CLARK COLBORN "Six String Superman"

By Dr. Abner Mality

I can think of several gentlemen who have portrayed Superman over the years...George Reeves, Christopher Reeve, Brandon Routh, Clark Colborn...Clark Colborn? Yep, the Rockford native and guitar wizard once hit the stage wearing a cape and sporting the big red S on his chest. That was back when he was part of the legendary Rockford band Cheater.

Clark now laughs about those days, but when it comes to skill on electric guitar, he is indeed a Superman to be reckoned with.  2012 has brought us his latest solo album "Again", where he demonstrates not only his ability to burn the frets but also the intelligence and restraint necessary to create an actual ALBUM in these days of cut-and-paste recording techniques. He has also done a smoking cover of Stevie Wonder's "Superstition"  with killer female vocalist Melissa Ridgeway.

I got a chance to talk to Clark recently and we had a mammoth conversation about the Cheater days and the old Rockford music scene, the lost art of making albums, and tons of other subjects. It was one of the most enjoyable chats I've had in quite a while and I now present it for you to enjoy....

WORMWOOD CHRONICLES: I'd like to delve into your background a bit. Any prior bands you've been in?

CLARK COLBORN: Well ,let's start with bands. In the late 70's I joined a band called Cheater and they were probably the best known band I was in up until what I'm doing now. We were based out of Rockford. I was in a couple of bands before that. I had one called Tugboat Annie that was a couple of neighborhoods, at least...then I had another one called Black Jack. That band had a lot of potential, I thought we were going to go someplace. We didn't. But the good thing was, I met a singer with that band. When I joined Cheater, the singer from Black Jack had moved out east someplace, I can't remember well, but I thought Cheater had a lot of potential, so I called him up and said, hey, you should come out and hear this band. He came back and joined the band and Cheater...we were almost famous! (laughs)

WC: I actually saw Cheater a couple of times. I remember a really big show at Anna Page Park, the Mother's Day concert. I don't know if that's when you were in the band or not.

CC: Yup, I did every one of the Mother's Day shows with Cheater.

WC: That was a different era for local music, back then.

CC: It really was! We would do this Mother's Day concert at Anna Page Park and literally thousands of people would show up. There was a local rock radio station, the old Y-95, they got totally behind local bands. In fact, they did a series of albums called "Homemade Jams", I think it was (they were called "Homemade Albums" and I still have the first one!--Old Doc Mality). We were on the very first one of those. One of the songs I wrote for Cheater was on there. Yeah, Y-95, they had three of our songs in rotation. Back then, Clear Channel and Cumulus didn't own all the radio stations in the country. And you could actually go and talk to a music director or program director at a radio station. If you made a good argument, for yourself, they might put your song on the radio. We had three, maybe four, songs on regular rotation on Y-95. And we didn't even have a record deal. They got their hands on some of our demo tapes because would give them to the radio stations to use for commercials for venues back in those days.  Back then, venues would actually advertise who was was very cool. We had songs on the radio in about half a dozen different markets because we were bold enough to walk into the radio station and ask to meet the program director. We'd invite them to our show, whatever town we were in, and invariably our songs would wind up on their playlist. Especially when we were coming back to town, they'd kick the rotation up pretty good. It was a great time to be a musician.

WC: It's got to be somewhat depressing to see what has happened since then.  It's difficult now for even national acts to pull a crowd. I remember the Beloit area used to be a hotbed, with Waverly Beach and Sgt. Pepper's and Prime Time. That was just around the time I was starting to drive. I used to listen to Y-95 a lot. It's funny how things come full circle. I remember seeing Cheater at the Mother's Day concert and asking myself, who's the guy on stage who thinks he's Superman? (laughter) And now I'm talking to him more than 30 years later!

