July 25, 2005

Interview: Allen Clapp of The Orange Peels

The first time I heard Allen Clapp’s music, it was a wonderful experience. It was a song entitled “Whenever We’re Together,” and it was a lovely slice of pop music that reminded me of the early 1980s. It wasn’t cutesy, gimmicky twee-pop, it was straightforward pop music, not unlike something you’d hear on the radio back then—think Christopher Cross or Hall and Oates. It was really good, and it sent me into an Allen Clapp fixation, which led to discovering his band, The Orange Peels. Listening to Square was like a blast from the past.

Though their previous records placed them next to bands like the Posies and artists like Matthew Sweet, their first new record in four years,
Circling the Sun, propels them beyond such easy comparison, and helps them to define a sound all their own. You can’t deny Clapp’s songwriting skills at all, and this new record shows that the man once referred to as the “lo-fi Lutheran” is an artist whose skills only improve, even though he hasn’t released a new record in years. Here, Clapp discusses the recording of the new record and how he feels about it.

Describe the recording process for Circling the Sun.

What started off as being an interesting home-made album became a huge, multi-studio production. We originally set out to record this album at home, much like we did with So Far. I would usually record the band playing the arrangement live, then go back in and fix parts and overdub extras. That's how we started making Circling the Sun.

Then that line-up of the band fell apart. It was heartbreaking, actually. I thought we had the beginnings of another great home-made album underway, but we had to rethink the album at that point. If we had continued making the record at home, it would have taken too much out of me, and the thought was just depressing after losing half the band.

When our friend Oed Ronne accepted our invitation to join the band on lead guitar, we decided to go all-out and book some time at the Terrarium in Minneapolis and just bang a record out. We spent 10 days there, recording with producer Bryan Hanna, in which we tracked and mixed six songs and got the basics down for another couple. The live room there is just amazing, and we were getting the most amazing sounds.

What we didn't finish, we took home and overdubbed at the home studio in Sunnyvale. Then we actually ended up writing a couple new songs later that year and recorded them at the house that summer: drums in the living room, guitar amps isolated in the back bedrooms, overdubs done later. Then we brought everything back to the Terrarium for Bryan to mix.

What song on the record do you feel you put the most work into, and why?

Recording-wise, I think we put the most thought and energy into the first song, Something in You. The basic arrangement just sort of suggested a huge production with strings, glockenspiels, many many tracks of guitars and huge drums. Of the 10 days we were at the
Terrarium, I think we probably spent a good 2 days working on this one.

Writing-wise, I worked on the title track for about a year. When it first surfaced, it was a piano lullaby I wrote for Jill when she was having a really stressful time at work. I used to play it for her at night before we went to bed to help her relax. It was a lot slower, and kind of meditative and Virginia Astley-esque...basically the complete opposite of what it sounds like now. Slowly, over the course of a year, I started singing words to it and eventually brought it to the band to learn. Although my first few attempts at showing them didn't go so well. I kept changing it, though, until it sounded like a rock song.

If someone asked you what song from Circling best represents the band, what song would it be, and why?

“California Blue.” I think on that song, we somehow evoke an atmosphere that is almost tangible. It's as if the microphones at the session were able to capture not just the sounds of the band playing in the room, but the actual weather conditions present on the day we tracked it. I can feel the fog coming in off the Pacific Ocean when I hear that song -- sand in my shoes. I'm not completely sure that microphones can't pick up this kind of thing, but I'm just saying that sometimes when I hear that song, it's like the air in the room is different somehow. Fresher. Like California mountain air.

In comparison to your previous two albums, are there any changes or musical ideas on Circling that you're proudest of?

Huge changes. . . On a sad note, we said goodbye to original Orange Peels guitarist Larry Winther and our second drummer, John Moremen. But we welcomed new guitarist Oed Ronne and had three amazing drummers contribute tracks to the album: Bryan Hanna, Peter Anderson, and original Orange Peels drummer Bob Vickers.

I think the personnel change freed us up to be more adventurous, and I think any notions of us being a cute little indie-pop band are completely shattered...finally. There's nothing precious or twee or tongue-in-cheek here. This is our big, sweeping statement as a band: a huge, elegant rock album that isn't afraid of sounding like a huge, elegant rock album. The only thing “indie” about it is the fact that it is on an independent label.

To you, which song on Circling is the most meaningful?

It's either “So Right,” California Blue or “Tonight Changes Everything.” I go back and forth. Obviously they all mean something special, or they would never have made it onto the album. The end of “Boy in Space” is another favorite; it’s kind of my take on Charles Ives' 1906 song “The Unanswered Question,” but with slightly atonal vocal harmonies instead of woodwinds.

What's next for Allen Clapp?

I'm working on a compilation of my early singles that have been out of print for years and years. I've tracked down all the original masters and finally have everything rounded up. Maybe this year...

Also, I'm producing a Bob Vickers album at the house right now, which will hopefully be completed this summer. We've had all sorts of guest musicians marching in and out of the house for more than a year now -- string sections, ukulele players, mandolins ... It's a very eclectic record. I'm also working on a soundtrack for some filmmaker friends of mine and writing songs for the next Orange Peels album. Hopefully we can break this four-years-between-albums streak we've always been on. There may be another solo album, too. It's too early to tell, though.

Thanks, Allen!

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