CLARK COLBORN “The Obscure Enigma”
By Dark Starr
Clark Colborn should be no stranger to anyone who has followed WWC over the years. For a quick run-down he's a guitar wizard whose music transcend prog, metal and other genres. He's been a fixture of the Rockford, Illinois regional music scene since the 1980s when he was the guitarist in CHEATER. I got the chance to ask him about his recent history, his new album and more.
WORMWOOD CHRONICLES: I guess it's safe to say that this last year and a half has been crazy for all of us, and that's part of the period I want to ask you about, but it's been a few years since we've done an interview with you. What has been going on in the world of Clark Colborn?
CLARK COLBORN: Like everyone else on the planet, the whole Covid-19 thing has turned much of my life upside down, mainly in terms of live shows where my music career is concerned. In the year and a half before Covid hit there was a lot going on in my personal life, some good and some bad. It consumed an enormous amount of time. Outside of that, the last several years have been busy with a variety of projects. We may have talked about some of this last time, but here’s what comes to mind: I released an EP on CD called "Ones and Zeros," which was a compilation of some cover songs I had released initially as download-only tracks. I recorded a song for a short film, featuring me on piano and keyboards, and Melissa Ridgeway on vocals. It is way out of my normal style, but really is a beautiful piece. It’s called "Ramona’s Prayer" and is on iTunes, Amazon and a bunch of other places. For a short while I was in a mostly acoustic duo, and we released a cover of a DAVID BOWIE song. I’ve also begun to write a book chronicling the making of my latest album and a second one which is a collection of fictional short stories.
WC: You have a brand-new album out. I have to think that it must have been a different process this time around. Can you tell us a little bit about the work behind the magic?
CC: This is absolutely the most challenging album I have made, hands down. The new album is called "Obscurotica." It was plagued with problems from the beginning, which is why I ended up deciding to write a book about it. We had family deaths, property damage from a tornado, health issues with me and family members, and a host of other things. I developed a horrendous case of medial epicondylitis, which is also called “golfer’s elbow” but could be called “picker’s elbow,” because it was long sessions of fast picking that caused it. I couldn’t play for a couple of months. At one point all of the original recordings were lost, and we had to start over. There were a lot of setbacks and delays.
All of this pushed me into a fairly dark place, which is when I wrote several of the tunes that ended up on the album. I don’t know, perhaps the challenges pushed me to be more creative. Sometimes, when I was feeling extremely down, I would still force myself to go record. Most of the time the results were absolute crap, but a few times I was just on fire, and a couple of those sessions ended up on "Obscurotica".
My writing process is not consistent, it never has been. Sometimes I hear a riff in my head, and I’ll start playing around with it, trying to extrapolate the rest of the tune based on what that riff is asking for. I’ll record whatever comes out of me, and then go back and trim away the parts that don’t fit. Other times I will start with lyrics and develop the song from there. Or sometimes I will “hear” a nearly complete composition in my head and I have to work quickly to record all the bits before they slip away. Normally I write and work fairly quickly, but it didn’t really happen that way with this album.
The song "Resignation," for example, began with just two lines of lyrics. But I couldn’t go anywhere with them, and they sat alone, scribbled on a yellow legal pad for over a year. Then, during a period of time when a very serious situation was going on in our lives, the bulk of what you hear on the album popped into my head. I had to change the original lyrics a bit, but the guitars, keyboards and vocal lines all came to me in a flash. It took me a couple of sessions to get it all recorded, but it just poured out of me.
Typically I will lay down guitars and bass, and occasionally a demo drum track if I want something specific, and send that rough demo over to Joel Baer. He will digest it all and then come over to my studio, and we’ll record drums. Then I go back and record all of the final tracks on all of the other instruments. On this album, we then went to another studio with an awesome drum room and re-recorded the drums. "Resignation" was different; I kept all of the initial recordings other than the drums, including my solo.
