Joining The Musical Dots & Using Samples As Instruments
An interview with forward-thinking, genre-defying, musical pioneer Mark de Clive-Lowe
Renowned as a highly creative, pioneering and masterful artist blending all styles of soulful and funky jazz, electronica, house, hip hop and broken beat to form his own, unique sound, Auckland-born, synth/piano/producer polymath Mark de Clive-Lowe was raised bi-culturally by his Japanese mother and New Zealand father.
Currently residing in Los Angeles and forming a crucial part of the local music scene, he’s also the Founding Artist in Residence for La Ceiba Festival, was a recent recipient of the 2021 US-Japan Creative Artists Fellowship and is an active curator, educator and speaker.
After learning the piano from the age of four in his native New Zealand, Mark gained his first production and electronic music experiences collaborating with local hip hop and R&B artists.
“Classical piano led to a love for jazz, and high school brought hip hop into my life. I got my first drum machine, synth and sequencer setup when I was 15 but really had no idea what I was doing with it all then. Through my late teens and early 20s I thought I was going to end up being a straight-ahead jazz pianist in NYC, but my love for club music, sampling and technology led me on a whole other path.”
He soon discovered, studied and became heavily influenced by the genius of Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and J Dilla.
“Miles literally changed music – forever – several times. As a trumpet player he was one of a kind, but as a stylist and musical pioneer, he’s peerless. Herbie is my favourite piano and keys player hands down. I love everything he’s done across decades and genres – he’s kind of similar to Miles in that way.”
Dilla – what is there to say that hasn’t already been said? The greatest beatmaker producer who ever lived. He literally changed the game – including changing how drummers approach certain kinds of rhythms. That’s a monumental achievement.”
After experimenting with some initial musical fusions of his own, in 1998 he took a trip to the UK, ostensibly chasing after his then girlfriend who had moved there from New Zealand, before stumbling upon the beginnings of the broken beat scene in West London.
“Once I was in London, my fellow NZer musician friend Nathan Haines introduced me to Phil Asher – rest in peace to one of the greats – and he in turn took me under his wing, into the studio, and made me part of an incredible community making the freshest music I’d ever heard.”
Backed by heavy support from the likes of Gilles Peterson, Benji B and more, as broken beat started to flourish not just in London but around the world, Mark’s productions were signed to a slew of credible labels, transforming him into one of the pillars of this new sound – a sound that still remains a really key part of his musical DNA to this day. Soon, influential US producers and consistent chart toppers were tuning in and listening to what they were doing.
Then suddenly, right at its peak, the scene went quiet. However, it has now started coming back to life again.
“The music was always underground, but it had a ripple effect that spread all around the world. We all had an unsung influence on global music culture. Things come and go in cycles, so for there to be a resurgence now, 20 years later, makes a lot of sense. The beauty of it is that a lot of us are still making music, challenging ourselves and pushing boundaries with it so, along with the new generation producers, we’re all present and counted in what’s happening now. I have always done it on my own terms, making the music that I want to make. I’ve been able to sustain myself and keep on keeping on without bending to mainstream expectations or compromising the music that I want to make. That I can still do this and know I have decades of new music left in me still – that’s a massive achievement. If I was to look back on the last 20 years and list favorite moments, collaborations, releases and shows, there’s plenty I can share, but it’s the cumulative result that matters – I have a career of uncompromised creativity and I’m extremely grateful for that.”
Aside from his own original productions, remixing has always been an avenue Mark’s explored. But what’s been his favourite remix so far?
“There’s been so many remixes over the years and they all function in different ways. My remix for Shirley Horn’s ‘Return to Paradise’ for the first Verve Remixed project is a special one. That was my first major label remix and first time being put alongside some of my production heroes on the project tracklisting.”
“There’s a remix I did for Brazilian artist Ed Motta – ‘E Muita Gig Vei !!!’ that I’ve always had a special spot for and I’m proud of my Blue Note Remixed Vol.1 project – live remixing a whole album’s worth of Blue Note catalog for a mixtape style remix project.”
As a trained musician, Mark’s usually comfortable creating without sampling, using whatever keyboards, synths and plugins he has to reach the result he’s imagining. However, when he does decide to sample, he finds that it often brings a texture and inspiration that he couldn’t have found any other way.
“I’ve sampled where I’m pretty much running a loop, or other times when I’ll chop and flip something totally beyond recognition. That’s always my favorite way to approach it and always provides new ideas and inspiration for the track. It also helps with the legal challenges of sampling if no one can ever work out what was sampled. Oftentimes, especially on live shows, I’ll sample myself or other musicians in the band on the fly and manipulate those samples as we play. I love that approach too and get the same result – textures that wouldn’t otherwise exist, and a boost to the inspiration flow. I’m a big fan of sampling and really love to hear music that I can tell is built on a sample, but the sample’s been flipped so hard that I have no idea what it is. Samples as instruments?”
As for favourite studio gear, Mark was raised on analog gear – vintage synths, the MPC3000, the Rhodes and a whole lot more.
“I’m always inspired and happy when I can get in a lab that’s got a whole lot of old school gear. The times I get access to the likes of a Yamaha CS-80 or a Mini Moog are always golden. My regular studio and live setup now though is mostly digital and soft-synth based. NI Maschine is at the heart of it and I run that through Ableton – those are two tools I couldn’t possibly do without.”
