Ahead of the launch of his quite excellent ninth album, LA-based Kiwi jazz pianist/producer Mark de Clive-Lowe undertook a whirlwind tour, his album listening session at Ponsonby’s Conch Records following two similar sessions in Tokyo. From Auckland he flew back to LA where he had two official album launch shows at the Blue Whale jazz bar. Dates in New York, London, Turkey, Budapest and Berlin followed, illustrating just how much of an international artist de Clive-Lowe has become in the 14 years since he left NZ behind on the back of his ‘Six Degrees’ jazz album. Richard Thorne caught up with him towards the end of his busy 24 hours in Auckland.
Living in California and practising (“playing”) capoeira, as he’s done for the last few years, has Mark de Clive-Lowe healthier than ever – well certainly healthier than during the previous decade he spent in London. He will turn 40 later this year, and what better present to himself than a milestone album? ‘CHURCH’ manifests his coming-of-age as a jazz musician, succinctly tying together his developing global club night brand with a now nine-strong album catalogue.
With his new wife and family there, Mark evidently couldn’t be happier, but it was Los Angeles’ more familiar indifference that set him on the path he is joyfully travelling. That radiates around Church, a jazz club night that he established there out of necessity – he wasn’t known in LA and wasn’t playing. He says it wasn’t named in any religious context – other than a tongue-in-cheek reference to the uplifting, celebratory thing of black churches in the States.
“I didn’t know what it was going to be at first, but it became self-evident. It was about celebrating music and dance, and being alive and ‘church’ in that sense. It was actually christened by Nia Andrews [his wife and the main vocalist on his new album]. There is a little speakeasy called Angels in Santa Monica and they offered me the first Sunday of the month – Angels, Sunday… it’s gotta be Church!
“Conceptually, I wanted to share my journey as a musician, over one night of music. It would start like with super straight-ahead jazz, flipping some Ellington or Monk and stuff, then I’d start re-sampling that and remixing it, and it would evolve into a dance party, over four hours or so. I had a residency in the UK for years and it was always important for me to be able to share my vision in performance context.
“Church got created in order to share my story, as opposed to fitting into other people’s stories, that was a big part of it.”
His Church is now well established in both LA and New York, the venue changing regularly from jazz clubs, to dancehall clubs to outdoor events. He says the musicians love playing to people in different contexts, as do the guest DJs, like Questlove and The Gaslamp Killer, who also get to play sets away from their norm.
“LA’s great because there is a really broad range of styles and scenes there. You’ve got the legacy artists like from the soul side like Patrice Rushen and Harvey Mason, loads of session musicians from the ’60s and ’70s live there. Then you’ve got all the way through to Flying Lotus and Brainfeeder, that whole camp Stones Throw [Records] – and all these crews, but everyone supports each other, and it is quite unique like that. I feel like, compared with other parts of the world right now, LA is really progressive and open-minded.”
And that’s also a reasonable way to describe his newly released album, itself named ‘CHURCH’ because it embodies the methodology and sound that he has developed through the club night, as well as many of the artists who are core to it, not least his wife.
“This is a very personal record and it had to be an honest record, and that’s part of where I’m at. It’s not just about noisy beats, there is a whole range of stuff in there and I wanted to express all those aspects.”
Notably for himself, and for any since-confused fans of his breakthrough 1999 Kog Transmissions album ‘Six Degrees’, it also sees him return to his jazz pianist roots.
“While I was in the UK I didn’t play the piano for 10 years! I basically was a complete Judas to the acoustic piano. I’d be doing collaborations and producers would say, ‘Lets put some piano on this track.’ And I’d say ‘No, I’ll play synths.’ Musicians would say, ‘Come and play this gig’, and I’d say, ‘Nah, I’ll come and DJ.’”
He describes it as a two-fold thing; that he was running away from the piano and also wanting to de-construct “the learned musician inside”.
