Who is: Greg Clifford?

People can often confuse this vocation with being a mere hobby. A pastime. A pipe dream. Something you should almost grow out of.

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Greg Clifford is a Dublin based independent musician. His style is an authentic synthesis of Indie-pop rock fused with electronic aspects and ‘classical’ guitar fingerpicking.

We got a chance to catch up with Greg and learn more about who he is. We learn about his musical journey, his experiences in Switzerland and the many challenges we face in the Irish music industry.

 

How did your musical journey begin?

I’d imagine sometime in the womb. I’ve been exposed to and surrounded by music since day one. Bitten by the bug from the get-go. My Dad played rhythm guitar with a band called Thee Amazing Colossal Men. He was also a very provocative performance artist, known to cement himself into walls, and was the editor and founder of the seminal post-punk Vox music magazine (1980-83), which was recently republished as a 400+ page anthology by Hi Tone Books. On top of that, he also booked some bands and promoted shows. Lost a heap of cash but worth it for the anecdotes! I recall The Celibate Rifles, of Australia, staying with my folks. They were subversive animals! I’m not sure how my Ma tolerated it all! Sean O’Hagan of Microdisney and The High Llamas would visit regularly too and give me presents of his new releases. He also assisted and advised 10 years old me on how to improve my lyrical output. ‘Look around’ he said. ‘Write about what you see and then let your imagination take it from there’. Fond memories for sure. 

Before I could properly walk I had the ability to place a vinyl on the turntable and drop the needle on the record. My go-to choices were The Beatles, Neil Young (‘Neila Younga’ as I referred to him) and a rather obscure outfit in Yello. Their song ‘The Race’ proper got me vibed apparently! Check it out. It’s pure barmy.

In the majority of my baby pictures, I’m holding four-stringed and toy guitars. Being a musician, and gigging, is the only thing I’ve ever dreamt of doing. I started to play the recorder and take music theory lessons by the age of 7. Around this time I also started to record my first songs on a Fisher-Price tape machine. This was an incredible sensation getting to hear back my own creations. Of course, they were horrendous, but it represented the future and possibility. Loved this device. I still have it, and it, in fact, appeared in my music video for ‘You’re Out Of Time’ (2016), which was a homage to me as a kid singing in front of the mirror dreaming of stardom!
I had various ‘bands’ in primary school. I used to be wound up with making sleeves for our tapes. Pure Daniel Johnston aesthetic! I’d spend hours making collages, obscure designs and knocking out ‘songs’. I’d pester teachers asking them could we play gigs in the classrooms and during lunch breaks. We were known as the TC6 (don’t ask me why), before becoming The Blue Lemons, who also had a brief stint as The Purple Oranges!!!
I began to take guitar tuition at the age of 9. I had an excellent teacher who not only taught me classical guitar and fingerpicking but also introduced me to jazz and flamenco styles, which are somewhat prevalent in how I play to this day. He also showed me how to work out chords and songs by ear. In later life, I studied music in NUI Maynooth, and this opened up many new doors and musical angles. 

 

Who has been your biggest musical influence?

I’ve always loved The Beatles. An incredibly seminal band. What a body of work! In a short period, they evolved so much stylistically and changed the general musical landscape for future bands. True innovators, and ballsy too to cease gigging in 1966. An inspired move though, as this catapulted their music into completely new realms. They began to overdub and use the studio as an instrument so to speak. Songs like ‘I Am The Walrus’ and ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ are magic. The songs also feature wonderfully accomplished arrangements by their producer and general musical director George Martin, who is commonly, and most appropriately, referred to as the 5th Beatle. I’m a sucker for the pop-classical music fusion, such as ‘Pet Sounds’ by The Beach Boys and the singles of The Walker Brothers.

At different stages in my life, I become obsessed with different acts. At 16 it was Rory Gallagher. Around this time I began to embrace the electric guitar and playing actual rock/blues guitar solos, which set me up nicely for my 3-piece band Elavator (2006-12). After my Rory Gallagher phase, I discovered Pink Floyd and smoking weed. The first time I listened to ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ I was so blown away I had to turn it off at the start of track 3. The clocks and chimes at the start of ‘Time’ blew my mind!

