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Guitarist Rob James recalls the origins of The Clarks

The Clarks_2011.jpg

Rock ‘n’ roll bands form all the time on college campuses.

But not very many last 25 years, and even fewer go that long without changing their lineup.

All of the above applies to The Clarks, the hard-working and humble Pittsburgh-based quartet of singer/guitarist Scott Blasey, guitarist Rob James, bassist Greg Joseph and drummer Dave Minarik that’s been rocking America since the fall of 1986.

Over the course of eight studio albums (plus compilations and concert releases), The Clarks have built a solid catalog of mainstream, radio-ready rock, and highlights in their steady and respectable career have included the prominent use of Clarks songs in TV shows and movies (among them “Better Off Without You” on The Anna Nicole Show), plus an appearance on the Late Show With David Letterman in 2004.

In the days leading up to a June 25th show at Stage AE in Pittsburgh celebrating The Clarks’ silver anniversary, James talked about how he joined forces with his longtime band mates, their first gig and the origins of the group’s name.

* Higher learning’s helping hand
James was a student at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, which is about 55 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, when he met Minarik, then Blasey.
Rob James: “I lived in a dormitory with two buildings that were mirror images of each other. I lived in [one], and Dave lived in [the other]. Somebody was looking for me and knocked on his door by mistake: ‘We’re looking for that guitar player Rob. Do you know him?’ ‘Guitar player? I’m a drummer.’ So he came over and left a note on my door. We hit it off pretty much instantly. He was very progressive for that era. In high school, he had played in marching band with Trent Reznor. He also played in a cover band with Trent and Trent’s dad. So he came from experience.

“One day, [we agreed to meet up] at this fraternity party to talk about music and have a beer. There’s this great music playing: Echo and the Bunnymen, U2, R.E.M., The English Beat — you name it. … this guy in the fraternity was making these mix tapes for these parties, and it was pretty well known as the cool party to go to if you wanted to listen to new music.
“It turns out it was Scott. Dave and I met him — a tall, good-looking guy with very good taste in music and passionate about music. So we asked him if he wanted to sing in a band. He gave the impression that he could be a singer. It was definitely more about the image that he had and the people he knew, but we had no idea if he could sing.”

* Covering the basics
The first band that James, Blasey and Minarik played in was called The Administration, which lasted about one semester.
James: “We made a connection with a bass player who lived in the town of Indiana. And we had a saxophone player in the band who also sang, and he may have played a little bit of keyboards here and there.

“We were very tentative about how this was going to sound, so the first song that we played was The Psychedelic Furs‘ ‘Pretty in Pink.’ Right off the bat, the band was kicking it — the saxophone player on that first riff. And here comes Scott, doing a perfect Richard Butler.

“We played a couple of fraternity parties, then summer came around, and the bass player moved off and the saxophone player graduated. Scott and I went to Ocean City, Md., for the summer. I had toyed with the idea of coming back to Pittsburgh and playing with some guys I knew from high school when Dave sent me a letter with a picture of his new drum set, saying, ‘Come on, man, let’s get the band back together.’ ”

* Joseph joins and a rehearsal ritual begins
James suggested Joseph, a friend from high school and onetime band mate, to fill the vacancy on bass.
James: “[Greg] was working at a copy shop. I said, ‘Hey, I got some guys. We played some music together for a semester. What do you think?’ And he just about jumped over the counter.
“I can’t remember the first Clarks rehearsal. I’m pretty sure it was on a weekend at IUP. I had dropped out of college at that point; that was after my sophomore year, so Greg and I drove up together on weekends to IUP. Dave and Scott were both still [students] there.

“That became the ritual for months and months. Greg and I would go to our day jobs: I worked at a record shop; he was still at the copy shop. He’d pick me up, and we’d drive up to Indiana, which is only about an hour and 15 minute from Pittsburgh. We’d sequester ourselves in a basement and buy a case of Old Milwaukee.

“At first it was a lot of cover songs. But Scott had written two songs over that summer when we were down in Ocean City. That was the impetus for having some songs, and from there, it built.”

* From a field to a frat
James: “I remember the first official gig [with Joseph] being at a fraternity [in the fall of 1986]. We were originally supposed to play this festival out in this field. We got there in the afternoon, and they still didn’t have the PA up and running. And we just looked at each other and said, ‘There’s no way we’re getting on here.’

“So we went back to IUP’s campus, and it was still early enough where we knocked on a fraternity door and said, ‘Hey, we need to play a gig.’ And the guy [who answered] ended up being this guy who worked years later at a club in Pittsburgh. He said, ‘Let me go check with the brothers.’ He came back and said, ‘Yeah, you guys can play.’

“We played for nothing — I think they gave us beer. But it was our first gig. We had one microphone, and that meant for me to sing harmonies, I had to stand on a milk crate. Some of the songs we played were ‘Like Wow — Wipeout!’ from the Hoodoo Gurus, ‘The Walls Came Down’ by The Call and probably ‘Radio Free Europe’ by R.E.M.

* The story behind the name
James: “The thing that’s fuzzy for me is I can’t remember if the Clarks name came before that gig. That came about because we submitted ourselves for a [band competition], and we needed a name. And we had struggled with this name thing.

“We had talked about several names, and the name The Clarks came up because there were names like The Smiths and The Joneses. So that was sort of the thing I was thinking. And there are a lot of people named Clark in Pittsburgh, so that’s where the name came from.”

— Introduction and interview by Chris M. Junior

The Clarks are (from left to right) Greg Joseph, Rob James, Scott Blasey and Dave Minarik

Photo by Duane Rieder