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Clem Burke: “I feel sorry for people without music in their lives”

Blondie’s drummer on the influence of punk, the follow-up to ‘Pollinator’ and the latest album by The Tearaways.

The UK was one of the first countries to really catch on to Blondie when the New York group’s punk-influenced pop emerged in the 1970s, taking second album ‘Plastic Letters’ into the top 10 at a time when they were barely making a dent in the US charts.

Parallel Lines’- and its number one smash hit ‘Heart of Glass’- changed all that as the world recognised their appeal. But the UK continues to have a strong pull on the group, who this summer played the Glastonbury Festival before joining the bill for Iggy Pop’s Dog Day Afternoon one-dayer at London’s Crystal Palace Park.

The band’s drummer Clem Burke is now back in the UK for drumming duty for some more live dates, this time for The Tearaways. Formed in the early 80s, they’re led by primary songwriter, guitarist and vocalist John ‘Fin’ Finseth and earlier this year put out solid-gold power-pop album ‘And for Our Next Trick’ on Dirty Water Records.

Recorded during the Covid pandemic, it’s produced by Ed Stasium (Ramones, Talking Heads, Smithereens) and was tapped at Village Recorders in Los Angeles, a studio that’s played host to the likes of Fleetwood Mac and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – whose keyboardist Benmont Tench plays on the album.

Ahead of The Tearaways’ short UK tour, which kicks off tonight (Friday 24 November) with the first of two nights at London’s legendary 100 Club – first supporting Leah Weller and then Latin Quarter – Clem and Fin (pictured below, second from left) joined Punktuation! for a chat via Zoom.

The Tearways

The 100 Club started out as a jazz and blues club, but it also has strong punk associations – is punk a genre that’s influenced The Tearaways?

Fin: I think we play our instruments not for our years – like, I hit the strings hard, we play with a little more angst than just like a poppy thing. So, there’s a driving thing there that goes on. So yeah, there’s a definitely a certain punk kind of thing that is an influence of what we do, for sure.

Clem: Certainly I’ve been influenced by punk rock, you know. [I’m] kind of product of it in a lot of ways. It’s one facet of what I do and what The Tearaways do. I think there’s an energy within the band, especially when we play live, that verges on sort of punk rock/new wave.

The Tearaways - And for Our Next Trick

The cover of your new album features you both when you were about five or six years old. Going back to that time, how much of an ear for music did you have?

Clem: That’s a little bit before I had any real interest in music, but my mom, definitely listened to top 40 radio in the New York area – there was the WMCA Good Guys, they were called, and she would be listening to that in the morning, you know making breakfast for me.

But I always liked music. There’s music in my house. My mother played the piano and sang and we had a piano in the house and, you know, music was always kind of in the air. My granddad played the accordion and things like that.

I think with most musicians you find that there’s some history of other family members involved in music or just the love of music in general, whether it be classical music, or, you know, maybe a lot of people like the music of their ethnic background, whether it be Irish music or Italian music or whatever.

Music is a part of life – for the people that don’t have music in their life, I feel very sorry for them.

Fin: Yeah, [music’s] definitely a communicator and I think right around when that picture was taken, my parents took me to [the department store] Woolworths and I got this single, ‘I’m A Believer’, that was the first 45 I bought, by The Monkees. That song, [which] Neil Diamond wrote, was my first beginning of learning about music.

Music is a great communicator, it gets you through a lot of times. Going back to the album, it was kind of a trying time for everybody and I think it helped us cope with what was going on and try to figure it out. In a lot of ways, a lot of the album’s very, very optimistic, even though was very dark times for me personally.

You certainly keep the quality levels high throughout ‘And Now For Our Next Trick’, which of the tracks are your favourites?

Clem: I like the poppier up stuff, ‘Saturday Everyday’, ‘Easier Done Than Said’, I like that one a lot. That album stands up as a whole listening experience from beginning to end. I kinda like the poppier, power pop songs on the record the most.

Fin: It keeps changing, depending upon the mood I’m in. I’ll kind of spin one song a lot or just listen to the whole album – it just kind of goes, it has a nice flow to it. I’m with Clem a little bit – I like the poppier stuff too, but yet again, I like ‘Are You Fucking Kidding Me’ as well.

