin. How would you describe it?
I was always very close to Lou from the moment that we met in KILLING FLOOR. He has a fantastic sense of humour and a real appreciation of good music - blues, rock 'n' roll, country and classical. I don't think he has any time at all for any other kind of music - but then again who needs it? Also, Lou has a fantastic understanding of the role of piano in support of a guitar... Otis Spann behind Muddy's slide, or the pianists backing BB King or Freddie. So if I took a lead I always knew that the piano would do the exact right thing behind me. And, of course, his own soloing has always been amazing. So we have had many good times over the years and some great gigs together. Sadly, I don't see him much now as he has moved out to the wilds of Oxfordshire while I've moved south into Surrey.
- Your joint album with Lou, "Happy Home": was it challenging to do a plain guitar-and-piano album with no rhythm section?
Only as challenging as any other album is. In fact, it was easy in a way because myself and Lou had - still have - a natural empathy, and there was no other musician involved to worry about.
- Did you think of "Whole Lotta Love" when recording your take on Willie Dixon's "You Need Love"?
Not at all! Had it even been recorded when we made that album? I don't remember hearing it until later. Anyway, we'd been playing "You Need Love" for some time, it was one of the first songs we rehearsed when the band was formed. It had always been a favourite of mine - and it was actually the first Muddy Waters song I ever had on record. In fact, Robert Plant was at one of our gigs in Birmingham when we performed the song. He wanted to jam at the end but we'd already started breaking down the gear so we told him no, sorry. So we like to think he got the idea from us! He'd probably tell you differently. Anyway we're not planning to sue for royalties.
- Well, I meant not the opening track from the FLOOR's debut album but the one from your first solo LP...
I wanted a song that would suit a fast boogie treatment and I thought of my old favourite "You Need Love". I tried it and it worked so I thought, Why not? I was also aware that there was a kind of symmetry in it being the opening track for both KILLING FLOOR's and my own recording careers.
- You recorded several Muddy Waters' classics. Is he your favorite bluesman when it comes to covers?
Muddy's songs seem to suit me with their simple rhythmic melody lines and strong imagery in the lyrics. Also there's Jimmy Rodgers' songs... I like blues with a bit of a tune.
- Do you find blues easy to interpret or does it take some good effort?
Well, I think it comes naturally to me for some reason. But yes, it takes a great deal of effort to do it properly.
- For 1989's "Steel And Fire" you teamed up with Mike Vernon. What it was like working with arguably the best British blues producer?
Mike was excellent to work with, and I learned a lot from him. He had a few maxims that he would bring out. For example, if we were arguing about some finer point of the music he would ask, in a whimsical kind of way, "But will it increase sales?" Well, when you think about it, no, those finer points are not even noticed by anyone other than the musicians involved, so, in other words, don't waste valuable studio time arguing about stuff that's not important. Mike was also a skilled engineer who got an excellent sound on the record. We mixed it at Mike's house which was fun until my car broke down in his driveway one day and his wife nearly collided with the AA breakdown man coming to get me... That was a little embarrassing.
- You've managed to retain the genuine bluesy rawness in your playing. Were you tempted to take the slick road like many others did?
Thank you. That real blues thing is really important to me. There are lots and lots of guitarists who can play better and faster and so on than I can, but I think a lot of them lose that old feel, which I really try to maintain. It's probably just 'cause I'm old and I was brought up listening to Otis Rush and people like that, and I use that standard of intensity as my yardstick... consistently failing to reach it but at least still trying. I think it's got to have the feel, otherwise what's the point? It might be good music but possibly not good blues music.
- What's easier for you: to be a part of the band or to be a leader like in MICK CLARKE BAND?
I like both. And when one gets a bit tiresome - as it can do - I look forward to a spell in the other role.
- Why did you decide to form your own ensemble? Weren't there offers to join established collectives?
