Friday, March 20, 2009

In conversation--Will Clipman

Photo: Nancy Smith-Jones


Sounds of the Desert: An Interview with Master Drummer Will Clipman
Fans of Native American music and especially performed by Canyon Records artists, need little introduction to master drummer-percussionist William Clipman. The master drummer resides in the Sonaran Desert, a landscape that leaves an impression on Clipman’s playing.
Clipman and I have been exchanging e-mail correspondence since I reviewed his solo CD, Pathfinder some time ago. I thought now would be the perfect time to interview him for this healing music blog. Below you will find an unabridged interview with the global beat drummer himself.
WME: We had spoken of this earlier how you knew your life path as a drummer since you were a child. Did you want to share your earliest experiences with percussion with the readers of this blog?
William Clipman: I started playing my father’s drums and my mother’s piano when I was three years old. I had no doubt absorbed the sounds of these instruments in utero, and heard them from birth on; so as soon as I was physically able to get down the stairs into the basement and climb up on the drum throne and the piano bench by myself, I instinctively started playing. I remember as if it were yesterday hitting one of the tom-toms on my father’s drum set, and the vibration going right through my body, re-arranging my molecular structure. I knew at that moment this was something I would do for the rest of my life.
I have a wonderful old black and white photo of me in my crib with my very first toy drum, so I was evidently playing even earlier, literally before I could walk or talk. So I’d have to say rhythm is my first language.


WME: When I was hosting my radio show I would pick up various recordings and see your name listed in the credits. While you definitely collaborated on many recordings in the Canyon Records catalogue (Sharon Burch, R. Carlos Nakai, William Eaton, Robert Tree Cody, Randy Wood, and others) you have worked with other artists outside of this catalogue.

Please tell readers a little about yourself and your connection to many of the artists already in their collections.
WC: I have the honor to be regarded s the house percussionist at Canyon Records, and I have recorded something like twenty-five albums for that label, mostly as a band mate of the Canyon artists I regularly perform and record with, but also as a session player for folks with whom I do not regularly perform. So, as I like to say, “I bleed Canyon Red,”--meaning that I’m very loyal to Canyon and its artists.
That said, Canyon has never insisted on an exclusive contract, and is quite generous in permitting me creative carte blanche to record for other labels and perform with other artists as I see fit. I’ve recorded over fifty albums (I lost count at fifty, so it may well be more like seventy-five or one hundred at this point) for many different labels, including Gentle Thunder Productions, with Native American flutist and hammered dulcimer player Gentle Thunder; Fireweed Music Productions, with singer/songwriter Amber Norgaard; Singing Wolf Records, with violinist Arvel Bird; White Swan Records with world flutist Gary Stroutsos and Harp-guitarist William Eaton; ARC Records, with classical guitarist Gabriel Ayala and Native American flutist Vince Redhouse; the German label Music Network, with blues guitarist Stefan George; Demon Records, with the late, legendary blues guitarist Rainer Ptacek; Art Attack Records, with the pop-rock band Street Pajama; and on and on.
A lot of my session work is on independently-released recordings, which I quite frankly don’t keep track of once the session is done and I’ve collected my check. The titles I catalog and try to promote on an on-going basis are those in which I have an on-going creative interest, either in the form or royalties or publishing rights, or as a performing member of a band or ensemble.
Remember those big flat black platters with a little hole in the middle that people used to spin around and scratch with a needle to hear music? I started my recording career when those were still the happening thing, recording to analog tape rather than digitally to a computer hard drive, so we’re talking old school here. I’ve been at this a long time.

