Three Cat Clem is one of Macjams’ Blues Men, combining traditional blues grit with contemporary rhythms and electric distortions, an old world spirit with a new world edge. He’s one of the few MJers who has played at the real CBGBs (not just the virtual online event). I was first turned on to Three Cat Clem by Fran Dagostino (ziti) when I was gathering tracks for the initial Macjams Blues Podcast.
When did you discover the Blues?
“I’ve always lived on the east coast / Philadelphia region. I would say that the early influences of Hendrix, Page, Trower and Beck had a great impact. A lot of these guys were from a heavy blues background. Location has not affected or guided my style or influence.
“In the 80’s, I tended to change with the music. Like the Cure, Furs, Sisters of Mercy, etc. – also the heavy industrial of Ministry. Man, there is nothing like that E chord cranked up all the way.
“Always knew the Robert Johnson thing, but later discovered all from Son House to Mississippi Fred Mcdowell to a lot of the Fat Possum guys. I would say I truly found the blues in the last 8-10 years or so. Today, I really respect Jack Whit of the White Stripes and Eric Sardinas. And Jon Spencer is a great example of making the blues contemporary.”
Why do you like Blues better than other music styles?
“I guess it was in me from the beginning. From the masters I studied. The purity of the Delta slide masters mystifies me. Open Tunings. These guys were brilliant. I went over the edge when I added a ’31 National Duolian to my collection. The sound is incredible. And what a history it must have. The blues are truly American, and truly original. To me there is nothing else.”
Much of what you do isn’t pure blues, but has several contemporary influences…
– Cedar Swamp Road – using the Downtempo Flex Beat
“I do bring my other influences to what I do. To give it an edge, take a new slant on tradition. To hell with formal song structure. It is feel and emotion. I am a good technical player, but I fight the notion of perfection to bring that real feel to the tunes.”
You have a unique sound, combining old world and new innovation blues…
“Yeah, that’s it. Old meets new. A lot of the sound comes from my style of playing. It is all in the hands of the player. To some extent the gear. I like house brand stuff. Yes, I have the Strats and Les Pauls, etc., but choose to use the unknown inexpensive yard sale, ebay stuff. This stuff forces you play. Does not sound like everything else.
“The idea is to take traditional blues ideas and deconstruct a little. Change the phrasing, etc. Add the element of jam to it. Subject matter is all over the place. Not usually from life experience but from media and historical sources. It’s all fair game. The blues are the basis for everything. and I think there are Blues and then there are the real blues.
“A lot of the recording artists provide the corporate expected sound of the blues. I like the old guy on the back porch, with his Sears guitar and Peavy amp cranked. The real players nobody hears, but they are out there. A lot of the Fat Possum artists were like that. Kimbrough, Burside, Payton, Davis, etc. Real.”
How old were you when you got into playing music?
“I started playing guitar at 10 years old. Totally learned everything by myself. No lessons. Just by listening. And by the way, I looked at Jimi Hendrix and turned my guitar upside down too. The catch is, I am a right hander, the guitar is strung for a right handed player, just flipped. This opens a whole bunch of sonic possibilities. I locked myself in room at age 12, obsessed with Hendrix and Trower.”
Did you string your guitar upside as a kid and then never switch back?
“I just turned a regular guitar upside down. Wanted to be like Jimi. Nothing special about it. Plus, I found my right hand was stronger for playing on the neck.”
Have you ever tried to play it normally?
“No way could I ever play normal. I’d have to start from scratch. Most of my guitars are right handed guitars strung for normal players. I just flip them over.”
Are any of your guitars strung normally?
“I do have 2 left handed Les Pauls and a Tele that is Left handed. But again, they are strung for a normal player. Crazy, but it’s all I know. I swear, it gives you an edge over normal players.”
Can you cite an early influential experience that led you to want to make music?
“Hearing Hendrix and Zeppelin was all I needed. I had 8 years of formal piano lessons, but my real desire was to play guitar. My parents did not approve. I hid a cheap acoustic guitar under the bed. Finally, they agreed, and my dad made my first guitar case out of wood.”
