December/January 2014

by Mark Bell

Clap Clap Riot: Cue Manic Applause

by Mark Bell

Clap Clap Riot: Cue Manic Applause

Early 2014 will see the release of a second album from Auckland’s Clap Clap Riot, the indie-pop/rock outfit who in a former life hailed from Christchurch, answered to the name Band Theft Auto and were billed as a nu-metal act. But for a meagre handful of live gigs and the mid-year release of new single Everybody, we’ve seen and heard little from them during 2013. Stephen Heard and Dave Rowlands talked Mark Bell through the fast recorded/slow released feast that is ‘Nobody / Everybody’.

In an age where digital recording has made the dream of recording an album a financial and technical reality for the many rather than an elite few, it seems ironic that the turnaround between albums commonly seems to have expanded rather than contracted.

In times not too long past the expectation of a new album every year from your favourite artists was totally reasonable; a longer wait giving cause for serious doubts about the ongoing viability of the band in question. These days a wait of two or three years – more than the effective life-span of many a fine band – is no longer a cause for eyebrow-raising. Maybe people aren’t in such a hurry after all…

So forgive me for thinking Clap Clap Riot is a band in a hurry. When we talk it’s not much more than a year since I last sat down with guitarists Stephen Heard and Dave Rowlands to talk about their then-imminent debut album ‘Counting Spins’. Late in 2013 here we are again, and as I am to find out, album number two was actually recorded way back in February. Despite a few mixing and mastering hiccups it has actually been ready to hit the cyber-shelves for some months already.

Reasons for any generally expanding album release time lag are many and complex, but I suspect a big part is that the logistics of marketing and good timing have become more crucial than ever under the deluge of new material flooding a shrinking marketplace. Finished albums pile up at the starting line like jittery race horses, waiting for the bureaucratic barrier arm to lift.

These days a success-oriented band needs to have a well-honed strategy and sense of what it is they want to achieve, both in the studio and the marketplace. This is something that Clap Clap Riot do very well, as spelled out by their energetic new album ‘Nobody/Everybody’, which was recorded at Auckland’s Lab Studio, with house engineer Ollie Harmer guiding and indie-pop wunderkind Kody Nielson as producer.

Their self-released 2012 debut album ‘Counting Spins’ was engineered and produced by rock specialist Andrew Buckton. The first notable difference is that this new one is much more live in sound. It’s looser, less radio-polished, not so overtly rocky and even more fun.

Lead guitarist Rowlands describes the approach that resulted in a very efficient four-day recording session, during which they nailed the vast majority of the record.

“I think the big thing that we learnt from the first one was that we wanted to take it back to a more live domain, where we were actually sort of putting in the blood, sweat and tears, as opposed to engineers putting in the effort. We worked really hard on rehearsing it and getting the songs exactly how we wanted them, so that when we went in to do the recording it was fast and easy and smooth.””

It sounds pretty straightforward on paper but it’s surprising how often arrangements that work well in the din of a practice room come up short under the microscope of state-of-the-art studio speakers.

Set-up time was kept to a minimum by adopting a very un-fussy ’70s-style approach to drum miking. Bass drum and snare were the only drums close-miked, ambient room mics taking care of the rest and allowing the kit to sound as it naturally does, not a gated, sub-mixed construct.

“There’s a mix of different mics,”” Rowlands continues. “Like more room sounding ones and more tight sounding drums. I think Kody definitely brought more of those (room) sounds in for choruses to make it more open sounding.””

Singer/guitarist Stephen Heard says he was pleasantly surprised, actually “amazed”” by the short turnaround time between kit set up and pushing the scary red button.

“Usually you’re in a studio and three-quarters of your day is taken up by setting up microphones and getting the right sounds. But we did it in a couple of hours and it was like, ‘Whoa, okay, time to start tracking…’””

The choice of Kody Nielson as producer was an astute one, made subsequent to the release of his well-received Bic Runga and Opossom album recordings. The band members say they were attracted by the drum treatment and overall 1960s vintage sound he had created.

It seems to have paid dividends on several levels. The album benefits from the former Mint Chicks synth-player’s unrestrained creative spark, which might see him adding organ bass pedals to fatten up a bass track, running the drums through a manually tweaked tape echo, utilising a trashed and ancient mixing desk for its unique reverb or mixing in a touch of cruddy, distorted $15 microphone to Heard’s vocal track.

It’s this sort of fearless, whatever-works-and-to-hell-with-the-rule-book attitude that helps lift ‘Nobody/Everybody’ above the level of being just another indie-pop album and transforms it into something much more interesting.

Rowlands points out the communication benefits of working with a producer who is also a songwriter and a working musician – combined with a shared openness to trying ideas in a collaborative way.

“Kody definitely brought ideas to the table. But also working with someone like him we felt like we had a lot more freedom to suggest things and try things. He was definitely more open to us trying anything. I suppose producers can end up being someone really directing you what to do, and you go and do that and you don’t end up suggesting much, whereas it was all a big sort of open conversation as to how we wanted to do something.””