WME: You play a variety of percussion and would be considered a world musician in that regard. Do you have a favorite drumming tradition? And what is your favorite percussion instrument if you are able to choose a favorite among so many wonderful instruments?
WC: That’s a tough question. I have over one hundred instruments in my home studio, which I callThe Boom Boom Room,” and each one is like a family member with whom I have a unique personal relationship. I’d have to say if I had to pick one drum to take to the proverbial desert island with me, it would be my Ivory Coast djembe, with a feral goatskin from Moloka’i I put on it myself, because that is the single most versatile, portable, and complete instrument I own--I call it my “drum kit in a bag”. I’ve played that drum in the context of every kind of music you can name, from classical to African to Latin to Native American to blues to rock to pop to R and B to funk to ambient to techno to New Age to folk to jazz--you name it, this drum can play it. It’s a very personal sound.
I’ve also come to be known for my unique udu sound, which I attribute to the two custom-made udu drums I play. These were made for me by clay artist Scott Semple, and there are only two of them in existence. They are priceless and irreplaceable, and have a rich, fat, warm, punchy, breathy tone and timbre that you’ll never hear in a commercially-made drum.
WC: They’re made from native Sonoran Desert clay dug in the Santa Cruz River basin in the oldest part of Tucson, where people have been making clay vessels for at least five thousand years, and very primitively pit-fired using organic combustibles, right there along the river bank. I call this “sacred clay”, because it is literally the sound of the ground I walk on every day, and because that is such a great metaphor for the human condition as well. I recently got back in touch with Scott after about ten years of being out of touch, and he’s throwing me a new udu right now, so soon there will be three. That’s a nice number.
In terms of my favorite tradition, I like to think I’ve created my own new tradition by synthesizing all the multicultural influences I’ve been absorbing over a forty-year career as a poet, musician, mask maker, and storyteller. I’ve even coined a copyrighted term for it:pan-global percussion”. It is music without boundaries or borders, truly world music--even otherworldly, if I’m to believe some of my more esoteric fans, who tell me in all seriousness that sentient beings in other galaxies are listening to and enjoying my tunes!
WME: What is your philosophy in collaborating with other musicians?
WC: It’s surprisingly simple: to become the instrument and let the music flow through me in as pure and undiluted a form as possible. Now, the tricky part is in the execution of that philosophy! I enjoy silence, so I begin any collaboration with the idea that what I play has to better than silence or it’s just noise. It has to make the music better, not just more. As I like to say, I’m a graduate of the "Les S. Moore School of Performing and Recording Arts". I enter into the musical space as a listener more than a player, and I try to play the spaces between the notes with as much intention as the notes themselves.
I’m all about groove and texture, about holding the heartbeat steady and providing only the necessary punctuation in the musical storyline, and about making the other players feel comfortable enough to fully express themselves. I’m not a highly technical or flashy player, and sometimes my part is as simple as one tingsha chime in the sixty-fourth bar of the score that rings out to infinity, period.
To do this, one must be able to remove ego from the equation. I try to honor the muse and the deep tradition of the drum every time I play. I would imagine that’s why I get to play with so many world-class artists, in so many different musical genres. It also helps to show up on time, with a smile on your face, appropriately attired and ready to play, and to have your instruments tuned properly before you walk into the studio or onto the stage.


WME: Which musician or musicians have given you the most artistic freedom?
WC: That’s a great question, and really speaks to the nature of music as relationship. The folks who trust me enough to just cut me loose and let me do my thing are the ones I’ve been playing with for a long time: folks like R. Carlos Nakai and William Eaton, for example. They never tell me what to play--heck, they might not even look at me during a performance or a recording session! They just trust that I’ll pick up the right instrument and do something musical with it in the context of that moment of creation. And to have the confidence of artists of this caliber is invaluable to me. I never take that for granted. I try to earn it again every time we play, and impress my fellow musicians first and foremost, before the audience even comes into the picture.
There are also people with whom one forms an immediate personal bond and musical simpatico--old souls you’ve known in other lifetimes, so to speak. I feel this with Gentle Thunder and Amber Norgaard, for example--the fist time I played with them, it was comfortable and effortless right from the first downbeat. It’s a mystery, and I try not to break the spell by over-rationalizing it.
I aspire to have this kind of mutually liberating relationship with everyone I play with on an on-going basis, and mostly, I succeed in that. Sometimes it requires a more complicated dance, a steeper learning curve, more conscious effort. And sometimes it just ain’t happening on a relationship level, and you just have to a professional and play for the highest good of the music. But you know, “it’s all good”, as they say. I always try to be mindful of what an incredible blessing it is to make music for a living, and to start each day with an attitude of gratitude for one more opportunity to do it.

