CLARK COLBORN
Clark Colborn Again
(Krypton Entertainment Group)

 

Sometimes heavy metal music can be so heavy. With distorted guitars pushing the needles to the red, much hard rock or heavy metal is way too heavy for some discerning ears. Case in point where heavy metal instrumental and rock music is played and recorded just right is Clark Colborn Again, the 2011 CD from Illinois guitarist Clark Colborn. Hipped to rock writers and mags by in-the-know prog and rock fans, Clark hits his stride with his latest opus, which skillfully mixes a few vocal tracks into a predominantly instrumental rock album. Clark gets compared to guitar aces like Page, Vai and Van Halen, yet he maintains, ‘I want my music to be fun to listen to, stimulating to play and to convey a sense of energy to my audience.’ Perhaps the most unique thing here is the recording sound, which is first rate, distortion free and superbly mastered—especially for what ostensibly sounds like a heavy metal album. Clark handles everything including vocals, with all the instruments skillfully handled by Clark and drummer Joel Baer. With its myriad of electrifying rock guitar pyro-technics, Clark Colborn Again takes you on a sonic trip back into the future. www.ClarkPlaysGuitar.com



mwe3.com presents an interview with
CLARK COLBORN



mwe3: How does the Clark Colborn Again solo album represent a move forward from your early work as a musician and how would you compare the style and approach with your 2004 Clark Plays Guitar CD? What was the chemistry like working with drummer Joel Baer on the new album?

CC: Let’s go back to Clark Plays Guitar first, so there is a frame of reference for Again. When I made Clark Plays Guitar my mind was in a really strange place. At least it seems that way to me now, looking back. I had taken quite a few years off from music. The business side of it had ground me down, and the enormous frustration of trying to have a band made up of talented, responsible, and ambitious people but instead getting people mostly interested in partying first, getting laid second, following their favorite sports team third, and the band as a very distant fourth . Well, it made me hate music. Or so I thought at the time. What I actually hated was the circumstances surrounding me and my music at the time. Anyway, I quit playing music, I quit listening to music, and I avoided anyone and anything associated with music for years.

Then a series of events occurred that made me realize I’m hard-wired to make music, I can’t live as a rational, sane human being if I can’t make music. It would take too long to explain everything that happened, so I’ll just leave it at that. Anyway, as soon as I had this realization, this re-awakening, I also realized that I could avoid many of the things that had nearly killed music for me, and just write and record music by myself. Home recording was affordable and not out of reach, so I started writing and recording just as an outlet, with no intentions of releasing it to the public or having a band. My writing at that point was very experimental, and not geared for a band, for the most part. I would start writing a piece, have another idea and jump to that for a while, then have still another idea and focus on that, and just keep repeating this process. Sometimes I would go back to an earlier piece and develop it some more, until I was happy with it or struck with new inspiration, then I’d move on again. I had piles of tapes with partially completed compositions. Then another series of events occurred that changed things.

Let’s skip all the dull details again, other than to say the first part of that series was when some friends heard a couple of the completed songs, and started hounding me to release an instrumental album. It was like the first domino in a row of events where things just seemed to fall into place, so I said, “Why not?” But a funny thing happened to my mindset once I had committed to making an album. I began
trying to play it safe with the songs. I would try to imagine what the public would accept or like, and this would make me fearful about some of the more unusual compositions. Plus, there were some things happening with the health of my hands that initially made me think this would be the only album I would ever make, and that time was running out on my window of opportunity. So I held back a bit, keeping most of the songs shorter than they might have been otherwise, and not going in any direction that I thought was too “out there,” if that makes sense. Plus, I think that I probably said “good enough” on some aspects of that first album that could have been closer to my vision if I had believed I had more time. I abandoned some tracks that I didn’t think could be performed live, should I decide to put a band together, although I did leave several on the album that I thought might not ever be played live, just because I thought they would touch people in some way. So in the end, I was happy with the Clark Plays Guitar album, but looking back I realize some of the compromises I made.

