Song Writing

Danny Clinch: The Art of Rock Photography

by Greg Prato

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Ever since late 1992, Blind Melon has been one of my favorite rock n' roll bands. And seemingly from the get-go, I would often see the name "Danny Clinch" linked to the band's photographs. Blind Melon was one of the first rock bands that Clinch worked closely with, and by the end of the decade, he would become one of the most in-demand photographers of not just rock acts, but of artists spanning many other styles.

You could say I took my admiration of Shannon Hoon and Blind Melon to the next level in 2008, when I penned my first-ever book, A Devil on One Shoulder and an Angel on the Other: The Story of Shannon Hoon and Blind Melon. That was the first time I crossed paths with Mr. Clinch, who was an incredible help with photographs for the book (including the book's unforgettable cover image) - in addition to being interviewed for the book himself.

While interviewing Blind Melon guitarist Christopher Thorn for Rolling Stone in 2010, we discussed a proposed documentary comprised of footage that Shannon had shot with a Hi-8 video camera from early in the band's career, all the way up to his untimely death from a drug overdose in 1995 at the age of 28. Yours truly and the band's fan base then waited... and waited... and waited.

Now, it appears as though the film will finally see the light of day later in 2015 or 2016, as Mr. Clinch himself is fully involved in the project - along with co-directors Colleen Hennessy and Taryn Gould (as part of the newly formed "Ladies and Gentleman" collective - a phrase in which the late Blind Melon singer is heard saying throughout the footage he shot), and with Hoon also listed as a co-director (view a sneak peak here). Clinch spoke with Songfacts about the project, as well as what makes a great picture, and memories of photographing some of modern-day music's biggest names.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): How did the idea come up to do the documentary of Shannon's home movies?

Danny Clinch: I was friends with the band, and I still am with everybody. I kind of cut my teeth on Blind Melon, back in the day - got to know the band back when I was just starting out and they were just starting out. I hung out with them and got to go on tour. Went to Europe a couple of times with them and toured throughout the United States. I went to The Jon Stewart Show, I went to Woodstock with them.

I credit Shannon and the band with re-exciting me about playing the harmonica. At one point, they were opening for Soundgarden and Neil Young here in Jersey, at what was the Garden State Arts Center. I mentioned to the band - Shannon, in particular - that I played harmonica, and he insisted that I go up and play. He was like, "You're going to have to go up and play with us." And I was like, "No man, I played once at a barbeque. I'm not going to go up on the stage and play with you guys." "Man, it's all one big barbeque, Danny. You've got to come out and play with us!" I thought that he would eventually forget before they went on, but he did not. So that's just a little bit of insight into how close I became with the band [Danny would also play harmonica with the band during a performance of "Change" at Woodstock '94 - see the video below].

Shannon was an immediately likable guy - most of the time. But he was kind of hard to get to know. He didn't really let people in so quickly. It took a while and a lot of engagement to gain his trust. So I did photos for the Soup record, and for Nico, as well.

But what happened was along the way, you have this guy, Shannon, who is videotaping everything - to the extent where you were either really annoyed or you forgot that he had the camera. It just disappeared. Which is the sign of a good filmmaker: when they get to the point where you don't even care that the camera is there anymore. So he was filming everything - from rehearsals to being inside his hotel room, cutting his hair, to talking on the phone with Lisa his girlfriend, to people sleeping on the tour bus, to going on the stage at Woodstock, in the recording studio, at the Sleepyhouse [In Durham, North Carolina, where Blind Melon wrote/rehearsed a few tunes for their first album]. He just always had the camera, all the time. And of course, this was pre-iPhone, where everybody could film everything very easily, without much thought. So he really cared about it. He really did put some thought into it - he was always charging his batteries, he was always filming everything. He filmed a lot of current events, as well, on the television, and what was going on around him. He was very detail-oriented when it came to that stuff.

