Mark de Clive-Lowe - Heritage and History
Mark de Clive-Lowe is an innovative musician and producer who has worked with some of the greats in jazz, R&B/Soul, Dance and Electronic music. His fans include Questlove and Gilles Peterson, and he’s a pioneer of the UK Broken Beat sound, which brought together elements of jazz, soul, funk, house, drum and bass, and techno.
Mark’s story weaves together cultural heritage and identity with adventures in new music technology. He discusses his search for belonging growing up half-Japanese in New Zealand - and how being a musician has helped him find community and belonging - even as he moves between diverse communities and genres.
Photo: Renae Wootson
Dubber Hi, I’m Andrew Dubber. I’m the director of Music Tech Fest, and this is the MTF Podcast. Now, all of these podcast interviews are an absolute privilege. I get to talk to some phenomenal human beings and brilliant minds, and I pretty much can’t think of anything better. But some have extra resonance, and they’re conversations I’m so grateful I get to have, and this is definitely one of those.
I’ve known keyboard player, programmer, producer, and jazz pianist Mark de Clive-Lowe for a while now. I recorded his first quartet album in 1996. We ran an independent jazz label together in Auckland back in the late ‘90s. We co-produced a handful of records, a couple of complications. We drank a medically inadvisable number of espressos and flat white coffees all over Auckland’s burgeoning café scene, stayed up way past anyone’s reasonable bedtime in bars and clubs, listened to countless records, recorded literally hundreds of performances by New Zealand jazz artists for a syndicated radio series called Kiwi Jazz Tracks. We shared an inner-city loft apartment where our kitchen doubled as a rehearsal space and the living room was a free hostel for touring jazz musicians, complete with old school football table. And I think it’s entirely possible we had the first online record label in the Southern Hemisphere, though, of course, that mostly involved putting CDs in envelopes and posting them to people. And, well, that was all several lifetimes ago, but, of course, a huge part of who I am now.
Since then Mark went on to become an absolute pioneer of the UK broken beat scene, which brought jazz progressions and heavily syncopated beats to the dance floor, as well as to my record collection and early 2000s radio show. And now, based in L.A., he’s incredibly prolific, musically diverse, and, until very recently, constantly mobile, whether showcasing new tech for the likes of Native Instruments in Germany, packing out sweaty 3 a.m. dance clubs in Istanbul with live electronic dance music, performing acoustic jazz sets in Japan, or MDing his regular L.A. CHURCH sessions with an astonishing range of world-class musicians and DJs. Mark’s pretty much what happens when you mix phenomenal musicianship with technological virtuosity and then put that all to work in the service of making things better for humanity. From his L.A. studio, my brother, Mark de Clive-Lowe. Enjoy.
Dubber Mark de Clive-Lowe, thanks for joining us for the MTF Podcast today.
Mark Thank you for having me, man.
Dubber You’re very welcome. We have, probably, it’s fair to say, a little bit of history.
Mark We have a few years of history, yes.
Dubber Do you want to talk a little bit about what that connection is before we go into what you’ve gone on to do and achieve since then?
Mark For sure. I grew up in Auckland in New Zealand, and in my early 20s all I wanted to do was be an acoustic straight-ahead jazz piano player. The fantasy was to go and live in New York, or that kind of thing. And so I was playing in Auckland around then with the drummer Tony Hopkins, great jazz drummer, and you and he were doing a radio show together, right?
Dubber Yeah, that’s right.
Mark What was that called?
Dubber Off the Record, the Kiwi Jazz Show.
Mark Off the Record, yeah. So we met through that, right? Tony bringing me into that. And it was really interesting because I was at a point where, as an aspiring jazz musician with a band, I wanted to record, and I wanted to do that kind of thing, and not knowing much about it. And so we connected through that, right?
Dubber Yeah, you’d just come back from Berklee, right?
Mark Yeah, I did one year there. One semester in class and one semester dropped out but on campus. And that was cool, but then I came back to New Zealand. I actually wanted to move to Sydney within three months, that’s what I was saying, and it was, I think, three years until I left, and that was to the rest of the world and not Sydney. But that was definitely where my headspace was. It was all about the jazz thing, and pretty conservative as well. Coming up very much pulling from the ‘60s Miles thing, and I loved what Wynton Marsalis was doing with his neoclassical renaissance around that time.
But it was funny because I grew up on hip-hop and new jack swing, and there was a time in high school when I had a drum machine, and a keyboard, and a sequencer. And I didn’t know what I was doing, but I was just making stuff, and dabbling in a bit of production, collaborating with vocalists and rappers and DJs in Auckland. But I made a full 180 from that. One day I woke up and I was just like “Oh, man, all these loops and stuff, it’s just bullshit. I’m going to sell my equipment, I’m going to sell my vinyl. It’s just going to be the piano, me, some Miles records, and some Coltrane records.”. And that was it, and I was just blindly trying to decipher how to interface with this whole other form, this music.
Dubber Just out of curiosity, where did the jazz thing come from for you? Because it’s not clear or obvious where that might have originated from.
Mark Right. So my dad, he was 20 during the ‘50s, and he really loved jazz, specifically big band music, and Count Basie, Duke Ellington. His tastes were fairly conservative, but there was definitely… He loved it as a sound, and so I heard it from his records. And then my oldest brother, Ian, he’s a really talented musician. I thought he was the most talented of the family. He played piano. And he’s eight years older than me, so I had this attraction to “I want to do what he’s doing.”. He got into playing with, actually, Grant Chilcott, Wentworth-Brewster, back in the day.
Dubber Yeah, yeah. Lounge stuff.
Mark Yeah, loungey, Cole Porter, Gershwin-ey. And then Ian took me one night to… You might remember what it’s called, there was a jazz club in the Sheraton hotel.
