Angus Clark may not be as well known as some of the super shredders out there, but he's built a career with his powerful and expressive style of rock guitar. From his early days playing in local bands to breaking out with Kitaro and his eight year holiday tour with Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Clark has always had lot going on. He's got a new instrumental album "Your Last Battlefield" available on iTunes, CD Baby and Amazon and will be teaching a workshop at the National Guitar Workshop (NGW) June 27 in McLean, Virginia.
Angus took some time out of his schedule to give us a rundown of how he got started in music, the importance of quality footwear on stage and other good advice for aspiring musicians.
Q. What first got you interested in playing guitar?
Angus: My parents got me a nylon string guitar at some point in fourth or fifth grade, and I think all I was listening to then was the Monkees, 'cause of the TV show, and the Beatles, 'cause the only two rock records my parents had were Sgt. Pepper's and Revolver. They also had the Stones' Beggar's Banquet, but I was more of a Beatles kid. But I couldn't wrap my head around the whole "practicing thing", so the guitar went in the closet until Pink Floyd's "The Wall" came out when I was in eighth grade. That record is really what did it. The guitar came out of the closet, got a new teacher, and then got a couple more records, namely "London Calling" by the Clash, and "Vol.4" by Black Sabbath. Then I was totally hooked, and my guitar teacher actually recommended I get an electric, which was like the most awesome thing a teacher ever said to me. By the time I really got into it, Randy Rhoads was the guy, and then Yngwie, so it got to be really important to practice, practice, practice. I think I started my first band something like three years later in high school, and at that point it was all about it being a cool way to impress girls.
Q. You played guitar at a pretty young age. Did it come naturally to you or were there things that you struggled with?
Angus: I was brought up in a musical household. My mom is a singer, my dad was a lawyer but he also played the cello, and my brother was a very serious violinist all the way through college. And I went to a grammar school that gave students a stipend for singing in the school choir, so I did that starting in fourth grade. So there was always music around. By the time I found a passion for rock and the guitar in particular, I think I was lucky to get with a good teacher. He put me through the Mel Bay modern method, which is still the book I prefer to teach from. He also had me do a ton of music reading and all these classical studies, like the Carcassi and the Sor stuff. I struggled most with trying to pick things up by ear. That was always the hardest part. I am still not 100% confident about my ears, although I think by now I'm doing alright.
Besides that I think I spent a good deal of time working on picking and hand synchronization. I'm left handed, but I play righty. This made me concerned about how accurate my picking was, so I spent a good amount of time on it, and have actually changed my picking style a couple of times over the years.
By the time I got to college it was all about Yngwie and I was at school in LA and Racer X were playing weekly at the Troubadour and the Country Club, so it was just nothing but chops. It was the heyday of Shrapnel records. There were certain things that I had an affinity for technique-wise, and I started to get a sense of what I was good at. But I didn't think I had chops that really went beyond the guys that were at school with me.
Q. You've managed to carve out a career in a pretty tough genre. How did you manage to stand out compared to your peers?
Angus: I think I'm cross-genre actually, cause I did spend five years playing New Age music, and now I play symphonic Rock and Hard Rock/Metal. The stuff that pushed my career along always came from me putting myself "out there" in some way. You have to play gigs, stay open to whatever comes your way, and represent yourself well at all times, cause you never know who is gonna be there. And then when an opportunity comes up, go for it as hard as you can. I was back in NY after college and playing with a couple of different bands when I found out a local band (Naked Sun) that had a deal was auditioning guitarists. I learned the tunes for that audition front to back, solos and everything, showed up with boots on and made it my business to have that gig. Never wear sneakers to an audition. Always have some trendy shoes.
Naked Sun lost their deal, but Kitaro's management saw me play with them in LA at the Whiskey, which was basically empty. So in that case, was it worth buying a van and trekking across the country with four guys who were basically at each other's throats? Well, yeah, if you consider that I got the Kitaro gig out of it, and I've got the invaluable experience of touring in a van that could break down at any moment (and did). It's called "paying your dues". So this is now '94 and grunge ruled everything and there wasn't much play for a guy with my skill set and preference in music. So there again I made it my business to get that Kitaro gig. I learned the stuff on his records and sent them a tape of me playing on it. Next thing I know they are flying me to Colorado to play on his record, and then they offer me the tour. You can't wear shoes in Kitaro's house so it was all about having socks with no holes in them.
