MARK DE CLIVE-LOWE: EVERYTHING IS A STORY
photography by gari askew
Synth/piano/producer polymath Mark De Clive-Lowe is a crucial part of Los Angeles music, both personally and as a vital force behind local musical institutions like epochal club CHURCH, the storied Ethio-Cali ensemble and more. This spring he released the Heritage and Heritage II albums, recorded in part live at the Blue Whale and both out now on the Ropeadope label. They’re twinned releases with a day-night split—or maybe a sunrise/moonrise feel? Heritage is vivid, expansive and atmospheric, with the feeling of new light revealing new land all through it, while Heritage II with its more direct hip-hop and beat influences using contrast and shadow to make its brights brighter and its dark moments deeper. As the title makes clear, both albums chronicle De Clive- Lowe’s exploration of his heritage and personal history, which spans at least three or four continents—he describes himself as “half-Japanese half-New Zealander,” and spent formative years in London and L.A. as well—and even more genres of music, and the result is a musical work that’s intimate and inviting at the same time. Heritage is a conversation where all parties leave feeling like they know the other—and themselves—a little better, a spirit which we hope to honor in the following interview. His most recent release is CHURCH Sessions, chronicling the unique sound of the formative night. It’s out now on World Galaxy / Alpha Pup. This interview by Christina Gubala.
It seems like you do a lot of really deep connecting with music, too. That’s one thing that I really admire about your catalog—there’s a lot of attention paid to the things that you love and the things that you admire. I want to kind of pick this apart a little bit. Say you have a blank slate, a blank calendar, and you can make any kind of music that you want to. How does that process start?
Mark de Clive-Lowe: That is my life. It’s a blank slate, it’s a blank canvas. I can do whatever I want, which is great. But if it’s a remix, I just start playing with the material. It’s like if you give a kid a box of Legos. I don’t mean one with a picture of a thing on the front and they go, ‘I’ve got to make that.’
Just the pieces.
Mark de Clive-Lowe: How I grew up with Legos. Pieces. And you’re just like, ‘Make something.’ And they enjoy that process, and they just create. That’s literally what I do with music. And when it’s a remix, there’s the source material … when I was younger, I used to really painstakingly labor over, ‘How am I going to approach this? What’s it gonna be? What’s the style gonna be? What’s … ‘ Everything. But now, it’s very much a free-flowing almost stream of consciousness thing. Whatever I feel, I can create. So I’ll just create. And then it’ll be what it is.
I’ve been listening to you with the two different halves of Heritage that you’ve recently released, and it seems like you’re trying to approach two different halves of your musical brain. The first one was a little bit more reserved and calm. I definitely felt some Steven Halpern vibes on there, which was really surprising! And then the second one leans more towards this frantic, energetic kind of beat-heavy scene. Do these two halves exist in your brain simultaneously? Or do you find yourself switching gears often?
Mark de Clive-Lowe: Those two halves exist simultaneously, for sure. I mean, through high school I wanted to be like a hip-hop and New Jack Swing producer. Teddy Riley changed my life. I had a moment when I was thirteen where I was like … It was the first Guy album. A friend played that to me at a school assembly in New Zealand, just walked up to me and put his earphones on my head, and it was Teddy’s jam. I was just like, ‘What the fuck is this?!’ And then suddenly all this music I was hearing was coming from the same person—or his friend or his protege or whatever it might be. So that influenced me hugely, and then the Native Tongues hip-hop scene was huge then. Between those two I thought that was me. But then I’d always played piano growing up, and …
You studied jazz piano as a young man—like from age four?
Mark de Clive-Lowe: I grew up playing classical, and then I got into jazz around this time in high school. But I definitely compartmentalized the R&B/New Jack Swing/hip-hop thing on one side, and then the piano on the other side. They were very separate. I got to a point where I just woke up one day and was like, ‘All these loops are bullshit!’ I sold all my vinyl, sold all my synthesizers and it was just me and the piano. And Miles Davis and Coltrane records. I was like … sixteen? Seventeen? I did a lot of extremes growing up. I wasn’t very good at moderating. And these are good examples of that. But the jazz thing became my entire focus. I wanted to grow up and live in New York and be playing with Art Blakey and Betty Carter and … you know, what Branford Marsalis was doing with his quartet was amazing to me. That was my aspiration. I actually had a moment in New Zealand. I was playing a concert, a jazz gig at the Auckland Town Hall … like it was a big deal, the show. I remember being on stage and playing the piano mid-show, just thinking, ‘Why am I so serious about the jazz shit when I actually have more fun doing kind of funk jam gigs?’ Which are very much jazz informed, but aesthetically different. We’d have like rappers and turntablists and all sorts of shit. I was like, ‘I could be more serious about that.’ This is like, mid-gig that I’m thinking … not sitting on the beach or lying in bed. That was a pivot moment for me as well. It was totally an epiphany.
