To The Moon And Back with Mike Clemente of Blackmore’s Night (Web Exclusive)

Ritchie Blackmore has a long history of playing with and recruiting some of the best musicians in the business and his bass players have been no exception.
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Ritchie Blackmore has a long history of playing with and recruiting some of the best musicians in the business and his bass players have been no exception. From Roger Glover and Glenn Hughes with Deep Purple to Jimmy Bain, Bob Daisley and Glover (again) in Rainbow, his bassists imbue Blackmore’s songs with solid grooves while tastefully complementing his guitar work with a deft sense of harmonically rich counterpoint.

Blackmore’s Night has been Blackmore’s vehicle, along with vocalist Candice Night, for the past 20 years and features the axe master’s take on traditional medieval and renaissance fare. The band has included a succession of equally talented musicians in the bass chair, including Mick Cervino and Bob Curiano. Since 2008, Mike Clemente, aka Earl Grey of Chimay, has held the post. Bass Player caught up with Clemente in New York, hot on the heels of the band’s latest release, a 20-year retrospective titled, To The Moon And Back: 20 Years And Beyond.

What is your musical background / upbringing?
As a teenager, I listened to and absorbed all the essentials that any burgeoning rocker would be drawn to: Deep Purple, Rainbow, Led Zeppelin, Scorpions. I used to sign up to all the CD clubs with the “buy one, get ten free” promotions using fake names to rapidly and economically build my music library with whatever money I could scrounge up. After filling my collection with all the definitive rock albums, I started getting weird and branching out to other genres. If it wasn’t mainstream or common, I was immediately fascinated and drawn to it. Macedonian Gypsy music, Renaissance music, Bulgarian folk music. I collected whatever I could get my hands on.

Did you ever take lessons, formally?
I took private lessons studying bass, guitar, and eventually classical guitar. I’ve always struggled with sight-reading notation, so I’ve compensated by memorizing everything. At one time, I even had the entire Bach Lute Suite IV memorized. While in college I was obsessed and practiced around 8-12 hours each day.

What were you doing before joining Blackmore’s Night in 2008?
I got my start playing bass in a local New York blues band called Whiskey Alley and a local rock band called Lost Souls Society. At nineteen, I dropped out of college to tour the Midwest and Northeast playing bass for a great Staten Island-based rock band called Scraggly Jane. The band notoriously broke up six months later and I went to work in a factory before returning to school. I also played guitar and sported a sword and kilt in a Celtic rock band called Fathom, and briefly played bass for Blazed featuring Dee Snider’s son Jesse Blaze. In 2006, I took a two-year hiatus from performing in bands to write and produce inane comedy videos for National Lampoon. I got the call to join Blackmore’s Night in 2008.

Who are some of your influences?
Ritchie Blackmore was and still is a considerable influence on my playing. I remember reading an interview of his in one of the guitar magazines sometime in the mid 1990’s where he states that if one wants to understand music and play well, they should learn Bach. So, at my next private lesson, I went to my teacher and demanded that he teach me Bach on my beginner Yamaha electric guitar. He protested, saying that Bach could only be taught on a nylon string guitar, but I was a rebellious teenager and adamant and insisted on breaking the rules. So, he taught me Bourrée on electric guitar and that I was my introduction to learning classical music. Through learning Bach and watching Ritchie play, I’ve developed a better comprehension of counterpoint. Ritchie’s a master of counterpoint. It is such an extension of his acoustic playing. Being exposed to that has really helped me develop as a bassist and as an overall musician. Ritchie’s also a monster of a bass player.

Any “traditional” bass influences?
John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin was another big influence. He provided such a stable balance and foundation that merged the bombastic drumming of John Bonham with the eccentrics of Jimmy Page, and he executed it in such a classy, tasteful manner. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I also like the unadulterated energy and command of bassists like Steve Harris of Iron Maiden, John Gallagher of Raven and Joey DeMaio of Manowar. I am also heavily influenced and drawn to the absolute lunacy and brilliance of Spike Jones and the City Slickers.

How did you come to join Blackmore’s Night?
We were introduced by a mutual friend, film producer J. Andrew Colletti. At my first dinner meeting with Candice and Ritchie, we were at a quiet Italian restaurant and the first thing Ritchie asked me was why I picked this restaurant to meet—they actually chose the restaurant. Without hesitation, I replied, “This particular restaurant is perfect, because they have those old-fashioned toilets that you can tape a gun behind.” He paused, gave me a look and started laughing. From then on, the meeting was relaxed and fun—listening to incredible stories, watching Ritchie perform some magic tricks and playing music. We all clicked and discovered we shared similar interests, senses of humor and life experiences. I still pinch myself when I realize I’m approaching my tenth year as a member of this band. It has been and continues to be an incredible, surreal experience.

As a bassist, did you have to educate yourself in the style of renaissance music?
I’m a life-learner; always constantly learning. My classical background was a tremendous help, but I’ve learned so much about Medieval and Renaissance music being a member of Blackmore’s Night. Ritchie’s a walking encyclopedia on the subject. He continues to study this music, scouring the world looking for groups that continue to preserve these melodies. In the last year or so, I have attempted to learn how to play Medieval-styled bagpipes by studying techniques and melodies from friends I’ve made overseas. I’ve recently purchased a beautiful custom set built by my friend Petr Skalicky in Czech Republic who has taught me a lot about the instrument. My girlfriend Linda from the Medieval rock band Tempus is also from Czech Republic, and she has given me crash course lessons on playing the Recorder and Rauschpfeifes which has really helped me with technique and finding notes on the bagpipes.

