New Zealand's Mark de Clive-Lowe is your conductor, musical tour guide, and conduit to the past and future. From accomplished jazz artist to a shaker in London's underground music scene, de Clive-Lowe has been part of over 200 releases and continues to produce, perform live internationally, and compose. Like the mash-ups and remixes he creates, his deep knowledge of jazz, hip-hop, Latin, dance, and electronic music – coupled with acoustic instruments and live samplings – makes for an experience that is more than simply a show. His quarterly club night, Church, in NYC and L.A., are happenings of dancers, jazz, and progressive music fans, as well as those that want to take a ride on de Clive-Lowe's musical bullet train.
Like most kids, I assume you took piano lessons?
My dad made me learn piano. I was too young at the time to have a choice in the matter, or even a desire. My teacher was a classical teacher who had no understanding of modern music at all, and that was something I really wanted to delve into. He couldn't really help me, so I started to dabble, not really knowing what to do. In high school, in New Zealand, all my friends were heavily into guitar music and it didn't quite resonate with me. Before school one day, one of my friends walked up to me and gave me his earbuds. It was the first Guy album [Guy], produced by Teddy Riley. When I heard this music that was very modern, highly produced, and created through keyboards, it was my gateway drug to '90s hip-hop. I became a huge '90s hip-hop head: Native Tongues, Jungle Brothers, A Tribe Called Quest, Brand Nubian, Public Enemy, and Eric B. & Rakim. Every day after school I'd go down to the record store and see what 12-inches were coming in on import. I wanted to get some equipment, so I went to the local music store. Accessible samplers were just happening, but I didn't know what a sampler was. I didn't get it. I remember buying my first drum machine, like a Yamaha RX something. I had a Roland PR-100 sequencer with tiny little Quick Disks. I think I bought a Kawai multi-timbral synth. I started messing around with this gear, not knowing at all what I was doing. Not long after that a friend of mine, Zane Lowe, and I were playing each other demos at lunchtime. I was like, "Damn, that shit sounds like hip-hop. How did they do that?" He said, "They had a sampler." That was like "the heavens open" epiphany moment. I was messing around with all this gear and collaborating with some hip-hop and soul crews in Auckland, New Zealand. My parents did not understand it, and they didn't approve of it. "Why can't you just play the piano? Why can't you play Gershwin?" I had a weird moment one day. I had this whole record collection, and I'd bought all this equipment, but I woke up one day and thought, "This is meaningless! I'm making these loops, and there's no substance to them. What's the point?" I was an extremist in my youth, so I sold everything. I sold 12-inches I'll never see again. I sold all my equipment. This was about age 15. It was all about the piano, and Miles [Davis], and [John] Coltrane records; I dove headlong into jazz. I didn't see the correlation between the styles, at the time.
Jazz-influenced hip-hop was yet again another wave altogether.
There was definitely some of it, but to me those were worlds apart. Jazz caught me hook, line, and sinker. I was living in Japan for my last year of high school, and Tokyo had 60 jazz clubs at the time. I was probably spending more time in the clubs than I was going to school. I finished that high school year, went back to New Zealand. I was supposed to start law school. On the first day, my dad was knocking on my bedroom door saying, "Mark, university starts today!" I said, "No, I'm not going. I'm going to do music." At that point in time I figured, "I'm going to be a straight-ahead jazz musician. I'm going to live in New York." I was in New Zealand, gigging a lot and playing acoustic jazz. Once a month we had a gig at a club that was annexed to a DJ club. We'd jam in there with two drummers, a turntablist, rappers, horn players, and keyboard players. It was so much fun. Then I'd go back to my serious gigs. On one of these serious gigs I was on stage, mid-gig, and I was thinking, "Why am I being so serious about this when I could put that focus on the fun shit?" Also, going to jungle parties and having DJs spin music that was so progressively organic and hip compared to acid house and what came before it; hearing that opened up my imagination so much. That became the world I wanted to get into. It was interesting 10 or 20 years later, where I really felt in a powerful position to be able to pull that story together. All of these elements are of the same core, and they can all work together to create something new and interesting.
When you were in London there were some new styles and genres emerging, broken beat being one of them.
