Creative Cooking With Kevin Clarke
“Basically, when you create anything, it is a chance to put a bit of yourself into a construct that you’ve framed in an abstract way. Hopefully that thing you create will communicate with others and speak to them on a certain level.”– Kevin Clarke
“Creative Cooking with Kevin Clarke”? Has IAMUR suddenly broadened its scope to include the culinary arts? Of course not but one never knows what the future may bring. Kevin is a Toronto area based sound chef who makes full use of his spices to whip up quirky cool concoctions and he always includes earworms in his dishes.
For starters, you can count on generous helpings of guitar. Clean and funky, overdrive swagger, classic genre era homage, and just the right amount of fromage.
He isn’t afraid of heaping on the groove, spinal bass lines, or sprinkling some mandolin on top.
Lyrics? Sort of like eating dessert in tandem with the main course, such is the reward. This dude is a Michelin star chef who uses nothing but fresh ingredients to satiate the growing demand for original music that exists on its own terms. Here we shall endeavor to delve into some of what those terms entail, but before the delve, we do the Likes and Dislikes overview as follows…
Likes : Technical stuff, philosophical topics, escapism in all forms, weird or interesting people, honesty, common sense, community, inclusivity, humour, self-deprecation, humility, suspension of disbelief, beer.
Dislikes : Intolerance, willful ignorance, drama, egotism, maraschino cherries, reality television, social media, emoji and other general spam.
Okay, wait. I like beer also and must ask “what is your favorite beer?”
I am a person that likes beer in all its various forms – from fancy to blue-collar malt liquor – I go through phases and my current favorite is a chea Danish beer, Faxe Amber, which they happen to stock at my local grocery store.
I like the Faxe beers and also dabble relentlessly because there are so many choices out there. My current ambrosia of choice is Czechvar Dark, but hey we’re digressing. I will state that digressing for beer talk is permitted.
One of the things I love about IAMUR’s agenda is how indie music-makers are given a chance to reach a larger audience who can then get to know what makes the artist(s) tick. In other words, who are you and how did you get here? What do you want our readers to know about you? As a fellow Canadian, I say “give ‘er!”
Music has been a major part of my life pretty much forever. In the early 90s, I formed a band in Halifax Nova Scotia Canada, The Hollow, with my best friend Clarke MacDonald which ended up defining that decade for me. We wrote many songs and found some great bandmates who were very dedicated in the pursuit of excellence and getting our stage show down. This was during the time when grunge ruled the airwaves and predictably our music adopted those aspects but we also incorporated nods to classic British rock and contemporary metal.
During this time, I took a real interest in recording – from renting 4-tracks to 8 tracks, to eventually taking a music engineering course. One thing led to another and I ended up taking a bank loan out to purchase a bunch of studio equipment along with one of my bandmates, Jody. We partnered with an established recording studio which meant our gear became part of the studio’s and in exchange, I was given free rein to record bands I could bring in off the street while also working on my band’s album. For the next few years, I became a studio rat helping bands record demos and getting lost within a progressively over extravagant album with my band. Eventually, my band’s live gigging was put on hold and my wallet suffered from trying to make a go of recording demos for local artists. Music had become work.
I went to school for computer programming while keeping the band alive. But its days were numbered. I graduated, found a job in Toronto as a programmer, and started a new chapter. For the next 10 years I worked for a digital agency as a programmer with more and more responsibilities in management. I directly drew upon my experience working with bands and being in a band with my new responsibilities. I found similarities between designing and implementing applications in a team situation with writing songs, collaborating with musicians, and engineering and recording.
You mention your first band being located in Halifax. Is that where you were born and spent your early years? I’ve been there twice and was impressed by the music scene; what was your take on it as a contributing musician also living there?
Born in Halifax, a lovely city on the ocean. Halifax has a wealth of musicians and a vibrant creative scene supportive of all forms of art from folk to avant-garde. In the 90s I had a taste of the scene in Halifax during what was called the “Halifax Pop Explosion” which was born from a style of alternative rock and grunge music with a distinctly “pop” sound and spearheaded by bands like Sloan and Thrush Hermit. My band, The Hollow, was swept up in the energy of the larger scene – there were many venues to play and the audiences were very receptive and supportive to bands playing original music. The scene was not specific to “power pop grunge” and also included rap, country, folk, blues, rock & metal as well as more experimental art-music. In a nutshell, an inclusive and progressive scene that provided a nurturing environment to young artists.
