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Exclusive interview with Clem Burke from Blondie

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 | March 1, 2020

It is not that often that you get a chance to talk to a member of one of your all time favorite bands (ok, pretty much never) but we did. We had the opportunity to talk to Clem Burke, drummer from Blondie. In this interview we discussed his memories of Santa Cruz, epic Blondie moments touring with David Bowie, his involvement on the new Echo and the Bunnymen album, friendship with past KROQ DJ Rodney Bingenheimer and what keeps Clem motivated. Enjoy…

Matthew Swinnerton: (00:54)
Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview.

Clem Burke: (01:00)
Yeah, no problem.

Matthew Swinnerton: (01:00)
So I had a thousand questions, but I have narrowed it down to five to respect your time.

Clem Burke: (01:05)
Yeah, whatever. 🙂

Matthew Swinnerton: (01:06)
Okay, great. So you have a show coming up May 22nd here in Santa Cruz. We’re super excited about it. Have you been to Santa Cruz before?

Clem Burke: (01:17)
Yeah, I’ve been on occasion, when I’m up visiting relatives up in Northern California. I think we played with Blondie. I think we played at the place, The Catalyst, I think in the late seventies when we were touring. I think Bill Graham might, was it Bill Graham that promoted The Catalyst?

Matthew Swinnerton: (01:38)
Yeah, I bet he did. You’re right. Yep.

Clem Burke: (01:41)
Yeah, I think we played with Greg Kihn. Some kind of battle of the bands with Greg Kihn or something when we were up there. I’ve been there occasionally. I’ve been to some other shows up there. I think I went to see Iggy and The Stooges play there maybe.

Matthew Swinnerton: (01:57)
I heard that they played there, so I bet you’re right. Yeah.

Clem Burke: (02:01)
Yeah, yeah. No, it’s a cool area. You know, the beach, Northern California, it’s nice.

Matthew Swinnerton: (02:04)
Yeah. Well we’ll have to give you a tour of the boardwalk or something when you come up here.

Clem Burke: (02:10)
Yeah, I’ve been on the boardwalk there. Reminds me of when I was a kid on the Jersey Shore. It’s kind of similar.

Matthew Swinnerton: (02:16)
Yep, exactly. For sure. You also have another show coming up May 2nd in LA, the Cruel World Festival. Oh my goodness. Every time I send info about the show to my friends, they don’t think that’ a real show because of the lineup.

Clem Burke: (02:33)
Yeah, people are asking me that too.

Matthew Swinnerton: (02:35)
Yeah. It’s like Bauhaus, Morrissey, Echo and the Bunnymen, Blondie, Devo. It’s an amazing lineup.

Clem Burke: (02:43)
Yeah. It’s great to play with pretty much our contemporaries and some of the bands that came after us. I mean Devo, they’re all friends of ours from back in the 70s. They used to play at Max’s Kansas City and we used to see them when we played in Cleveland. And over the years, I actually just saw Mark Mothersbaugh at a birthday party for [inaudible 00:03:07] Berry the other day. Yeah, they’re friends. And funny enough, it’s not really been publicized. Echo and the Bunnymen have a new record coming out I think in June and somehow they asked me to play drums on the majority of it, so I recorded that before Christmas with them out in the English countryside. I did the newest Echo and the Bunnymen record that’s not out yet. So yeah, it’s great and it’s great to play and you get to see a lot of the other bands, which is always kind of fun for me.

Matthew Swinnerton: (03:36)
Yeah, I’m definitely traveling down there. It’s only five hours down. I’m definitely going to watch that show.

Clem Burke: (03:42)
Oh cool. Yeah, it should be a good day. I think they’re kind of trying to bridge the gap between the new wave and the post new wave, the post-punk. I mean, I think PIL is playing as well and it should be good. It will come to be pretty well organized because it’s the same people that, you know, Goldenvoice that do Coachella and all that.

Matthew Swinnerton: (04:04)
Oh it is? Oh okay.

Clem Burke: (04:05)
Yeah. Yeah. It’s the same promoters. And they did that other thing out in palms out in the desert with The Who and The Rolling Stones and the [inaudible 00:04:15] a couple of years ago. So I think they know how to handle a bunch of different bands and all in one place like that. So it should be a good day for sure.

Matthew Swinnerton: (04:23)
Super cool. So I had a couple of questions. One of them was 99.999% of musicians bands don’t make it to the point of where Blondie has. Is there a certain amazing, epic moment that you were like, “I cannot believe this is happening to me as a Blondie member.” What’s the first thing that maybe comes to mind?

Clem Burke: (04:52)
Well I do get asked that quite a bit, and the obvious answer for me is when we did our first national tour with Iggy Pop and David Bowie, when we were invited to go on tour with them, when basically our first album came out in the mid-70s and to be around especially well, I went on to play with Iggy and record with Iggy but to be around David on such a kind of pretty personal level was I really couldn’t believe that because his Ziggy Stardust album was this kind of life changing for me.

