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April 2000

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Featured Band
the clear
& interview with front man Matthew Niblock

Matthew Niblock - Up close and personal
Poet and singer or pressed ham?
the clear is the musical project of award winning Los Angeles poet (no, that is not a contradiction in terms) Matthew Niblock and his compatriots: Orange County guitar hero (neither is that) Mark Smith & harmony sluts Jennifer Hardaway & Steve Kruse. The band has happened, as opposed to being formed, over the last decade with front man Niblock flowing from one musical configuration to the next, always adding and subtracting musicians and back up singers with the vision of a chemist looking to cure something that has yet to be diagnosed. Musically comparable to REM and CSNY, the clear finds its inspiration in other artists who are dedicated to the craft such as Joan Armatrading, Paul Simon and Stephen Stills. the clear has an almost cult following of rabid fans, many artists and musicians themselves, which can be almost wholly attributed to Niblock's charisma and talent. I spoke to Niblock via DSL recently and here's what he had to say for himself.

CA: You have a long history in the music business. Tell me a little bit about that.

MN: Oh really...? Well I certainly have a long history in the independent music business. And independence is a good place to be, unless of course you crave fame, fortune and endorsement deals as much as I do. So I suppose you could say that I have a long history of striving to be in the bidness. Oh yeah, and I did sing on some records when I was a kid, but that is its own long tale, replete with conversion experiences, codeine cough syrup and redemption so let's skip it...

CA: You recently had to change your band name from simply Clear, to The Clear, what's up with that?

MN: Some evil, horrible, awful bastards already had the name. Did I mention evil, horrible and awful? (hey---can you be sued for libel for internet content? Hmmmmm. Intrigue.)

CA: And while we're on the subject, aren't you afraid with that name you might be associated with the Scientologists?

MN: Yeah, yeah, fuck them.

CA: the Clear is comprised of an amazing collection of extremely talented musicians. How did you come to collect them?

MN: I have serious dirt on all of them and I just keep threatening to go to the tabloids with it. Seems to be working so far. Um... the real answer is I don't know exactly. They are all pretty fucking good, huh? Mark Smith and I started the band as an acoustic project lo these many years ago and it has steadily mutated since then. Everybody knows how much I respect them musically, and I think they feel the same way about me (except during rehearsals when I forget the words to songs and sing "la la la" instead). Plus what with that mutation thing I mentioned, we are all now involved with the sound and the songwriting; it's not just me and Mark and a bunch of backing players, it's, um, one of them.... band things.

CA: Why have you chosen to go the band route musically rather than the singer-songwriter route?

MN: Collaboration is an essential part of this art form for me. I ain't as good on my own. I need help, help and more help. Besides, doesn't everybody want to be in a band?

CA: Who writes the lyrics & music for the band?


MN: I write most of the lyrics although I have occasionally been known to collaborate (most recently with Steve Kruse, on "Lightning" and "Ghosts" from the new record). Usually I'm most comfortable working on lyrics myself, because the process is really very personal, but there is always the happy exception. The music is collaborative, written in a mind-numbing variety of ways by an ever -changing variety of band members, and the occasional outside ringer. Lately we are moving more towards writing collectively, but most often someone will bring in a chord change or two, and it will get adapted by whoever else happens to be at that writing session, you know, blah blah blah. Again, always exceptions: Steve Kruse brought in "Faith" complete, I just melodicized & lyricized; a song like "Lightning," was begun years ago by me & my former brother-in-law (yep), Bay Area songwriter guy Peter Ford, and then given a new verse melody by Steve, and then given new verse lyrics after Steve said something to me about "paper, scissors, rock," and all this in progress before, during and after the tracking. When we did lead vocals for that one, we had just finished that lyric that day, and I had to be walked through the verse line by line because I didn't know the new melody yet...

CA: Your lyrics contain a lot of Christian religious references, but the music itself is not in any way Christian music. It seems like you have an uneasy yet ever present relationship with religion in your music and life...

MN: Yep.

CA: You are also a well-known poet in Los Angeles and beyond, but music seems to be your major artistic outlet. Why is that?

MN: Well, actually, I've been writing again, so we'll see if that continues to be true. The simple truth, though, is that there's a LOT MORE MONEY in pop music then there is in poetry, even pop poetry, as it were, and we are in it for the bucks, dontcha know?... as if we were ACTUALLY acquainted with any of that alleged loot yet, yeah, yeah, yeah. OR, alternate answer: Different media, different mood. Or even: Different mood. Different media.

CA: What's going on with the band? You just had a limited release CD, and from what I understand that is selling out, you've got an MP3 site & have been featured around town...

