Beauty Pill has been one of D.C.’s best bands for a decade, but the (currently seven-member, according to their Myspace) ensemble is sorely under-recognized, largely because of its penchant for lengthy hibernation. BP delivers relentlessly interesting, tuneful, well-wrought songs full of weird sounds and wonderful lyrics.
A primary reason for BP’s frequent inactivity is that BP’s primary alpha dog, Chad Clark, is a studio wizard in extremely high demand. He’s worked on projects by bands such as Georgie James, Lungfish, Fugazi, Black Eyes, Exit Clov and Rites of Spring. The list goes on and on.
In August of ’06, I picked Clarke’s noggin in his corner of Inner Ear Studios. We started off by talking about Minor Threat, of course.
Chad Clark: … Condenser microphones and dynamic microphones: condenser microphones are generally more sensitive and more high-fi, dynamic are rougher and can take more sound. As far as I know, Minor Threat was recorded before Don (Zientara) had any condenser microphones, which is just amazing. It shows what you can do with modest
They do sound rough, but that’s part of the appeal.
Yep, totally, and it wasn’t any kind of a forced aesthetic – it was what they had available to them at the time and that’s an important aspect of Dischord and of Inner Ear: making use of your resources and being efficient and using your imagination and the force of will to make something great.
That’s maybe the only part of punk rock that means anything to me.
I don’t give a shit about distorted guitars or whatever, it’s more the spirit that is important.
That story: Minor Threat, this record that sells a million copies every year
Is that how many it sells?
I don’t know the number, but it’s kinda the punk rock “Dark Side of the Moon” — every day there’s a kid who buys a Minor Threat record. It’ll be around forever and it’ll stand for what it stands for, forever.
That record was done in the most modest circumstance you can imagine. Nothing fancy about it all, but a real energy and a real spirit and a real moment in rock history and it’s captured and that’s the only thing that really matters.And that’s the part of punk rock that I will retain for the rest of my life: that idea. Everything else I don’t care about at all. I couldn’t care less about indie rock or punk rock as a sound, it’s more the spirit behind it.
It’s funny, because the last time we talked I asked you if punk rock was really important to you in high school and you said, “It still is.”
It’s just that one part of it that’s important?
Yeah, it’s important, but as a feeling — look, as you get older, you distill the part of punk rock that you can retain and apply to your life as an adult and those are all spiritual things. Those are all ideological things. It teaches you how to address the world.
There’s so many things about it that you can retain, but what I was just listening to was Bob Dylan. I hardly ever listen to rock music. That’s the honest truth.
What do you listen to?
A lot of electronic music. I listen to old blues records. I listen to modern classical music, hip-hop.
The part of punk that still means something to me is the going against the grain aspect, the counter-culture aspect, zigging where everybody’s zagging, being efficient, having integrity of vision. That’s the part of Minor Threat that means something to me now. The guitar riffs, the drum sound or whatever, they’re less important to me now.
Can you start off by giving me a brief bio?
Like, how I got here?
Yeah, where you’re from
I grew up in New York City. I grew up on 162 St., which is just north of Harlem, just south of Washington Heights.
Both my parents are civil rights activists and lawyers and teachers.
I moved to D.C. at 13. My dad became the general counsel for the Full Employment Opportunity Commission and we moved to the suburbs of Arlington Virginia and that was kinda the first time I’d ever really been surrounded by white people and that was a culture shock for me.I’ve seen a lot of different sides of race and I think that’s really important. I’m very grateful for having been in different environments in terms of race and culture and class.
In college I started a band called Smart Went Crazy.
You went to college around here?
I went to NYU.
That was when Devin (Ocampo, of Smart Went Crazy, Medications and, now, Beauty Pill) was living in New York, too?
He lived there for a while, but we met later. Devin was not the first drummer for Smart Went Crazy. He was the second. He came in later in the picture. He’s originally from L.A.
But yeah, I think other bands liked the way that Smart Went Crazy’s records sounded.
More and more bands started asking me to be involved in their records and I ended up producing the Dismemberment Plan and working with Fugazi and doing all this stuff, so eventually, that’s how I got into what I do for a living — which is basically working with sound and with bands and that’s how I started this studio.
Is that something that you’d always been interested in?
You know, I was always the kid that was listening to “Sergeant Pepper’s” or Thelonious Monk in headphones and always interested in the world of sound. It wasn’t an objective — to be a record producer or to run a studio — that wasn’t what I was trying to do at all.Eventually I realized I really cared about it and sound was really important to me. But it was not a life-long dream. It was more like I stumbled into it and kept stumbling into it and eventually I realized that this is what I do and this is my life and this is what I’m meant to do.I really just wanted to be involved in great records and I’m a very critical person. I love music and I love people, but I’m very honest and very critical about what’s coming out of the speakers and how we can make it better, either musically or sonically.
I enjoy being a midwife to other people’s art and I really take being a custodian for other people’s art very seriously. But it sometimes comes at the expense of my own art.
You were just talking about race and I wanted to ask you about the song “Won’t You Be Mine.” [the song contains ruminations on race and lyrics like, “Brother? Brother?/Don’t know about that/My whole family knows how to act/We don’t shake hands that are dripping with blood]
Is that song something interviewers ask you about a lot?
It’s been a while since I’ve heard that song. I’ll try to remember it.
Yeah. I thought it would be something that would come up maybe even more than it has.
It’s a pretty unique take, something you don’t hear every day.
It did come up, particularly with European and Japanese interviewers. American interviewers – I don’t know if it was too touchy an area, or if it was not that interesting, or what. European and Japanese interviewers would bring it up every interview and I would say less so with the American press.
Again, it’s been a little bit since I’ve heard it, but that song probably has more subjective emotion than I had really expected to put into Beauty Pill. Beauty Pill, when it started, had a mission statement and a series of objectives and was sort of a designed thing.
It wasn’t necessarily a vehicle for my personal feelings about stuff – it had a different agenda.