Clem Burke: (05:29)
And then when David played Carnegie hall with the Ziggy Stardust when the Spiders From Mars played Carnegie Hall, I was at that show and turns out Joey Ramone was at that show and Debbie Harry and Chris Stein, we were at that show, Andy Warhol was at that show. So it was kind of like a major catalyst to a lot of musicians that in the sort of a good New York scene. So that was really, although we weren’t very successful, but the version of success changes as you go on. So to get a national tour like that was pretty amazing. It kind of set a template for us as to what it meant to be a support band and also how to treat a band that may be supporting you as you go on in your career. So that was definitely the one of the biggies for sure.

Matthew Swinnerton: (06:21)
So David Bowie and Iggy pop were pretty supportive of you guys?

Clem Burke: (06:25)
Oh yeah. I mean, they initiated us to come on the tour. It was their idea and very supportive. I mean, David was kind of a, he was playing keyboards and our keyboard player at the time, Jimmy Destri, had just gotten a polyphonic synthesizer, a Synclavier synthesizer, that David hadn’t really seen before, so he was very interested in that. When you’re on the road like that, you kind of share meals and passing and always and all that kind of stuff. Yeah, it was great. Very, very memorable for everyone in Blondie.

Matthew Swinnerton: (07:06)
Well, here’s someone else that I think that’s probably very supportive of Blondie and I have to ask this because I’m originally from Los Angeles. What is your relationship with Rodney Bingenheimer?

Clem Burke: (07:17)
Oh, Rodney. Rodney’s very good friend of the band, a very good friend of mine. I mean, when we were inducted into the Hall Of Fame, I thanked Rodney from the stage. I mean he was very important as far as us getting airplay in Los Angeles. And when we first came out to LA to play, we played two weeks at the Whisky. The first week was two shows a night for six nights and our support band was Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. And then the next week we played another six nights, two shows a night opening for The Ramones. And Rodney was probably present at every one of those shows, both weeks.

Clem Burke: (08:00)
We went on his radio program and I think he would say he was probably the first person really in the United States to play a Blondie record, I would think pretty much. Maybe locally in New York somebody played it, but Rodney was a big, big advocate of Blondie right from the beginning. So I have lunch with Rodney once in a while. He’s been to my house many times and he’s a good guy. You know, he’s the mayor of Sunset Strip.

Matthew Swinnerton: (08:27)
Yeah, no, but I remember I used to call his radio show. I was 12 years old and I remember I would call it at one in the morning and he would talk to anybody. And I mean, just like you said, he would play music that you’ve never heard before. Duran Duran, The Cure, The Ramones, stuff that you’d never hear. Now it’s totally popular.

Clem Burke: (08:49)
I mean, in retrospect, a lot of people, younger people, the younger musicians, they kind of get Rodney, but a lot of people kind of sometimes they don’t get Rodney in the modern day. He’s definitely a bit of a belongs in another time in some ways, although it’s great to see him on, he’s on Sirius now and he’s doing a great job still featuring new bands. And I mean, he was, what do you call an influencer before the word existed? Rodney was an influencer.

Matthew Swinnerton: (09:26)
And I wonder if more people hear him now on Sirius than they did at KROQ because he was playing one to three in the morning or some ridiculous time at the end.

Clem Burke: (09:34)
It’s ridiculous time. And of course the satellite radio is nationwide, if not worldwide. And I would think that the potential audience for Rodney is much bigger for sure. Yeah, no, it’s a good place for him to be. And you know, Steve van Zandt station, Underground Garage are very supportive of bands like Blondie. I have a new band called The Empty Hearts that they’re very supportive of and very supportive of the DJs with the people like Rodney that they have on the air like [inaudible 00:10:08] and people like that. It’s a good thing. It’s a niche world. It’s a niche market. Rock and roll kind of is a niche market.

Clem Burke: (10:18)
It’s funny, you know what I mean? Blondie, we can go out and play thousands of people come to see us and really enjoy it. The type of music that Blondie plays or it’s not really pop music anymore. It’s not really mainstream in some ways, although I think we had a big influence on the mainstream in general. It’s a niche market so it’s good. Couldn’t be more happy about how things worked out for us and that Debbie, Chris and I are still friends and we’re still performing. We have a good time. We’re doing a run a dates in May and then some more in August and we’re actually going to do a tour in the US in September and October.

Matthew Swinnerton: (11:03)
Oh great. Cool. Okay, kind of last question. It’s 2020. It’s the future now. What gets you up in the morning? And I ask this a lot to a lot of our interviews, like why do you do what you do? Why are you getting on the road and playing Kaiser Arena in Santa Cruz in May? What’s the drive to keep on going?