It kind of kickstarted around when Travis [Warren, Blind Melon's current singer] joined the band, and the band started to make some new music, and decided to go back out on tour. I thought, "Maybe this is the opportunity to start to think about a documentary with the band." Meanwhile, I knew all the Shannon footage existed, and we decided we would ask Lisa and Nico [Shannon's daughter] if we could use this footage that Shannon had shot. She agreed, and we started to look through the footage. And really, it was Brad Smith [Blind Melon's bassist] who kept saying all along, "This should really be a film about Shannon through Shannon's eyes." And we were like, "Yeah. This is such a big story." At the end of the day, I came to the conclusion that it was a really cool idea. We started to dig through, and really the important thing to us was, Could we sustain the film with just this footage? What we realized was that Shannon was a really dedicated filmer - he filmed a lot, and with purpose. I feel like he felt all along that he was going to make a film with it at some point, so we thought that we would oblige him and help him make the film.

The style of it will be different than most documentaries. I think it's more of a documentary of life through Shannon's eyes than it is your standard documentary of interviews and archival footage and things like that. I think it's going to be a unique film in that regard. Very few people have made a documentary about someone through their footage, that they had shot.

Songfacts: And why is a Kickstarter campaign needed to complete the project?

Danny: There's so many things people don't realize - part of it is legal fees. When we say "legal fees," legal fees for archival footage, fees for master rights from the record label, all that stuff. It seemed like quite a lot of people were confused - and sort of put off, potentially - by the word "legal fees." I personally put over $20,000 of my own money into the film up to this point - paying for a trip to the Vigil [every year around Shannon's birthday, fans meet at his gravesite in Indiana], paying the recording studio back in the day when it was going to be something else, hiring an editor to start to dig through everything. So Kickstarter gives us an influx of funds to continue the editing process, and all the costs associated with that. And to get it to a point where we can start to pay for some of these fees for music costs and things like that. Archival footage that we have to decide can we afford. Like, Shannon would shoot the Rodney King trial on TV - what are the costs associated with that? You can use 30 seconds of that, and it can cost you $8,000. The band on Saturday Night Live - 15 seconds can cost several thousand dollars. And trying to get enough of what we would say is a really solid rough cut that we can present. And then, we would move forward into trying to partner up with someone else to help us finish it. Marketing would come with it, publicity, finishing costs like sound mixing and color correction.

Songfacts: When you take pictures of artists, visually, what makes some photos worthy and others not?

Danny: I think at the end of the day, it's about the moment. The lighting can be crappy and the composition can be off, but at the end of the day, what is the moment that you've captured? When did you decide to click the shutter and when and what image did you choose out of that group of photographs that you took?

Sometimes, it's a very beautifully lit, beautifully composed, captured moment, or a portrait of someone, looking at the camera. It can have a lot of different entities. But for me, when you feel an emotion from the moment that was captured, that's the defining moment.

Songfacts: What would you say is the artistry in rock photography?

Danny: Capturing the moment! [Laughs] I think that there is the artistry side of it, when it comes to the artfulness of capturing the moment, when you decide to take the photograph.

A big part of doing what I do is getting the access. Gaining the trust of people. Being able to be in the right situation to get that moment. You have to have a great relationship with the band themselves, the publicist, or the manager - it's all about having the trust and being able to get yourself in that position to get that photograph.

Take Bonnaroo for example. I've been doing that backdrop thing forever, right? At Bonnaroo, I do a backdrop thing - I do a portrait section, and people come by because I'm there, especially if some of the bigger acts come over like My Morning Jacket or Kings of Leon or Jack Johnson or Neil Young or Radiohead. They come over, and they come into my spot to do a photograph because it's my spot. Some people don't understand when I'm doing this portrait of them in my spot that I set up and spent 20 years of relationship building to get them to walk over there and 20 years of working out the natural light in this space and crafting it to a certain way so it looks beautiful. When someone feels like they can come in and shoot over my shoulder, that's where I have to draw the line and say, "Hey, listen." I'm all for it if they walk away from there and they're walking to their next interview or whatever, fine. But I've spent 20 years to get Jack Johnson to walk over here, y'know?

