Rewind: Eric D. Clark on “Atmosphere”

Posted: November 22nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Features | Tags: , , , , | 3 Comments »

In discussion with Eric D. Clark on “Atmosphere” by Funkadelic (1975).

How were you initiated to the Funkadelic world?

That’s rather hard to say; I believe I first heard Funkadelic… early 70’s? Seems as though I remember hearing “Maggot Brain” as my introduction to their music? And it would most probably have been at a party; maybe a cousin’s house or on a military base at a function? Don’t really know. However I seem to remember that piece first: I certainly had no idea what or who it was? At the time I thought the label art was somehow the band’s responsibility, therefore I would buy records according to the artwork; if I was at a friend’s house and they had something I liked I would go to the record store, usually with my father, and look for the same artwork and buy the record (we’re talking 7″ singles here). Needless to say it was often not what I was looking for. However, rarely did I return anything! This is how I ended up finding out about Led Zeppelin at age 5 or 6. I was looking for Rare Earth. When I finally witnessed Funkadelic’s artwork first-hand it cemented my high regard for their overall “thang”!

Was it a part of your childhood and youth in California?

There was a very strong and rich musical culture in our house. Every morning before school we were allowed to listen to music (no TV, only on Saturday mornings) that we selected from an extensive record collection procurred over previous decades and life in Kansas, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Poplar Bluff Missouri, Osaka, and wherever else our parents had been on their journeys with the military. This included 78 rpm shellac discs and 7″ children’s records recorded at 16 rpm. Father always loved Jazz and has an extensive collection of Blue Note recordings from the label’s inception until around 1970 something. Errol Garner was a big favourite, Booker T. & the MG’s. I did not really get into Jazz though until much later, though I liked Errol Garner! The rest was boring to me then. “Shotgun” and “Green Onions” I liked a lot but until this day I can’t stand James Brown for example?! Only one song that I can’t remember the title of, from around 1958. Mother was into Gospel and female vocal performers such as Morgana King, Dinah Washington, Mahalia Jackson, Dakota Stanton, Aretha of course, also some guys like Major Lance and Joe Simon both of whom I still love today. This collection still exists, excerpts of which you can hear in a set I uploaded to under the moniker “The OZ Effect”. When I’d go looking for what I liked and tried to share it with them it was not met well. They tried to form me with classical which I found to be very little of a challenge, especially as I could trick the teachers by learning pieces twice or even three times as fast by listening to them on vinyl (my component stereo system was right on top of the piano next to my father’s AKAI reel-to-reel, which he bought in Osaka three years before I was born and I adopted; when I am at our house in Sacramento I still use this machine!). Funkadelic were strictly off-limits (very enticing) but I kept the records anyway, even though they were considered to be devil music by Mom and Dad. I was still under ten?

You chose “Atmosphere” from 1975’s album “Let’s Take It To The Stage” for this interview. Is it just this song that is very important to you, or does this album follow suit as a whole?

Well I chose the whole album because at the time people actually plotted entire worlds around an LP. The song titles say it all: “No Head No Backstage Bass” (which MUST be a play on words; I’ll leave that to your imaginations though), “Good To Your Earhole”, “Get Off Your Ass And Jam” or “Atmosphere”. These few titles alone illustrate the glue to which the title is the key, all messages of a damn good live experience I am sure! This coupled with the fact that I have always loved horror movies and cartoons even as a child. The artwork of Pedro Bell was frankly scarier than almost anything I had seen until that point in my life (I was raised on Dr Seuss). “Atmosphere” is instrumental and thus was instrumental in showing what a classically trained artist could get up to if unbridled by the sheer handicap of only being able to interpret notes (very few musicians that read rarely reinvent anything). I could tell from listening that Bernie Worrell must have been classically trained or had such leanings as a musician for the inflections in this piece could pretty much only have been achieved at the time by such an artist. Nowadays I would not say that but this was the mid 70’s, today the genres have mixed thoroughly and you can take things and disguise their origins easier. This is both due to the advent of technology and as well cross culture nurturing and extensive travel (tribes have always carried their music with them somehow) which naturally fosters a form of “cross-pollination”, not unlike the work which bees do.

“Atmosphere” is a long, almost experimental jam, dominated by Bernie Worrell’s keyboard playing. Being an accomplished pianist yourself, is this what you like most about it?

