Photo by Stefano Giovannini
I was familiar with Chad Clark’s work in the ’90s (as the lead singer of the artsy DC post-hardcore band Smart Went Crazy and as a producer/engineer who worked on albums by Sparklehorse, Fugazi, Mary Timony and more), but it took a tweet by one of my favorite current artists – Sadie Dupuis of Speedy Ortiz – to introduce me to Chad’s not-so-new project, Beauty Pill. Formed in 2001, Beauty Pill’s second full length, 2015’s Beauty Pill Describes Things As They Are, was the one that caused music writers to take notice. The album is both complex and accessible, a difficult combination to pull off successfully the way Beauty Pill does.
On Tuesday morning, Chad posted an important message on Facebook about the band’s tour with Arto Lindsay which includes a stop at the Wexner Center on Thursday night. Here’s an excerpt …
Unfortunately I am posting this from the hospital where I have been admitted for a toxic reaction to a prescribed antibiotic. I hoped I would recover in time for this tour, but … the answer is sadly no. It got worse. We considered canceling the shows, but this is principally an Arto Lindsay tour. We instead opted to try an idea we’ve never considered before. The band is going to do these shows WITHOUT me … For these shows, my bandmate Jean (singer of “Ann The Word” and “Dog With Rabbit In Mouth, Unharmed”) will sing all the songs, even those that were shaped around my voice. This was my idea and the band agreed to it … For dedicated BP fans, it will be an unusual experience I encourage you to check out … Here in the hospital I am getting good care. Don’t worry about me.
Before this news broke, I had a chance to speak with Chad via phone. While I didn’t see his pulling out of the tour coming, as you’ll read a little later in the interview, Beauty Pill has been set up so that Chad feels like he can hand off lead vocals to Jean Cook without causing too much of a disruption.
I owned Smart Went Crazy’s Con Art, most surely purchased because of your connection to Dismemberment Plan (Emergency & I), but that was very early internet days and I didn’t spend hours going down rabbit holes learning about bands. I wasn’t aware of Beauty Pill until a few years ago. I feel like I’ve missed out on what you’ve been doing for the last 20 years. I’ve enjoyed going back and listening to the Beauty Pill catalog.
I kind of feel like the new record is almost it’s entirely own new thing. I would say a majority of Beauty Pill fans are totally unaware of my history, like, they don’t know it at all. And that’s totally fine with me. You know, we’re often described as an electronic band and people have no awareness of our history in DC punk or anything like that. That’s fine with me, I feel like it’s cool that there’s an audience that’s into the present.
I think what inspired me to check out Beauty Pill was a tweet by Sadie of Speedy Ortiz which mentioned that your album was one of her favorites of 2015. That made me seek it out and that’s when I put two and two together and realized that, hey, Beauty Pill is Chad from Smart Went Crazy.
Sadie’s been a really great popularizer of our work. Neko Case has always been really positive. Kristin Hersh also has been very positive. I still think that our band is relatively obscure in the larger scheme of things but we seem to enjoy peer respect and people who write about music tend to be supportive. There’s a lot of really overwhelming, ecstatic critical response to the last record. I didn’t expect that at all.
Did Kristin Hersh know you from the “old days” or did she come into your work with Beauty Pill?
My sense is that she has no awareness of my past at all. I don’t know, you’d have to ask her. We just get along really well. I actually met her in person for the first time only a few months ago. I don’t think she’s aware of the history with Smart Went Crazy.
You know, we’re reissuing Smart Went Crazy’s Con Art in a month. We’re reissuing it as a double vinyl with all of the songs – the original release didn’t have all of the songs. I’m excited about it. It’ll be cool, I think, for some of the people whom Beauty Pill Describes Things came out of the blue, it’ll be helpful for some people that the reissue of Con Art will show there’s a history, that we didn’t just drop out of the sky and make this record out of nowhere.
For a long time, I think Con Art was the record that people held out as the masterwork and I was almost intimidated by it for a long time. It was almost a little depressing because all of my friends would tell me that I would never make anything better than that which is, in a way, a compliment but in a way it’s kind of a dis.
I feel like Describe Things has erased that a little bit, in a good way I think. So now it seems like we should let people know, especially like, a lot of Beauty Pill fans are in their early 20s, and there is no way they would have been aware of Con Art.
I am really, really grateful that anybody’s paying attention to what I’m doing at all. As an independent artist, it’s all you really want is to feel like you’re connecting with people at all.
The easy answer is both, but having both led bands and been on the other side of studio work as a producer, do you consider yourself one or the other – artist or producer – or are you an artist/producer?
I’m now the lead singer of Beauty Pill and I was the lead singer of Smart Went Crazy. I never really saw myself in that role, a lot of Beauty Pill has been a struggle to find someone that would suit that role. I always wanted to be sort of more the wizard behind the curtain. You know, you take the Dismemberment Plan – I know what I was responsible for within that music and I was very happy not to be on stage and to be able to go to their shows and have people responding to things that I participated in shaping.