Especially considering you’re in front of an audience while this is taking place. I wonder who would be able to detect something like that?
Mark de Clive-Lowe: No one. No one. None of the bandmates knew what was happening. I played the gig. But I definitely had a penny drop during the gig. And that led me into … that was the time just past the peak of acid jazz, when jungle and drum and bass were coming out of the U.K., and I got pretty much drawn to that whole U.K. sound.
Did you go from New Zealand to the UK?
Mark de Clive-Lowe: Almost. I went to Berkeley. Very briefly. And then I went back to New Zealand. I was gonna move to Sydney, and then I followed a girl to London, and then that became another ten years. Not with the girl, but with London. [laughs] The girl didn’t work out.
London is like Los Angeles in that it’s a magnet for so many different cultures.
Mark de Clive-Lowe: Oh my God, the fusion there is incredible. Culinary, cultural … whatever it might be. The whole West Indian Caribbean, and then the African community …
Absolutely! The reggae scene there …
Mark de Clive-Lowe: Yeah, it’s huge! The community I came up with in London was coming out of all of that, you know? It was the African diaspora in the U.K. coming through London in a very urban kind of culture. But through that experience, jazz started to come in again in a conceptual way. It was not for playing solos and improvising so much as the harmonic integrity of something and … and just trying to push the envelope. But it wasn’t until I came to L.A. like ten years ago and started to reconnect with the acoustic piano, which I hadn’t played in ten years, either.
You didn’t keep up any of your jazz piano studies when you leaned into drum and bass?
Hell no. Not at all. It was like drum and bass, house music and broken beat. That was it.
You broke away with your old self and chose a completely unfamiliar path.
Mark de Clive-Lowe: Totally. I mean, I’ve released acoustic jazz records in New Zealand when I was really young, and I was perceived as an acoustic jazz artist. And then when I connected with London, and I spent time in Cuba—
When were you in Cuba?
Mark de Clive-Lowe: ‘98. Three months in ‘98. On my way to London, actually.
As I was kind of perusing Spotify’s highest played track, I noticed, like, a bit of a salsa rhythm.
Mark de Clive-Lowe: Oh, I love that music. I mean … Latin music has always been huge for me. It just makes sense to me.
You’re very rhythm-driven, but one thing that struck me as I was reading about Heritage II is the way that ‘The Silk Road’ came together, and how you found reflections of Japanese pentatonic scales in Ethiopian music.
Mark de Clive-Lowe: Yeah, and someone actually misquoted me on that—saying something like, you know, ‘similar’ or ‘approximately.’ I was like, ‘No, they’re exactly the same!’ Like, I mean what I say! [laughs]
How did you become involved with Ethio Cali? Were you involved with the scene of the Blue Whale before you played with them?
Mark de Clive-Lowe: When I moved here and I started a club night, my party called CHURCH—
—I have lots of questions about that, by the way, so let’s come back to that.
Mark de Clive-Lowe: So once CHURCH was underway, it was kind of a closed-slash-open jam at points. Like, people could jump up, but not just anybody.
I guess I’ll get into my question about CHURCH now cuz it seems to fit. What was an average night like there? Did people come out to party? What was the crowd like?
Mark de Clive-Lowe: It was everything. Like, the whole point of CHURCH, was I wanted to share my journey as a musician. So when the party started, the first set was like a jazz club—acoustic jazz. I’m flipping Duke Ellington and Monk and Ornette Coleman joints. And then the second set would switch into a live remix, like … dance fight. So we’d get the dancers coming down, and they’d come early. And they’d be checking out all this jazz shit. And then the jazz kids would come down early and stay and see it morph into this dance floor with poppers and whackers and to me it’s all one story. So it was important to be able to share that.
