MARK DE CLIVE-LOWE: EVERYTHING IS A STORY
photography by gari askew
Mark de Clive-Lowe: I’ve never done anything remotely this personal. Ever. I made instrumental records when I was really young in New Zealand, and occasionally there was inspiration for a composition, but generally I’d just take something that was happening in my life and add that as a name kind of thing to something I was working on in music. Then I started working with a lot of vocalists when I was in the U.K., and it became more about I guess a genre/aesthetic style of writing, which, lyrically I’d largely defer to the guest vocalists. As long as we were on the same page I’d be cool with that. That was more about me putting on my producer hat and making producer records. This was a whole different thing. It’s special instrumental music. I think that the audience really appreciates the narrative information and the connection. It’s almost like if you’re in an art gallery looking at some really abstract shit, and yes, you can totally make up your own stories, but if the artist shares his story, that deepens your appreciation for the message.
And that’s what changes it from an aesthetic to a work of art—when you’re allowed access to the narrative that it’s trying to express.
Mark de Clive-Lowe: Yes. And so in writing the music for Heritage, it was actually … it was really, really easy for me. It was a matter of sitting down at the piano and reaching into a feeling, and making and playing some music. And if the music … I was going to say ‘if’, but that wasn’t the case. Every single time the music resonated with the feeling I was leaning into, and it matched. It was very definitive. ‘Well, this is what this piece is. This is it.’ And then with most of them, having written the basic skeleton, the sketch of the composition, then I’d sit with it like, ‘Well … ‘ I’d identify the feeling and what the relationship is in my memories and experiences, and thereby find the thematic association which would tie into the whole narrative. It’s like, you know, with any mythology, folk tales, or more esoteric kind of Shintoism ideas or anything like that—there’s a universality to all of it.
There’s a human experience there behind it.
Mark de Clive-Lowe: Exactly. Like, ‘Ryūgū-jō’, which means ‘the dragon palace’, on Heritage II, that was inspired by … that was actually in reverse, that one. I’ve always loved the folk story of Urashima Tarō. Urashima Tarō, he goes to the beach and there are these kids, and they’re beating on this turtle. And so he chases the kids away, and he saves this turtle. The turtle’s like, ‘Cool, I’m gonna reward you. I’m gonna take you somewhere. Jump on my back.’ He jumps on his back, and the turtle goes into the sea, and in Shintoist Japan, the god of the sea is a dragon, and the dragon lives in the dragon palace under the ocean. So the turtle takes Urashima Tarō to the dragon palace. And the dragon palace is by all accounts totally baller. Urashima Tarō gets there and is living his best life. He’s just partying for three days, everything he could ever want, it’s this amazing, mystical place, and what he doesn’t know is that each night in the dragon palace is a hundred years on earth.
So it’s the club. [laughs]
Mark de Clive-Lowe: But after three nights he goes back home, and three hundred years have passed. So all his family, all his friends … everyone’s died, and he’s there by himself. And that’s the end of the story! [laughs] But that’s a story I’ve always loved. The image of the dragon palace—I was like, ‘Wow! What is that?’ With that piece, I remember writing the bassline that underpins the whole composition, writing that first, and it was evocative of that pride to me. ‘Okay, this is Ryūgū-jō. This is the dragon palace.’ Things very much fell together.
If it was so natural, it sounds like it was also simultaneously pretty cathartic.
Mark de Clive-Lowe: Definitely cathartic. You know, I was being raised primarily in New Zealand. New Zealand now, especially Auckland—the city I grew up in—it’s a real mixed melting pot, and a pretty harmoniously progressive melting pot. Relative to some other countries in the world, like—
—who shall remain nameless because they speak their own name.