Clem Burke: (11:26)
Well, I think for this particular run had to do with the what they call anchor dates, right? Which this festival on May 2nd in LA, pretty much a pretty big anchor day for us. So then you’re able to surround that kind of date with other dates and kind of make a week or two out of it when you’re not necessarily on a full tour. And we really enjoy being on stage and performing and we can kind of do it in our own manner. Now, it’s not demanding.

Clem Burke: (11:59)
I mean we’re working on a new Blondie record as well. We still have a recording contract with BMG in the UK. The label that put out our last record, Pollinator, that we were all really happy with and looking to make another record.

Clem Burke: (12:14)
But what gets me up in the morning, I think we’re all glad to be alive and I think, we’re survivors. A lot of people are gone. Unfortunately, all The Ramones are gone. Johnny Cummings is gone. Lot of different people, Stiv Bators, a lot of our contemporaries. And I think Blondie kind of has a sound of New York City, whether it be the sound of CBGB or the sound of dance music or we still enjoy and we enjoy what we do, when we do it on our own behest.

Matthew Swinnerton: (12:52)
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. I was just listening to a couple of days ago, Union City Blue and it does feel very New York.

Clem Burke: (12:57)
Yeah, absolutely. We were basically influenced by our surroundings, no question about it. We kind of personify the look and the style and the sound in New York, I think, in a lot of ways but then in its beginnings, playing in New York in the mid-70s along with The Ramones and Talking Heads and Patti Smith and the other bands, Television, for instance, we were all influencing one another. I think everyone took a bit from each other back then and it was really very isolated.

Clem Burke: (13:31)
So the influences were very underground and I think people were learning a lot about different types of things back then as far as how to make a sort of a new to incorporate the old with the new. And I think we did a lot of that and it kind of, we were fortunate enough to have some big hit records. So that kind of gives it a life of its own. The legacy of the band is music at this point.

Matthew Swinnerton: (13:59)
Yeah. Now it does seem a lot of your music and all those bands that you mentioned, even though it was happening in the 70s, the music seems like it could be later. It could be the 80s and 90s.

Clem Burke: (14:11)
Well, a lot of people confuse us. Yeah. A lot of people confuse Blondie as being an 80s band. But we stopped performing late ’82 and it’s funny, because we’re really from the 70s.

Matthew Swinnerton: (14:25)
That’s funny. Yeah.

Clem Burke: (14:25)
And we’re almost…

Matthew Swinnerton: (14:29)
And still kicking strong. Cool.

Clem Burke: (14:32)
No, I take care of myself. I enjoy what I do and it’s obviously playing the drums, it’s kind of a physical exercise, so I kind of try to keep myself together so I’m able to still do it and enjoy doing it. And now I have this other band called The Empty Hearts with Elliot Easton from The Cars. I don’t know if you’ve heard of us.

Matthew Swinnerton: (14:53)
Yes, I have.

Clem Burke: (14:54)
We have a new record coming out and we just had a song that was, I don’t know if you listen to the Underground Garage, but it was the coolest song of the week on Underground Garage. And actually in fact, I co-wrote the song and play tambourine on it, but Ringo Starr plays drums on the particular song. Kind of fun.

Matthew Swinnerton: (15:13)
Oh my goodness. That is crazy. Yeah.

Clem Burke: (15:17)
Yeah. It’s a band called The Empty. I was just listening to the Beatles station and they said Ringo, he’s going back on tour and they’re gone. He’s doing five shows in a row, which is like crazy, because with Blondie, we tried to do now no more than three shows in a row and then space it out so people have time to rest. You think of Ringo doing five shows in a row in five different cities. It’s pretty amazing.

Matthew Swinnerton: (15:41)
Nope. Anybody doing a show, it seems very vigorous. So yeah, I can’t imagine five in one row.

Clem Burke: (15:46)
Well, we’ll have a good time in Santa Cruz. We actually really like playing by the beach and like I said, it does remind me of Asbury Park. And we did a festival two years ago that inaugurated the first festival in the Asbury Park on the beach. And we had a great time. We really like playing by the ocean.

Matthew Swinnerton: (16:07)
That ocean air. Yeah.

Clem Burke: (16:09)
Yeah. It’ll be really fun. Santa Cruz has some good memories for us. Northern California in general.

Matthew Swinnerton: (16:16)
Great. Cool. Well, I’m in the front row of the show. I got my tickets already, so I will see you then. And yeah, thank you so much for the interview.

Clem Burke: (16:27)
Yeah, thanks for calling.

Matthew Swinnerton: (16:27)
Yeah, see you soon.

Clem Burke: (16:27)
All right now, bye. Bye.

See Blondie play at the Kaiser Permanente Arena on May 22. Tickets available here

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