Dubber Oh, wow.
Mark Which I don’t remember what it was called.
Dubber No, me neither.
Mark But Ian was like “I’m going to go and see this guy James Morrison, and I’m going to take you.”, and I remember two things happened that night. One was the first time hearing a jazz quartet that played with full energy in really close proximity. And then secondly was I met a girl there who was… I think she was a year or two older than me, but our brothers knew each other, and she was just such a head for the music. And so we were just bugging on the music together, which was… I hadn’t had that experience before. I’d be listening to Miles records or something, but there was no… That was my first time experiencing that shared sense of community through the consumption of some live, improvised music.
Dubber Right, being in the room with it.
Mark Being right there, yeah, and I think that left a big impression on me. Through my high school years I needed to rebel against what I was raised on. I played the piano because my dad forced me to, I had no choice. He liked jazz, but he didn’t like Public Enemy, and he didn’t like X Clan. Even if I’m playing some new jack swing, some Guy, that would be too much for him. So that became my getaway. And I think, also, in hindsight, it was tied to growing up biracially in a country which had no concept of how to support that. And so I think there was a sense of cultural otherness that, for me, was helped by getting into a music that was a minority music.
Dubber Right. Talk a little bit about that, because your mum’s Japanese, right?
Mark Yeah, and my dad’s European New Zealander. I was born in ’74, so growing through the ‘80s in New Zealand… There was already this really culturally binary Pākehā Māori thing which, as you know, had a lot of unresolved issues, and then my dad moves back from Japan in 1973 with his Japanese wife and a couple of kids, me on the way. He was a very successful self-made man at that point, so he landed and bought a beautiful house. I think it was a bit of a statement. It’s like “I’m here.”. So I grew up in this way where home was Japan. He’d lived in Japan for 20 years and pretty much turned Japanese, so home was Japan. And then the outside world, especially the schools I went to, they were pretty much European New Zealander majorities. And there’d be one kid from Sri Lanka, one kid from China, that’s it. And it was interesting because those kids had 100% of a cultural identity to anchor them.
Dubber This idea of being from somewhere.
Mark Totally, and that’s, for them, at least it’s… Even if there weren’t other Sri Lankan kids at school, that would have been reflected in their home by everyone, and then, I imagine, in their community. Especially at that point in time, if there’s some Sri Lankans in Auckland they’re going be living in a community. They’re going to help each other out. Being biracial was a whole different thing. And I never looked fully Japanese, but there was an age when kids start to clock “Oh, his dad drives a BMW, but his mum drives a beat-up old Toyota.”. They start to clock stuff, and so they clocked that my mum was Japanese, and there was definitely… I had to deal with racist bullying and stuff, and that was weird because it’s like “Well, but I’m not Japanese, but my mum’s Japanese, but I’m part…”. As a kid, it’s like… And then there was no parental infrastructure to help support the idea of cultural identity. They’re from a generation which didn’t even talk about… Anything, in the family. No ”How are you feeling?” at all. So, yeah, it was really interesting. Never feeling really in place.
And then in 1990, Andy Vann, DJ from Auckland, and this guy Chris Bateup formed this collective called the Voodoo Rhyme Syndicate, and that was a collective of mostly South Auckland Pacific Island kids who were making R&B, hip-hop, and new jack swing, and stuff like that. And so I met one crew of them, this band, Semi MCs, and they invited me in, and I go and hang at their house. They’re all Samoan kids. And Ned Roy, he was DJing. They were all making beats, listening to records, talking about music, making music, dancing, singing. I’d never seen anything like this. And it was, compared to the social culture I’d been raised in, especially through my parents, this was so, so loose, and warm, and welcoming, and non-judgemental. It was really interesting. So that led me into a couple of years of just being deep in that community and collaborating a lot, trying to produce records when I didn’t know what I was doing.
Dubber I remember that feeling.
Mark Right? But, yeah, that was definitely the first time I felt the feeling of tribe.
Dubber Right, wow. And then you turned your back on it.
Mark Yeah, it was weird. I think it was because I didn’t know… Well, no. I think, in hindsight, that my spirit had a lot more to learn. Knew it wanted to learn other things. And it’s all come full circle, as you know, and I’m sure we’ll get to. But clearly everything has been a necessary part of the story and has created the sum total of now.
Dubber Shift away from produced music, and beats, and samples, and so on, to an acoustic-based jazz. Was that anything about the technology? Was it about “Well, that’s not authentic, and this is.”? Or was it about just the sound of the music?
Mark Huh. I think it was partly the piano, as an instrument, because when I was messing around with keyboards and drum machines that’s a very different thing. Analogue synthesis is, I think, the middle ground. But generally speaking an acoustic instrument, the way a person connects with that and communicates and resonates, and the way that reverberation and vibration connects with people, is different to electronic. Not saying either one doesn’t, but they’re just different. And so I think there was something in me… I played piano from age four, so I think there was a drawing back to piano, just on a subconscious level. I was literally making loops from a fairly theoretically uninformed non-foundation of a foundation, and it was fun, but I didn’t see how it could evolve at that point. And then I’d hear…
What blew me away was Mo’ Better Blues. I went to see Mo’ Better Blues when it came out, Spike Lee film, and the film aside and the narrative aside, the music was just like a lightning bolt for me. I didn’t know that existed. Next day, went to Marbecks, to the record store, got the soundtrack, and it was Terence Blanchard and the Branford Marsalis Quartet, or the Branford Marsalis Quartet and Terence Blanchard. Terence went on to do all of Spike Lee’s soundtracks. And then Branford had a record out at that time too called Crazy People Music, so I bought that too. And between that and a 1964 Miles Carnegie Hall concert or something, and, actually, an Erroll Garner record, Concert by the Sea, all these things, I was just hearing this rawness of creativity. And, obviously, even without knowing, the cumulative sound of a group of people creating together and communicating in that with improvised music, it doesn’t strike me as strange that I would wake up one day at age 17 or 16 and be like “Oh, those loops, they were bullshit. Let me get with this.”.