Broken beat was a media-created label. I got to London in 1998 and happened into this community of misfits. There were maybe half a dozen people who were at the epicenter of the genre's inception. Each one of those was from a different background. Phil Asher was a house producer. IG Culture was doing dub, reggae, and hip-hop. A crew called Bugz in the Attic were all coming from funk and deep jazz-fusion. 4Hero were coming from rave music, drum and bass, and techno. They were all coming from different places and spaces, but they were all getting bored. These are all styles of music that are very clearly delineated by tempo and rhythmic rudiment, so they all started to do different music, and their own scenes wouldn't embrace them. This community came about because all these individuals were rebels and misfits in their own scenes, and they wanted to make their own music. It wasn't a style; it was an ethos, more than anything. It was a freedom. It was heavily informed by '70s jazz. Rhythmically it was always super progressive. "How complicated can I chop this break, but still make it funky?" That was based on people like Harvey Mason and Leon "Ndugu" Chancler. Guys who had already played the most complicated rhythms you could do. But it was all about, "How can we capture that energy, put it in a loop format, and have it appeal to the dancer?" Preceding this, Gilles Peterson was a DJ and producer out there. He's been a huge part of shaping the whole community and spearheading the movement. He'd be DJing a party with Pharoah Sanders and Sun Ra, and people were dancing.
Did you go to London not knowing anyone?
I got there and I had two numbers. One was Dave Angel, who's a techno DJ. Dave was in New Zealand six years earlier and walked into a bar I was playing at. Six years later, he gets this call, "I don't know if you remember me?" He's like, "Come down to the studio!" We made a track that day, and that was my first time collaborating with a producer in the UK. It showed me what's possible. There's a sax player from New Zealand named Nathan Haines who was a mentor to me in New Zealand, and he was living in London as well. He was collaborating with all sorts of interesting people. Within a week, I was in the studio with him doing a track for Goldie's Metalheadz label. Then the next day with Phil Asher; an amazing house producer. These guys were making innovative music and, as a keyboard player, I could contribute. IG Culture's living room was a straight studio. I walked in, and he was on the [E-mu] SP 1200, banging out beats. None of these guys have musical training. They're chopping samples, reconfiguring them, montaging them, collaging them, and chopping beats and programming beats in a way that a musician honestly wouldn't do. My first five years there, I remember waking up every morning so excited, thinking, "By the end of today, something's going to exist that never existed before, and I can't wait to hear it." There was one other keyboard player, Kaidi Tatham, who's phenomenal. The two of us were the entire keyboard contribution to the community. I got asked to do my own records. From the first period in London, I went back to New Zealand. That was part of a one year round-the-world pilgrimage of sorts. I was in San Francisco, New York, Cuba, London, Paris, Tokyo, and Sydney over the course of a year.
You were living, contributing, trying to make records and music, as well as do live gigs?
Yeah. I'd been awarded a grant from New Zealand. Whatever you proposed, they awarded you. Mine was to go around the world for a year. I got to go to some dream places, like Cuba. I went through Japan and was in Tokyo at a music store and the [Akai] MPC2000 had just come out. I bought it and started making music with the Rhodes, the MP, and a Roland JP-8080, and made a record called Six Degrees; my musical diary of traveling that year. That turned into a touring project, as well as getting called in to do remixes and production.
Many people have a very traditional recording process of going into
the studio. How is that process different from making some of the music you produce?
At the time, it was still studio based; a home studio, or a better environment. The live room wasn't used that often. Sometimes we'd cut live drums, or live percussion or vocalists, but generally the producer would create the rhythm track up front. They may sample something, or not. Then I'd come in and see what I heard. It's interesting working with sample-based beats, even if there isn't a very musical-sounding sample; because the drum kits, percussion, and everything else is sampled off records. There are these weird harmonic fragments, or remnants, and everything has its pitch. Obviously, the kick drum already has a pitch, but there might be a slight overhang from the sample on some strings that gives another color, and the snare might be from a record that's got a little bit of guitar reverb left from when it was chopped off the LP. You'll end up with this weird harmonic palette of where the samples came from, and how they're put together. Rhythmically, sometimes I might be like, "Where's the one?" It wasn't that complex, but they were creating these rudiments and rhythmic claves that were different. They'd even be out of tune with each other. These guys would put them together in a way where it shouldn't work, but it did. That was super inspiring.
When you're producing for other people, are you hired to create the track and have someone come in and sing, or are you leading the charge?
It differs, from case to case. If people reach out to me now, they're reaching out to me to do specifically what I do. Maybe once I've been called to do a record where it was more of a control room/armchair-producer session. I wasn't playing anything, just mentoring the band and making sure it was all how it should be. It's not often that I get that kind of call. I generally lead the way. I lost a couple of gigs because I didn't learn this soon enough, but oftentimes the artist has a vision, and it's too easy for a producer to steamroll the artist's vision. I didn't understand that earlier. I think it's because I was in London, mentored by a community where it was all about producers. The vocalists were almost the seasoning. It obviously works best when the visions align. I've fallen in love with the band – and more of the live process – again, as well as bringing that into the studio and finding that balancing point between the technology and live musicians. That's what really excites me right now.
