bill bodkin speaks with the son of the legendary E Street Band saxophonist …
Sometimes, it’s a difficult thing being the son of such a legendary musician. Criticisms and expectations are heaped upon you, your opportunities and hard work are questioned.
But for The Nick Clemons Band, this doesn’t seem to be the case. Since 1991, Nick has relished performing and making his bones, cutting out his own niche in the musical scene with vibrant, funky and infectious sounds and at the same time cherishing the opportunities his legendary father, Clarence Clemons, afforded him … even if the Big Man had originally hoped his son would become an attorney, not a musician.
In the past few months, The Nick Clemons Band has emerged as one of the more talked-about bands in the Jersey Shore scene, performing at Bar Anticipation’s 30th Anniversary and gigging at clubs around the area. Tonight, the band will perform at The Downtown in Red Bank, N.J. as part of a special night with the Coyote Ugly-inspired troupe, The Bar Top Bandits.
Pop-Break’s Bill Bodkin spoke with Nick about the resurgence of his band within the resurgent Jersey Shore music scene, his love for The Dead and, of course, the inspiration he gained from his late father, the legendary E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons.
Pop-Break: The Nick Clemons Band has been around since 1991, but for a lot of people just getting into the original Jersey Shore scene, they might not be aware of your long and storied career. Can you talk about some of the highlights?
Nick Clemons: We toured California, and with my first band, we slept on my father’s floor at his house in the lower Valley. It was pretty crazy. We toured California and we pretty much would go back and forth [from East to West Coast], that’s pretty much what we do. We wanted to find crowds and make sure that people heard our music. If you weren’t playing cover tunes, you were going to starve in our area [New Jersey].
We also played the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. We played the opening of the museum, and it was the year before they inducted [Bruce]. It was a pretty good moment for us. Another great moment was opening up for my old man at The [Stone] Pony. We did it for a few years, but the first time we did it, it was a great — packed house. They [E Street] hadn’t been on the road yet, and it was one of the first shows that the band had been played when they were just starting to form again. This was around the time of the Convention Center rehearsals. It was the summer, actually the end of summer. It was a good blow-out. I remember singing “Spill The Wine” with my dad’s drummer [Max Weinberg], and that was pretty fun.
PB: Your dad was such a legendary musician. Was it natural for you to want to follow in his footsteps, or was becoming a musician something that just evolved inside of you over time?
NC: Well, my old man always wanted me to be an attorney — become a lawyer and handle his affairs. I did get turned onto music, I was a huge Deadhead. It was weird with my friends — no matter whether it was from college or working or on the road, whenever The Dead came to town, I always saw the same group of people there. [laughs] It came to a point where I realized that world was everywhere. I was able to use that world to play music and branch out and learn percussion. Learning to appreciate a great like John Coltrane to a Jerry Garcia to the new music of now. That’s where I see what quality is in music, what soul is. That’s important. I hope I didn’t stay to far off the question. [laughs]
PB: I guess I meant was: Did you think, ‘Well Dad did music, so I want to do music, too.” Did you want to follow his path, because that was his path, or was it a realization that you made later?
NC: When I saw the Bruce thing, it was more on the commercial end, but when my father played, I knew he was friends with Jerry Garcia and the band and a lot of musicians around the country. When he was playing with The Dead, that’s when I got into it. I was playing my acoustic, really into Jerry and the whole scene. And that bridged everything together because I didn’t want follow in his footsteps. I didn’t play the sax, I was into the whole rock ‘n’ roll thing. I didn’t see there was a lot of improvisation with Bruce when they were playing Born In The U.S.A. It was more like Broadway — bam, bam.
With The Dead, it was more loose, more improvisational, lot of mistakes and I kind of appreciate it, but when I saw my father play with Jerry, and I realized that he had a link between all these people, that’s when I realized I wanted to be a musician. It was real to me. I thought this was my own little thing, playing and such, but then I realize,d ‘Dad you’re everywhere! I can’t get away from you.’ [laughs] I appreciate him more, I appreciated the music. Then I started going over the history of Bruce and listening to the 1973 jams, the Cap Center show. Everyone jammed back then — The Dead just stuck with it. [laughs]. I was able to appreciate [The E Street Band's] gig, their craftsmanship as musicians, how they did it. You never see what you see every day, you take it for granted.
My first show was an acoustic show at The Hard Rock opening up for my father. He had always seen me play. I used to break out my acoustic and play it for his friends. My dad will push you. He won’t be like, ‘Go play these clubs, go build your chops up.’ He put me in front of 500 people with a stool and a microphone and said go for it, kid. [laughs] I did alright. I got a standing ovation. I did alright. [laughs]
PB: That’s pretty crazy. Can you describe the emotion of one of your first shows ever being in front of 500 people?