Songfacts: You mentioned Neil Young. How is it working with Neil Young when it comes to pictures?

Danny: I'm such a huge Neil Young fan. Actually, the last thing that Shannon ever said to me - this was at Tradewinds in New Jersey, and I played harmonica with them that night. I was on the tour bus with Shannon, and he said, "Danny, Uncle Neil just invited us to do the Bridge School. So man, you better grab your harmonica, because we're going to Uncle Neil's house!" That was the last thing he said to me. So, Neil Young has always meant a huge amount to me. Neil's one of my heroes, and I love his music. I love being able to work with him. People like that, who have been photographed so many times, their patience is a little thinner because they've done it so many times. You need to be on your game, and you need to work quickly.

I'm a big fan of the document, so I love to be invited somewhere where things are going on and I can document it. Like, I was in Nashville at the Ryman when they shot Heart of Gold [a 2006 documentary and concert film by Jonathan Demme]. And it was cool to wander around and shoot the rehearsals and people hanging out in the hallways and all that sort of stuff. And then shortly thereafter, I did a session with Neil where we drove around in an old Cadillac - a '48 Cadillac that I had rented down in Nashville - and did some photos there.

Also, I shot the photograph that's on his most recent book, the one that's about the cars [Special Deluxe: A Memoir of Life & Cars]. I was up at his ranch, and he's got a bunch of old cars there. He's got this little area that's got car parts. It's almost like a little vintage car graveyard for some of the cars that he owns so he can have parts and stuff.

It's been great to photograph him. I've photographed him with a setlist on the back of a paper plate at Bonnaroo. I photographed him in his car graveyard, on the back of a '59 Cadillac. I photographed him at the Ryman, holding Hank Williams' old guitar, which Neil now owns... or rather, claims to not own, but he's just "taking care of it" right now until it gets passed on. I'm a big fan of his, so every time I get the opportunity, it's like I won the lottery.

Songfacts: And there's a great photo you took of Tom Waits, where he's at a carousel.

Danny: Tom is a great collaborator. I think he secretly enjoys the process, and he'll bring all these great little props and he'll have thought about it ahead of time. When you get there, he has ideas that you can add to the list of ideas that I come to the table with.

It's really fun to photograph someone who is a collaborator. He and I were going to do a shoot in San Francisco, and I got a call from his publicist saying that Tom was hoping to change the plan, and was wondering if I was interested in going to the County Fair in Santa Rosa, because he was going to go there with his nephew and his son. I was like, "Man, that sounds like a great idea!"

So we showed up to the County Fair, and Tom met us in the parking lot. He proceeded to pull out all these great little props that he had: a big huge magnifying glass, a couple of cool hats, this little orange fake water pistol. So we decided to bring it in, and the funny part of the story is that he wanted to tuck the gun in his waistband so that he wasn't carrying a concealed weapon - he wanted everybody to see it. And when we went up to the ticket taker, she said, "Sir, you can't come in here with that gun." He's like, "It's just a water pistol," and she was like, "Nah, I'm sorry." So we went around the corner, he stuck it in the inside pocket of his jean jacket, and he got real nervous when we snuck through the ticket taker, and couldn't find his ticket at first. He's such a humble guy and a sweetheart, yet he's this super-creative character. We ended up going in, and he kept that gun hidden the whole time, until when he jumped on the carousel. When it came around to prepare for the photo, he pulled it out and started firing it into the air.

Songfacts: There are also some great photos you've taken of Eddie Vedder over the years.

Danny: He is a really modest guy and a humble guy. He's not into the whole big "photo shoot" thing. I think that's why we work together: I can really strip it down to almost like a hang session. We're hanging. Yeah, we're shooting pictures, but let's go on a great adventure, do something interesting, have some fun.

