Joe “Bearclaw” Burcaw

Ex-Black 47 bassist talks of his current project with Living Colour’s Corey Glover

Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
January 4, 2021

Yes, he’s known by the nickname “Bearclaw.”  But that memorable moniker is far from the only intriguing thing about Joseph Burcaw. Over the last few decades, the Connecticut-based bass player has led a fascinating career as a musician, bandleader and educator. During his early years as a professional musician, Burcaw’s band, Azurtech, was taken under the wing of Duran Duran’s John Taylor, who opened up opportunities for them in both the United States and Europe. Later on, he joined up with the NYC-based Celtic rock group Black 47, with whom he played for nearly a decade.  Burcaw also spent several years heading up the bass department at Boston’s School of Rock. Beyond that, he’s been a member of Mascot’s Distance, Erene Mastrangeli, Angry Salad, and Emiko, and has collaborated with the likes of Nick Beggs, Mark Egan, and Ron McClure. Right now, Burcaw plays in the band Soul Saver with Living Colour’s Corey Glover and guitarist Jaeme Brennan McDonald. 

FBPO: Tell me about Soul Saver.

Burcaw: It’s the culmination of myself, Corey Glover of Living Colour, and Jaeme Brennan McDonald. He’s actually the son of Skip McDonald from the Sugarhill Gang. I’ve known Corey for about a year-and-a-half, and I’ve known Jaeme for about two years, and this all came to fruition through Doug Wimbish. Doug Wimbish is a friend of mine, and he lives up the street from me. He and I had been doing some work together musically, and he said, “Joe, you need to meet my godson.” Jaeme is Doug’s godson. So he introduced us, and then he said, “You need to meet Corey.”

FBPO: So it all started with Doug?

Burcaw: He’s the bridge that’s connecting everybody. I met the guys and we just had a really nice rapport, and I said to Jaeme and Corey, “You guys interested in maybe throwing some ideas together, just on our own and see if anything gels?” And both guys agreed. And last year (2019), I would say it was probably last September, we started throwing some ideas together, and then Corey had to go on the road. It wasn’t until May of this year (2020), we were able to connect again, because of the lockdown of the pandemic. Everybody’s stuck at home, so we figured let’s do some work virtually, and that was pretty much it.

FBPO: Would you say Soul Saver is an offshoot of Living Colour?

Burcaw: It’s a project. There’s only one band, and that’s Living Colour, but this is definitely a project that will continue. The three of us are 100% into doing this beyond just having a single. Right now, we’re in the process of writing more music, and hopefully releasing an EP sometime (in 2021). We’re hoping late spring. So, that’s the game plan right now for us.

FBPO: I’m not very familiar with Jaeme, but he’s quite a talent.

Burcaw: He’s been around for quite some time. He toured with a band called Little Acts, which is his father’s band, so, he’s done a lot. He’s a multi-instrumentalist. He plays every instrument, plays it well. He’s like Prince, I’m jealous. He’s a Hartford guy. Hartford, Connecticut, and he’s like the mayor, knows everybody. He’s done everything. He’s an engineer, he’s a singer. You name it, he does it.

FBPO: Working with Corey must be pretty special too.

Burcaw: Oh my goodness. Well, let’s just rewind. Living Colour is one of my favorite bands. And I remember distinctly, I was probably a sophomore in high school when “Cult of Personality” hit MTV, and I was floored, absolutely floored. Seeing these guys from New York who were a black band. You don’t see very many black bands that played hard rock, like the way they did. I mean, you had Fishbone and you had Bad Brains, but that was kind of funk and punk. This was more of a cross between calypso, funk, hard rock, and R&B. Corey’s voice just grabbed me from the first note. God, I couldn’t get over it. He has the voice that I always strive to get in all of the bands that I had from high school on. It’s weird. It’s like foreshadowing. It’s almost as though I created this, then it happened on a weird cerebral level. But I always wanted to work with somebody like him. And now that I have him, my gosh, I’ve got to pinch myself.

FBPO: That was back in the Muzz Skillings days of Living Colour.

Burcaw: Yeah. And I got to say he was a huge influence on me. So was Doug, but Doug came on board when Stain was released. And the initial impact was the four of them: Vernon (Reid), Corey, Will (Calhoun) and Muzz Skillings. Just, I can’t get over it. They’re this powerhouse of a band. Every member of that band is so astute, and so well-versed on their instrument. And yeah, they sold me. They really did. 

FBPO: What inspired you to write “House Arrest” and call attention to domestic violence?

Burcaw: I’m an avid reader of the New York Times. And I’ve been doing a lot of reading on my downtime because we’ve been stuck indoors. I was reading an article on the uptick of abuse, especially domestic and sexual abuse under the pandemic, and it really touched me. I was really affected by that, and didn’t really think about the circumstances that a lot of men, women and children are in right now with spouses or partners or living mates who abuse them. And it’s gone up, unfortunately, because of this pandemic. And I thought to myself, “All right, let’s write about this. This is something that needs to be brought forward. And I think the best way to do that is through song and through lyrics.” And I threw the idea to the guys. They were totally on board and we started writing in May and we finished the track in September, mastered it in September and it was released [Dec. 8] I believe. So it just proves too that—another thing that I never really thought about was recording virtually. I never, in a million years would have thought that I would be doing this and writing and throwing ideas together remotely. But that seems to be the wave of the future. So we’re pretty proud.

FBPO: It’s the wave of the present.

Burcaw: You’re right. That’s true. It is the wave of the present. The new norm, as they say.

