‘Dull Life’ – hardly an inspirational kind of album title you might think, but then again ‘Parklife’ did Blur no harm back in the mid ’90s. Clap Clap Riot have a strong history of enigmatic release titles. There’s 2008’s introductory EP ‘TV Knows Better’, ‘Counting Spins’ their pop-rockin’ debut album, and then its determinedly indie rock follow up ‘Nobody/Everybody’. Those albums were rather like two sides of a musical coin, the band apparently searching for a best-fitting pocket. As the core songwriting duo of Stephen Heard and Dave Rowlands tell Richard Thorne, the idea of writing (and mixing) their music for commercial success somehow just doesn’t sit well with them. They’re happier doing it for themselves.
Clap Clap Riot’s 2012 album debut (‘Counting Spins’, produced by Andrew Buckton) was a regular pop express, stacked with commercial radio singles that lent the three-piece considerable momentum. Their ‘difficult second album’ turned out to indeed be difficult – for airplay at least – the ratio of radio hits to album tracks inverted.
Perhaps seeking critical rather than repeat popular success, ‘Nobody/Everybody’ was deliberately way more indie rock in nature. Previously too mainstream for alternative radio, mainstream radio found their Kody Nielson-produced new music too alternative. Others may have considered it a mistake, but for Stephen Heard and Dave Rowlands, the band’s songwriting core, it was a deliberate move.
“I think that if we had wanted to make a more financially stable version of the band we know what we should have done,” says Rowlands. ‘Counting Spins’, had a lot of mainstream success on rock radio and we knew that if we wanted to continue that success we needed to follow that up with a similar sounding album.”
“But we decided to go the complete opposite basically,” adds Heard, before Rowlands continues.
“It wasn’t because we decided to make a flip turn for that second album we did with Kody, it was that mix-wise the first record wasn’t an accurate reflection of what we are. We still love the songs, but it was lot bigger than we had anticipated the record to be. It’s not a producer fault, we were part of that process, but we didn’t realise the certain directions it would push us in – and where it would place us.
“The second album is actually closer to our first EP, it’s really the first album that’s the odd one out. If we had wanted to build the band and make money off it we could have mixed all the records in a particular way. Rock radio and pop radio are after something very special in terms of the mixes they like to hear. ”
The title they’ve given their third independently released album, ‘Dull Life’, seems to speak volumes. Well it might if they were somehow dissing themselves, but they’re not. Dull Life is also the track on the album that both songwriters identify as being their favourite.
“It’s the most different song we have ever written and it came so easily,” explains frontman/guitarist Heard. “And I think it’s a solid song.”
Across all three albums it stands out because of Heard’s unusual vocal approach. The mostly dawdling track reveals a completely different low register of his voice, one even he didn’t know he had.
“Usually I’m up quite high – a wee bit shouty, really raw – but that one’s definitely honed back to a completely different spot that that I’ve never sung in before.”
Then there’s the song’s lyrical content: ‘Those fantasies might help you out, but reality is bearing down. I think this dull life’s here to stay. Spending my weeks stuck on repeat. It’s another wasted year once again…’
The pair work closely in songsmithing, in this case taking a verse each while penning the chorus together.
“Dave and I shared the lyric writing and so it has two different angles as I see it,” says Heard. “My angle is a situation I was once in where a person I lived with just struggled with living basically. My observations about that worked really well with what Dave put into verse two.”
“My take was similar, but my vision was that you see friends getting into a miserable rut in their lives, where they once followed some sort of passion they used to have,” Rowlands takes over. “At some point they settle and just get on this mundane path and you realise that’s going to be them for the next 20 years. It’s sad to watch as an outsider sometimes. A lot of people have a great creative talent for instance, but that talent becomes obsolete because they are in some job that pays them better and is a more stable situation. A lot of people do have to make that sort of decision at some point of their lives.”
So has Clap Clap Riot avoided that?
“We all have jobs, but we are all still working on that balance,” Rowlands accepts. “It’s harder now than it was when you were younger because your focus then was more on the band, not stability of your job.”
“Yeah, back then you were just living in the moment, not planning ahead,” agrees Heard. “What Dave was saying about that slump, I’m working full time now and I haven’t written a song since this album was recorded – so I could see me falling into that situation myself. You have to fight against it. So I think it’s quite relatable to us and to others as well.”
