MARK CLARKE MIGHT NOT BE A household name like Sting or Paul McCartney, but like his compatriot colleagues, the British-born bassist/vocalist balances his skill sets with otherworldly ability. Clarke began playing bass professionally in 1970 when he joined pioneering progressive jazz-rock outfit Colosseum. In 1973, he formed Tempest, an even more musically adventurous band that featured guitarist Allan Holdsworth. His next band, Natural Gas, was a bona fide ’70s super group, featuring Badfinger guitarist Joey Molland and Humble Pie drummer Jerry Shirley. Since then, Clarke’s played bass on records by Rainbow, Uriah Heep, and Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, and maintained long-term touring and recording relationships with Michael Bolton, the Monkees, and Billy Squier. In 1985 he began a ten-year involvement with Mountain. These days he’s still touring with Squier and Colosseum, two acts so stylistically different he refers to them as “chalk and cheese.” In 2010, Clarke released his first solo disc, Walking to the Moon, a collection of tunes showcasing his rock-solid songwriting, vocal, and bass chops.
How has playing keyboards influenced your bass playing?
It never hurts to have knowledge of another instrument, but piano is a good one because of the left hand. Learning classical music, particularly Mozart’s piano concertos, helped me home in on the left-hand bass parts and apply that to bass guitar. I learned a lot about note choice and counterpoint. Brian Wilson has had a big influence on me, and he was one of the first people in popular music to incorporate elements of piano playing on bass, using chords and double-stops. It was groundbreaking for its time.
What’s the difference between writing on bass and writing on piano?
With the bass I mainly come up with riffs first. On piano it’s more chordal.
You co-wrote Uriah Heep’s classic “The Wizard.” What tips can you share about songwriting inspiration and craft?
It’s impossible to share that—it just happens. And often the initial idea comes when you’re least expecting it. For songwriting to become a craft, you have stick to it long enough.
What advice do you have for developing the dual skill set of singing and playing?
Practice, practice, practice, and then practice some more. And be patient with yourself. With Colosseum we do a song called “Tanglewood 63” by the composer Mike Gibbs. The vocal parts are in a different time signature than the bass parts. It took me a month to be able to sing and play it. I also had a lot on my shoulders playing with Allan Holdsworth in Tempest. There were times when I’d have to play something like an Eb on bass and sing an En against it. To do that, I try to form the note in my head before I have to sing it. Visualizing really helps. I do that especially when I’m singing a harmony—I’m always thinking quite a bit ahead, envisioning how it should sound.
You worked with Billy Squier throughout the most prolific part of his career, playing on the albums Don’t Say No, The Stroke and In the Dark. What did you learn from that experience?
Billy loves rehearsing. Even now, when we go on tour, we rehearse for at least three weeks beforehand. It’s great because you learn more about the material—especially in a rehearsal environment. When Billy puts me in charge of a rehearsal I’m going to make everyone keep playing and playing and playing. The more you rehearse a song the better it gets. That’s a fact.
HEAR HIM ON
Mark Clarke, Moving to the Moon [It’s About Music, 2010]
Basses ESP MIV 4-string basses with EMG pickups
Rig Gallien-Krueger 800RB head & Hartke 410XL & 215XL cabinets
Strings Thomastik-Infeld EB344 Power Bass