One thing that was radically different with the making of "Obscurotica" compared to my other releases is how much time passed during writing and recording. Due to the funerals, weddings, graduations, miscellaneous disasters and all of the various things that happened, I would sometimes go months without setting foot in the studio. I don’t know if this is a good thing or a bad thing. I would go in after a long break and not remember what I had in mind for the next part of a song, for example. So I would start my process from scratch. Maybe what I had in mind previously would have been worse than what we have now, or maybe it would have been brilliant. Who’s to say? I will say that now that "Obscurotica" is done, and out there, that I am really happy with how it turned out.
Perhaps the biggest difference with this album is that I had someone else mix it. With all the challenges I was dealing with in my life, I was just not getting anywhere with the mix. So I turned it over to Chuck Macak at Electrowerks, and he did a great job. But the curse of "Obscurotica" got him as well. Days after getting the tracks from me his studio flooded. Not long after he got that resolved his studio had tornado damage, and he couldn’t do any work until that was repaired. He had a slew of other obstacles thrown at him, so we had huge delays even after we had finished recording. He hung in there, though, and got it done.
WC: Have you had time to get some distance between yourself and the work involved in the new album? If so, have you discovered any favorites or have any insights on how it sounds as a finished work revealed themselves to you?
CC: That’s a really tough question. Each track has things about it that truly delight me. I listen to the whole album and sometimes find it hard to believe that it is actually me. Here are some thoughts, though.
Once the mixes were underway I began to work on the song order, and it was during this phase that I discovered something about the compositions. I categorized them into one of two sensations: one of darkness, or one of light. The opening track, "Descend Into Madness," is actually one I wrote well into the making of this album. The title refers to that process; trying to survive and perhaps even thrive in the music business while trying to stay true to oneself as an artist. We have the backwards, otherworldly voices in the beginning and at the end, and then the part in the middle with the Mellotron and guitar through a Leslie speaker (among other things) that I think of as “the psychotic calliope” section. All of that just feels dark to me. And then we have "Fading Away" and "Resignation," which are both songs about dying. "21st Century Stomp," while instrumental, is really a kind of violent, brutal riff, which also felt dark to me. "Closer," the second track, is also dark, both musically and lyrically.
Then we have the tunes that felt light to me: the completely fun "3 Minute Funk," the wild "Perticosum Incursus," the classical-piece-gone-crazy "Passacaglia" and the raucous closing track "Star Gazy Eyes." To me, they all have this sensation of lightness about them. So I decided to group the dark tracks together and the light tracks together, and separate them with the track called "Transition." You can feel the transition occur in that track. It starts out so dark and ominous, then changes from a minor key to a major key and next thing you know there are sitars and crazy percussion kicking in and just lifting everything up. For me, the song order and that feeling of change and release that comes from listening to the whole album at once is one of my favorite things about it.
In terms of the individual tracks, I like different things about each one. I do think that the track that will probably touch the most people, and have the most powerful impact, is "Resignation." I’m really happy with the level of emotion that comes through on my vocal and also on my guitar solo. I hope the lyrics will reach listeners that are facing difficult situations, and give them a little bit of comfort knowing that they are not alone; knowing that we can all embrace our one life and try to live it to our fullest, even if it is going to be cut short.
WC: How do you compare it to your previous work?
CC: I’d like to think that it still sounds like me, but that there has been growth in terms of composing. It’s so hard to compare yourself to who you were at another point in time. Circumstances change, tastes change, life shapes us and molds us, whether we want it to or not. Ideally, we each try to use those changes to become better people, better at our chosen endeavors, and broaden our horizons.
On this album, and I’ve done this on a few of the tracks on previous releases, I did not let the worry of “how are we going to play this live” affect the recording process. In the past I would often stick to minimal instrumentation during recording so that when we would play it in concerts it would sound very close to the record. On some tracks here and there I would throw in whatever I thought made for the best sounding record, but I would temper that somewhat on each album. On "Obscurotica" I just abandoned that worry, and strove to make the entire album sound like what I hear in my head. That may bite me in the backside when we get back on stage. (laughter)
WC: What's ahead for you?