Smart Went Crazy was much more free and much more subjective and personal. Beauty Pill was not supposed to be that way.
It was supposed to be satirical, social, objective and seductive and it was supposed to be songs that could be sung by anybody and that were communal. It’s a really weird concept and every time I try to explain it I realize how hard it is to explain.
I had been in a band where I had put a lot of myself into the band — my personal life — and I ended up feeling exposed and uncomfortable.
I was like, “I’m going to be in a band where Chad Clark is not the focus.”
That’s partially why I always have another singer in the band; I don’t want to be the star of the thing.In Smart Went Crazy I was the lead singer and there’s things that happen to you — the way the audience responds to you — when you are “The Lead Singer.”I wanted to be a part of a thing where I was not the focus.So, looking back, “Won’t You Be Mine” doesn’t really follow that idea. It’s one of the songs that sort of bursts at the seams, where you can tell that it’s me talking and there’s a lot of anger in it.
It’s protest music. “Won’t You Be Mine” is open to interpretation. I think good protest music can have a broader value than simply being a circumstantial protest song. Neil Young’s “Ohio,” for example,” is not necessarily about Kent State. It’s about injustice.
So to me, if I succeed – if the protest aspect of Beauty Pill succeeds – it’s broader than just the topic.
There’s always a political dimension to every Beauty Pill song. If you ask me about any song, I can tell you where it works on the surface and a little bit of the underlying mechanics of it. And often there’s a political dimension to the subtext.
“Won’t You Be Mine” is a very angry song. I get very disappointed. I feel I’m justified in being very disappointed in hip-hop and how this revolutionary, amazing music – and the people behind it with such strong personalities and so much charisma – cannot effect social change and don’t seem to be that interested in social change as a broad industry. I’m disappointed.I think there’s a racism to the industry that surrounds entertainment by black people for black people.I think there’s a self-hatred and a low self-opinion that comes out and that self-opinion is funded with a lot of money. And it disgusts me. I’m against it.
I’m trying to remember how that song goes. The first line in that song is “The leash is loose enough to feel like autonomy,” which is a line from my Dad, actually, and I feel that’s a really important thing to observe: They let you go as far as you want around the pen, but you’re still on a leash. I think that’s a lot of the way it works in a lot of the industry surrounding entertainment and art made by, or for, black people.
There’s a lot of poison in that industry. It alienates me and it disappoints me and I wanted to put it into a song and I wanted to use a little bit of – I love Tribe Called Quest, I love De La Soul, I love a lot of hip-hop; as much as I’m dissing it right now, it means so much to me, it’s really important to me, so I wanted to use — there’s a little bit of a Trojan Horse model of dissent. The Trojan Horse model of dissent is really a big thing about Beauty Pill. That’s a lot of what’s going on.
I wanted to adopt the language and some of the sonorities of hip-hop and the flow of speech and some of these things that I love and be like, “Yo, I’m disappointed. You should know that you’re letting me down. You should know that there’s people out there that you’re letting me down.
”I want hip-hop to have higher aspirations in terms of social impact.
If you’re Method Man or Jay-Z or P-Diddy, you have the world’s ear. You have the world’s attention. You have this massive platform and the first thing you’re going to step up and talk about is how nice your white limousine is?
You’ve got everybody’s attention, all spotlights are on you, selling millions of records, idolized by tons of young people, and this is what you’re gonna say. You’ve lifted yourself out of whatever abject circumstance that you grew up in and now everybody’s attention is on you and you’ve got nothing better to say? It’s fucked up.
I got to interview Jarobi White (of A Tribe Called Quest) and we asked him about the state of hip-hop and those were his exact words: It’s fucked up.
Did you get to meet him when he lived in D.C.?
No. … There’s a lot of my father’s life that’s in that song. My father grew up in poverty in Harlem. He’s a remarkable man. There’s a line about “The milk is watered down.”That comes from my father’s life. My father grew up drinking milk that was half water, so that the milk would extend itself. That’s the way his mother raised him.
I’m trying to talk about areas of class and race in this country. It’s one of the things I miss about Clinton as president: trying to advance the country’s health in terms of the dialogue about race. It’s a really important topic.The people in my band come from all different ethnic backgrounds and that’s not by design, but a happy accident. There’s a statement to that.
It’s not exactly deliberate, but it’s one that I’m comfortable with. I’m interested in color, and when I say “color,” I don’t mean skin color, but color in music and color in artistic exchange: i.e., not bland.
It’s the same thing when I’m working on records: I’m interested in eccentricity and flavor and spice.
I could have another 10 songs (about) race, ‘cause as I said, I grew up seeing a bunch of different sides of it.I’m educated and my parents are educated. I didn’t grow up with a lot of money, but I recognize that I have the privilege being raised by two educated parents, so in that respect I’m very privileged and I am privileged in that I have seen many different sides of race and culture in this country.
So I try to reflect it. I feel it’s almost a responsibility to reflect it in the songs.
You know, you can’t always control what you’re gonna write about. I may have an idea of what I’m going to write about and then my heart will steer somewhere else.That’s what’s happening now, to be honest with you. The songs are becoming less political and more personal, even though I don’t want to.
(laughs) There’s your long and winding answer.
… Are you serious when you use the word “psychedelic” to describe Beauty Pill?
Yeah. If you break down psychedelic, you have “pysch,” which is “mental,” or “of the brain,” and “delic,” which is “colors.”I also use the word “amateur” for Beauty Pill and people always think I’m being weird or falsely modest or whatever, but amateur means “one who does it for the love of doing it,” that’s really, if you break it down from an etymological standpoint, it means, “one who loves the thing that they are doing.”Psychedelic is another word that I like. I don’t think anybody sees us that way. We’re certainly not wearing paisley or doing anything “trippy, man,” it’s not like that, but I like the idea of the suggestion of hallucination and of color and of the kaleidoscope way of thinking about music.There’s a lot of textures in Beauty Pill’s music and we think a lot about the textures. It’s subtle.
