Pop as the Soundtrack of Thinking : A dialogue with a musician.
with Mark de Clive-Lowe
Mark de Clive-Lowe is a jazz musician, and something like a jazz musician. That means he’s also an arranger and producer, R&B song-writer, electronica DJ, and all around musical maverick. But what makes Mark unique is his uncompromising vision, a vision which blurs the boundaries between commercial and high brow music, the dance floor and the concert hall. Listening to his music, one can’t help but be struck with the impression that this is a new kind of pop.
It’s not just new in the sense of being released in the recent past. It’s fervently trying to change how we explain pop’s relationship to other genres. This is pop music for people who are bored with pop music. This is pop that’s also, in it’s own way, jazz. This is pop designed to surprise and confound, to be like magic in a mechanical sea of mindless, middle-of-the-road, and mass produced melodies predictably mimicing the songs you’ve heard before.
Mark de Clive-Lowe’s music does not sound like what you’ve heard before. Sometimes it’s hard to say exactly what it does sound like. But whether we hear what sounds like a funky bass line, a spirited electronica groove, or the most elusive and perplexing jazz harmony, Mark’s music invites us to partake in something more universal, and more particular, than any of those things.
Mark de Clive-Lowe’s music feels like thinking. Thinking is awkward. Thinking involves encountering things that don’t normally hang together. Thinking involves making sense of, and accepting, the overturing of our deepest expectations. When deep in thought, you often forget where you are or what you should be doing. But thinking is also exciting. Thinking is passionate. Thinking is beautiful. Thinking is the antithesis of thoughtlesness, the enemy of mindless conformity. And good thinking, like good pop music, has it’s unique own voice, a voice which when on form, can feel both like a celebration and like you are being seduced.
Thinking, after all, is our pathway to new possibilities, the door from which we dance out into other worlds. Thinking is creative. And thinking, if it had a soundtrack, would sound something like a Mark de Clive-Lowe album.
GREG SCORZO: What do you love about music?
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: As a musician, music is the way I can express myself most completely. It’s a language. When I talk to people, I can say a lot, but I can’t capture a lot of the depth with words that I can with music. With music, I can let it all roll out. I can manifest something tangible. It’s tangible enough for someone else to connect with.
GREG SCORZO: When someone’s listening to one of your records, whether it’s Church or Renegades or the next one, what sort of experience do you want them to have?
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: I want to bring them into my reality. With each of those records, and with previous records I’ve done, it’s like trying to create the world as I imagine it, through sound. For someone else to come into that is a really cool thing. When it comes to live music, things get interesting. Because of my process as a live musician, I’m often live-sampling the band while I’m playing piano. I’m mixing together beats, and doing all sorts of other crazy things. It’s like you can challenge the work-flow paradigm and that’s really inspiring.
GREG SCORZO: So it sounds like a big part of the live show is improvising things in new ways.
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: Definitely. Church is a great example of that. With that tour, there was a repertoire, but every time we hit the stage, things would be different. It’s the same with a traditional jazz combo that improvises together. Anytime a jazz group plays a tune live, the solos will be different. I like that approach but I like to add my own re-sampling technology into that kind of performance. The sampler becomes as much of an improvising player as the next musician.
GREG SCORZO: When you first started out doing music, who were your influences?
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: I loved big band music, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman. When I started listening to that music, I was definitely listening to the more populist end of the spectrum. And then in high school, I fell head first into New Jack Swing. The first Guy album. A friend of mine put his ear phones on me and played it to me from his walkman. I was in New Zealand as a kid, so I’d never heard anything like it.
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: It was amazing to me hearing those sounds. Having grown up on piano and keyboards, I just wasn’t relating to the guitar-led pop music my friends were into. These other sounds were sounds I could relate to as a musician because of my relationship to the keys.
GREG SCORZO: I didn’t know until now what your influences were. But now that you’ve told me, I can hear every single one of them very strongly in your records.
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: Yeah, after New Jack Swing, I got deep into Native Tongues. That was high school. Then I woke up one day and got really curious about Miles and Trane. For a while, I wanted to be in New York and be a straight ahead piano player. I wanted to play with Betty Carter and Art Blakey. Kenny Kirkland was God as far as I was concerned.
GREG SCORZO: When I was in high school, Kenny was on a lot of the jazz records my whole family were listening to. He was on the Branford Marsalis and Michael Brecker records.
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: But at the time, I didn’t really hear it as connecting at all with the hip hop or R&B I was into. At that time, they were very separate things in my mind.
I lived in Japan during my final year of high school. My mother’s Japanese, and I had a lot of family there. But I’d never lived there before. I’d only visited. My host that I lived with was a Buddhist priest, but he was also a jazz fiend. So during my final year of high school, I went to school in the day, and at night, we were hanging out at Japanese jazz clubs. In Tokyo during the early 90s, there were about 60 jazz clubs. The musicians consisted of everyone from local bands to touring internationals. All of that left a huge impression on me. I really saw, from an audience perspective, the lifestyle of the jazz musician. I thought, “This is pretty cool.
In New Zealand, you had the odd spot that would play small group jazz. But there wasn’t a big enough scene for anyone to get a big exposure to jazz. So to be able to live in a place where you could see Freddie Hubbard one night, and then some Japanese cats play bop the next night, was just crazy. But that I think made me think, “This is what I wanna do. I don’t want to go back to New Zealand and go to Law School.” After that, I went to Berklee. I was there for a year, but then I dropped out.
GREG SCORZO: Why did you drop out?
