Many music fans may know him best as the keyboard player from 1980s rock giants Dire Straits; but of course this is only half the story. We talk to Alan Clark about Dire Straits, The Straits, and a lifelong career in the music industry.
TBU: Music fans might know you best as the keyboard player with Dire Straits, but in fact you have recorded and performed with, and indeed produced or directed for many other legendary artists before, during and after Dire Straits, including Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Tina Turner, the Bee Gees, Joan Armatrading, Gerry Rafferty, Robert Cray and Al Green. Is it fair to say that the phenomenal success of Dire Straits was your ‘big break’ and opened doors to other collaborations; or did it all seem like part of a natural progression as you had been working as a professional musician for some considerable time beforehand?
AC: Before Dire Straits I was making a bit of a name for myself working with various artists including Splinter, who were signed to George Harrison’s Dark Horse label, and Gallagher and Lyle, who I did a couple of tours and an album with. Dire Straits heard about me because of the latter, so I was kind of on my way anyway. But yes, joining Dire Straits certainly speeded things up.
TBU: It seems almost a cliché, but you were genuinely a product of working in clubs in the north of England from a very early age. Do you think that was a good apprenticeship, and in some ways one that isn’t so readily available to young people today; where the emphasis seems to be very much on becoming famous now rather than learning to play well, and being payed for it?
AC: Yes and no: I learned many things playing in the clubs, including how to “get to” an audience and what constitutes a good drummer – you’d be surprised how many people don’t know these things – and it was good to be able to make a living from playing music. On the other hand, I was missing out on the process of creating original music with other musicians, so I was a late developer in that area. Things are certainly different now; technology has made it easy to sound good without being able to play well, without having a great deal of talent. I didn’t have that technology available to me, so I had to do it the real way. Which is fine because I was lucky enough to be born with the talent to do it. The great advantage of todays technological aids is they allow people who weren’t so lucky, to make good music. The environment I grew up in – the clubs – doesn’t exist anymore, but I’m sure there are other ways to learn now; it’s all down to wanting to do it.
TBU: You say in your bio that the Hammond organ (B3) was really your first love; is that still the case or have you been seduced by newer technologies over the years? Do you have a particular setup you favour these days?
AC: I still own and use an original 1957 B3 with its original 1962 Leslie speaker, and wouldn’t dream of replacing it with any of the virtual instruments etc people use, because nothing sounds as good. Piano is a different story. I love great pianos but I use a digital piano sound on a Yamaha Motif XS8 synthesisor, on stage because a real piano is a pain in the ass to tour with. As far as technology goes, I use a recording system called Pro Tools, which is amazing. I’ve become a bit of an expert, actually.
TBU: Did you have any strong musical influences which led you to the keyboard; or was it purely the sound and experience of playing that got you hooked?
AC: I took to the piano because there was one in our dining room. I was always going to be keyboard player – while I love electric guitars, I would never have been satisfied being a guitarist. A piano, an organ, a synthesisor is all encompassing; an orchestra. There were influences: Booker T and the MG’s; Tina’s River Deep Mountain High – I thought that record had arrived from outer space, and it was a total buzz when, some years later, I played it with her; various Beatles tracks were influences, my fave being Revolution, as was Procul Harem’s Whiter Shade of Pale. And Jimmy Smith. Lot’s of things, really. These days I go and watch Keith Jarrett whenever possible, and Steve Earle.
TBU: In those early years how did you make the transition from clubs, liners and local bands to recording with Gallagher and Lyle, signed to George Harrison’s label? How much was due to being in the right place at the right time; and how much do you attribute simply to hard work and persistance?
AC: I can’t remember what led to me being with Gallagher and Lyle. I joined up with Splinter because they were local – South Shields. I’d been playing with a band that fluctuated between being called Brass Alley and Geordie, and the guys in Splinter heard of me because of that. Brian Johnson, now of AC/DC was the singer in that band. I also briefly played with John Miles, and some years later, when his career had taken a plunge, I enlisted him into Tina Turner’s band because I was her musical director at the time. As for hard work, I didn’t really consider what I was doing as hard work. In the early days I didn’t practise much. I started practising when my career started to really take off, because I needed to to be on top of my game. Even now I try to play piano for at least one hour every day, often three or four. I watch TV while playing to break the monotony.
TBU: At the height of Dire Straits success, was it easy to cope with success at that level? Was it something you had ever anticipated? How do you avoid the pitfalls and excesses which so many bands seem to succumb to? Is it just a case of being professional and maintaining a good work ethic?
AC: I never really had a problem coping with it. People often asked me how I coped with the stress of touring with Dire straits. What stress? I travelled first class everywhere and stayed in the best hotels. And who said I avoided the excesses? Just kidding. I’ve always been a bit of a fitness freak, which kept me on the straight and narrow, generally speaking. The trick is to focus on the gig. Everything else is secondary. Of course, having fun comes a very close second.