I’m pretty tall. All my life, by nature of being tall, you sort of become the center of attention. A lot of great rock stars are really short, Prince being the ultimate example. I think it’s because they make an art of grabbing people’s attention and demanding attention. I don’t have a strong desire for attention and being in the studio and working on music and crafting music is very rewarding to me.
But now I kind of like singing. I don’t know, it would be hard to chose at this point.
The original idea behind Beauty Pill was going to me and a female singer and we would split the songs roughly in half. I would sing half the songs and she would sing the other half of the songs and on tour we would randomly, on any given night, decide to switch songs, who sings what. So, if you came to see Beauty Pill on a certain night, you might see me singing “The Idiot Heart” when it was (original member) Joanne (Gholl) singing it on the record. Or you might see Joanne sing “Cigarette Girl” or something when it was me on the record. I don’t know if there are other bands that do this, I feel like it was a pretty cool concept that the voice of the music was androgynous to go from throat to throat. That was the way we wanted to operate. We kind of pulled it off for a little while but eventually we settled into doing things a certain way and I have to say we haven’t been following through with that idea. I’d like to try to get back to it at some point.
I was kind of hoping the singing would mostly drift over to the other person and I could slowly recede into the background but that didn’t work out. I sing almost all the songs on this new record, that’s just the way it worked out.
What I appreciate about you is that it seems like you don’t follow the status quo when writing, recording, producing. You push boundaries, you experiment and yet it all falls in within this pop world. Is experimenting and pushing boundaries fun? Scary? Stressful?
I’m going to tie it into why I most admire Arto Lindsay. He’s someone who has been fearless all of his life. He started in the early 80s doing this really, really extreme, noisy, skronky, dour, dissonant punk music with the band DNA and then he kind of reemerged in the late 80s, early 90s doing this completely opposite music which was this very sultry, very sexy, very smooth, very seductive Brazilian music. I think he’s in his mid-60s now and he’s been committed to this vision he’s had – now he blends the two music together in one performance.
When you see him live you’ll see that he plays extremely confrontational noise guitar and juxtaposes it against the most beautiful sex music, this Brazilian lovely, very feminine music. And he puts them together and he just doesn’t care about boundaries. He just doesn’t give a fuck. And when you’re 65 years old, it’s not a joke, it’s a life thing for him. He’s committed to this vision and he’s very free about it. When he plays shows he smiles and he’s having a great time, he’s radiant. I really admire that and I really look up to him in a lot of ways.
What I wanted out of this tour was to be a student and get to observe him being a master. I try not to get too corny about it, it would make him uncomfortable.
I appreciate what you’re saying about pushing boundaries, a lot of my desire for provocation comes from being acculturated with DC punk. There’s a lot of lines on this record that I kind of thought I was going to get in trouble for and I kind of wanted to get in trouble for. I like the idea that you can use music as a way of getting in trouble, as a way of causing a reaction or saying something that you might not feel comfortable saying in conversation.
There’s a line in the first song, I keep waiting for someone to call me on it – nobody’s called me on it so far – the line is “Deep in the heart of Caucasia”. You know why I wrote that line? It was funny to me, I’m a black male in America and it was an amusing line to me, it made me smile but I kind of hoped it would get a reaction and cause some discussion or discourse. I’m interested in registering, I think that comes from being a lifelong Fugazi fan.
It is an interesting juxtaposition between the lyrics and the accessibility of the music. Maybe people are missing the lyrics because it sounds so good.
I would say it’s about half and half. You would be very surprised that there are people who are into Beauty Pill who are almost entirely just into the lyrics. In terms of the fan mail that we get – I would say we get about one piece of passionate fan mail almost one every day – and they are often very effusive about the lyrics to a certain song, they’ve analyzed the lyrics and have related them to their own life. The lyrics are very important.
I feel like I put as much energy into both sides of what we do, the text aspect and the textural aspect matter a lot to me. If lyrics are not your thing, or our lyrics are not your thing, it’s cool, maybe it’ll dawn on you a couple of years later like, “Oh, there’s a good line in there.” I was always like “Oh, there’s a cool sound” or “There’s a cool melody in there”. I feel like there are layers to the work, at least I hope there are.
I’m not real wild about asking about influences, but can you tell me about the teenage Chad Clark? What were you reading? What were you watching? What were you listening to?
The biggest thing for me as a kid is still the biggest thing for me as an adult and that’s the Beatles. Like the experimentation of the late-period Beatles and the enduring musical ambition and the tunefulness that blended with pushing forward at a sonic level. That was always super inspiring to me.
