'Eric Clapton - The Mike Hrano Interview'

The following interview was conducted by writer Mike Hrano, with whom the copyright rests.
Mike has agreed and consented to full use of the interview here for the benefit of Eric's supporters, and in the hope that they will enjoy reading it.

Eric Clapton’s London office lies tucked away discreetly along a sedate lane, just off the Chelsea main drag.

A nightmare to park nearby, public transport is the favoured and suggested mode of punctually reaching it. However, what with an underground journey spoiled by predictable delays and, finally, a brief taxi ride hampered by Christmas traffic, I am annoyingly ten minutes late by the time I eventually arrive for my scheduled 11am interview with an original, influential and enduring musical icon.

Paying the taxi driver in a hurry, I note that he has an acoustic guitar tucked away at the front of his cabin. I comment on it, and ask if he plays. He tells me he is just learning. I mention that I am actually late for a meeting with someone who also “plays a bit.” The young driver looks up and grins. “It’s not Eric Clapton, is it?..”

So instantly apparent is the notoriety, virtuosity and, if you will, ‘instrument-association’ of the man who awaits me.

Moments later, I am making profuse apologies to him for my tardy arrival, but there really is no need. Here is Eric Clapton, sitting down on a chair prodding at a personal organiser, smiling warmly and immediately putting this writer at ease. “Oh, the traffic can be awful, I know,” he says, “but you’re here now. Nice to meet you…”

I am offered a drink (cup of tea, please) and Eric opts for the same. “Let’s go upstairs,” he signals. “We’ve a sitting room there. More comfortable.”

And so it begins; an unhurried, disarmingly frank conversation with one of contemporary music’s most accomplished…genuine heroes. Someone I have never previously met before but, like millions of others, a person I instinctively feel I already know very well courtesy of the powerful, honest sentiment expressed in his music. A man whose innovative, achievement-filled and award-studded career quite frankly defies any realistic attempt at (yet another) perspective or analysis here.

If you don’t already know anything of the numerous classic songs, the bountiful associations with so many, many other giants of popular music or anything of Eric Clapton’s life and success, then I’m afraid you have arrived at the wrong venue and, quite possibly, done so on the wrong evening, expecting to find someone else.

If you will settle for learning a little of Eric’s recent past, current activity and future plans, then I trust you will not be disappointed. And as you read what follows, try and ‘hear’ it in the way that it was told; with wit and wisdom, by a charming, relaxed, decent and uncommonly friendly man.

It really was an unforgettable pleasure to be invited to sit down and talk with him on your behalf

Mike Hrano

You have a new album, ‘Reptile’, due for release during March – can you fill in any background detail?…

“Well, what happened was that, over the last few years, there was  a lot of talk about me collaborating with BB (King); we’d been friends for a long time and we’d always, whenever we bumped into one another, we’d make reference to the fact that, one day, we must make a record together. And then, two years ago (from December 2000), we actually made a date – which was the beginning of last year, 2000. We really deliberated on it and took the time, mapped it out. So I said “Well, OK, al of January, all of February and maybe ever March, I will make clear in my schedule – whatever is happening – to begin and end the completely wrap up the album with you. His (BB’s) team were quite astonished by the fact that it would take so long, because I think he likes to make records much quicker than that. Anyhow, he did the same thing – and that, for him, was difficult because his travelling and working schedule is so extensive. But we put that time aside, I got the musicians together and it was a great experience, for all of us. I don’t think I can remember being in a situation that…potent, where everyone involved was the best musician we could find on the day. We sometimes had three, maybe four, guitarists on the floor, including BB and myself, and the drummer and bass player and keyboards and everything, and we were sitting opposite one another, singing live. So most of the album was done first, second take – absolutely live. There was very little to do in terms of mixing or putting the record together. It was such a magical experience that I thought ‘Well, why not just take this complete philosophy and make the album really quickly, while this is all still kind of hot, for myself?’ I had a down-time period of about two months, so I went back and I gathered up all the guys – basically all of the same musians, without BB – and went to the same place, using the same engineer, same production team and we set about, tried to do, the same thing into practice for my own album. It was interesting because, without BB, it didn’t really work… We started doing songs that I had stock-piled over the past two years or so, and I thought ‘Well, it feels OK, but this is much harder than I thought it would be.’ I under-estimated BB’s presence in the whole equation.”