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: I had trouble with the systematic pedagogy. In hindsight, I think a lot of it would have been very good for me. But at the time, I was young. I was at Berklee because of my love of jazz and New York. Becoming part of that scene was the big idea in my imagination. But something happened which surprised me. I fell in love with jungle, drum ‘n’ bass, and electronic music.
GREG SCORZO: So you fell in love with Goldie and Squarepusher and things like that?
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: Yeah, all of it. I was back in New Zealand after Berklee. The acid house in club music wasn’t really exciting me. But when I heard jungle, I was like, “Oh my god! This is it!” I could hear all this potential in that music. I’d hear jungle but I’d hear all this stuff that was missing from it, stuff I would put in there if I had the chance. So I started experimenting, using jam bands with DJs. I was very influenced by jungle as well as acid jazz. Those things were linked in my mind. I’d do jazz gigs in suits, and then I’d do these kind of hang-outs with DJs and MCs and two drummers. We would just do whatever everyone felt like doing. One time on a jazz gig, I thought why am I being so serious about this serious shit? Why can’t I be serious about the fun gigs? That was a huge shift in perspective for me.
Life led me to London where I got in deep with a super inspiring music crowd from the late 90s to late 2000s. That was a time I really got into sampling and programming. I started getting into how dance music really works – being subversive about getting more complicated or sophisticated musical ideas inside dance music, unbeknownst to the average clubber. I love the idea of giving you a rhythm that will make you move, but while you’re moving I can feed you some shit inside it that which you wouldn’t normally necessarily check out.
GREG SCORZO: That’s fascinating to me. When I first heard a lot of the early drum ‘n’ bass stuff, especially Squarepusher, I remember really loving it because rhythmically, it didn’t sound like dance music. It sounded like 20th century electronic music. It almost sounded like Morton Subotnick rhythms but with more modern timbres and sampling technology. But there wasn’t a lot of very complex harmony in it.
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: It was an amazing thing and at the time, musicians were so displaced by it. Some musicians loved it. And some hated it. There was no grey area.
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: I don’t think it was until J Dilla died that there was a general legitimisation of samplers and beatmakers amongst musicians. Now, if you run into a jazz drummer, of course he’s checked out Dilla. It’s like saying, “Have you ever heard Tony Williams?” But the legitimisation happened a bit late, a good decade plus after all the shit was really happening.
At the time, it was cool for me to be in an environment where I could contribute musicality in a subversive way. It wasn’t about “How flash is your solo?” or “How fast can you play?” It was about what you were contributing to the music in a functional and interesting way. At the end of the day, club music has to be funky. Even if it’s quite avant-garde club music. But in being potentially both of those things, I knew there was a space where someone like me could have a strong musical voice.
GREG SCORZO: It seems like from the 60s to the 80s, the cutting edge of electronic music was very much driven by composers. It was rarely driven by synth pop appropriations of it. It was driven by people like Wendy Carlos, Isao Tomita, Morton Subotnick, Tod Dockstadter, Jon Appleton, Mort Garson, Vangelis, Paul Lansky, Ilhan Mimariglou, and Frank Zappa when he was doing his work on the synclavier towards the end of his life. But by the late 80s and early 90s, most of the composers were doing electronic music that sounded like it was just samples from the orchestra with some wave timbres thrown on top. A lot of this music was still amazing, but it didn’t sound terribly electronic anymore. It felt like these people wanted to use electronic sound systems to mimic either the orchestra or the fusion band or some hybrid of the two.
So what happened was the techno DJ’s in the early 90s started doing music that actually sounded extremely synth based. It was club music, but it was also trying to retain that avant-garde feel that you had in the electronic music of the previous decades. But these DJs didn’t have formal musical educations. They hadn’t come from university. They weren’t trained composers. They were street musicians. So in a way, the electronic dance music of the 90s was like punk all over again. Then about 7 or 10 years later, you were part of the first batch of musicians to come into that world and bring jazz harmony into the music.
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: That’s exactly how it was, especially with the community I established with in London. The biggest influences on all of us then were the jazz fusion records of the 70s. Things like Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters, Weather Report, Chick Corea, and music like that. Because less club music producers were traditionally schooled in music, it was an opportunity for me to bring these things into the music – denser harmony, more intricate musical ideas… I’d bring musical ideas to what the beats and samples were already implying. It’s a cool process. But some musicians who were very purist would look down on it. I think that snobbiness came from an attitude of, “All you’re doing is having two suspended chords repeat over and over again in a loop! Where’s the skill in that?” But that’s kind of looking at it in a way people used to look at Ornette Coleman’s music. They would go, “Where’s the skill in that? There’s no chords!”
Those experiences with electronic and club music were different to the jazz gigs I had done before then. The jazz world had seemed to be all about how complex things can be, how fast can you play – things I got caught up in for sure when I was younger. In contrast the club music and electronic world was more about the functionality of everything – there was no waste and the challenge of that as a creator, especially coming from a hot-headed jazz background, was really life altering for me.
GREG SCORZO: I can hear a lot of that in your records. I hear a lot of repeated cycles of chords. Sometimes it’s just 3 or 4 chords, repeating over and over again. But they are still very evocative jazz chords that are happening in a musical context that feels quite eccentric to me as a listener. It’s eccentric because of the electronic beats. So the repetition of the chords generates this very intense mood that you wouldn’t get if you were trying to play jazz like McCoy Tyner.
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: Yeah, for me the loop is something I fell in love with in high school. It’s the backbone of hip hop – I’d hear it when I heard De La Soul or Tribe for the first time. I loved the idea of the DJ taking a break, taking the choicest part of the record, and repeating that shit. I like to take that idea and extend it further using my own musical ideas and imagination.