I think in the new music that will be coming out, the psychedelic aspect of the band will be more pronounced and people will notice it more, those weird sounds and whatever, but so far it’s been pretty subtle.
People notice it in “Won’t You Be Mine,” like, “How’d you get that sound?” “Why does the piano sound that way?” “What’s going on with the string section?” or whatever, but I’m always interested in the vista of music. I think of music cinematically, and I’m interested in all the hues and textures within the picture and so the word psychedelic feels about right, even though I know people think of it in this sort of corny, antique way. But it just means “colors of the mind,” and so that’s why I adopt it.
What have been some of your most rewarding experiences as a producer?
I’m having one right now, with Georgie James.
It happens so often, sometimes with better-known things and sometimes with lesser-known things.
The record that I’m working on with Georgie James right now is very inspiring, because their melodies and their songs are so much more winning and charming and lovable, in a way, than music that I could make myself. It’s just natural to them.There’s a golden quality to their music that’s just wonderful to try to draw out and make as resplendent as possible.
I like wrestling with bands. This is something that we at Silver Sonya are known for — we have opinions. And with Georgie James, we wrestle over songs, over ideas, over ways to treat songs, over ways to render their songs.
Ultimately, it’s their music and I’m very respectful of that, but I tend to sort of kind of join bands when I work with them. It’s like I become another member, briefly, and then they’re on their way. So there’s a little bit of friction and arguing over how to do things, but I think that’s a very healthy process, as long as it’s always respectful.
And I very much respect Georgie James and I’m envious of their ability to do what they’re doing.
You mentioned the Caribbean, perhaps a more obscure band, but really, really brilliant. Michael Kentoff is one of the great songwriters.
He’s a friend of mine, now, but I’m very much a fan. He’s got a really unique sense of words and a really, really deeply eccentric sense of sound and sense of what he’s doing. He’s a very refined writer. He’s someone who, if you really pay attention to what he’s doing, you get so much wit and so much refined image and detail.As a writer, he’s almost on par with a great novelist. He only has three minutes to do a song, so he chooses the funniest — it’s almost like a chiaroscuro way of painting — he chooses the detail in the corner of the painting to illustrate everything else that’s happening in the painting. The detail he chooses to put into a lyric says so much, but it’s often not the main thing.
There’s a lot of wit, it’s really, really funny music. He’s sort of like the songwriting equivalent of Dave Eggers — a very funny guy, in a very quirky and particularly intellectual way. And it’s not for everybody, but I’m so happy to work with him. He’s really brilliant.
Not world famous — I think that maybe will happen with him. I think the Caribbean eventually will have like a Lungfish or Guided by Voices kinda draw as they get older, or the way Flaming Lips are a band that’s clearly middle-aged but have the respect of “the kids.” I think Caribbean could get there if they keep going. People will discover it.
But I just help them; I just hear the sounds that they’re working with and try to amplify them and I just try to help make it more vivid.
That’s my role, so if people like the record I worked on, it’s really not me that they’re hearing, it’s really the Caribbean with a magnifying glass on it.
Sometimes what you’re doing in the studio is just that: You’re there almost as a technician. Sometimes you’re more involved in the arrangements.
I think that was the case with the Dismemberment Plan. I was a little bit more intimately involved in the guts and mechanics of the music, but my whole goal with anybody is to make what they’re doing as charismatic and as provocative and as memorable as possible.
Sometimes all that’s needed is a technical thing and sometimes a collaborative way of approaching it is more appropriate.
There are people who do what I do, like Steve Albini for example, who take a strictly documentarian approach and their whole thing is, “I am here to be a Zen sort of invisible, transparent renderer of what’s happening here. I am simply here to capture as neutrally possible.”
And there are other people – like in the hip-hop world, a producer is someone who makes the beats and has the whole vision of the thing.
And there is a whole spectrum in-between those two things.
I try to suss what the artist needs and what the artist actually requests — sometimes the artist will say, “I want you to get involved,” or “I don’t want you to get involved” — I try to suss what’s the energy that’s needed in any given project.
For example, the Dismemberment Plan was a band with a surplus of musical ideas. Tons of really inventive, really interesting musical ideas all the time; my job was to play traffic cop and to hone and get a vision of this rococo painting of a band and try to make things make sense and translate to the listener in a way that’s charismatic and memorable and results in people wanting to go to your shows and wanting to sing your songs.
The Dismemberment Plan was a band that had tons of talent, but maybe not as much musical discipline as they should have had. That was my role: to reign it in and to control it and make it focused.
With other people it can be very different. My relationship to Meredith Bragg, for example, is very different.
So we always try to find out what energy would be welcome and try to float there and try to settle into a good relationship and it’s always a bit of a stumbling in the dark Zen kind of thing.
Hopefully you settle into a good rapport with the band. That’s when things start getting good – when everybody’s in the same mind of what they’re trying to achieve.
For example, with Georgie James, that’s where we are now. We’re starting to speak the same language and starting to get it. They want to make an amazing, great record.I want to make an amazing, great record.
Our idea of amazing and great might be slightly different, but everybody’s wrestling over it and trying to get to something really great and that’s the part that’s exhilarating – once you arrive at something that Laura, who’s brilliant, thinks is great, and John, who’s brilliant, thinks is great – and they’re totally different brilliant people – if they both like it, there must be something good about it.
This is a silly question: I’m curious whether you prefer the production on “In Utero” or “Nevermind.” The fact that you brought up Steve Albini gives me an excuse to ask.
That’s a really good question. I think they are both great records. I know that sounds like I’m coping out.
Do you think the production is really good on both, too?
They’re different things. As I said, I listen to all types of music and, when you put them on, they both have a presence and an energy and a feeling that comes out of the speakers. They’re different feelings, but I don’t think one is better than the other.