I think it’s also very special that you were able to separate out the two instead of putting pressure on the jazz people to create an energy that was going to come later.
Mark de Clive-Lowe: For sure. It’s like a story, it’s like a DJ. Especially a warm-up DJ. If you walk into a room, it’s the start of the night and it’s empty and the DJ’s pounding house music, it’s like, ‘Well, this is not the story.’ And even in the Golden Age, as house music was evolving, you go to the The Loft with Mancuso and stuff, and the first three or four hours there wouldn’t even be a kickdrum! And so when it comes, people lose their shit!
And also people have eased into it. They trust you emotionally enough to let themselves dance.
Mark de Clive-Lowe: Exactly. It’s a story, and you’re sharing that story.
You’re not just mapping an aesthetic onto a place regardless of what’s taking place inside of it.
Mark de Clive-Lowe: Totally. Yeah. I really appreciate that. It was important for me to do that clearly—to map it clearly—and I think that the jazz being fused with different things is very much a thing now. I’ve been doing this since 1998 or something. I suppose it’s part of my DNA. So it’ll be easy for me to kind of ignore the public perception of the complexity of it and just go full-on, but I wanted to be very literal about the story. And then as the club night—as the party—evolved over time, it kind of morphed more into one thing. But the Blue Whale … OK, so we’re doing CHURCH when it started at Angel’s in Santa Monica, this little speakeasy. And Dexter Story would come down and Dex and I … I think we had just met. I was living in Venice and he was living in Venice, too. And he’d been to like Triple Down. So one night we’re playing, just getting the vibe, and suddenly Dwight [Trible] comes over, grabs the mic and starts singing. Uninvited, which was fine, you know? He sounded amazing. It was a really special moment. So I went up to him afterwards, and I was like, ‘Man, thank you for jumping up—that was really incredible.’ And he was like, ‘Well, you know, I just couldn’t help myself.’ That was a huge compliment in itself. The vibe is so killing I had to contribute. So then Dwight asked me to play in his band, which was the Cosmic Band, and it was an iteration of his music, which has a … like a child of that is the band which we did his new record with Mothership which just came out. But that started with the Cosmic Band, so Miguel Atwood-Ferguson was in there, Trevor Ware, Dexter Story, myself and Dwight. And the first gig was at the Blue Whale. So it was my first time playing there. This was like … I moved to London in late 2008, so I would hazard a guess at early 2010, maybe? I hadn’t played a jazz gig like that. I mean, I’d done it in the context of CHURCH, but not in someone else’s music. And it was so liberating and freeing. Dwight’s been a huge facilitator in me reconnecting with the piano how I have because he’s so dynamic. He loves sensitivity and he loves aggression, all these things in the music, and so I was able to do the whole breadth of that. So we did the Blue Whale, and that was amazing, and I did a lot of stuff with that band. But one of the Blue Whale gigs, Todd Simon came out. And he had his mind just completely fucking blown. And then he was just about to start Ethio Cali, and he asked me to play that first gig, which we did at UCLA. Kamasi was on that, and Kelela was on that as well. It was outside somewhere. I couldn’t even tell you where, exactly.
Probably in Bruin Plaza.
Mark de Clive-Lowe: Couldn’t even tell you. There was very little prep for that gig. It was just like, ‘Here’s the music, let’s go and play it.’ So it was cool. But then Ethio Cali became a thing from that gig. I was basically the main dude on piano for a few years.
I think I maybe saw you play with them then.
Mark de Clive-Lowe: Quite probably. I mean, Kibrom took over, so, if it wasn’t Kibrom, it was me, basically. But the fascinating thing was when I found out about the similarity between—not similarity, this identicality between tizita [Ethiopian pentatonic scales] and Japanese pentatonic scales. And these are not, like … they both use Western pentatonic scales, but they’re altered pentatonic scales and it’s the way that the alterations are identical which is how they’re the same. So it’s very specific. When I found that out and I was telling Dex about it, he was like, ‘Man, that’s why you always sounded so good on Ethio Cali.’ An ‘it’s in your blood!’ kind of thing. It was amazing just realizing how the building blocks are the same, but in Ethiopia, the way the melodies phrase and ride the rhythm is different to how they would in Japan. And then there’s more of a fundamental underpinning rhythm groove in Ethiopia than there might be in Japan, which might be more subtle. So there’s differences in style or aesthetic, but yeah—the DNA is the same.