How did you overcome that?

“There was a little break in recording, during which time I went off to Vancouver to do some fishing. I was listening to the tapes of the album out there and thinking ‘This hasn’t got any magic…at all. It’s not really working’, although we appeared to have got all the right ingredients. And then, in that period, I met up with some family that I have up in Canada and we were talking about the fact that my uncle had passed away, earlier in the year (2000). Suddenly, another element came in – which was that I became inspired by the passing of my uncle, who was a very big influence in my life. Suddenly, I got re-motivated and I went back to the studio. Then, almost accidentally, The Impressions came in, Billy Preston came in – and what was like a dead duck before, something which really wasn’t happening, suddenly exploded and, in the following two weeks, we basically made my new album.”

It’s an interesting name for an album…

“The title, ‘Reptile’, is all to do with my Uncle, and where we come from; in Ripley, the village where I was born, that’s the way we refer to one another. In the pubs, it’s like ‘Here come that reptile’ or ‘Have you seen that reptile guy?’ That’s just the way we talk. Reptile refers to my uncle, and it’s me as well. In the album, I have actually written a little page of explanation, almost. It says ‘Where I come from, the word ‘Reptile’ is a term of endearment. It’s a form of acknowledgement. It’s what your good mates call one another; ‘He’s a reptile’ – meaning ‘He’s one of the lads.’ It was coined by the guy called Charlie Cumberland, who’s not even from Ripley, he’s from Cumberland, but he’s one of the local lads. He’s an old guy now, but he was the one that doled this work out, and anybody else just picked it up over the years. Anyway, from having nothing and the album being a bit of a shell, it suddenly had a new kind of potency – which I had all but given up hope of it ever having. The album was subsequently delivered a little bit late, because I then got very, very perfectionist about it and wanted to make it really right. So we added some strings, I took time out here (in London), I did the vocals again in some places and the mixing took a little longer than expected. But it’s actually better than I thought it would be. It took on a new life, really.”

From start to finish – from the album not really happening to it finally working out – what period of time are we looking at, and where was the album recorded?

“It was recorded in LA, in the Valley, in a place called Record One – which is a tiny little studio, but with a great atmosphere and a nice crew of people. I think my initial estimate, because the BB album was done in maybe a month, almost entirely, was that we could probably get away with doing the same on my album; maybe three weeks. So we booked two two-week segments, with a two-week gap in the middle – which is when I went off to Vancouver – and at the end of the first two weeks, like I said, it was a bit mystifying that it didn’t have what I thought it would have. After that initial month, we went down to Italy and did some vocals, did some work back here in London and, in the end, in all it took a maximum of overall, I suppose, three months.”

When I was briefed with some background about the new record, before meeting you, a phrase which cam up in connection with the album was ‘back to basics’. That kind of amused me, being applied to some who is as established, and who has been influential in music as you have. Surely, making contemporary music never really got much more basic than it was when you first started playing. Is there any sense of a ‘full circle’ feeling about ‘Reptile’?

“Getting there… Definitely in terms of philosophy – even in terms of, when this record was submitted to the record company, there were a bit mystified about it. They couldn’t quite…categorise it, because everything that’s coming out currently, I guess – from ‘visible’ people, that is – seems to have to have that hip hop rhythm section thing, with computerised drums and bass. ‘Reptile’ hasn’t got that. I was talking to my friend  at the record company and trying to tell him what I thought the record was, because I thought they were having difficulties, and I told him ‘You’d probably have to say that this is kind of like an Unplugged album – but electric.’ It’s an electric unplugged album! It’s kind of old school, but I don’t want people to think that it’s retro, or that it’s nostalgic – because it isn’t. A lot of the material is from the past – for example, I’ve done covers of songs by Stevie Wonder and The Isley Brothers – but, at the same time, I still think it’s…new. It still feels new to me because of the effort that went into it. We didn’t consciously go about re-creating something that was nostalgic or retro.”

