Something Else! Interview: Mike Clark on Herbie Hancock, the Headhunters and Michael Wolff

Drummer Mike Clark, perhaps best known for his work with and without Herbie Hancock as a member of the Headhunters, is part of a new band now — the dazzlingly improvisational Wolff and Clark Expedition, with longtime friend Michael Wolff.

Together, they have produced an organic eponymous effort that defies categorization as either jazz or funk, much in keeping with Clark’s work since bursting on the scene as a cornerstone of Hancock’s 1974 album Thrust. Clark was subsequently part of Brand X, the UK-based jazz-fusion band that also featured Genesis’ Phil Collins on drums. Along the way, he’s performed with Chet Baker, Fred Wesley, Les Claypool, Vince Guaraldi and Charlie Hunter, even while continuing his association with the Headhunters, who issued the well-received Platinum in 2011.

Clark joined us to talk about this new Expedition recording, available on February 19, 2013 via Random Act Records, as well as the Headhunters, Brand X, Herbie Hancock — and his take on becoming one of the most sampled drummers in the history of hip hop …

NICK DERISO: You’ve known Michael Wolff for years. What finally prompted you to solidify your working relationship in a new band with its own name?
MIKE CLARK: We’ve been playing together and discussing concepts of music, just as friends and bandmates. We seemed to have a similar understanding, a similar path that we’re both interested in. One day, we were having one of usual conversations about this type of thing, and one of us said: ‘Since we’re playing together a lot anyway, and we’re looking at similar goals, why don’t we start a band?’ So, we did. That’s about as simple as it was. It sounded like a good idea, and I’m really glad that we did it.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Michael Wolff discusses the lasting joys of Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, what he learned about song from Nancy Wilson, and parenting the Naked Brothers Band.]

NICK DERISO: You can certainly hear that symbiosis on the album.
MIKE CLARK: We really like playing together. I understand Michael’s language, and he understands mine. We’re pretty much at the point where you don’t have to worry about anything throwing a log in the middle of the road when you are involved with something. You don’t have those adjustments that you normally have to make when you just go on a gig with a bunch of guys. You have to do that so that everything doesn’t sound like a train wreck, or so that everybody is comfortable. We’ve been playing together for so long that I can get right to my personal way of playing — whether it’s a ballad or whether we are burning it. I’m digging it.

NICK DERISO: Expedition is also intriguing in that it moves from pop to funk to jazz, and then back again – almost like a typical jam session. Was that the genesis of this date?
MIKE CLARK: We all had suggestions, and somebody would throw out a tune. I don’t think anybody ever said no. Then we’d get a skeleton arrangement together, nothing to strict, and then fill it out the way we wanted to. We were careful not to play it in the same way as whoever wrote it or make it famous. We just gave them all of our own treatments. So, it was really, really a creative and spontaneous moment. I’m at the point now where I don’t care what the beat is, or what the name of the tune is — whether it’s a standard tune or an original, or if there are a lot of changes or it’s modal. It doesn’t matter. I feel fairly open to start accessing what I know about the history through playing drums, immediately, as soon as the tune starts. I’m not hampered by the things that used to both me, especially in this band.

[ONE TRACK MIND: Mike Clark’s longtime bandmate Bill Summers joined us to talk about key moments from projects with Herbie Hancock, the Headhunters, and the percussionist’s funky, funky solo career.]

NICK DERISO: You guys just tore it up on soul favorites like “Mercy Mercy Mercy” and “For the Love of Money,” but at the same time there is a delicate swing to “Song for My Father.”
MIKE CLARK: I don’t think this was all conscious, but as the date unfolded, we were addressing a lot of things that we grew up on, and we gave them our own treatment. You’re right; I’m glad you heard it that way, because on certain things you just want to play, from my point of view. It feels good just to lay the pocket and swing, and stay out of the way and enjoy the groove. On other times, it good to get busy. (Laughs.) The thing unfolded for me, just like you hear it. Somebody would call a tune, we’d discuss an arrangement, and then we’d play. At the end of the day, when we heard the tape back, we liked it. So, that confirmed the let’s-start-a-band thing. We were just going in there to experiment, and then when we heard what it was sounding like, and we knew. This was a kick-off album.

NICK DERISO: The most recent Headhunters album, Platinum, included a few elements of hip hop. What has been your reaction to sampling? After so many years, and so many songs with lifts from your records, has your attitude evolved?
MIKE CLARK: My feeling is this, straight up: If you’re going to use my stuff, please pay me. That’s the only thing. I spent my life learning to play, and I’m still learning how to play. You never stop learning. I’ve devoted my life to this, so it’s not an ego thing. I’m flattered that my name is attached to a lot of big-selling records, but I never saw any money for it. And I like to be paid just like everybody else does that works. That’s my feeling on that.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: On a project filled with big names, Mike Clark was the real hero on Herbie Hancock’s 1974 album ‘Thrust.’ We dug into one of its forgotten deep cuts, ‘Butterfly.’]