You have a really unique perspective as a pianist. A lot of times it’s really easy to point out how rhythms travel, but it’s more difficult to point out exactly where and when these scales shift. Another thing that’s in my mind as I’ve been considering interviews you’ve given about Heritage is how we can be connected to something we consider our heritage and completely leave any thought of government out of it.
Mark de Clive-Lowe: Oh yeah. It’s imperative.
There’s something that remains that’s deeper than that.
Mark de Clive-Lowe: All those governments are constructs. I mean, the heritage is other people. And so if we had a truly utopian political system, maybe that would be expressed through a cultural heritage conversation. But it’s never happened, and probably never will happen, so I think it’s … you know, I grew up primarily in New Zealand and secondarily in Japan, and I relate to New Zealand. It’s almost hard to articulate. But I relate to New Zealand in my body, in my physicality. Like, when I’m in New Zealand I feel a physical connection to the land. Japan is like a spiritual connection. Japan’s a much deeper, kind of more esoteric connection.
How old were you when you were living in New Zealand, and how old were you when you were in Japan?
Mark de Clive-Lowe: I was in Japan like every summer from age 10, but I really got entrenched finishing high school there.
Did your family move together back to Japan?
Mark de Clive-Lowe: No. No, no. Just me. [laughs] We’ve always been a family that kind of comes and goes, so … [laughs]
You mentioned the spirituality of that. I think once you are broken free from the incubator and you’re off alone, that’s where you can go find your spirit. And that was before you decided you were moving away from jazz and into drum and bass, too.
Mark de Clive-Lowe: Yeah, no—I don’t think I had a consciously spiritual connection with Japan at high school there. I had more of a teenage connection with Japan. [laughs] Now, I spent most of my time in jazz clubs all over Tokyo or in Yokohama, so that definitely changed my life. There were sixty-eight jazz clubs in Tokyo at that time. Now there’s like, maybe ten. It was probably 90% local musicians. They’d do the circuit and play the same club every two months, but they’d be playing every night. I saw so much music, and I was supposed to go back to New Zealand and start law school, and on the first day of law school I remember I was living back in my parents’ place, and my dad was knocking on the bedroom door and was like, ‘Mark, get up! University starts today!’ I was like, ‘No, I’m not going. I’m cool. I’m gonna do music.’ Yeah, Japan—you sent me to Japan, look what happened! [laughs]
And now you’re reconnecting with your Japanese roots.
Mark de Clive-Lowe: When I started touring in Japan … I started touring a jazz trio there in 1996. And my mom would tell me, ‘If you’re going to be touring in Japan, you’ve gotta do some Japanese songs.’ I was like, ‘I don’t want to do Japanese songs … ‘I was definitely very headstrong about this.
Who was in this trio with you?
Mark de Clive-Lowe: A couple of Japanese musicians. Tomokazu Sugimoto, who’s a great bass player, and Nobuaki Fuji, who’s a great drummer. And Nobu is actually on a bit of the Ronin Arkestra project, which we just released. We’ve known each other for a long time now. I remember I reluctantly went through some Japanese folk songs, and I knew from a jazz perspective how to arrange them and make them sound hip. I was like, ‘Let me just do that.’ I wasn’t actually connecting with the material.
You were using source material to create something—
Mark de Clive-Lowe: —on my terms. So I did that, and people were very receptive, and it was great. But it wasn’t until much more recently that I’ve gone back to that material and really understood the essence of it, and the energy and the frequency in the melody. And so on Heritage I and II there’s one traditional folk song on each record, and in both cases, they’re very different interpretations—one’s solo piano, one’s more of a head nod hip-hop thing—but in both cases, it’s all about the melody. I mean, it’s in total reverence to the frequency that is intrinsically embodied in that music.
Each track that you included on both of these two records … it has a little story behind it.
Mark de Clive-Lowe: Oh, everything’s got a story.
Do you start with the story and build around it? Or do you start with a melody and let it speak?