Eventually I formed my own digital agency which I’ve run with a partner for the last 10 years. Having my own company has given me some opportunities to make commercial music for some of my customers – usually as an add-on for larger marketing initiatives – but also has given me the flexibility to help raise a family and choose how I spend my time. Over the years I’ve become proficient with digital recording and have amassed a wealth of software and instruments. Recently, I discovered Bandlab and have fallen in love with the ability to share music, interact, and collaborate with artists all around the world. My goal on BandLab has been to write songs and explore singing. Singing was the one aspect of music making I never took part in. I’m slowly learning how to sing and feel grateful to the community in BandLab where I can put a song out and receive kind comments in return.
Your early studio years sound interesting. Was there an in-house engineer who took you in and taught you the ropes? 1990s gear was so much different from the quick and convenient tools available to us now. Were you a quick study or was your learning curve relatively smooth? (in other words, expand-expound on this if you wish)
I remember as a kid my father showing me a gadget of his, a Philips cassette recorder that had a microphone. I got a real kick out of recording my voice and being amazed at being able to play it back – I think I caught the recording bug there. Later in life, with my band, we’d rent a Tascam 4-track “Portastudio”. I was the guy in the band obsessed with obtaining a really good sounding recording and still remember the juggling act of setting up 3 or 4 mics in the basement to best capture everything. This led to periodically renting 8 track tape recorders, a small mixing desk and mics. We’d rent these on a Friday and return on Monday morning. During these periods we’d try to get the most out of the few days we had the gear and I remember obsessively planning how we’d maximise our time. I slowly learned the ropes through experimentation with my own band and what I could glean from any written work that made mention of the process of sound engineering. If any gear like a tape machine or synthesizer had a technical manual I devoured it.
In the mid-1990s I took an engineering course offered through the Canadian Conservatory and instructed by Laurence Currie, a very talented engineer, known for his work with many artists over the years but at the time with Sloan and Jale. From Laurence and the course I learned the right way to do things and got to see the insides of a really well run, beautifully well stocked studio “Idea Of East”. Around this time my band had a rehearsal space in a big facility that also had a recording studio – Deep Nine Recording Studios. We started recording demos there and got to know the owners (both wonderful gentlemen) pretty well. At this point I had acquired quite a bit of recording equipment myself and approached the owners of this studio to see if I could park the gear there. We worked out a deal where they’d let me have access to the studio in exchange for them being able to use the gear. No computers at this stage so a “classic” recording studio with a live room, iso booths, and a mixing room. I had all the time in the world to experiment in a studio and my band began an epic journey recording our big album.
Ultimately the unrestricted experimentation was not productive but it was amazingly fun. For example, I experimented recording the drums one piece at a time. I was able to get an almost Phil Collins or electronic 80s drum machine sound but at the expense of any groove, with a sound that didn’t mesh with our aesthetic at all, and at a deep interpersonal cost with my drummer. Spending hours setting up reverb chambers. Clarke, our vocalist, learned how to perfectly pronounce whole sentences backwards so we could then play that back in reverse. The experimentation got progressively trippy over a period of a few years and inevitably led to an unraveling of the big album. During this time I was able to work with bands recording demo albums. Limited time, limited budget and trying to get the absolute best representation off the floor with minimal overdubs and fixes. This was rewarding but also taxing. Scheduling I remember being tricky – this was before email. Getting paid was also tricky sometimes.
When searching for free mastering options I happened upon Bandlab. I was very pleasantly surprised (to say the least) by the vibrant and eclectic scene there. How did you discover the Lab?
