Name: Alan Clark
Occupation: Composer, producer, keyboarder
Current event: Dire Straits Legacy featuring Trevor Horn & Alan Clark & Phil Palmer from Dire Straits will be performing at the O2 Indigo, London on January 15th 2022. Get tickets here.
Alan Clark joined Dire Straits in 1980. At this point, the band had just released Making Movies, an album which mostly continued their signature sound between blues and rock, but had hinted at bigger ambitions in expansive, more complex compositions such as the eight minute long "Tunnel of Love". That song featured some of Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler's most poetic lyrics and an arrangement which hypnotically cycled through different themes and progressions to mesmerising effect. And yet, nothing on Making Movies hinted at the monumental changes that would set in for follow-up Love over Gold and its new line-up - the core of which was based around Knopfler, John Illsley on bass, and Clark on keys.
On Love Over Gold's epic opening statement "Telegraph Road", the band repeated the dream-like logic of "Tunnel of Love", but added a cinematic feeling to it by splicing together minutely finetuned studio magic and improvised sections. And on "Private Investigations" – a piece burned into my mind, as it was one of the select tracks in my school's audio recording studio, where we would play and admire it almost every single day – the seamless fusion of electronics and chambermusical rock defied all categorisation. Clark's synthesizers, glowing with film-noir-tension and endless unresolved anticipation, were a vital ingredient in making this album one of the definitive ones of the decade, a mind trip so deep and out-there even Dire Straits themselves were not prepared to embark upon again.
Clark stayed with the band until its eventual resolution, sharing keyboard duties with Guy Fletcher on Brothers in Arms and adding gorgious orchestrations to On every Street, an album whose sensual, otherworldly moods were probably too understated to satisfy the grandiose expectations Dire Straits had created with the multi-million-selling predecessor. Clark's influence may not have been as obvious to the outside world, but reveals itself as essential on close inspection – especially so in the passionate piano- and keyboard lines of double-live-album Alchemy or his contributions to On the Night, which contains, to my mind, the perhaps greatest version of "Private Investigations".
Even though Clark has been keeping the Dire Straits heritage alive by touring Knopfler's songs under the moniker The Straits and now Dire Straits Legacy, he has always had a career outside of it as well. Not only has he worked with artists as diverse as The Bee Gees, Phil Collins, Al Green, Billy Joel, Elton John, the Pet Shop Boys, Lou Reed, Van Morrison, Robbie Williams and Eric Clapton. But he also directed and scored the movie The Inspiration.
The latter is a great way to seague into this interview about Clark's songwriting process and perspectives on inspiration. Creativity, after all, is a force of nature. It does not want to be restricted – neither by genres, styles nor one form of expression only.
If you enjoyed this interview with Alan Clark of Dire Straits Legacy, visit his official website for more information. He also has a facebook profile and an Instagram account.
Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?
If it’s music, I.e. instrumental, it can just become apparent like it was always there, I just didn’t know it. It usually happens with just a few bars and thereafter I allow it to develop in its own time.
Very occasionally, I get the whole thing from beginning to end, as happened with a tune called "The North", which I played an arrangement of on my Backstory album.
With lyrics, I write about an experience, something real, whether personal or someone else’s, which I’ll disguise by giving it another, more obvious meaning. For instance, I wrote a song called "Jesus Street" (Legacy, Three Chord Trick album).
If you take at face value, looks like I “got religion”:
“I found myself, on Jesus Street, on the Great Divide, where the angels meet”
I didn’t; it’s about a trip I took to Tarifa, Spain where there’s a street called Jesus Street (C Jesus), and Tarifa is where some windsurfing girls I met, regularly meet up. The Great Divide is the Straits of Gibralter, the narrow sea that divides Africa from Spain, and Tangiers from Tarifa.
Is there a preparation phase for your process? Do you require your tools to be laid out in a particular way, for example, do you need to do 'research' or create 'early versions’?
Recording is a tool but I find recording too early a mistake because it sets in stone what you’re working on, when it needs to find its way unhindered. Only when I’ve got the basis of the whole thing do I record.
Then, recording is a tool that allows me to lie back and listen and see what else it needs. By that stage, it’s getting into production.
Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?
A lot of my writing gets done when I’ve woken up in the middle of the night. When I’m working on a song, I keep a pencil and manuscript paper next to the bed, which mostly gets used for lyrics but gives me the option of jotting down music. Or I’ll sing into my iPhone.
I don’t listen to much music, which keeps my mind free to develop my music, which is always there simmering unnoticed in the background, waiting for me to give it some attention.
Keeping fit has always been important to me because it makes me feel good, and feeling good is essential. Unless you’re writing the blues.
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?
I have to have something that inspires me; it can be a few notes or an idea for lyrics. If I’m writing with someone else, as I have been recently with ace guitarist Phil Palmer, I’ll invariably start by asking Phil to play me something he’s been playing around with, which can be just a few chords, and that becomes the inspiration I need to get something going and we develop it from there.
We wrote a song called "Epiphany" (Legacy, Three Chord Trick album), before breakfast one day when we were recording at Steve Ferrone’s house in Califormia (we were jet lagged and rising early), after Phil had played me a chord sequence which became the songs intro.
Once you've started, how does the work gradually emerge?
I try never to rush the process. Sometimes it takes weeks. But when I work with Phil, we can get the bones of three songs, in as many hours.
Many writers have claimed that as soon as they enter into the process, certain aspects of the narrative are out of their hands. Do you like to keep strict control over the process or is there a sense of following things where they lead you?
I get the best results from my subconscious; trying too hard is uncreative.
Of course, if I’m writing for TV or commercials, which I try to avoid but occasionally do, I don’t have the luxury of time.
Often, while writing, new ideas and alternative roads will open themselves up, pulling and pushing the creator in a different direction. Does this happen to you, too, and how do you deal with it? What do you do with these ideas?
When I’m writing with Phil, I can bounce ideas off him and get an immediate reaction, thus we can write a song quite quickly.
When I’m writing alone, I always give it plenty time to develop.
There are many descriptions of the creative state. How would you describe it for you personally? Is there an element of spirituality to what you do?
It depends how you define spirituality.
The trick is to find a way to tap into the subconscious, a direct link, like the process of meditation. When you first start meditating, it takes time to get into the meditative state, if you get there at all. But with practise, you can drop right into it. After a lot of practise, you are in it permanently.
In my experience, tapping into the subconscious is a similar process.