Do you still have the wooden guitar case your dad made you? Was it heavy?
“No, lost that over time. It was made out of MDF and covered with black leather like contact paper. That thing weighed a ton. As durable as an anvil case.”
When you formed a band, where did you play?
“New York, Philly and Jersey. Hightlight of this period was playing the landmark CBGB’s. Best sound mix I ever heard. We were on that night. What a historical venue to play at. Was an honor.”
What year was your CBGB show?
“I think we played there in 88 or 89. I was a guitar player in an alternative band called Life After Bob. I really was not into the blues at that time. We had a singer guitarist, bass, drummer and sometimes keys. We did all originals and the opportunity to play CBGB’s was just great. The place, the stage, the sound was just so memorable. Just thinking about all the great artists that had played there – and there we were. Just too much. The sound man nailed it. The recordings from that night were some of the best. A real memory.”
Do you have any recordings from CBGBs? Can you share them?
“They’re around somewhere. I just haven’t seen them in years.”
How many bands were in you besides LIFE AFTER BOB?
“3 or 4. Hard to remember. Quite a while ago.”
Did embracing the Blues make you turn away from Rock?
“No. But the rock I like and embrace is classic rock. ZEPPELIN, HENDRIX, TROWER, QUEEN, etc. And so much of that English Rock was blues based. It was always there, I guess. When I left the bands I got into some heavy industrial type stuff. MINISTRY, NIN. I still do like that at times. Marshalls crannked up to 10. Balls out.”
I can hear that influence in some of your tracks.
“But my thinking has changed. I am obsessed with Delta Blues of the 20s and 30s. Those guys were from another planet. The alternative tunings are just so brilliant.”
Do you have band currently?
“Just me. Three Cat Clem.”
What gear do you use?
“I have nice Gibsons and Fenders, but I often like to use the cheap Japanese Guitars of the 60’s for electric work. I just like to use them for recording. I go to my 60’s Zim_gar a lot. Like the one Jon Spencer plays. The guitars give you a unique voice. And I really think that a player can make any guitar sound good. Give Jimmy Page a Teisco, and you’ll still know it is Jimmy Page. I would advise players to try different types of Guitars. They are have their own personality, and you can make some great music with them. Hit the flea markets. I also have some vintage Gibson, National, Dobro and various house brand acoustics from the 30’s for my acoustic work.”
– King Bee: Mid 60’s Zim-Gar solid Body Guitar. Beat up pretty bad. Bought it on eBaY. It came from North Carolina, with quite a history. Jon Spencer of Jon Spencer Blues Explosion plays these guitars as well.
– Pork Chop Blues: 57 Les Paul Gold Top Reissue from 1997. Only a few made. Has a dark back. It is a left handed Paul strung for a righty.
Real sweet piece.
– Los Encierro: The Zim-Gar
– # 49 Blues with Zim-gar
– Millionaire with Vintage 1936 Oahu ToneMaster Lap Steel
– When You Come Down with 1965 Silvertone Solidbody Electric
– Breathe with 57 Les Paul Goldtop
– What I’ve Done with a “trashy slide”
You have several photos of an old tube speaker as song art on several of your tracks. What is the story behind that device? Are most of the song art photos you use taken by you?
“The amp is just a cheap old tube thing. Not mine. I really don’t do any photos for the song art. I take the same approach I do with the music. I just use found images, usually just a spur of the moment thing.”
Do your blues come from your life experiences?
“I live in the US, but have traveled to Europe often. The blues I play are taken from life experience, and the many musical influences I have. It is my hope to give my brand of blues a less predictable sound and song structure, and just go where the song takes you. The Lighting Hopkins approach to Blues. Take the Delta and Cranked guitar tones and fuse them into something unique.”
What do you do for a “living”? Are you married? Kids?
“I am a creative director in advertising. I am married. No kids. My wife is very supportive of my playing and my music. She is very knowledgeable about music.”