Since just before the release of ‘Counting Spins’ Clap Clap Riot has been the trio of Rowlands, Heard and bassist Tristan Colenso, backed by a slowly rotating roster of drummers who have included Sam Mountain, Strachan Rivers and Jordan Clark. What most bands would see as a handicap – ie. not having a full-time drummer – is perhaps showing advantage this time.

The contribution of Tiny Ruins’ and ex-Artisan Guns’ drummer Alex Freer has ended up providing an aspect to the new album that lifts it a notch or two above its predecessor. He’s a supremely talented and musical player, and when his rhythmic attack locks in to Colenso’s aggressive bass playing it lifts several of the tracks in ways a more conventional drum performance would fail to match.

“Working with a different drummer was an awesome thing for this record,” Rowlands agrees. “Alex primarily comes from a more mellow groovy type of background so it was awesome taking a drummer like that. He sort of instilled a lot of the groove – but at the same time getting a groovy drummer to play really fast beats means that the fast beats end up having a lot more groove to them.””

In the spirit of applying lessons learnt going forward, Rowlands decided to use all his own guitars and effects this time, rather than chopping and changing studio guitars and experimenting with effects he didn’t know inside out. His guitars include a Telecaster Deluxe Fender Mustang both from 1973, a more recent Telecaster Standard and a ’60s Japanese Misaki.

“I think I had a more defined idea of what sound I wanted and it was also using the palette of my pedal board. A lot of those effects had been on there for a long time so I had become more experienced with how they reacted and what I wanted to do with them.””

His rig consisted of an A/B split, with the pedal board feeding into his main Fender Deluxe amp and recorded wet, while a dry signal was captured from a fairly hard-driven Fender Champ. The advantages of this set up will be apparent to any guitarist who has built guitar parts around integral effects and wanted that to be translated to the mixing desk.

“I think maybe a big part was having freedom to record with a lot of those effects on there. It meant that straight away the sound I was getting out of my amp was the sound that I wanted in my head. I wasn’t recording it straight and then requesting that someone else get it to sound how I wanted it.””

Having the dry signal as well is of course a good safety net, giving producers the option of blending in a more straight-edged sound or dispensing with the wet signal altogether and building a new sound if required.

Heard mainly plays rhythm, wielding either a 1972 Fender Bronco or a “weird Japanese guitar called a Teisco Norma””. His own amp is a Super Twin but recording engineer Harmer suggested he instead use the studio’s Fender Bassman, with no effects other than the amp’s natural distortion.

While the album’s first single Everybody was released to radio mid-year, (and another Cold As Ice has lately been getting airplay), Heard confirms the band have been decidedly quiet on the live front.

“I think we’ve played four gigs this year, yeah. So we recorded and then we played Homegrown like a week after that, and then we’ve just been quiet really, just getting ready for the release of this.”

It’s just part of the ebb and flow of the recording/touring cycle, with one album having successfully run its course (there’s the race-horse thing again) and another about to be launched. January 2014 will see them play Big Day Out, followed by an album tour in March. They are well aware of the pitfalls of over-playing their touring hand in a market the size of New Zealand’s, and their gaze remains firmly fixed on Australia where ‘Counting Spins’ gained them some profile.

To this end in mid-September they played the Bigsound conference showcase in Brisbane (an antipodean version of SXSW), where a great deal of handshaking and card-swapping accompanies bands and management plying their wares. For Clap Clap Riot it was an opportunity to hook a supportive label to release their new album there – and they currently have a suitable-sized (but unconfirmed) fish on the line. They already had NSW bookers The Harbour Agency on board.

That was the band’s second international excursion of the winter. In July the three musicians and their camera-toting mate took a quick tour around the desert lands of southern California – as much for a friends’ bonding exercise as an opportunity to capture still and video imagery for the upcoming album release. One photo taken in the Joshua Tree National Park has been used for the album cover, while the video for Everybody (filmed and directed by Jeremy Toth) was a kind of travelogue of their two weeks away.

They’re an odd band in a way, as modern as they are old-fashioned. The success of ‘Counting Spins’ with its energetic singles So You Say, Everyone’s Asleep, Lie and Yoko Ono suggests that Clap Clap Riot have hit on a sound that people can relate to. There’s no evidence of laurel resting though, they’re keen to learn from every opportunity that comes their way and to continue evolving their sound. I was about to include ‘refining’ in that sentence but the result of Kody Nielson’s input is not so much one of refinement as refreshment and invigoration.

Nielson also took charge of mixing the 12 tracks on ‘Nobody/Everybody’, a process which wasn’t finished until June. Mastering was then done back at the Lab by Harmer with the finished album mix returned only just ahead of their Bigsound trip. That was September, but what with the whole drama of the pre-Christmas album release/retail market, their management decided to hold off launch until early 2014 – making it almost a year since the recording.

The guys seem remarkably chilled about this very drawn out release process, which belies an otherwise quick turnaround between albums.

They do admit to frustration, but seem also unfazed about the absence of any sort of concerted pre-album launch singles campaign. The reason has to be that they are pleased with the product of their songwriting and decision-making. They are quietly confident that, while it may tune out some existing rock radio fans, ‘Nobody/Everybody’ will more than compensate by appealing to a growing audience of less-commercial indie pop/rock.

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