It feels like ‘Are You Fucking Kidding Me’ (or ‘Effing Kidding’ as the radio edit puts it) could be applied to so many things at the moment, how did that one come about?

Fin: I kept hearing people say this the whole time [during COVID]. Literally every single conversation I’d have, somebody would use that line about something. And then, you know, I was kind of going through a little bit of a divorce scenario that became kind of comedic in a way, but it was tough. So, it was written really about the COVID thing and what we were seeing: ‘What’s next, what else is gonna happen now?’

And how about ‘Charlie, Keith and Ringo’. It seems like you’re almost offering a bit of a history lesson.

Fin: Well, the funny part with that song was I had seen some video where Clem was singing. And initially I thought, ‘let’s do a song and Clem can sing it, if he would do it’. The idea was we’re going to write a song about our drum heroes and all these other drummers that don’t always get mentioned all the time. And then when Clem was doing his drum bits [they were] so good that obviously [he’ll have to drum and] I’ll have to sing it. But yeah, it’s an ode to the drummers.

Clem: We also did a song back when about the Wrecking Crew as well, the Phil Spector session musicians. So ‘Charlie, Keith and Ringo’ kind of carries on in that tradition, as well. It references many of the drummers that influenced me over many years, especially people like Hal Blaine who is the session drummer that played on most of the hits that came out of Los Angeles in the 60s, whether it be the Beach Boys, The Monkees, The Byrds, or Paul Revere and the Raiders. Famously, he plays drums on ‘Sounds Of Silence’. So it was a great homage to drummers.

So, almost had a singing role on it for you Clem – do you ever step up to the mike?

Clem: Singing is not really my forte, but I’ve been known to [do it]. Sometimes I work with a band called The Romantics and they have the song ‘What I Like About You’ – I don’t sing that [on the recorded version], but I’ve been known to do that in other situations, like in bars and things like that.

It’s easier to sing when I’m not playing the drums. Ages ago we were playing at the Whisky with Blondie, I sang ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’ and had Debbie [Harry] on a leash. She was like physically on all fours as my dog, that’s something you’re not gonna see nowadays, but it was documented. It’s out there somewhere, but it was way before people had phones with cameras and rarely people had video cameras back then. But I’ve been known to sing once in a while.

Speaking of Blondie, I’ve seen there’s been some recording happening for the follow-up to 2017’s ‘Pollinator’ – what’s the status of that?

Clem: There’s a new album recorded, but it’s been delayed for release – I’m not sure quite why, maybe we don’t have the single [yet]. But the album’s done. Glen Matlock appears on it, there’s another song by Johnny Marr on it. We’re going to try and do some alternative things, within the context of Blondie, for next year – not just the normal going out on tour to promote the record, it’s going to be a little different.

And for The Tearaways, what’s in the pipeline? I’ve heard talk about a new documentary?

Fin: So, the documentary is basically titled, ‘The Best Little Band You’ve Never Heard Of’. We’re trying to coordinate that with the release of some previous material – like, we have a whole album that wasn’t released. So we’re working towards getting that released as well with this compilation with [the song] ‘Wrecking Crew’ and some of these other songs that just were never released.

We’re excited about the notion of doing that and maybe some sort of boxset thing and then a new album. We’ve been a group since 1981, so there’s some pretty interesting stories to be told that, you know, [are] stranger than fiction and I think people can get some a good chuckle out of.

Now that ‘And For Our Next Trick’ has been out for a while, what reception has it got so far?

Finn: It’s been it’s been real good. We’re looking forward to, with Clem, is to be able to play these songs live – we tried to capture a live vibe in doing the album and it seems as if it’s gonna translate really well live.

Main Photo Credit: David Phillips

100 Club, London, UK – Nov. 24th (with Leah Wellar)  

100 Club, London, UK – Nov. 25th (with Latin Quarter)

The Thunderbolt, Bristol, UK – Nov. 26th

The Cavern Club, Liverpool, UK – Nov. 30th (with Leah Wellar)

The Prince Albert, Brighton, UK – Dec. 1st 

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