Clem Burke, an American musician best known for being the drummer with Blondie chats with Kevin Cooper about playing with Bootleg Blondie, working with Johnny Marr, meeting the late Charlie Watts and Blondie’s forthcoming tour of the UK.

Clem Burke is an American musician who is best known as being the drummer for the band Blondie. Blondie were formed in 1974 co-founded by singer Debbie Harry and guitarist Chris Stein. Burke was invited to join shortly after.

The band was disbanded after the release of its sixth studio album, The Hunter in 1982 when Stein was taken ill. They reformed in 1997, achieving renewed success and a number one single in the UK with Maria in 1999, exactly twenty years after their first UK number one single Heart Of Glass.

Blondie have sold around forty million records worldwide, with the bands eleventh studio album, Pollinator, which was released on May 5th 2017.

In 2019 Blondie embarked upon a cultural exchange to Cuba, where they played two shows, and as a result they released a mini documentary entitled Vivar En La Habana.

In 1987 Burke stood in as drummer for the Ramones , under the name Elvis Ramone and played two gigs. He also played on the Go-Go’s member Kathy Valentine’s solo release, Light Years in 2005.

In 2007 he joined Slinky Vagabond, with Earl Slick, Glen Matlock and Keanan Duffty, playing their debut concert at the Joey Ramone birthday bash in May 2007. In December 2011 he formed the band the International Swingers with Glen Matlock (Sex Pistols), James Stevenson (Generation X) and singer Gary Twinn (Supernaut), releasing one album in 2015.

In 2019 he played with Blondie tribute band, Bootleg Blondie.

Burke was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 2006 as a member of Blondie.

Whilst busy promoting Blondie’s forthcoming tour of the UK, he took some time out to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.

Clem good morning, how are things with you today?

Hi Kevin, all is good thanks for asking, more importantly, how are things going with you today?

Everything is fine at the moment thank you, and before we move on let me first thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.

It is absolutely no problem whatsoever. Thank you for giving up your time in order to see just what Blondie are currently up to. Let me tell you that we are all looking forward to finally being able to get over to the UK once again, and especially up there to Nottingham. Talking to you is always a pleasure.

And I have to ask, just how is life treating you at this moment in time?

I have to be totally honest with you and say that, at this moment in time, life is actually treating me rather well, against the odds (laughter) which just happens to be what the tour is called. Everything seems to be going okay and moving in the right direction.

I understand that you played a gig last night with a certain Ricky Warwick. Just how did that go?

(Laughter) just where the hell are you getting your information from? Yes, that’s absolutely correct. Last night I played a small gig at The Troubadour here in Los Angeles, with a few friends, one of whom so happens to be Ricky Warwick, who as you will know fronts the modern-day version of Thin Lizzy. It was a private show and I have to say that we did a few interesting cover songs. We had managed to get ourselves a couple of rehearsal days with a bunch of great players, together with a couple of different singers, and I have to say that really was a lot of fun.

There was no pressure, it was just a party which was really enjoyable, and The Troubadour is such a legendary venue, for example Elton John made his US debut there back in early 70s. To me, it really is amazing that the club is still going. It has such a really great stage and I have to say that I am still on a happy up vibe from that. Ricky told me that it had been eight hundred and five days since he had set foot on a stage which is incredible, coming from someone who is constantly on the road, so, as you can imagine, it really was a pretty momentous occasion for him.

How did you manage to cope during lockdown?

Well, it’s funny that you should ask me that (laughter). I currently have put together a small pub rock band with whom I have been playing a few gigs here and there around town during the pandemic. I have also been recording a few ideas that I currently have, so things really are moving along and, as I said earlier, I am really looking forward to being back there in Nottingham. In fact, I am really looking forward to seeing The Trip To Jerusalem once again, and I’m sure that you have been there (laughter).

Yes, I have. You just have to watch out for the ceilings and archways otherwise it’s not the beer that gives you a headache (laughter).

(Laughter) tell me about it. As you say it’s a great place, I love it, but yes, the ceilings are so low that I keep banging my head whenever I go in there. Despite that, whenever we are in Nottingham, we always try to go in there, and also make the time to go and have a look around the castle.

So, am I to take it that you like our fair city?