“In Utero,” if you want to get technical, has an awkwardness to it that I am critical of. Steve Albini, who recorded it, used very little compression in the recording, because he comes from almost a classical documentarian mindset; he believes in recording a band in their natural dynamic and not forcing any kind of hand onto it.
Compression basically takes the loudest peak of the sound and turns it down and takes the quietest valley of the sound and turns it up; so it constricts the dynamic range.
His belief is that that is getting involved in the music and attenuating the original gesture of the musician. He’s very devote about that. He’s very serious about that.
I respect him, but I don’t subscribe to that point of view.
Then, that record was mastered by Bob Ludwig, and Bob applied very heavy-handed compression to the mastering of that record, because he was trying to make it as radio-friendly as possible.
So you get this very awkward, in my opinion, sound where the original people had a different intent than the person who finally dealt with it.
And it’s interestingly explosive and roomy and booming in kind of a cool way. And the songs are great and the feeling in the record is great, but I’m critical of “In Utero” at that level.
“Nevermind” also, to me, had a slight awkwardness to it, in that the band and Butch Vig, who recorded it, had a different sort of aesthetic. And so some of the sounds became smoother and more pro and L.A. than the band originally
It almost sounds like an ’80s metal record.
Yeah, yeah. And Kurt Cobain dissed it basically till he died as this ameliorated, watered-down thing, but it’s fucking “Nevermind,” you know? It’s a great record.
They’re both great and they’re both interesting to me and every record is different. So I don’t really think one is stronger than the other. I like great music and I like when you can feel an energy that comes out in the songs.
The Beatles’ “Twist & Shout” – the story is that it’s a one-take vocal. It’s John Lennon shredding his voice at the end of a long session with the Beatles. And his voice is amazing and rock ’n’ roll and serrated. And there you have it. Those molecules are captured forever. You can play it and replay it and play it again and you’ve got young John Lennon shredding his voice out on a great rock tune – forever. It’s never going to go away.
He’s been dead for 26 years and that was recorded in the early part of their career. And play it now and tell me there’s not an incredible, galvanizing energy to it.
That, to me, is what’s amazing about records: taking an electricity that’s part of a moment and making it permanent and fixed in a fixed medium to be accessed and played.
If you have a shelf of records, you have a shelf of moods and experiences to draw from.
I always say that the Beck record “Sea Change” is great, because it’s a sustained mood that doesn’t let up and if you want that record, it’s almost like a pharmaceutical thing: You can put it on your stereo and flood the room with that mood and feeling. And it’s sustained.
Miles Davis, “Kind of Blue” – same thing. Press play and turn up the speakers and it’s like this opiate that comes washing into the room.
And that’s what’s great about records: push play and the room is filled with this magic.
So, “In Utero” and “Nevermind” are both legitimate moods.
I haven’t listened to either one in a long, long time.
I have an encyclopedic approach to listening to records, sometimes. I have a huge record collection and I’m always listening to music and I try to apply that in my work, you know?
So, I can’t take a side.
All the lineup changes in Beauty Pill, is that something that’s frustrating to you and what do you attribute it to?
Here’s the thing: I’m drawn to working with people that are not necessarily – the people that have sung in the band, none of these people would have said, “I’m a singer.” And people I’ve met that have approached me about being in the band that are singers are less appealing to me.
I try to be very careful about the use of that word, “amateur,” because I’ve been misunderstood about it. But I like the innocence, sense of discovery, sense of wonder about music – those are the people that I wanna work with.
And eventually that innocence grows in stature and grows in authority. And so I think Rachel was a great singer. I think Joanne’s a great singer. I think Jean’s a great singer. But none of them would have pointed to themselves and said, “I’m a great singer,” initially. They grew into the role.
So I believe in starting from the standpoint of innocence. But one of the perils of that is that not everybody’s motivated – if I were seeking out people who were like, “I’m a life-long musician and this is what I want to do and I’m super passionate about it.”
That’s not always the kind of person I will ask to be in the band.
The band started as a recording project with me and my friend Joanne and Abram. And then I wanted to play live and they were like, “Oh, we want to keep our jobs and start families and stuff.”
I was disappointed by that, for sure. I was really excited about taking that version of the band and playing live, but it didn’t work.
I guess the short answer about the lineup changes is: First of all, I would say that the lineup change aspect of Beauty Pill, for some reason, is exaggerated by people who write about and talk about the band, because, essentially, there was one band that made one EP and then I started a live band and that was a different set of people.
And since then, really, there’s been very little change. Drew has always been in the band, Basla’s always been in the band.
I thought she quit at one point and then rejoined.
No. For the last year, the band didn’t really exist. I was just working in the studio. So Basla’s been in the band, Drew’s been in the band and Jean replaced Rachel. As I said, Rachel is now living in Seattle; she’s a mom. She’s very happy. Music’s not everything for her. And often, that’s the kind of person I’m drawn to. So, you can’t be too surprised when that kind of person decides, “Oh, I’m going to go do something else now.”
I think that’s more the story with the band – seeking out people who are innocent and it’s proven to be fruitful – those people can really tear it up, because they have a liberty about it and their approach to music is just much more interesting to me.
Jean’s a violinist; that’s her background. She’s an amazing violinist. We hardly ever use violin, so asking her to sing is almost perverse. She’s one of the world’s best violinists and we’re saying, “Put that down and sing.”
If I wanted to get a “pro” energy from Jean, I would ask her to play violin, but I’m asking her to sing. I think she’s a great singer, but I think initially she just stepped up to the mic and started to sing.
Do you know the band Exit Clov?
I do know them, yes.
I just thought of this when you said “violin”: I asked them who their favorite band in D.C. and they said, “Beauty Pill.”
Yeah. We exchange emails all the time. We have yet to play a show together, but I’d like to.
That would be a good lineup. You’d complement each other well.
Yeah. I really, really like the emails that we exchange. They’re really fun and smart. Susan’s really smart and interesting to me.