Mark de Clive-Lowe: Yes. There we go. But when I was growing up there … I became a teenager in like 87, so it was a different New Zealand. To be a half-Japanese kid growing up in New Zealand then, I was ‘other.’ There were no others. None. I never looked fully Asian, so people would relate to me more through my European side. And New Zealand itself didn’t really have a cultural identity. It had the Maori cultural identity, but the European post-colonist identity was very vague, and it wasn’t interfaced with the Maori culture. Now it is. Now it’s a whole different thing. So I was raised in a pretty much Japanese house in New Zealand. Culinarily, culturally, linguistically, etiquette, customs—it was a Japanese house. So I had that, but growing up with that, I didn’t have an appreciation for it because it was just how things were. It was normal, right? So I think at this point in life, having gone through massive experiences and changes and relationships and living in different countries, having a child— all sorts of stuff, and traveling so much around the world—it’s great to finally arrive at these conclusions, I guess. Or these realizations of the depth of cultural connection, and how much that’s an important part of my identity and my story. And in my question of art, like … what does my art mean? And, really, I don’t care what it means to someone else. What does it mean to me? It’s easy to write, especially in a jazz context or any beats or whatever. It’s easy to write, to create some music and just call it whatever, you know? Call it ‘Jack Herrer’ or whatever you want to call it. A smoking man, so you know…
I was thinking ‘Watermelon Man,’ but same page.
Mark de Clive-Lowe: But Watermelon Man has a cultural thing—huge cultural story.
I know. I remember Herbie’s explanation. But still—it’s one of those things where if you were just your average listener scrolling through the top of the Spotify playlist for Herbie Hancock, you’d have no idea, you know?
Mark de Clive-Lowe: Yeah, exactly. ‘What is that?’ It’s meant a lot to arrive to that point, and feel that cultural connectivity. And that’s the catharsis you were asking about. This project’s made me understand that to understand one’s place in the world, you need to understand where you’re from. I do think that speaks to larger societal issues in the world right now around xenophobia, racism…all that.
And people’s false sense of us vs. them mentality. This binary that’s being created is forcing people to cling to their identities in a competitive nature.
Mark de Clive-Lowe: But that’s not real. That’s not culture. That’s just ego.
It’s manufactured reflex. And as frustrating as it is, we’re also forced to examine the fact that if someone has decided that this is what makes them them … that if you approach that in any kind of threatening manner, you’re going to get this claws-out response.
Mark de Clive-Lowe: Yeah because fear … it’s game over. For me, when I say ‘understanding where we come from,’ it’s appreciating the beauty of my own cultural connections. And if anyone does that with their own cultural heritage, then they can’t—in my mind—do anything but appreciate someone else’s unique cultural heritage. It’s not from some kind of nationalistic superiority perspective at all.
Things that give context to the finished product. The story, you know? I have a certain tendency to doodle in a very specific way. Whenever I need to draw, or whenever I need to calm myself down, I’ll draw very specifically. One day I was looking up, like, things from Poland. My dad is from Poland; he grew up in Poland. And I looked up Polish ceramics, and all of the designs on the pots were just like my doodles.
Mark de Clive-Lowe: Wow! There you go! It’s in the blood!
Yeah, it kind of threw me off for quite some time. I mean … I saw you mentioned in your previous interview with JAZZIZ, that a lot of times in Western America, we kind of divorce ourselves from the roots, almost intentionally so. That’s something I’ve really experienced with my family where it’s like, ‘We’re American and that’s all you need to know about it.’ But the deeper you go, like … I don’t know, I was able to wholly appreciate so much more that was coming out of my own hand in that moment, you know?
Mark de Clive-Lowe: Yeah! I mean, it’s just kind of belittling your heritage to ‘We’re American.’ I mean, America wasn’t created in a very nice way, but you wanna lay claim to that shit? Like … [laughs]
And that’s the thing! It’s such a propagandized notion that we’re only just starting to sincerely confront it. Or I mean, ‘only just now,’ … I’m speaking for myself, but I feel like there is a reckoning taking place right now.
Mark de Clive-Lowe: Oh, no question! That’s why we have such a dynamic time right now.
Yeah, certainly. I’d wanted to start this interview asking you about the last track on your most recent Heritage record, which, as I understand, you named it for a gig you did.