When I made Again I just let go. I recorded a bunch of tunes that I wrote specifically for performing live, and several that were really just pieces I had written for myself. I made no effort to “adjust” the songs to make them more palatable to the masses. I just wrote & recorded whatever came out of me, with the hopes that it might appeal to fans of music that is kind of different. I let the tunes go where they wanted to go... If they need to be longer to get it all said musically, then so be it. If they need to have lots of changes in the time signatures, that’s okay. And I think the end result is that this album is more representative of me as a guitarist, performer, & composer—more powerful in its artistic statement, yet at the same time actually more accessible to the listeners.

Another thing that is quite different this time around is my studio. I have made a bunch of upgrades, so I have far fewer limitations in the actual recording process. And I’m a much better recording engineer now. I’ve made a ton of demos, recorded other artists and worked at learning more about the craft of recording, which actually allows me to focus more on the creation of the music because the recording side takes less concentration now.

There are other differences this time around, too. The health of my hands is way better and I’ve gone back to playing live, which admittedly had an effect on some of the song choices for Again, but not in any sort of limiting way. I’ve gotten a little more comfortable with my voice, so I added a few vocal tunes and my studio upgrades allowed me to work with a live drummer this time, which leads me to respond to your question about the chemistry with Joel Baer.


Joel and I started playing live together about 3 or 4 years ago, but then he went off to finish his music degree about 2 years ago. We stayed in touch, and when I started to get serious about recording this new album I reached out to him with the idea that he would be one of 3 drummers to contribute to the album. I had the idea that he would play most of the tunes, but a couple of old band-mates would contribute as well. Things weren’t working out with the other guys in terms of scheduling, and once Joel came in and did the first couple of tracks I just felt that he was the best guy for the whole album. Joel is a great player, totally comfortable with my odd time signatures, mid-song meter changes, and tempo changes, whatever I throw at him. Plus I can make noises with my mouth trying to describe what I want him to play, that he interprets perfectly, or I can say something like “go all Gavin in this part” and he knows what I’m looking for as a drum part, so we really do have some great chemistry. He would come in on a weekend, or when he had a day off from school, and we would totally hammer it in the studio. He would be really hard on himself sometimes, and just work relentlessly on nailing a part. His efforts are such a huge part of what makes the album sound so good.

mwe3: After hearing the new CD, it sounds like you’re equally fascinated with rock instrumentals and vocal tracks too. How do you describe and compare your sonic, compositional and recording approach to your own rock vocal and instrumental music?

CC: Well, I’ve always been a fan of instrumental music. What drew me to the guitar in the first place were the instrumental surf hits of guys like Dick Dale, Duane Eddy and Link Wray. Of course I was also captivated by Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Cream-era Clapton, Jimmy Page and the mighty Zep, all of whom focused mainly on songs with vocals, yet still featured lots of cool guitar. So I became interested in using lyrics and vocals as part of the compositional palette, but I have always found the most enjoyment in listening to really well composed, or improvised instrumental passages. So that tends to be where I also find most of my musical expression—using instruments to convey emotion, to channel energy, to build a sensation of movement within the listener. Yet at times, lyrics and melodies just pop into my head—they nearly force themselves into the songs. So I treat the vocal like another instrument. I find a space for it, and shape it into something that compliments the overall feel of the music, but still lets the lyrics come across. My voice is low, so I can’t write vocal parts that would fit Ronnie James Dio, they have to work within my limitations, and luckily baritone rock vocals have become very common.