How much of your recent live performance style are you bringing to the recording process?
I find that if I'm sitting down to write, it's more traditional. I'll often sit at the piano and write. I don't usually set up my live rig here at home. I'm definitely of that old school nature, where if there's a composition and I take away all the production and beats, there'd better be something left. If I'm just making a bonus beat track for a DJ, that's different. It's important to have a harmonic and melodic integrity to a track. Sometimes, like when I cut the Church record, I did set up my whole live rig in the studio, and it was pretty much a live recording. Some tracks were too long, so I took chunks out. I'm programming on the fly and sampling the other musicians on the fly. It's a pretty risky way to make music, and I love that. If there is no risk in the music, then there's no point in me doing the music.
That's your jazz element.
Exactly. Especially when I'm playing live solo, or even with the band, the nature of playing and sampling a moment that happens, then interpolating that, and flipping that, and having it become a new moment that informs the next moment.
What's the rig you use live?
The rig has evolved over time. It was [initially] built around the [Akai] MPC3000. Now the heart of the sequencing is a Native Instruments Maschine. Maschine, running inside Ableton Live, hosts all the soft synths and drum synths. For my solo shows I do a lot of remixing, so I've got a lot of a capellas [vocal tracks] in Ableton. The only prepared tracks are those. I've got a couple of [Korg] Kaoss Pads for live sampling. I could be sampling into Ableton, but there's something both very limiting and tactile with the Kaoss Pads that I like. Everything I can do to get off the computer is great. Often there's a grand piano or a Fender Rhodes, plus whatever analog synths I can get my hands on that day. If I'm working with a band, I'll have them all split through a sub-mixer.
So, you're getting a mult of everybody?
Yes. Then I can choose if I want the vocalist or the trumpet. I'll run them through the Kaoss Pads, sampling or effecting.
You've talked about the idea of giving people the "moment" – the bite-sized sample.
When I'm doing electronic and dance floor performance, there's always an intention to subvert the audience. I feel like if I can get you dancing, then I can basically put free jazz on and you won't even know. We have the entire history of music on our phones, and people accept everything as music. I started remixing [John] Coltrane's Love Supreme on solo gigs. Jazz is a really broad term now – there's a huge range of musicality. Some rock musicians don't appreciate the electronic culture, but I think there's a huge part of the electronic culture that is deeply Afro-centric. I feel like the same elements and creativity are employed in every style.
That's interesting when you talk about Afro-centric.
This is a differentiation with EDM; EDM is so blandly un-black. Which is fine too, but then the corporate commoditization of it is a whole different topic. When it becomes the whole identifier – that anything that is "plugged in" is EDM – it becomes how people see it. What it's done to DJ culture is horrific.
Do you impose limitations on all your work?
I love limitations. When I workshop and discuss this I talk about painting. If I give you a pencil and paper and ask you to draw, you'll draw. If I give you paper and a million colored pencils, you won't know where to start. That's why I love the Kaoss Pads; they're a really limited technology. Ableton Live is basically limitless, so I put confines on it. For example, I like to limit myself fundamentally to a four-bar loop. There's a challenge in creating a four-bar loop that feels like it's alive and can keep going. Any composition has limitations. It's in this key, this time signature, or this tempo.
Your Church record came out of the nights you were hosting?
Definitely. The party started because I moved from London. I was doing a regular party in London, and I missed that. I wanted it to be different, because that was very much a London thing. Now I'm in L.A. I didn't touch an acoustic piano for ten years in London. People would be like, "Let's put piano on this track!" I'd say, "No, let's put the [Roland] Juno on." I know I have emotional baggage with it. When I started dating my wife, she was living in a house and had a piano. I'd play the piano and started connecting with it. When the opportunity to start the club night began, I wanted to present my entire journey; growing up with jazz, falling in love with hip-hop, breaks, and jungle music. I wanted to
show how the jazz club and the dance floor have this inextricable intertwining connection. I played the first set as acoustic jazz, and then flipped it for the second set. The dancers would start to come down early and see me play some [Thelonious] Monk or [Duke] Ellington, and then the jazzers would stay late and see it transform into this rave. Calling it Church never had any religious aspect; it was the idea of a community celebration of music, dance, being alive, and sharing. It got to the point where musicians would be in town and come through; this open format. I started doing it in New York monthly as well. Over time it became clear that I wanted to make a record from it. Now it continues as a quarterly event. It stays true to that idea of where a jazz club meets the dance floor, with a live remix. They come to the party and someone always says, "Now I get why you call it 'church.' You've got to be there to experience it."