Clem Burke gives us the lowdown on his healthy lifestyle, Blondie, The Empty Hearts, his thoughts on retirement and the now-famous Clem Burke Drumming Project
Words: Andy Hughes Images: Robert Matheu
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, released earlier this year – 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.”