Mark de Clive-Lowe: ‘The History of the Future.’ Yeah.
‘The History of the Future.’ What do you want to survive from your output in this crazy era for future listeners?
Mark de Clive-Lowe: Whenever I perform the music, whenever I play this music, perform it live—the Heritage project—there’s a feeling I get from it that’s unlike anything else I’ve done. I think it’s very much that the music is encoded with a lot of frequency that I’m a conduit for. It’s not necessarily … it’s not of my making. And when people talk to me after the gigs, that validates that connection. They tell me things, they share their experience of being in the audience in a way which I’m like, ‘OK, this is totally connecting.’ That’s all I can ask for. In decades and centuries to come, if someone listens to the records and they’re open to those frequencies, then I think they’re still going to be there.
The reach of resonance.
Mark de Clive-Lowe: Yeah! It’s a completely different kind of thing, but Coltrane’s ‘Alabama.’ He composed that in loving tribute to a really tragic happening, and that emotional investment is encoded in the music. It’s still there now, and we’re now fifty years later.
Certainly. So what comes next now that you’ve tapped into this deeper level of musical creation?
Mark de Clive-Lowe: Right? What comes next?
Not even to put pressure on you, but now that you’ve moved through a very cathartic project, what feels enticing?
Mark de Clive-Lowe: I’m really curious to explore the Japanese piece more. There’s a lot of depth to explore in it. A lot of the material, when I wrote and performed it for the Mirai no Rekishi concert, I had some guests playing traditional instruments like koto and taiko drums and shinobue flutes, and that was a whole sound unto itself. I consciously decided not to do that for these records—I wanted to use my regular band and explore the music that way. But that’s something I want to do more—explore with traditional instruments. And I have one show next month, actually, in Japan where I’m doing Heritage, just duo—me and a shakuhachi flute player. In a really old, beautiful town called Noto in Japan. And I can’t wait for that, because the essence of the sound is in the shakuhachi, and then without the band it’s way stripped down, and I’ll have electronics too.
You definitely inhabit a lot of roles while you’re on stage.
Mark de Clive-Lowe: It’s just my playground, you know? If I wanna get into some thumping beats, I can. If I wanna get into some really emotionally driven piano, I can. It’s great to be liberated in that way and not feel constrained to one aspect. I hear the music that way. It’s like this kind of marriage of acoustic and electronic, and man and machine, and it just … it makes sense to me.
I think it makes sense within the context of our zeitgeist as well, because it’s becoming more and more difficult to divorce yourself from like … your machine.
Mark de Clive-Lowe: Totally. The technology is ever-present.
I remember reading about Herbie Hancock talking about this, and I remember you mentioned he’s one of those artists you’d like to collaborate with, and I’d love to see that, too! But he would, you know … let himself sing through the vocoder because it just seemed like the kind of voice that would exist in our time.
Mark de Clive-Lowe: Right?! I mean, he was that dude, too, where any new technology came out, he was the first to get it. He had an engineering degree before he was playing with Miles. He was always ahead of the curve.
I was actually thinking about his story, kind of pulling away and leaning into his jazz experience, because you left school and stopped playing jazz music to go through the club scene in London. Interesting that you finally returned.
I love club music and I have a lot of fun with it, but it doesn’t have the full breadth of expression that I need to express. It’s functional. It’s very functional in certain environments, but then at the same time, I’ve done gigs where I’m just playing acoustic piano, and someone will be like, ‘Man, I can hear the club music in your piano!’ It’s like, ‘Okay.’ But I definitely think they both inform each other. Like if I’m playing a jazz gig I’m still informed by the ideas of samples and loops and stuff.
You’ve been in L.A. now for ten years? Do you feel like it’s home?