Dubber Yeah. The other thing that really strikes me, and I feel I can say this about you, is that you seem to be somebody who really likes to be able to be really, really good at something, and that maybe the piano was something that you thought “That’s the thing that I can be really, really good at.”. Better than most people.
Mark I don’t know. I feel like as much as the piano is the instrument I feel most connected to, I feel like I’ve been fighting it my whole life. It wasn’t until I went to the UK and lived in London for ten years and I found myself back in electronic music, and more specifically club music, I didn’t play acoustic piano for ten years, and that was such a relief. It’s like I didn’t have to… I think before that, especially the headspace I was in, and it’s around the time that you and I met and were working together, there was very much that jazzer mentality of “It’s got to be the best.”, and “Who’s better than who?”, and “How fast are you playing or how…?”, just these really ego-driven ideas about music, which is not what jazz music is about.
Mark But that was, for whatever reason, what I was developing in. And so to go to the UK and be involved in club music that I was really inspired by, and I could apply what I’d learned with the piano without playing piano, and it wasn’t about who played the dopest solo on that tune or whatever, it felt like a whole different idea.
Dubber Before you get to the UK, because, actually, there’s a really interesting thread there that I want to pick up, but before you get there, you actually made that shift from “I want to make these acoustic jazz albums.”, and we made some albums together. Absolutely love those records. There are things that I don’t like about them, that I wish I could change about them, that I take responsibility for, but that’s another story.
Mark No, man. It’s all good. First Thoughts has a vibe. That record has a vibe.
Dubber First Thoughts really has a vibe, yeah. And Vision, we should have chosen another studio. But that’s another story.
Dubber But after that you actually went “No, I’m going to go over here into hip-hop for a bit. I’m going to go in here and work in something that’s got a beat to it, and it’s more electronic, and it’s more…”. That seemed to be almost a light switch, from where I was sitting.
Mark Yeah. There were multiple factors. One was Cause Célèbre. So we had this club in Auckland, The Box, which was always peak time DJ vibe. And then the chillout room, Cause Célèbre, we’d have acid jazz kind of groups. It was coming out of that sound. Nathan Haines really established that room in that way. And, for me, we’d go in… Once a month I’d be in there and it’d be a jam band. There’d be two drummers, two bass players, horn players, rappers, someone scratching, a bloke might be playing keys, and it’d all be improvised. And it was so fun. It was so much fun. And also that energy of you’re playing at three in the morning on Saturday night and you’ve got people popping pills in the club next door, and then when they want to chill out for a bit they come out to this club, and it was a very cool intersection of culture.
And I remember playing at the town hall in Auckland with Kim Paterson, and I remember mid-gig while I’m playing on the grand piano, and I was thinking “I’m so serious about this serious shit. What would happen if I was a little more serious about the fun stuff?”. And so that was like a light switch moment.
The other thing which helped prime it was jungle, when Herzog was at its peak. We had this bar/club in the city, Herzog, where behind the bar was just full of statues of the Mother Mary and Christ. It was pretty weird. But they were playing really edgy jungle and what became drum and bass, and, for me, hearing that music, hearing club music that was electronic yet organic and had a lot of surprise in it and a lot of space… In the space I could hear… It made me think of what could be done with it, and from my perspective. That was really inspiring. So it was those three things happening at once.
And then also, I think, maybe subconsciously, part of it would have been that search to find your own voice. I feel like for me personally, and I’m not saying this about every person who plays acoustic jazz, but for me, in that world I didn’t understand how I could find my voice. My aspiration was people who have already existed. You could play a Herbie Hancock note for note, but you’ll never be Herbie Hancock. And if you really nail it, then that voice is not even your voice. And so I don’t think I understood it on those terms at that point, but I think that on a more subconscious level there was an awareness that there’s other stuff to explore. More food to eat.
Dubber And then your next record was on an electronic music label. It had rappers on it. It had a DJ manual scratching on it.
Mark Yeah, Six Degrees. That was a turnaround. But that record was literally a diary, or a journal, of the preceding year. I’d spent 12 months on a grant, that I’m super grateful to this day to get, but it basically paid for me to go around the world for a year and just go and explore music wherever I wanted to go. So it ended up being San Fran, Havana, New York, London, Paris, Tokyo, and Sydney. I think that was it, pretty much, over one year. And it was absolutely life-changing.
Being in Havana in 1998, and it was… I’d love to go there now, but I know that it was even more so then, just feeling… I’d never been somewhere where there was a cultural feeling of the blood of the land. This is their land, and this is their culture, and this is just so deeply ancestrally rooted here. And it was the first place I’d been which has African diaspora roots, which is a whole other thing. And so I’m going to a Wednesday afternoon rumba party in a park or something, and it’s just all these percussionists, and a woman singing. It was very Santeria kind of vibe, and about 400 people just dancing and drinking all day. That was incredible. So there were so many things that happened that trip, and that actually wasn’t the most pivotal thing, but they all were part of this amazing experience of a year.
And going to London and meeting and collaborating with amazing people there. Phil Asher, IG Culture, 4hero, Bugz in the Attic, it was a whole crew. And then taking all those experiences… Primary of which, actually, was seeing these guys, especially in the UK, in London, seeing them chop up drums and samples on a drum machine, on an MPC or an SP, and reprogramming it and reshaping it and reconfiguring that to create something that was just totally new and didn’t even have a reference in… It wasn’t the music I’d been listening to. It was new music. And very much influenced by some very key things from the past, and in the whole black music lineage, but it was a fresh interpretation, which, ironically, came about from a community of people who were all individuals who got bored in their own scenes.