As you may guess, Ed is a very creative guy. He's got great ideas, too. His ideas may not be as outrageous and strange as like, a Tom Waits, but he's always thinking about what's going to help this thing and create some more meaning. It was his idea to take the paddleboards out and paddle out into this little old river we were at. We were shooting that for his ukulele record [Ukulele Songs], and again, I brought my ideas and he brought his, and it became a collaboration. It became a good hang.

We did go out into that body of water and we did some filming and some photographing. He brought along his little recorder because he wanted to record some songs out there. So I just said, Go for it - I'll just photograph it and film it, and include it into the body of this photo essay that we're doing.

The cover of my book, called Still Moving, is a photo from that session: the cover of his ukulele record. My friend, Gary Ashley - who's my assistant for over 15 years - we had a conversation of, What was one of the best photo shoots in this book? And we had to agree that going to Oahu to hang with Eddie Vedder for three or four days was one of the best shoots ever. It involved going surfing, going paddleboarding, driving around Oahu with Ed in his Jeep to location scout, sitting around at night after the shoots, having a beer with Ed and Sean Penn. It's like living the dream.

Songfacts: Although you're primarily known for photographing rock artists, you've also photographed a lot of hip-hop acts over the years, as well.

Danny: I started photographing in like, 1990. Started getting some assignments. I got an opportunity to photograph 3rd Bass for Spin magazine. So I did, and I got along really well with MC Serch, and I took my photographs to Def Jam - they were on Def Jam Records. And I said to the guys at Def Jam, "Can I come in and show you my work?" And they said, "No, just drop your portfolio off and we'll look at it, and you can come back the next day to pick it up." And I said, "I just photographed 3rd Bass, and I have photographs of the band that I own." So they said, "Alright. Come in." I go in, I meet with these guys, I show them my photos, and I realize that they're both my age - Steve Carr and Cey Adams - and we all loved music. They were not getting the big-name photographers to photograph their hip-hop acts because everybody thought it was a fad, really, and there wasn't big budgets for hip-hop acts at Def Jam at the time. So they connected with me, and were like, "Hey, we like this guy. We like these photos." And they started to hire me. So I started shooting hip-hop records. I think my first record that I shot was Lord Finesse, Return of the Funky Man, for Atlantic Records, which was shot through the guys at Def Jam, only it was a freelance gig for them.

Then MC Serch had said to me, "Hey, I've got this artist that I'm getting signed to Sony Records, and you've got to do the album cover. His name is Nasty Nas." I ended up doing the Illmatic record packaging. I did It Was Written, also the packaging for that, and I've worked with Nas a bunch since. I did Street's Disciple and a couple of other things with him. Then I also did Pete Rock and CL Smooth. I did Serch's solo record, I did Dare Iz a Darkside for Redman, I did Return to the 36 Chambers with Ol' Dirty Bastard, I also did Kanye West's The College Dropout - his first record. I did a bunch of shoots with LL Cool J, and Public Enemy's "By the Time I Get to Arizona," which was a single.

I started to shoot all this hip-hop stuff. That was really super cool, because the other bands that I was into - like Jane's Addiction, the Chili Peppers, and Smashing Pumpkins - those bands all loved hip-hop and appreciated that music. So when I came around and started to show my portfolio, and that I had photographed Public Enemy, Run-D.M.C. and Nas, they had a respect for that. That ended up working in my favor, and opened up some doors for me.

April 21, 2015.
For more Danny, visit dannyclinch.com.

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Comments: 2

  • Kelly Lynne Dougherty from Mesa,, ArizonaThank you! Thank you! Thank you! It is about time Shannon Hoon and Blind Melon get the credit they deserve. I had the chance to meet and talk to Shannon a few times. We talked about everything. He was a gentleman and really down to earth. I will never forget spending time with him, it was a dream come true. I remember that video camera he carried around with him everywhere. Thank you for honoring Shannon Hoon and Blind Melon. Good luck. I am sure it will be bittersweet to watch. I can't wait to see it! Agailn, thank you! Their music has saved my soul many times! Love and Blessings, Kelly D.
  • Brad Jeralds from IndianaGod Bless Danny Clinch
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