NICK DERISO; I love the sense of outsized adventure on those initial collaborations with Hancock, as if nothing was off limits. All of that imaginative brilliance seemed to come from a very collaborative place. What made the Headhunters so special?
MIKE CLARK: Herbie Hancock, when you play with him — at least at that time; I haven’t played with him in years — he heard everything that you did. It was like being tracked by some kind of radar mechanism. He heard every breath that you took while you were playing, he felt all of the vibes. It was amazing how sensitive this guy was. I’m like that as well, but being with him made me even more like that. You were forced to really focus, and really tune in. It wasn’t because of any pressure, though. He just made that a natural part of every day life. It came easy to me. My roots are in bebop and post bop, and not in funk. I played a lot of funk as a young man, I played a lot of blues to make a living. But the bulk of my drumming is straight-ahead jazz, so that informed the funk thing that I did with Herbie. I would comment on the things he was saying, but he was the main speaker. I was in the conversation as well, with both feet!

NICK DERISO: The template for what you’re talking about, combining bebop lines into funk, can be found on the very first collaboration, “Actual Proof” from Hancock’s ‘Thrust.’ That’s such a huge sound.
MIKE CLARK: It was very much like playing a straight-ahead jazz piece, but I used a big funk set — it had a big sound. If I had played on an 18-inch drum, on a small bebop kit, it would have sound more like jazz. That gave it a different spin, and plus the beat was not swing, it was funk. So, that’s the whole deal. I would have done a whole album like that, but they had a producer who was more concerned with making money. So, a lot of my stuff was watered down more than I would have cared for. It’s not a lament; it is what it is. I had a great time.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Percussionist Bill Summers took us inside his long-awaited 2011 reunion project with drummer Mike Clark, as the Headhunters released the titanic groover ‘Platinum.’]

NICK DERISO: You mentioned not getting paid. Do you think the Headhunters will ever get their due for contributions to those 1970s-era Herbie Hancock records? Does it bother you?
MIKE CLARK: Nothing egotistically bothers me about whose name is where. I don’t feel I’m owed anything. That experience enriched my life in more ways than just playing. Herbie taught me about Buddhism, which I practice to this day. I saw the world from the stage, and from the main stage at that time. I’m totally grateful for the opportunity, and what happened. My only issue is with sampling. If I ask somebody to do a job for me, I’m going to pay them. We all need money. If we didn’t, I say: ‘Hey, sample whatever.’ I think it’s disrespectful. That’s just the code I live by.

NICK DERISO: At the same time, you were part of the underrated Brand X. What was your reaction to the idea of splitting the group apart into a mainstream outfit featuring Phil Collins and a more adventurous lineup that found you at the drums?
MIKE CLARK: I was called to do the gig, and I came to New York and auditioned by playing my style to the music they were playing. I never played rock ‘n’ roll. I wasn’t one of those guys. We played jazz, even in junior high school. There were no rock gigs at that time. Then, in the 1960s, I started playing soul, and jazz and blues. I never did a garage rock band, interestingly enough. The type of rock ‘n’ roll that came up in the 1960s, like those bands from England, I never dug that music. I still don’t care for it. I’m not saying it no good, it just doesn’t strike me. So, I never had that experience, and these guys were totally that. I went on tour with them. We were having a good time, and it was very creative. It was open. They were very aware of Coltrane and, obviously, Hendrix. There was a vibe. But when it came time to do the records, there were some politics. I wasn’t part of that. I was like, ‘if you want me to play, I’ll play. It’s no problem for me.’ Part of the band wanted me to play, and some others wanted Phil to play. So then someone said, let’s have them both play.

[ONE TRACK MIND: Michael Wolff talks about key career intersections with Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, Warren Zevon, Charlie Hunter, Joe Zawinul and his band Impure Thoughts.]

NICK DERISO: And yet the Expedition album begins with the Beatles’ “Come Together.” What was that like?
MIKE CLARK: As he was saying one, two, three, four — I had no idea of what I was going to do. I just didn’t know much about that tune. I remember that song on the radio driving around in the 1960s, and I kinda dug it. So I was really enjoying the moment. It was full of surprises. Nobody knew who was going to solo first. We were all just vibing off of each other. You’re on the high wire, and you don’t want to fall. I like that.

NICK DERISO: So, despite your lengthy time together with Michael Wolff, there still moments when you were taken aback as the Expedition sessions unfolded — these a-ha moments?
MIKE CLARK: I like the challenge of that. That’s who this record went. One of the first things we did was ‘What Is This Thing Called Love,’ and I believe we did two takes and we knew we had it. It was like going down the hill on a roller coaster — extremely exhilarating, physically and emotionally. I was really enjoying the take, while it was going down. It was just a natural thing.

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Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.