Yes, I do, very much so. We are all very excited about coming back over to the UK, especially Nottingham, and it’s unbelievable that we haven’t been back over there for over two years. In fact, the last time that I personally was over there, I was actually playing with my friends in Bootleg Blondie. That was the very last tour that I personally did over there in the UK, with a Blondie tribute band, so it’s going to be great to be back there touring with the legitimate Blondie back in the UK (laughter).

When you were here with Bootleg Blondie, I have to ask, did you enjoy the experience and were you sleeping on a certain Glen Matlock’s sofa (laughter).

(Laughter) no I wasn’t, not this time. But yes, I usually do sleep in Glen’s spare room. However, having said that, Bootleg Blondie was very well organised. Those guys are all my friends and I met them through them being Blondie fans. One time a few Christmases’ back, I was over there in the UK and Bootleg Blondie were playing in Sutton at a football club, in the recreation room. There were a couple of hundred people there, and after a few beers they asked me if I would like to get up and play a couple of songs with them. So, I did it and I have to say that it was fun. They suggested that perhaps I should be their special guest on a few of their shows, and I just said “why don’t I do a tour with you guys” (laughter).

They have a whole pool of musicians who they use so it wasn’t as if I had replaced the drummer; they have several drummers who come in and out of the band. So, there I was expecting to be playing in the back room of pubs somewhere with them, and the next thing that I knew the second gig was at Shepherds Bush Empire (laughter). That was kind of crazy but, the place was pretty much sold-out, and it really was great fun. I got to see a lot of different towns and venues, all of which I was relatively unaware of. It was great and I really did enjoy it. I hope that we can do it again, and I am trying my hardest to get them to come over here and do it all over again. I found myself curating the set because we were also playing a hell of a lot of material that wasn’t Blondie.

You mention material that wasn’t Blondie related, what is happening at this moment in time regarding new Blondie material?

I’m so pleased that you have asked me that. We have so much new material that we are currently working on a new album as we speak. Hopefully, maybe one or two songs from the new record will emerge on the forthcoming tour but, if not, then next year we will come back over to the UK to take care of promotion and everything else for the next record which is definitely going to happen.

You and I last spoke back in 2017 prior to the Pollinator Tour. How was the tour, did it go as well as you had expected?

What I have to say is that the reception for that record was really great. I think that it was most definitely the best album that Blondie have made in several years. The chemistry of the band was intact, and the whole thing felt good. We did some great gigs; we had just signed a record deal with BMG in the UK, and they were being very supportive of the record. It went really well, and I have to say that it really was very enjoyable. It really was very reminiscent of being back in the day with the support that we got from the record company. They really were very helpful. We played some really cool TV shows; we played in the plaza at the BBC in London outdoors which really was kind of fun.

We did a bunch of crazy different TV shows. We did one in Hamburg; this woman has a show which everyone watches on a Saturday night, which takes place in a little pub. So, we set-up in the pub, we played amongst the constituents in the pub, and I have to say that it really was fun (laughter). It really was good. The only gig that we did was back in June when apparently the whole virus was over for a second, and before the Delta variant reared its ugly head, we played at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City, which Robert De Nero had established after 9-11. We had filmed a mini documentary with Blondie over there in Cuba which they debuted at the film festival.

We played a small gig on the Hudson River, and everyone was telling us “everything is good, the city is open” and then the next thing that we knew was that the next variant had moved in and everything was once again shut down again. As you know, the UK tour has been postponed twice but now we are really happy that the tour is finally going to go ahead.

Regarding the UK Tour, it has to be said that you really do have a very special guest on the tour with you, don’t you?

(Laughter) that’s right, we do. Johnny Marr is our very special guest on the UK leg of the forthcoming tour which I have to say, really is great for us. Johnny is a good mate of ours, so it really is going to be cool.

In your opinion, just how good is Johnny Marr?

I would have to say that, in my opinion, Johnny is very, very good. I was actually recently talking to Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top when we both found ourselves mutually at a Johnny Marr show and I said to Billy that I thought that Johnny had come up with the best take on Bo Diddley ever with his guitar part in The Smiths How Soon Is Now, which really is like a Bo Diddley groove. Johnny really did make it his own and Billy totally agreed with me on that. Johnny is a very musical guitarist, a great song writer, and I feel that he really is very, very good. Blondie recorded one of his songs on the last album, a song called My Monster which he wrote, so it feels really good to have him along with us on the forthcoming tour. I feel that he will be good value; he’s not like the opening act, he really is our very special guest. He’s great so it is going to be good; it is going to be a good thing.

