Q&A with Mark de Clive-Lowe: On ‘Heritage,’ House Music & Ayahuasca

Crossover jazz may be having a moment — as the popularity of hip-hop- and EDM-friendly artists like Robert Glasper and Terrace Martin can attest — but for keyboardist and producer Mark de Clive-Lowe, it’s been a lifelong pursuit. Way before jazz hybridity became a worldwide phenomenon, De Clive-Lowe was busy designing its blueprint.

The New Zealand-born producer rose to prominence in the early 2000s as a DJ in London’s dynamic electronic music scene. Locally, he was an integral collaborator with the city’s most prolific DJ collectives, such as Bugz in the Attic and 4Hero. But as his international profile began to expand, he would move on to collaborations with artists like rapper Lauryn Hill, jazz vocalist Shirley Horn and bassist Pino Palladino. All the while, he has maintained a steady presence as a jazz pianist in the straightahead vein.

De Clive-Lowe was born in New Zealand to a Japanese mother and New Zealander father, and was first introduced to jazz through his father’s big-band record collection. In high school, a friend turned him on to A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and other members of the rap collective Native Tongues Posse, and before long, a full-on hip-hop obsession was born. Soon, he began applying the techniques of hip-hop — live remixing, sampling, looping and synthesis — to his jazz performances, forging entirely new sounds in real time.

He received widespread acclaim for his breakout album First Thoughts, released in 1996 on New Zealand’s’ Tap Records, and he would garner even more critical praise for his recent projects #bluenoteremixed Vol. 1  and 2014’s Church. Nowa new work is poised to elevate his standing considerably. Heritage, which was released February 8 on Ropeadope Records, is the first installment of a two-disc series that explores the artist’s Japanese roots through the lens of jazz and electronica. (The second disc in the series, Heritage II, is due out April 5.)

In a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles, De Clive-Lowe, who has made a career out of building bridges between musical identities, framed the album as a means of acquainting himself with an unfamiliar part of his identity. “We all know on some intellectual level that ultimately you can only be yourself,” he said. “But for me, that required a journey – a real, tangible journey through my music and the music of Japan.  I grew up wanting to have the sound of other musicians. This project has been the start of a reconnection to myself, and to a part of my history that has always been there, but just out of reach.”

Was your decision to explore your Japanese ancestry brought on by any specific life event?

Yes and no. I was thinking a lot about the current times, and about ancestry, and about how ancestry is absolutely inextricably intertwined with identity. And I feel like, in Western culture, we’re not taught that. Like, I know people from Mexico who have this shit down. They understand ancestry, and they will celebrate it like no one else. Some other cultures do too, but I think that – and I’m generalizing here as a non-American and non-white-American – white America actually has a lot to learn from this, especially right now.

You mean given the political climate and people’s feelings about tribalism?

That’s right. And I can see from one point of view how people might think that really subscribing to your heritage could lead to a kind of nationalism and a bit of a right-leaning mentality, but in reality, the more you really connect with your ancestry and identity and cultural heritage, the more freeing that is, and the more you understand your identity. Then, the more you empathize with your fellow human beings, regardless of where they’re from.

Were you in touch with your heritage and ancestry as a child? And did music play a part in that?

I was raised bilingually and bi-culturally. My dad, who was a New Zealander, spent 20 years in Japan and pretty much turned Japanese (laughs). So we were raised in a way where we were in New Zealand but we were still in our own little Japan, at least at our house. When I started taking this music seriously, my mom would say that I should learn Japanese songs. And I was like, Pssh, whatever, I want to play some hip shit. But then I acquiesced and learned a couple of them, so there was a little dalliance with them early on.

Mark de Clive-Lowe (Photo: Steven Taylor)

You have a history of mixing musical genres, from jazz to rap to house music. How did the hybridity on Heritage – which brought traditional Japanese music into the mix – change your artistic approach?

It’s funny, as I was making this album, I was constantly visited by a feeling I’ve never felt before. And it was a feeling of me-ness. I can’t put it any other way. It was as if I was reaching into the feelings and ideas from when I was a child.