I think that’s an important point to make. You do hear of certain musicians hell-bent on making records ‘the way they use to’ with the equipment ‘they use to use’. That’s retro, ‘Reptile’ is quite obviously something else…

“Retro is a definite direction. You either intentionally go down that road, or not. I think the only concession that fits into that way of thinking is the fact that we tried to do everything live on this album. I don’t give a damn about microphone techniques or anything like that, or equipment. Even down to the artwork on the album; the record company – God bless ‘em – tried to wrap this record in a way that would make it fit in a retro way. I was thinking ‘No, no, no!’ because I think that misses the point, somehow. I always try to be current to me. I’m not concerned, and I try to be concerned, with other people’s points of view. It’s very difficult to second-guess what the public want, and actually – to be perfectly honest – I don’t much care. It’s much more important that my music works to satisfy me and satisfies my principles and my concept of what is all about. Then, if other people like it, that’s fine. Otherwise, it becomes…laboured.

I’m interested to learn more about the concept behind ‘Reptile’. Your uncles death was clearly a creative catalyst; exactly how did his passing affect you, how close was your relationship..?

“Well I had a very usually childhood in that I was raised in what people would now call a slightly ‘dysfunctional’ family. That said, in the general picture, it was kind of normal village life in that there was all kinds of inter-marriage things going on. I was raised to believe that my grandmother and my grandfather were my mother and father. For a certain amount of years of my life, I thought that was the situation. Therefore, I also thought that my uncle was actually my brother. It was because I was illegitimate and my mother had gone that they had tried to cover up the mess by adopting me, you see. I had somehow moved up a generation. Then the whole other series of events opened up the truth to me and I realized that the person I thought was my brother was actually my uncle, my mother and father were actually my grandparents and the person who I thought was my sister was, in actual fact, my mother…”

Goodness me…

“Well, that kind of family stuff goes on all the time, I’m sure. It’s not particularly unique but, for me, it was quite traumatic. But up until the time I found all of that out, my uncle was – really – my brother. He was a lot older that I was, obviously – something like 15 or 16 years. He name was Adrian, but his nickname was Son. I don’t understand why; he was just called Son. He was a pretty interesting guy. He was obsessed with science fiction; he was obsessed with engineering and aviation – and music. He was completely wrapped up in the middle of the ‘40’s and ‘50’s; you know, dance bands and The Dorsey Brothers and Benny Goodman and people like that. So I got very, very early start in a musical education, in terms of popular music of that era. We used to go to the cinema together… In other ways, too, he was a very, very pivotal person in my early learning days. What happened with his passing was that I was reintroduced to that fact. When he died, I hadn’t seen him for quite a long time – we’d kind of grown apart. A lot of that was to do with my leaving home and then…never really going back. From my late teens, I was sort of a visitor to my family, and what was left of my family; bit by bit they were dying off. Adrian was really the last key member of my family to pass. Actually, when I went to his funeral it was a tremendously uplifting experience. It was one of those celebration kind of funerals, in March. I found it incredibly enlightening, and it kind of left me…a lot things came into my head, a lot of memories were re-awakened. In terms of even the material on ‘Reptile’, I started doing songs that I remembered hearing when I was with my uncle. We did a couple of instrumentals – one of them dedicated to him and his wife, where we actually had Billy Preston playing harmonica, because my uncle played harmonica, as well. He was a very, very talented-gifted creative guy. Like I said earlier, he gave the album a real kind of inspired direction to go in. Also, his passing re-introduced me to myself as a young kid – so the album, actually, has got a picture of me on the front at that age, and about nine-years-old, and of my uncle on the back, with his mother – my grandmother – when he was about nine. There are a lot of pictures inside of all my school mates at that age. And all of the musicians playing on the record. I made them submit pictures of themselves when they were nine. So the album has got a very strong core.”