I don’t do too much doctoring of the vocals in the studio. As long as I take the time to get a good take it will be okay. I use a decent large diaphragm mic, a tube pre-amp, throw a little reverb and maybe a bit delay on to it and let it be. I don’t want to over-produce the vocal. It’s important that the rawness of the performance comes through. Too many recordings today are so over-produced that they hardly resemble what actually happened in the studio. I don’t want that. Take me with my warts and all, as the saying goes. I’m not looking to be the next vocal sensation. I just want to touch people with my music, and being human makes that more likely.

mwe3: And how about rock vocal influences compared to instrumental guitar hero influences? What artists had the biggest impact on the many musical sides of Clark Colborn?

CC: Vocal influences… hmmm, that’s hard. I can’t sing anything like the guys I really admire. My voice is just too low. I love Jack Bruce’s vocals with Cream. Three guys that I really liked are gone now—Brad Delp, Freddie Mercury and Ronnie James Dio. One guy that I can say influenced me is Kevin Moore, of OSI. I’ve been told I sing like him, which is not intentional, but it’s true that when I heard the first OSI record I thought “Wow! His range is as limited as mine! I could put some vocal tracks on my next record!” Another vocal influence, in a way, is Gary Hoey. Gary used to only record instrumental albums, but in the past several years he has done some really good vocal oriented records. I met him several years ago when we were both represented by the same booking agent. We both fired the guy almost immediately; he was a complete scam artist. During a conversation Gary encouraged me to learn to sing, saying he had done so and it had given him more tools as a composer, artist, and performer. Gary is a really good vocalist, far better than I will ever be, I think, but his encouragement coupled with finding OSI about that time influenced me to give it a go.

Guitarist influences are easier to list: the previously mentioned Dick Dale, Link Wray, Duane Eddy, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Cream-era Clapton, plus Ritchie Blackmore, Johnny Winter, Frank Zappa, Uli Jon Roth, UFO era Michael Schenker, Brian May and of course Eddie Van Halen. Other guitarists I really admire are Steve Vai, Steve Howe, Joe Satriani, Paul Gilbert, Steve Stevens, John Petrucci and Dweezil Zappa. I love all of those guys and try to draw inspiration from them without copping their signature sound.

Bands that influenced me are all over the place: I liked The Beatles and some of the Rolling Stones stuff... The Who, Cream, of course, Deep Purple, Wishbone Ash, King Crimson, Captain Beyond, The Flock, Kansas, early Scorpions, early Judas Priest, UFO, Alice Cooper, early Queen, Blue Cheer, Jefferson Airplane, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, The Move, Hydra, Aerosmith, Vanilla Fudge, Ursa Major and ZZ Top. Probably some others that I’m forgetting. With all of these bands it was the music that drew me in, not the vocals &/or lyrics, but the riffs and interplay between guitars, drums, bass, & keyboards. For some reason I am always more moved by well crafted instrumental parts than clever lyrics—which explains why Bob Dylan & Bruce Springsteen aren’t anywhere to be found in my house.

I can’t really pinpoint any single person or band as being a pivot point for me. In my formative years I was like a musical sponge—I soaked it all in completely. I remember learning every guitar part on every song on Led Zeppelin II, then doing the same thing on the American debut of Black Sabbath. Then I would head downtown to get the sheet music for some classical piece like “Sabre Dance” and try to arrange that for a rock band. I would spend days visiting guitar stores, trying to find out what gave that lead line in “American Woman” by The Guess Who such an awesome sound. I would hang out with funk players to try to get a feel for those great Motown guitar phrases that would get everyone on their feet. Every new thing would captivate me for a while, and once I felt I had a grasp of how something could help me express myself musically, I would move on. There was so much good, innovative stuff coming out in those days that I was never without a source for inspiration.

mwe3: The cover art for the Clark Colborn Again album should win a Grammy! (lol) Can you inform us about the origins and design (hidden meaning?) of the CD cover art?

