Blondie’s Clem Burke Swaps the Sticks for the Decks

The drummer/DJ talks making and playing records, ahead of spinning at The Golden Tiki.

Over the past four-plus decades, Clem Burke has kept the beat for the best of them. Along with his career as the drummer for Blondie, he’s played for the Ramones and the Romantics, Bob Dylan and Iggy Pop, Wanda Jackson and Nancy Sinatra. Blondie’s 11th album, Pollinator, will be released in May and, before hitting the tour circuit, Burke will spin a few of his favorite records at The Golden Tiki. He recently spoke to Vegas Seven about making albums, hauling vinyl and being “the reverse Spinal Tap.”

What records or artists made you want to get into music?

Most people [in] my generation had seen The Beatles on [The] Ed Sullivan [Show]. But then you kind of go backward from there—The Beatles, The [Rolling] Stones and everybody in the ’60s, the music of the ’50s was what influenced them. Obviously The Beatles got their name from Buddy Holly and The Crickets. My first stuff was the music of the mid-‘60s, but when you look on [a] record and you see [a] song The Beatles are doing is by some guy called Buddy Holly, or you see the Stones doing a song written by Bo Diddley, you kind of do the research and get back to the real roots of where the music was coming from.

Do you enjoy playing Las Vegas?

The first time that we played in Vegas with Blondie was at the Aladdin—it was in the late ’70s. I think it was the only casino that actually had a theater; most places [had] showrooms. I think we even used the house PA system to play through. … I’ve played [in Las Vegas] many times over the years, and I always say if it was good enough for Elvis and good enough for Frank, it’s good enough for me. Billy Idol’s doing a residency now … he says he loves it.

Would you ever consider a residency?

I was playing with Nancy Sinatra a bunch over the last 10 years, and I sort of thought maybe we’d do it with her. That never happened. But I could definitely see Blondie doing that. I think that would be great.

You’ve played with so many artists. Is there anyone who was a favorite or that you’d still like to play with?

I’d love to play with Little Richard or Chuck Berry. Or Bruce—I’d like to sit around and play some ’60s rock ’n’ roll songs with Springsteen. I’ve worked with a lot of people; I’m kind of like the reverse Spinal Tap. In [This Is] Spinal Tap, the drummer kept exploding or falling apart, and I’m always the drummer that’s replacing the drummer in a lot of bands over the years—the Ramones, the Romantics …

“At the end of the day,  it’s all about the songs—the energy that the music creates, whether or not people like it. The kind of music I like is not pop music, it’s rock ’n’ roll.” – Clem Burke

How did you get into DJing?

I’ve DJ’ed a few times around L.A. and New York. It’s kind of just like a fun thing; it’s like a hobby for me. I really do enjoy it—and The Golden Tiki is such a great venue. I still have my lifelong vinyl record collection, so I have a lot of stuff to choose from. [DJing is] sitting around playing your favorite records for people. I put a bit of thought into it before I go [to gigs], but basically I just play the music I like—and it turns out other people like it, too.

Do you have a go-to record, something people always like?

It’s great when you turn somebody on to new music, which I like to think I do when I DJ—play something someone hasn’t heard before. I like to play Booker T and the MGs. I like playing instrumentals, film soundtracks, something from the film Blow-Up or a James Bond movie. I like to mix audibles into the music, too, little soundbites. But basically, I decide what I’m going to program and just carry a bunch of vinyl around with me. I don’t really like sitting in front of the computer just pressing a button; I actually like the physical aspects of moving the records around.

As a vinyl guy, what do you think of how trendy it’s gotten?

I think it’s interesting. At first it seemed like a fad, but vinyl is getting more and more popular. I know a couple of people who are opening up pressing plants again. A lot of the millennials, they just buy records for the artifact—they don’t really play it, they just like to have it sitting around their loft or apartment. It’s kind of funny.

The music business has changed a lot since you began in Blondie.

It’s a different world … The music business has changed, it’s evolving. People will get a handle on streaming … but at the end of the day,  it’s all about the songs—the energy that the music creates, whether or not people like it. The kind of music I like is not pop music, it’s rock ’n’ roll. Rock ’n’ roll isn’t pop music any longer—it used to be, but now it’s kind of more like a niche. There’s a lot of niche markets for everything, that’s applicable to he music business, too. Before, there was rock ’n’ roll music and people liked it or didn’t like it. Now, there’s so many diverse genres.

So, you have a new Blondie album coming out …

We [recorded] in New York City at a place called the Magic Shop in SoHo. It’s actually where Bowie did his last two albums. And now the studio’s gone too, as well as David not being here anymore. We started it in December 2015. Then we took a break at Christmas and that’s when David died. That had kind of a profound effect on us—you could feel his vibe in the studio because he’d been working there exclusively for a couple of years. The album is [somewhat] informed by David Bowie in some ways …

But the album kind of came together very organically. There [are] a lot of outside writers on this one, people like Johnny Marr and Sia. The artwork is by Shepard Fairey, which we’re excited about. We’re gonna be on tour and we’re going to be out in the public eye for the rest of this year, at least. I always say I’ll give it another 18 months, and it’s been over 40 years. 

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