My dad gave me a pair of headphones that changed my life, just plugging them into the stereo and listening to the Beatles. I still have a funny kind of relationship to stereo because of the Beatles records. Those Beatles stereo records were mixed really extreme with the drums all the way on the left. You could tilt the balance and listen to just the bass and the voice on certain songs and the guitars and the drums on the other side. It was the Beatles that was the very first thing that made me want to leap into making music. It just seemed like they could create a world and that’s what I’d really like to, create a world with music. That sounds really pretentious but that’s what I’d like to do.
I have kids who are teenagers and they love and know all the Beatles songs. There are kids every day discovering the Beatles and being influenced by it. It’s sort of crazy to think about but it also makes a lot of sense because of every reason you just gave – it’s timeless.
It was charismatic in a way that doesn’t need to be explained and that is something that I really envy and wish to emulate. Beauty Pill right now, as of the time of this interview, is a relatively obscure band. To be able to pull off what they did, on such a mass scale, and to effect millions and millions of people across different cultures, across different time periods and generations, it’s just genius on a level that I can’t even grasp. I feel like my music is a little too eccentric to ever have a super-wide audience but I’m not a snob … I know that people tend to associate me with more avant-garde tendencies because of some of the sounds in the music, but I would love to have a hit record. It would be awesome.
They did all that in like 10 or so years.
And they were young and just perfect. I never get into “let me compare myself to the Beatles”, that’s not my vibe, but it’s stunning.
Do you think the Beatles would be different in this day and age – I’m thinking that from the time they started with songs like “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to “Sgt. Peppers”, that’s a pretty drastic change in sound – with social media criticism, with people having opinions on everything they do and sharing those opinions on Facebook and Twitter?
Trying to imagine transposing the Beatles into a different era is really mind boggling difficult because there are so many factors that would effect that. I think the New York Times republished their original review of Sgt. Peppers. The guy was really supercilious and snobby and unimpressed and nitpicky. He was really myopic, it’s terrible. It’s an embarrassing, horrible, stupid review. I thought it was really cool that when the reissue came out, the New York Times decided to, in a way, really embarrass themselves by reintroducing the original review with the idea that everybody can recognize at this point that it’s clearly wrong.
The one thing I think is on our side so far is that critics and people who write about our music tend to be on our side and maybe someday, with the new record, that will turn and we’ll have some sort of backlash. I don’t know. But, criticism is something that you really can’t take too seriously so I don’t know if the Beatles would be shaped by online culture.
You mentioned a next record. Are you working on something now?
Yep. I did a score for a play here in DC called The Arsonist and in that play I used a lot of the music – I borrow a lot of the melodies and sounds from the music from the next Beauty Pill record. I’m excited about it. There’s no guarantee that anybody else will be excited about it, but I’m excited about it.
I did want to mention that I feel like your Twitter feed and mine do share some similarities, we tweet a lot of the same stuff when it comes to politics. You’re in DC so obviously way closer to everything than I am in Columbus. Is there a sense of foreboding, the tension?
Yeah, I’m really scared. I’m genuinely scared for the world. I think that we’ve ended up in a classic science fiction dystopia in a way that everyone from Ray Bradbury to Philip Dick to Isaac Asimov to Robert Heinlein to George Orwell, they all warned us and here we are. I’m frightened. It’s depressing. I try to have some distance about it, sometimes I’ll text my friends links to articles or something that happened in the day and my friends are like, “You know Chad, I can read the news too? I don’t need you to send me link.”
I admit that I feel a tremendous amount of anxiety. I don’t want to make a cliched album responding to this environment but there’s no way it’s not going to make it into the next record, that would be dishonest to avoid it. I think that we’re in trouble and I don’t know what to do.
There’s just a lot of forces that have to do with money. Republicans are dismayed because for the first time they have all of this power and they are crippled by madness. They don’t want to let it go because they fear they may never have it again. I think, by nature, they’re not very considerate people and they want power more than anything else so they’re willing to put us all in peril. I could go on about this forever.
If nothing else good comes out of this, I have a feel a lot of great art is coming.
Yeah, I hope so. I’m going to do my best.
If you look at Dylan as an example of someone who very artfully skirted cliches of political art but made lasting and valuable music that had a protest component to it but was not simply of it’s time. “Hard Rain’s Going to Fall” is not particular to any circumstance necessarily and it still feels amazing, especially now.
I would like to make lasting music. That’s one of the things that’s satisfying about reissuing Con Art is that in the mastering studio, going over the original tapes, I was struck by “Hey, this music sounds sort of current, it sounds sort of now.” I think it’s impossible for me to not make politically-infused music but I don’t want to do something cheap. I want to make something lasting and that will have value after this, if there is an after this.
That’s all I’ve got. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk. It was a real pleasure to talk to you.
That’s awesome. Thanks for being interested in this interview. I don’t take interest in our music for granted so I appreciate it.