“I was working with producers who knew nothing about music, but were making beats and very innovative, progressive music – with no knowledge – just like, feel, you know? Which made a HUGE impression on me. I wanted to take away that intellectual filter of being a studied musician – which was achieved basically. It wasn’t until I went to LA and Nia Andrews had a debut show and got me to play piano. I was very resistant, but I did, and it was beautiful, like I reconnected with this instrument that I had missed for so long.
“Ten years earlier I feel like I played it like a young ego-driven jazz musician. How fast, how complicated can you play – that kind of bravado thing. After 10 years of basically being a producer I came back to the instrument with a producer’s ear. I’d lost some technical facility, but I heard it in a whole different way, and no longer was it about proving myself on the piano.”
He values both piano and guitar as composing tools, but as important as the piano may be, his performance set up is all about exploring and exploiting technology.
“Maybe the laptop is the most important instrument right now, in the manner that I can plug in a couple of controllers and I’ve got the keyboard and everything. The heart of it is the Native Instruments’ Maschine, which has replaced the MPC for me. It’s a hardware/software hybrid, a drum machine, sampler and kind of brain. I use that for all the live sequencing and programming. Then there are three Kaoss Pads – there was one, then two, now three! I love them because they are really tactile, it’s about feel, which is how music I believe should be. I don’t mind clicking a mouse and pointing, but if I’m performing, having that instant tactility is really great.”
Two of the Kaoss pads are chained to give him more processing options, so effectively there are two routing set ups.
“One is all the computer stuff I’m doing – so out of Maschine, all the drum machine and synths can get processed, and re-sampled through the extra Kaoss pad. The other Kaoss pad I use for all the live stuff. So I’ll be sub-mixing the piano, the horn players, the drummer, the vocalists into that second one. I guess in a DJ mentality, those are the two turntables, and often I’ll put a DJ mixer between them and actually treat them like that.
His recording set up was the same, plus a grand piano, Fender Rhodes and band(s). Most of the album was captured at fellow ex-pat Aaron Nevezie’s Bunker Studio in Brooklyn in the first days of 2014, with three tracks done in LA, at Stagg Street Studio, at the end of January. Three days all up. In both cases everything was recorded live, with charts to get things started for the musicians, but the songs developing freely from there.
“That was important to me. It’s not like the beats were pre- or post-programmed, it was all one thing, the whole electronic element is part of the process and the organic-ness of the music. I think that really shows, people often say there are times when they can’t differentiate between the drummer or the drum machine, or… I’ll be playing and sample my piano and the horn players and create basically a B mix, and cut that up on the fly. Suddenly you’re hearing what you associate with a hip hop loop, but it’s a loop created out of what was just performed that second, so the sample couldn’t have happened but for that performance. I love that concept of it too.
“I’ll have a sub mixer by my side and whenever I want to sample someone I’ll just mute that channel. Which is great for spontaneity and often no one knows that I am about to sample them. It’s not about getting things right for the sample, it’s on the fly. If, by chance, I don’t sample the best thing, then the challenge is to rework the sample, in-performance, to make it into something that does work. And that’s really fun too, you work with what you have.”
This determined ‘on the fly’ style of music creation necessarily eschews perfection in favour of flow. It’s in major contrast to the work he was doing when living in London.
“Perfection was [then] a priority, and I busted my balls on perfection for a long time. There’s an album called ‘Tides Arising’, which was for ABB in 2005, that was the perfection record. I set out to make the best producer record I could and I feel like I achieved that, and after that everything was a lot easier and I could move on.
“Then there was a weird disconnect between my studio records and my live performances, where in the studio I was still so focused on the producer and live I was so focused on this kind of freedom. So if people came to the show then bought the record, they’d be different. For me this record was important to capture the live thing and make that the studio record, and get rid of that disconnect. There are so many records through history that have mistakes on them, but the vibe is sick and transcends any intellectual breakdown of it.
“That’s an important part of the vibe to me – that the electronic elements are as spontaneous and organic as the acoustic ones. It can go wrong, but for me there’s a complete commitment in doing this. There is a pretty high risk element and often I am excited to find out what is going to happen. I love that the audience can see that whole process. It’s kind of breaking the rule book and I love that it shares that idea.”