In relation to more recent years, I adore Radiohead and Nick Cave. Nick Cave is an outrageous artist. I’m infatuated with him in all honesty. I don’t dig all his material, but I appreciate his aesthetic, workflow and prolific nature. He goes to an office every day, Monday to Saturday, from early morning to the evening, and writes. He’s a musician, songwriter, author, screenwriter, composer, and has appeared in some films as an actor. His lyrics, which are commonly centred around love, death, violence and religion, are incredibly moving and visceral. His vocal delivery is intense and emotional. He truly is an endless source of inspiration. At the age of 63, he seems to be going from strength to strength. A fine wine if you will. I read an article 13 years ago where he believed he was ready to retire. Just as well he didn’t, ‘Push the Sky Away’ (2013), Skeleton Tree (2016) and Ghosteen (2019) are spectacular offerings. I’m also a big fan of the debut album from his band Grinderman. I saw them play Vicar Street, around 2011, and it was magnificent. A wonderfully sick, sweaty, gritty and decadent affair it was.

In the last few weeks, I’m binging hard on The Smiths. Johnny Marr is a marvellous guitarist. I love his choice of tone, effects and ‘busy’ right-hand style. I’ve enjoyed playing his electric guitar parts recently, and no doubt this will inform me on a subconscious level in the coming creations and arrangements I conjure up. 

Greg Clifford's New Release "Alone" is out Friday, 2nd of October
Greg Clifford’s New Release “Alone” is out Friday, 2nd of October

You had some recent experiences in Switzerland, what is the scene like, and what sort of ventures are you up to there?

I decided to spend the majority of September in Switzerland. It was imperative I escape Dublin for a while! I needed a change of scenery and to reconnect with myself. Why Switzerland? Well, I’ve travelled around there many times throughout my life. The country has always represented liberation and been a refuge of sorts. I used to tour in Switzerland with a somewhat parody Irish band called The Led Farmers. A pure mercenary I was. Churning out the repugnant Irish ‘classics’ night after night. The gigs were often wild and shamanistic! The general treatment was ace, as were the payments. At times we were more like performance artists than a musical outfit! I’ve also performed in Switzerland with the Diversus Guitar Ensemble (a 25-30 piece classical guitar group, consisting of some of the finest players I’ve ever shared a stage with) and Penguins By Choice, an eclectic eccentric folk outfit.

Artistically speaking my objective of the trip was to work on a new set of songs and write passages for my book about touring with the Led Farmers. So making the trip to Switzerland made perfect sense in that regard, as I had the chance to catch up with two of the members who still gig with the band over there. We’ve got an incredible and surreal bond truth be told. Great spending time with them. The book is entitled ‘The Diary Entries of a Somewhat Degenerate’, and explores the madcap, depraved nonsense that ensued while touring with my mates. My goal is to capture a sense of comedy, surrealism, abandonment and embracing anonymity. However, the book also reveals the darker aspects of life on the road. In regards to writing style, I’m certainly influenced by Jack Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson and Charles Bukowski.

During my travels, I spent time house sitting for my Aunt in Gingins, a serene quaint village outside of Nyon. Most idyllic and conducive to creating I must say. It’s such a beautiful country. To break up the writing days I’d cycle to the lake and swim beneath the scorching sun. The landscape is outrageous. Everywhere you look it’s like a postcard. I also spent some time catching up with my cousins in Lausanne. All-round it truly was a wonderful and much-needed experience.

In regards to performing, I did some busking in Basel and also played at a jam session. The jam session was ace. We played in a small shack-like venue located in an industrial park. It kicked off at midnight and ran until 7 am! Very different vibe to Dublin. Electric guitars, bass, drums, keyboard, amps, mics. Full backline provided. I was like a man possessed by 4 am. Proper charged banging out blues numbers and fusing improvised text with Jim Morrison like musings. Loved it. Great being back on a stage giving it loads. Refreshing also to be in a country that appears to not be overly concerned with the virus at the present moment. Masks on public transport are mandatory, but there doesn’t seem to be the same panic and worry that’s palpable in Ireland. I’m by no means dismissing the virus or being irreverent here, just stating it was nice to escape Ireland for a while and experience how the Swiss are handling the situation.