You have briefly mentioned the time which Blondie spent in Cuba, how was that? Was it an enjoyable experience?

We did, yes, we really did. We were in Cuba on a Cultural Exchange programme, and I have to say that a hell of a lot of people from the UK travelled over there for it, together with people from the States. The rest of the tickets for the event, we played two nights in a theatre there, were basically given out free amongst the locals. I have to say that we got to see the country, which is fine for gentrification to say the least. There are thousands of beautiful buildings which are all in a state of disrepair, and it really is so sad to see. As you know, the USA has always regarded Cuba as quite a menace which really is quite ridiculous. We manage to get in there right before the ex-president shut everything down.

We managed to just get in under the wire so to speak and it really was good. We all enjoyed the art and the culture. We enjoyed playing there and I have to say that it really was great to see it. Being from the States we have always been told that Cuba always had this ominous presence, together with the threat of Communism and all that which really is ridiculous in a lot of ways. We saw the Nacional de Cuba which was built back in the heyday when all of the Chicago mobsters were moving out there trying to make it like Las Vegas. It is still in existence, and it is still a place to see. So, all in all, it was good.

The last time that you were here in Nottingham, you played The Royal Concert Hall, the next time that you visit us you will be playing The Motorpoint Arena. Which size venue do you personally prefer?

Well, to tell you the truth, it is a case of the bigger the better for me. My ideal thing would be to play the same venue on multiple nights. I really would love to do it that way. Having said that, this time around we are going to be doing an arena tour, which I have to say, is going to be good. The production will be good and as I said earlier, we are all really excited about coming back over to play in the UK. Debbie (Harry) has been phoning and texting me saying “I can’t wait to play” and “it’s been far too long” and we are all really excited about playing over there in the UK. In answer to your question, in London I would prefer to play a week at Shepherds Bush Empire, and not just play Wembley for one night. Don’t get me wrong, I really do like the big outdoor events, playing in Hyde Park or something like that, I really do enjoy those. I always find those kinds of events really exciting.

Taking you back to 1974 when the band formed, if someone had told you then that in 2022 you would still be performing, writing, recording and that you would still be as relevant, would you have believed them?

(Laughter) wow, what a question. I would honestly have to say that it would have been so hard to predict, in fact, it’s almost a cliché. During the pandemic I started working on my memoir simply because everyone seems to have one (laughter). It is just about done and fingers crossed, it should be coming out sometime early in 2023, hopefully to coincide with the release of the next Blondie record. The working title is The Other Side Of The Dream – My Life In And Out Of Blondie, which is technically what I am living. Blondie had the dream that we wanted to play certain venues, we wanted to be on the radio, we wanted to do a tour, we wanted to have hit records, and all of that happened.

So, now the reality of all of that is that I now find myself on the other side of all that; I am taking out the trash, cleaning out the cat box, and going out to a pub somewhere. But in reality, at the time, no, I would never have believed that anyone could ever have predicted that. I would hate to use the word legend, but if you are classed as being a living legend, it always makes me think that you are at the end of your life (laughter). You could never have imagined that in any shape or form, no, especially over there in the UK. The audiences over there and the fans really took to us in a big way early on as you know. It is very gratifying, let’s put it that way. It’s also good because I can go off and do other things, not just my work with Blondie.

Do you ever think about life without Blondie?

To be totally honest with you I experience life without Blondie as far as day to day performing, it’s not like we see each other every day, it’s not like we are on tour all of the time. Our music is so intrinsic into the popular culture. Whenever you go into the supermarket you hear Blondie, so it is always there in a lot of ways. Also, I think that the fact that we are still making music and playing generates certain media awareness, such as the interview that I am doing with you and things like that, and of course no one could have predicted the internet. My whole life is out there on the internet. You play some pop show over there in Germany, you have had a couple of beers before you go out and perform on the show.

Perhaps you had a laugh, you go on camera, you mimed and had a laugh, and then you simply forgot about it. However, you then enter the 21st Century and there it is in front of you; I find that pretty incredible. I could never have foreseen that. For the people of my generation, I think that we are probably the first ones to experience something like that; the advent of the internet. It is now ingrained in modern society, all of the stuff that we did back then in the 70s. That could never have been predicted, and Blondie is always around in that way. It’s not the end yet, that’s for sure but one day it will stop (laughter).