Mark de Clive-Lowe: Yeah, I think so. Different places feel like home in different ways. New Zealand, I don’t think I’ll ever live there again, but it’s definitely the homeland. Japan, I’m definitely always wanting to spend more time there, and that definitely feels like a homeland. London, I had ten years there, and that’s a city I fell out of love with, and now I’m learning to love it again. [laughs] And then L.A.’s interesting because it’s the same amount of time I spent in London so far, but the feeling is completely different. The London ten years feels like a whole lifetime, and the L.A. ten years feels like five years maybe now? Which I think is the weather, partly. Also where I’m at in my life. I’m more content. I’m don’t have much angst about what I’m trying to achieve, I guess. I’m more self-confident in what I want to do, and that may help with my perception of time. Oh, and then also living in different parts of L.A., you know, having just moved to the East Side after being on the West Side for a while, being in the Valley for a long time … and those are different experiences, you know? I might as well have just moved to a new city.
What makes Los Angeles unique for musicians collaborating in the context of jazz music?
Mark de Clive-Lowe: There’s a really … what’s the word … fruitful community here which crosses conventional genre boundaries in a way … not identical, but in a similar way to what happened in London, with different fusions of music creating new music. I recognize that in L.A., to the point where, you know, the the Low End Theory crew would come out to the Blue Whale, and then the jazz heads would go to Low End Theory, and Fly Lo would be doing his thing incorporating all the worlds—those kinds of things, not in those exact combinations, but that was what was happening in London when I was there. It was a really golden time. So to see that happening in L.A. at the same time was amazing. And then the elders are here. You know, I play in Harvey Mason’s band, and getting to play with Harvey is like … he’s played with everyone! Herbie, James Brown … like, everyone. All the CTI Records, the Mizell Brothers … he’s a legend. So to have that connection is amazing. And then at one of my first gigs playing in Harvey’s band, the band was Darryl Jones—who’s now the bass player in the Rolling Stones, who was with Miles for a long time—Bill Summers, who was Herbie Hancock’s percussionist, Patrice Rushen, Kamasi before he did The Epic, Harvey and me, and that was the band. And I’m sitting on stage, like me and Kamasi were kind of ‘the kids,’ just going like, ‘Oh my God!’ And that happens in L.A. because everyone’s here, you know?
I randomly stumbled across a Benny Maupin performance with James Ford at Cal State LA!
Mark de Clive-Lowe: Exactly! And then on the flipside, you know, it’s like, Stones Throw’s legacy, Madlib, Dilla’s legacy from here … you know, there’s so much. When I was living in London we’d get early L.A. beat scene SA-RA demos, and it was like, ‘What the fuck is this?’ It just blew our minds, and it was, ‘Oh, that’s some L.A. shit, OK! What else is there? Oh, here are some J*Davey demos! Who are they? Hey, all of this sounds amazing!’ It’s so multifaceted, the scene here. When I was moving here, so many people said, ‘Why are you going to L.A.? L.A.’s going to change you!’ and there is that perception of what we know as West Hollywood as being all of L.A., you know?
That’s the exported image, too. Yes, these things can be true, but it doesn’t apply to every single person here.
Mark de Clive-Lowe: That’s true of every major metropolitan city. Every major metropolitan city has that element. And so I enjoy sharing my L.A. with different people, like, ‘No, it’s not like that, actually.’ But there’s so much talent, and people are open. The musicians are really capable, and that’s a huge thing. Like, guys who are killing and open-minded?
You can’t get away with faking it here.
Mark de Clive-Lowe: … well, not in the music scene we’re talking about. [laughs]
Specifically if you’re playing at the Blue Whale, you’re not getting away with faking it. [laughs]
Mark de Clive-Lowe: You’re really not. But that room is one of my favorite venues in the world, and I get to play all over the planet. But that is a very special room. And the World Stage. I mean, the World Stage and what it represents historically … that’s right up there with the Church of John Coltrane in San Francisco. The World Stage has that history. It’s amazing. I feel very grateful to be here interacting with my peers, interacting with the elders, and interacting with the younger cats, kind of mentoring, too.
Who do you recommend that’s coming up right now?
Mark de Clive-Lowe: I love the Katalyst group. Katalyst with a ‘K’.
Oh, are they doing Jazz Is Dead? Or did they just do it?
