Healthy mind, healthy body
Clem Burke may be approaching 60, but he’s not showing it. As he kicks back in his London hotel, the morning after Blondie’s triumphant performance at the Radio 2 Hyde Park concert, he has plenty to say about fitness for drummers, his new band project Empty Hearts, and Blondie’s ongoing healthy situation as a band.
But we start in the early 60s, when a young Clem had his musical eyes firmly and permanently opened, as did most of his generation in America, by the seismic impact of The Beatles’ appearance on the Ed Sullivan TV show. “We were over here in the UK when the anniversary came up of The Beatles On The Ed Sullivan Show,” Clem recalls. “And I realised that it wasn’t that big a deal over here, the Beatles appearing on a US TV show, but to the American people at that time, it felt like The Beatles had just beamed in from another planet. For most people of my generation, that was a turning point right about then.”
When Blondie first started as a band in the burgeoning pop punk scene in New York, two factors singled them out as something special – and the most important one for us was Clem’s powerful, punching, no-frills drums laying down the monster beats that back all the band’s many hit singles. “When we first started off we were a trio,” Clem explains. “And I have always listened to the song. I tend to play off the vocals. I always listen to Debbie and what she is doing. When we started we had guitar, bass and drums, no keyboards, so I always accented the vocals. We had a minimalist style in the early days, and when we did our first single, ‘X Offender’, I was trying to do the Hal Blaine style on that. Hal Blaine was the most amazing playing-to-the-song drummer ever.”
From Blondie’s first single in 1976 to their latest album, Ghosts Of Download, but how different is the recording process now? “The new album involved a lot of adapting. I went into the studio and did all my drum tracks to sound files in a week with my drum tech and the producer. I didn’t really like doing it very much, but I have done it before. Having said that, what ever got into the mix on the record is what it is. Some of the tracks are quite drum dominant, and I know some are treated drums and stuff like that. When it came to doing the songs live, they had to be reinterpreted. There’s a song called ‘Sugar On The Side’, which has this Brazilian groove to it, but there was a drum machine all over the place. I had to strip all that down and come up with the rhythm that was going to fit the song, and at the same time, make sure it wasn’t going to sound as crazy as it did with these machines and computers going off. Reinterpreting the drum sounds that way has been somewhat of a challenge, but I did my charts, and there were occasions where there was maybe a bar-thirteen or a bar-twelve-and-a-half, but I worked it all out.
“All the songs from Ghosts Of Download have been reinterpreted for live playing – they are all amazing and they all go down really well. I only wish that we had approached the album from that way in the beginning, and used the computer tracks as demos to put the band in the studio together to record the songs. It was the way we made the album, over a period of time – we were just not in the studio together at the same time. It’s not my favourite way of doing things, but people do it that way every day. It’s just another way of working. It’s down to adaptability, and that means not saying ‘I’m not gonna do it that way’. That’s not what being in a band is about.”
In common with a number of legendary players – Rod Morgenstein, Billy Cobham, Chris Adler – Clem is left handed, but also in common with equally famous players, he plays a right hand style. “Fortunately, I sat down at a right-handed drum kit the first time I came to play drums. That was the set-up that my dad had, he drummed in a band with his brothers and my grandfather.
“I saw Billy Cobham play recently; he plays the left hand to the left side and the right hand to the right side. Sometimes I play like that. I think being left handed is good for playing backbeat. I do try to actively lead with my right hand when I practise at home. Even doing sixteenth notes on the hi-hat off a basic two-four back beat, I would lead with my left hand normally. I have to think about it to lead with my right. I think it has enabled me to have a bit of my own style, the same as Ringo Starr, being left-handed.”
And it’s not only his drumming style that exudes pragmatism, but his choice of drums, too. “I have never really played that endorsement game particularly. I know it does exist. When we first toured over here we didn’t bring a back line with us, so I guess we rented from a back line company, and I got a Premier kit. When I was playing with Eurhythmics, Premier made a great Black Shadow kit for me, but as time went on, it came down to availability. I did a European tour with Nancy Sinatra where drums were supplied and that was a DW kit all the time. Then I did a residency in a jazz club in LA called the Baked Potato. They had a DW kit as the in-house kit, and it was going to be switched out for a new one, so I mentioned to the club that I would like to buy the kit. The people at the DW factory told me they would refurbish the kit and let me have it, no strings attached. I began a hardware endorsement with DW and their factory is near my home, so I can take a bass drum up there and get a rack mount put on it in a matter of hours. They are very service oriented, and as I said, they were near my home, and that is what my decision was based on. I really like DW, they are great drums.”
Time to discuss health and fitness, something Clem has a strong interest in. “I have actually been into physical fitness for a very long time. I have the Clem Burke Drumming Project with Doctor Marcus Smith at Chichester University, and I received a doctorate for my experiments with that a few years back. It has to do with the psychology and physicality of drumming.
