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Interview With Clive Smith

By Damion Wolfe, July 2003

As you may have realized by now based on my other interviews, a lot of the great artists I've encountered have initially been from my touring experience. So in keeping with that tradition, this too begins the same way. Around 1998 I was playing in Montclair, New Jersey when I first met Clive and his girlfriend Cheri. Later they invited me to perform at an arts festival in Summit, New Jersey which I've now had the pleasure of performing at twice. They even let me crash at their home before while I was traveling through and recording. Clive is one of those few people who is so nice and humble, that it really took me a while to realize the extensiveness of his musical accomplishments. He had mentioned that he did film and t.v work but I didn't realize how much!

Clive is a multi-instrumentalist whose music has been used in so many t.v. shows and films that I can't even list them all here. But some of them include: the cult classic Liquid Sky, The Tonight Show, The Commish, Conan O'Brien, Sex and The City, Dateline, Law and Order, Friends and the list goes on and on!

In addition to his film and t.v. work Clive is also a great singer/songwriter. He currently has one CD out now entitled "Clever Animals" and is currently working on another. "Clever Animals" is a clever CD which evokes Clive's pop-sensibilities, unique arrangements and production. Good examples of Clive's melodic overtures can be found on songs such as "Beyond The Pandemonium" and "Another World". He also has an instrumental CD out entitled " The Gallery Soundscapes Vol. 1" with "In Real Time" (his group with Bob Kaus).

As if all this great experience isn't enough there is more to mention! Clive has been responsible for much work with the Fairlight Computer Musical Instrument (CMI) and also some of the musical programming for the recent Korg "Karma" Music Workstation (keyboard). Clive has done session work with many great artist including guitarist John Abercrombie, Hall and Oates, Yoko Ono and even appeared on Sesame Street with Herbie Hancock! (I forgot to ask him if he got to meet Big Bird).

I really want to thank Clive for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions for me. It's real exciting for me to have the opportunity to interview someone with such musical brilliance and experience. If you want to find out more about Clive you can check out his extensive web site at: WWW.CLIVESMITH.COM or drop him an email at clivesmith@aol.com. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Clive Smith!

1. How did you first get into scoring for film and t.v.?

Quite by accident, but a lucky accident. A Russian expatriate director, Slava Tsukerman, was making his first film in the US, which was to become the cult classic, Liquid Sky. He wanted a unique sound to the score, which he envisaged being created using the most advanced commercially available musical instrument technology for that time - the Fairlight Computer Musical Instrument or CMI.

I was involved with a studio that had such an instrument - there were very few CMI's in the US at that time - and was one of the few people in the US at that time who knew how to program it. What started out as a programming job turned into a composing job as well. Because the film became an underground hit, I gained a fair amount of notoriety which led to other things.

One of the things it led to was becoming a consultant for nearly six years to Fairlight Instruments, the makers of the CMI. This, in turn, helped me to get a lot of high profile studio work, resulting in receiving two platinum albums, although I was not the artist for either of those records, but was involved in the playing and the production aspects.

It was also during this time that I did session work for producer, Suzan Bader and played her some of my compositions. A few years later when Suzan started her own publishing company, I was one of the first composers she signed on the basis of those compositions and additional ones I had written more recently. Almost immediately, I started to get my music placed on shows for background and theme use and also as promos for shows.

2. Do you have any formal training in composing/music?

I studied trumpet in grade school, but am self-taught on the two main instruments I play today - guitar and keyboards. I received a masters degree in music composition from NYU, but I also learned a lot simply playing in and writing for rock bands for many years.

Since I started writing songs and instrumental music when I was twelve or thirteen and didn't receive any formal training until several years later in college, I feel as if my own style and approach were firmly enough established that the formal training didn't stifle me creatively or bias me towards a particular academic style. My main objectives in studying music in school were to have a better understanding of what I was already doing in my hit or miss fashion (i.e., to take some of the guesswork away) and to open up new possibilities I hadn't previously considered.

I'm really glad to have the ability to be formally analytical if I need to be, but, strangely enough, the training in school actually convinced me to be more trusting of my musical intuition and less trusting of my intellect, since it's so easy to rationalize a bad compositional choice once you're armed with the concepts and vocabulary to defend it. Emotional impact is always more important to me than formal structure, but emotional impact is more subjective and harder to teach than structure, so what you get in school tends to be more about structure.

3. What do you use as inspiration when scoring? Is there a "How To For Film Scoring" or have you crafted your own methods?

There are various courses you can take for film scoring, and I'm sure there are some good books, but I've crafted my own methods. The reason for this is not that I think I know better than the people teaching the courses or writing the books. In fact, I would be taking those courses or reading those books if my main musical goal was specifically to score films.  My main goal is to create compositions (including songs) that move people, and film provides one of the best outlets for music because it embraces such a diversity of styles. I consider most of my scoring as being creating music "for" picture rather than creating music "to" picture. Let me explain...

Early on in my scoring career I identified what I think are my biggest weaknesses and my biggest strengths. Among the weaknesses, I noticed that as soon as an image in a scene inspired me I would immediately start thinking about how I wanted the music to sound and almost completely lost sight of how the music was supposed to support the onscreen action or mood. I also observed that I would get very attached to what I had written and had a hard time making the sometimes drastic changes demanded by the producer or director or by the inevitable last minute reedit. When I worked as an arranger and orchestrator for other film composers, I saw that they were more flexible concerning the changes and were much better at always focusing on what the main thrust of the scene was.

