Clowwns have just released their album The Artful Execution of Macho Bimbo on Bleeding Hearts Recordings, and are holding the launch party this Friday at Latest Music Bar (a fiver to get in, support from Prince Vaseline). We dropped Brighton’s premier post punk / new wave quartet a line to find out about everything that’s gone on to get the album out there, and the missing lost cover version which didn’t make the final cut.
Brighton Music Blog : The album’s been a long time coming. I can remember reading about it on the Bleeding Hearts website before I even started the blog. How was The Artful Execution of Macho Bimbo conceived?
Étienne Rodes (bass) : Clowwns was formed by Miles and Clanger as an outlet for all sorts of pent up frustrations. Clanger naturally goes towards these angular chord sequences anyway but when he writes for Clowwns he’ll break out the angle grinder. Miles seems to be able to write about anything, but he’ll reserve a particular type of bilious bemusement when coming up with our lyrics. So Macho Bimbo was not so much conceived as unearthed and discovered in the process.
BMB : I’ve heard it’s been quite a journey recording the album, with different people at the controls and parts being re-recorded multiple times. Tell us about how it all came together.
Damo Waters (drums) : You can group it into five stages. First there were Miles and Clanger’s original demo recordings. Secondly came the Metway sessions from when Tom White was on drums and Matthew Twaites was on bass – he used to work at The Metway and I believe he engineered those recordings. About five or six songs were attempted and I still love that version of ‘Reflections’.
Then after I became the drummer and Tom moved to bass we recorded some stuff, mostly unfinished, at Submarina with Steve Grainger engineering and producing – out of that we got our first single, ‘Idiot Bouncing’ c/w ‘Trousers’ that our pal Johny Lamb released on 7″ way back in 2010!
Next there were the sessions at Valvetastic Studio in Exeter, with Jolyon Holroyd engineering and Steve Grainger again producing. These recordings were unfortunately beset with all sorts of problems which meant it was nearly a year before we got anything we were all happy with, but we did get an album out of it eventually – the daddy to the final version, i suppose. It’s got a similar track list but sounds much rawer, not in a bad way, I thought. I would’ve been happy for that to be released but it’s for the best that it wasn’t. Marc Riley played a track from it.
After Etienne replaced Tom on bass we recorded some newer songs with Joe Watson (Junior Electronics, Stereolab, Mum Dad & The Kids) engineering, and when Chris Davies of Bleeding Hearts Recordings heard rough mixes he more or less said if we re-recorded the album and made it sound like these newer songs he’d release it, so we did. I think in the end we ran out of money to pay Joe to do the mixes, and a friend of Etienne’s offered to mix all twenty songs that had been recorded for a bargain price, but unfortunately after a promising start we ended up not liking the end results. Cameron Devlin of Hidden Cam Studios came to the rescue – he’d done a similar thing with the Vile Imbeciles’ album ‘D is For W’ and we had what we thought was a finished album for about a year while we gnashed our collective teeth over the artwork. Then at the eleventh hour we remixed it all again, which was initially heart-breaking, but listening now, it was absolutely worth it. It’s normally the case that when you keep going back to things over such a long period of time, re-working, re-recording, tweaking this and that, the end result is no better for it. If anything, it can be detrimental, but I can honestly say that we’ve come out with the best versions of these songs and that’s what you hear on the record. Phew!
ER : the story of Clowwns and this album in particular is a cautionary tale: make music while you’re young, unattached and clueless. Miles and me have kids, all of us except Damo have jobs, and available time very quickly dwindles to not much at all. Simple things can take months to get done just because we have lives to live and little people to take care of.
Just about anything that could go wrong with this album did at some point, sometimes from making wrong decisions sometimes just out of bad luck (the Exeter recording files getting corrupted for example), I don’t know many bands who would have kept going at it for so long, and managed to pull it off in the end.
BMB : We’ve said it many times, but Clowwns really are one of the best live bands in Brighton.Was it a challenge to try and recreate that sound?
DW : Thank you! If your sound is predominantly a ‘live rock band’ sound, you should try and record as close to how you play on stage anyway. Don’t get too hung up about things like separation. If you’re a good band, play together – the songs will sound better for it. Joe Strummer said something like “I don’t know what separation is but I don’t like it!” Of course there’s no need to be purist either – there are plenty of overdubs on the album, some extra guitars here and there and so on, but keep the core idea of being a rock’n’roll four-piece in mind and you shouldn’t go too far wrong. If that’s what you’re about.
ER : A common misconception is that a loud, monolithic rock sound is just about turning everything to 11. I’d never played in such a Minotaur of a rock band before and I was surprised by how difficult it is to finesse your various levels of distortion so that everything remains clearly heard while nuking dead skin cells off your face. A lot of the live feel comes from us three locking together as a unit, which comes about partly from luck of finding our individual musical feel and timing match up, and partly from practice. Clanger’s playing is all about controlling Lear Jet levels of feedback so all you need then is us four in a room playing to the engineer like we play to an audience. And the luck of finding someone like Cameron to understand how to image this on the audio spectrum. As a bass player I would say however that I believe Damo could make anyone sound good, such is the drive of his playing.