CC: Yeah, well, that was one of those things that in retrospect, I'm not sure I'd do it again. Althought it did draw people in to see us for a little while. My first name is Clark and I got tagged with the nickname "Superman" in high school. It was weird, because a lot of people knew me as Superman and didn't even know my real name. Back in those days, everybody had a nick were Sparky or The Flash. It was a different era. I had all these acquaintances who knew me as Superman and our booking agent got this idea. One time, I showed up with a Superman T-shirt to a gig. He got the idea that I should be wearing some glitzed out version of the Superman outfit. So I had this fake satin cape and sequined emblem. It was kind of fun for a little while. We were playing out in Iowa one time and the venue was PACKED!(chuckles) We'd already had soundcheck and gone back to the hotel to get cleaned up and eat. As we were coming back in, people were lined up waiting to get in. There was this really hot chick saying to this other really hot chick, wait until the last set, this guy comes out in a Superman outfit. Well, I got a little puffed up and my ego started to swell. And then she says, "It's the STUPIDEST thing I've ever seen! You won't believe it!" Well, needless to say, I did not appear in the cape that night or any night since! (laughs)

WC: I just see it as another version of what Rick Nielsen does with his Huntz Hall outfit...

CC: Yeah, and that's really why I got talked into it.  Our agent said, you're the only one that has an obvious persona that we can do something with. Kiss was exploding at the time. Everybody had to have their schtick. Elton John had his sequins and giant glasses...

WC: I remember the band Angel used to be big for a while...

CC: Oh yeah...all in white,  with gauzy shirts and stuff. It seemed like a good idea at the time. (chuckles) But ya know, I'm gonna let the music speak for itself.  I generally go out in whatever black stuff I can find in my closet and I try not to get too weird about it.

WC: Instead of going forward, let me go back even further. What was it that inspired you to play electric guitar instead of drums, keyboards, violin? What made that the instrument to do?

CC: I would have to say, it was probably the old surf guitar guys. When I was young, I had kind of a sheltered childhood. All my buddies were talking about different bands and musicians that they listened to and I had no clue about any of them.  My parents had talk radio on in the house and that was it. I had no real exposure to music until one Christmas when my parents decided they were going to buy me a radio alarm clock. (chuckles) I had trouble getting up in the morning so they got me the loudest alarm they could find! I discovered a late night radio show out of Chicago. This guy would play not just current stuff but things that he liked.  He was playing Duane Eddy and Dick Dale...the Surfaris! I actually interested in drums because of "Wipeout" by The Surfaris. I thought this is it, I'm gonna be a drummer! And then a couple of nights later, I started hearing "Miserlou" and some of the other Dick Dale stuff and also some Link Wray. Aw, come one, forget the drums! Every kid in my neighborhood wants to be a drummer! Listen to those guitars! They sound amazing! To me, the guitar could convey so much power and so much emotion, that I thought, this is the thing I want to play. About the time I got interested in it, we started to see a real change in the sound of guitars. Keith Richards used the fuzztone on "Satisfaction" and caught a lot of flak about it, because it was such an unusual tone. But it was a huge hit.  Then you had guys like Eric Clapton with Cream creating some really unique sounds, Jeff Beck with The Yardbirds had "Shapes of Things To Come" and some other big hits. There was this wonderful diversity of sound...

WC: And of course, Jimi Hendrix....

CC:  Yeah, he was the one who really pushed me over the top. I can't remember now what the first song I heard from him might have been "Hey Joe". ..but I borrowed one of his albums from somebody in the neighborhood and I was floored. I had no idea that you could get those kind of sounds out of a guitar. So I became what you would call "obsessed" and my parents started to get worried about me. I spent every waking hour either playing my guitar, listening to guitar based music, reading guitar magazines, or trying to work on my guitar to make it play beyond the 12th fret. They were...concerned. (laughs)

WC: The DJ who played what he liked, we won't be seeing a guy like that anytime too soon. Or a guy like Jimi Hendrix. They broke the mold with him.

