Blondie Interview with Clem Burke

KF: How long have you been playing drums and what training have you had?

CB: I've been playing drums for over 30 years. I took some preliminary training at school, I was in the school orchestra for a while. I think I got chucked out, probably for playing too loud. Then I was in a sort of drum and bugle corp thing. When I started my first band in high school I stopped being in the drum and bugle corp but I figure that a lot of my rudimentary expertise came from doing that and it's also a test of endurance as there's a lot of marching involved. A lot of drum people came out of that background. I combined my social life and music together; it started as a teenager and kept going from there, I was always in bands.

KF: Are you from a musical family?

CB: My dad was a drummer for a while. His family had a society band for a little while.

KF: What did you do when Blondie stopped?

CB: Right when Blondie stopped I had a band called Chequered Past with Nigel Harrison and Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols. We made one record for EMI and during Blondie I started working with a lot of people, two of which were Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart. I did the first Eurythmics record and went on to work with them throughout the eighties. We did a couple of huge Australian tours then. I've worked with everyone from Joan Jett to Bob Dylan to Iggy Pop to Pete Townsend.

Now I'm playing with Nancy Sinatra as much as I can which is really fun. It's a great band, really musical, I've been learning a lot. She has all the musical charts from the sixties. There's a drummer who was very influential on me - Hal Blaine, who also played on Phil Spector and the Monkees' stuff. The thing about all those bubblegum records from the sixties that were made in California is that they had all really excellent musicians. There's a guy who plays keyboards in the band with Nancy called Don Randi who played on (the Beach Boys) Pet Sounds and on the Phil Spector record crew. It's great when you get him and Nancy together late at night, there's some great stories. They are amazed that I know some of the stuff that I ask them but it's good, it's really fulfilling musically working with Nancy.

I also have this band called the Romantics, disbanded from the eighties, who have a new record coming out as we speak. Unfortunately the Blondie record is coming out at the same time. I have someone who substitutes for me and with Nancy now we've got Pete Thomas from Elvis Costello & the Attractions who's going to be playing with her. I'm no longer able to do it because this Blondie thing is hopefully going to be for the next 18 months at least, as far as this whole configuration of promotion and performance for the Curse of Blondie goes.

KF: What do you think of electronic drums? Do they make it easier for you to hear the other members of the band, as well as yourself at the same time, or do you have to rely on monitor speakers/phones about the same as with the old drums?

CB: All my drums are sampled now. It is a drum computer system that was customized for me, so they look like acoustic drums. The main impetus behind the whole thing was to lower the stage volume which makes it a lot easier for Debbie. I was talking to Butch Vig, the drummer in Garbage and that's basically what he does and Madonna is also using it. The last tour I had some plexiglass behind me to isolate the drum sound but I didn't really like it very much and it wasn't as effective so now I just wear the headphones and there's no need for onstage monitoring, just in the headphones. I have a sound that is superior to anything else you would get live and it sounds like a recording studio. It's worked out for Debbie especially. My whole thing was that I researched it to find out like I was saying what Madonna and people like that would do to make things as easy as possible for everybody.

I was kind of worried about getting Carpal Tunnel but I've grown to become used to it. The only strange thing is transition - when I'm doing another gig and playing acoustic drums, but with the computer monitor and we use computers on stage it all kind of works. Everyone's on computer monitors and the technology on the whole makes the whole live experience a lot more pleasurable and easier for everyone but you have to have a sound engineer who knows what they're doing, that's one of the main criteria.

KF: What's your favourite song on the Curse of Blondie and why?

CB: Well, actually my favourite song is one that got taken off the record, a song called Paint Your Face, which I really thought was a very up sort of pop... I really thought it was a candidate for first single and I was really kind of amazed and bemused that it didn't make the record. It's a very pop song that Debbie wrote, very exuberant.

Having said that, I like End to End, Diamond Bridge, Shakedown, Goldenrod. As an album it hangs together. All our records when we make an album usually take a particular kind of form - by the time they're done they hang together as an overall journey like Autoamerican. We've always been eclectic and this album certainly goes in line with that - there's Japanese folk songs. The interesting thing about the band is that the influences that come from within the band are all over the place and they all kind of come together and assimilate into making what Blondie sounds like. There's several songwriters in the band and this record is one of our most eclectic records, for sure. Then there's Good Boys, which is like a pop song.

