Raven 'bout Gene: Kai Clark talks about his new tribute album, Silver Raven

Roughly coinciding with 4AD's mammoth reevaluation of Gene Clark's 1974 masterpiece No Other (released last week) and what would have been Gene's 75th birthday on November 17th, son Kai Clark is poised to release Silver Raven, an 11-song tribute album that traces his father's career in music. Suffice it to say each of the handpicked tracks—popular classics, Byrds-era favourites, under-heard gems—hold special significance for Kai. With guest performances from his dad's former colleagues Carla Olson and Byron Berline, and spirited backing from the members of the Kai Clark Band, the album is both a loving celebration of his dad's accomplishments and a welcome opportunity to introduce Gene Clark's music to a new generation of fans.

(More info on the Silver Raven album)

It's been over five years since Kai Clark last chatted with The Clarkophile; in that time, much has changed, in terms of his father's legacy. Kickstarted in part by the dual successes of Paul Kendall's wonderful documentary, The Byrd Who Flew Alone and Beach House and Co.'s magnanimous one-off tour of the No Other album, it's apparent that we are witnessing a significant reassessment of Gene Clark's entire oeuvre and his place in rock's pantheon. To wit, a steady stream of archival releases, enough to please any Clarkoisseur (The Lost Studio Sessions; Back Street Mirror E.P.Gene Clark Sings for You; Here Tonight: The White Light Demoshas rather convincingly demonstrated the value of material that remained unreleased during Clark's lifetime.

These releases constitute much more than play-once-and-file-away curios for Boomer diehards. They are evidence of a long-overdue re-evaluation of Clark's importance as a serious artist.
It is evident that both fans and cognoscenti have finally conferred upon Gene the kind of respect and attention he was rarely afforded in his lifetime. In many ways, not the least of which is its enormity (both in size and cost), 4AD's lavish box-set treatment of No Other is the final piece of evidence needed to make a rock-solid case: Gene Clark can no longer be regarded as a "cult artist."

Clearly, for those of us who love Gene Clark, this is an epochal moment, if not a universally acknowledged seismic shift in the foundation of rock's hierarchy. Gene's message has been heard.

And so it was my great pleasure to spend an afternoon in October talking with Kai about his new project. But I also wanted to dig a little deeper and find out about Kai as an individual, as opposed to Gene Clark's son, who is also the public face of the Gene Clark Estate (brother Kelly eschews the spotlight).  Kai and I ended up talking about everything from chopping wood (from which he'd just taken a temporary break) to his childhood, his wife, Amber; their children, and their plans to leave California for Nashville to pursue his solo career in earnest. And, of course, we also discussed Gene Clark's transformation from cult hero to acknowledged songwriting genius.

Kai is gracious and affable; always consummate gentleman.  He spoke with great affection for his father's music, and provided details about the songs selected for the project.  Unfortunately, I'm not at liberty to reveal the full track list of Silver Raven just yet, but I will say that Kai selected wisely: there is something here for anyone who has ever been touched by Gene Clark's vast body of work.

Q: While we know quite a bit about your dad, I'm not sure everyone out there knows a lot about you. So I was wondering if you could tell the readers of the blog a little bit about your family?

Kai Clark: I think a lot of people didn't really know that my father had two sons. I mean, it's not like he really spoke about it much. Only the people that were close to him really knew that he had a family. And I think part of that was probably due to, you know, the bitter separation between my mom and him. It was devastating for him, I'm sure, them splitting and my mom leaving with us kids. And so I think that life was kind of separate from my father.

I was born in Mendocino and I lived there until I graduated high school.  I lived with my mom and then I would visit my dad in summers, often. Some summers we wouldn't do that, maybe 'cause he was on the road or this or that. So we would visit in the summer months when we were off of school and then we would be with my mom for the rest of the time. But often my mom and my dad didn't talk. So I actually have a funny story where my mom sent me on a Greyhound bus to stay with him in the late '80s and didn't tell my dad. I called my dad from the Greyhound bus station in downtown LA, which was like one in the morning—not a place you really want to be at. I called and my dad answered and said, "Hey, how's it going? Why are you calling so late?" And I said, "Well, are you gonna pick me up? I'm here at the bus station."  He says, "What do you mean you're at the bus station?" I said, "Well, I'm here at the bus station." He says, "Where?" And I said, "Downtown LA." And he didn't have a clue that I was even coming down. So yeah, it was pretty funny. I don't think he was very prepared, as a family man, you know, with the lifestyle he had.