I've heard it said that sooner or later everybody is looking for a gig. These tours that hire sidemen only go out for a certain amount of time, and then you're cut loose. It's all or nothing. So when Kitaro started touring less and less, I had to keep pushing outwards to find other work. That's when I got the call for this band Drill, which was on A&M. The call came through a guy that I met before I was even in Naked Sun. I met him through a studio where I did a demo tape for a band I had called Stray Light Run, which is actually a terrible name for a band, and it makes me laugh cause there's a new band with that same name. It's taken from a William Gibson novel, you can look it up. So the $1,000 I spent on the SLR demo back in '91 finally paid off in '96 in the form of the Drill gig. Which wound up being about five months of touring on the large club circuit. The best thing about it was the people I met, the bass player in Drill was JD, who is now in the Black Label Society --small world. I got the Drill gig the same way I got the other ones, I learned the material back to front, and I wore quality footwear to the audition. I think I lost the gig because I was slow to figure out that they really wanted me to cut my hair. That's a cautionary tale, you gotta read between the lines sometimes.
Kitaro went back out a couple more times and then there was a spell where I was just doing band stuff in New York. Just doing stuff to keep busy really. You have to stay in the game in some way or another. Then I get the call from the TSO. That came through Marty Friedman, who I originally met through teaching at the NGW back in '92, but then I really got to know him when I was on the Kitaro gig. Marty worked with Kitaro on the album "Scenes". TSO had called him, he wasn't available, but he gave them my number. So I learned the material back to front and went down to the audition wearing quality footwear. Here the lesson would be, wear cool shoes, just don't stare at them while you're playing. That audition was me and a bunch of other guys, some of whom can shred me under a table, but I got it cause I'm actually a performer, I look up at the audience and smile. I stay open. The call back was just me and Paul O'Neill, where the onus was on my ability to take direction. It all came down to how I played this one acoustic song, which is just a simple chord pattern, but you have to be sensitive to the singer. So, by the time I was in that room, I was already a guy that had toured the world on massive stages, had the chops to kill the gig, and enough experience working with people to know when to just shut up and listen and give the artist what they want. That's what I did, and here I am.
I remember reading an interview with the woman who is part of The Matrix, the team that wrote "Complicated" for Avril, and she said they'd been at it for 10 years before that song broke, and that in her experience that is a good bench mark. If you can stay "in it" for 10 years, something's gonna give. I've been working this whole time, but nothing else had the profile of what the TSO gig has now become. I just kept at it and made sure that when the gig was worth getting, I got it. I get emails from guys asking me how they can get a gig like TSO. I guess the short answer is get in a van with your Prog-metal band that just got dropped and go to LA and play to no people at the Whiskey. Then stick at it for 10 years and something good will happen. Just remember to wear cool shoes.
Q. You've taken song writing workshops and now you're actually teaching at the NGW. What do you get out of this kind of work as compared to touring or recording?
Angus: Songwriting is a totally separate craft, and it's something I wanted to take the time to get a handle on. It's important to get some training in it so you can be constructive when working with a band or someone that you are producing. If you don't have control of the formal elements of songwriting, the conversations can be taken too personally, like "why don't you like my song?", as opposed to just seeing a song as a thing that you can work on and fiddle with in order to make it better and stronger. So you're more on the wavelength of "changing this chord to major will improve the overall prosity of the song", or "starting this phrase on the and of two will improve the scantion of the line". Like that.
Writing is incredibly fulfilling, because once you write a song, you never know where it's gonna go. I wrote these songs with the TSO's violinist, Anna, and the next thing I know, she's playing them on stage with Jethro Tull, one of my idols!! So again, you just have to put yourself and your art out there, and then good things happen.
As far as teaching at the NGW, I'm doing a week in Virginia. I used to work for them way back and got a lot out of it, so at this point it's more recreational for me. Plus Alex Skolnick from the TSO East band will be there same time as me, so it'll be a good hang.
Q. What should someone thinking of attending one of your NGW sessions do to get the most out of the workshop. Is there some preparation they should do in advance?
Angus: Just bring your guitar and a good attitude and be ready play, cause I'm gonna make you play!! It's not a competition, it's a workshop. That's how I treat it. I facilitate the students learning from each other, and then I shred for their enjoyment. Oh, and you can wear whatever kind of shoes you want to class, but bring some quality footwear for the stage, cause there's no sandals on stage in Rock and Roll.
Q. What advice do you have for any 40-year old guitar wannabe's to help improve their playing even though they may not have professional ambitions?
Angus: Put on a record you haven't learned how to play yet, and learn it. Then find some friends and have a jam and do a gig. Then you're not a wannabe, you're a musician. You won't make any money, but that's not the point! It's better to make it interactive. Get out there, and do it with people and for people.
For those interested in learning more, head over to Angus Clark's web site where you can hear songs from his new album "Your Last Battlefield." If you're looking for a week of immersive guitar instruction, NGW has a summer program that runs in McLean Virginia, Los Angeles California, Chicago Illinois, Austin Texas and Purchase New York. Programs start June 27 in McLean and continue through mid-August. And dont' forget: bring new boots!