“Doctor Smith approached me when I was playing at Wembley with Blondie, well over 10 years ago. He is a fan of the band, and he expressed his interest in doing this one-off study. I had been training all along, and I appreciated the comparison he made between boxing and drumming. When you see a boxer in the ring, he does a three-minute round, and then he recovers, and that’s the same as a drummer playing a song. His heart rate is going up and down in the same way. There is a level of physical fitness involved in being able to do that, and of course the heart is the most important muscle in the human body. So we became friends and he came to many, many Blondie shows. He monitored my heartbeat, blood pressure and oxygen levels, and then he came up with enough academic material to form a thesis. It’s a vanity project for me – it’s named after me and it is a very positive spin for younger people on what it takes to be a drummer.
“I know that on the road, sleep is the most important thing. I will often have an extra hour or two in bed on show days, and concentrate more on working out, maybe some running, on our off days. If I do train on a show day, I usually have a nap. I remember once playing at Wembley and running around the arena for an hour and a half before the show, and then just going on and doing our show. You need to allocate your time. On a show day, when I wake up, the show is the first thing on my mind – making sure I am fit and ready to perform is my focal point for the day.”
Clem Burke has been nothing if not consistent as a working drummer. During the hiatus of Blondie, Clem busied himself with a variety of other bands and artists – always keen to play. His current project is his new band the Empty Hearts, a ‘supergroup’ to use the old expression, consisting of Elliot Easton from the Cars on guitar, guitarist and vocalist Wally Palmar from the Romantics, and veteran keyboardist Ian McLagan from the Faces.
After a lifetime of playing to sequencers and click tracks – Blondie were pioneers in this area of music production – Clem is pleasantly surprised to find that Ed Stasium, who has produced the Empty Hearts’ debut album, does not use clicks on his material. Clem continues, “When I said, ‘What are we going to do with the click?’ Ed said, ‘No clicks’.
“In some ways it takes some getting used to. After playing to sequencers and click tracks, it has enhanced my sense of timing a good deal. On occasions when I have been on stage with Blondie, and we play maybe sixty per cent of the tracks to clicks and sequencers, and the equipment goes down for some reason, I am left to wing it and then it kicks back in again. I am right on the button with the time, which is great. Sometimes I start a track like ‘Rapture’ where I kick off and the click comes in later, and I am right in time with it when it arrives. It is a matter of practice.”
After being with Blondie for so long, it must be simultaneously exhilarating, and somewhat scary, to be stepping out of your comfort zone – is that how Clem feels?
“The interesting thing is, I don’t take my success with Blondie for granted by any means, so when I get in a splitter van with the guys and we stay in hotels that are not top of the line, I enjoy the change. Then when I come back to Blondie and everything is top of the line again, which is the way we do things these days, then I appreciate that even more, so it’s a good balance for me.
“For me, the criterion is always to be playing. Right before this batch of Blondie shows, I went out with a band called the Split Squad, which is me and some friends. We put out a record and we did some dates with Peter Buck and Mike Mills from REM; we opened for them for about 10 shows. That enables me to keep my chops up, and then I could walk right back into the Blondie tour like there had been no break at all. I could sit in my little studio in my house and play along to records, but that’s not the same as being out on the road, touring and playing live shows. As long as I choose to keep doing this, I want to be in the zone where I can do it as much as I do. When Blondie stopped, I carried right on. I did a lot of work and when we re-grouped in the late 90s, I was pretty much the only one out of the band who was ready to go immediately, because I had been playing all the time at a certain level.”
Dare we whisper the ‘R’ word? Is Clem thinking ahead to maybe taking it easy and, if not exactly sitting on the porch looking at the sunset, at least not jetting off to Japan with the Empty Hearts for tour dates, prior to getting back behind the kit with Blondie next spring. “Yeah, I do think about it. Right now, I am in the moment with the success that Blondie has and the Empty Hearts is taking up all the rest of my time. I do have another band with Glen Matlock called the International Swingers – we recorded at Dave Grohl’s studio and we are going to finish up that album, but I am focused on the Empty Hearts because of the release and the window of opportunity. With Blondie, I know the music will live forever, and we as people are not going to be around forever. We are having far more success this time around than we did before, which may seem hard to believe given the success we did have, but we are far more in tune with what’s going on now, in general.
“We are just at the end of a touring cycle, but for me, it feels like the beginning because the band is playing so well together. We are able to switch songs out, and just do whatever. Someone will say, ‘We haven’t played that song for ages, let’s whip it out’.
“Retirement is inevitable. I always say, ‘Give it eighteen months’, but my wife says I’ve been saying that for the last fifteen years!”
Maple Collector’s Series in gold sparkle and red glass
18”x24” kick drum
16”x18” floor tom
16”x16” floor tom
12”x14” rack tom
6.5”x14” x2 – main and back-up snare drums
6.6”x14” brass snare drum
Cymbals: Zildjian A Series
2 x 18” crash
Toms and snares (top) – Coated Ambassador
Toms and snares (bottom) – Clear Ambassador
Kick drum – Power Stroke 3 (batter), white DW (resonant)
Sticks: Vic Firth
5A Clem Burke series
DW 9000 & 5000 series
Porter and Davis BC-2 Throne
Clear Sonic Drum Shield
In Ears: Ultimate Ear UE-7