It’s clear that trust is an important part of the Church process – the live event as well as the album. There’s the implicit trust the musicians place in him, as well as his own self-trust, that he is capturing and mixing something worth capturing.
“Absolutely. It’s hard for me to explain to somebody how we are going to play the gig, but my go-to is; ‘It’s like we are going to jump off the cliff, without a parachute. You have to believe that you are going to fly because this is what’s happening.’ When it doesn’t work it’s because they were too scared to jump off!
“With the guys that it works with there’s a lot of trust, and that’s the adventure. There are moments in a show when I sometimes stop for a second and just listen to it in wonderment thinking, ‘This is really dope,’ and that’s a lot of fun. I’ve got to work with a lot of great musicians, including some really legendary ones, guys that I grew up listening to as well. Like Harvey Mason and his bass player Freddie Washington, I had them on Church a while ago and that was incredible – my dream team ’70s rhythm section, amazing! But some others, even though they are great musicians, just haven’t been right for it.”
For his new album Mark also chose to put his own trust in his fans and friends, embracing Kickstarter to raise the US $17,000 he budgeted for its production. He describes the campaign as really challenging, one of the hardest things he’s done, but says he had fully researched how crowd funding works and knew he was ready to try it.
“The Kickstarter was a really, really positive experience. It took all the limitations away. It basically showed me that there are people who like and believe in what I do, and want me to continue doing what I do. That gave me the financial freedom to make the record how I wanted to for sure, but also I wasn’t making it for any particular scene, or audience. I made it for myself and also for these people who gave me free permission to make it. And that was really liberating.
“Especially recently, labels don’t want to spend any money, and having worked with so many labels, majors and independents I feel liberated to be free of that.”
While finding no drawbacks to crowd funding, he does report some unexpected negativity.
“There was a little indignant kind of feedback, that I think was from peers who were too scared to do something similar – maybe jealousy and something else – which was just silly. I had a lot of peers who were really supportive in getting the word out, and so the message from others who weren’t was very loud. I don’t begrudge them that.
“For me there was no option for it to fail, I was committed to it succeeding and I felt that I had the audience to achieve it. The fact of the system is quite simple; 3% of your fan base will support you financially, and that 3% will average $50 a head.”
An early adopter of online communication, his regularly contacted database numbers around 7000, mostly located in the cities where he spends his time. LA has the most, followed by New York and London, with Paris and Johannesburg on a par, NZ and Australia also tied. Together they bettered his goal, providing him almost US$20,000.
“It was important to me to record in proper studios and to be able to pay everyone. Money is an energy exchange and people gave me their energy. Deals get cut, but at the end of the day it costs money to make something happen.
“I’d been using a particular mixing and mastering engineer for a long time and in this project I switched both – and I got what I wanted. I wanted this to have a raw dirtiness to it, so Ty Macklin, this Texas-based mix engineer who has done some stuff with Badu and a lot of hip hop, he really got the vision of what I wanted to do.
“A lot of people do their own mastering, but mastering is an art. The guy I got, Pete Maher, has done all the U2 stuff almost since they began, he mastered King Tubby, The Killers and all sorts of stuff. He also mastered a record by Australian bass player Ross McHenry who got myself, Adam Page and Myele Manzanza on his project [‘Distant Oceans’]. It’s a really great record and the mastering really blew me away.”
“I put out a digital EP using Mashibeats as an imprint a few years ago, but this is really the launch of it in earnest. I’ve partnered with Ropeadope and they basically manage the label and are encouraging me to grow it as much as I can.
“The way the industry is now, the record is a calling card. It’s all about being able to play better festivals, play higher billings, play for better guarantees, and that way everyone benefits.
“Admittedly in the past there have been records designed to appeal to a certain scene, or fit a certain context, and this one is informed by those experiences but is liberated from them, completely. Which I’m super thankful for. It’s like the first album of a new chapter.”