I’m enjoying the friendship that we’re developing almost entirely through emails (chuckles), but it’s great. She’s a great writer and I respect them.
Do you expect a new Beauty Pill record to come out soon?
I would like it to. It remains unfinished, now. That’s one of the things I’m trying to do this fall – complete it. I asked Guy Picciotto to help produce it and my big problem is getting time to devote to it.
I want it to be great and I have a high standard.
Bad music is pollution – that’s something I really believe. Heartless, careless music is pollution. I don’t want to pollute.
The world’s full of a hundred zillion CDs by a hundred zillion inconsequential indie bands who won’t mean anything in the future. And maybe that’s the case for Beauty Pill, too. Maybe what we’re doing is inconsequential. But I would like for it to have weight and meaning and to be something that is of substance and is of value.
So my standard for that is high. I don’t want to just toss it off as if it doesn’t matter. I’d rather say nothing and be silent than toss of something.
I know people who like our band find that frustrating. Sometimes the band finds that frustrating. I know the label finds that aspect, the fact that I’m very self-critical, frustrating.
And it gives me the reputation of being this crazy perfectionist. Swear to God, I’m not a crazy perfectionist, and the best records have an off-the-cuff energy that I respect in rock ’n’ roll – and I respect in music.
So it’s not a question of, “everything must be crafted and honed and put in its place,” because that’s not what I’m interested in.
I just want to deliver something with a lot of life and heat and color and electricity and have it be something that someone who pushes play, somewhere in some living room, gets some value out of and have it be something that’s lasting.
And I feel I can only really do that if I sit down and concentrate. I’m not a multitasker.
Working on Georgie James’ record during the day and working on Beauty Pill at night doesn’t work for me. I have to immerse myself in the world of Georgie James – and I’m very happy to do that.
And then I need to get some time away and then focus and pick up the guitar or do whatever it is I’m going to do to make the record. It’s important, for me, that the experience is immersive – so that the product, the end result, is immersive.
If I want people to immerse themselves in it, I have to immerse myself in it to create it.
So that’s the biggest struggle right now: to try to find time to do that, because this other career, this other life that I have, is always fighting for time.
But I’m very, very lucky. I don’t have a boss. I sometimes come to the studio and there are Japanese tourists taking pictures of the door. You know, it’s a legendary place. I’m around great music, great people all the time. I have a very good life. I’m very lucky – I don’t want to sound like I’m down at all. I’m just trying to manage it, basically.
Why did you choose Guy?
I feel like everything that he’s ever been involved with has electricity. Everything that he’s ever touched has spark to it, and teeth and is tactile. Nothing he does is mushy or wishy-washy or namby-pamby.
Everything that he does – whether it’s Fugazi, Blonde Redhead, Casual Dots, Rites of Spring – all have flavor and electricity.
He’s a genius and he has a high standard for electricity. Things have to be exciting and provocative to him. If you ever watch Fugazi live, you can see it. He’s just trying to create a moment. And that’s something I really want in the next Beauty Pill record – to have it be very colorful and electric. And the way that Beauty Pill would do it would be very different from the way that it would be done in anything else.
His role really is for me to call him in and get a reaction from him. He has a newborn child and so it’s been an ongoing, very casual process.
I’m a huge fan of his and I’m honored that he would give me any of his time.
For example, he is a great lyricist. If you spend time with Fugazi lyrics, Guy’s lyrics are just the most incredibly poetic and intense writing – very expressive, very hard-fought-for language, language that’s very honed and very considered and then delivered with a lot of energy and passion.
So, when I’m writing lyrics, the standard of Guy, or the standard of Ian, or the standard of Bob Dylan, or Mos-Def, or Elvis Costello, or whatever – words are important to me and so, I feel Guy would tell me if a line was bad, or cheesy, or dull.
So I’m calling him in to keep me sane. Even though I produce and work with bands in the studio for a living, it’s very easy for recording to become a hall of mirrors, for anybody. So having somebody who’s objective and going, “You know, you’re on to something here. I think you lost your way here.” It’s very helpful, to anybody.
So that’s the role that I’ve asked him to play. I’ll call him down and go, “What do you think?” It’s very casual and open-ended.
I just really respect him. It’s an opportunity, as a fan, to collaborate with someone who you admire. Who wouldn’t want to do that?
What was your inspiration for “Prison Song”?
I’m glad you asked. That’s a good example of what I’m saying: There are layers of communication that are going on in the songs.
The song kind of wrote itself. I don’t really know where it came from. I was really getting to know and love (ex-BP singer) Rachel (Burke) and her voice had a sweet, apple-y, floral, innocent, light, pure quality to it. And very glowing. And I don’t have that in my voice at all.
I wrote the song with her voice in mind.
It was all written really fast – in one night – and I was surprised by the topic of the song.
I didn’t understand why I was writing about prison and, weirdly, it was very vivid for me, like I was really the character. It really scary, actually; it made me realize I don’t ever want to be incarcerated. It was freaking me out. It was written at like 2 in the morning and I was here, actually. The song just started coming out.
The character started revealing itself to me and only later, the next day, did I realize the subtext to the song: Rachel is this gorgeous blonde white girl, singing about being in prison.
I’ve had a lot of people who told that they have trouble picturing her in prison. They think she must be playing a character. Everybody who hears it goes “this is a very pretty white girl with blonde hair who is singing about being in prison; I don’t buy her being in prison,” which I find very interesting.
So I think the cognitive dissonance of the fact that the words are coming out of Rachel, but evoking another person entirely is provocative.
The thing that I hope notice in that song is that there’s a binary quality to it: every line gets contradicted.
Forgiveness and empathy are really important to me. We don’t know what this person in this song has done. It’s never said. This person could have done something really terrible – but don’t they deserve compassion?
Aren’t they someone who’s just simply made some mistakes?