I was working with Stevie in SALT and I had some musical ideas that didn't really suit the band. So I wanted to make a record in my own style, which I was able to do thanks to Franco Ratti at Appaloosa Records in Italy. Having made the album, I realised that I would have to do some gigs to do promote it, and at that same time SALT finally broke up. So I just kind of fell into the role as band leader and it carried on from there.
- How do you divide your time now between the FLOOR and MICK CLARKE BAND?
At the moment I am really pleasing myself as to what I do with my time. So I have several ongoing projects which I dip into. Live work might involve the MICK CLARKE BAND or it might involve KILLING FLOOR, depending on what offers come in. There is also talk of a SALT reunion. Plus, I would like to do some live work in the area which I now live, maybe in the form of blues jams. It would be fun and also a way of keeping in touch with some of my old friends. Recording projects involve promoting the current album "Solid Ground", working on the old SALT tapes with a view to, possibly, getting them released at some time, and working on live tapes that I have. I'm also looking over my back catalogue and trying to make sure that the tracks I have recorded in the past are easily available, for example, through iTunes. So I have plenty to do and it's varied and interesting work.
- The SALT reunion? What chances it'll happen?
Yes, it's quite possible - it would be in London. It just needs everyone to be fit, well and available all at the same time. And we'd need to find a drummer!
- You seem to be irritated by comparisons with Rory Gallagher. Why do you think they come up? I mean you and Rory have - well, Rory had - very distinctive styles...
Not irritated - it's just that when they were first made I was very surprised - I always thought that Rory's style was completely different to mine. But I can see now that in the great scheme of things our styles do sound pretty similar... aggressive rocking blues guitar! Particularly slide guitar because I think we both picked up on the same influence, Muddy Waters. And when you play Muddy style slide guitar with a hard rocking band it's going to come out sounding a certain way.
- What's the story behind "Tatouine" from your latest, "Solid Ground"? What does the "Star Wars" planet have to do with Beethoven's "Fur Elise"?
It's not the "Star Wars" place - the spelling's different! It's also not the town in Tunisia. It's just the name of the piece of music. I enjoy naming instrumental songs just on a whim. They don't have to mean anything - just relate to the music somehow in my head. It's like, say, "Chantale" on the "Happy Home" album: it's not the French girl's name - again, the spelling's different. It just fits the music. Musically, "Tatouine" actually started with the old Mel Torme tune "Coming Home" and then went off somewhere strange, via North Africa and, yes, a touch of Beethoven. I'm sure he won't mind.
- "Horse Bolt Stomp" from this record is a fantastic piece of country blues. What about doing a complete solo acoustic guitar album?
Very kind again - thank you. Well, I did start an acoustic album some years ago, but it got interrupted by the KILLING FLOOR's "Zero Tolerance" project. By the time I'd finished that, I thought I ought to get a new Mick Clarke album out, so I started working on "Solid Ground". Both those projects took about three years to complete. Time goes by... Actually, at the moment I think my next project might be an entirely instrumental album, which may well have an acoustic element. Whatever I do, it will inevitably take some years to complete, so don't hold your breath waiting for it. But I think it will be along in due course.
- By the way, why the URL of your site is marshalamp.com?
It's a bit annoying. When I upgraded the website for mickclarke.com the only way I could do it was by choosing a new name for the host domain, so I used marshalamp.com which my wife had set up for me previously... It's all a bit complicated. I have made enquiries about changing it to mickclarke.com but it seems to be a problem. Anyway, the marshalamp.com site hosts both domain names, www.mickclarke.com and www.killingfloor.com, so in a way it works out. Less confused now? I'm not.
- You have bright memories of all the events of your life, so isn't there a time to write a book?
That'd be fun. Except that the best stories would involve tales about my friends that they might not necessarily appreciate being printed - I manage to upset people enough as it is! Who knows... I may get around to it.
- Would you like to join forces - if for a laugh only - with COLOSSEUM's singing bassist Mark Clarke and, say, CRESSIDA's drummer Iain Clarke?
Why not, and we could get Mick Clarke, ex-Long John Baldry's band, on second guitar just to avoid confusion.
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