When I graduated high school, I went to Lake Tahoe, where my mom was in a recovery program for her drug addiction, so I stayed with her for a while. I fell in love with Lake Tahoe. I loved the mountains up there. It's a beautiful place.

I've always pursued music, but to pay the bills, I've always had to work odd jobs. So I've been a waiter, worked in construction—I've done pretty much everything. Since I had been in the restaurant industry most of my life, I went to culinary school and graduated in 2004 from the Cordon Bleu in San Francisco.

Q. When did you meet (wife) Amber?
Kai Clark with wife Amber and children,
Taylor, Ava and Kaynon.

KC: I met Amber in 2007, here in Northern California. We had both had bad relationships.  She had gone through a bad marriage, and so we weren't really looking for anything too serious.  But we quickly realized how much we had in common and how good it was with each other. So we spent several years just enjoying life and traveling around.

She's amazing...she did choir for many years before she met me. When she started singing with me, I realized she had this great ability to harmonize. So it's very enjoyable to have a wife who's musically inclined. And after 13 years of singing with me, she definitely knows my style.

We had our first boy Taylor in 2010, and then we had our daughter Ava in 2012. Kaynon, our second boy, was born in 2015. And we've bought 20 acres up here, near the Sierra mountains. It's been a joy.

But I think as the kids get older, we're ready to move off the mountain. I've kind of burned out on the whole California music scene. I just don't feel like it's what it used to be. LA was a very hard music scene, I think. Northern California has a better music scene, but with my style of playing and everything else, I feel like California has kind of become this TV/American Idol kind of pop culture thing. It's not really the roots of music that I enjoy. So that's why we're considering moving out to the Nashville area next year.

Q. I want to talk about the new album. What was your and the band's attitude going into the studio? Was is intimidating to take on these legendary songs, or was it a relaxed atmosphere?

KC: Well, I think we had been playing enough of the material live for long enough—you know, I've been working with Jim Moreland, my drummer for close to 20 years now. I think we went into the studio knowing that this was something that we had wanted to do for a long time. Me, especially; I've had this kind of on my mind for years, but I never felt like I had the band or the opportunity—or maybe the knowledge and the experience—to do the album justice. I think the most intimidating thing about going in to record an album of my father's songs or songs he performed with, say the Byrds, was the amount of material that there is to look at.

Obviously, people are going to say, "Hey, why didn't you record this song"—because there's just so much, you know?  I felt like a lot of the song choices were not only because we played them live, or they were in our heart, but also songs that I thought really deserved more recognition than they had gotten on the original release. So there was a lot of factors that went into it. I don't feel like we were really intimidated at all. I felt like we were actually excited to go in and, and start recording an album of my father's songs...but I'm very critical of my own musical performances. Obviously living up to my father's performances is very intimidating in a sense, because his vocals were so unique and distinctive and he was just such an amazing vocalist and songwriter.

 Gene Clark's former duet partner Carla Olson
makes a guest appearance on Kai's new album,
Silver Raven.
But people are always going to relate it to the artists that did the songs originally. So obviously they're going to relate it my father, his performance on the original songs. And so that's—that's a little intimidating.

But we really enjoyed making the album and I think it was just the perfect time. And you know, I think it was just fate that it's coming up on my what would've been my father's 75th birthday.  Much of the stuff that's coming out, like the 4AD release of No Other, we didn't even know about that when we started this project.

Q. Right. I mean it just seems to be falling into place all at once.

KC: Yeah, for sure. And I love seeing the recognition. If you look at Gram Parsons, just as an example, I mean the recognition he gets is amazing, you know what I mean? And of course, with due respect, he was a great songwriter and another pioneer of combining different kinds of music. But I think Gene, my father, definitely deserves that respect in music history and also in music songwriting and creation of new music by blending different genres. You know, he was definitely pioneering some stuff.  With the No Other album, you look at that and—nobody was doing anything like that at the time. So I think that he was definitely always thinking ahead.

Q. The lavish box-set treatment being given to [No Other], to me this would have been unthinkable 10 years ago, 20 years ago.  This would not have been done. And to me this just feels like kind of sweet vindication for his work.

KC: Well, there's always the people that are going to critique it— there's definitely people that'll be like, you know—it's almost like they don't want Gene Clark to be a mainstream name because they are attracted to the mystical aspects of his career as a cultish underground genius: this unknown (other than the Byrds) master of songwriting. So I think there is an aspect of my father that is very appealing; that his career with wasn't bigger than it was.

Q. Are you saying some fans romanticize the fact that his career wasn't more successful?

KC: I just mean that because of his obscurity some people believe it makes him more attractive as an artist in their view. They may believe that commercializing him will take away from the beauty of his work.  And yes, they believe it makes it more romantic in a sense.

But I think my father was looking inside of himself for the songs, but he also was looking outside for the recognition that he wanted. I think he wanted people saying "You wrote a masterpiece"; you know, the pat on the back. And I don't think he really got that in his lifetime. It's sad, but at the same time, many artists pass away long before they got the recognition they deserve. And that's the way it works sometimes. So I'm definitely excited to see [his music] going out to a new generation; seeing my father get a lot of the recognition that he deserved for so long.

Q. Yes, I mean, how can that possibly be a bad thing? I mean, to me, this is just like finally reaching the top of the mountain. I mean, Gene Clark goes mainstream. That's really cool to me.

KC:  I think what it does is open the door for people to discover more of his music because there's so much.

Q. But really, fame is a bit of a double-edged sword, in terms of how it affects you, because the more popular your father's work becomes, the more it draws nasty comments.

KC: Well, I think you've got to take the good with the bad.  The world is both a wonderful and beautiful place and also a very nasty place, especially in the public eye. There's two sides to every story, no pun intended.  But I mean I love the stories I hear. I often get contacted by people who say, "I got to meet your dad after a show and he took the time to like sign my"—this or that. And then you hear the other stories of, you know, he was a total a-hole. And that may have been due to alcohol or whatever situation he was in. I mean, you've gotta take the good with the bad and definitely, tragedy makes good headlines.

He definitely had qualities that I don't think people ever got to see because all they saw was what was either written in a magazine or in an article, or what the public's view of him was. So I got to see a lot of my father that people didn't get to see, which is special. And I think that people should know that he was very funny. He had a great sense of humour, he was always joking and laughing.  And he was very kind to people that normally people of his stature just kind of shun, because they get it get it all the time. You get the guy going, "Hey, sign this!" or people following you around.  It's gotta be a little annoying at times, but at my father was very good about that.

Q. Of the songs included set for inclusion on Silver Raven, do you have a personal favourite?

KC: Well, 'Silver Raven' is special to me, not just because it's off the No Other album, but it was probably the very first song in my father's that I ever learned to play, partly because it's three chords. [laughs] But the magic of my father's music is you could have three chords, but the vocals could take you on this journey.

For me it was special because I was going through a hard time in high school.  My mom was using drugs and my dad was not in my life very much. And I used to go over to this guy's house who had guitars all over, all around. And it was kind of like a little escape for me; I could play all these guitars he had. There was an old cowboy guy named Chuck, who used to be a pro rodeo rider—good old cowboy guy. He would always tell me, "Hey, you gotta play that song 'Silver Raven.'" And every time I'd go over there and pick up a guitar, I had to play the song for Chuck.  It became special, you know, because of that.  It was like this song that had this history with me, that always stuck with me.

Sincere thanks to Kai Clark
For more information on Kai Clark and the Silver Raven project, click here.

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Cat said…
Wonderful, thoughtful interview! So glad to see Kai stepping out and doing this album!
Good luck, Kai, on the move to Nashville - hope you find lots of opportunities to play and record there! Take care of that beautiful family - I still hope to meet you one day!
Catherine in Iowa