Gar Clemens sees in Greensboro a place where different musical styles can collide.
The singer grew up near Chicago, a “little cigarette-smoking drunk kid,” as he put it, going to punk and grunge shows, and later playing in the scene himself.
“Just by the nature of the size of Chicago, that makes Chicago more daunting, a little bit more tough,” he said. “Greensboro, it’s a little more inclusive. The punk kids, the metal kids, they all know the songwriter people and the jazz people. Because you can’t be in Greensboro and play guitar and not know all those people ... And there seems to be a wide network within the state of North Carolina, whereas in Chicago, if you’re two towns over, nobody cares.”
Clemens, who moved to the Old North State in 2016, has played with Americana outfit Old Heavy Hands, and has released several albums of his own, including 2018’s “Full Buck Moon.”
In a recent interview, he spoke about playing the Windy City, performing with a 103 degree fever, and what he would have done had he had a chance to encounter John Prine backstage.
How did you get your start in music?
I’m originally from Cook County, Ill., a town called Summit, on the southwest border of Chicago. And I lived in Chicago from when I was about 18 to when I was 30.
My dad was a big music guy, John Prine fan, CCR (Creedence Clearwater Revival) fan, Hendrix, Joni Mithchell. And he gave me a guitar, his old guitar. He gave the guitar to my brother and me. My brother became a drummer, but I stuck with the guitar. And we just wanted to play punk music.
I was born in 1985 and got into everything that you did if you were a child of the ‘90s — punk rock, grunge and all the tributaries. A lot of our music tastes were informed by skate videos, VHS tapes we would get. And those were usually rife with punk rock and old hip-hop.
Who are some of your influences?
First song I ever recall hearing was “Bad Moon Rising” by CCR, so that’s somehow an influence.
But, I think if you play rock ‘n’ roll and you don’t think that in one way or another you’re informed by The Beatles, you’re lying to yourself.
When I was 8, Green Day’s “Dookie” came out, I was like, “Wow, I love this record.” And that brought me into punk rock as well, because you’re wondering, “Where does this band come from?” Then, that brings you to Stiff Little Fingers, The Clash, The Replacements.
I also love old country music. I love Hank Williams.
There’s not a lot of current music I get into, but I love Maggie Rogers and Kacey Musgraves. They’re trying to do a new thing with a pop format, which I think is important.
How would you describe your music?
Traditional in a lot of ways. I hate the term Americana, but sometimes it’s pretty informed by that. Singer/songwriter punk rock, also. I’m working on some more spacey stuff right now.
How would you describe your creative process?
Up and down. It’s either on or it’s off. Either stuff falls out of the sky and lands on my face, or I’m kind of just at work, waiting for something to happen I guess. It usually starts with a line or song title that can sit there for weeks or years until I circle back to it. And then it’s usually kind of a thing that I work on in little increments before work.
I’ll chew on an idea all day and come home and play with it a little bit. I don’t have a great attention span. Sitting down, I get lost pretty easily when I stare at something too long. So, I come up with something for 15 minutes, and then I’ve got to walk away from it, stick my nose in a book, or waste my time with the TV, or go for a walk. That’s when I tend to move ahead, is when I back away.
That said, my creative process has been very piano-heavy lately. I started learning piano about 20 years too late. And that’s been helpful. Been a new look at music, melody, harmony.
How did you get involved with Old Heavy Hands?
I’ve known those guys for years. Go way back with them. In Chicago, I knew those guys in high school.
They used to play shows at this place called the Fireside Bowl, it was kind of a punk rock and indie spot, kind of a hot bed for underground music. We all kind of owe a lot to that place. Some of those guys that lived in Chicago then, I’ve known for almost 20 years.
How would you describe the music scene in Chicago when you were coming up?
Twenty years ago, you could go to a show, and everybody would be on the bill. You’d have a deathcore band, a punk band, a Ska band, and then a lesbian noise band. They’d all be on the same bill. You would go to a show, and you’d get there at the beginning, because you wanted to see the whole show, because you might miss somebody great, and then you might not be able to buy their handmade CD and their T-shirt.
That used to be what the Chicago scene was like. Don’t know what it’s like now, though.
Five years ago, I played in a lot of singer/songwriter circles, and this could just be me projecting myself onto that scene, but it was very self-centered.
What I do know about the Chicago scene now is that there is a growing punk scene, which seems great.
If you could open a show for any artist, who would it be and why?
I would say John Prine. I always wanted to play with the guy because we’re more or less from the same area. I’ve had this daydream for years, and I still have it, even though he’s dead, but I’ve always had this funny daydream that I would be backstage in the green room at a John Prine show, and watch the guy do his thing from the stage. And there’d be a bunch of people hanging out thinking they were so cool, and then I would crack a joke to John Prine that you would only get if you were from Chicagoland, and then we would have a moment and he would say, “I know this guy, me and this guy are the same.”
I always thought it might be funny to crack a joke about Joliet, Ill., and John Prine would get it, and no one else in the room would get it.
Do you ever sing karaoke, or sing in the shower, and, if so, what do you sing?
I sang karaoke exactly one time in my life. I was very drunk, and I sang “Roadhouse Blues” by The Doors. And I think I did OK, considering the situation.
I sing in the shower if I have music on, usually female electronic music.
What’s the funniest or weirdest thing that has happened at one of your shows?
I was playing with a band years ago, had a 103 fever, was puking up bile, and really having a bad time the morning of the show. And one of the guys in my band was a paramedic and a firefighter and he went and stole one or two IV bags from his firehouse, and they ran an IV on me in the green room at the show, because I was so dehydrated. I probably shouldn’t have played, but we ultimately had a great show.
What’s next for you?
I’ve kind of been working on a record for almost a year now. I started recording some stuff with some borrowed gear during the pandemic. I’ve been recording some tunes with a Greensboro guy, who’s now a national guy. He’s a great drummer, Jack Foster, and he’s been playing drums on some tracks that I’ve been more or less recording myself. I think it’s just about done, I just need to put the finishing touches on it.
I have a single I guess I’ve finished that I’m trying to put out soon.