Joe Burcaw

 Black 47 bassist tells about “Celtic rock,” working with John Taylor and playing on Jimmy Fallon

Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
June 2, 2014

Joe “Bearclaw” Burcaw has spent much time in both New York and London, having collaborated with bassists Ron McClure, Nick Beggs and Mark Egan. Perhaps best known as bassist for the (highly political) “Celtic rock” band Black 47, Joe has also performed and/or recorded with the Neville Brothers, Black Crowes, Train, the Roots and many others. Joe and Black 47 have been featured on Fox News, PBS and WNYC, as well as in Bass Player magazine, Rolling Stone and the New York Daily News.

FBPO: How would you describe your musical upbringing?

JB: I had to educate myself as a kid, watching hours upon hours of MTV, which was in its infancy when I was growing up. I don’t come from a musical family, but my uncle is a huge music fanatic, who shaped my musical palette. He has a lot of vinyl and we would sit around and listen to mostly jazz and rock & roll records. I have a deep appreciation for Miles Davis now because of him.

FBPO: How did you become a bass player?

JB: I became a bass player strictly by default. When I was in middle school, my garage band had just parted ways with our original bassist, which presented a vacancy for me to fill. I originally started out on electric guitar, but I was a lousy player who never put the serious time necessary into getting better. My heart was always gravitating toward the bass as it was, so the transition was an easy one to make.

FBPO: Who were your influences once you discovered the bass?

JB: My bass influences are John Taylor, Sting, Bernard Edwards, Geddy Lee and Muzz Skillings. My musical influences are, without a doubt, Frank Zappa and Miles Davis, no questions asked.

FBPO: How did your career get rolling? What sort of gigs were you doing at first?

JB: My musical career really didn’t take off until later in my life. I consider my time with Black 47, from 2006 to 2014, as the turning point of when I truly became an accomplished and career-driven musician. Before I became a member of the band, I was plugging away at the New York City “Downtown” Singer/Songwriter scene. I was in five or six bands by the time my opportunity to play with these guys came along, so it was a good experience for me being so busy and active at a crucial time in my musical pursuits.

FBPO: Tell me about your association with Duran Duran’s John Taylor.

JB: My former band, Azurtech, was promoted by JT and his staff at trusttheprocess.com, which is now, unfortunately, defunct. John took us under his wing and helped us sell our CD through his website. He took a small percentage of sales and the rest went to us. It opened up many doors, especially within the Duran Duran fan community. We were able to book some Duran convention events in New York and Boston, which eventually led us to move over to London, playing in the European market, across the pond.

FBPO: How did the Black 47 gig come about?

JB: The B47 gig came about by pure chance. The band was looking for another bassist and posted an anonymous advert on Craig’s List. It was very vague, stating that a professional touring band was in need of a bass player ASAP. I answered the ad and thought nothing of it. A few weeks later, I received an email from “Hammy” (B47 drummer Thomas Hamlin), asking if we could talk on the phone. We chatted on and off for a few days, feeling each other out. He then asked me to mail him my press kit. This was before EPKs were the norm. Hammy got in touch a week of so later and wanted to see me perform live. We made arrangements to meet up at The Cutting Room in Manhattan the following weekend, when, luckily enough, I had a gig. After the show, Ham asked me if I would be interested in coming down for an audition. And the rest is history, as I am still, eight years later, sharing the stage with these fantastic people and musicians!

FBPO: Black 47 is known for having some very passionate political views. Please explain.

JB: The political angle comes mostly from the lyrical content of the B47 catalog. Larry (Kirwan, lead singer) is from Wexford, Ireland, and has witnessed first-hand the oppression the Brits brought forth by occupying Northern Ireland. So a little bit of a bad taste remains, which makes the music that much more intense. We released an album protesting the Iraq war back in 2007-08 and it backfired on us, with fans booing and walking out of the venues on a consistent basis. It really opened our eyes to how close to home and raw the war was for a lot of Americans. Although we will always remain a political band, we’ve lightened up a bit over the years.

FBPO: I saw you on Jimmy Fallon’s show. That must have been quite an experience.

JB: The Tonight Show performance happened so quickly, I barely had time to bat an eye before our three and-a-half minutes of glory were over. Jimmy and his staff were so incredibly gracious and friendly that he literally won us all over as huge fans of the show! He saw the band back when he was on SNL and used to show up, with other cast members, at Connolly’s, where the band had its residency, in Manhattan.

FBPO: Tell me about your equipment.

JB: I have been using MarkBass amps for the past five years now. I love the lightweight and extreme bottom end these little guys pump out sonically. I have tried many other companies in the past, but never experienced the consistency and roundness that MarkBass products provide, not to mention the lack of stress on my back when lifting! I currently use an SD1200 head and the standard 104HF cabinet.

As for basses, I have been using Ernie Ball StingRays for a very long time. I love the thickness of the neck and how resonate and responsive the attack is for slapping. I have a very difficult time using basses with slick narrow necks. They hinder my playing if I happen to use slimmer neck dimensions.

DR strings have been my number one choice for ten years now. I was always one of those creatures of habit who never looked outside of the box when using different types of string companies. It wasn’t until a friend of mine recommended DR that I made the switch and I can honestly say that I will never look back. I use .045-.105 medium gauge lo-rider roundwounds.

FBPO: What else is keeping you busy?

JB: I have my own door-to-door and Skype teaching business called Bearclaw’s Bass Lessons. I also teach at the School of Rock in Boston, which is so fulfilling for me. I love teaching and look forward to expanding my services in the not-so-far-off future.

FBPO: How about the future? What else would you like to do that you haven’t already accomplished?

JB: In all seriousness, I wish to become the next bass player in Dweezil Zappa’s “Zappa Plays Zappa” band when the time is right for me to step into the position. Everything is timing and patience and I posses a lot of both!

FBPO: What would you be if you weren’t a bass player?

JB: If music wasn’t an integral part of my life, I would most certainly be participating in something that utilizes the right hemisphere of the brain, either writing or painting, or maybe even graphic design. It’s hard to say because I could never imagine my life without music. It’s such a huge part of my chemical makeup.

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