MN: We're on the verge BABY. Our new record, done with funds from our hotshit production deal (oooh) and produced by Eagles drummer Scott Crago, is done and being shopped to the people-with-ponytails even as we speak. We're selling a limited pressing at shows and on the web. We've had some success and exposure on the Internet. We'll be playing a buncha East Coast dates in July on Club's 50-city tour. We got lotsa gigs in LA, acoustic here, electric there (we like to mix it up). You know, all the regular stuff. And, while we wait for the ponytails to do their thing, we're writing, playing, rehearsing, recording all the time.

CA: What's your goal as a band? Fame? Immortality?

MN: Immortality would be tough. I mean, you don't usually encounter, say, happy vampires in literature, but fame, yeah, fame would be cool.

CA: What's next for the Clear?

MN: More.

Upcoming Gigs in Los Angeles

MARCH 24: Highland Grounds, 9:30
The band has an acoustic/electric hybrid show, 2 sets, at, special guest Rich Mangicaro and a couple of other too-cool-for-school special guests TBA.

MARCH 26: Drop Dead Theater, 8 & 9:30  (acoustic) with Derrick Brown & Buzzy Ennis' review, Orange.

APRIL 5: (acoustic) Club Mesa, 9pm.

APRIL 14 (Friday Night!) The Mint, 10 pm -- headlining (Electric w/ acoustic moments BABY). Very big show. Label swine. Blah blah blah.

Independent Release

   The two most striking features of Clear's debut album, REFRAIN are that this band is different and it is brave. When I say different, I mean how many other rock'n'roll bands can you name that have male lead vocalists who can actually sing? How many bands have back-up singers who are permitted to comment on the lead vocal rather than merely compliment it? How many bands use poems - poems that don't rhyme in standard ABAB form - as song lyrics ? For that matter, how many bands include a recited poem on any album? When I say brave, I mean all the things that make Clear different and then some. Here's a band that, at one moment, can sound remarkably like R.E.M. and then, in the next, take a snide lyrical swipe at Michael Stipe. Here's a band that covers a relatively obscure Joan Armatrading song ("I Love It When You Call Me Names" from THE KEY) on its first album. They dedicate the first half of the album to biblically referential songs that are not religious odes.
   REFRAIN begs the question, do these folks want success? Because if they do, they're not following the rock'n'roll formula. But this album is a success. From the disturbingly dark first track, "Burn Her Down" - a rocker with the opening lyrics "she is the blade of grass/ green, still sharp and stepped on/ the forested moment/ in this concrete heart// but I know/ the summer sun/ will burn her down" - to the mournful closing of "Blue Satellite," Clear maintains its vision. This album succeeds because of the risks taken. This is not just Niblock indulging his own proclivities for dark commentary on the destructive nature of love and faith. This is a cohesive band - its main players: Niblock on vocal chords; Mark Smith on guitars and mandolin; Andrew Bush on piano, back-up vocals and a variety of rhythm instruments; Jennifer Hardaway doing vocal counter-commentary and on acoustic guitar; Martin Tillmann on cello; Michael Barsimanto on drums; Brian Mastalski on bass; and Steve Kruse on harmonica.
   Each instrumentalist and back-up singer adds lushness and meaning to Niblock's personal demons, especially Smith and Hardaway, who find the room for hope in many of the bitterest songs. "The Radio" is one of those rare tracks where a band transcends the limits of being a band. After a sample of white noise, Smith's beautiful acoustic guitar rises, a sweet, folky melody, and Niblock starts to sing: "The radio left a change of clothing at my door/ the radio skipped town with the tornado/ the wind blew ice and bridesmaids down the aisle/ the wind blew ice and white noise down the wire// Everybody's on the radio...." During the bridge, L.A.'s goddess of unrequited love of life, Ellyn Maybe (one of the few poets who actually regularly appears on the airwaves, albeit public radio), sneaks in to recite "Tent," a poem of the tender pain of making spiritual and physical love to oneself. As the song fades back into Niblock's refrain, you are left feeling the cold of Maybe's sheet and as empty as the opening static.
    Now, I must note, I find aspects of this album disappointing. I've seen Clear live in many forms: acoustic with only Niblock, Hardaway, Smith and Barsimanto; full band all plugged in; and variations in between. Live, this band is pure musical electricity. Even though they're not playing dance tunes, I always find myself dancing. The album lacks that energy. It's more analytical, a little too polished, not as spontaneous, sometimes clearly proud of its cleverness (Niblock's intro of "Nazareth By Rail" as the "obligatory train song" as the most obvious sin). And one of the songs, "Falling Down," I found, well, quite boring. But these failings are minor; the album as a whole is the startling debut of a great band. Mike Morrison of KCRW's Weekend Becomes Eclectic has embraced the previously-mentioned "Blue Satellite" and is giving it regular airings. Lets just hope the rest of the western radio world opens its ears and begins to hear clear too.

Michelle Ben-Hur


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