You had someone like Phil Asher, you have a house producer, in a community where they’re like “Well, if the kick’s not on every beat of the measure then it’s not house music.”, and so he starts moving the kick around a little bit, and they’re like “It’s not house music.”. And so this was happening with all these people who’d became misfits in their own communities in their creative aspiration, so then, therefore, coming all together having that in common even though they were coming from different… Someone’s coming from jungle drum and bass, someone’s coming from house, someone’s coming from reggae and roots, and all these different things, and that was a really inspiring meeting. To meet these people and then realise what I could contribute to what they were doing, and we could create together.
Dubber You’re talking about broken beat, specifically.
Mark Yeah, what became broken beat. Totally.
Dubber Yeah. Because you became one of the central figures in that whole movement. Would that be fair to say?
Mark I collaborated on hundreds of records, and there were… Kaidi Tatham, amazing keyboard player and producer, he, to me, keyboard-wise and musically would be definitely one of the architects of that sound. Most of the records were him, and otherwise they were me. So there was definitely a large input, and it was a really interesting thing to be a part of a community that is… It’s so underground. It wasn’t making noise in the same way that trap music is global, but we would hear about the ripple effects. We’re all listening to James Poyser, his work with Questlove and stuff, and then we hear that James is listening to our music, and so, well, that’s amazing. We’re just aspiring to that, and so to have it spreading and doing its thing was pretty amazing. I think that it was interesting because it spoke to a lot of different kinds of people as far as the subgenres of sample-based electronic music. Hip-hop heads loved it, house heads loved it. It became this very tribal unity sound.
Dubber And it’d clearly been made by people who’d heard jazz.
Mark Yeah. If it wasn’t played music, then, if it was sample-based music, they’re chopping up some weather report or some shit, and it was interesting for me coming through ostensibly as… My biggest aspiration had been as a jazz musician, but this music wasn’t about shredding solos all over the drums. It was all about functionality of sound. It was all designed to be forward-thinking dance floor music, so in that context everything’s got to have a function in the rhythm. And so the fun challenge of it, as a musician, was “How do we subversively feed as much music into this as possible that the people may not even realise they’re getting?”. Or they’re getting off on the most twisted chord progression, but it’s got a sonic functionality which is what they’re responding to.
Dubber Sidebar, are you a dancer?
Mark There was a time, with Voodoo Rhyme Syndicate. I loved to dance then, yeah. And then I find myself, once in a blue moon, specifically in Japan, actually, the DJ will play something and it’ll just be like “Oh, I just want to have a little move around.”. But the answer’s no, I’m not.
Dubber So you make the dance music for the people who do the dancing.
Dubber I feel like we’re getting away from the chronology a little bit, which is absolutely cool.
Mark Sorry, yeah.
Dubber This is not ‘this is your life’ or anything like that. But I’m really interested in the tech side of things, and what you were drawn to, and what you felt was a good representation of your voice through technology.
Mark So that has kept evolving, which is really cool. And I would have to include the piano as a piece of OG tech, absolutely. But that whole time in London, especially the first time I went in ’98, on my way back to New Zealand, I was in Japan, and I went to this music store Five G in Harajuku, which is… It’s incredible. They have five or six of everything. And when I say everything, it’s like six Prophet-5s, six Minimoogs, and then a CS-80 lying on the ground, and it’s crazy, their analogue synth stuff. But I’m in this shop and they had a wall of MPCs, Roger Linn Akai drum machine samplers. And I’m looking at this wall and I’m like “Do I really need an MPC?”, and I kept leaving the shop and coming back, and leaving and coming back, and I eventually bought one. I was like “Well, this is… The people I’ve been working with, this is what I’ve seen them creating with.”.
Dubber For the gear heads, which one did you have?
Mark Well, my first one then was the MPC2000. And I’d seen guys working on the 60 and the 3000, mostly, in London. So I got the 2000, went back to New Zealand, and I just started making music using the MP, a Roland JP-8080 synth module, and I had a Rhodes as well in the apartment, I think, and that was basically it. So I pre-produced all the music for that record primarily on the MPC. Went in the studio, recorded a whole lot of musicians, and then I did the unthinkable for a studio purist. So we went into Helen Young, the Abbey Road Studios of New Zealand.
Dubber Yeah, R.I.P.
Mark Yeah. And Andre was engineering, recorded all the musicians. I wanted a drummer playing additional hats and stuff, upright bass, flute, I recorded some Rhodes there, percussion. Recorded it all to tape, and then Andre dumped it to DAT tape for me, so I had everything on DAT. It was like “Cool.”. I was like “Okay, now what do I do? Because I want to make this stuff in the MPC.”, and I didn’t have a DAT player. Actually, was it DAT or ADAT? It was probably ADAT.
Dubber If it was multitrack it was probably ADAT, which was like digital multitrack on S-VHS tapes.
Mark Right, so it was ADAT. So I didn’t have an ADAT player.
Dubber Right. And who would?
Mark And I feel like you had one.
Dubber I had access to one. I was working in Progressive Studios in Anzac Ave. at the time, in Auckland.
Mark Right, so I think you helped me find one.
Mark So now I had the ADAT, and what I would do now, in that situation, is I would sample the ADAT directly into the MPC. Or I’d probably dump it onto the computer first, actually, but that wasn’t even an option back then, right?
Dubber Exactly, yeah.