CC: There have been a lot of guys who tried to copy his sound and his style and what they miss is that he didn't necessarily try to sound the same all the time. So you might hear a guy that will have the "Electric Ladyland" sound on all their songs while another guy might nail the sound from "The Wind Cries Mary". They cop a few Hendrix licks but they're missing his inventiveness and his unbridled adventurism. He would do the wildest things he could think of. He'd toss the stuff that didn't work and keep the stuff that did. Most guitar players today want to sound like the big guitar hero of the moment...and we don't have a lot of them anymore! If you think back to that era, we had Jimi Hendrix, we had Jimmy Page, we had Jeff Beck, we had Eric Clapton...all t hese guys bursting onto the scene at the same time. All these amazing, innovative players. Now they all they all kind of sound the same...they want to be Mark Tremonti from Creed. It's like the majority of new guitar players want to sound like somebody they were listening to five years ago and they don't want to find their own voice. They don't want to be a creative force.

WC: And that's what the music business seems to encourage today. You can probably find guys who are innovative but not on TV or radio, that's for sure.

CC: (chuckles) I know. I can't tell you how many times I had industry people tell me "man, you're a really good guitar player, you've got a really unique sound, but we're looking for something more marketable." (laughs)

WC: That's the type of person who should be dropped down an elevator shaft.  There's not an awful lot that can be done about this in this day and age.

CC: I think we're finally starting to see a turning of the tide, a little bit. I don't know how much we'll see. With the bad shape the record industry is in today, the record companies have gotten way more conservative. Honestly, the record companies still dominate the radio airwaves, they still dominate most television, although you'll occasionally see someone do an unusual pop-up on one of those late night shows. The record companies are still churning out all the pop hits. In some ways, it's kinda like the disco era. I was at a charity event on Sunday and they had a radio station playing music in between the speakers. It really did strike me that it was like the disco era. All the songs had the kick drum going on the downbeat...four on the floor, they call it....thunk,thunk,thunk...and the high hat was either doing the old disco high hat where it opens on the upbeat...sss, sss, sss...

WC: You're lucky if a human being was playing that music at all.

CC:  Oh no, that was the radio station that was sponsoring the event. It was all this Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, other acts I never heard of, but the songs all blended together because they were all 120 beats per minute. Oh my gosh, it reminds me of the disco era, when every single song had the exact same  drumbeat and maybe two chords. In a way, that part has gotten worse, but I think we're starting to see some public backlash because of this. People are going, God, I'm sick of this! I want to hear something different!

WC: I think kids are starting to get sick of it, too. With your most recent album "Again", it's got that kind of variety to it. Were you after that right from the get-go? Do you think you were successful with that album?

CC: Yeah, I think I achieved what I was after. When I write music, I try really hard to not write it for somebody else. I just try to be true to myself and hope that it will have appeal for a certain segment of the listening audience out there. When I did this new album, I really wanted to stick to that work ethic but at the same time, I am cognizant of the listener. I write lots of stuff that isn't heavy, stuff that is more melodic or progressive. I write lots of stuff that is in weird time signatures.  I thought, you know, I'm going to take a little bit of everything and put it on this album. I'm going to try and be conscious of the pacing, but I'm going to take 10 or 12 songs that I think will go together well and that will be the new album. I wound up with about 11, I recorded a couple of others that didn't seem to fit even though, as you say, there's quite a variety of sound on there.  The pacing is good where it's at...I've got some really energetic ones, some more laid back and melodic ones. I try to pace the record like I pace my life, where its like've got a lot of energy, then you relax. I think that part of the album worked out really well.

WC:  I did an interview once with Ian Hill from Judas Priest...

CC: (laughs) I get accused of looking like him all the time!

WC: I asked him, what do you think is missing from heavy metal today? And he answered, the new bands miss the lighter side of it. It all seems to be total aggression and violence all the time. I thought that was kind of a unique thing for him to say and it sounds like that might be where you're coming from. A lot of your new songs have a more upbeat feel to them.