Even when I play gigs that are totally unplugged, when there is no electronics, no looping, or no sequencing, I still approach it with the same mentality as the DJ constructing loops. There’s something about that mindset which is about appreciating and emphasizing certain musical moments. Sometimes the moments are so fleeting, that you either have to be totally in sync with the music intuitively, or you have to have a musician’s understanding that functions at a very high level.
So if I hear the band play something cool, and the piano player is playing some kind of substitution that’s outlining another interrelated harmony, I could, as a studied piano player, be someone who appreciates what he did. But most people miss that moment. So being careful in collecting those moments is the mentality of the DJ who is sampling and repeating those fragments. The DJ is like, “I’m gonna let you marinate in this shit. And while it’s marinating, I’m gonna take you to a few other places. But this moment, this is your anchor.”
GREG SCORZO: The moments in your albums I find the most mesmerising are those moments where you have the chord loops you just described. What makes them work is those chords you repeat normally have this emotional ambiguity in them. So it’s not just chords for a very typical R&B groove that’s repeating. It’s normally chords that are emotionally confusing, relative to what came before. The example I’m thinking is in that song Hooligan from the Renegades album (2011). I’m thinking of that moment around 3 minutes and 10 seconds into the song. Before that, the song is repeating a hook that’s already very evocative. But it’s very much in one key. So while I’m listening to it, I’m not expecting it to change key. And then this set of repeating chords comes in which totally overturns the harmonic expectations of my ears. It gives me goosebumps.
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: That’s the idea.
GREG SCORZO: The reason I love that moment is, on the one hand, it’s emotionally quite confusing. But on the other hand, it has a kind of film-noir feel to it. It reminds me of music for detectives trying to solve murders in the 1940s, and there’s beautiful women in nightclubs and you can see images of cigarette smoke in black and white shadows. It’s very very cinematic, even though it expresses emotional ambiguity in this very strange sounding harmony. But this sequence of chords almost feels like a left hook. It totally subverts everything you expect to happen as you hear that song. It feels so intensely chromatic. Whereas everything before that moment feels like it’s in a straight ahead, minor key. What was the effect you were trying to achieve in doing that?
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: It’s a change. It’s as simple as that.
For me, a lot of those kinds of things are bred from my time in London in left-field DJ culture. Now, in EDM, there are the most unsubtle, and obvious fills and drops. It’s like paint by numbers shit. But there are more subtle ways of driving the emotions you get in EDM. That’s what you go for when you have a decent DJ mentality. So for that moment in Hooligan, I wanted a harmony change where I wanted to make the song suddenly move differently. But whatever chord progression I repeat still has to work in the song. So it’s like, how far can I take this harmony. That’s, I guess, where my producer hat comes in.
The drums feel like they work being very constant, so I won’t switch the drums up. The instrumentation works well being relatively static. So what seemed to work as a change, are the chords.
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: Those chords that you hear in that moment in Hooligan were just an improvised chord sequence. I remember knowing intuitively how I wanted the change to feel, and then I just hit record and played those chords. The worst thing was to have to go back and learn what I played (laughs).
GREG SCORZO: I know how that is.
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: But in that song, you have an A section and a B section. That’s very much a hip-hop thing. In section A, you aim for something earthy. And in section B, you get taken to something which is like a higher vibration.
GREG SCORZO: That seems like something that happens quite a lot on the Renegades album.
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: I’m glad. I’m happy to make music that’s part of music loop culture where the looping itself isn’t a big deal. People don’t worry that it’s too repetitive. For me, there are some music genres that get too repetitive for me. But I love it when it’s repetition that’s done well. I love it when there’s a powerful music insistence that expresses a musical intention. The story of the music can really take off the ground if that intention is there.
GREG SCORZO: What was the original idea for the Renegades album? How did that album happen?
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: That album started because I had gotten into the habit of making what I call “producer records.”
I didn’t touch the acoustic piano my whole time living in the UK – if someone asked me to put piano on a track, I’d offer up a synth; if someone asked me to play a jazz trio gig, I’d run a mile. Coming to America after that, there was an interesting transition, being in this whole new place. Renegades was made right around that time. During that album, I had one foot in the UK and one foot in Los Angeles, and that album very much reflects the musical links I had in both places. For me, the Renegades album was about documenting that transitional period.
London was huge to me, in my musician DNA. To leave that for Los Angeles was bound to have an effect on me in different ways. It was exciting to me, to explore musically what that effect was.
GREG SCORZO: One of the things that really stood out when I played it for my mother (and she’s a jazz singer), is Renegades is an R&B album where you can really clearly hear the British accents of the singers. That’s very unusual. There’s a lot of British records where you can’t tell that it’s a British singer because they sound American.
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: It’s because they’re trying to make it in America. (Laughs).
GREG SCORZO: Yeah. Maybe.
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: The UK singers on that album are proudly British. I guess that’s another way of saying, they’re happy with who they are. I was just having this discussion with Nia Andrews, who is one of the singers from Renegades. Her voice is so uniquely her, that she sounds like nobody else but herself. But there are a lot of singers who sound like each other. I was saying to her, “I don’t understand that if your voice comes from your body and your body is unique, why don’t more singers sound unique?” And she said, “That’s because they’re trying so hard to sound like someone else and not themselves.” But Nia has never done anything but sound like herself. The same goes for the other singers, Tawiah and Omar.
