In 2015, the D.C. artist and musician Chad Clark released his band Beauty Pill's new album, Describes Things As They Are, a full 11 years after the group's previous release.
In that time, Clark was writing for NPR, composing musical scores for theater projects and art museum exhibitions, and recovering from surgery to fix a heart condition that nearly took his life. It was that event in particular that infuses Clark's sprawling and gorgeously complex album (the first five lyrics to which are "I want more life, fucker"), an album that's gathered significant and, to Clark, unexpected praise from beyond the circles of indie-rock.
Clark and company tour through Portland in support of the incomparable Arto Lindsay, the guitarist and composer who grew up in Brazil's tropicalia movement before joining the New York no-wave scene in the '70s and '80s, most notably playing in the band DNA. Our conversation picks up as Clark explains the uniqueness of the Portland show, the only one on their East Coast tour where Lindsay plays without a band.
Chad Clark: ...it's kind of amazing. When Arto plays solo, he plays his like, noise guitar, which is this almost atonal guitar, and he sings beautifully over it. He sings melodically and beautifully and seductively over this skronky, fucked-up noise guitar. I think it’s a really cool show, and some poeple love it and some people hate it. And I’m looking forward to even being near him, because I think he’s amazing, and totally inspiring.
Nick Schroeder: What kind of relationship did you have with Arto before this tour?
I’ve still never met him, actually. I had a Skype interview with him about a week ago for a piece for NPR, and he was really cool. He was in his kitchen and I was in my living room, and we did a video Skype. It was the first time I ever really talked to him in person, we’ve emailed back and forth. It’s the first time I had a -- I want to say face-to-face, although it’s technology. And I was a little nervous, because, you know, he could be a dick. There are a lot of really amazing people who aren’t very nice. Miles Davis and Picasso weren’t very nice. So I was prepared that he might have a different personality, but he was funny and charming and warm and I immediately felt like I was going to enjoy spending time with him.
Without getting you to call out anybody, have you met anyone you've looked up to who’s turned out to be a dick?
You know what, I’ve met a few of my heroes, and so far, they’ve been cool. I can’t say that I’ve had that really disappointing, sour experience where you meet someone you admire and learn that they’re a jerk. I’ve collaborated on a technical level in the studio with Marc Ribot and Bob Mould, and these are people that I’ve respected from afar, and they were pretty cool people. And I recently met Kristen Hersh [of Throwing Muses], who I’ve been a fan of for a long time, and she was also super cool. I haven’t had the nightmare experience of meeting the brilliant person who’s a jerk. And Arto seems to bear that out.
What is your life like doing Beauty Pill now compared to what it was when you started the band 15 years ago?
Well, Beauty Pill was kind of an imaginary band back then. We hadn’t really played shows; we were making songs and recording them when we started, and a lot of what we did was making up theories about the kind of music we wanted to make. Beauty Pill today is a pretty different thing. I would say the biggest change for Beauty Pill is that a couple years ago, when we put out this current record, the way that people talked to and about the band shifted. People started to talk a lot more about the music. When we were on [D.C. punk label] Dischord (Records), I think there were a lot of cultural issues around Dischord and the fact that we were making music that seemed pretty apart from what Dischord was known for. If you look at the reviews of this last record, they’re all about the songs and the sound and the actual content of the music, and that was really exciting and refreshing. It was our first record outside of Dischord, and it’s been encouraging.
I feel like people are more willing to embrace music that is hard to place in a genre. In the past, people were like, "I don’t know what to call this music," and that was a pejorative thing. Maybe it’s because of the internet and the way people relate to consuming music, but I don’t think that people are so intent on categorization, and that’s pretty cool. The record we put out got a lot of media response. And you know, I’m an artist; I’m just trying to move forward what I’m doing. I don’t integrate criticism, positive or negative, into what I’m doing. But it is encouraging just to feel like this is registering and people are responding. That was a very positive thing.
A lot of the narrative around that, at least from what I’ve read, seems linked to what the journey was for you, personally, in releasing that record. Do you find that now that you’re on the other side of it, both the album and the scare, do you wish that the album were taken on its own merit? Are you comfortable with it being bound up with that time of your life?
I still feel like people respond to it at a musical level. There’s a few different takes on the band and our situation and that album. One is Whoa, this dude almost died! Another one is the fact that we recorded it in public as part of a museum exhibit. And (the third) is that, technically speaking, there are no white people in my band. [So there is a] race and political comment people are hearing in the music and the lyrics and in seeing the diversity of the band in general, especially what’s happening now, politically.
I mean, I understand that it’s 2017 and people like stories. I get that, and I’m happy with however people discover it. But here’s the thing: I really thought that [Describes Things As They Are] was going to be an obscure record. It’s packed with sound. The entire record is saturated with sound, and some of it’s pretty challenging. I really thought it was an esoteric record that may find a small audience. I certainly didn’t think it was a big hit type of thing, so I’ve been really encouraged by people not being turned off by the complexity or the density of the music.
For me as an artist, it’s been encouraging to learn that you can try shit and people can feel that it’s authentic and that it comes from a genuine place. That’s the most encouraging thing for me. I don’t know that I ever expect to repeat that feeling of being in synch with the culture. You know, D’Angelo put out Black Messiah, and there’s Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. Basically, people started to embrace ambitious, sprawling, challenging music at a commercial or more popular level. And I feel like we benefited from that. I feel like D’Angelo made my life easier.
When did Beauty Pill stop feeling to you like a D.C. band in the Dischord sense? I’m sure there was some of that genre confusion back in the Smart Went Crazy days, too.