Scene/style-wise jazz is ubiquitous throughout the country. Irish fusions are also quite prevalent. On the first night I landed I hit up a gig in a converted swimming pool. Áed were the band that played. Solid set. Worth checking out. 

 

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a musician?

I think to be a musician or creator/artist of any description, it’s essential you’re motivated and can handle uncertainty. Work and payments can be sporadic. It can be competitive. And one must simply have a thick skin when it comes to rejection! Easier said than done at times. The entire process is like a voyage and expedition into the unknown. However, this is where the wonderment and magic lies. Testing times often produce the most interesting and ‘real’ work. Adversity and anguish offer us the opportunity to learn, grow and channel these struggles into our output.

Maintaining a positive outlook and disposition is of great importance. Deep down I know it’s all a futile pursuit, but I go into each new project believing this is the new track or album that will see me get more recognition and traction. Tragically romantic and quixotic!

Sacrifice is a vital and necessary evil. Maintaining regularity and stable ground in one’s personal life is an incessant juggling act too. The hours can be long and demanding, and it often means gigging until late over consecutive weekends. On a personal level, I find it hard to switch off from the process. It’s not like a 9-5 where one has the potential to clock out. However, like anything in life, there are pros and cons. There’s a trade-off naturally. I’ve no boss to tell me I’m succeeding and meeting targets, there’s no promotions, no pension fund or stability. On the other hand, I get an outrageous thrill out of the unknown and being on a stage. I’m fond of a challenge and no stranger to spinning the wheel and taking a gamble. For me, there’s no divine pinnacle or truth we must aspire to. One’s way is simply a way among many. And my way is to create.

On a personal level, how some people perceive artists pisses me off. If you don’t sell out big venues and have millions of streams on Spotify ‘then you must be no use’! People can often confuse this vocation with being a mere hobby. A pastime. A pipe dream. Something you should almost grow out of. ‘Get a real job’ can be lazily branded about. I found it most infuriating and disconcerting back in August to hear former Minister for the Arts, Heather Humphreys, suggest people ‘re-skill, retrain and look at jobs they can take up’. This was a kick in the nads at the time. Retraining means 3-4 years in college. I have a Masters in Contemporary Composition like. I’m no shmuck. She’s subsequently claimed to value musicians and that her words were misunderstood. Either way, poor timing, misguided and insulting.

Presently, the obvious challenge is Covid-19. It’s an undermining time for artists. People are down and its tested the mental resolve of many. I hope we’re back gigging and touring soon. But I won’t hold my breath. All I can do for now is get my work together, stay focused, stay motivated and be ready to pounce when we’re given the green light! At this stage now, being patient is a challenge as I’m desperate to present my new material to audiences. 

 

What kind of changes do you think are needed to improve the independent music scene here in Ireland?

I guess funding is the main one. During the pandemic, New Zealand dug deep and provided over 30 million in arts funding. Although we have similar populations our government coughed up a meagre 2 million. The swines. However, it could be levelled at me that we have bigger issues here with housing and health care. And that is true. It’s hard to know. However, I truly feel the government could do more to promote and encourage the arts.

We’re a talented country, but get stifled with lack of funding and opportunity. Although I’m not sure what the solutions are. If I knew I’d have cracked the code and implemented it by now. Maybe we don’t have the weight of population as such? We don’t have enough venues and interest around the country? Is it saturated? Suppose another consideration is just because you create, or label yourself an artist, doesn’t mean the output is up to scratch. We must, including me, be humble enough to reflect upon this. There is no divine right for any of this to work out or for us to succeed in our chosen field. All we can do is adjust and adapt to the cultural and political contexts and constraints that exist and play out.