WME: And speaking of freedom, you released your first solo album, Pathfinder (a Saami term) on Canyon in 2007. You played all of the instruments on the CD and created this wonderful global palette. Please describe the experience of recording this project.
WC: Yes, for me Pathfinder has been the ultimate expression of my own musical persona. It was a three-year process for me personally to compose, arrange, and perform this music, although the actual recording process took maybe three weeks. I was invited to do this as a Canyon Records project by my Executive Producer and the President of Canyon Records, Robert Doyle. He never said so, but I think maybe it was a reward for having contributed to so many recordings by other Canyon artists over the years.
I worked with Producer Stephen Butler, whom I refer to as “The Guru of Groove”, and Engineer Jack Miller, whom I refer to as “The Sonic Buddha”. Stephen and Jack had such a profound creative impact on what comes out of the speakers that I really consider this a trio project more than strictly speaking a solo project, even though I did in fact compose, arrange, and perform all the music you hear on the record.
The songs were multi-tracked in real time on acoustic instruments, which means that there are no sequencers, metronomes, or other electronic devices used to make the music fit together the way it does. What you hear is layered live performances: me playing along with myself, track by track, until the full sonic spectrum of each piece is achieved--again, with huge amounts of patience, guidance, correction, and direction from Stephen and Jack. Once all thirteen individual tracks were completed, we very deliberately arranged the entire album in a certain order, using cross-fades and other mixing and mastering techniques, to create a seamless sonic tapestry that really takes the listener on an inner journey, and has a beginning, middle, and end--and then takes you right back to the beginning. People tell me they like to play the CD in repeat mode and listen to it three or four times in a row while driving, meditating, dancing, doing yoga, giving or receiving massage--you gotta love that!
My intention was to create a musical storybook, a long tone poem in cycles--a good image would be concentric ripples on the smooth surface of a clear pond--that would be meditative, danceable, healing, inspiring, emotionally evocative, and thought-provoking all at once. Pretty ambitious, I know--but who knows if I’ll ever get another shot at this, so I went for it--and from what people tell me, it does in fact resonate with people on all those levels. So it would seem that we found the path.
WME: You also mention on this CD that you are Saamokee, a term you use to describe your Saami and Cherokee lineages. The ancient Saami were known especially for their shamanic drumming and here you are a drummer. Do you feel that Saami lineage coming through in your drumming profession?
WC: Absolutely. Some of my ancestors were drummers--known as Pathfinders among the Saami, referring to the use of the ceremonial drum as a shamanic device--and I am constantly aware of that aspect of the drum in my recordings and live performances. I often find myself above myself looking down on myself while I’m playing and riding the spirit drum, as it were, out of the body. I enjoy that perspective for a moment, but then I realize Hey! I’d better get back in there so I can keep playing! And I return to my body and continue the performance or the recording. It’s tempting, of course, to just keep on going out into the ether, toward satori, nirvana, heaven, whatever you want to call that ultimate state of oneness with all--but then I’d be letting my fellow musicians and my audience down. No can do. That’s what the song Bodhisattva on Pathfinder is all about.

WME: When you are out in nature do you feel like yoiking? Do you yoik?
WC: I do, but only when I’m out in nature alone--I’m not much of singer, in my opinion. I would call the vocalizations on Pathfinder a form of yoiking: improvising with syllabic vocables so that the human voice becomes another instrument in the ensemble--or another sound in the chorus of nature, if you will--more so than a singer singing lyrics in front of the band. I started doing this intuitively when I was a child, as most children do.
I remember sticking my head out the car window on a family trip and just yoiking my brains out to the wind and the passing landscape, having a high old time, thinking no one in the car could hear me--only to be completely mortified upon pulling my head back inside and having everyone compliment me on my wonderful song. I’ve also been inspired by traditional yoikers in the Saami tradition, artists such as Nils-Aslak Valkeapaa, Wimme Saari, and Marie Boine. Of course, these folks are gifted with amazingly powerful voices, so they are doing this on another level entirely in their work.

WME: Drummers often talk about how drumming connects them to Mother Earth. How would you describe the experience of drumming with the beat of Mother Earth?
WC: I call it “holding the heartbeat”. The first rhythm any of us hear is our mother’s heartbeat in the womb, which is an expression of the rhythm of Mother Earth, the source of all life. I would say I try to combine that earth-pulse with the light of Father Sky in my playing, so the music is both a physical sensation and a spiritual illumination. When I get it right, it’s an incredibly high vibration--there’s nothing like it that I know of--and I think that energetic vibration more than anything else is what keeps me coming back for more. Once you’ve felt that, you never want to not feel that!


WME: Finally, as you know this is a healing music blog, so how can the non-drummer benefit from the healing power of rhythm? What would you tell them if they mentioned that they have no sense of rhythm?
WC: No sense of rhythm? I would say that’s nonsense. Are you breathing? Is your heart beating? Of course. That’s rhythm, and indeed polyrhythm. Everything is rhythm, and rhythm is in everything. No one is excluded from that. We’re all drummers under the skin. You’re a member of the club just by virtue of being alive on Planet Earth at this moment in space and time. The healing happens when you let go of the intellectual concept that you have to be a Musician and play Music, and just surrender to the joy of becoming the instrument and allowing the sound and light to flow through you. There’s a reason we refer to it as playing music.
Just play!
For more information go to willclipman.com or canyonrecords.com

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