Mark de Clive-Lowe: They may be supporting on one of them, opening or something. I don’t think they’re headlining one. But they have a residency every Saturday at the Del Monte Speakeasy in Venice. They’re a young crew of musicians, pretty much all of them live in Inglewood, they’re all like in their early twenties, and they’re killing it. So I love what they’re doing. The whole Moonchild crew … I mean … pssht. That blows my mind—when the music’s already killing, and then each person’s pulling out a different instrument and just playing. It’s like, ‘What are you doing?!’ [laughs] I mean, I love that.
Are you familiar with Black Nile?
Mark de Clive-Lowe: Yeah! Black Nile I think of as being in the more extended family of the Katalysts. Yeah, and then Lawrence and I have played together a couple of times. I had them play at one of my shows, and he sounds great. I mean, there’s so much talent here, and I know I have a lot to offer in a mentoring capacity, having lived multiple lives on multiple continents. [laughs]
And you’ve seen the music industry through so many very intense shifts! You started making music in 1995. You got to see the entire wave crash.
Mark de Clive-Lowe: Yeah, I mean, my major label debut was in 2000.
That was the exact moment where the ground came out from under it. I worked at Universal in 2007-10, and it was just …
Mark de Clive-Lowe: It was already fucked by then. [laughs]
Floundering, trying to figure out what comes next.
Mark de Clive-Lowe: We had one distribution company in West London called Goya Distribution who distributed all of the underground shit I was working on in my community, and they didn’t survive the transition to digital. At all. Because vinyl died at that point. The whole vinyl thing now is new.
It was weird watching it happen in real time, too. I remember asking some of the executives at Universal and getting laughed at about it, and then, you know, three years later after having quit and seeing every single Nirvana record reissued … in like the most wasteful packaging possible?
Mark de Clive-Lowe: Of course! So that was a trip seeing those transitions, and even when I had a major label thing with Universal, even with that, throughout the entire time I’ve very much been an independent artist. And I’ve been self-managed apart from maybe three years out of twenty or thirty? Oh my God, I’d better get that right. I understand I have a perspective on the business of being an independent artist, which is informed by a lot of experience in a lot of different parts of the world. So for me, it’s really important to be able to share that when people want to be open to that.
Especially given the fact that if you do know the ropes, there’s so much uncharted territory when you’re starting out as an independent artist. Any direction could be the wrong one or the right one, you know? You just have no idea what the outcome is going to be.
Mark de Clive-Lowe: What I love now is that there’s no one set of rules. What might work for you may not work for me, and what might work for me may not work for you at all. And so there’s a lot more room for trial and error now, but I love that technology facilitates that anyone can get their music out. That’s a really interesting evolution.
How do you feel the experience of fatherhood has influenced your musical output?
Mark de Clive-Lowe: Well, there’s the pragmatic side of like, ‘I need to make some money so I gotta get working.’
And that’s not something that’s frequently acknowledged, either.
Mark de Clive-Lowe: Sure. When I had my son I was 28, and I hit the road hard. I was like, ‘I need to be touring.’ That had its own impact on the family situation, but it was what I felt like I needed to do. I put out a record actually just after he was born called Tides Are Rising, and the opening track to that is called ‘Masina’s World’—my son is called Masina, and the end of it, like, you can hear his heartbeat in the womb, like probably about ten hours before he was born.
Talk about a time capsule!
Mark de Clive-Lowe: Right?! So that felt really special, to be able to capture that and put it in a musical context that made sense to me. But beyond that—at this point he’s a teenager, and this is what dad does.
Because this is his heritage, too, and as you tap into it, now he has this like, compounded experience. He’s slightly further removed, but he’s now got an intense connection that you’ve provided for him, too.
Mark de Clive-Lowe: Totally. And he’s creating his own story. He’s a quarter Samoan, a quarter Japanese, half New Zealand, born in London, raised in California … it’s like, his story is crazy! So I can only imagine how he’s gonna continue to explore the journey of life.
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