You know, we go through these weird experiences as we grow up that basically traumatize our personalities, and we have to unlearn some of that stuff as we become adults. And I was reaching back even before that. It was a really interesting cathartic experience for me.

Was that the first time you felt something like that as a result of playing music?

Musically? Yes. But there was another catalyst for this whole process.  A couple of years ago I participated in an ayahuasca ceremony, and I’ve never experienced anything quite like that. It was literally life-changing. And you know, ayahuasca is a ceremonial medicine, which you treat with respect. It’s as far from recreational marijuana as you can go (laughs).

What did that experience reveal to you?

It showed me my connection to Japan, and it made me realize how important it was. And that was the beginning of everything. I started going to Japan more often. And then whenever I’d be there I felt this ancestral, spiritual connection, which I’d always know was there couldn’t always connect with.

How did it affect your music?

It made me ask questions. I mean, if I really wanted to, I can make some hip shit easily. You know? I can sit down and bang out a pop crossover tune, or whatever it might be. But at this point in my life, it’s like, Well, Why am I doing this? And then, Who am I to do this? What am I trying to say in my music? And it’s only now that I’m older that I realize I owe my whole musical identity to my ancestors, and it became important to me to honor that lineage.

Photo courtesy Renae Wootson

In honoring that lineage, did you have to delve into the musical history of Japan?

On principle I did. I felt obligated to explore that history a little bit. And what was interesting was that, as soon as I started exploring it, I realized that I knew all of it already. It was strange. I didn’t know any of the musical aspects by name, like the exact terms for everything, but there were these feelings and sounds that seemed so second nature to me.

For example?

Well, when I was living in L.A., I used to play with a band called Ehtio-cali. And Ethio-cali was inspired by the music of Mulatu Astatke, which was very much rooted in Ethiopian jazz. Now, Ethiopian jazz is based on specific scales and modes, like one scale will govern an entire piece. That’s just how it works. And as I was playing these gigs with this group, all of the scales just felt like second nature to me. At the time, I assumed it must have felt like second nature for everyone. But then I found out that the scales – which are basically altered pentatonics – are exactly the same scales that the Japanese use. The difference is in where they land and take off. And the intention behind the notes is a bit different. But ultimately, that’s why I felt so free and liberated in that band. The sound was exactly the same.

Brazilian music has the element of saudade, which is the notion of longing or nostalgia. It’s musical, in a sense, but not exactly tied to harmony or rhythm. It’s more of a feeling. Does the music of Japan have anything similar?

That’s pretty much what I was looking for during the creation of this album. And if I had to say anything, I’d say balance. Like, consider the opening track [of Heritage], “The Offering.” With it, I wanted to create the simplest melody that retains the simplest balance, but still tells a story. I didn’t want it to be boring. I wanted it to feel alive without feeling complicated.

Everyone in jazz does this. For example, there’s a Wayne Shorter tune where the melody is basically a triad. But it’s so amazing how he expresses it, that beauty of simplicity. For me, there’s a vulnerability in that. It’s the vulnerability of wanting to share a piece of art. It’s not it’s not about shredding, it’s not about making you move. It’s about connecting. And these are things in Japanese music that I grew up with, and that I loved.

Did undertaking this project bring you closer to your mother?

Absolutely. (laughs) And that’s a whole other interview. Basically, my father was the patriarch of our family. No questions asked. He was super old-school, and my mother’s Japanese, and Japan is primarily a chauvinistic, patriarchal society. It’s pretty male-oriented So my dad fit right in there. But in putting together this record, I would be talking to my mom all the time. We were having three-hour conversations about her life, and she was telling me stories that I never, never knew about. And so I’m recognizing now that she and my grandmother – they were strong women. They were like the matriarchs for their families. Growing up, I didn’t see that, because my dad was this strong, shining light. But I’ve come to really appreciate my heritage, and that’s primarily through this matriarchal maternal line. There’s no question about that.

For more information on Mark de Clive-Lowe and his new album Heritage, visit him online.

To hear De Clive-Lowe’s ‘Sitting In’ playlist, which he curated exclusively for JAZZIZ, click here

Feature photo of Mark de Clive-Lowe courtesy Renae Wootson

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