Whenever I use any musician, I want them to sound unique. I don’t want a bass player who sounds like a bass player. I want a musician that has some personality. I strive for that same thing, myself. If someone calls me to play on a session, I’m very clear that the person calling me isn’t hiring something generic. If you want a plain 16 bar keyboard fill, then you can get anyone.
GREG SCORZO: Yeah, you can get an app for that.
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: Exactly. Being yourself is how it should be for everybody. But the music industry has created generations of musicians who almost strive to be generic.
GREG SCORZO: It seems like a big part of why musicians often sound generic today is because there’s an expected performance that comes with being able to play a genre of music. It doesn’t matter whether it’s pop or R&B. If you’re a singer and you go to an R&B gig, you’re often expected to sound like a derivation of Mariah Carey.
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: Yeah, it’s so sad. If Stevie Wonder didn’t sound like Stevie Wonder, then we wouldn’t need Stevie Wonder.
GREG SCORZO: Or somebody like Sarah Vaughan, the jazz singer. What we often forget about her is that she didn’t sound like a typical jazz singer during her heyday. She sounded like something otherworldly. We retrospectively think of great musicians being iconic or representing a genre. But we sometimes forget that at the time, they were like nothing else anyone had ever heard before.
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: Yeah, they were brand new and they were being themselves. There’s only one Sarah Vaughan. There’s only one Betty Carter. Those only one me and only one you. That’s what I want to hear, really. Anything else undermines the point of making music.
GREG SCORZO: Yeah, that comes across on Renegades. When I first heard it, I thought it was a pop and R&B album. I thought it would be remembered as this decade’s Songs in the Key of Life. It seems like the modern version of that sort of album.
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: Yeah, that was the aspiration. When I make a record, I want it to be my vision of what happens in my universe, when you turn the radio on. That’s my mission.
GREG SCORZO: Yeah, that’s totally apparent in both Renegades and Songs in the Key of Life. The other thing about Renegades which is really interesting is that every song on that album is really really eccentric in some way. Let’s take “The Why” for example. It sounds like you’ve got the keyboards and the vocal playing in 4/4 time but the drums are playing a syncopated marching beat from a military song. So there’s an asymmetry between what the percussion is doing and what everyone else is doing. That creates a very strange kind of funkiness that you don’t normally hear in an R&B song.
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: What you’re describing, from your perspective, I hadn’t thought of in that way. But it’s interesting.
I hear the pieces of the jigsaw fitting together in a certain way. Another musician may hear them fitting together in a different way. I’m very certain about my way. When I work on a record, you can know that every sound of every instrument at every moment, has passed through my hands in some way. So everything is very intentional, in that respect. Especially on Renegades.
With that track, groove wise, it’s very influenced by J Dilla. A friend of mine called John Roberts played drums on “The Why”. He brings a certain kind of swag shuffle to it.
Instrumentally, making “The Why” was like making a contemporary version of California G-Funk. It’s that kind of anthem. I knew there was always going to be a synth-funk R&B vibe, but the groove was what set it apart. I could have easily programmed some drums that didn’t have the nuances of what John brings, but that would have defeated the purpose. The mandate is to express the idea that things can be different. I feel like that’s potentially the underlying message of everything I’m trying to do.
GREG SCORZO: So you’re creating a very extreme R&B funkiness. But you’re doing it by putting together a counterpoint you don’t normally hear in R&B.
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: Yes, and that’s coming from my jazz background, I think.
GREG SCORZO: As you listen to “The Why” and you move towards the song’s conclusion, it feels like it gets kind of swamped in very lush strings. That’s a really interesting change as well, because the song goes from the eccentric funkiness with it’s own cool bass line, to what sounds like a very cinematic disco afterlife. It’s like all the characters in the song are in a disco heaven and everyone has Afros and they’re floating on clouds. Is that what you had in mind?
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: That’s exactly what I had in mind. Especially in the UK, a lot of my time was spent listening to a lot of soulful house music. Soulful house is just basically electronic disco. But the disco heaven is the climax of that song. When that happens, you can rock out to it. That’s the peak moment of that song, really.
GREG SCORZO: Do you like disco music?
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: I have a huge appreciation for it’s influential place in the musical timeline. But disco isn’t a go-to genre for me. I can enjoy a bit of it but I would never do a “disco party.” But I love the fun of it and the infectiousness. What I like is related to disco in much the same way that bebop is related to dixieland jazz. You can’t have one without the other. I like a lot of the disco musical devices that are designed to create a strong emotional connection to the audience. I love emotional connections with an audience, more than anything.
GREG SCORZO: Disco is an interesting genre because people for many years wrote it off as cheesy and stupid, compared to new wave music or industrial music. It was seen as inferior to a lot of the music in the late 70s and early 80s that was more self-consciously “artsy.” But then after about 20 years of that, disco fans started saying, “No! You can’t hate disco! That’s racist!” People started saying if you don’t like disco, it must be because you don’t like black people or you don’t like gay culture. Now, 15 years on from that, people are starting to say something else. On the one hand, most disco was bad. That’s why you had the reaction against it that you did. The majority of it was just unsophisticated, aesthetically and emotionally. But the disco that was good was amazing and very much underappreciated by music critics who sneered at it for being so commercial.
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: And the same could be said for most any pop music genre. That happens even outside of pop music. For a lot of people, all jazz sounds the same. For someone who thinks like that, a minority of jazz music will actually stand out and speak to them in a way where it transcends its reputation for sounding like all the other jazz. I guess with disco, the proportion of disco that sounded generic was just larger than the proportion of jazz that did.
GREG SCORZO: You’re right. It’s easy to wax eloquently about something like Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall (1979) without noticing all the other horrible disco records that came out in 1979.
