Chances are, you've never heard of Clearlake. That is unless you live in the UK or you're an NME-reading anglophile. Even then you may not have a good idea what the band is all about. After hearing about this Brighton-based band's upcoming US tour handpicked by both Stereolab and The Decemberists to open their respective tours I picked up both of their albums and began my own investigation. When the results were dubious and conflicting, I decided I wanted to get the scoop directly from the band. A few transatlantic emails later it was set: I'd meet up with the band before their gig at TT the Bear's in Cambridge, Massachusetts, ask them a few questions, and sort though all the inconsistent press.
While The Decemberists completed their soundcheck, I sat around a pool table with Clearlake members Jason Pegg (vocals & guitar), Toby May (drums), David Woodward (bass), and Sam Hewitt (guitar). With The Decemberists' Colin Meloy drifting through a sloppy version of "Sweet Jane" in the background, I dug right in, asking about their current label, Domino Records. Woodward immediately took the helm, explaining that the label is based in London and is entirely independent. Each member then chimed in with a long list of bands that call Domino their UK home. The list includes familiar names like Pavement, Folk Implosion and Smog, as well as rising acts like Clinic and Franz Ferdinand. In fact, the band had just returned from the Domino SXSW showcase only a week prior to our meeting. This wasn't their first visit to the US though; that would have been last fall for the CMJ New Music Marathon. Woodward continued, telling me about Domino and how the band's first CD, Lido, was never released in the US due to size and monetary limitations within Domino. He was hopeful that it'd eventually get a proper US release maybe at the same time as the band's third CD, which is already in the works. The band is currently promoting their second full-length, 2003's Cedars.
During the first five minutes of our conversation, frontman Jason Pegg seldom looked up; instead he studied the collection of the band's press I had inadvertently left on the table. Even though those clipping were provided to me through official channels, it seemed as though this might be the first time Pegg had ever seen it. With Toby May nearly silent as well, I continued on with Woodward and Hewitt.
While the press seems to either love or hate this band, one fact is universal the band is always referred to as a "quintessentially British band." I asked the quartet what that meant. At first Woodward dodged the question, explaining that was simply "lazy journalism." When prodded for his list of quintessential British bands, he suggested he might be the "old timers," and rattled off a couple of expected names: The Beatles, The Kinks, and The Smiths. I pushed further, asking how Clearlake differs from those bands, or what qualities they share, but no band is comfortable with comparisons (especially not when that is the list you must compare yourself to) and the subject was politely dropped.
When I focused on the British press and their treatment of the band, Pegg perked up. The bile must have risen into his throat, as he passionately defended the band against a biased press who, in his words, only "spit out words to sound cool." He, along with his agreeing band, explained that there is a sensationalism to the British press, full of "writers who are only trying to make a name for themselves." Pegg admitted he was talking specifically about the venerable NME, and softened his rhetoric soon after. He offered that Mojo is a fine publication full of "intelligent and informed writers," but then reiterated that Mojo is possibly the only legitimate magazine in the whole of the UK. In his words, the rest write largely for controversy's sake.
The US press however seems treat the band differently. Woodward explained the band has received very flattering press stateside. When asked about the differences, Woodward explained that British bands are simply exotic in the US, and that results in a little deeper examination than they receive at home. Ultimately that more thorough investigation seems to benefit the band.
In an attempt to reengage Pegg, I asked specifically about the band's music, and where it comes from. I told the band I agreed with each of the touch points they typically receive <--(from XXXX to Blur)--> and even offered that some of the band's simple melodies brought to mind The Kink's Village Green Preservation Society. Again Pegg got hot. He demanded to know what I meant by that. Did I mean it was small? Did I mean it was parochial? This comparison is entirely the opposite of his intentions it seems. At this point Pegg took over the interview, explaining that his goal it to write "grand songs, epic songs, big songs." Comparing his material to the quaint pop of Ray Davies ode to country life was a definite assault.
The conversation then dug deep into the band's creative process, and the musical output. It seems as though Pegg is largely unhappy with his voice, and wishes it weren't so highlighted on both of the band's full-length releases. It only seems natural, then, that the band had chosen to work with Cocteau Twin alumnus Simon Raymonde. After all, the Cocteau Twins, more than any other band, incorporated the human voice as a mere element of their sweeping music, never highlighting it above the warm washes of the other instruments. This, however, turned out to be mere coincidence. Pegg confessed that Raymonde was only brought in to mix the songs because he was someone the band "got on with," not for a specific ideology he could bring to the recording.
The band revealed a lot more about the process than I expected. Few bands would be honest enough to refer to the album they are currently promoting as the result of "learning how to make a record." With this statement, however, the band offered helpful advice. While much of the recording was done in Pegg's home studio, the band members explained they have since learned which sounds can be done on a home studio, and which must be done in the high priced studios. The band winced when they admitted that fidelity was lost several times on the final production of Cedars when the audio was transferred from one format to another. It seems the band also learned a valuable lesson about post-production. Pegg noted that it's much more important to get it sounding right initially, instead of assuming everything can be fixed in later mastering. However, the overarching lesson for the band was obvious: it all comes down to money.
In the current indie market, Clearlake may fit reasonably well with British Sea Power, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club or even Interpol, but in the varied UK market, where charts can place varied acts such as Kylie Minogue and Iron Maiden next to each other, where does the band fit? No one in the band felt they were on the fringe. Hewitt hesitantly offered that the band wasn't far from other bands currently in the charts (although he did stop short of giving examples). When I asked if the band if Clearlake was what the British public wants to hear, Pegg answered defiantly, "I think we're exactly what people want to hear. I just don't think we're what the British press wants to tell people they want to hear."
With a vitriolic response like that, I knew the conversation was over. I had a good picture of who the band was, their motivations, and why the industry seems so polarized by the band's music. After talking to the band, I believe Clearlake is at a crossroads. The members are frustrated by the industry, by their own label, by the recording process, by the press, and as such, they survive on sheer will at this point. If success comes to them as a result of their mammoth jaunts across the US, first with The Decemberists, and then with Stereolab, then the band's outlook is bound to increase exponentially. However, the more things stay the same, the less likely Clearlake are to tough it out when the deck seems stacked against them.