How did you get your nickname, “Three Cat Clem”?
“My wife gave me the name. It just stuck. Yes, we do have three cats.”
How old are you?
“I am old enough to have seen a lot.”
Do you recall the first song you ever wrote?
“You had to? The first song was called MotherFu*#@!. 3 chords. A buddy of mine has it recorded somewhere. No problem bringing this one back now.”
How do you come up with a song?
“I’ll start with an idea or style of riff. Usually I’ll get that down and build the arrangement. I work quickly. I do not think about what I do. It is more of a feel. How does it sound to me. It is a very organic process. The blues are about emotion and on the spot improvising. I try to capture that in my composing. Live takes, not too many redos. Keep it pure. Usually you nail it very early.”
Do you write out your lyrics? They sound improvised.
“Yes and yes. The whole in the moment thing. Again, just working off an idea, finding where it goes from there.”
How much time per week to spend play? Recording? Listen to music? Online?
“Not enough. Advertising is very demanding. I’ll try to pick up one of my acoustics each night and do some slide work. I usually keep them tuned in open-G and open-D. I’m looking into this ‘Robert Johnson Devil Tuning’ right now. Sometimes I’ll pick up an electric and just play, unplugged. I’ll plug in on the weekend.
“As for listening, I catch music sometimes on teh radio or on a CD. I really need to listen to more. Tonight we are going to catch Guitar Shorty.We like to catch live music when we can.”
What obstacles have you overcome in your musical career?
“Still working on finding my vocals…”
What is your main instrument? Secondary instruments?
“Guitar is primary. Bass and keyboards are secondary.”
What is your recording process?
“Usually direct into the Mac. I’ll use effects boxes, etc. I like to keep the technical process simple, and focus on the music.”
What is your strongest asset?
“I think taking all my influences and creating a sound that is distinctive. I feel I am strongest as a guitarist.”
“Singing. Need to work to find the voice I am comfortable with.”
Do you use so much reverb on your vocals in order to hide your voice, or is it purely an artistic choice or an attempt to approximate old record ambience?
“I am really not a singer, so, yes, it is to help me out a bit. It also adds a new dimension to the more traditional blues approach.”
Tips for others?
“Try new things, and respect the song. Many musicians get caught up in the engineering side and lose the impact of a great song. The song needs to come first. Stay loose and don’t be afraid to go outside your comfort zone.
How has your Macjams experience been?
“I was glad to see that other Macjammers get what I am doing. And I also enjoy talking and hearing from people from other countries. I have learned a great deal from the comments on the songs and really appreciate people listening to my work.”
What is your favorite MJ song submitted so far?
“Jesus Done Called Me. This song has a nice hook and has all the elements of a blues song. It also allowed me to introduce the elements of the Three Cat Clem sound to a more traditional progression.”
Have you engaged in any MJ collaborative projects?
“So far I had worked with Egobandit and Paddler. It was very cool. They took 2 of my songs and added their own flavor and arrangements to them. I was very impressed with the end product. Gave me a lot of ideas. I really respect those guys and their work.
Do you share your music online elsewhere besides MJ?
“I’ll also post tunes on MacIdol. I like Macjams because the people really interact with each other. I have so much respect for all these musicians.”
How has the Internet changed your music goals, your way of creating music, etc.?
“It has enabled me to get my stuff out there and heard. Also the idea of getting feedback from other musicians is a great tool for improving my craft. I think it is so cool that artists can self publish and get their music out there. MacJams is a great tool and destination for songwriters from the world over to meet.”
Do you play live anywhere currently? plan to?
“I have done a few open mike things just to keep the chops up. But not really too much playing live. I would love to take this act out at some point…
What are your musical aspirations?
“To have people enjoy what I do, and to get the fact that the Blues is ever evolving. To me the Blues are the basis for everything in music today. I work to take the tradition and passion of the blues and transform it into a newer form and adaptation of the genre.
“By the way, thanks for the opportunity. I think what you are doing is fantastic.”