“Will you forgive me for all the mistakes I’ve made / You’ve made some too.” That line is really from the band to the audience. Nobody who’s listening to this hasn’t fucked up, sometimes really terrible – hurt someone really bad, made some awful mistake.
So the song is supposed to make you empathize with someone who possibly could have done something that you would never do, but also make you identify with this feeling: It’s called a “long song.” The idea being, don’t we all want that out of a love relationship? If shit got really bad, would the person still be there for you? That’s a really good question in any relationship.
You’re an editor of a paper. If you attract someone who’s drawn to you because you that and you lose that job, would they still be there? Questions of allegiance and loyalty.
It’s also supposed to be deeply sad. When I was writing it, I was really sad.
I didn’t notice the binary quality of it until later.
Rachel would emphasize the turnaround.
That song means a lot to me. … and it’s one that I get a lot of letters about.
… Did you want to talk about the economics of being in a band?
A band like Beauty Pill, these are all adults, they need to put food on the table and part of why bands stop is often economics.
More than you would think, on the outside.
Absolutely. I run into this phenomenon all the time, meeting young fans who have a whole different idea of what it’s like to be doing what I’m doing and often not having any understanding of the mechanics behind it. I remember being on tour with Smart Went Crazy and we came to a small town, I can’t remember exactly where we were, but this kid thought we had flown in to play the show. I’m picking a particularly silly moment to highlight it, but it was one of those moments where I realized: They have no idea what it’s like for us, economically.
Keeping a band going is always an economic concern. One of the things that I’m trying to calculate now is how to continue Beauty Pill and make it make sense from a financial standpoint.
When Rachel was in the band we were hit by an offer from Benetton to be in an ad and we didn’t respond to the inquiry. I stand by that decision. I think if we had danced with that world in that way, we would have regretted it.
I think they were interested in, “Hey, there’s a bunch of foxy, ethnic people. This is what we’re about.”
People would make a lot of Benetton jokes about the band, so it was funny to me that the Benetton joke had gotten to the point that someone from Benetton actually tried to contact us. It was surprising.
But we said “no” and I’m very happy to have said “no.” I think it was the right thing to do.
I recently was asked to score this NPR show “This American Life” — that I’m very happy to do.
A band in 2006, the landscape of how to survive and how to stay true to what you’re doing and how to keep the core integrity of what you’re doing alive and also make a living, is a really really tough question.
I’ve been reading a lot of biographies of, for example, Dizzy Gillespie, or Bob Dylan – different artists who I respect – and figuring out how they interfaced with the world of commerce and how they figured it out and how they kept the integrity of what they’re doing. Cause that’s the only thing I give a shit about.
‘Cause that’s the only thing I care about: The integrity of the art. This is where I differ from Dischord as a label: I don’t really care about anything else but the integrity of the art itself. How it’s sent out into the world is less of a concern for me. I respect Dischord’s beliefs and I’ve obviously been on the label for a very long time and my beliefs run parallel with theirs, but they diverge in some very key areas.
I only care about: Is the song great and is the song pure and does the gesture have integrity? How it’s delivered and sold, not that interesting or important to me. For other people it’s more important.
I’m at a juncture now, with Beauty Pill, where I am being pulled in different directions and the only thing I’m interested in, in the end, is: Can I stay true to the music and deliver something that’s of substance and of value and how that’s done is less important to me now. It’s a belief that I’ve arrived at through years of doing it.
I don’t know if I’m being too elliptical in the way I’m talking about it, but there are a lot of economic decisions that a band in our position has to make and the cost of gas, the cost of putting people up in motels, the cost of food on tour, the cost of making records, that’s all weighs on you.
I would think that Beauty Pill’s a big enough band that you would make money on tour.
We do. We’re bigger in some areas than other places. For example, the show we played in Chicago was basically sold out, but in other places we’re totally obscure. You never know. I don’t know whether people are going to care about a band that’s been silent for 18 months. I’m not David Bowie or Madonna. I did not expect there to be an audience there necessarily.
Touring is expensive and making records is expensive and making great records is expensive. The most important thing is to keep the music going and to keep the music good. When I make decisions about the band, that’s the only thing I care about. Again, people who don’t understand the internal dynamics of a band are often surprised. For example, TV on the Radio just moved from Touch and Go to Interscope. I’m really surprised that nobody ever makes a big deal about it. 10 years ago, I think a band leaving Touch and Go and going to a major label would have been a big scandal. People would have talked about it endlessly and discussed the whole, “Is it selling out or is it not selling out” thing. In the current landscape, I have yet to hear anybody talk about it.
Me either, I didn’t even know.
Yeah, there you go. Nobody gives a fuck. All that anybody ultimately cares about is the integrity of their work. Is it good, or not? Is it delivered in a pure way, or is it sullied with a bunch of bullshit that’s interrupting the pure transmission from artist to listener. That’s the only thing I care about. I’ve given this a lot of thought. I’ve had to give this a lot of thought.
…. It’s an interesting topic to me because everyone has a different orientation to it. I think for a lot of people music is currency for another type of social exchange. I’m interested in art, the thing itself. Again, how it’s sold is less important to me than that what you are selling is good and is not poison.
The only thing that concerns me about a band selling out is when the selling out waters down the music. That sucks. That’s poison. That’s garbage.
But I don’t really find that indie rock is full of integrity. I don’t feel that the underground produces better music. I find that there’s great work in the underground and there’s great work elsewhere.
The Beatles is great. Couldn’t be a more ubiquitous and more marketed band. I don’t think anybody would wish them not to exist. Jimi Hendrix is great. Radiohead is great.
We could go on all day naming great bands on major labels.
Yeah, and conversely on independent labels. So that dialogue is — I’ve been doing this for a long time and that’s becoming more something to wrestle with and to figure out. I’m trying not to be too elliptical and I’m trying to not be too specific, but it’s something that I wish people had more insight into and talked about more.