NC: It was just a matter of having the rush of wanting to play and playing for four or five years in my basement and not telling anybody. When I went to college, I was playing a lot of parties, but I didn’t take it seriously. You have that big monkey on your back — the association with Springsteen and rock ‘n’ roll. My songs were more earthy, moody and I kind of pushed them out and sold it and it did well. I had this little Epitone acoustic body guitar — that was my favorite, and it worked really well. It was a good time.
PB: Who are some of the people that you’ve met in your travels that have helped you grow as a musician?
NC: I say, that helped me grow as a person, the late Terry McGovern helped me grow as a person. A lot of people you might see in the back of the scene as far as the production — George Travis, he helped me grow as a person. I could only say it to him at my father’s funeral, we weren’t that close, but he was influential and helped me change a lot of things in my life. There’s a lot of people.
PB: In any article or bio published about you, Jordan De la Sierra and Narada Michael Walden are always mentioned as big influences on you. Can you talk about them?
NC: Narrada is a huge producer. His track record is amazing. He’s worked with everyone from Aretha Franklin on. He was one of my father’s best friends. He and Jordan were my mentors — giving me support and telling me I could do this thing. Jordan helped me creatively — to write the music, write the lyrics that had meaning to me but also ones that were identifiable. He helped me get those thoughts on paper. Helped me get my soul and confidence together, and that’s why I always credit those two — Narradda with my music and Jordan helped me out in part of writing. And they were very close friends of my father.
PB: You’ve talked about your influences from The Dead and from The E Street Band. Now if someone reading this has never seen you before and wants to come out and hear you play, how would you, in your own words, describe the sound of The Nick Clemons Band?
NC: There’s one track [streaming on the band's website] called “Do You Have What You Wanted” — I think that pretty much shows the energy that we’re trying to put out there. We want to have a good time with the music. I don’t want to go out there and put frowns on people’s faces. We’re not about that, we don’t have an attitude. We want you to have a good time.
Times are hard, people come out to a club and they want to move. We’re trying to put feeling back into a music. When you’re playing these clubs you kinda have to make it like a Broadway play, you have to make it fun, you gotta make it expressive, you gotta make it something people want to see. You can’t just put on your guitar. A lot of people are good, but they don’t sell the songs, they don’t give the people what they need. If you notice one thing about the legacy I’m trying to follow, they sell everything but it’s honest. We’re trying to be as honest as possible. We are what we are and that’s what we try to push. We like to have a good time, we like to jam, we improvise a lot. We’re putting together the show tunes that people want to here, we’re being selective in what we play. You’re going to have a good time when you come out to see The Nick Clemons Band play.
PB: Since the band formed in 1991, can you talk about how it is playing now in the Jersey Shore music scene now compared to then?
NC: I think people are coming out now. They’re not scared anymore. I think the Asbury scene made it very comfortable. The Long Branch scene has become comfortable with that Pier Village area. And the older clubs are coming back. People are putting money back into these clubs and invest again. You have to take chances, and hopefully they’ll take more chances in Jersey. We have to support these clubs. Guys are taking chances. There won’t be an E Street or legend coming out [of this area] by playing someone else’s music.
PB: Is there a new album in the works for the band?
NC: We are currently shopping for studios to work with. We’ve got a couple projects that we’re going to be working with. We’ll be in studio by the end of the year.
PB: So until then, it’ll be more touring around the Shore, or will you be spreading out to different areas?
NC: I’m looking to go to Europe in the next six to eight months. We have something we’re working on now, we’re [Nick and his brothers] starting a foundation for my father. We’re partnering with a legendary charity and starting a charity that accomplishes what my father believed in — helping putting people in the right direction especially the youth. Give them a right start, a good start. My father was always a mentor to a lot of young people’s lives. Couple of my friends would tell me that my father was always around for them, helped them out during the years, going to shows and supporting them. But when they were in trouble he’d always give them advice and help them out. He always did that. He was a better man than a lot of people thought he was. He was such a big figure he could’ve taken advantage of lot things, but he was very good for people, he helped a lot of people out. And that’s what this charity is all about.
The Nick Clemons Band will perform tonight at The Downtown in Red Bank, N.J.; Friday at The Sports Zone in Aberdeen, N.J.; and Sunday at The Stone Pony for The Rockin’ Relief Red Cross Charity Event in Asbury Park, N.J.