Mark So through my whole travels one of my mainstay pieces of kit with me, travelling around, was my MiniDisc Recorder. I’d do a studio session in London and I’d just grab a quick desk mix onto the MiniDisc and I’d have a bounce of it. That was crazy technology in 1998. And I didn’t understand anything about audio compression. This is 1998. And so I took these ADATs and I dubbed them all off onto MiniDisc and then I sampled the MiniDiscs into the MPC, because I had to return the ADAT.
Dubber Wow, okay.
Mark And I don’t know the bitrate, but I think in terms we talk about now it’s like taking a WAV file, making a shitty MP3 of it, and then sampling off the shitty MP3 instead of off the WAV file. I made the record like that. And I told Andre, the engineer, he was furious. But he’s like “But it sounds good though.”.
Dubber You’ve added some crunch.
Mark Right? Bit of digital crunch. From then the MP became really the heart of what I was doing. When I did that album live, the MPC was part… That was the sound of the band. I’d have a live drummer, live bass player, but the sound of the band was the MPC. It was bringing that sonic weight and sample vibe. I upgraded to the MPC3000 not long after that, which just sounds so much better.
Dubber It’s still the dream machine, isn’t it?
Mark It is, man. I actually had a show in New Orleans maybe four or five years ago, and I hadn’t touched the MPC, at that point, in maybe seven years, and right before I went to New Orleans my computer died. And my setup is Ableton based, using MASCHINE, so without the computer I’m fucked. And I didn’t have time to get a new computer or anything like that, and I’m like “I’m going to have to pull out the MP.”. And so it hadn’t come out of its flight case in seven years. So I take it out…
Dubber Did you have a Zip drive?
Mark I had a SCSI Zip drive in there. I’m like “I hope this shit works.”.
Dubber Wow. Yeah, for sure.
Mark And I found some Zip disks. There was one that said “2009 live kits.”, so that was one, part of my London… Actually, it would be earlier than that. It’d be maybe “2007 live kits”. So it’s one of my London kits. I was like “All right, let me try and load this up.”. Zip disk sounded like an old car trying to start, but it loaded up, and it just totally blew my mind. The sound of that beast was incredible. And these are drumkits where… When I moved to a digital system, a computer-based system, I was using the same MPC drumkits. I know those sounds. I’ve made records with them for years. And so to hear them, after seven years of not hearing them out the MPC, to hear them straight out the MP in my studio room where I know the sound, it was fucking terrifyingly amazing. It was great. But then I did the show, it was fun, but it slowed my workflow right down because there’s so much more you can do so much faster now. But it was cool. But that to say the MP really became the heart of everything I did for a long time.
Dubber Did that…? Because people talk about the 3000 having the Linn Swing, that it was different to the other ones in some way. The fact that you were using that machine, did that have an impact on what you ended up sounding like as a result?
Mark Yeah, definitely. Absolutely. I think that’s… The idea is that when the sounds are on the quantised grid, and that Roger Linn had designed these rhythm/groove templates which were slightly off that by his choice of amount, the feel, and when you employ that function, it’s a whole sound. But primarily the MP, for me, especially the 3000, it’s just about the sonic quality of it. I love that hip-hop aesthetic of big kicks and big snares, and they were like right hooks. It was crazy. So that was inspiring.
But workflow-wise, as things have evolved, I’d be on tour with the MPC3000 and land at some country in some airport and the flight case would come out, first I’d do is open it and hope that it’s still in one piece. I’d blown up maybe five of them on tour around the world. We did a warehouse party in Sydney, actually it was Cameron Undy’s warehouse at the time, but super hot, sweaty, warehouse party, peak time dancefloor vibe, and I’m banging out beats over the MPC, and it’s got little ventilator opening bits on the top, so I’m banging out beats and my sweat went off my forehead straight into the ventilator shaft of the MPC. So instant nothing. Silence. That kind of thing is… I got to a point where I understood it’s not practical.
So then Native Instruments’ MASCHINE became my go-to. And for then, I was using a combination of MASCHINE running standalone on the computer and I’d have Serato running on a turntable with acapellas, because for some reason even though it was a digital file I wanted the optics of the turntable, and so I’d be building stuff on MASCHINE and then bringing in the acapella off the turntable. But that was very limited too because a turntable, you have a limit of how much you can change the key or the speed. If I got excited and jumped up and down then the needle jumps. If someone knocks it I’m fucked. So much stuff.
Dubber It’s interesting though because from that tech perspective you ended up becoming somebody who demonstrates these tech products by “Look what this thing can do.”, so the pushing of the boundaries of what’s possible with the technology became part of your thing.
Mark Yeah, I think it’s more a matter… Yes, and I think it’s also a matter of that my specific use case was different from what the manufacturer had thought about. I have a great ongoing relationship with Native Instruments. Actually, they sent me the first MASCHINE, and it sat there for a year. I plugged it in one time because it kind of looks like an MPC, but it wouldn’t just… I tried to use it like an MCP and it wouldn’t do anything, so I was like “Oh, fuck this.”. So I let it gather dust for a year until I had someone actually show me through it. He was an ex MPC user, so he spoke the translation I needed to hear. But once I started using it I was all about it. And as it’s evolved through its iterations and OS updates and stuff, there are things that I want to do, and I’d talk to Native Instruments about it and they’d be like “Yeah, we didn’t think of that.”, or “That didn’t seem important.”. I’m like “That’s vital to my workflow.”. So I understand that clearly that’s not the majority workflow, but especially with, I think, software-based hardware systems, hybrid systems, they’re really trying to keep them evolving and cover all the bases.
Dubber Sure. And that plays into things like accessibility as well. If something’s that adaptable then you get to be able to design it in that way.