The weaknesses I just mentioned are so fundamental as to probably disqualify me from being a good choice to score "to" picture, which brings me to the "for" picture explanation. One of the comments that I would hear frequently about my music was that it conjured up cinematic images - even some of my songs elicited that response. It seems that when I wrote freely (i.e., not to a specific scene in a film), I could create a more convincing and moving soundtrack that a producer or director could then use as he/she saw fit.

4. How do you get your work? Do you have to have a publishing deal?

I have a publishing deal with DSM Producers in New York City. They place my music in TV and, to a lesser extent, film, and they handle the licensing fees, etc.. Sometimes I write music for them that their clients specifically request, and sometimes I submit music to them that is just in a particular style or genre for inclusion in a music library CD. They have so much of my music now that's in circulation that I tend to write a lot less new music for them these days. On the other hand, I have been getting increased demand for my newer material from a small independent film production company through an industry contact I have known for many years.

5. What have been some of your favorite projects and why?

One of favorite projects was one of my earliest for TV.  I was asked to write a dark theme for the main story for a Primetime Live (or was it 20/20) show, which was the downing of Pan Am Flight 103. I was so naive at this point about TV newsmagazine show deadlines that when they said they wanted to hear something from me that afternoon, I assumed it was just a demo for their approval so I could make the real version and provide any changes before the show aired a week later. I quickly wrote the theme, recorded the piece to cassette, hopped in a cab and delivered it to ABC. Later that day, I got a phone call from an audio engineer over at ABC telling me that the show was airing that night and that they had transferred my music straight from the cassette! That particular show won an award, and my less than ideal recording apparently didn't spoil the show.

6. When you're not doing t.v./film work what other musical and artistic ventures are you dabbling in?

Several years ago I started creating Sci-fi/fantasy sound design elements, which to my mind are like miniature compositions.  Sound Ideas now distributes much of this work. I also freelance for Korg musical instruments on occasion for their voicing department, contributing to Triton and Karma workstations. Then there's the Disney work I do for their Baby Einstein series.

All the above are interesting, challenging and rewarding, but closest to my heart are my two most personal projects: Clive Smith songs and In Real Time, an instrumental duo with Bob Kaus on bass, guitar and devices (i.e., electronics), where I play guitar, keyboards and devices. "Clever Animals" is the only release so far of Clive Smith songs, and "the Gallery Soundscapes: Vol. I" is the only release so far of In Real Time, but I hope to change that soon. 33 minutes of the new In Real Time recording are recorded, mixed and edited, as are 28 minutes of the new Clive Smith songs CD. I've also completed about 30 minutes worth of another Clive Smith solo CD, which is tentatively titled Non-Songs, where, as its name implies, I'm not singing.

7. Are you currently doing any gigs with your singer/songwriter project?

I really enjoy playing out with my singer/songwriter project, which I referred to above as Clive Smith songs. I perform out simply as Clive Smith, usually with Bob Kaus from In Real Time accompanying me. I did a live gig recently, but don't have anything lined up right now, unfortunately.

8. What are your future plans?

My first priority is to finish the Clive Smith songs CD, the In Real Time CD and the Non-Songs CD.  With all the other work I'm doing, I never stop writing, so I have a huge backlog of work, but very little that's completed and publicly presentable. I'm resolving to get a lot more of my work out in the near future, and I also want to be playing out live a lot more. I think when the material is available on CD, I'll be able to focus more on promoting it through the live performances.


THE TEN

1. Have you ever been abducted by a UFO?

I'm writing the responses to your questions from one right now.

2. What are your top 5 album pics?

It's hard to limit it to 5, but if I had to pick 5 albums that had an impact on me that changed the way I thought and felt about music from that point on I would have to say (in no particular order): Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (The Beatles, actually I could include most of the Beatles albums), Are You Experienced? (Jimi Hendrix), The Court Of The Crimson King (King Crimson), Piper At The Gates Of Dawn (Pink Floyd), and the soundtrack to 2001: A Space Odyssey (particularly the Ligeti pieces).

As you can see, these are all old, but that's because I was at a very influential age when these came out, and they affected me very strongly. There's lots of great music since then that I really appreciate from artists like Peter Gabriel (old and recent), Kate Bush, Brian Eno, Steve Reich, Tori Amos, Ravi Shankar, The Lot, XTC, Wilco (their latest) and Radiohead.

3. What are your thoughts about professional wrestling?

I think I'd be really good at it if I could only come up with a good name/image and maybe 200 extra lbs.

4. What artist/entertainer, dead or alive, would you most like to sit down and have a cup of tea with?

This is cheating a little, but I'd like to sit down with both John Lennon and Paul McCartney at the same time. Yes, I know you only wanted one artist, and one is alive while the other is dead, but in an ideal world John would not be dead and I could imagine him sitting with Paul with their differences put aside.

5. If reincarnation is true, what would you come back as?

I'll have to get back to you on that.

6. How would you describe the music scene in Northern New Jersey?

Somewhat Clive-less for the time being, but I'll have to change that.

7. If you could swim in a bowl of Jello Brand Pudding, what flavor would you pick?

Rhubarb. Oh, if they don't have rhubarb, then maybe gooseberry. Not that either? Well, until they make it vegetarian (or better yet, vegan), I wouldn't want to swim in it anyway.

8. What was your favorite childhood toy?

I have to say that I feel as if I'm still in my childhood, so my favorite toy is still my first Gretsch guitar.

9. Spelling question. Spell "Managerial."

Can you give me a hint? Does it have a silent "w" or maybe an umlaut?

10. Of the songs you've written, what is your favorite?

It changes from day to day, but today it's probably "Puddles Held The Sky." That's going to be on the new Clive Smith songs CD, entitled Several Skies Later, which is also the name of my own publishing company.