CC: As an artist, I try to express a lot of different things. For me, when I buy an album and every song is basically the same..the same tempo, the same key, the same overall feel...I can't listen to the whole thing anymore. Maybe when I was 20, I might have been able to do that, but as I've matured as a musician and a human being, I find I like albums that have some pacing. The albums that have constant aggression...I don't know, I just don't think that is the best way to approach it. But obviously there are a lot of bands out there who start out their set and just don't let up for the duration...

WC: I know, i've talked to quite a few of them...(laughs)

CC:  Yeah, I bet! Back when, Judas Priest was considered as metal as you could get. And now a lot of people say, oh, they're not metal. Well, they're kind of hard rock, I suppose...

WC: To me, they are still heavy metal but they knew how to put together an album.

CC: Yeah, there was pacing and there was melodic content and it all wasn't just about brutality...

WC: Even on their newer records, they still do that. But now, even the concept of the album itself seems to be almost absent. It's like song by song.

CC: A lot of people blame iTunes for that or blame the digital age. To a certain degree, I think it goes as far back as the mid-80's, where the record companies discovered that they could get a couple of hit singles and a couple of mediocre B-side songs and put them with some just total dogs on an album and people would buy it. I have a couple of albums I got that I bought back then that I bought on the strength of the single. And it turns out that the single was absolutely nothing like the rest of the album.  From that standpoint, I was horribly disappointed. So I could understand fans saying, I'm not going to go out and drop 20 bucks on this stuff. At that point, albums were getting to 17, 18 dollars. I remember walking into Media Play and seeing new CDs from new artists marked at 18.99. I'm not dropping almost 20 dollars for just one song! I think some of that has affected how artists approach making music today. They think in terms of just making a single great song  that will sell on iTunes or But I still love the concept of albums. I love bands like Porcupine Tree and OSI where they take a theme and they link everything together. The pacing from one song to another is's almost like being in a concert situation while you're sitting at home in front of your stereo. (laughs) I don't know how many people do that, but I still do!

WC: I've kept all my vinyl. I have the same stereo set up I had in the 80s. It's the CD players that are cheap and seem to be shot in 3 years or less.

CC: Yeah, they don't hold up very well. It's like planned obsolescence. I had a friend of mine get his CD player repaired a few months ago. The guy wouldn't even fix it. He said it will cost you more to fix this than to get a new Blu-Ray CD player.

WC: It costs $100 to fix and $50 to buy a new one. It's kind of pathetic. Let me move on now. A lot of the songs on "Again"  seem autobiographical.

CC: (laughs) When you talk to people about writing songs, the big songwriters from years ago would always say "weite about what you know". On occasion I've tried to just make stuff up and actually, some of the songs I did for Cheater were almost science fiction in the lyrics. When I started doing lyrics for this one, it was a different approach. "The Unexpected" is the first track, I actually came up with the lyrics to speak about my wife. I didn't expect her to come into my life. She did and she lit my whole life up and it was unexpected for me. So I wrote a few lyrics and I didn't know what to call the song. Well, that was unexpected! I looked at the subject of the lyrics and thought, hmm, the unexpected...that would fit the subject of the lyrics. That suprised a lot of my fans, because they don't expect me to sing. That song sort of opened the door for writing more songs with lyrics. "Lie To Me"...I don't think that one's autobiographical unless I go way back to some of my early romances.  I might have felt that way about some of the girls I dated....probably not! What started the idea behind that one was, I was watching couples at a restaurant once and I was thinking how they were inches apart from each other but they seemed miles away in their eyes.  That line "inches apart yet miles away" just kind of stuck in my head and I started asking, why would they be like that? I wound up writing the song almost like a short story about a couple that drifted apart. That's not so much autobiographical as much as observational.

WC: How about "It's Your Life"?

