November 01, 2006

Allen Clapp

We've loved Allen Clapp's music for a long time. We've talked to him before, about his band The Orange Peels, so his name should be familiar to you long-time readers. His records are consistently wonderful, and as long as he makes good music, we'll be talking about how good his music is. His is pop music, pure and simple. He recently released a collection of singles and compilation tracks and some unreleased goodies entitled Something Strange Happens: The Four-Track Forecasts 1990-2000, and we asked him a few questions about those years.

Describe Allen Clapp, circa 1991. What was the lo-fi Lutheran like back in those early days?

Amazingly optimistic, totally immersed in music and writing like mad. When I look back on those days, it's kind of comical, actually. I had no resources, no access to a studio and I had all these new things happening musically in my head. It was like I couldn't do anything without a new song hitting me. It was like walking around in a meteor shower with songs falling on me everywhere I went. Washing the dishes... Boom. Taking out the trash...Boom. Doing routine shopping at Safeway...BOOM. Songs were waking me up in the middle of the night. It made it hard to do things like hold down a job, sleep, get things done. At one point I felt like I was going crazy because I couldn't get the things out of my head fast enough, and I just had the four-track and this little radio shack clip-on it could be frustrating sometimes. Whenever I could, I would record. Anywhere...churches, apartments, offices, even in my VW van. It was a very luminescent,creative time.

In listening through Something Strange Happens, at times it's hard not to be reminded of Sarah Records. Were you a follower of the label?

I wasn't so much a follower of Sarah Records as much as I was just totally inspired by what was happening with pop music coming out on small labels at the time. There was a creative, encouraging atmosphere then that was refreshing. It was like there was no dividing line between the people in the bands, the people at the labels, the fanzine writers and the fans. Everyone was excited about this new music, and that was the only thing that was important.

That being said, there are some specific songs that come to mind from that
period. I was totally captivated by that Orchids song "...who needs tomorrow when all I needed was you." That kills me every time. St. Christopher too, their "All of a Tremble" single. I was also listening to a lot of Honeybunch. The "Hey Blue Sky" single on Bus Stop is amazing and their "Crooked Mile" flexi on Four Letter Words. And The Church Grims had this great song, "Mr. Watt Said."

Also, "Something Strange Happens" really stands out among the rest. To me, it reminds me a lot of what you'd do later with Orange Peels, and it's hard not to think of it as a moment of change and growth. Was this song a breakthrough for you, in terms of songwriting and with the realizations of what you could do within the confines of your recording ability?

That song was a revelation, both in how little I actually did to write it, and in how far I had to push the limits of my four-track to accommodate it. Up until then, songs were coming to me in little fragments -- little bits of melody attached to lyrics -- and I'd piece them together later. This one arrived fully formed while I was sitting in a suburban parking lot after loading some groceries into the car. It was a strange feeling, just sitting there with the key in the ignition, listening to a fully orchestrated song in my head that I'd done absolutely no work on. One moment it wasn't there, the next moment it was. It's one of the most surreal, transcendent things I've ever experienced.

It made the idea of trying to record it almost impossible, because I'd heard the whole arrangement that morning in the parking lot, and I knew I needed to have this huge vocal sound on the choruses and I knew I needed this swirly Leslie Organ part, and I also still needed tracks for bass, guitar and drums. So I ended up bouncing the drums, the bass and the guitars all down to one mono track. It took like 2 days to get the balance right, but I found if I pushed all the levels and distorted everything a little, the three parts fused together into a really cool backing track. Really makes that pulsing rhythm gel throughout the song. Then I had the free tracks to put on layers and layers of vocals on the choruses, the Hammond Organ parts and the guitar melodies. Unfortunately, when I'd finished the tracking, I realized there was a dropout on a section of one of the tracks -- the one track I used to bounce the drums, bass and rhythm guitar together -- and I'd already recorded over the original tracks, so there's always this little dropout in the first verse after, "Imagine you were walking down the street, and it's raining, and it's cold."

Other than forming the Orange Peels, is there any particular reason you rarely release solo records?

That's an excellent question. I wonder the same thing sometimes. I tend to write far more songs than I release. I think the new singles compilation is an example of how that occurs. I could have put 4 or 5 more songs on the One Hundred Percent Chance of Rain album, but I excluded some because they didn't fit in with the mood of the album. Actually, one of the songs I wrote around that time was "Tonight Changes Everything" which just came out on Circling the Sun last summer. It took the song 12 years to get recorded and released, but it found its home on the album it was meant to be on.

I wrote "Beautiful/Drop Me a Line" and "High Above the Earth" around that same time (One Hundred Percent Chance of Rain sessions in 1993), and they didn't come out until my second solo album, "Available Light in 2002. I think what happened there was that those songs had been in my head for years, and then when I wrote "Whenever We're Together," it became a catalyst for some of those things to come together. So they come out on an album of cosmic, California soft rock stuff.

It just takes me a while to contextualize the things I come up with and try to make as compelling a record I can. You know, maybe the things I wrote earlier this week will come out in a year, or maybe they'll come out in ten years.

Little seven inch singles sure were nice little confections. Do you miss 'em?

Yeah, I totally miss them. It was such a nice way to release and buy music! I mean, you could record enough material for a single in an afternoon if the songs were there. Very immediate and fun. Plus, the packaging was so great. Way better than CD packaging. From a fan perspective, it was a great way to discover new music.

What are you working on next?

Several things. I've been writing a bunch of new stuff based around these huge vocal arrangements. The instrumental content is definitely in the background. It's kind of moody, melancholy stuff with a big vocal sound, so I'm not sure it's going to be an Orange Peels album, but it's not really an Allen Clapp album either. I think I'm going to call it The Fairwood Singers, and we'll put together a touring band with a bunch of singers doing these sweeping, sad songs. Actually, I was going to put out Available Light as the Fairwood Singers, but I chickened out at the lastminute.

The Orange Peels are about 4 songs into their next album, and I could see us finishing that within a year, definitely. Also, I'm just wrapping production on an album by this amazing Santa Cruz collective called The Incredible Vickers Brothers. It's a super eclectic record with mandolins, ukeleles, string sections and other surprises. We're mastering it in Portland next month. Very exciting.

Allen Clapp's new compilation, Something Strange Happens: The Four-Track Forecasts 1990-2000, is available now via Bus Stop

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