I haven’t seen this Luna movie, but there’s a movie about Luna now, and apparently it’s about the year that they decided to break up and it’s also about the economics behind them, being on tour, selling t-shirts, and figuring out if they’re making a living, and how that was eventually tearing them apart.
… How you do what I want to do — which is to make great records with no boundaries, basically — and how to do it on a very small budget. I think I’ve done pretty good at making records that I’m very happy with on a very small budget, but it’s a struggle every time. I think it’s actually a struggle that has helped me, as an artist and a technician, to work within limited means. But it’s a drag.
Here’s the thing that gets me: Sometimes the art is worse when the budget is lower.
Georgie James, we tried some things, started recording some songs, decided to re-record them cause we didn’t like the way the particular mic-ing scheme that we had chosen initially worked for some of the songs. So we started over again. That’s the kind of thing you can do when you have a budget, you can go, “You know what? This is not working. Let’s pull back and try another thing.”
When you don’t, you have to go ahead and rush it out and be done with it. Which is worse for the art. What we’re doing right now with Georgie James is worth doing and will benefit the record and will benefit the band and will benefit the band’s listeners. Everybody wins. Georgie James is making a record they’re happier with, the fans will get a record that is great and everybody’s happy.
And that’s because we chose to, with half of the songs, start over again. That’s an economic decision. That’s a budgetary decision and the art is better for it. So, as I said, I’m always interested in whatever situation works for the art.
I happen to be able to make records on a fairly low budget that I think sound really good, but it’s a struggle every time. And it’s a struggle that I’m always asking myself, “Is this worth it? Why am I doing this? What principle am I allied with in doing it this way?” Especially when the wide world of the options that are available to a band like Beauty Pill exist. It’s a terrible struggle. So I’m trying to be respectfully elliptical about it..
… And again, the only thing that I care about is when the music is watered down.
Which does happen a lot.
Yeah, it does happen, for real. No question.
I’m sure people go in there completely resolved it’s not gonna happen.
Yeah, I think that’s true too. I’ll take it one step further and say it may even happen with people not even realizing it is happening. That would be Ian’s argument. There’s so many histories where bands danced with the mainstream machinery and it ended up chewing them up or chewing up their work. It’s something I take seriously.
I’ve been on Dischord for 10 years now and I am someone whose work — everything that I’m doing now, is something that I’m able to do because of the support of Dischord and the people and the community around it and from the label itself.
I take that very seriously. I’m part of a community. I have my little shop and they all come to me to work. Soccer Team needs me to mix their 8-track tapes — I work on that record. Evens need to master their record. Whatever’s needed — that is my role. I’m the sound guy in the community, or one of them.
So I take being part of that home-grown network of friends, the genuine “I can shake your hand and I can talk to you.” I take that connection seriously and I’m grateful to it. I know how much of Ian’s seeing that I was talented in certain ways and empowering me and being supportive led me to pursue those things – that meant a lot. Where I am – I couldn’t have done it without Ian. I couldn’t have done it without Don (Zientara). I’m very lucky to be supported and I’m very loyal. I take that very seriously.
But, on the other hand, I have to balance out what my vision is and what I’m trying to do with the music and what I want out of the music and I have to always be true to that, maybe just a little bit more than anything else. Hopefully not to the point where I’m exploiting people or hurting people or being disrespectful, but I also know that I have to serve the music, I have to serve the songs, and any decision that I make is towards that end.
But I understand Ian’s point of view. He’s been right about a lot of stuff, and I take his point of view seriously. I don’t share his point of view on a lot of things, and we disagree on many many many things. We’re very good friends, and there’s a lot of mutual respect between us, but we don’t agree on tons of things.
Do you have a lot of long conversations?
Oh yeah. Oh yeah. I mean, we talk extensively. That’s a part of Dischord that I wish the world outside knew more about, and a side of Ian MacKaye that I feel that I know; a human being with strong opinions but also with a compassion, sort of a holistic point of view on things, and a person who will straight up argue with you or debate.
He has a very hardcore vision – and I’m not just saying that because of the word “hardcore,” — he has a very, very precise and very resolute vision of a way to conduct yourself and a way to go and face the world, which is to owe nothing to the outside world, so that you move freely. Not get entangled in bullshit, basically, and not have to answer, to or answer for, bullshit. And that’s really worked, for him. That has really been the guiding principle of his operation and of his bands, and I tremendously respect that, and I think everybody does, and everyone admires it or envies it as a way of going about your life and arriving at a successful happy ongoing thing.
But I know a little bit about music’s history, and I know about Mozart, and I know about Coltrane, and I know about Thelonious Monk, and I know about the Doors or whatever, and how different artists find their way, how the Beatles found their way.
There’s a number of different paths with which you can keep your integrity and still make a living and also be happy as an artist. And Ian’s version is only one of them. It’s one that I very much respect and have subscribed to for all my adult life, but it’s not the only one.
Have you ever been able to convert him to your point of view?
I do think that he listens, that he pays attention and listens and interacts, but I never have any hope of fundamentally changing Ian’s point of view.
Dischord has a strong belief in a sort of quiet dignity. Dischord doesn’t traffic in bullshit or hype and Ian has been misunderstood since Minor Threat, since Fugazi, through the Evens. “I’m misunderstood all the time. Misunderstood a hundred times over.”
He never corrects anyone unless he’s engaged in a conversation. Fugazi songs are open to interpretation, wildly abstract, many different meanings. You will hear a writer write about Fugazi and say, “This song’s about this,” and Ian’s like, “Well no, they’re totally wrong.” He’s never going to respond. There’s a rock-solid philosophical belief: You just keep doing what you’re doing, they’ll make a bunch of noise or they won’t. They’ll get it or they won’t. Hopefully, they get it. We want them to get it, obviously. We’re going to do our best within our power to communicate to the outside world. But people are going to misinterpret. You don’t get yourself entangled with that. You just stay on your course, and then people will find it or they won’t. And that part of it is the part that I have always, and continue to, believe in.