FBPO: Talk to me about the music itself. How would you describe the track?

Burcaw: That’s a good question, Jon. Obviously it’s got an R&B feel to it. It’s got R&B flavorings, but it’s a little beyond that because, with Corey’s voice, he comes from the church and there’s so much soul. I mean, that’s why I named it “Soul Saver,” because I wanted us to be able to use soul music and have it save people’s souls in the process, like giving back and being able to heal. And I feel that his voice is perfect for this project. We were talking on the phone and I said, “I want us to be able to write music where you don’t have to be overshadowed by bombastic drums, loud amps on Vernon’s side, crazy effects on Doug’s side. I want your voice to be the focal point of this band.” And that’s really—I feel like we were able to capture that with, with “House Arrest.” And I think going forward, that’s going to be the goal, to have Corey be the focal point.

FBPO: Tell me about your association with RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.

Burcaw: I reached out. I just thought to myself, I remember Tori Amos back in the late nineties was doing a lot of PSAs on VH1. And I remember seeing one for RAINN, because I think she was the person that spearheaded this organization. And I thought to myself, all right, why don’t I just try reaching out to them and see if they’d be interested in doing something with us. So I pitched it to them and they were very excited. As a result, we’re going to donate portions of the digital sales to RAINN itself, just to help give back to the community. And we’re looking to this coming spring to do a fundraiser for them, do a live streaming event. If things don’t pick up, as far as being able to play in a venue, we’re going to do some sort of a fundraiser for RAINN.

FBPO: What can someone do to support the cause?

Burcaw: Well, they can visit us at Bandcamp. That’s where we’re selling it right now. If you go to www.soulsaver1.bandcamp.com and just donate through that, the venue, we will distribute the money to them. That’s the best way to reach us. We’re on social media, and we’ve got the handles for Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. It’s a new job, still in its infancy. As far as getting ourselves out there a hundred percent, where we’re looking, once the EP’s out, to do a really big push late spring of (2021). But we wanted to wet people’s whistles and let them know that we’re doing this and that it means very much to all three of us to support people who are in distress and duress under the pandemic.

FBPO: Anything else you’re working on outside of Soul Saver?

Burcaw: Well, Doug and I are working on some electronic dance music and Corey’s involved with that. He’s singing on a couple of tracks that we wrote. We’re in the process of mixing right now and we’re hoping maybe next fall to have that released. It’s up to Doug. I have to see what he’s thinking right now. He has a million things on his plate.

FBPO: Tell me about your gear.

Burcaw: I have a Sterling by Music Man, Stingray mini bass. It’s the short scale. I am in love with this thing. Absolutely in love. It’s passive and it’s punchy. And if you’re a slapper, it just cuts through beautifully in the mix. It really does. I’m in love with it. Absolutely in love with it!

FBPO: What about amps?

Burcaw: I’ve been using the Aguilar Tone Hammer 500, which is an older model. And I have an old cab, a 410. I got it online on Craigslist. It’s an old version. It’s probably 15 years old. It’s a little heavy, but still I love the sound. 

FBPO: How about strings?

Burcaw: DR strings. I’ve been using those DRs for ever, probably 20 years, .045 to .105.

FBPO: Effects?

Burcaw: Well, because I get to hang out with Doug Wimbish, he has influenced me big time with effects. I just purchased the old Line 6 Looper that DL4 Delay Modeler. I’ve been using that quite a bit. That’s my go-to for doing looping. The DigiTech Whammy, that’s Doug’s thing. He turned me on to that, so I’ve been using that quite a bit at home. The Ravish Sitar Pedal from the Electro-Harmonix, love that. I love playing drones and a lot of Indian music. So I’ll use that with my six-string bass. The Q-Tron Mini by Electro-Harmonix, that’s really good for the slab underwater kind of Bootsy Collins thing. The Aguilar Tone Hammer Preamp and DI box, which is old school. I’ve had that for probably 15 years. I used that for the recording of “House Arrest.”

FBPO: What advice do you have for someone who wants to learn to play bass? 

Burcaw: I think it’s very vital for a bass player to become friendly with a drummer and to make that drummer your best friend. And get into the garage, no matter what age you are, get into the garage with some friends and jam and be able to feel off of each other. I know a lot of people say, “Become friends with bass players, because they can help you.” No. I think you should be friends with drummers because, let’s face it, we are the anchor behind the band. And I found when I was first starting out, especially when I moved to New York City, when I was trying to get my break before I got into Black 47, I became friends with a lot of great drummers who would recommend me for different gigs. And as a result, I was playing out all the time. You have to get out of the bedroom, you have to jump in and see what happens. 

FBPO: What about the future?

Burcaw: Well, my wife, she’s classically trained and she’s big time into children’s music. We just had a baby, and we were working up in Boston at a studio called Q Division, recording some children’s music for her. That’s something on the horizon that we’d really like to get reacquainted with, once we’re able to get back into the studio and grandma and grandpa can watch the baby. But it’s for kids. The lyrics are very well thought out and catered to little kids.

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

Burcaw: Writer. I have a passion for writing and I write on the side. I do interviews like you’re doing with me with musicians. And I do reviews of CDs. I wouldn’t mind writing a book doing an auto bio at some point. I’m not ready yet. I think I still have a little more that I want to achieve before I’m ready to even put pen to paper, but that would be a goal for sure to do a book. So we’ll see, we’ll see what happens.

See Jon’s blog, with key takeaways from this interview here.

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