CC: I agree! Michael Morris did an incredible job on the cover, absolutely perfect. The cover of my first album, the Clark Plays Guitar album, seemed to work against it. I loved it. I thought it conveyed a sense of whimsy, showed that I didn’t take myself too seriously, and it had a retro, comic book feel that I felt gave a hint of the super-hero/guitar-hero connection. The feedback I got on it was that it really didn’t give enough of a sense of what my music was like. I was not going let that be an issue with Again. I had multiple objectives with this cover. First, I wanted it to be reminiscent of the grand covers of the vinyl era—just great artwork capable of standing on its own merit. Second, I wanted it to convey a sense of the unusual, something familiar yet strange, something other-worldly. And third, I wanted it to reflect the harder aspect of most of the tunes, the metal side of what I do. I had a kind of terminator/guitarist vision, set in some kind of world where everyone is mechanical, robotic, and they’re all drawn to him. Yet I didn’t want it to be scary, cliché horror art that is on so many metal covers today. And last, I wanted to still tie the look of both albums together somehow.

So I sent all of my crazy ideas and some mock-up art that I’d done to Michael Morris in Colorado, along with the pre-mastered songs so he could have an audio reference to inspire his visual output, and he put just the right amount of intimidation, whimsy and hi-tech into the cover. He actually created components of the artwork from photos of my effects pedals, my amp and my speaker cabinets. He did an awesome job. If you know someone that can nominate him for that Grammy, by all means encourage them to do it. It’s the coolest cover I’ve seen in years, if I do say so myself.

Sometimes I jokingly say that the cover is meant to symbolize the dichotomy of the musical diversities and freedoms imparted by the very same conditions that have imposed a post-industrial dependence on an electro-mechanical, Jungian surrogate which provides the vicarious social proxy now embraced by the collective and undiscerning pawns of an elitist, affluent minority. Although I say it as a joke, it’s also true...

mwe3: That's a pretty cool guitar on the new CD cover art. What guitars do you bring out of your arsenal and feature on the Clark Colborn Again CD and can you say something about your guitar and amp combination live and in the studio and as far as matching sounds and, how about enhancing effects you use in the recording and mixing stages?

CC: Most of the guitar tracks on Again were recorded with a “Frankenstein” I have. It’s a floating trem/locking nut equipped, 24 fret beast that I’ve put some new humbucker pick-ups and control electronics into, and painted red with a can of spray paint. I’ve used that guitar live for quite a few years, but towards the end of recording the album I damaged a couple of the frets, to such a degree that I can’t play it. The cost of fixing it may be more than it’s worth, so the electronics may move to a Schecter Flying V that I have. In fact, the guitar on the cover is a blend of the red Frankenstein and that Schecter, which is currently white, that Michael drew at my request. So maybe that’s the way to go. I’ve got more spray paint. (lol)

I also used a Schecter baritone that I have for a couple tracks, and a couple of my vintage Gibsons made it onto the album, as well. Typically I run a humbucker equipped guitar through my Randall MTS RM100 head, which feeds a Randall 4x12 cabinet loaded with Celestion Greenbacks. The weird thing I do is to use a large diaphragm, fixed cardioid pattern condenser microphone, instead of a dynamic mic like a Shure SM57. I run it though a tube pre-amp, into a decent A/D converter, then into Sonar X1 Producer.

One problem with recording is that you are not getting the same power, the same sense of massiveness a listener gets from the live experience. Live, you have multiple 12-inch speakers pumping out the guitar on stage 4, maybe 8, maybe even more, and a boatload more speakers pumping it out over the P.A. system. Each speaker has miniscule tone differences, and each resonates a tiny bit differently than the rest, and this creates a thick, massive sound. One of the tricks I use to get my recordings to have a similar feel to this is to record multiple takes of each guitar part and place them in different places in the soundscape. I alter the tone a tiny bit for each take. Sometimes I change the placement of the mic a tiny bit. It’s a technique called “doubling.” This is very common on major label recordings. I usually record 2 tracks of each distinct part, although the guitar solo on “Lie To Me” was triple-tracked. Some of the other solos are doubled, but not all of them. Once in a while the mic placement is just so perfect that you get a huge tone without having to double the track.

mwe3: Also how do you balance your own keyboard and bass playing with your overall guitar-centric approach on the Clark Colborn Again CD?