But take Mark out of the studio, away from editing processes, give him a well-loved seven-foot grand piano and he’s in heaven.
“There’s nothing quite like playing live, especially with an audience and in collaboration with other musicians and vocalists on stage. There’s magic moments that are unplanned and that energy of performing in real time for an audience who is experiencing it simultaneously. I do often bring my live performance flow into the studio though – using my workflow and improvisation as a basis to create from and get ideas moving. The studio offers extra luxuries – being able to take a raw moment and craft it to perfection using all the tools today’s tech gives us, so that’s fun and special. I’m generally not a fan of editing though, and plenty of times in the studio that is part of the process. That’s the challenge live too – something might be a mistake that in a studio situation would be fixed, but on the live stage, I have to take that mistake and create something great from it on the spot.”
As for RipX, it had him so excited before he even got to check it out first-hand.
“As soon as I had it set up, I threw a few different genre and style songs in there to see how it would react. I think the first one was an Ella Fitzgerald song from the 60s. That I actually had a clean acapella of it ten minutes later was mind blowing to me. I like the idea of using RipX to stem out music that I might want to chop and flip but only certain aspects – like a track with beautiful strings that I want to sample and chop, but there’s drums, bass and vocals in the way. That I can sidestep everything I don’t want and get straight to what I do is crazy. Also, I’m working on a specific remix at the moment which wasn’t recorded with separation. When I pulled up the stems pretty much every instrument had every other instrument bleeding into it. This was most problematic for the vocals. Being the main element I want to work with for the remix, having vocals where I could hear the rest of the original track in the bleed would usually be the reason I’d tell the client, “sorry, but this can’t be remixed”. In this case though, I was able to run the vocal stem through RipX and a few minutes later have a clean stem as if the vocalist had been in a full ISO booth in the first place. Incredible.”
As for sync placements, often a sync company will need an instrumental of a song they want to use, but need the vocal removed from the original. RipX can even help with that.
“Ideally, I’d have instrumentals and acapellas of all my productions filed away and ready to go, but the reality is that sometimes that just isn’t the case. With RipX, I can create an instrumental in 10-15 minutes which could be the difference between getting a sync payday or missing out on one!”
As for the future of music in general, whilst Mark doesn’t hold a crystal ball, he does believe that the music industry was already broken before the pandemic and we’re ready for new tools, new models and new attitudes.
“I love to see anything which empowers artists and creators more – the emerging NFT and blockchain space is really exciting and I think we’ll look back on it as a paradigm shift in years to come. I do think it’s interesting that for most of the 20th Century, emerging artists, genres and styles were genuinely new to the world. In the past decade or more, music has been so much more derivative and there’s less and less unique voices. That’s probably largely to do with how the industry has evolved and become little more than a capitalist money grab, as well as the ubiquity of modern day media. It’s almost impossible to create in a bubble without knowing what all the latest trends are.”
He’s particularly excited for a new wave of independent artists who believe in art and creativity more than money.
“The money will follow if the art is true. I’m loving seeing online technology, music technology and blockchain technology evolving at break-neck speed. Once the pandemic is under control, I don’t think live-streaming is going anywhere. Hopefully it’ll keep getting better and more and more accessible. There’s nothing like being at a live music event in person, but I don’t see live-streaming as an attempt to replace it, it’s more of an augmentation.”
As for his views on streaming platforms – they are a double-edged sword.
“The listener gets access to the entire history of released music while the artist gets shafted in the worst ways possible. I’d love to say that I think streaming platforms will pay artists fairly in the future, but I don’t believe that’s going to happen. If anything, they’ll pay less. I’d love to see Bandcamp go more mainstream – that’s one way listeners can consume what they really love and know that the artists are getting paid. I’ve gotten to check out some AI music creation technology and that’s pretty amazing stuff too – I’d love to see that evolve to become a tool for creativity and hopefully not one to replace creativity!”
And finally, for someone starting out in the industry, Mark cites four important things to keep in mind and use as guiding principles.
“The first is mastery – practice your craft and your instrument, study and apply theory and knowledge to constantly improve where you’re at and become the best you possibly can. This is a never-ending and daily pursuit but it’s the biggest investment you can make in yourself and your passion. Second up is community. Find your tribe, like-mindeds who love what you do and vice versa. Create together, grow together and win together. Third up is the business – learn everything you can about the business and how it works. By the time you need a manager, you want to already know all the basics of what you’d expect that manager to do for you – the same goes for any part of your future team. Finally – but certainly not least of all – is healthy balance. That one’s a multi-faceted category covering so much. Have a healthy music diet – consume outside of your chosen sub-category. Strive for a balanced lifestyle – if you’re a studio rat who never sees the light of day, doesn’t eat properly and doesn’t exercise, you’re shortchanging the number of years you have on this planet. Consume inspiration from sources that aren’t just music – life is inspiration, conversation, nature, food, sports – we can find it anywhere and everywhere. Most of all, have fun with the process. If it’s not fundamentally enjoyable, it might not be your calling.”
Visit Mark de Clive-Lowe’s official website HERE.
Follow and support him on Patreon HERE.