I use a DAW called Reason. It’s a wonderful piece of software that I’m proficient with but its days may be numbered. Because of this, I’m always on the lookout for an alternative to Reason and I stumbled upon a video about Cakewalk and the fact that it is now free. I downloaded Cakewalk, and have been impressed with what it offers, but the biggest impact is that in exchange for the free software you register for “Bandlab” – “ok sure sounds like a fair deal” I thought. I uploaded a song to Bandlab called “Test dadgad tuning” and didn’t think about it. A few days later I noticed there were a few plays and a single comment and a like! This flicked a psychological switch on and I wanted more people to hear my music. I put some blues songs up and received some very positive feedback from bluesy residents. At this point I was hooked. Bandlab is my first experience taking part in social media. It has been a fun and rewarding learning experience. I absolutely love all the talented people around the world making beautifully creative music. I find so much inspiration watching peoples’ journeys and getting to share in an important part of their lives – music.
“Music has been a major part of my life pretty much forever” is a statement that I nod in agreement with. How did you first become immersed in music? What were your main influences and which genres resonated with you, then and now?
My mother first got me into music. Some of my earliest memories are of Mom and me bopping around to Elton John and the Beatles. At a very early age I had a record player and a large collection of albums I was given access to. When I was 12 or so I discovered David Bowie and quickly went back and got all of his 70s (and 60s) albums. Through Bowie I discovered Lou Reed, Mott the Hoople, Marc Bolan, and other bands through direct or indirect relation. In high school, my friend Clarke got an acoustic guitar. I remember him passing the guitar to me and instantly knowing it was something I needed in my life. To one-up him I bought an electric guitar. It was 1991 and Nirvana, Guns & Roses, and the Chilli Peppers were everywhere. A short hop away was Led Zep, Black Sabbath. Heavier guitar rock became the genre I naturally gravitated towards. In terms of genres, I think every style of music has good and bad examples. I make an effort to listen to modern popular music and some of it is really impressive. I’m a guitar rock guy at the core but if a song pulls me in emotionally, I’m a fan of it regardless of the genre.
Aside from Bandlab artists, what are you listening to these days?
Apart from listening to the classics, I adore the relatively modern band “Vulfpeck”. Vulfpeck is essentially a supergroup with amazing musicians making the best funky pop music imaginable. Pure joy. Each of their main members have other projects and bands, and they bring in talented musicians all the time so Vulfpeck is a great launching off point to discover some of the best modern music. Also really like Louis Cole and his band “Knower”. Funky like Vulfpeck but darker and quirkier. Once again amazing musicianship and insanely catchy songs. Both bands are instant pick-me-ups and literally put a smile on my face.
I realize the enormity of such a question, but what is it that motivates you to create?
I like making things, seeing something through from start to finish, and standing back and admiring it. If I was a woodworker, I’d get the same pleasure making a table polishing it, and saying ‘yep that’s a fine table’. Basically, when you create anything, it is a chance to put a bit of yourself into a construct that you’ve framed in an abstract way. Hopefully, that thing you create will communicate with others and speak to them on a certain level.
Your Bandlab listeners will hear a fairly wide variety of instrumental textures in your work. How many instruments do you play?
My main instrument is Guitar. I’ve put the most time into figuring that out and have gotten to the point where I’ve developed my own “guitar voice”. I’ve gotten into Bass guitar as well and am really trying to play and think like a bass player and not a guitarist. I can play piano well enough to service my songs. Likewise for harmonica, mandolin and percussion. I “play” drums via keyboard/midi.
I dig those mandolin and harmonica voices in your tunes. Do you have any instruments that you would like to take up in future? The mortal coil doesn’t seem to give us enough time to get to that entire wish list, but if there is one instrument you’d really like to get into… do tell.
First and foremost I would like to learn how to play real drums. Currently, I play drums via my midi controller and I really feel like I’m cheating. Also, I feel my songs are being held back with a critically important element not being given enough energy and attention. Might be a nice project for the winter.
I do feel that you have crafted an identifiable sound but also through an eclectic variety of modes. How would you describe the music that you make?
I try to make music that sounds original but is still accessible. Most of my songs are relatively short where I try to get in, establish a theme, have a change, and get out before it gets too boring, or it goes off on a wild tangent. I’m not afraid to include elements in a song that are uncool, hokey, or awkward if they serve a purpose. Typically, the music I make has a darker or melancholic slant but a general optimism always pervades. I like throwing in an occasional quirky bit as a wink to people saying we’re all a little out of step with the beat of life and that’s fine.