Because I am primarily a guitarist, much of what I hear in my head when I’m imagining new music is guitar. But frequently I have distinct ideas for other instruments as well, which might become the genesis for a song. Often I hear everything at once in my head—guitar, bass, drums, key—and I have to sort it out as I record or transcribe. Sometimes I will switch things up in the studio. I might use a piano to play a part I do on guitar live, or use a piano to double a bass part. There are things you can do live that will work really well from the stage, yet might not have the same impact on a recording, and vice-versa. So I try to find the optimal way to perform it for each medium. I have some songs that are very keyboard heavy that might make it onto the next album. Since I really consider myself to be a guitarist that dabbles on bass, keyboards and drums, I don’t work much on improving on anything other than guitar. I still feel like I haven’t mastered the guitar, so I only get good enough on the other instruments to play what I need for the recordings.

mwe3: The new CD sounds great. What steps did you take to make sure the sound was the very best it could? How did you get your new recording to have such a clean sound in the final sound on the CD? Recordings as good as yours with artwork as cool is reason enough for the recording medium to keep the original CD concept alive.

CC: I was very careful during every step to manage the levels, the recorded volume, of everything. I would make certain the microphone was not distorting due to an amp being too loud, or the mic too close, for example. In the old days we would try to get everything in the signal chain right on the verge of “red-lining” as it went to tape, because that would impart a really big, thick sound on tape. With so much of the recording process being in the digital realm these days, you can’t do that. The old analog equipment was very forgiving with distortion—the new digital gear is not, so you can’t let things “red-line” at all.

So that’s the first part, keeping the levels under control. Then you have to spread the mix out with panning, or “balance” as the consumer equipment is labeled. This keeps things from “piling up” in the stereo spectrum. Plus, you want to balance frequencies. So many recordings are way too bass heavy because they have the low frequencies of the kick drum boosted, the bass guitar lows boosted, the down-tuned guitars low end boosted, and maybe some low synth, all competing for the same frequency range. It just makes a mess of the final product.

Another thing I did was to go into every individual track and completely remove any sound during the parts where that particular instrument was not actually playing. This really cleans the mix up—keeps the noise to a bare minimum. You’ll always have noise, but why not reduce it as much as possible?

The final touch is not taking part in the “loudness wars.” Google that phrase, “loudness wars,” to see what it’s all about. In essence, when you do the final stereo mastering (which is different than the mixing) you can try to make your record louder than the next guys by using something called compression. But too much compression takes away all the dynamics, actually amplifies any residual noise, and at some point you reach the maximum volume that can be reproduced on a CD or MP3 or vinyl, there are physical limits. Studies have proven that a listener’s ears will fatigue much faster when listening to recordings that are maxed out in this way, and the end result is that they don’t want to listen to the music for as long. So I asked my mastering engineer to keep the dynamics in tact, and to go as loud as we could without getting into the loudness wars. He did a great job.

And of course, getting actual pressed CDs done by a big company rather than burned CDs from one of these “quickie” services will always be important in the end product.

mwe3: Who were some of the other people important to making the Clark Colborn Again CD work out so well? For instance, others involved in the mixing, mastering, pressing, PR, marketing, endorsements, gear companies?

CC: Since we were just talking about mastering, I should give a huge shout out to Ty Tabor for the mastering. Ty is the guitarist and one of the vocalists in King’s X, and he is also a great mastering engineer. He put up with my incessant emails, endless questions and overall craziness and turned out a great product. Pressing was done by Oasis CD Manufacturing, they were great, and always do an excellent job.

My amps are Randalls, and John Vitale, the artist relations director, was a huge help in getting my endorsement with them as well as helping me get the right amp for my sound.