Mark Totally. I’ve worked on a product where my first complaint about it, I’m not naming the company, but my first complaint was “If it can’t do this then how am I supposed to use it live?”, and they were saying “Well, we didn’t design it for live use. It’s for the studio.”. It’s like “How are you going to stop me taking it live?”. It’s just ridiculous. So it’s interesting, I think, when some of the companies don’t necessarily consider that, and hopefully they’re all always considering that, but there’s no such thing as… Even if you have an indoor light, someone’s going to use it outdoor. It’s going to happen.
Dubber Yeah, for sure. On that, which is interesting, even though you’ve made more records, and we’ll probably talk about some of them, but you’re a live performer first and foremost. You are someone who’s on the road all the time. Do you want to first talk a little bit about that, but also what’s it like not being able to do that?
Mark So I started touring in New Zealand in 1996, and I started doing shows in Japan around the same time. But from 2000 I had the record we were talking about earlier, Six Degrees, it was signed in the UK, so I moved to the UK properly, and from 2000 I’ve been touring literally non stop. I don’t think there’s been a single time in 20 years I’ve been at home for more than a month.
Mark And that’s been amazing. It’s been such an amazing adventure, especially over that amount of time. 20 years, to see music evolve, and culture evolve, and places evolve, and travel, and politics, and all sorts and stuff, but from the perspective of being in many different places. And probably never getting a really deep feel for anywhere unless I go there regularly, like Japan, but still getting an interesting perspective on the planet, on music, on culture, on humanity. That was cool. And it was just so exciting. I love the feeling of taking off from wherever I live, so taking off from L.A., and as the plane gets up to cruising altitude it’s like my idea battery has just gone supercharge and all these amazing things happen. I usually have screens of notes from flying in-between places, of ideas.
So there’s a lot of freedoms I associated with it, and I think on a personal level to… When my son was born I wasn’t ready for fatherhood in that way, and so touring was a way to escape that as well. That became life, and I’d say over the last couple of years… It never slowed down, the last couple of years have probably been two of my busiest years ever, but I also had this feeling of “Wouldn’t it be great to tour less? To tour something more special, get paid more money, and do it less.”.
Dubber You mean make it sustainable.
Mark Wow, that’s such an avant-garde concept, man. Sustainability, let me say it. Yeah. I did a tour in Japan maybe two years ago. I did nine shows in seven days in seven cities.
Mark And I was going by train in-between the cities. So I’ve got my suitcase, I’ve got a Pelican full of gear, I’ve got a MONO backpack full of gear, I’ve got my own little backpack. I’m getting on and off these trains, not sleeping a whole lot, my body’s getting tired, and it’s just… It’s a lot. And there’s an undeniable joy in playing anywhere and sharing my perspective of music, and having people receive that, and having people connect with it. One of the gigs during that tour, it was this tiny little bar in Beppu, which is a national hot spring destination, and it was the weirdest, coolest people. They were just so fun. And on black and white, on paper, on financially, probably it’s not an aspirational gig. Personally, it was amazing. So that exchange that happens with people, that’s what has really fuelled me.
And then, of course, just as a business model, I wasn’t looking at it from a sustainability practice, but I was looking at it like “Okay, this works, but I have to keep doing it.”. So it’s a hamster wheel which never ends. And then it’s addictive as well. It’s almost a bragging rights. “I’ve flown around the world enough times to go to the moon and back 18 times.”, or whatever you get to say.
So when the pandemic happened it was interesting, and I was… I had a full calendar up until actually around now. I knew exactly what I was doing. And I was with a couple of friends, we were driving up to San Francisco to play at SFJAZZ in my friend Hayley’s band. So we’d been driving for four/five hours, we were two hours out of San Fran, listening to Gavin Newsom’s address, the Governor of California, and his address was shutting down all gatherings over 50 people. And so we’d pulled over to the side of the road, and Hayley checked her phone, and sure enough there was an email cancelling tonight’s gig. I had a gig the next night in Oakland, just across the water from San Fran, that got cancelled immediately. And we just sat by the side of the road, smoked weed, and watched all these emails come in. Just cancellations. We pretty much had spent the weekend, I think, in shock/chilling out. The news was on. We stayed in the same area and just didn’t know what to do. It was obviously very fast that everything got cancelled. And, as you know, it happened a lot more before almost any other industry. The music industry went… I don’t know if it went first, but it felt like we went first.
Dubber Yeah. It certainly went fast.
Mark Very fucking fast, right? I had a Asia tour, I had a South Africa thing, I had a Europe thing, there were shows in the States. All sorts of shit. It’s all gone. And so, for me, what I thought was interesting was that I looked at it like “Touring has gone and it’s not coming back, ever.”. And I don’t know if I believed that, but I behaved like that, and I think that was good. So once I had a clear head I got out my notebook, listed down every potential revenue stream I feel like I could get, whether I wanted to or not, just still within the greater parameters of music, just so I could at least have a visual. And I fleshed them out a little bit, and I had, essentially, an action plan. I didn’t know it was an action plan, but essentially an action plan. And I remember thinking… I’d say to friends what I was doing. I was like “I’m acting as if…”, well, I would say “Touring’s never coming back.”, and they’d be in shock. And I’d always say “Well, if it comes back, when, if, however it comes back, if I can improve these other things I’ll be in a stronger position to be more sustainable.”. And it was just really interesting because there were all manner of things on this list.
For example, one of them, I’d been thinking about doing a Patreon for years and I never did it, and I didn’t do it because I thought “Well, I’m always on the road. I don’t want to commit to deliverables on a monthly schedule.”. It’s the same reason… I’ve had radio show opportunities, I’ve said “No.” because they want a weekly show, and I’m like “No. I don’t know where I’ll be.”. So suddenly I’m like “Okay, well, there’s no more touring. I’m in one place. Let me start a Patreon.”. And then, I’d been working with an online festival, La Ceiba Fest, and they gave me the opportunity to basically get my rig together for live streaming and forced me to have to learn that really quickly, which was great. It started to feel like “Okay, there’s real possibilities here.”. And once I set up my rig and tweaked it a bit, but essentially my live rig, which I’d never set up at home, I set that up at home, and once it was all set up I realised “Wow. I’m not going to break this down for a long time.”. And the more time goes by I’m like “I don’t want to break this down for a long time.”. So it’s been a relief.