A lot of people might be far coyer about admitting to that – I’m not going to be specific about the root of the record. I’d rather the listeners figured it out for themselves’ – but, I would imagine, the biggest battle a musician like yourself might have would be to try and resist making albums for the sake of making albums. It must be very inspiring for you that you are still capable of being inspired, as opposed to just walking some kind of musical treadmill…

“I think a lot of people actually wrap up their careers for that, and it would be the same for me if I felt I was going through the motions, or working out a contract. That’s a fearful place to be; ‘Well, I’ve got a three more albums to make – but I’ve got nothing left to say… What can I do? I made a great record five years ago (for instance), how am I going to do anything better than that?’ Well, I faced that dilemma at the beginning of this because, when we started to make this album, really, I was making it in the throes of the joy we got out of the BB King album – but that couldn’t fuel it. When we started to make my album, I thought ‘Well, actually, what have I got to say?’ And then, when I was in Vancouver, I was sitting with my half-sister and we were talking about my uncle and I thought ‘God – of course!’ It’s amazing to me that sometimes it’s that difficult to connect things which have happened, or that it’s so obvious, it’s almost too simple. Until then, I hadn’t made the connection – and all of a sudden, here was something that I could really fuel the album with.’

Again, you have to be open to make those connections, don’t you? You could quite easily have just gone to your uncle’s funeral and thought ‘He’s gone, I’m dreadfully upset and…

“…I don’t want to talk about it. Yes. Well, I’ve been very blessed in that I’ve been able to make those connections in my music, or bring my personal life to the music, and make sure that the two things actually complement one another. I think that give it joy for me. That gives energy, and it’s true and honest that way.”

Which songs have you covered on the album?

“I do a song of Stevie Wonder’s, ‘I Ain’t Going Stand For It’ from his ‘Hotter Than July’ album. It’s a song where he’s kind of sending up country music and because he’s singing like a white guy in the verses, I find that quite easy to imitate! The track I chose from The Isley Brothers is actually a James Taylor song, called ‘Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight’, from their ‘Three Plus Three’ album, which had ‘Who’s That Lady’ on it. A very, very good album. We also did a JJ Cale song and, in all of these examples, I have tried to make my version quite like the original. Musically, mostly what I was trying to do was get as many guitarists and keyboard players on the floor as I could. When I was trying to think of a format for the album, even before my uncle had become the focus on it, I was thinking about similar formats where it had been easy for me, in the past – like making Derek And The Dominos album, ‘Layla’, where it was a mixture of covers and compositions. And then ‘461 Ocean Boulevard’, which was the same thing. In fact, ‘461’ was very much in my head and I thought ‘Ah, how easy that album was to make’ because when we got stuck, I’d just start playing a song that I’d always wanted to do. Asnd that’s what we kind of took to this album, too.”

How much material from the new album do you intent to incorporate into your performances for this tour?

“I’ve got so much material to draw from when I go out on stage these days, and I’m only going to do and hour and 40 minutes to two hours, that I may only be able to do four or five songs from this album because I have to do other material from the past as well. So, it’s difficult to know at this stage which ones I’m going to use…”

Moving back to the BB Kind collaboration, the ‘Riding With The King’ album, has been tremendously successful, particularly in the US – where UK artists have been struggling to find hits in the past decade. Yet there you are, 35 years and more into your career, and you’re still achieving, you’re still at the top of your game. That’s not an easy for to maintain, is it?

“I think it’s…it’s not difficult. The blessing of it for me was that, early on in my career, I decided where my focus should be – and it was always to be true to the music. To be a servant of music, not to try and make music work for me, but to think about what I could do to contribute to music as an art form, as a principle or as whatever it is; as a tree of life, in a way. I think once that was established, it make everything else easy because my focus is always on ‘Is this good enough?’ Not ‘Will it sell?’ Always ‘Is this good enough? Is a good enough for me to live with and for the future of music? Does this serve the purpose of music?’ And what music is to me is a healing agent. It has to take me mind off whatever problems I’ve got going on. If I’m making music, it has to do for me what other people’s music does for me when I need healing or some kind of tranquillity or motivation – whatever it is that music gives me, I have to make sure I’m returning.”

What is it about music that creates such power, such an ability to heal or distract?

“I don’t know. I think it’s actually spiritual. As some point, it’s like a communion of some kind. We get connected to ourselves in some way by music. Music is actually like a catalyst. When people talk to me about certain songs of mine, they’ll always tell me what they were doing; ‘That’s the song we got married to’ or ‘That song was playing when our first child was born,’ That’s what’s important about music, and you can’t pre-determine how or if a piece of music will move you. You just need to be open to that possibility.”

What do you think people are wanting and expecting from you on stage at a concert? Over the years, has that become clear to you?