With that in mind they chose to give their new album the song’s name.
“It seemed to fit the general theme,” expands Rowlands. “There were a lot of running themes through the record that were along those lines. Lyrically a lot of the songs deal with growing up and getting older and things that come from that. There are songs that go [differ] from that but it was a prevalent thing I was thinking about at the time.”
Almost a decade on from their EP debut, recent times have seen Clap Clap Riot playing more all ages gigs than R18 performances, in Auckland at least. That run started after they were asked to play support for The 1975 a few years ago, as Rowlands recalls.
“Normally you assume nobody will pay attention to you – and 99% of the time that’s what happens. We didn’t even know who The 1975 were at that stage, but after just our first song the crowd were in a complete frenzy! I remember being quite shocked, two or three songs in, waiting for it all to simmer down, but it never did.”
“Even walking out on stage these teenagers were going mental,” chimes in Heard. “Some were fainting and needed to be dragged out by the paramedics. It was pretty weird! The bum out thing though was that after that concert we still had to load all our gear into our cars, past all these kids. So we looked quite a lot less cool than we had on stage!”
They figured then that if Clap Clap Riot were ever going to do an all ages gig it should be soon. A month or so later they all but sold out the Old Folks Association hall in Newton.
“There was sweat running down the walls and it was just an awesome show,” Heard laughs.
The band’s online profile exploded after The 1975 gig, but the pair are adamant the newfound teenage fandom didn’t have any impact on their songwriting. As Rowlands explains it they just write songs, there’s no thought about who it will be going out to.
“We always just try to write as good as we can. We do things that we think will push ourselves as opposed to anything else. I feel like we are growing up and expanding as we go. Definitely maturing and we’re pushing ourselves.”
History attests that they’ve been unafraid to try a new producer with each recording. This time it’s Auckland musician/producer Tom Healy who gets production and mixing credits.
“We met with him early in the process and he just seemed like the right fit,” says Rowlands of the choice. “There’s a lot of diversity in the stuff he’s produced. Stuff like Tiny Ruins is really organic, but he can also do this mega pop thing. He does what he thinks is catering to that band, whereas some producers always produce music that sounds like that producer.
“We both really liked the Popstrangers’ and Salad Boys’ albums he produced as well,” Heard adds. “Both are really good sounding albums.”
Their brief to Healy included an extensive playlist dominated by ’60s and ‘70s tracks – The Byrds, The Clash, Beach Boys, Fleetwood Mac, William Onyeabor for melodies, some solo Paul McCartney for mix notes.
“We wanted something between our last album and something more produced and shiny,” Rowlands explains. “Alex did a lot of drumming without a skin on the bottom of the toms, a very ’70s sound. We really thought about every track as its own thing, as opposed to one drum sound for the whole record.”
Early last year the band spent five days in The Lab recording the bones of the album’s 11 tracks, returning over following months to add or redo individual parts with Healy. Recording and mixing wasn’t finished until May, quite a drawn out process as Heard points out, especially considering their last one was completely recorded in four days.
“People think you can just record an album and release it but you can’t,” Rowlands continues. “The more moving parts involved the longer it takes. There are five of us in the band now [Alex Freer has settled in as the band’s drummer and Anthony Metcalf, formerly of Glass Owls, has joined on keys] so getting those overdubs right needed some ironing out. With mixing you want to listen to it, then give it at least a week and listen again, then make the call about adjustments. You don’t know how many adjustments you might need.”
Mastering in the US added further delays, disappointing results from the first engineer necessitating a rethink.
“Mastering is normally pretty straightforward and this is the first time we’ve felt it wasn’t right,” says Rowlands. “We had a couple of cracks with that first guy before deciding that it wasn’t going to get to where we wanted it to. So then we went to LCM Mastering and the first master from Jared Hirshland was good.”
There are no plans for a CD release – ‘Dull Life’ will be available as digital and vinyl only. As always the new album has some great singalong tracks, however first single Help Me, didn’t bother the charts when released last August.
By now though these guys are pragmatic and accepting. They’ve seen their songs slumber for six months before taking off at radio (Moss Haired Girl and Everyone’s Asleep), and equally have others like Sweet Patricia that, despite getting little radio play, are sung word-for-word by enthusiastic fans at every gig. Life may sometimes be dull, but they have come to know that in the music business it is never predictable.