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: Yeah, when you think of stuff that you think of as cheesy sounding now, imagine how it’s going to sound in forty years time. You’ll think, “I don’t believe it! People actually listened to that on the radio!”
GREG SCORZO: I don’t know if you feel this way, but I sometimes worry that music that’s quite cheesy is going to be incredibly beloved in the future.
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: Well, it will have it’s cultural currency with the public’s nostalgia. People love things like The Monkees for that reason.
GREG SCORZO: Yeah, but my worry is that forty years from now, people aren’t going to be listening to Renegades. They’re going to be listening to Taylor Swift.
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: (Laughs) Hopefully, they’ll be played side by side, as historic turn of the century music.
GREG SCORZO: I wouldn’t mind that actually. What I would mind is if people forgot about Renegades and Church and they only remember Taylor Swift or Rihanna. That would make me very sad.
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: But that’s gonna be the case with most people, isn’t it? That’s what happens just by virtue of the scale of our music. Some people work against that. Robert Glasper, for instance, he’s opened a lot of doors for creative musicians. Not exclusively just for the mega-successful musicians, but for musicians who are challenging the status quo. So people get into Rob’s music and from that, become open to everyone from Flying Lotus to Kamasi Washington.
GREG SCORZO: Yeah, Glasper in many ways sounds similar to you. Another interesting thing about Renegades, from a historical perspective, is the drum ‘n’ bass influence. You can hear that especially in tracks like “Under Orders.” That track sounds like the classic example of somebody taking a drum ‘n’ bass track, turning it into a pop song, but adding jazz harmony into that pop song. But that again, makes it into a very strange pop song. Was that the intent with this song?
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: I like a density of harmony in my songs, especially when the function of the instrument playing the harmony is relatively static.
If you’re watching a piano player repeat a simple chord for an amount of time, they can express that chord in different ways. If that chord is just happening in a functional way, and it’s not something I can move around a lot, I want it to be meaningful harmony. I want it to have more complexity, because it’s functioning is fairly simple. And I like the sound of complex harmony. To me, the heart of music is in the harmony.
I love having layers of notes, because when there’s movement within dense chords, there’s more subtlety. It’s not triads. It’s more like a ten note chord, where, when one note changes, something deep in your emotions also changes.
GREG SCORZO: Speaking of deep emotions, let’s talk about the next album in your discography, Church. Church has to be one of my favourite, if not my favourite jazz album of 2014. I love it because it really subverts everything a jazz record today is supposed to be. It’s like the jazz record that isn’t.
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: That was the mission.
GREG SCORZO: It’s like a jazz record that’s made out of pop, R&B, electronic, and drum ‘n’ bass elements. Those elements are coming together to make a jazz statement. But it seems like the materials of that statement are not themselves jazz (for the most part).
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: That to me is very true to what jazz is. Jazz, in each of it’s classic eras, was played using contemporary instruments, expressing something about the then current environment. Bird was not futuristic. He was of the 40s. But people see that more in hindsight.
For me, I’d been trying to make Church for a long time. I wanted to make a jazz album that was how I wanted to hear jazz. I feel like I had to go through my earlier records to learn myself as a producer, and to also get myself to understand the aesthetic functionality of music in more of a macro way. In traditional jazz, everything is more micro. And so by leaving jazz and the piano for a decade, when I came back to it, it was a cool experience. I’d lost a lot of my facility but I gained other things that were completely different. That’s priceless for an album like Church.
The first time I played piano after that ten year gap was for Nia Andrews (who sings on Church). She had a debut show and she insisted that I play piano. I tried to suggest that maybe it would be better to have me on Rhodes. And she said, “No, I want a piano player.” I didn’t really understand what the difference would be until afterwards. Although it was a little difference, playing acoustic piano was a big psychological difference. She insisted I play acoustic for a reason. After the gig I thought, “Oh wow, this is so cool.” I was really ready to come back to it. So it wasn’t long after that experience that Church started.
There was a music party that me and some musicians would do, about once a month, at a spot called “Angels.” We did it on a Sunday, and that made Nia call it Church. Sunday plus Angels equals Church. So the idea was that over the course of a night, I would share my journey of music. It would start off with an acoustic jazz trio. That would morph into an electronic, breakbeat influenced uptown dance party. There were live musicians and I’d manipulate them electronically on the fly. I just wanted to tell that story. We’d have dancers come down and listen to a piece of Thelonious Monk transformed into house music they could groove to. The jazzers would also see music they love turned into dance music that in the past, they might not have liked. But I was presenting the beats for them in a harmonic and melodic context they could relate to. It was a chance to get them all on my side.
We’ve been doing CHURCH for almost six years – in Los Angeles and New York predominantly. I’d bring in all my favourite musicians. It was amazing to have such heavy players all wanting to play the party. People who I hold in the highest regard as musicians and they were curious enough about what I was doing to ask if they could come and join us. That was really cool. Each coast had a different set of musicians and a different sound that would evolve. About three years in of doing the bi-coastal party, I decided, “Ok, it’s time to turn all of this into a record.” When we reached a deep and geniuine fusion of jazz and club elements, I felt confident in making the record.
Church, in a way, brought me back to jazz. But in a way where I felt like I found my voice.
GREG SCORZO: Do you want people who think about and write about this album to think about it as a jazz album, rather than a pop album or an electronic album?
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: To me, it’s a jazz record. But that’s because jazz was my intention. But it wasn’t about making a jazz record that’s like what you expect jazz to sound like. The jazz was more of an ethos and an intension. As far as those labels go, I honestly think, “Whatever gets it to more ears is fine by me.” That’s all it comes down to.