Tell me about the music that you and Blondie are currently working on?

We are currently working on a new album, which incidentally will be called Against The Odds, which as you know is the same title as our forthcoming tour. The reason for that is that whilst the pandemic was raging, we announced and launched the tour, against the odds, it was postponed several times, which is also regarded as being against the odds within the music business. I feel that the title is really apt, and we really did get our heads around that. There really were a lot of things happening against the odds. For me to still be playing with the band after all this time really is a good thing, its good (laughter).

If I may, I would like to mention the now defunct band, The Empty Hearts. I loved Come On And Try It, I feel that it has a 60s West Coast feel to it. Would you agree with that?

Yes, I would, I really would. That song, in particular really does have a 60s West Coast feel to it which is exactly what we were looking to recreate. I really did have high hopes for that band, and for the latest album that we made with Little Steven Van Zandt’s Wicked Cool Records label. Little Steven has produced and co-produced lots and lots of great rock and roll music. Unfortunately, one member of the band suddenly decided that he didn’t want to be in the band. We had planned during the pandemic what was going to happen to the band after we came through the pandemic, especially the release of the second album. However, that is all on the backburner now. I have to say that I am very proud of the recorded works of The Empty Hearts. I’m glad to say that the music is out there for people who want to hear it.

What about The International Swingers, the band that you formed with Glen Matlock, James Stevenson and Gary Twinn. Is that still an ongoing concern?

I’m sad to say that The International Swingers are no longer an ongoing concern. The singer, Gary Twinn, is in the little pub band that I have called The Long Shadows. James Stevenson has recently been out on the road with Holy Holy, with Tony Visconti on the David Bowie tribute show. Mick Ronson really was James’ guitar hero, and so I would say that he has got the perfect gig touring with that show. Glen, as you know, is currently doing his own thing. I saw recently that he has signed a new record deal and he is touring as much as he can. Glen really does spend a hell of a lot more time round at mine, than he does round his. In fact, he even sleeps on my couch sometimes (laughter).

There have been some developments regarding the Holy Holy tour. Have you heard anything?

Yes, I have. I have kept abreast of the current situation as there was, just for a minute, a chance that I might be invited to take Woody’s (Woodmansey) place. Funnily enough, once the powers that be had this idea to tour with a Bowie tribute, they were intending getting it out there before David passed, and I was invited to do that. In fact, I did do that, we played a festival just outside of London, and I can’t quite remember if any of the current members of Holy Holy participated in that, but the named was coined then, and I played this one gig. Woody actually came along to the gig, and I think that it was at that moment in time that he began thinking about doing something like that.

I’m not sure if Woody was contemplating doing something in conjunction with Tony at that time, but things certainly did begin to move forward from that moment. It’s sad that something such as a Covid vaccination has come between people; it has become political, and the plain fact is that you have to follow the science.

Didn’t you recently contract the virus?

Yes, that’s right, I did. I got Covid after having two shots. In April 2021 I went to play at a memorial concert in Austin, Texas for a very good friend of mine, Danny Freeman. Danny was a guitarist who played with the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimmie Vaughan, Bob Dylan, Taj Mahal, and Percy Sledge. I would say that Danny was one of the original Texas Guitar Slingers. Right when I was there, it was at the time that the second variant really hit hard. At the same time, there was a picture of Eric Clapton and the governor of Texas with their arms around one another, promoting an anti-vaccine campaign. The virus affected me really badly for three days, and that illustrated to me more so that we all had to be vaccinated. Obviously, at that time I wasn’t fully vaccinated against the virus, and I got very ill.

I was sick for a couple of days, I had to isolate myself, and that really is what the vaccine is all about, it is preventative in that way. People are still saying that they don’t want to put the vaccine into their body, but if you go back and look at Elvis (Presley) and Marilyn (Munroe), back in the 1950s with the Polio vaccine, they were on the TV encouraging people to get the shot. It was the same back then as it is now; people still had a trepidation about having the shot. Obviously, that situation is really sad because Tony and Woody together played on The Man Who Sold The World album of David’s, Tony played the bass and Woody is a great drummer, and a great personal inspiration to me. They have both inspired everyone in Blondie and continue to do so. Fingers crossed that they could put aside their differences and move forward. Tony is a great producer and an all-round great guy.

Do you have a ritual to get you into the zone prior to a gig?