No, what I like most is that I could not quite figure out how it was done. I have never liked songs I could easily do on my own (I can play anything by “ear”), still don’t. The material must have something very much extra special! “Atmosphere” does this brilliantly. Though it sounds effortless (I am sure it was for Mr. Worrell) it is not that simple to play… has a great deal to do with “presence”: close your eyes and listen to it…

You were classically trained at a very early age, but did Worrell’s work on “Atmosphere” show you other ways to pursue with the instrument? Did this song lead you to think about other ways of expressing yourself musically?

I started out on piano at the age of 5 after my parents noticed I was interested and capable. I have always been one to like something but never so weak that I needed to follow what one did or do. I have a capacity to love a piece and totally translate it to my style (i.e.: “Sin” from my E=dC² album on Firm: it’s actually two parts of a Chopin waltz which I transformed into a pseudo disco track when I was around 13, or “Legion” that was inspired by the work done by Trent Reznor for Marilyn Manson), something I still do very often. Very rarely do people professional or not ever figure out the influences. Sometimes I will tell, though most times not!

In terms of composition and execution, what are the main traits and achievements of “Atmosphere”?

That it exists in it’s very own realm, or rather, at all?! There is nothing else like it on the album (though I am certain it was longer and spawned or at least inspired some of the other songs on the record). At the time “Let’s Take It To The Stage” was released the marriage of European drug experimentation in the form of LSD and California’s cathartic perpetually shaking coast was very ripe and all over the airwaves (let’s not forget Cannabis Sativa – around 1968 the “Emerald Triangle” was founded by some “hippy” entrepreneurs not far from Sacramento, and still exists today; arguably the birth place of “Kush”). Even conventionally trained union/session musicians were “turned on”. We had a particularly violent period that if you are not from California you probably can not understand. Lots of corruption and murder… There was little to none of the Fania All-Stars stuff: no Puerto Rican rhythms or any of what you get coming from New York, or the eastern side of the Mississippi: we are far removed from that culture in many ways, we have the more Mexican side of things: laid back, almost lackadaisical way of self expression, until the punk movement. California is famously transient, hence people from everywhere import from everywhere. Thus as we are so far removed from everywhere, if you listen to quite a bit of the music produced in the state during the 60’s and 70’s, even though it conveys genre today, truly listen to it and you will hear it does not really fit in any genre! Experimentation is rampant on that bit of constantly moving rock, and I know that seismic activity has a great deal to do with it! It is cathartic! This coupled with the “Free-Love” and the fact that Detroit is the breeding ground of crossing borders musically, Parliament/Funkadelic hit the nail on the head with this album. They were capable of seeing what was going on on both coasts and able to meld it into something nobody else was capable of at the time. Seems almost naive today, but in retrospect Sly Stone sounds like no one else, as do not The Beach Boys, just for starters. Think of “Rather Ripped Records”, our first Punk importers, or “Dr. Demento’s” radio show, try on the “Ralph Records” crew or even later the fact that “The Cramps” met in the state’s capitol Sacramento at the seminal second hand record store “Records” in its second generation of family ownership by very good friends of mine and my family the Hartmann Family. California is richer culturally than the gold discovered in it! After this initial taste of “P-Funk” (which must mean Parliament/Funkadelic, DUH…), I do not remember life without it in the state! THE WHOLE STATE!

Upon hearing how you incorporate piano sounds and harmonies into your music, I can’t help to imagine a certain reference to the kind of joyful and playful style employed on “Atmosphere”. Am I right or wrong, or both?