I had an epiphany when I first met Annie Lennox. I was in a club in London and they were playing Autoamerican from beginning to end and I was very aware of it because there's an overture that Chris wrote called Europa and it kind of really works in the context of being in an environment other than just sitting there and concentrating on the music, more like ambient, I don't want to say background but it just kind of creates an environment in that way. We had a playback in Sydney the first night afterwards at the State Theatre, a sort of after show, but it was a formal thing and unbeknownst to me we had to stand on a little stage and we got a little hat and they were playing the record (the Curse of Blondie) and when it's in an energy and in a crowd it really worked that way.

I'm very happy with the record, you know the title is very ironic and tongue in cheek and has to do with the trials and tribulations of being in a band or just in life in general. It has that B movie horror thing but at the same time some really traumatic stuff happened during the course of making the record - our record company fell apart and of course the most horrible thing in the world happened in New York and we were recording near the World Trade Center and all that was going on and if you look on the record there's a lot of different production credits and studios - we kind of moved around a bit.

KF: What are the songs you could never drop from the live set list?

CB: Well, never say never. I was thinking in Australia we should be doing In the Flesh and Denis, Denis. There's a running joke in the band whenever I ask why can't we play that. Then whenever we play it there's a sheer pandemonium and exuberance and everyone just takes that song for granted. We didn't write it and it was really one of the things that kicked off the whole success of the band. So I would say Denis, Denis but we never do it so it's a moot point!

We try to integrate album tracks and newer songs, rotate those kind of songs but I think songs like Dreaming and Heart of Glass (couldn't be left off). Rapture we've been doing on and off. My dream is to do a sort of “unplugged” of old album tracks because there's so many other songs in the catalogue, like stuff from Plastic Letters, even some of Jimmy's stuff from Autoamerican like Angels On A Balcony. We could do a whole alternative set of songs that are equally as good but not as well known.

KF: What's your favourite Blondie song and why?

CB: I really like X Offender. It really means a lot to me because it was a song that opened up the door for the band in general and also showed the community we were involved in at the time, which was the whole CBGB New York underground, that we were able to make a record because when we went in and did X Offender, it wasn't a facsimile of our live performance, it was set out to be done as a production, as a homage like Phil Spector whatever and I feel we really achieved something with that record. The first time I heard that on the jukebox at CBGBs was a really elating moment for me, more so than hearing it on the radio. Knowing that someone went to the jukebox and played the song and hearing it in the background - I'm big on hearing songs in the background while other things are going on and seeing what it creates. I like Rapture a lot too.

KF: You look really good. In the age of healthy living have you adopted a healthy lifestyle and exercise regime?

CB: Yeah. I adopted healthy living a long time ago. I basically became a vegetarian about 20 years ago and stopped smoking, stopped taking drugs a long time ago. I've actually just stopped drinking in the last couple of years. I never really had any problems with it, it was just kind of an ongoing life process type of thing. I've been big on exercise for a very long time and what I do involves the physical aspect. We got a great review in the (Sydney Morning) Herald the other day - don't tell Jimmy they mentioned his pants though - dodgy pants, that was very funny. My whole philosophy about performing is I know what I like to see when I go to see a band live and I like to give something to the audience, something exciting and my presentation is focused on that. My day kind of revolves around the performance if it's a performance day and it makes you feel a whole lot better, exercising and eating right and I just took to it a long time ago and it seems to be working out that way. I would advise it for most people.

Having said that I had a party in my room the other night and I was enjoying making drinks for everybody and watching them all drink. It's not like I'm in AA or anything, I just decided I didn't want to drink anymore. It would be really hard to have a full day and have a hangover and be on the road. Maybe when we were younger, but not if you really want to do the stuff you want to do in the daytime and get out and see a bit of the city.

KF: Did you climb up the (Sydney) Harbour Bridge?

CB: Oh yeah. I looked at the neighborhood on the other side. My friends said it was a bit snobby. It seemed like a nice area. I also went to the Opera House, the Botanical Gardens and I took a jet ferry to Manly for lunch.