CC: That one's got a good story. My band before this one, Clark Plays Guitar, was slated to open for a band called Smile Empty Soul. (laughs) When they found out that we were a progressive hard rock band, they had us removed from the bill. They said we only want alternative bands, we don't want any flashy instrumentalists up there trying to make us look bad. Or words to that effect...

WC: Or anybody that could play better than they could...

CC:  That's kind of the feeling I got! I had managed to get a friend of mine from the Milwaukee area and his band on the bill. They also called themselves alternative but they were more of what I would call progressive hard rock with a melodic edge. Smile Empty Soul booted them off the bill,  but this band, called Oversouls, was in the process of auditioning new singers at the time. They were flying in two singers from different parts of the country so they could each do a few songs in front of an audience and Oversouls could evaluate how they worked with the audience. They spent money on non-refundable air fare and really didn't want to get booted off the bill. So I went to the promoter and said, this show's in five days, you can't do this! These guys have spent money. Well, Oversouls got back on the bill and they asked me to come down and videotape their performance since my band wasn't playing. So I did that and then I stuck around for Smile Empty Soul. Oh my gosh, their lyrics just pissed me off! Every song was whining about how life isn't fair and how the singer doesn't wanna be like his mama. Everysong was "I'm not like you". Dude, you are so right! I'm not like you at all. I'm proactive about my life, I'm gonna be like whoever I want. I don't feel like I'm destined to be like my mom or whoever else he was whining about. I went home after their set that night and wrote that whole song "It's My Life" in one sitting.

WC: You almost could have written your other song "Stop Talking" about that same guy...

CC: (laughs) I could have! "Stop Talking" was a song where I came up with the chorus first. I was talking to somebody and realized I was just going a mile a minute. I have trouble stopping, my brakes aren't so good! (laughs) So I start saying to myself in my head, "stop talking, stop talking, stop talking"! And I kind of developed that into a chorus. And I thought what else would go with that? I was out at a mall one day and I was just appalled at the things people were talking about.

WC: We live in the age of the blabbermouth. Everywhere you go, in person,on phone or on the net, they say everything that's on their mind every minute of the day!

CC: Yeah, they're all wrapped up in celebrity gossip. Who cares?! You don't even know who's on the Supreme Court and you're rapping about some halfwit reality TV star.

WC: I think a lot of this is by design.  They are keeping people dumbed down so thieves take over everything.

CC: I don't want to sound like I'm wearing my aluminum hat but I think about that a lot. There's something to the mass media keeping us stupid...

WC: Look at reality TV. I thought when it first appeared it was going to be a two year spit in the wind, but fifteen years later, they are trying to scrape the bottom of the barrel. They got shows about people picking up lost luggage...they're elevating pawn shop owners to celebrity status. (laughter) In the 60's, they had debates between Gore Vidal and William it's pawn shop owners!

CC: (laughing) It's just unbelievable!

WC: There's two places where you can hear the worst of humanity...a shopping mall and the comment section on Youtube.

CC: Oh my God, I know. It's unbelievable the things that you see there. And that's actually a site I can say that song "Stop Talking" is directed at.  People seem to carry that mentality into the public now.

WC: You can say stuff on the Internet easily. If you say the same thing to somebody in real life, you get the living shit beat out of you.

CC: I know. The things that people post....beyond belief. I wish we had a "slap" button so a little hand would come out of the keyboard or monitor and just whomp them upside the head one time.

WC: I wanted to ask you about the cover of Stevie Wonder's "Superstition" that you recently did.  Has it been a long time desire of yours to do that track?