Really going back to the Cigarette Girl record, we were interested in making widescreen, kaleidoscopic, textured music that had detail. Coming from the D.C. punk scene, which values confrontation and clamor and aggression, we wanted to make more detailed and more feminine music. And we were interested in using technology, too, which has increased over time. I think sometimes the outside world sees the D.C. punk scene as more monochromatic than the people within see it.
But it’s not something I’m doing on purpose. I’m just following artistic impulses and seeing where they go. I don’t have an agenda, like, how do I be different? Also, certainly, playing with Arto and my attraction to working with him and being near him, is that he is his own genre. There is no Beatles to his Stones or Stones to his Beatles. He has no peers; there are no others in his terrain. He’s just out there in the wilderness on his own. I wanna be clear, I’m not comparing myself to him. That guy’s a genius. But I certainly look up to him as someone who has an aesthetic that is internally generated and doesn’t necessarily relate to any other kind of scene. My dad says to approach every situation like a student, and I think that’s really good advice in general, but I’m certainly taking that approach to touring with Arto. I’m going in very humbly and I hope to learn, because I think he’s a master. And I hope to kind of osmotically absorb whatever the fuck he’s about.
Several years ago you were commissioned to score some music for live theater projects. Has that been a comfortable fit for you? Do you have a history with theater personally?
I want to do more of it. I found it incredibly cool and exciting and I definitely want to do more with it. There’s a couple of theater groups that I want to collaborate with here. One of them is Taffety Punk [with whom Beauty Pill composed music for the play suicide.chat.room in 2010] and the other, which I haven’t worked with yet, is Woolly Mammoth. It’s really interesting from a rock ‘n’ roll point of view. Working in theater, they have these production meetings which are incredibly disciplined and precise. They take notes and they send you the notes the day after, and it’s really focused and organized, and very adult. And despite comparison to rock ‘n’ roll where people show up and jam and it’s very improvisational and formless in a way, theater is the opposite. It’s very structured in a really cool way. It’s all about creativity, but it’s done in a much more structured and formal way, and that was exciting to be part of because I had to step up and be part of that world. I would love to do more film scoring and theater scoring. It suits my sensibilities musically and so it feels kind of natural to me, and I definitely want to do more of it.
What have you been reading since the election?
I went back to reading Don DeLillo’s Underworld, which I hadn’t really ever finished.
That’s the baseball one, right?
Yeah. It’s amazing. In a way, his writing is a sort of constant demonstration of his writing acumen. He’s kind of always showing off what he can do with words, how he can mess with your mind. He’s incredibly skilled. So it’s very dense in that way. But I really think that it’s just the way his brain works.
Well, I’m glad you guys are coming back to Maine. I’m looking forward to it.
Yeah, it’s going to be an interesting show. Are you a musician yourself?
I was a musician when I was younger, but I actually am a theater worker. I’m an actor and director in town, so a lot of what you said is pretty resonant. I appreciate how structured things need to be in order for actors and improvisors and participants to feel free to play. There really needs to be a situation where all of those muscles are flexing at once.
Yeah, it’s amazing. A couple weeks ago, I officially hit on Woolly Mammoth. I was like, Hey, my band’s pretty popular, pretty good. I do these theater scores. If you wanna collaborate, let us know. I’m not used to pitching things to people, but I definitely want to do more of that. It’s a pretty amazing world.
I haven’t lived in New York in ten years, but it seems like rock venues or punk venues or whatever, they’re harder to come by. And it’s harder to evolve if you’re a used-to-be-punk musician or experimental artist in any form. It’s just hard to see a path for growth that isn’t like, well, okay, I’ve wrapped that up, so now I’m going to go work in advertising or something.
It’s hard to find a way to keep pushing through that. And I think theater is it. Although it does take a little bit of rebranding sometimes. The word “theater” can be a little vulgar in people’s minds, but I’ve seen a lot of my friends and other people I’ve looked up to find a place for themselves in that world, creatively, as they age in their forties and fifties.
That’s another thing about Arto. He’s 64 years old. He’s up there on a stage playing noise guitar and singing over it and he’s 64. That, to me, opens this door. I mean, I wanna be a lifer. I don’t want to ever stop. And anybody who is down the path and has a flashlight, I’m fucking following that person. We’re playing shows at museums in the fall, and in terms of being an adult in my forties, which I am, I’m excited about that as a way of going forward, beyond indie-rock.
And I think that that’s a lot harder for people than it was, say, 20 years ago.
Yeah. It’s hard to get people to buy your recordings, to pay money for the music that you make. For example, I like Spoon. I was going to buy their new album, and then someone was like, well, you can just stream it. And I was like, yeah, I can just stream it, that’s true. And I don’t have a lot of money so it’s appealing to me to be like, well, I can stream it and see how I feel about it. And I’m a musician. This is what I do for a living! And that was my take on it: It’s convenient and it’s free. The sound isn’t that great, but it’ll do until I can get the record.
Everyone is facing that. Our band, we made the double-vinyl of the record, and we’re really proud of it. There’s a lot of photos in there and the graphic layout we took great care to put together. And it sells for $28. And that’s a serious amount of money for someone to dole out, and I get that. It’s weird time to be a creative person in general, and a musician in specific. That’s one [good] thing with theater: you can’t just download it.
Arto Lindsay + Beauty Pill + Greg Jamie | $18 | 8 pm | One Longfellow Square, 181 State St., Portland | www.onelongfellowsquare.com |
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