Blondie are the quintessential New York band. Perhaps more than any of their peers, the group absorb and reflect the culture of the Five Boroughs, matching punk against hip-hop, disco against reggae, a perfect pop brew that could only come from the Big Apple.
New EP ‘Vivir En La Habana’ finds Blondie continuing to break boundaries; accompanying a short film of the same name, it was recorded live in Cuba, an ambitious cultural exchange in 2019 that saw the band perform in the country’s capital alongside some top tier local musicians. Expanding those seminal hits to match a fresh landscape, it’s just the latest challenge from a group who have never once looked backwards.
“I was always interested in going to Cuba,” reflects drummer Clem Burke. “I had Cuban friends growing up – there’s a big Cuban community here in New York. When I was playing music as a teenager I often came across Cuban percussionists, trumpet players… just Cuban musicians. New York City is such a melting pot anyway.”
The trip itself was remarkably relaxed. Cuba is opening up, with US-Cuba relations enjoying a certain thaw. “It’s just so crazy that it’s so close to Florida and the United States,” says the drummer. “I felt safer walking in Cuba than I do in a mall in LA, y’know, where somebody might pull out a gun.”
He adds: “The people kind of embraced us being there. Walking around Havana at night there’s music everywhere. The people are poor for the most part and we were in a bubble staying in a five-star hotel on Embassy Row and all that, but in general it seems that the Cuban community were all really in touch with nature and the arts.”
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Accompanied by close friend and film maker Rob Roth, the band immersed themselves in Cuban culture. Seeking out Havana group Sintesis, Blondie opened out their much-loved hits to fresh interpretation. Clem Burke recalls: “The thing I was really looking forward to the most was adding the Cuban musicians into the mix; even more so than the film, I’m really happy with the EP, with the added percussionists, horn players, and backing vocalists. There are a lot of improvisational parts on behalf of the Cuban musicians, just kind of soloing, it’s almost a free jazz thing which Debbie really likes and I like as well. It’s different and it’s good. I’m never really satisfied but I can say that this EP is really cool!”
The collaborative aspect of the trip fell into place with effortless ease. “I mean it’s a cliché but music is a universal language so as long as all the musicians were on the same page on what the material was going to be, everyone went off to workshop their own parts. The horn section from Sintesis had worked together many, many times so I think they just got down to it. I think the really cool thing was having the back-up singers, the women singers for Debbie doing harmonies.”
Havana truly captured Clem Burke’s heart – indeed, he pondered leaving the band’s entire rig behind, for use by musicians on the island. “One of my regrets is that I should’ve just left my drum set there for someone,” he sighs; “I didn’t think of it at the time, but we should’ve just left a bunch of our gear there.”
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Speaking to Clash over Zoom, he’s been forced to adjust to life in one place. Furiously busy – he’s a sought after session drummer, and combines his Blondie schedule with a role in tribute band, Bootleg Blondie – Clem Burke has become used to a life built around flights, sound checks, and (above all) performances. Lockdown, he says, has been an incredibly strange experience.
“It’s all a bit sci-fi, like The Twilight Zone – it’s incredible that we were prepared for it in as far as having Zoom and the internet, mobile phones; if you were writing a book about this pandemic in the future, it would include having all these amenities, be it phones or computers, to make the lockdown a lot easier.”
“For creative people, I think it really gave people time to work on stuff. I was writing and recording virtually, and having a creative outlet made things a lot easier in a lockdown. Of course, I’m constantly travelling as a musician to work with other artists and things – that was kind of interesting too, I didn’t have to be anywhere on a schedule and didn’t know what was going to happen, so I tried to embrace that change.”
Switching between New York and Los Angeles, he noticed real changes in both cities. “Everybody says the same thing that the air got better, there was less noise, New York had a lot less people here and it’s still like that, it’s not very crowded as of yet. The restaurants are thriving right now, it’s much more European feeling here now – you know, in the UK you take your drink outside, and now those things are being allowed here too. I was arrested one time for carrying a beer outside and was given a summons, but all that’s gone to the wayside now to encourage people to embrace life a bit more.”
He took to celebrate the demise of one person in particular, however. “Donald Trump losing the election was like Christmas Day!” he exclaims. “That was a big relief for a lot of people and I think everyone got a positive high from that for a bit. Then there’s the other side with all the protests, all the things that came up like Black Lives Matter which is important… it just seemed like there was some sort of synergy for all of these things to come together, and I think one of the good things about the pandemic is that it really did help to not re-elect Trump. He’s such an ass anyway, but he shut down Cuba right after we left!”
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Blondie played a surprise set at Tribeca Film Festival following the North American premiere of their new film, with the legendary group set to combine with Garbage for a scintillating double bill tour later this year. Clem Burke is itching to get back onstage, but he emphasises that with Blondie, it’s about the next challenge, and the latest idea.
“I like very particular things,” he observes. “David Bowie changed my life! I saw Bowie when I was 18 at Carnegie Hall and for everyone in Blondie, the whole idea of not knowing exactly what you were gonna get from David, where it was going to come from… each record was different and he didn’t get himself locked into one particular genre, he’d always expand – that was one of the templates of Blondie. I was always very open minded about what I did and how to work on things.”
“We’re working towards an album for this time next year,” he reveals. “There’s tonnes of material, some developed more than others, and plenty of ideas. Hopefully we’re going to work in bits and pieces, we don’t have to get it done together at one time. Ideally it would be great to have a single out for this tour coming up but I think that might be too optimistic, although it could be done. We have the EP in the summer, but it’d be great to have one new Blondie song for fans to hear. It’s not an impossibility!”
Keeping in touch over Zoom, WhatsApp, and endless calls and emails, Blondie have weathered lockdown, just like they’ve weathered every other challenge presented to them – with style, grace, and some defiantly New York energy. Clem finishes: “We’re always trying to create new things. The process is the best part for any artistic endeavour; you’ve got to keep the process going – you can’t stop!”
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Blondie's ‘Vivir En La Habana’ EP is out now.
Words: Robin Murray
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