“I wonder that… I try not to be swayed by that too much, but I’m not completely oblivious to it. I have to go on what I would like to see, If I go to see a show…me, in concert – if I’m in the audience! – I would want to see me come out and just be simple, do the simplest things. I think I started concentrating on that a while back, where I would just walk on stage and just start playing – on my own. On that Blues tour, I used to come out and start with just an acoustic guitar, and I think that really works. I like to see people do that because it’s very intimate that way. That whole thing that’s going on now in the kind of ultra-pop world, with dance troupes, is the absolute opposite of what I consider entertainment. It drives me away. If I see it, I change the channel immediately. It’s kind of overkill. So, if I go to see somebody perform, I want to feel like they’re just singing for me. More than that; I was to feel like they’re singing for themselves, actually. That’s what I want to see, and I kind of hope that’s what the audience wants.”

In terms of your choice of material to perform, are you precious at all about including your big, pivotal moments – the classic songs which have helped you to be where you are – because some artists are. Are you happy to play the likes of ‘Layla’?

“Yeah, yeah. And ‘Wonderful Tonight’. ‘Layla’ is a difficult one, because it’s a difficult song to perform live. You have to have a good complement of musicians to get all of the ingredients going but, when you’ve got that… It’s difficult to do as a quartet, for instance, because there are some parts you have to play and sing completely opposing lines, which is almost impossible to do. If you’ve got a big band, which I will have on the tour, then it will be easy to do something like ‘Layla’ – and I’m very proud of it. I love to hear it. It’s almost like it’s not me. It’s like I’m listening to someone that I really like. Derek And The Dominos was a band I really liked – and it’s almost like I wasn’t in that band. It’s just a band that I’m a fan of. Sometimes, my own music can be like that. When it’s served its purpose to being good music, I don’t associate myself with it anymore. It’s like someone else. It’s easy to those songs then.”

Many artists resolutely decide to steer clear of their biggest hits in concert. Surely, you have to nod in the direction of you back catalogue and the fact that your audience wants to hear those songs – or at least some of them…

“Well, you see, there’s no reason why I can’t experience the same thing that you’re talking about if I play a song. If I’m open to it, I can go back to the moment that I wrote that song – and unless it’s something traumatic that I don’t want to experience, then that can be a beautiful thing. I’ve often found it to be so. Even the song ‘Tears In Heaven’…you could think that that would be a different song to want to go back to but, in actual fact, the whole sentiment of that song is…joyful is the not the right word but…emotionally it’s very moving, and it’s a quite human and vulnerable place to go. I think that’s important. I think allowing an audience to experience the artist’s vulnerability is probably the most valuable thing you can give them.”

This is a long tour. At the age of 55 – and looking very well on it – how do you prepare for being on the road for the duration of time you will be? Is touring something you look forward to, and do you enjoy the traveling?

“I do. All of it. I think the preparation for it has already started, even as we speak (late December 2000). Even in my head, I’ve started to make very minimal little filing systems. I’m thinking about what songs we are going to do. I will gradually gear myself up for the fact that in maybe three weeks, that’s about it; we will start rehearsals and the rehearsals will go for nearly a month. In that time, we will try and touch on as many material concepts as we can in terms of what repertoire we’re going to do. And The Impressions will come in. They’re going to sing with me on the English dates and then pick us up back in America. So, every day now, I’ll probably just touch on what would be a good song to do and quickly make a little analysis of that. I’m gradually getting there, but it’s a slow process. Then there’s the whole thing of actually playing, getting up on stage and getting your ears back. Developing that, being on stage; the space and volume and the balances of it all. The music will then start to fuel it, and it games its own momentum, really.”

There are a few people like you in the music business who almost have no right to still be here – looking as good as they do – never mind still doing what they do. Do you ever stop and think about that?

“Well, I do this other thing, my Crossroads project, and that gives it its balance. I think if I was just making music…when I even look at the careers of people like BB or other musicians who are much older that me and still doing it, you know, they don’t have a home, they don’t have anything holding them down. They don’t feel right unless they’re on the open road. I don’t fit into that at all. I need something else that give me almost like a deeper purpose, and that thing with Crossroads – which has been going on a while now, it started up quite a long time ago – give me a much deeper purpose, in a way. Being on the road and making music gets back to what it’s always was, which is fun – I do it because I love it and it’s almost like a hobby; the fact that I get paid for it is still a mystery to me – but the other thing allows me to enjoy that. There’s a balance created by having the two things. And I don’t want to make Crossroads sound too precious, but in some ways I think it’s equally important to me as the music. I wouldn’t minimise the important, responsible thing to be doing for other people, to be contributing something to their lives – be it happiness or the opportunity to suffer with dignity. Music actually does that, too.”