I think if Church came out this year, calling it a jazz album would mean something different to what it meant in 2014. I feel like the non-jazz media has been re-educated about this word jazz, through a weird combination of Kamasi Washington, Kendrick Lamar, The Miles Davis movie, and what Robert Glasper continues to do. This education was just happening through Rob, a few years ago. No one else. And arguably, he was doing R&B records. There wasn’t that much jazz in it, but he was doing a great job with his musical material. Then Kamasi came along and he made GQ and the New Yorker. He did all of that, even though he’s playing bohemith solos with a huge ass big band, playing bat shit crazy whenever he can for the fun of it stuff.
So I feel like all that stuff has really put the word jazz back into the vernacular a bit. It’s taken it outside the 1% who really know what jazz is.
GREG SCORZO: Those guys that you’re talking about have, in a way, changed the way the culture has interpreted jazz. They’ve made jazz a much more fluid thing. That’s interesting because when I was a kid, I remember the issue was whether the Downtown Scene in New York was jazz or something more avant-garde. It was whether John Zorn and Bill Frisell were “really jazz” or some bizarre version of alternative, improvised rock. I remember a few years later, there was an article in Jazz Talent that had the headline, “Marsalis vs Zorn.” They were also in Jazz Times being interviewed around the same time about their contrasting visions for jazz’s future. The implication was that you the listener had to pick sides.
If you picked Marsalis, that meant you thought jazz was neo-bop or neo-dixieland or something inbetween. And if you picked John Zorn, you thought jazz was this cinematic, experimental music that was abrasive and noisy but contained a million different influences that were constantly shuffling in and out of the music. But those were still your two choices. It seems like, with the consciousness about jazz today, there’s a sense that those aren’t your two choices anymore. There are more ways you can look at jazz. You don’t have to choose between Wynton Marsalis and John Zorn.
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: I feel like the consensus is that if it’s not mainstream aesthetically, and if there’s any improvisation, then it’s a jazz record.
GREG SCORZO: Yeah, so it seems like it’s become mainstream to think of jazz being about intention. It’s not about musical materials per se.
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: Yeah, totally. The really great artists clearly come from a lineage. But they have an intention to make it their own in a big way. I was just on tour with Harvey Mason in Japan and we were talking about this. Someone was suggesting that no one would ever disrespect the music that certain greats did. I said, “Wait up. That’s bullshit. When Herbie Hancock put out the Headhunters album, I’m sure plenty of musicians were dissing it. Even plenty of piano players.” A lot of musicians in 1973 were looking at Herbie and saying, “What the fuck is that shit, you sell out!” – when Herbie’s artistic intergrity was 100% intact the whole time.
GREG SCORZO: That also happened with Weather Report’s Sweetnighter album from that same year.
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: Which is ironic because Sweetnighter’s so jazzy and avant-garde and experimental. But at the time, a lot of the musicians were like, “What the hell is that? That doesn’t swing!”
GREG SCORZO: That’s one of the things I find fascinating about 70’s fusion. The early 70s fusion, those records where everyone thought the jazz musicians were selling out to rock, they don’t sound at all like rock music when you listen to them today. They don’t sound anything like a group of jazz musicians yearning to become rock stars for cash. A lot of them sound like quite forward thinking, almost avant-garde sounding records with a heavy electronic influence. I’m thinking of albums like Weather Report’s I Sing the Body Electric (1972), Chick Corea’s first Return to Forever Album (1972), and especially Herbie Hancock’s pre-Headhunters records, Sextant (1972) and Crossings (1972).
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: Yeah, Herbie, Miles Davis, and Chick Corea were people who weren’t scared of what other people thought of them. They went, “This is how I imagine music can sound, so I’m going to make it sound like this.” Again, that’s what I strive for and appreciate in another musician. Sometimes I hear music where I can tell I’m listening to a really good musician. But I can also tell that the musician is pandering to the expectations of an aesthetic. I always feel like telling the musician, “Dude, you’re making a record! Do what you want to do! Be yourself!” I love it when musicians are courageous enough to just be themselves.
GREG SCORZO: It’s interesting to me how critics and fans of a genre can label something as “mainstream” or “selling out” when it’s music that’s so extremely the antithesis of either of those things. What you hear in that labelling is an incredible amount of dogmatism about the way a certain music is supposed to sound.
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: Totally. It’s sad because music is supposed to be about freedom of expression.
GREG SCORZO: When you are so locked into, “Jazz must be X”, that you can’t even hear when jazz is strange, and when it’s strange you think it’s mainstream, that’s dogmatism of the highest order. At least today, people lack that dogmatism when they listen to Church.
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: Yeah, I think so.
GREG SCORZO: There’s an interesting track on Church called Brukstep. It’s interesting initially because it’s quite a departure from Renegades. It’s almost an Ellington influenced, 1930’s vibe. It’s like a 1930’s gangster song, but with all this interesting modern production that’s also referencing the jazz fusion of the 70s.
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: Yeah, being played at the Speakeasy. (Laughs)
GREG SCORZO: Yeah, you can really hear that in there. You can visualise James Cagney when you listen to it. But you’ve also got these sounds that are almost like Nintendo video game soundtrack accompaniment figures. Those figures are juxtaposed against what sounds like a swing jazz loop. It creates a sense of, “I don’t know where we are? What time is this taking place?”
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: We are now. But that sense of not knowing where you are is something you get a lot in good hip hop.