TBU: Are you happiest in the studio or on stage performing live? Or is there a good balance to be found between the two?
AC: I must admit to having had enough of touring by the time Dire Straits disbanded in 1992. I’d had 18 months of the Brothers in Arms tour then I was working with Tina Turner and Eric Clapton and others, then straight into recording and touring the On Every Street record with Dire Straits. So I was ready for a break from touring, which lasted about 17 years, actually. I’m having a ball playing live with The Straits, because it’s an amazing band, better than Dire Straits ever was, largely because The Straits has a great rhythm section in Steve Ferrone and Mickey Feat. What I love the most about playing music is the creative process, whether live or in the studio, but if I had to choose, it would be the studio.
TBU: You have worked with a lot of very well known solo artists. Is the experience of ‘session’ work generally enjoyable and relaxed; do you tend to work mostly with people you have got to know well over the years; or have you ever had situations where a request has come your way and it has turned out to be difficult, things haven’t gelled, or it has turned out to be a project you regretted getting involved with?
TBU: Does not necessarily being the proverbial ‘front man’ allow you more freedom to move between projects and genres in the music industry do you think?
AC: It’s allowed me to move around in public without too much hassle. The focus was always on Mark, and that suited me fine. I’ve always been able to walk down the street without being asked for an autograph. That said, just the other day, in Spain, someone did, which was a result of playing there with The Straits.
TBU: Are there any artists or producers you haven’t had the opportunity to work with who you would particularly have liked to collaborate with?
AC: I’ve always hankered after playing with Van Morisson, although I gather the reality is somewhat different to the dream; I’m a bit of a Steve Earle fan, so I’d like to work with him; and I’m considering having Tom Petty’s keyboard player assassinated so I can replace him and hang with my buddy Steve Ferrone. But don’t tell anyone, will you?
TBU: Do you feel that your playing continues to evolve and progress; or do you ever reach a point after all these years where there is some sense of reaching a plateau of sorts?
AC: I’m still learning. When I look back on records I played on way back, I’d love to be able to do them again now.
TBU: You have done a lot of work for film and television too. Is that a very different discipline and environment; or was it quite an easy transition to make?
AC: It certainly takes discipline, because when I do TV or commercials music I do everything: the writing, the recording, the playing, the archiving, delivering it etc etc. I went through a period of getting involved with that stuff but I’ve kind of moved on now. I’m more into writing songs these days. Actually today, Saturday 16th of March, in Munich, The Straits played, for the first time, an original song – one of mine – called Jesus Street; and it went down very well. This is the way ahead.
TBU: In a lot of ways making and producing music (or any media for that matter) seems to have got easier these days, in terms of the technology that is available and the cost; and with the internet, there is a sense that anybody can be a distributor/publisher and find an audience. This makes things very democratic but also very competitive. How have you seen the industry changing? What advice would you give to young people who might be contemplating music or some other creative pursuit as a career? If you were just starting out right now, what would you be doing?
AC: Well, one thing’s for certain, it wouldn’t be playing the organ in a workingman’s club because there ain’t any left. Technology is both great and inhibiting; it’s wonderful to be able to make a great sounding record in your bedroom, but it also stops lots of people from spending time learning their instrument. When I first met Guy Fletcher, who later became Dire Straits’ second keyboard player, he could only play in one key – C; he would transpose his synth to whatever key the song was in. We soon thrashed that out of him! You can’t do that on a Hammond organ or a piano. The internet is a fabulous outlet for music. I love the idea of being able to bypass the record companies and all the bullshit. My advice for young people starting out: live the dream!
TBU: Another love you mention outside of music, is windsurfing, which I believe you got into when you were recording in Montserrat. In fact there are some fantastic stories on your website about navigating between the islands and sailing alongside whales. Is that something you still have the time/opportunity to do?
AC: I wish the answer was yes but I last windsurfed about six years ago. These days I’m into kick boxing.
TBU: Finally you’re touring again right now with ‘The Straits’, performing songs from Dire Straits back catalogue; by all accounts to a fantastic reception from both fans and critics alike. Are you enjoying performing those songs again? Is it like the old days, or does it feel a little more relaxed to you now?
AC: It’s definitely more relaxed, and I think it’s better than the old days in lots of ways. Ed Bicknell, Dire Straits’ manager, reckons we’re better than Dire Straits in their heyday, the Brothers in Arms period. I’m enjoying it very much because it’s such a great band. I’ll enjoy it even more when we are doing our own material.
TBU: Could you have ever imagined being anything other than a professional musician?
AC: No, although I could handle being a professional beach bum! Come to think of it, maybe I always was. That said, I’m the only musician I know who’s never had another job or signed on the dole.
TBU: Thanks Alan!
AC: My pleasure.
To read more about Alan visit his website at www.alanclarkmusic.com
For more about The Straits including latest tour dates visit www.thestraits.com