Dubber Let’s talk about… Okay, there’s a couple of things to unpack there. One is the Patreon thing, because you’re not just saying “I’m going to record a track and give it to you each month.”, or “I’m going to…”. You’re actually using it in a particular way. Do you want to talk about what you’re doing with your Patreon, and who supports you, and what you provide for them?
Mark Sure. There are different tier levels in it. And at the basic level, it’s what you’re saying. They get an exclusive new piece of music each month and then whatever else I want to throw out there. So, for me, that’s for people who want to support, they’re fans, they maybe don’t have the means to really support a whole lot, whatever it may be, and that’s great. And then as the tiers go up there’s a whole lot of additions where, for me, it’s focussed around building community more than anything. Monthly live streams and video lessons. But one thing which I’ve really loved already is a monthly Zoom community chat. So we did that last month and I invited everyone to bring some music that they were inspired by or really feeling, and so me and everyone else were all sharing music and talking about it. And it’s really… It was actually a relief because it was at the peak time of the uprising in the States, cities burning, cops just out of control, like they still are, and it was a really nice respite from that, actually.
But, yeah, so the idea of building community with it is what really excites me. The social media platforms pitch us that we’re building our communities there, and the reality is… The metrics don’t make sense. If I have 18,000 people on Instagram and I post a video that 200 people see, then I don’t have a community there. It’s a total fallacy. So Patreon can build that for real. And, for me, I want to make things worth people’s while. I love that adage of ‘under promise and over deliver’. We all deserve the most, so why hold back? So that’s really become my primary focus as far as “What do I want to build during this time?”. And there are other projects going on currently, but that just feels really personal and really valuable. There’s a lot of music makers on there. I think the majority…
Dubber Hence the lessons.
Mark Yeah. I wanted to build it in a way that there’s something for everyone, but for the people who want some know-how knowledge, I’m more than happy to share. There’s two elements to that. One is that legacy is in what we can pass on to other people, and so if I have had experience and built knowledge which is of value to someone, then, for me, there’s a responsibility to pass it on. And it’s self-serving in that it creates legacy. And then there was a second thing which has slipped my mind.
Dubber Well, okay, so there’s also, of the stuff that you’re doing in lockdown, there’s a political dimension to that as well. And some of it came through in your respite from the burning cities and out of control police, but also the stuff that you’re doing with the festival has a very political voice and message to it as well.
Dubber Do you want to talk a little bit about that a bit?
Mark Yeah. This is a really pivotal point in American history. It’s a potential turning point, and not just for America, but for the world. As much as America is laughed at now, I think it’s still a cultural force globally. And so what’s happening here is, in the best sense of the word, really radical, and there’s so much need for change. And so I subscribed to that and support it 100%. While that’s all happening there’s so much information of value in media and on the feeds which I think needs to be shared, and so that’s important to me too.
And so, I think, as an artist, where we’ve just spent however long we’ve had social media dominating for, we’ve spent a decade-plus being conditioned to work out how to promote what we do, and how to present, and how to shine the spotlight on ourselves. And some people do that really well, some people are whatever, but that’s what the conditioning has been. And suddenly you have a moment where these platforms are showing a real value in social currency as far as disseminating news, movements, and really helping… TikTok is helping push the dial of political outcomes. It’s crazy.
Dubber Yeah, for sure.
Mark And it’s a beautiful thing. And so in context of all that, it’s like you have all these independent music makers around the world who have been used to putting their face forward, their music forward, it’s like “Well, how do you do that at a time like this?”. And so, for me, like the last few years I’ve been working on my project Heritage, which has been really digging into my Japanese roots through my music, and there’s been a lot of cultural connectivity through that and also recognition over the last decade that everything I do in music is informed by black American music. And if it’s not black American music then it’s African diaspora music, there’s no question about that, and so I am very aware that my voice stands on the shoulders of giants, and I recognise that and acknowledge that. And so all these things… Like “Well, how can I just hear my own voice in this current social moment?”.
And so La Ceiba Fest, who I’m working with, we talked about doing this in support of Black Lives Matter and social justice set. And so, to me, that’s really about, well, like I said, showing solidarity and being able to reframe some of these things. I took a couple of James Baldwin video clips, and his words are amazing, and what he says doesn’t need anything done to it. It’s already relevant, and perfect, and powerful. But to take a couple of clips of him, and run his voice through some effects, and live score it with some solo piano… For me, there was an emotional connection, which really shows me my own personal relationship to what’s happening now and how I process it. So that particular set, the Sawubona set, it was really emotional for me. I caught moments where… The way I had my streaming set up I’m not really facing camera much, and I caught moments where I could feel tears welling up. Taking really powerful speeches, like Tamika Mallory, it’s a really powerful activist speaking in Minnesota, and taking her speech and then underpinning it, and just the way… When I interface with something like that, the… I can’t be what that is, the James Baldwin or Tamika Mallory, that exists on its own, but I can be me and exist. And when I interface with it, it’s that space between these two things where I find my voice and also understanding. Does that make sense?
Dubber Absolutely. And, actually, when you hear this story from the beginning of this kid who’s learning to play piano, and going to school, and not knowing where he is, there’s a thread that seems to connect everything which is about identity, and expression of identity, and connecting that with “What am I trying to say and what’s my voice?”, which I think is really interesting. And I’ve known you for a long time. I’ve never actually connected that together before.