With J Dilla, Q Tip, or Premier or somebody with really good sampling concepts, they can sample a Max Roach record and chop it up into a completely timeless sounding beat. I love that whole approach. My own skill set allows me to make the samples live as I perform. I treat the music I make in the same way as a DJ would whether I’m working with a band on stage, or in the studio. All of that is very special to me
GREG SCORZO: So it’s all about juxtaposing different elements from different time periods to say something about the present.
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: It’s always about making the present eternal. But this album in a way, involves a lot of time travelling. I intended it to be more of an instrumental album than a vocal album. I wanted to create melody and harmony that really worked together, but also saying exactly what I wanted those musical elements to say. Especially in respect to the production.
GREG SCORZO: Church goes from time travelling to what sounds like Church’s first pop song, Now or Never. This is where the album really gets funky for the first time. Yet even though it’s the album’s first pop track and it’s a funky one at that, it sounds nothing like a typical pop song. So it’s like even thought this is the first place in the album which is specifically pop, there’s almost an attempt to slightly re-invent pop.
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: That song was actually the first song me and Nia Andrews collaborated on. So it pre-dated Renegades. It existed in a demo form, and I brought it to New York for Church. She wrote the lyrics, and she refers to it as, “a love letter to my wildest dreams.” What she brought to that song is very evocative. Just in terms of the way her voice sounds, it makes the song resonate with people. They connect to it when they hear it because of her. That song is really the first moment on Church when you get a song that connects with people.
For me, it was definitely arranged and written in a pop format. It has verse/chorus/pre-chorus, even though it’s a little avant-garde in the way it’s orchestrated. I wasn’t really conceptualising it as a pop song. I just thought of it as “here’s a song.” I get to a point sometimes with vocals where, if the melody is too experimental, it might as well be an instrumental melody. Not a voice. There’s a point of coherence that I want to share where I’ve written something that sounds like it was written for a voice, not an instrument. Different musicians approach that differently but for me, I have a very succinct idea of what kind of melody should be sung and what kind of melody should be played.
GREG SCORZO: Another interesting thing about “Now or Never” is it has a harmony that sounds unusual for a pop song, because the emotion in that harmony sounds so serious.
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: I know. It’s pretty dark.
GREG SCORZO: There’s nothing in the chords of “Now or Never” that makes you smile. The harmony is almost aggressive sounding. If anything, it has this very odd groove that you’d never hear in a Michael Jackson or Beyonce song. Yet, it sounds like it’s inspired by Michael Jackson or Beyonce or someone like that. But it uses musical materials those artists would never use.
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: I could imagine “Now or Never” being a track on a CeeLow Green album.
I’m definitely influenced by a lot of that R&B music. That’s part of what I grew up with. I love Quincy Jones and his productions on the Michael Jackson records. I love Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation stuff. For a while, that was the kind of music I wanted to make. But as it turned out, my musical journey has been more subtle and complex. But those R and B influences are still there.
It’s funny to me how people who aren’t music heads see what I listen to and they think of it as being kind of schizophrenic. To me, it’s just music.
GREG SCORZO: Church is really unique in the way it zig-zags through all those different influences, many of which are very mainstream. But the album never sounds mainstream. Normally, you hear mainstream albums with influences of things that aren’t so mainstream. But with Church you’ve got a non-mainstream album that has a lot of mainstream influences. You can hear that on a track called Ghaziya, which is probably my favourite track on Church. In my mind, there’s a strong connection between this track and Hooligan from Renegades.
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: Definitely.
GREG SCORZO: It starts off with a groove and melody that sounds like jazzy spy music. Again, there’s a slight Herbie Hancock, early 70s vibe. But there’s a big shift in emotional tone at around 2: 00 that’s really interesting. For the first two minutes of the song, it feels like a music about questions, about not knowing things, about puzzles, about wanting to find things out. And then it segueways into a different chord progression which sounds like it’s about hope and curiosity. The way you illustrate the hope and curiosity is through chromatic harmony that’s ascending. It kind of reminds me of Obama, during the 2008 presidential election.
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: Yeah, it’s similar to Hooligan in that it’s a piece based on the idea of a musical question and answer. I think of the two sections in the song as being about a musical tension and release. Tension and release is like a metaphor for the experience of being alive. The bulk of the tune’s first half happened because I’d been playing with a couple of bands in Los Angeles. They were heavily influenced by Ethiopian and North African music. So the melodic feeling and the suspended harmony of the first half of Ghaziya is very much influenced by that. In the second half of Ghaziya, the answer to the first half was fun because it was another improvisation. I just thought, in a very intuitive way, if the first half is the question in this piece, what is the answer.
And then I played it and there it was.
GREG SCORZO: The next song after Ghaziya is a pretty song with what sounds like a violin playing the melody. After that, we have Nia Andrews singing a song called Hollow. Hollow, I think is probably one of the most beautiful pieces of music of any genre to come out in the last five years. It’s gorgeous.
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: I wrote the music and Nia wrote the vocal.
GREG SCORZO: Again, it’s repeated chords that feel like a loop. It feels like it’s a sampled loop, even though it’s not. One of the reasons I find it so beautiful is it’s kind of mischievous. It’s a bit like a woman flirting with you. It feels like the sound of someone smiling and winking at someone else. It’s not just pretty. It’s a bit cheeky. Were you thinking of that when you wrote it?
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: Not particularly. But I can see how it might sound that way.
To me, it’s actually a bittersweet song. There’s a lot of pain in that song, about loss and frustration and suffering in Nia’s lyrics. But the music is hopeful and that creates an interesting juxtaposition of things that results in a bitter sweetness where you get something optimistic. On paper, it’s a dark song. But it’s a song with an emotional resonance in it.