It would be nice to hear more diversity on mainstream radio. However, it’s a feedback loop in ways. The playlisters select the playlist, but the listeners also demand certain music/genres. But they demand what they become familiar with. And this breeds homogenous and anaemic music very often. Formulaic and generic songs, that bear a great resemblance to other recent releases, are commonplace now.

There are funding schemes around but it appears only so many can drink from the well if you know what I mean. I don’t wish to come across too snide here, but it’s often the same acts and candidates that are rewarded and selected. However, on a personal level, I don’t wish to get too fixated on negatives. I’m rejuvenated and reignited after my Swiss travels! My current aim is to maintain focus and keep grafting and improving. 

 

What plans do you have for the future as an artist?

This is always an interesting question for me! The truth is the answer is subject to change, quite regularly, partly because I’m wildly ambitious, partly due to my innate penchant for being a ‘project whore’ and also because I’m receptive to new experiences, opportunities and people that enter my horizon of possibility. I feel this is my prerogative as a creator. The artist must always maintain a propensity for illumination, impulse and wonder.

In the immediate sense, I have a new single, entitled ‘Alone’, coming out at the start of October. I recorded it myself during my time in Switzerland. Ian Flynn (Werkhouse Productions) mixed and mastered it. It will be available to stream on Spotify and the ‘Alone’ EP, comprising of four tracks, will be available to purchase on Bandcamp. I’m a big fan of Bandcamp. During the pandemic, they’ve regularly waived their administrative fees. Spotify is horrific and unsustainable for creators. As Patrick Carney, drummer of The Black Keys, aptly put it, ‘The owner of Spotify is worth something like 3 billion dollars… he’s richer than Paul McCartney and he’s never written a song’. But I shan’t get sucked into an anti-Spotify rant. For someone at my level, I need to subscribe to the platform. Without it, I risk remaining unknown and my work slipping further and further into the abyss and obscurity. There will be a YouTube video to accompany ‘Alone’ also. In October and November, I’ll be recording new contemporary classical compositions I wrote commissioned by the Sound Training Centre too.

At the end of January 2021, I’ll be launching my ‘Lines of Desire’ LP. I’m very proud of this project. The title represents individuality, being unapologetically oneself and abandoning paradigms and conventions. To accompany its release I’ve written a book about the formation of the songs, the inspiration, the concepts and philosophies explored, studio anecdotes, some music theory and how the tracks generally came to life. Writing the book helped me to connect with the tracks on a deeper level. In addition, a third element will also be launched with the LP and book; a 40-minute making of the album documentary, which was filmed in Sun Studios (Temple Bar, Dublin) by my Dad and edited by myself (Clifford Clifford Productions).

My Dad and I are currently working on a documentary for Ireland’s longest-serving punk band – Paranoid Visions. It’s a big undertaking but a very interesting story and scene to explore. In regards to the more distant future, I believe at some point I’ll turn my attention to film music and more experimental instrumental music. However, I still have a lot of songs in me to write, record and release. It’s my mode of being. Not something I can switch off. One thing that’s for sure is I plan on expressing myself and exploring myself through art until my body rejects me. On an existential level, art helps me make sense of who I am and the world I occupy. 

 

Following on from ‘Open Fire’ (Feb 2020), a brutally honest and emotive offering, Clifford is set to launch his latest single and EP entitled ‘Alone’.

‘Alone’ was recorded during the artist’s recent travels through Switzerland, and mixed and mastered by London based sound engineer Ian Flynn (Werkhouse Productions).

The neo-60’s track has a vintage sonic quality reminiscent of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, while also evoking the sound and style of The Last Shadow Puppets.

‘Alone’ will be available to stream on Spotify, while the 4-track EP will be available to purchase on Bandcamp on the 2nd of October. On this date Bandcamp will also be waiving their administrative fees, ensuring that artists get 100% of revenue.

Early 2021 will see Clifford release his much-anticipated LP ‘Lines of Desire’. To accompany this release there will also be a 40-minute documentary about the making of the album and a 12,500-word book about its conception and actualisation.

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