First I must say I never wanted to play the piano, but French horn! However, due to asthmatic health problems my parents thought it wise to not go down the wind instrument path. I was told that if I mastered the piano I could move up to an organ or other electronic instrument, my true desire upon hearing “Talking Book” by Stevie Wonder (one of many musical birthday gifts I received from them throughout my life). Music is emotion in quantitative waves deciphered and understood by (especially today) a limited few. Not everyone who does music deserves the title of musician. That said, I personally do not care for people who say they do not like a certain “style” of music, they are generally completely ignorant and in most cases un-informed, not to mention un-studied in their appreciation of the language. I had for years stated that I hated Opera and Country and Western Music, then I realized I loved Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash (whose first wife was our next door neighbour; yes, I met him at a very young age and had no idea!?) Johnny Mathis, Patsy Cline and and and… I said to myself, “you fool, you’ve not heard enough of the stuff!?” The same thing happened when I asked my father to rent the video of “DEVO” (the equivalent to a video album) and he confused it with the film “Diva” (on my first solo album “Fur Dancefloor”, I totally changed the piece “Sentimental Walk” by Vladimir Cosma to a… just listen to it) which I watched in its entirety in French: the aria to the Opera “La Wally” still brings tears to my eyes to this day! So Music is the entire gammit of emotion neither joyful nor playful. But more than these two limiting emotions: anyone who has had the privilege in some cases or in others displeasure of working with me knows I am certainly NOT joyful or playful when composing. I do not talk about music: I am music! I’ve known since a very very young age exactly what I want and DO NOT compromise to get it: EVER! Many people need to “try” things out, I do not. These things I just do like mixing in key… and take them whole and completely! Often my music is misinterpreted, as is the music of many others. Steely Dan did an LP (or more) about molestation, did anyone get it? For example “The Cold Song” by Whirlpool Productions (named for Klaus Nomi, and not directly the Opera) is about using farmed animal fur as opposed to synthetic fur, which is not bio-degradable in 1,000 years. All those animal lovers who want to cover the planet in plastic…? “Walk to the back and check what’s on the meat-rack; a warmer way to get you through another cold day…”. Also your skin can’t breathe properly in synthetics!? “From:Disco To:Disco” is not about clubbing, it’s about the fact that people were sampling Disco records to do their version of House Music… Disco Music was often about love, hence the sample. The fact that I had to almost fight Hans to drop the E-string of the bass to an F is symbolic of me knowing what I want! The jingle in the beginning is a call to the floor like in a department store when they announce the sales on the various levels. When I worked in Macy’s department store as the “Northern Californian Representative for Casio Electronics Keyboard Division” at the age of 15, I went to accounting to get my check cashed and had to wait a few minutes, the lady said. So I am waiting and then she picks up a little hammer and a piece of paper with seemingly random capitol letters on it: she hit a few tines of a very small xylophone and began to announce the sales on the floors of the store!? I was so enthralled I almost ran out to make sure it was really playing in the store, without having cashed my check. I had always thought these messages were pre-recorded: I never forgot that, and to this day that “From:Disco To:Disco (etymology as in the lost art of post card writing) jingle is used on Italy’s National Radio station!

What do you aim for when you compose and perform your music, and why? How important is it to display your influences and preferences, in proportion to your very own characteristics as an artist?

I aim for nothing, it’s all second nature. I don’t even do playlists. It’s like having tons of records to take to a dee-jay gig, you play as you go. Jam session? Perhaps…

Were Whirlpool Productions in any way a chance to invent your own creative universe, with a collective consisting of three different individuals, and a desire to inject dance music with your own vision? And if so, do you think you succeeded, both as a solo artist and with the band?

The answer to the first part is: No! Success is relative…Whirlpool Productions, as you correctly stated, was never a band, and my “universe” was extremely full by the time I met Hans and Justus. We were diplomatic to a default. If you read the credits on all four of our albums you will get a better idea of what I am saying here: we considered ourselves a collective. Yes. We nonetheless were not opening up to outside collaboration as we did not really care too much for what we heard out there in the dance music world. Remember, I had played dance music all of my life. No matter what one says of classical music there was a fair amount of dance in it, especially after the age of 8 when I discovered the work of Chopin! Mazurkas, Polanaises, Waltzes, even some upbeat stuff which later became Polka… These are all dance music as well, so I did not and do not find the genre “dance” in anyway shape or form something new. The instruments change, but humans only do so much at a time…

What role do the song and album play in the entire Funkadelic body of work? Is this the odd one out, or another piece of the puzzle?

I had the privilege through Hans to interview George Clinton (my first interview for Spex Magazine) and asked him something similar; “which of the albums or songs was his favourite?” And he said “they are all my children, I love them equally!” I was enamoured by this answer and use it as a personal metaphor for my own work all the time (there is nothing I have done or will do musically that I do not like). So even when young, after I picked up some of the earlier P-Funk albums and a few previous ones, I have to say I thought you could listen to them back-to-back no problem. Something I actually did, it’s definitely NOT the odd one out of their entire body of work. Unless of course you count the stuff he wrote in his one week stint at Motown or the Doo-Wop he wrote before that?

Are you generally a devoted p-funkateer, or were there ups and downs in their music for you?

I love all of their output to date, even the ones certain friends found “too commercial” or whatever. They always have this family thing and families are very dynamic. The drama, bad times or good, death or birth, hate, love not speaking to each other or deciding to go your own way no matter the outcome. It’s all there in the work they have done. Very few notoriously known Artists get to that level of incorporation.

Funkadelic are often seen as an expression of varied influences of the West Coast scene and beyond, for instance hippie and psychedelic counter-culture, Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix and so on. Where do you place them in these contexts?