All the album backing tracks are recorded live with almost no editing, and to be fair whatever editing there is is almost all repairing the odd bass mistake. With musicianship of the level found in Clowwns any other way would have been silly really. Some of the tracks (Idiot Bouncing for instance) don’t have any additional instruments, there are no overdubs apart from vocals. We are primarily a live band, and a lot of the pleasure come from arranging a song for three instruments. It makes the live experience a bit of a high wire act, there is nowhere to hide! During recording, there were a few instances of resisting the temptation to double guitars in choruses, and we did get rid of a few overdubs when we felt it was starting to sound too produced. But overall what needed to be done was fairly obvious, and recording with Joe was a pleasure, he’s such a sure hand and reassuring presence. We would record a few takes without listening in between, get the take we thought was best, then do a couple more until we felt it was slipping away. Then listen to everything and chose the best one. We did waste an entire day though with that process (the first day). We went home first day happy with the work having recorded something like 4 or 5 songs, only to find waking up the next they were all actually way too fast. The electricity of playing live had got to us and just like it often happens on stage we’d naturally up’d the tempo. A couple songs were ok but we had to redo the rest.
BMB : The track X, which sits towards the end of side A on the album, is quite different to the other tracks, almost acoustic in nature. Have you got more tunes like that? Did you try recording some of the other songs using similar instrumentation?
DW : ‘X’ sounds notably different compared to the others, but it was recorded in exactly the same way – live drums, bass and electric guitar. The original demo always had acoustic guitar and piano so these were always going to be kept in the arrangement, but Cameron made a smart decision to focus on those elements in the final mix. Again it’s about what works best for the song. We do have other songs which would benefit that approach, but we’ll save them for the next album in twelve years’ time.
BMB : Your line up once featured Tom White from Electric Soft Parade and Brakes. How long was he in the band for, and did any of his contribution make it onto the album?
DW : He made a very significant contribution in that when he became the bassist he just cranked his Rickenbacker all the way up to 11. It really made a huge impact to the sound and thankfully Etienne is also keen on that kind of approach, though just as willing to go in other directions too. Plus we’ve kept a few of his backing vocal lines and keyboard ideas. Silly not to if they’re good. His brother Alex was also in the band for a little while, playing keyboards and percussion, but in the end it seems he decided it wasn’t for him.
ER : Yes, his were big shoes to fill. I’m a guitarist who plays bass rather than a bass player and the temptation to play too much has to be constantly nipped in the bud in rehearsals. Which can lead to flares of Gallic huff and puff, always a source of amusement for the others. But Tom has impeccable timing and flair for a good bass line and the parts I learned from his time in the band were the blue print for what I’ve been doing since.
BMB : Up until about a year ago you were Clowns with just one “w”. Why did you change your name?
DW : Wwhy not?
ER : Some other band in Australia already had a couple albums out and available on Spotify, skate punk stuff. Wwe [sic] thought it best to distance ourselves from anything relating to skateboarding, which is evidently Lucifer’s idea for a recreational pastime.
BMB : It looks like you’ve got some treats lined up for the launch, with a clear vinyl one sided 7″ of Love Vigilante, and a print of some artwork being raffled off. What else is in store?
DW : I shall be allowing people to come and lick my boiler suit at the end of the gig.
ER : We’ll also have a few albums and t-shirts. Given Clowwns’ inimitable way for making the simple skull-bashingly complex, it’s already quite an achievement we’ve managed to get these two top prizes made on time, and (almost) on budget.
BMB : Support at the gig comes from Prince Vaseline who feature members of Milk & Biscuits, who Damo has drummed for, and you regularly share the bill with Mum, Dad & The Kids who Etienne also plays bass for. What other bands have members of Clowwns been involved with?
Damo: I have a VERY BIG list, so I’ll try to keep it short. As well as CLOWwNS, I currently play drums with psychedelic Brighton Band ZOFFF and will be playing several festivals this year with Sunderland-based SLUG. I also play organ on stage with CRAYOLA LECTERN. As you rightly pointed out I also have played with Milk & BIscuits, and many others including Field Music, The Electric Soft Parade (and Thomas White’s solo stuff), Brother Twain (Etienne’s project), British Sea Power (two gigs in Asia!), Jona Lewie, The Lurkers, Restlesslist, Chris T-T, Brakes (one gig!), Do You Feel What I Feel Deer, Abdoujaparov and Jim Bob (both ex-Carter USM) and literally scores of bands/artists you will most likely never have heard of from my days in Lincoln and London. I also make my own music under the name Muddy Suzuki.
ER : … Which everyone should check out. Damo is not only the best drummer in Clowwns, but probably the most complete musician too (Muddy Suzuki is available on bandcamp, with Head in the Sand my favourite).
My list is nowhere near as long as Damo’s. I played bass in Imitation Electric Piano, a Stereolab offshoot led by Simon Johns (‘Lab bass player) with the delightful Mary Hampton on vocals. That’s also how I met Joe Watson which eventually led to him recording Clowwns a few years down the line. I’ve played bit parts on my brother’s album (Rec.tangle “Heavy Maple”, one of my favourite albums of all time) and a couple other publications. Now playing guitar in Mum Dad & Kids (with Joe Watson on bass, what him again), and Heavy Lamb. And my brother and I recorded an album under the name Brother Twain, with Damo on drums and Miles writing lyrics and singing main vocals. I’ll try to release this after the summer.
BMB : Finally, did you think about including your cover of Ghost Town – a song which seems as pertinent today as when it The Specials released it originally? Is there any chance it might get out out somewhere or are you saving it for live performances?
Miles Heathfield (vocals) : We have a recording of Ghost Town, which may see the light some time, but to be honest, Clowwns lyrics are more concerned/over-wrought than being able to deal with social issues or politics. There are underlying themes of alienation and disconnection in most of our songs, but we didn’t choose Ghost Town as a cover because it’s a protest song, but more because it connects with a common communion of discontent that is as true now as it was then … oh,and who doesn’t love The Specials, eh!?
ER : I don’t.