You mentioned starting out as a guitarist. You are quite evidently a songwriter these days and I enjoy the deft touches of humor in your lyrics. How did you morph from guitar player to full spectrum songwriter?
Once I moved to Toronto music became something I did by myself on the computer. Eventually I was making some OK music but it was definitely missing the real important aspect of vocals. Getting on Bandlab and having people actually hear my music gave me the reason to try and get my songs to the next level of completion by actually singing. It’s been my mission to force myself to sing and singing does not come easy! I’m still finding my voice so to speak – which key do I most easily slot into? Should I belt it out or hold back? Trying to find my comfort zone. To add to this challenge of singing are lyrics. Lyrics are so tough. I want to share something of myself but I really start wondering: what sort of message am I qualified to put down and what observations do I have that are unique and not cliché? I don’t want to sound pretentious, whiny or boastful and on top of this have butted up with the fact that I have a hard time expressing emotions. Well there you go! Process wise I don’t sit down and write lyrics out. They come as part of the recording process – once the song’s music is complete I start singing over it with fake words. Rhythmic phrasing starts to form. Words pop out and start replacing the fake words. At some point I have a framework for the vocals, with some key words. From there I try to connect the dots by fully fleshing out the words. This process is probably strange but it matches up with my capabilities and limitations and ultimately allows me to get the song past the finish line.
To elaborate on the theme of creative process, can you give us a glimpse into how you bring your music to fruition? How goes the trip from inception to someone’s Bandlab collection?
My most common method is the “off the cuff write in stages’ approach. I always have a guitar close at hand. Frequently during the day, I’ll pick the guitar up and work out a progression, a pattern, or riff. If I think something has potential, I record it right away either on a webcam or my phone camera. In the evenings I’ll review the little bits I’ve recorded. If they still sound interesting and I have a few free hours I’ll boot up the DAW and try to re-record the idea. Once I get a decent take recorded, I usually try to make a supporting drum beat right away. If I step back and listen to the part with the beat I can tell whether the idea warrants more work.
Assuming it does, I either develop the idea more or add a change or second part. Many song ideas die at this stage. Some ideas won’t accept a second part no matter how much effort is put into grafting one on. Once the song is at the point where there are at least two sections I flesh it out by laying a bass track down and anything else that makes obvious sense – like keyboards, percussion etc. If the song hasn’t unraveled at this point the next stage is vocals which is the most challenging step in the whole process. I start by mumbling out sounds – no words – can I make my voice contribute or add to the music? If I feel like that is progressing, I start to turn the mumbles into words. If I’m lucky a word will lead to another word and then hopefully a full phrase.
At this point, the “theme” (and song title) has surfaced which I use as the basis for the lyrics. The last step is production and polish. I make sure none of my performances have any glaring errors. I re-amp my guitar & bass parts – feed the previously recorded guitar from my computer into a guitar amp and record that with a microphone. The song has typically been mixed during the process of writing and recording but at this step I’ll consider adding effects like delay or reverb and performing general mastering tweaks like applying global eq, limiting, compression, etc.
Aside from your ongoing solo works, are you involved in any new collaborations or projects that you would like to mention?
I’ve recently collaborated with the band Tennessippi from BandLab which is an outlaw country outfit. It’s been a nice challenge for me in terms of the style of music of which I don’t have a pedigree in and just the fact that all the work is done virtually. I’m really pleased with what I’ve been able to help contribute – in particular the songs Circles and Tennessippi Line where I played many instruments and acted in a production role.
That sounds cooler than nude skiing in Banff. Here is where you have the opportunity to share some of your music! Please feel free to offer any details that you wish.
Since I joined Bandlab 7 months ago I’ve written about 60 original songs and contributed, in varying degrees, to dozens of others for artists. The list of 12 songs in the collection I’ve provided gives a pretty good idea of the style of music I make and were mostly written in the past 4 months. Guitar-centric, as accessible and catchy as I’m capable of making, and hopefully original sounding. My goal, some point soon, is to make an album where it sounds cohesive track to track and is programmed to have a logical flow.
60 original songs. Sixty. In 7 months. Seven. Kevin!! You and Bandlab are a natural fit and thank you for sharing your thoughts and music with us. I wish you another sixty and many more.
Kevin Clarke can be found on Bandlab right here.