Are there any examples of your playing on To The Moon and Back that you are particularly proud of or exemplify your playing style and if so, why?
To The Moon and Back is an exciting milestone for Blackmore’s Night, celebrating twenty years as a band. “The Circle” (Secret Voyage, SPV, 2008) is one of my favorite songs not only because I think it’s an excellent song, but for me it has a nostalgia attached to it. I still get the chills listening to it, for it brings back the feelings and energy of when I first joined the band. When we play it live, it is an opportunity for me to play a variety of styles on the bass. Early on, it’s played pretty straight forward. As it builds, Ritchie rips into that wicked instrumental part that I play a little heavier on. The instrumental part ends with me doubling him right before he goes into his solo. The end culminates in a tight groove, where I borrow from Hendrix’s “Hey Joe” and play a chromatic bass run that ties into the percussion. It’s a very powerful song and every tour I try mercifully to suggest it back into the setlist.

I also really like playing some of the new versions of the older classics. “Writing On The Wall” (Shadow of the Moon, Edel, 1997) has always been one of my favorites and I always envisioned a heavier rock version of the original. I was very pleased to see Candice and Ritchie come up with the same idea on this release.

“Ghost of John” (To The Moon) is another interesting song with a very haunting melody. Producer Pat Regan and I also tried tracking Hümmelchen bagpipes to it, but the tuning didn’t really work so the track was scrapped. Great to see Candice and Ritchie’s daughter Autumn singing on it too.

What's it like working with Ritchie Blackmore?
I’d hate to ruin his reputation of “being difficult,” because I’ve found that it has been and continues to be an absolute pleasure and privilege working with him, Candice, and the rest of my bandmates. He’s taught me so much about music, life, pondering the unknown, and even how to play soccer.

He could also be incredibly nefarious when it comes to practical jokes. On one of my first tours, he was leaving all his garbage at my hotel room door so when I would open my door, it would all fall in. I let it go for about a day. Then one morning, I open my door and an egg dropped at my foot. I said to myself I have to get him back and get him good or this will continue. I also knew that at a hotel like we were staying, he does not like to be bothered or have any staff knock at the door. So, I made a terrible sign and hung it on his door when no one was around. I forgot the specifics of how I worded the sign, but it was enough to really instigate and agitate the hotel staff. Later that evening, we were supposed to rehearse but Candice and Ritchie turned up late because the hotel manager and staff were all knocking at their door yelling at them for the terrible sign on the door. I ended up having to apologize to the hotel manager, but I never found any garbage on my door ever again. We have sort of an unspoken truce, and have teamed up on several occasions since to do some mischievous things to certain individuals. Overall, it’s been a humbling, incredible experience working with him, and I’m forever grateful for it.

Do you play with pick, finger style or both and why would you be inclined to use one over the other?
I mostly play fingerstyle because it allows me to do much more intricate, faster, and accurate picking patterns on the bass. Most times, I approach my bass playing from a classical standpoint. There’s a Russian Gypsy-style piece that I arranged of for the bass that really utilizes fingerpicking on the right hand. There’s a video floating around on YouTube of me playing it live in concert in St. Petersburg, Russia a few years ago. I’d like to do a proper recording of it sometime.

There are also times I will use a pick; either when requested by Ritchie, or most particularly when recording. Ritchie has taught me that using a pick on the bass for recording produces a deeper, balanced tone, which is ideal for our recordings.

When tracking bass do you have a configuration preference (i.e., direct? miked amp? both?) and if so, why?
I like to go direct. With the technology that’s out there, it’s very easy and practical to get a good bass sound going direct through a good preamp. At home, I get a nice bass recording tone with my Ampeg B1 rackmount. If I was recording onto tape, then I would probably mic up everything through a cranked tube amp to capture as much space and saturation on a nice old reel-to-reel machine.

What are you currently up to? Touring or recording with Blackmore’s Night? If not, what do you do on breaks from BN?

With Blackmore’s Night, we just completed a successful 2017 Summer Europe Tour. This fall, we will be performing select dates throughout the Northeast US. When I’m not on the road with Blackmore’s Night, I teach and assist for a school-to-work transitional program for young adults with special needs. I also toy with the idea of putting together my own side project band, but I’d like to develop a sound or style that hasn’t been done or heard before. It’s an arduous task, and perhaps one day I will find it, whether by using a unique combination of instruments, or trying to invent a new kind of instrument to accomplish this.

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To The Moon And Back: 20 Years And Beyond, Blackmore’s Night (Minstrel Hall Music, 2017)

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Basses Fender Victor Bailey Signature Bass, Fender Longhorn Jazz Bass, Custom Barbarian Bass (maker unknown), Fylde Custom Doubleneck Acoustic Guitar / Bass (Ritchie Blackmore’s Doubleneck)
Pickups Lindy Fralin Split Jazz
Amps Ampeg SVT-4PRO, Ampeg SVT-3PRO, Ampeg B1, Hartke Kickback 15
Speaker Cabs Ampeg SVT-410HLF
Strings D’Addario EXL230 .055 - .110, D’Addario EXL160 .050 - .105 (for acoustic bass)
Picks Dunlop Tortex Heavy 1.35mm

Effects Award Session JD-10 Direct Recording PreAmp, Award Session GG-10 ElectroAcoustic PreAmp, Award Session AP-10 Acoustic PreAmp

Photo by Paul Glass