Blondie Seeds Their Signature Sound on Pollinator

As defined as the sound of legendary new-wave icons Blondie may appear to be on record, it’s how they’re able to open things up onstage — just as they did this past summer during the U.S. tour supporting their buzzworthy new album Pollinator (BMG), as well as on their current November run in the UK — that keeps things interesting for the bandmembers themselves.

“I really believe that, in live performance, you’ve got to have spontaneity,” observes Blondie drummer Clem Burke (second from left in the above band photo). “And that’s the thing — songs do develop as you go along during that live performance, beyond what you were playing in the studio. And I think we’ve been able to branch out the Pollinator songs a good bit. I don’t care if you’ve played a song 10 times, or 10,000 times — that spark and spontaneity have to be there. You have to be in the moment expressing yourself, and feeling that synergy of coming together with your bandmates.”

During a recent short tour break, Burke, 63, and I got on the line to discuss Blondie’s special chemistry on record and onstage, how to be creative while working with click tracks and drum machines, and the special kick he added to the back half of “Heart of Glass.” Seems like the real thing to me...

Mike Mettler: First, I have to say I really like the production choices you guys made for the overall sound palette of Pollinator.

Clem Burke: Thanks. That’s because we wanted the chemistry of the band to really come across this time. On the last couple of Blondie albums, we were really informed by the digital age — and pretty much to the point of overkill, from my point of view. Obviously, it’s great to be able to use Pro Tools and other stuff like that in the studio, but I think we found the right balance on Pollinator.

When we went to reimagine some of the songs from those previous albums that were more computer-generated in live performance, we realized that, while we had some great songs there, maybe the recorded approach to them wasn’t the best. With Pollinator, I really feel this album is the one the Blondie fans have been waiting for. On it, the chemistry of the band and our spontaneity are intact.

We did all the basic tracks for Pollinator together in the studio, at The Magic Shop down in SoHo in New York City. And that was one of the main ideas from the start — to track everything together and actually collaborate on the arrangements. With a lot of the songs being provided by outside writers, we could give more of an objective overview to the whole process.

We’ve had a long history of reinterpreting other people’s songs and having a lot of success with them — early on with songs like “Denis,” for example. [That song was originally a Top Ten hit for the doo-wop group Randy & The Rainbows back in 1963, when it was titled “Denise.” Blondie renamed it “Denis” for 1978’s Plastic Letters, and it became a #2 hit in the UK.]

And, of course, there’s “The Tide Is High” [Blondie’s #1 hit from 1980’s Autoamerican], which was a song by The Paragons [a Jamaican rocksteady band who released as a “Tide” as a B-side in 1966]. And then some people don’t realize “Hanging on the Telephone” [Blondie’s Top 5 UK single from Parallel Lines] was actually by an L.A. power pop band called The Nerves. [“Hanging” first appeared on The Nerves’ 1976 self-titled EP.] So, we’ve always had the knack for taking other people’s songs and turning them into Blondie songs.

And, in general, the Pollinator album really does have the sound of modern-day Blondie. The three other guys in the band — Matt [Katz-Bohen, keyboards and piano], Tommy Kessler [guitar], and Leigh [Foxx, bass] — have all been with us for quite a while, and we really wanted them to be able to contribute in full to this album.

Mettler: Pollinator really does sound like a fully collaborative effort to me. And in your “spare time” — if I can call it that — you also play in The Empty Hearts, a cool garage-rock band you have with Andy Babiuk [former bassist] of The Chesterfield Kings, Cars guitarist Elliot Easton, and The Romantics vocalist/guitarist Wally Palmar. When you were doing The Empty Hearts’ 2014 debut record, producer Ed Stasium had a “no clicks” rule. Did you follow the same methodology behind the kit for Pollinator?

Burke: No. About 40 percent of the live Blondie show has some programming to it — click tracks, and things like that — but the recording is more spontaneous. Ed is a genius at digital editing without totally following a click-track grid. There was some digital editing done later, but all modern technology has a double-edge to it. You can get carried away with it, but if you use it in the proper way, it enhances what you’re doing.

When we [i.e., Blondie] were doing the No Exit album back in 1999, we were working with producer Craig Leon, and he had one of the early digital systems, RADAR, which was just prior to Pro Tools. We would be doing our pre-production in a basement in New York City, and he would just be digitally editing on the fly, keeping things together. Craig was a genius at that, and he was sort of similar to Ed [Stasium] in that respect: They can work digitally, but they can also work mechanically at the same time, to give us the best of both worlds. I think that’s also what we did with Pollinator.

Mettler: I agree with that. If you don’t mind, I’d like to go back to the very beginning with you and discuss your Hal Blaine-influenced style on the song “X Offender,” the first single from Blondie’s self-titled 1976 debut. Wouldn’t you say that set a template for what you wound up doing later on?

Burke: Oh yeah. The early influences on the band came from the likes of Phil Spector and The Velvet Underground, for instance. There was a lot of common ground when I first hooked up with Chris [Stein, guitarist] and Debbie [Harry, vocalist], along with other stuff like The Shangri-Las and The Ronettes.