Those influences are there but they translated them into their own language and this is something people seem to take for granted and wrongly, I might add. For example, Sly drives a Harley so…? George keeps his hair license up to date “in case this music thing does not work out”… ya feel me?

As you left the US in 1987 for a long stint in Europe, would you say that Funkadelic were specifically American, or could this have happened elsewhere as well? How does your location and environment influence your music?

Europe does not seem to take too many risks in the entertainment world, especially not in France! This is why there are often so many pale copies of popular things. Could it have happened elsewhere other than the states?! Hence the answer to your query is obvious: it didn’t! Point blank! The collective history of the United States is so varied and multi-faceted plus touted throughout the country (hence the high self esteem of its people) that it did not happen and will not outside of the country’s boundaries ever or at least not for a very long time. The EU has a bizarre idea of leadership to me, I do not totally buy into it. There are exceptions, especially in literature, but I find too many Europeans want to “compare” as opposed to “lead”, no one wants the blame for the outcome, good or bad. This I found to be very German: “it’s not my fault” (does this mean you don’t care?). In the States we don’t really care; goals not issues, honey, or solutions not problems… to me the aesthetic of a place is rather important. Growing up in beautiful northern California after studying explicitly beautiful music as a child, then moving to Paris and even Cologne… I must say that the surroundings (beach, vibration, architecture; relaxed societal leanings) lend to a very exact execution of my own ideas. Thus environment is important. That said, I have to admit that aesthetically Berlin never really inspires me, hence the reason I never stay that long. When I go to a “high class” or expensive restaurant I don’t want to see people in Manolo Blahniks and Galliano (an old club buddy of mine – the Paris daze), trapsing across the seating areas to head off to do cheap coke and/or “fuck” in the toilets, then trapsing back in through the same path they took out! DISGUSTING! Have some damn class. It does not mean you are a snob just because you dress nice? That said, why is it when one dresses nice in that city, people assume you have a surplus of cash or that you just came from a wedding or funeral?! Most people there believe I am enjoying the place but really it’s ONLY the people I know. The place itself is ugly to me, except when it snows, then it is extremely inspirational to me. But that I can only handle for maximum two months then it’s off to Buenos Aires or California at large…

However much they were influenced by the aforementioned developments, it is obvious that Funkadelic and the related projects pretty much made up an universe of their own. How would you describe what they did and achieved with their vision and sound?

One of my favourite campaigns of all time was the one from Nike that goes: “just do it!” and that’s what P-Funk does and there are no excuses: blatant in your face proliferation and fruition of idea with no compromise!

Do you think “Atmosphere” is more or less tied to the time it was released, or could a song like this be done any time? Does this also apply to such a thought-out concept like Funkadelic/Parliament?

If people would research things and not just pander to the internet when searching for “facts” sure it could happen today, but people seem not willing to do anything outside of the box these days. Of course there is a small minority of creative types that don’t give a shit, myself one of them. However, I have little faith in the current world model to give the public anything other than “trusted and true” (as if?!) forms of culture that has been re-hashed and in existence since the beginning of tin-pan alley… pisses me off a bit but I will survive and thrive no matter what! So the song in question could be done today, but I doubt anyone would notice until well after the inception of said style of song…

Is this conceptual approach something that is particularly appealing to you?

Concept is idea in its truest form, form is what we claim we need so a thing only becomes concept in its so-called finished or rather presented entity. So no, this not compelling to me in the initial sense. I create my form from doing it, not from regarding what has been done…

The influence of P-funk on club culture is often noted, but mostly with an emphasis on hip hop. What mark has it left on disco and the 4/4-based music that was to follow, like house and related styles, and even pop music and culture in general?

It’s simply the most ubiquitous influence you will hear in any form of music today. That said, most do not realise or even understand the impact it has had on the culture, most will not until they do their homework. It touches on all and influences many many more, as any true “movement” does… Remember Deee-Lite. Their entire first LP was P-Funk (even if the public totally missed the point!?), Lady Miss Kier still works with the funk on her newest material which should be apparent when it is released (something I am working towards). There are a few musicians as Romanthony, Eddie Flashin’ Fowlkes, Tyree Cooper, Neon Leon, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Thomas Dolby, Prince, Dave Stewart (as much as I hate to admit it, I actually “thought” the guitar sound on “Heart Of Stone” was him? As it turns out it is Bootsy on bass with a bevy of foot pedals!), Metallica, Tenacious D (for lyrical matter only perhaps), Trent Reznor, Faith No More, The Talking Heads and/or Tom-Tom Club (both incorporate in the most integral of fashions the workings of Bernie Worrell copiously), Rick James obviously… who else? Hmmm…? Yarborough and Peoples, Teena Marie, Detroit Grand Pubahs, Jay Haze, Snax (who also worked with “Scraping Foetus Off The Wheel”!) Antone (Cologne), Samim, Khan; €ric Ð. Clark, haha. And too many more to remember for me at the moment plus a great deal more Metal bands. The reason I denote the Metal movement is that George said to me “P-Funk is as many people as possible riffing on the same line”, hence the Metal!

