I came to Dave Clifford by way of the instrumental post metal band Red Sparowes. I then worked my way backwards to the thoroughly indefinable The VSS. For me, it’s an arc of musical prowess that bears investigation. Clifford now curates the US/THEM group representing a myriad of bands and still maintains his passion for all things heavy. I had the opportunity to ask Dave a few questions concerning his own experience as a musician as well as the future for those musicians wanting staying power in a rapidly evolving…or devolving world.
Let’s start out with your evolution as an artist,
Dave. From the moment you wanted to play an instrument to
where you are now, what’s that journey been like for you?
The big thing, from like a really young age, I just really identified with music as sort of like my religion. We had a piano at home, and my parents made my two older sisters take piano lessons, and they hated it and never played it, so my parents didn’t make me take any music lessons. I think, just coincidentally, I started to play on that and just fell in love with the whole visceral experience of playing the piano – the emotional feeling and sound of music. I guess that’s kind of the thing that got me started. Years later when I was about thirteen, I got a guitar and started playing in bands from that point on – just a whole bunch of silly punk bands and stuff. It wasn’t until I was twenty-five that I picked up drums. I’ve just always really kind of liked drums. They seemed interesting, but it always seemed like something that’d be too hard to learn. I just tried to play around on them a bit and really got into that. From that point on, I sort of lost interest in playing guitar. I still play a little guitar and bass and other stuff like that, but drums are definitely my favorite thing to do.
Just looking at your work with The VSS and Red Sparowes, what was the draw, for you, when it came to heavy music? What was different about what music was and is coming out of that scene?
I think really…and maybe this sounds strange and maybe it doesn’t…but it’s because I was really engrossed with classical music. When I was growing up, everything that was on the radio was rock music, or what I thought was rock music. It was terrible 70s music like disco and stuff. It was kind of like my Crocodile Dundee moment when he turns on the TV, and it’s always I Love Lucy on there, so he thinks that’s all there is. I thought that rock music and anything associated with it was just what I was hearing on the radio. So I listened to classical music all the time until I discovered punk rock when I was about eleven. From that point on, I was really attracted to the intensity and the intelligence of it. The classical music thing is a big part of what heavy music is, I think. For The VSS – all of us came from somewhat of a musical training background or having really diverse interests in doing things. And it wasn’t even necessarily us trying to do something that was heavy , but just different and unusual for the time. And wanting to have an emotional intensity MC5 kind of power. We’d just be doing something kind of new. I just think being drawn to that kind of stuff really does stem out of the intensity of classical music and the impact that it can make.
Do you feel like that kind of varied background in influence has played a role in the surge in popularity for the metal genre? It seems like the genre is finally getting its due from media outlets that have previously all but ignored it.
I think there definitely has been, in the last ten years or so, a real growth of this affinity for more experimental and unusual types of music. I think some of that probably came out of grunge – not like mainstream grunge but like early Melvins just taking elements from weirder bands like Scratch Acid or The Birthday Party and putting that into a heavier metal type of form. I think that really started to develop this sound that other people grew up on, and then it became more acceptable, I guess, in heavy music to be experimental and do unusual things. It’s definitely been a part of it, and then of course labels like Hydra Head and Neurot helped really foster that. At this point it’s really turned into a genre that continues to evolve and grow and have lots of new and interesting ideas.
I think a lot of the exposure to the experimental music is so abundant for listeners today whereas only a few years ago it was still a task to search out new music and find new things. Everything is immediate now. The diversity of sound and influence, to me, plays heavily into what we’re hearing from heavier bands now.
I agree. I think people have so much access to so many more different styles of music, and that’s a really great thing. Going back to The VSS thing, that was sort of something that we really tried to do at the time was really hammering together the strangest genres and different types of music and try to make something interesting and new. There’s a few songs that I came up with the original impetus for how we would put them together by thinking of Leonard Cohen songs and how heavy and layered that can sound. Just the simple repletion of the arpeggiated guitar notes. You would never hear any element of that in that music, but we were really trying to come from different areas to create stuff. I think today it’s a whole lot easier – I guess it’s lucky that most of us were involved with music – I worked in a record store and Sonny was a show promoter – everyone had a diverse background, but these days it’s a little more commonplace thing to have easier access to that. It’s great, though, that we’ll hopefully end up with a lot of new and interesting genres that come out of that.
Was the transition of going from the punkish sounds of The VSS to more of the mainline metal of Red Sparowes an easy move for you?
It was pretty organic, I’d say. There was a pretty large time gap there. The VSS broke up in ’97, and three of us went on to start a new band called Pleasure Forever. And that had more of a classical feel. There was a little more piano. I guess you could say it was more straightforward rock-sounding. I don’t imagine too many mainstream listeners would listen to it and think there was anything straightforward about it. We wrote a lot of lengthy songs that used textures like Red Sparowes used as well. Having influences like Goblin and unusual soundtrack stuff like that it just felt kind of natural going into Red Sparowes and something like that.
What do you personally view as the greatest challenge to anyone attempting to make viable art in the 21 st century?
Hm. I guess the greatest challenge is being able to afford it. The second greatest challenge is getting anyone to hear it. There’s just so much that is out there. It is really difficult to stand out. People have to work a whole lot harder now than they ever did. Because people have quick access to things now, they think they don’t need to work as hard or put in all the time that is necessary to be able to get anywhere with music. I still see today, with bands that I work with, you have to record a lot, you have to go out on tour a lot, you have to just do everything full on and expect that people aren’t going to know who you are for quite a while. Obviously some people have some immediate success every once in a while, but it’s often a fluke or something that’s a novelty that is going to last. There are many challenges in doing it today, but the good part about it is there’s always going to be kids that want to play music and enjoy it and will sacrifice everything to be able to do that. That’s basically what you have to do in order to make it anywhere or have anyone care about your band. And really, if you want anyone to care about your band, you have to care about your band as well.
When you say it’s more difficult now to be noticed is it because of the oversaturation?
I guess there’s a metaphor for it. It’s something I’ve been saying for a long time. Being a musician is not always going to be the most sought after thing that people want to do. If you look back at the turn of the 20 th century when everyone wanted to be a poet, because that was one of the most well respected things you could do, and everyone wanted a piece of that, basically. Then that just disappeared. It just went away – that popular desire. Then film became popular along with other things that had a bigger or more immediate cultural impact and many people stopped caring too much about poetry. I think that while music is always something that’s going to be significant for people – there’s just so many people doing it that it’s really lost a lot of it’s magic, and it’s put a lot of limitations on it as well. We’re evolving towards the next thing that’s going to be interesting, and I suppose, as far as anyone who wants to make it rich – maybe stick to venture capitalism or something like that. That’s kind of the new rock star thing [laughs]. I think going forward that musicians will become something like the poets of yesteryear thanks to that oversaturation.
What do you find yourself doing when you’re not working with the various bands, Dave?
I’ve thought about this, and I can’t really turn off what goes on around me. I’m constantly surrounded by music – all day it’s just a huge part of my life on all fronts. It’s my hobby and my job all at the same time. Free time when I’m not working I’m probably listening to records [laughs]. It’s pretty much just about that.
Thanks to Dave for his time.