A little while ago, you auctioned a number of your guitars to raise money for the Crossroads centre. Many musicians make proper relationships with their instruments – was that the case with you and if so, how difficult was it to let go of those guitars? Was giving them up in any sense therapeutic?

“Oh yeah. It was only meaningful because those guitars were important to me. When the catalogue was put together, each guitar had its own little historical notes and stuff. We were in rehearsals in LA when the actual auction was going on, and VH1 set up a little Internet feed so that we could watch on the TV. There were three of four guitars that actually got to me, but the two that really did were an acoustic Martin – which was not an expensive guitar, but reached something like $80,000 – and it had a sticker on the side which said ‘She’s In Love With A Rodeo Man’. I’d had that since the ‘70’s, and that guitar went everywhere with me. During the auction, the guys were all around me, and I felt myself starting to cry. I didn’t feel safe doing that, although I was, but I caught myself. The same thing happened with the old brown Stratocaster – because that was the ‘Layla’ guitar, you know? I think that’s what made the auction a fairly significant event; because everyone knew that those were important guitars to me. They can never really know how much, but there’s no doubt – and I’m never blasé about that kind of thing – that they were. I think that’s what gave the event its importance.”

You’re obviously a deep-thinking man. Do you have an image of yourself? Can you feel who you are?

“Yeah, I do and I can – but I don’t know that it’s correct. What is that image of myself? Well, like a troubadour, you know. I see myself, I guess, as like a latter day Samurai, in a way – ha! – responsibly moving through my like and not avoiding anything and taking things on. Almost like Don Quixote, in a sense.”

And are you aware of the mark you have made?

“…No. I don’t think so…”

But you have made a mark on music. Do you think you should be aware of it?

“I think it would be silly and pointless of me not to try and be aware of it. It’s very important to be aware of the impression. I would really want to always strive towards that, because I think that’s an integral part of being alive; to check with people the kind of impression I’m making. It’s just responsibility; “Am I being an arsehole? Am I doing that best thing I can do to make this situation improved?’ Whatever the situation is. Because if I’m not, then what the hell am I doing here, you know? Because then I am just taking. I could have lived like that – and I did live like that for a long time, and it made me very unhappy. I find that I get a lot of real happiness in seeing what I can do to improve any situation. Often, it’s done quite selfishly – in order to make me feel good – but a lot of that is spent in trying to evaluate the kind of impression I’m making, on anything.”

You have one hell of a band playing with you on this tour…

“The picking of those guys has sort of evolved from what I have just discussed; I’m aware that they each have much the same set of ideals. What I was just talking about, they would probably give you the same kind of answer to the same kind of question. They are very intent on giving the best they can in any situation – and not only a musical one. Even in a room full of people, I know that all of those guys would do their best to make you feel more comfortable – without being people pleasers. They are just very, very contributive people, and that is what their music reflects. It’s impossible to separate the music from the man. It doesn’t work, you know?”

What with a new album out now, do you have any idea yet about your next record?

“I do know what I’m going to do, actually. This thing with The Impressions coming in for ‘Reptile’… I had met them for the first time when we did this tribute service to Curtis Mayfield in LA. After his funeral they had a big memorial service in a church, and I was given the opportunity to sing with The Impressions. And they were such great people to meet and to work with that I invited them on the album, not knowing, really, what we were going to do. I just said everything. Just everything I could think of where there was an opportunity, I got ‘em in there! They were always saying ‘Oh, we love working with you.’ So I thought ‘Well, we did this thing with BB, and it was great – why not do something like with them?’ I’m not really putting an agenda together, but in the next 12 months I will collate as much interesting, different material as I can – old and new – and just go in the studio with them. Same concept; a live band and just make a duet album with The Impressions. So that’s already in the scheme of things, for 2002.”