CC: Yeah. I was thinking about this when Gary (Hill, editor of Music Street Journal and PR whiz) were discussing the press release and what we were going to put in it? When did I first want to do a version of that song?  I'm thinking, when it first came out, I could hear the potential for this cool rock riff. The band I was in at the time shot that idea down. They said, no, we're a hard rock band, we're not a funk band. But you're not hearing it the way I'm hearing it. There's a potential here to be just a ferocious song. Then we found out that Stevie had specifically written that song for Jeff Beck. And I said, Jeff Beck is going to do a version of this, it's got to be a rock song! And I just couldn't talk anybody into doing it. So the idea kind of simmered for years. Then about three or four years ago, I talked my band into doing a version of it for our live show. And it went over pretty well. The arrangement I did on the recording is kind of alaong the lines of the version I did for the live show, although I did tweak it.  In my head, I could always hear a strong female vocal on it. Even way back in the day. Grace Slick was still an awesome singer back then and I wondered what she could do with this. Some of the other female singers that have come along since then...Amy Lee from Evanescence, what could she do with it? And then I stumbled across Sweet Lucy. They're a cover band in Rockford and I heard them doing Pat Benatar songs and Blondie songs and I thought, that gal can sing! I got to meet her, her name's Melissa Ridgeway. So I did a little introduction and asked if she would consider singing on the track. She said sure, so she came in and just killed it.

WC:  It sounded like a natural pairing.

CC: I was surprised at how fast the recording session went with her. She came in and we did one take and I said, wow! That might be it, we might not need another one! She said, let's do another one. So we wound up doing two takes, we talked a little a bit about one part of the song I had a couple of ideas about. I wasn't liking that idea once I heard it so we were about to call it a day. I said, let's do one last take and just let it all hang out and take it to the top. That's the take that's on the recording. She just cut loose and oh my God, I was getting goosebumps while I was doing the recording. I've listened to it hundreds of times now through the mixing and mastering process and it still gives me goosebumps. That last verse, that chorus...she just nails.

WC: That song is almost a no-fail song.

CC:  I hope it will draw attention to both Melissa and to my music. Melissa is such a great singer and I'd love to see her do that for a full time living if she wants to. I think she's easily got the talent to be a national star. With the song, I'm hoping it will be accessible enough that people who would be confused by the term "progressive hard rock" or "progressive metal"  will at least listen to it and go, hey, maybe this guy has got some other stuff that I'll like. Maybe it will open some doors.

WC: Do you have anything planned on the live front?

CC: Yeah, my band and I, we're actually working right now to get a new booking agent. Our next show is in two and a half weeks in Chicago, we're playing the Elbo Room. We've got a couple of other tentative things in the Chicago area. We're working hard to find promoters or booking agents that we can work with on a regular basis.  We want to get out and do a lot of shows. Right now we're a three piece. We've got Sam Locke on bass...he's a phenomenal bass player. He's somewhat reminiscent of Les Claypool from Primus. But he also is able to jump right in and take more of a straight rock approach to songs that require it. On other songs, he stretches out a little bit, puts a bit of that Les Claypool feel in. It makes for some really fun shows. Joel Bayer drums on the album is now drumming with me live. He's just a powerhouse. When we're doing the live shows, we approach that a little different than we approach the studio. I always tell people, when you look at a painting of Abraham Lincoln and then you look at a sculpture of Lincoln, even in the same pose, that's the same difference. When we play "The Unexpected" live, it is absolutely recognizable as "The Unexpected" but there's a whole different feel to it.

WC: That's the way you'd think most bands would want it. But there's still those bands that try to recreate the studio version down to the last detail.

CC: Exactly. That's why so many bands are using backing tracks and sequencers and stuff today.

WC: What was the last CD or release you got just because you wanted to check it out?

CC: The last one from Symphony X. I believe it was called "Iconoclast".

WC: Their singer Russell Allen has a phenomenal voice.

CC: He does. It's like this weird combination of Ronnie James Dio and Geoff Tate and Jeff Scott-Soto.

WC: What was the last live show you caught just because you wanted to?

CC: Oh, let's's been a while since I've got to see anybody else. You know, I just can't remember!

WC: Any last words for the fans out there?

CC: Just that I hope they appreciate music and albums that have some variety and pacing in them. That's what I try to bring to the table everytime I play, on record or live. People need to get out and support live, original music...especially mine! (laughs)