GREG SCORZO: It’s fascinating to me that you conceptualise it as a bitter sweet song. I read the lyrics and thought, “Ok, he’s making fun of the lyrics with this music.”
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: That’s interesting because although we’re both interpreting it differently, we both hear the contradiction in the song between the musical content and the lyrical content. Because you didn’t create the song, you have an objectivity in relation to it. So the song will resonate with certain experiences of yours that will be different to my experiences that it resonates with.
GREG SCORZO: That’s what’s so beautiful about art. It’s different for everyone.
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: I know. It’s very cool.
GREG SCORZO: When we get to the end of Church, there’s an awesome finale called “Distractions.” It reminds me of that Herbie Hancock album, Sunlight (1978).
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: I love that album!
GREG SCORZO: The final track on Sunlight, Good Question, is a really angular fusion blow out with Jaco Pastorious on bass. When I heard Distractions, it reminded me very much of Good Question. I was curious if you were thinking of that song when you put together Distractions.
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: I wasn’t but I can definitely see the connection.
I love Herbie. He’s probably in my top three jazz influences, alongside Kenny Kirkland and McCoy Tyner. Kenny was hugely influenced by Herbie too. Herbie is so emotionally evocative. He’ll play the “wrong notes” in the right way and make them sound so good.
GREG SCORZO: Very much so. And the other interesting thing about Herbie is you can never tell where he’s gonna go next.
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: I love that about him. On that record you’ve got a lot of my favourite musicians playing. Jaco Pastorius is one of my favourite bass players. Tony Williams is one of my favourite drummers. It’s amazing music. I grew up on a dense diet of Herbie’s music, so it makes sense that you would hear a parallel there. I don’t actually think about my influences consciously, when I make music, but it’s interesting to me that other people can hear them. I was trying to capture moments that inspire me and recontextualise them in a way that works for the present. The whole album, in a sense, is me trying to do that.
GREG SCORZO: So although you’re trying to do a new jazz album for the present which time travels, the biggest element from the past that you’re bringing into the present is Herbie. He keeps popping up, over and over again in Church.
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: I’m grateful you can hear that – it’s an honour to me if that’s there. That’s part of what gives me such a pleasure right now playing with Harvey Mason. We explore Herbie’s music, not in literal terms, but conceptually – his approach and ethos. Harvey loves when I bring in the drum machine and technology. For me, I’m just amazed to be able to play with the cat from Head Hunters. It’s crazy. But I feel like all musicians have connections to specific moments in history. I have a friend where, although we’ve never talked about it, I can tell he loves Cannonball Adderly to death. I can tell that within a bar of his playing. Now this cat sounds like himself. He doesn’t sound like an imitation of Cannonball. But I can tell he loves Cannonball. Maybe that’s what’s going on with me and Herbie.
GREG SCORZO: You can get the same thing with writers. You can read a writer and go, “Oh this writer really loves Orwell. Even though she doesn’t sound like an imitation of Orwell.”
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: Yeah, and it’s not derivative. They still sound completely new.
GREG SCORZO: It’s almost as if, as much as we want to be ourselves, and as much as we are ourselves, whatever we’re doing, we’re always re-inventing the things that we love. We do that almost instinctively, whether we want to or not.
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: Yeah, there’s nothing really new, anyway. Art is just a chance for you to share how you see the things you love.
GREG SCORZO: What you’re sharing, essentially, is how you experience what you love. Then you give that to people so they can filter that through their own experiences.
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: Exactly.
GREG SCORZO: There’s a sense when you make art, any kind of art, that you’re reaching out to people and going, “This is amazing. If you think it’s amazing too, let’s have a conversation.”
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: Absolutely. And when I have this conversation with the listener, I want to challenge how much they can handle. If you have something strong that’s inside of you, just put it out. That’s the mandate. For me, that’s just normal, but I wonder if it’s normal for other musicians.
GREG SCORZO: Well, that’s a concern for Culture on the Offensive. We’re very much about promoting the counter-culture of today. The problem we find in society with a lot of culture is people aren’t putting out their best art. Or if they do put it out, no one’s finding it, or even looking for it in the right places.
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: In this day and age, you’re part of the problem or part of the solution. There are independent artists I hear and while I listen to them, I think, “Wait. You’re self-releasing something. Why not try and make it sound the way you want it to sound? Why try and make it sound like you’re already signed to a major label?”
GREG SCORZO: Yeah, that’s horrible.
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: To me, that’s just the worst. If I got offered a huge amount of money to do something for a major label, the music may well have to sound like it’s not my stuff. If you were astute as a listener, you’d notice the difference between me on a major label and me when I’m self-releasing. But a lot of musicians don’t have that difference. Especially in the electronic music worlds. There, you can do whatever you want, but if you try and make it sound like music in the charts, that sound will be over by the time your album comes out. But people still do that anyway, even in the electronica world.
GREG SCORZO: Yeah, that reminds me of one of the things Boyd Rice said. You have avant-garde noise music today made by noise musicians. But it sounds like the noise music that was made 30 years ago. You’d think that if a musician would go out of their way to be so eccentric and so outside mainstream tastes, this musician would also be going out of their way to be original.
MARK de CLIVE-LOWE: At the end of the day, you’re on your deathbed and you have to look back at your life’s work. I’d like to think that as an artist, you’re proud of being yourself. It would be so sad to be on your deathbed and think, “Man, I almost managed to be Beyonce.”
To hear more of Mark’s music, check out:
Renegades and Church can be purchased though Spotify, Itunes, Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk