Danny Clinch: Photographer, Harmonica Player, Concert Promoter
The relationship between portrait photographer and subject can be a pretty intimate one: this is especially true with famous musicians. It's the photographer's job to capture a sort of truth with their images, something that is different from previous photos of the artist but that also doesn't veer far from the artist's identity (or "brand"). Photographers generally like to stay behind the scenes and not get in the way, but it's not uncommon to see photographers and musicians become tight friends. The photographers who shoot the biggest artists repeatedly have a level of trust with them.
Danny Clinch has a somewhat unprecedented level of trust with a number of his subjects; not only does he shoot them, but he jams with them as well. A skilled harmonica player, he's joined Pearl Jam, Ben Harper and Willie Nelson on stage over the years. He's even played on records by the Foo Fighters and Blind Melon. This weekend, he's taking on yet another role, as the producer of Asbury Park, New Jersey's first Sea.Hear.Now festival, featuring Social Distortion, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Incubus, Highly Suspect and Kaleo. We spoke to Clinch about the festival, his photography, his music, and his long-in-the-works Blind Melon documentary.
Sea.Hear.Now is a new festival that involves music, surfing and art. I know you're from New Jersey. Was Asbury Park a big part of your youth? Are you a surfer?
Asbury Park’s always been important to me, and I grew up on the ocean. I was a lifeguard on the beach. I was always in the water as a kid. So I’m right at home here on the Jersey Shore.
I’m a longboard surfer. I can stand up on the longboard, but I’m a bodyboarder, and I’ve been doing that since I was a little kid, and I continue doing it at 55 years old. I get in the water with my wetsuit and my fins and my board and I have a blast.
A lot of your artist friends are surfers -- Eddie Vedder, Ben Harper, Jack Johnson. What's the best surfing advice you've gotten from one of them?
I did actually get a surf lesson from Jack Johnson, and I remember exactly what he told me. I was standing up on the board, and he said, “You’re looking down at your feet when you stand up, and that’s when you run into trouble.” He says, “As soon as you stand up or pop up, just look at the horizon ahead of you. Don’t look at your feet.” Really, the second I did that it was like a game changer.
That seems like good life advice.
“Look at the horizon, don’t look down.” Thank you, Jack.
So when did you get the idea to produce a festival?
After Superstorm Sandy, my partner Tim Donnelly and I did a concert at the Paramount Theater to raise money for people who were doing work on the ground on the Jersey Shore, right in our area. It was called "On the Beach," and we had Brian Fallon of Gaslight Anthem, My Morning Jacket, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Steve Earle and we raised some money, which was really cool. It also kind of gave us a little bit confidence to be like, “Boy, if we got the right partners, we could do something on the beach in Asbury Park, and that’d be really dope.”
When we went to do our lineup, we were like, “OK, musicians that surf -- what have we got?” Incubus are musicians who surf. We really got lucky with Social D. Tim has had a Social D tattoo since he was 20.
We also wanted some young bands -- people like Kaleo and Highly Suspect, and bands that like, if a family wanted to come out, and mom and dad wanted to see Blondie and Social Distortion, the teenagers could come and go see Highly Suspect and Kaleo.
Of course, whenever you do something in Asbury Park, there are rumors that the "local hero" might show up, and he has a history of jamming with Social D...
Of course, I invited him. He has an extended invitation. Then, of course, I always remind him what we have going on in the neighborhood, and sometimes he shows up. He did show up to the [art] gallery one day when I had local music playing there. I got a text from Bruce [Springsteen], and he said, “Dude, what’s going on?” I said, “Yeah, we’re at the gallery. We’ve got cool bands playing. Are you in the neighborhood?” He said, “Yeah,” and I said, “All right, well, come on by.” Sure enough, he did, and all the local musicians in there were like super stoked, and they were like, “What?”
Photographers generally like to stay out of the way and capture the moment. How did you end up playing harmonica with so many huge bands?
That’s a very good question. I think there’s a lot of answers to that. I think you can tell by my style of photography and kinda being laid back and blending in and that sort of thing, with musicians, I think that goes a long way. I have a lot of respect for the people who are working around them ... after years of working with them, friendships form.
The harmonica is an interesting instrument. It is a rock and roll instrument, it’s a blues instrument, it’s a folk instrument, right, and not everybody plays it. So I feel like if I played guitar, and I was to show up at a Foo Fighters gig, I’m not sure Dave [Grohl] would say, “Did you bring your guitar?” Sometimes he’s like, “You got a harp? Yeah, OK, cool.” Pearl Jam, the same thing. It’s a weird kind of thing. I remember I sat in with Eddie right after [E Street Band saxophonist] Clarence Clemons died, and he knew that I knew Clarence, and he probably didn’t know a lot of people who knew Clarence. We had a real heart-to-heart about it and how it affected us and stuff.
He wanted to honor Clarence and said, “I’m gonna do a song for Clarence at the Beacon. Would you come and play some harp on it?," and I was like, “Absolutely.” So that was the first time I had played with Ed. Then Pearl Jam asked me to play at Austin City Limits one year, and I got up and played on “Red Mosquito.”
It's one thing to play harmonica for Pearl Jam or the Foo Fighters - they don't have notable harmonica players in those bands. But I've seen you join Ben Harper and legendary blues harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite on stage. I've seen you jam with Willie Nelson's harmonica player, Mickey Raphael. Is that intimidating? Those are guys known just for playing harmonica.
It’s crazy, right? Mickey and I have become friends, so I’m not so paranoid about it, and he’s so humble and so cool, and so is Charlie, even though Charlie Musselwhite is the baddest of badasses. They’re just so gracious. Mickey is such a great guy and so, so supportive of the fact that I love playing harmonica. Charlie Musselwhite, after I met him through Ben, was emailing me chord things to play through, charts. “Learn this chart, learn that. This will help you break through the wall” and all that.
How did you end up playing on the Foo Fighters' "Another Round" [from 2005's In Your Honor]?
I was there, and I was photographing, and Dave said, “Did you bring your harps?” It was kind of like being at a gig. I was like, “Yeah, I’ve got some in the car,” and he was like, “I’ve got this tune I want you to blow over.” He hadn’t even written the words to it yet. I went in, and I played on it, and it ended up on the record.
I got my start playing with Blind Melon. In fact, the first show I ever played was... I told Shannon [Hoon] I played harmonica, and he said, “Oh, you should come up and play with us.” I was like, “No, dude, I played once [in public], like at a barbecue," and he’s like, “Oh, yeah, Danny, man, it’s all just one big barbecue. You gotta come up and play with us.” I was like, “Uh, OK," and it was Blind Melon at the Garden State Arts Center. They were the opening band on the bill with Neil Young and Soundgarden.
I think the first record I played on might have been Blind Melon's Nico, which was released after Shannon had passed away. [Clinch played on "Hell," and on a cover of John Lennon's "John Sinclair."]
There's a great photo of Shannon Hoon in your book Still Moving. He's looking right at the camera and holding a fax that had the news that Kurt Cobain had just died.
I was with Shannon and, I think, [guitarist] Christopher Thorn, and we were walking to [Late Show With] David Letterman, which Blind Melon was gonna play, and we were walking through Times Square, and two young girls walked up to Shannon and said, “Oh, Shannon, give us a hug. It’s a sad day for music.” He goes, “It is? Why?” And they said, “Oh, you didn’t hear? Kurt Cobain killed himself.” Shannon was so bummed. We were all bummed, but Shannon was particularly bummed, and when we got to Letterman, they had that fax there, and I took that photo, and then he drew the question mark on his forehead.
What's the status of the Blind Melon documentary that you've been working on?
It’s more in-progress than it’s ever been. All the footage we’re using is his own footage with his own camera, and so it’s difficult because he’s showing us, warts and all, his life. His daughter Nico, who’s a friend of mine, and his girlfriend, Nico’s mother Lisa, they gave me the footage. Lisa came across some voicemails and some letters and stuff that he had written her, saying that if anything happened to him, to give the footage to me.
So, this isn't the type of documentary where you interview bandmates and family?
It’s all Shannon’s footage. I had started a completely different documentary in which we interviewed everybody and did all this different stuff, but it’s turned into something completely, completely different.
How far along are you?
I would say we’re at a rough cut stage. So we’re figuring out our final financing and trying to get it into some film festivals. So people are gonna be able to see it in the not-too-distant future.
Is Axl Rose in it at all?
There's a little bit of Axl.
In Still Moving, you have some photos from Metallica's "St. Anger" music video. That must have been intense.
I was one of the camera operators on the "St. Anger" shoot with the Malloy Brothers, and I’m friends with Metallica and friends with the Malloy Brothers, and yeah, they asked me to come along. It was pretty gnarly, I gotta say. One of the things that I recall was the fact that they asked us all, including the band, to sign a document that said if we were taken hostage, that they would not negotiate. They weren’t gonna guarantee that they would negotiate for our release.
That felt very much like a James Hetfield concept; performing in a jail for inmates and giving them a bit of their humanity back, like Johnny Cash at San Quentin and Folsom Prison.
He had been sober for a bit at that point, right? I got the feeling that it was also him wanting to share that with people and make a point for himself that people can change, and that kind of thing.
What else do you have coming up?
We’ve been talking about getting in the studio with Tangiers [Blues Band, Clinch's band]. I also just finished a film called A Tuba to Cuba, which is a trip I took with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band to Havana. It’s a really cool film my friend TG Harrington and I made about the trip there. It’s gonna be screening at the New Orleans Jazz Festival in late October. We’re working on getting some distribution for that, which is cool.
The Sea.Hear.Now Festival takes place this weekend, Sept. 29 and 30, in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Get information and buy tickets here.
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