Gary Hill, of Gary Hill PR, has been a terrific help in getting the word out about the new album and of course Michael Morris deserves tremendous praise for his truly world-class cover art, not to mention the moral support he gave me along the way. My friend and drummer Joel Baer was indispensable with his drumming and input during the whole thing. And I can’t overstate how important the support of my family was to getting this album done. I couldn’t have done it without them.

I’m sure I’m forgetting someone. Hopefully they’ll understand and forgive me!

mwe3: Can you say something about where you live now and where you grew up and do you have any other hobbies or interests outside of the music world?

CC: I live about 90 minutes west of downtown Chicago, in the city where I grew up, Rockford. It’s the home of Cheap Trick, Aidan Quinn, Jodi Benson (Ariel in The Little Mermaid), Michelle Williams of Destiny’s Child, and a couple other celebrities, but oddly enough doesn’t have a vibrant music or live theater scene.

Hobbies or interests... hmmm... Outside of my family, music pretty much dominates my life! (lol) I used to be quite involved in martial arts. I taught for several years, but too many hand and arm injuries caused me to mostly leave that behind. When I was trying to avoid being a musician I became a master scuba instructor, and I still like to dive for fun when time permits. I do some woodworking on occasion, but for the most part I spend every waking moment involved in some activity centered on music. Other than when I’m hanging with my family, that is. I’m writing songs, practicing difficult parts, having band rehearsal, doing promotional stuff, creating new graphics for the web site or flyers or promo material, chasing gigs, fixing guitars, modifying amps and guitars, giving interviews, judging band battles, making videos, meeting with concert promoters or potential managers, researching venues or festivals, reading music business journals and blogs, sending materials to radio stations and music publications, lining up photo shoots, and on and on goes the list. But that’s what happens when you do what you love, you completely immerse yourself in it. My wife has to drag me out of the studio sometimes, I just lose track of time.

mwe3: What about future plans for you as far as writing and recording new music in the future. Are there any other musicians you’d like to work with and or produce or be produced by and are you planning any live shows or any other big events?

CC: I’m always writing. I hope to turn out new albums on a more regular basis now that my studio is pretty stable. I have some ideas for a couple of unusual projects, but those will come together in between my main projects, which will be more albums like Again. I talked to Tony Levin about doing a track on this one, but he said he couldn’t improve on the bass track that was already there, so we left it open for working together on some future project. I’d like that, Tony is amazing.

There are so many other players that would be fun to collaborate with, I don’t even know where to start. Jordan Rudess (Dream Theater), Kevin Moore (OSI), Steve Vai, Billy Sheehan, Paul Gilbert and that’s just for starters.

I’ve been trying to find a promoter to help me put together something like Joe Satriani’s G3 tour, with Gary Hoey, me, and a third guitarist. So far it’s still just in the “can we do this?” stage, but I’m going to keep hammering at it. That would be a blast.

My new live band, which is me, Joel Baer and an outstanding bassist from Chicago named Sam Lalk, will be hitting stages in the Midwest this summer, and we want to get a tour put together for the fall. We really need a promoter or a decent management company to jump in right about now, because it’s getting to the point where there is more to do than what I can handle alone. I suppose that will be my next big project, finding a great management team to work with.

I have a video for the single “Lie to Me” coming out April 27, 2012, and then we’ll be starting production on a new video with the goal of getting 3 or 4 out this year. If the budgets are there, that is. Hopefully we can kick the sales of Again up enough to finance the videos.

Beyond that, it’s wide open. I’ll continue the “write-record-perform” cycle until they put me into the ground, probably. (lol) I’m always open to ideas, and ready to tackle any opportunity that makes sense, so anything is possible! Right now I want to focus on getting out and playing a bunch of this new stuff for everybody, so if you see we’re coming to a venue near you, please come to the show. You will definitely be entertained!

Thanks to Clark Colborn @ www.ClarkPlaysGuitar.com

 

 
   
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