But when we went into the studio in 1976 to make “X Offender” — which, by the way, was co-produced by Craig Leon and Richard Gottehrer — it wasn’t representative of Blondie live. It was really a piece of art, a real record. And you’re right — it was kind of an homage to Hal Blaine. Unbeknownst to me as a kid, Hal Blaine and Earl Palmer were probably my biggest influences, but of course they were never really properly credited on those early records.

The biggest thrill I ever had was when I first heard “X Offender” played on the jukebox at CBGB — much more so than even being played on the radio. That one probably didn’t get played all that much on the radio then anyway.

Mettler: True, and when we bought full albums like Plastic Letters and Parallel Lines, we found out Blondie had even more depth than the single tracks that made it onto the radio.

Burke: Yeah, for sure.

Mettler: And you’ve gotten direct approval from Ringo Starr, so that’s not too bad either.

Burke: Oh yeah. Besides those other two guys, Ringo was probably the main influence on me, and on most people from my generation. He and The Beatles were such stars, and very much the beginning of something different.

Mettler: Well, for one thing, it says so right there in his name! (both laugh) Stylewise, Ringo is a left-handed drummer playing a right-handed kit, and you kind of do the same thing, right?

Burke: Right. Yeah, exactly. I mostly start on my left hand, and that comes out a little differently. A lot of people talk about my downbeat on the snare, because there’s a lot of power coming from my left hand.

Being left-handed playing on a right-handed kit gives you a different style. That can definitely be attributed to some of Ringo’s notes, fills, and riffs. There’s a uniqueness to it, and it leads to you becoming ambidextrous in a lot of ways. I think Dino Danelli of The Rascals also plays that way.

Mettler: At the end of the ’70s and into the early ’80s, you started dealing with how to incorporate drum machines into the Blondie mix. Were you OK with the Roland CR-78 being used on “Heart of Glass” [their #1 single from Parallel Lines], for example?

Burke: Oh yeah. We all had that little black box, and I wish I still had mine! (chuckles) I gave it away, along with this old analog drone synth I had at the time.

I was never inhibited by the studio. Obviously, being the drummer, you have to work within the context of the rest of the band. People are going to throw out ideas and you have to have an open mind about them, and at least being receptive to trying out things.

That little drum machine was sort of “the star” for a while, like it was on that Phil Collins record [“In the Air Tonight,” the pivotal track on 1981’s Face Value] and songs like “Dance Away” by Roxy Music [from 1979’s Manifesto]. It was the first programmable analog drum machine that came with the presets you could program beats with. And that was kind of unique at the time.

So, I tell young players not to be inhibited going into the studio. Embrace it. Playing to click tracks — it’s really just a guide. You don’t have to be 100 percent completely precise. When a click track is mated to a synthesizer, sure — it’s going to be even every time. But being a drummer playing behind a click track just slightly, you’ll never become buried in the mix.

Mettler: Good point. And speaking of “Heart of Glass,” I like where you get into the 7/4 time-signature shift in the back half of it, which gives it some additional kick.

Burke: Yes! And it’s really funny, because it was supposed to be a straight-ahead dance song, but then it has that little “skip” in it.

Mettler: Was that your own decision there, to change that up a little bit?

Burke: Yeah, and I pretty much had free rein to experiment in the studio. Of course, I had a committee listening to what I was doing, though. (both laugh) But something like “Dreaming,” for instance [their #2 single from 1979’s Eat to the Beat] — that was just a soundcheck pass in the studio. I never really thought that would have actually been accepted as the take. That was probably the first take of “Dreaming,” just as we were getting the sound.

Mettler: The way you dominate a lot of “Dreaming,” especially in the intro where you go all around the kit, was really something else to hear coming out of your speakers.

Burke: Everyone just felt the vibe on that one, so it became the basic track. People always mention that song. I got away with a few things, just as you say — like in “Heart of Glass,” or a couple of the extra fills in “Dreaming.” But I always try to play for the song, and for the singer as well.

Mettler: Lastly, do you feel vinyl is the best way to listen to Pollinator? Is vinyl your personal favorite way of listening to music?

Burke: Vinyl? It depends. If I’m at home, I like to listen to my vinyl, yes; for sure. But I also like the convenience of pulling something up on Spotify, or something up on your phone. The whole thing about the files being too small, and things like that — I mean, as a kid, I was listening to [The Rolling Stones’] “Satisfaction” on a little transistor radio with 2-inch speakers, and it sounded amazing! I wasn’t really concerned about the compression or the bass response — all I knew was, I was hearing something that sounded amazing, and it was speaking to me.

Obviously, technology has advanced to the point where there are CDs and stereo and surround sound, etc., etc., but sometimes I like listening to music on my phone without EarPods. It reminds me of back in the day where, as the saying went, there was a teenage disease everyone was walking around with, and to embrace it, they were holding their radios up to their ears.

Mettler: “Teenage Disease” — that’s a song title right there, so I think you’ve got to create the drum pattern for that one next.

Burke: That’s right, “Teenage Disease”! (both chuckle) In that respect, it’s kind of come full circle — you can make the analogy of people listening to a digital song coming out of a phone like listening to an old transistor radio back in the day. It’s all about the music, and all about the songs. It’s about what we’re listening to next — and feeling it.