I pour myself into the song. When people ask me about a song or are interested in “Prison Song” for example: Great. I’m psyched to engage about that. The part where Ian and I run completely parallel is the belief in keeping your head down and staying devoted to the work. The part where we might disagree is in the mechanics, the morality, the ethics of how you deliver that.
And I work within Ian’s way of doing things because it has empowered me and it’s meant a lot to me, but there are many things about his beliefs that I just don’t share.
And there’s a diversity of opinion within the Dischord world. People have a very cartoonish idea of what it’s like or what people are like. Guy, for example, couldn’t be any more different from Ian. They’re just completely different. There’s obviously a love and intense collaboration between them, but they’re very, very different.
… All I can say is that I am someone who has worked within the way Dischord operates for my entire life as an artist and it has meant a lot to me and has resonated within my music and how people receive the music, so I take it very seriously, but I do think there are many many ways to approach music with integrity that are not Dischord’s way.
And if you look at the broad sweep of musical history, going back even to a composer like Beethoven writing a commissioned piece of music that a rich person paid for- Lasting, classic, great music – but it was essentially a paid for piece of music, because he had to put food on the table. The history of how artists interface with commerce is a broad and colorful one and there are many paths to greatness, just as there are many paths to greatness within art.
This is something I think about all the time, because I really want to make something great and that’s the only thing I really care about and that’s hard enough to do. That’s fucking tough. I want the song to be great and that’s hard to do. I’m a very tough critic of myself.
It’s enough of a struggle, it’s enough of an achievement for me to do something great as an artist — and to make it sell and to find an audience, that’s way beyond me. That’s something I don’t even really quite understand.
The only thing I really care about is the art itself and the purity of it and that, I can swear to God, I will never compromise — that’s never going to happen. I don’t know what else may happen, but I’ll tell you that the art will stay pure.
Do you have any idea how many records you’ve sold, even back to Smart Went Crazy?
I do not. I think there’s probably about 10,000 people that are fans. That’s probably about it. It’s very small in the scheme of the world.
But very big in the scheme of D.C. bands.
Maybe, yeah, it seems that way. Here’s the thing: The work that I do is often treated as important, but I don’t think it has a huge popular impact. I would like to have more of a popular impact than I do. I would like to reach a wider audience than I do — again, without ever compromising the work itself. But I would certainly love to sell 100,000 records or 200,000 records or a million records, or whatever.
It’s a funny thing. I’ll often talk to other musicians and they’ll treat me with a certain respect. I feel like I get a lot of respect. There’s respect and there’s actually selling a lot of records.
It’s like the small independent movie that gets a lot of great reviews, but then people are still going to go see “Mission: Impossible III.”
“Yeah, there’s that movie I’ve heard about that’s supposed to be really good, but really when I want to go munch on some popcorn and look at Tom Cruise scaling a wall, I’m going to go see ‘Mission: Impossible.’”
I think that probably my music is more respected than actually bought and I would love to undue that problem, but I don’t know what I can do about it.
A lot of people would love to have that problem. A lot of people are neither respected, nor bought.
Yes and that’s Ian’s argument. What you just said is what Ian says. He’s like “Dude, what is your problem? You have so many people who respect you and who take you seriously. Your music means a lot to them and you travel and play music. What do you want?”
That’s his argument and that’s a legitimate argument.
Look at Liz Phair. Liz Phair had what I would think would be very desirable, her first couple records generating, to me on my scale, a lot of attention
Even “Rolling Stone” considered them important albums
They’re great records and as far as I’m concerned she sold a ton of records. She had the dream and apparently that isn’t enough. Apparently that was kinda understimulating to her and she needed to seek out some kind of other experience where she essentially sold out. She is someone who sold out, in my opinion. Her music suffered. Her music became crappy and that’s a nightmare to me. Liz Phair is a cautionary tale. Someone who didn’t appreciate what she had. She could have been
Exactly. She could be where Elvis Costello is now or Tom Waits — really respected, someone who has a really intense and good relationship with an audience that maybe is only 200,000 people, but fuck it. Selling a million the way she sold it, I don’t know.
Has she even sold a million?
I don’t know, but let’s say her audience has expanded — and I think it probably has — let’s say her most recent two records outsold the other two records 5-to-1 or 10-to-1.
Do you think?
I don’t know.
I would bet that they haven’t.
I don’t know, but let’s say they have. In the end, when it’s all said and done and Liz Phair is 60 years old, what do you want to leave the world? Do you want to give the world some real substance or not? Really think about what you’re doing and its lasting impact and its lasting value.
So to me, she’s a scary idea of the other thing that’s not Dischord. People do this all the time, where they leap for something else and they end up really damaging
It’s the worst of both worlds.
It’s the worst of both worlds and it calls into question the sincerity and the value of their earlier work. If I were to go right now and make a crappy record for Capitol or Interscope or Geffen or whatever and it was just horrible, just insincere and terrible, wouldn’t you wonder about the early stuff? Wouldn’t it cast a shadow?
I mean, I can’t listen to early Liz Phair now without thinking about where she eventually went and it messes with me. So yeah, that sucks.
That’s the side that Ian would say is the danger. But, you know, then there’s Radiohead. There’s plenty of examples of people who work in the mainstream who do very powerful work – unconventional and uncompromising.
And, to be more pointed, there are people who work in the underground who are full of shit and are completely vacuous and have no integrity to what they’re doing and don’t give a shit and are just doing it to get girls or crash on floors or whatever. There are people in the underground who have no integrity whatsoever. I can tell you this for a fucking fact.
Care to name names?
No, I don’t want to do that, but there’s plenty of garbage in the underground. Just garbage. Terrible work. Terrible music made by people who have no vision and no integrity whatsoever — and they’re in the quote underground.
So if the underground equated integrity and the mainstream equated dilution, it would be a simple choice: Which one do you want to roll with? But that’s not the case at all. It’s a very complex decision, who you want to roll with.