Oh yes, absolutely. I get teased by some of my other band members sometimes because I have a teenager’s bedroom wall which acts as a homage to The Beatles, Keith Moon, together with various other artefacts that I travel with. There is also a Bo Diddley poster. My technicians will put the wall up for me before a gig, and then I will sit myself down at the practice pads, where I will play along to The Ramones or something like that, whilst going through my rudiments. I will maybe have just the one beer before I walk out on stage or maybe not, and really it is then that I just try to focus. I will listen to some music. I try to get inspired by the music that I am listening to, and I hope that I can take that to the stage. I go for it in that way.

Coincidently, back in 2019, I got to spend a day in Seattle with the late Charlie Watts of The Rolling Stones. I had never met him before, and a friend of a friend got me invited to one of their gigs. I was able to hang out on the side of the stage watching the sound check. Afterwards, Charlie came by and spotted me, and he invited me to meet him backstage in his dressing room after he had had his dinner. So, I went back to his dressing room and low and behold, he was doing the same things as I do prior to a gig. Charlie was listening to Duke Ellington, he had his books about jazz drummers out and he was thumbing through them, he had his practice pads out, and we found ourselves chatting away about Blondie’s Heart Of Glass, which Charlie said is when a whole load of rock bands went disco (laughter).

We were laughing and joking, saying that was the time when all of the worlds rock bands sold-out to disco; Rod Stewart’s Do Ya Think I’m Sexy and The Rolling Stones Miss You. I really was surprised because Charlie really did have a bit of appreciation for me which I found sweet, and I truly was honoured. As I said earlier, I had never met him before and a little later one of his drum technicians came into the dressing room, and I knew that it was time for me to leave and for Charlie to get ready to play. The drum technician said to me, “you must have known Charlie for a while” to which I replied, “this is the very first time that I have met him, so why do you say that” and he said “by the way that you guys were talking it seemed like you were a couple of old pals” (laughter).

It was great, and having that personal connection with him, if only for a short while, prior to him passing, really did affect me. So yes, I do have a ritual and I have to tell you that Mick’s room was directly next door and he had Chuck Berry blasting out (laughter). I tend to listen to music that inspires me. Some people don’t, other people might meditate, they don’t want to know about any other music, they simply try to concentrate on what they are doing. So, in answer to your question, yes, I do have that ritual, yes.

Looking at the other side of the coin, after a gig, how do you wind down?

(Laughter) now it’s interesting that you should ask me that, these really are great questions, as I am currently working on a chapter for my memoir which actually covers post-gig depression. Let me say from the outset that it most definitely exists. There is such a high from performing, and then you find yourself being hit with this massive low when it is all finished and over. Back in the day, there would have been a little more extreme partying, but now when you have finished the gig, you feel great, people loved it, you feel good about it, but you now go and have a cup of tea, and then it’s off to bed basically. I honestly do feel that post-gig depression is a real thing, and it does exist.

I have spoken to other musicians about it, and they all agree that nowadays, after a gig, you simply cannot have a party every day. You have simply got to maintain a balance. For the people who have come this far, if they don’t know how to maintain a healthy balance by now, they never will. Maybe that’s why Blondie are still going.

When are you hoping to release your memoir?

Hopefully, at this point now, the new Blondie record that we are currently working on will not be released until sometime next year. In a perfect world, the memoir will hopefully be released in conjunction with that. If that was to happen it would be really great because I could get a double hit on the media, which would most probably be to my advantage. We will see (laughter).

What is at the top of Clem Burke’s rider?

At the very top of my rider is some Pinot Noir, a quality red wine. Also, there will always be some supplements on it; there is a thing that I take which is called Chlorella (Chlorella Pyrenoidosa) which is a super food which the astronauts take whenever they go into outer space. It is a green super food that I have been taking for years actually. When I was in Australia with Annie (Lennox) and Dave (Stewart) we went to a health food place and the lady in the store suggested it to me and I have been taking it ever since. I make sure that is always there on the rider. The only other thing that I always request are bagels actually (laughter). It has actually become a thing for me to have bagels backstage (laughter).

On that note Clem, let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me today, it’s been great.

Thanks Kevin, I appreciate you taking the time as well, and let’s hope that we can move forward with this. I did one or two interviews over a year ago now in an effort to promote the tour, and then, as you know, nothing happened. So, let me assure you that Against The Odds is going to happen my friend. Make sure that you have a good pint for me at The Trip.