Bernie Worrell was a welcomed guest musician with lots of notable contributions. You also regularly collaborate with other producers, as musician and vocalist. What is your approach to that? What draws you to a project?

Yes he’s a regular guest to the David Letterman show, as is Beck! If I like the song I can a way find to expound on your material. Not…? Well, if I do not like you personally, we will not work together! Does not matter who you are! Remember what I said about family in this scene? I can not extend the family to persons of dubious leanings or who don’t do their homework.

What is the main difference between your work as collaborator and as a solo artist?

When I do vocals I record them, then edit them, and ultimately (with very few exceptions) produce and post produce them sending the collaborator a finished mixed and release ready vocal or other part. I trust practically no one with my solo voice as most can not work with it in the way I see fit. So to save time and energy loss I do it as I know what I want the outcome to be. I have constantly been disappointed with other’s workings of my instrument and as well I usually do hundreds of tracks as background harmonies. Ad libs, variations on a theme that have nothing to do with the final performance and what not, that most producers (today especially) try to single out as “lead” voices which I rarely do at first or in many cases at all. René Tinner is fabulous for being a TRUE producer, he is not there! He enhances you, or rather YOU! This is a rare quality and should be fostered and proliferated in the existing music scene. An artist is just that, an artisan whose work, when accepted or heartfelt, can be used by many for whatever reason or occasion.

Do you think it would be interesting to do an album that neglects the musical contexts you are mostly associated with yourself? Something that is entirely out of a dance context for example? A solo piano album maybe? Or something completely different?

There are no musical boundaries between musicians! Plus Scott Joplin (a most masterful player) only ever did solo piano work and people still dance to it today! My piano teachers tried to say it was a thoroughly different discipline. I never believed this as I thought that Joplin picked up where Chopin left off. Let me elaborate; it turns out that Chopin who died very young had a teacher, a German man name of Hess (can’t remember his first name). When this Hess was older he moved to St. Louis due to health matters, rheumatism I believe, and met a young Joplin (9 or so), found he had “it” and nurtured his playing style, introducing him to the European disciplines and styles which later became rampant throughout Joplin’s work. So I was right, the teachers were wrong, bless their souls. This bit of information I found out through an excellent pianist (Geron Burstein) from Israel, whose “forté” IS Chopin and Joplin. His own compositions are exemplary for this fact, a true visionary! I do what I want when I want and as I come from music in its own spiritual rite I know and do this constantly. As I said before, people in the audience just do not get it; wowed by costumes or stage presence or whatnot, I simply do not care! It’s like going to the toilet, can you really hold it in that long?! Before you burst!! It’s all music! And I do “good” music, not dance not techno not house not rock not classical not not not… All that categorical nonsense is bullshit for which I’ve never had time! That was created by people who need theory to make themselves seem interesting or in control of something they have no clue about! Mrs. Walker (one of my piano teachers when young) actually hit me across the fingers for playing a Chopin Waltz “incorrectly”. I took the baton and did the same to her, then asked her if she actually knew Chopin (to which even at the age of 10 I knew the answer) so how the hell could she say I was doing anything wrong?! Then I warned her that if she ever did it again I would tell my mother, who would do the same to her hands with a Louisville Slugger! Never had another problem with her, rest her soul…

I gave my copy of “Let’s Take It To the Stage” to Kai Althoff (the cover artist of my 1st solo LP “Fur Dancefloor”) and Justus Köhncke around the time of Whirlpool’s “Dense Music” – do your homework children… peace love and too much fun!

Sounds like me 11/10

3 Comments on “Rewind: Eric D. Clark on “Atmosphere””

  1. 1 €ric Ð. Clark said at 5:37 am on November 24th, 2010:

    A bit too personal but I love it!

  2. 2 Finn said at 8:03 pm on November 24th, 2010:

    Me too!

  3. 3 Delilah said at 6:18 pm on November 25th, 2010:

    Adore it a lot! Thank you.

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