CC: I hope to assemble another live band and get out on the road again. The last time we talked, I wasn’t even certain I wanted to do that. It’s an extremely difficult process, and the financial risks are significant if you are an artist with family obligations, a mortgage and no major label to help you succeed. I’m beyond the stage where you sleep in the van and eat ramen noodles in order to tour. I simply won’t do that anymore, or make the guys in the band do that. But I absolutely love performing for a live audience. There’s nothing like it in terms of gratification when the band is cooking and the audience is really with you. So I’m trying to put together some kind of plan where we can perform with minimal disruption for our families, actually make some money and not sleep in the van. The current situation with new strains of Covid emerging may impact those plans, and if that happens I’ll focus on getting the books finished and on recording some new material.
WITH PISTOL PETE
WC: What was the last CD you bought and/or what have you been listening to lately?
The last CD I bought might have been "Hand. Cannot. Erase" by Steven Wilson of PORCUPINE TREE fame. Definitely the last album I bought was a mint copy of "Sheik Yerbouti" by FRANK ZAPPA on vinyl. I found it dirt cheap in an antiques store. I’ve been listening to those, of course, and also to some older stuff, some of my early influences, like CAPTAIN BEYOND and the very first CROSBY, STILLS & NASH album. That is such a good album in so many ways, and there is no “auto-tune” - no technology trickery; just talent.
WC: Have you read any good books lately?
CC: Yeah, "NOS4A2" by Joe Hill. It was pretty decent. He is Stephen King’s son, for anyone not familiar with him. He has his father’s style, in many ways.
WC: What about the last concert you attended for your enjoyment - I know it's probably quite a while for most of us?
CC: Yeah, I think shortly before Covid hit I went to see STEVE VAI with my son Ethan. Nothing since then, unfortunately.
WC: Do you remember the first concert you attended?
CC: Possibly! My best guess is Peter Green’s FLEETWOOD MAC. They were promoted as having former members of JOHN MAYALL'S BLUESBREAKERS, so I figured there would be some great guitar playing and talked my parents into letting me go.
WC: Have you come across any new gear recently that you love?
CC: Lately I’ve been experimenting with distortion pedals. I have never used them in the past. None of my recordings have distortion pedals on them, what you hear is an amp being driven to the edge of destruction. I have often used a graphic equalizer to push the amp into a sweet overdrive, but every time I tried to use a distortion pedal I would ditch it because they sound too “fizzy” to me. Guitarist Paul Gilbert teamed up with the pedal company JHS and they issued a distortion pedal that I actually like, called the PG-14. We’ll see if it ends up staying on my pedal board.
WC:Are there any closing thoughts you would like to get out there?
CC: Yeah, a few. As a music fan, which I am, I encourage people to broaden their horizons and listen to artists new to them. You might find some new music you’ll absolutely love. I’m a classic example of this. For years I would only listen to a handful of artists and not really explore. And just a few years ago someone got me to listen to "In Absentia" by PORCUPINE TREE, which was close to 15 years old at the time. I really liked it, so I went out and bought a bunch of their other albums, and not once have I regretted spending the money. I seriously know a couple of guys who have not bought a single new album since 1987 or 1988. Every weekend they listen to the same stuff they’ve been listening to for decades - boring!
Which brings me to another thought: Please buy CDs from artists whenever you can. Supporting bands and musicians you like by playing their tracks on Spotify is nice, but actually buying a CD or vinyl release, even buying a download, is going to be far more help to the artist in terms of them being able to pay their bills and finance more new music for you to listen to, especially lesser known artists such as myself. And this leads me to my next thought –
Please go to see local bands, or regional bands or artists you haven’t heard of more often. For the price of a single MAROON 5 ticket you could take a spouse or friend to see ten or fifteen smaller artists. You’ll probably get better seats, too.
And finally, if I may, a shameless plug for myself! At my website (ClarkPlaysGuitar.com) there is a place to join The Secret Club we have. You’ll get a four song bundle just for joining, and be the first to know about new releases, new videos, concert dates, etcetera. We also have some members-only things like videos, limited edition merchandise, meet-and-greets and more. Even if you don’t join The Secret Club, you can pick up copies of all my releases, including the brand new one, "Obscurotica".