Mark I only just connected it recently, so, yeah. But it’s so empowering because without that it’s a question of “Well, what am I doing this for?”. I’m doing it to make money, I’m doing it to pay the rent, or whatever it might be, but to really understand inner purpose has been invaluable to me. And also through the shutdown, and doing these projects, it’s birthed so many new things, and new possibilities, and ideas, and understandings. I think that trying to compete in the capitalist music industry structure… I don’t think there’s many ways to do that. To try and do it on your own terms, and to try and come with a different creative paradigm or musical expression, it’s not the place for it. And so this has also been about understanding the place for what I want to do, and that what I may have had in my, say, late 20s, which was more ego-based, of “Oh, I want this tune to blow up, and I need that DJ to play it.”, whatever it might be, that’s just not so relevant now.
Dubber What do you see in another 20 years?
Mark I definitely won’t have another 20 years of non-stop touring under my belt.
Dubber Well, touring doesn’t happen anymore. You know what.
Mark Exactly, right? I love the idea of being able to create at my own pace and be able to create what I want. For me, Sakamoto is a pretty amazing example of that. He exists ostensibly in his own paradigm, and he’s always creating, and it seems that quality of life is part of the essence of his creativity. So that kind of thing is really inspiring to me, for sure. But, yeah, to not be worried about any kind of financial restraint, and to be able to create and contribute, find just… If I can continue to evolve understanding how to make my voice a positive contribution on a societal level, that would be amazing.
Dubber And it’s also great that sometimes you can also dance to it.
Mark Yeah. That’s also the fun thing of, for me, I’m just as happy for it to be some post-Coltrane, free jazz, avant-garde shit, as I am for it to be some Dilla head nod hip-hop, or some banging house, or whatever it might be. These are all timbres and colours in the palette, which just makes so much sense.
Dubber One last thing is that something that seems to have followed through and been consistent as part of the narrative is you work with other people, and you work with really good other people.
Mark That’s tennis.
Dubber I know the analogy, tell me.
Mark Well, you know it, with the tennis. You’ve got to find a tennis partner who’s better than you or you’re not going to improve, right? I love that analogy, but I actually cut off your question too.
Dubber Well, that was the question. Is the way that you make music in dialogue with other people?
Mark I have, especially with lockdown, I’ve really focussed on it, I have definitely developed a solo, one-man-band thing, but the dialogue of playing with other people and having that communication is one of my favourite things in the world. I’ve done countless gigs where I meet amazing musicians for the first time by having them jump on my stage, and before we say “Hi.” to each other we’re saying “Hi.” through notes and melodies and rhythms, and that’s the magic for me. I’m a total advocate that collaboration makes creatively stronger, and, yeah, it’s totally necessary. And if I look back on the people who I’ve been really fortunate to collaborate with and become friends with, many of them, it’s literally my dream list of collaborators, and people I grew up listening to on records, and it’s really special. So, if nothing else, that just shows me that there is value to what I do and what I have to offer, and that I know, collaborating with people that good, it can only get better.
Dubber Interesting. To finish, imagine there’s somebody who’s just listened to this interview and thought “Okay, I don’t know this guy’s music at all, but that sounds really interesting.”. Give me one thing that they should check out by you, one thing they should check out by someone else.
Mark Wow, cool. I love it. The one thing by me is really difficult because I feel quite eclectic, and if I know where someone’s coming from I can reference something. If I think someone’s more into a jazz, chill vibe I would probably say to check out Heritage, the Japanese jazz project from last year. If they’re more eclectic and into beats and soulful club music, I would say check out Tide’s Arising, an album I did in 2007. But I feel like it’s all… It’s gateway drug stuff. Once you jump in you can have a search around and… For me, the entire story has been about this spectrum where jazz is at one end and electronic music is at the other, and I just keep sliding around the spectrum to different degrees. So short answer is “You can’t go wrong.”.
Dubber It’s all good. Yeah, okay, I’m with you. And someone else?
Mark As for someone else, wow, that’s a really interesting question. I would never have considered that. In introducing someone who’s curious about my music… To basically recommend them a record which has a relevance, you’re saying, basically. Right?
Dubber I’m just asking the question. You interpret it however you want.
Mark Oh my goodness, it’s a trap. I would say that one of them would be Nuyorican Soul, Masters at Work record from the late ‘90s.
Dubber I Am Black Gold Of The Sun. Wow.
Mark Yeah. And another would be, I know you asked for one, Ahmad Jamal, The Awakening, which is an acoustic piano jazz trio record from the late ‘60s.
Dubber It’s a great record.
Mark And lucky number three would be, maybe… Oh, I don’t know actually. But, yeah, that’s a start.
Dubber Okay. No, that’s good. You interpreted it numerically. That’s interesting. Mark, it’s been an absolute pleasure. I feel like I could talk to you for hours. We don’t do this often enough, it was really good. Thanks so much for being on it.
Mark Totally, man.
Mark Thank you. Absolutely.
Dubber Appreciate it.
Dubber That’s Mark de Clive-Lowe, and that’s the MTF Podcast. You can find Mark at www.mdcl.tv online, where you can sign up to his Patreon, whether you’re after masterclasses, live stream performances, community chats, or new recordings. The show was edited by Sergio Castillo. The music’s by airtone and Keston Wright. The MTF sonic logo is by Run Dreamer. I’m Andrew Dubber, you can find me @dubber on Twitter. Music Tech Fest is @MusicTechFest pretty much everywhere. The MTF Podcast is out every Friday, so hit the subscribe button wherever you like to listen to podcasts. And don’t forget to share, like, rate, and review, because it really helps other people to find this. You have a great week, stay safe, and we’ll talk soon. Cheers.