By Brian Tucker
In their short history together efficiency has helped Clockwork Kids, a neo-psychedelic rock band from Chapel Hill. Before making The Swain Sessions EP the band rehearsed songs repeatedly before recording live in Swain Hall on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill last spring. Last November they rehearsed every free day in a friend’s barn to get songs down before entering a studio to record a new album in December.
“We knew exactly how they were going to sound before we recorded them,” Ellis said. “We arranged and wrote out string and horn parts and played most of the songs live to figure out what works and what doesn’t.”
The band, whose name is inspired by Brian Selznick’s book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, has a sound that feels both organic and mechanic. Combining melody and darkness, Clockwork Kids’ music has a hypnotic vibe that can come off witchy, tribal and sonically gripping.
The Swain Sessions recalls the push and power of records from the late 60s or early 70s, feeling alive and immediate. But even with Ellis’ Layne Staley meets Jim Morrison vocals, Clockwork Kids remains fresh. The band itself is still new, forming in early 2012 solely to complete a date Ellis’ old band could not (it broke up months before). Ellis didn’t think the new band would last long.
“I just asked a friend to play drums, another to play keys, and another to play guitar,” Ellis said. “I would just sing and play bass on songs I wrote.”
Sounding more garage rock than their current sound, the band played on campus and around town while still in school. With members set to graduate and move on, Ellis began replacing players. The band recorded The Swain Sessions on campus as a senior video project for Ellis, whose focus was Media Production.
Renting out the communications building on campus, Swain Hall, they created a twelve microphone and five camera set-up. The band recorded over three days, getting each song in three takes or less. The result was both a school project and a solid album for the band (the project is on YouTube) since the audio recordings turned out so well.
“The fact that it was made as a school project and I was doing most of the editing and mixing meant we essentially made this record for free, a testament to the wonderful infrastructure you have access to in college.”
The music was shaped in part by college life and recordings were meant to define who the band is and what they wanted to sound like. Lyrically, they’re about self-discovery, individualism and some political expression. The new album is reflective of life, namely about people in their twenties, introspection and disillusionment, and the beauty of not knowing everything yet.
“We were raised to believe that if we work hard enough, got good grades and went to good schools, good things will come out of it. And in many ways this album is about how though most of us now have degrees or are about to get them, we still have no idea what we’re doing on an existential level.”
For the upcoming album they worked with engineer and co-producer Thom Canova, making the upcoming LP over a week in the studio. Ellis confides that material is darker but musically rich.
“He’s constantly cognizant that we want to make the best record possible. He knows exactly what we want if we refer to the guitar tone from a specific Smiths b-side or something as an inspiration for what we want one of our parts to sound like. He’s also always willing to try anything once, twice, or a hundred times.
More with Justin Ellis
What the first time you sang for a band?
Ellis: I was one of the lead singers of a band called The Screaming Crayons for three years. This outfit was kind of a collective – our five members all wrote songs, took turns singing lead and we all switched instruments all the time. What set Clockwork Kids apart was that I was now singing and writing every song, sticking to one or two instruments, and having a much more streamlined sound because of that. Which also made me a lot more critical of my songwriting, but luckily it’s only done us good so far.
Can you speak to why Chapel Hill is conducive for bands to form, especially yours?
Ellis: Chapel Hill is a great town to be in a band because even though it’s tiny, there are so many music venues and houses to play shows in and many people move there specifically to form bands, thanks to the reputation of famous Chapel Hill bands like Superchunk, Squirrel Nut Zippers, The Ben Folds Five, and Archers of Loaf.
But recently there’s been a significant increase in student interaction with the local music scene, and a big contributor to that is Carolina Creates Music, a recent initiative that Patrick had a huge hand in developing. What CCM does is provide performance and rehearsal opportunities for student musicians to get more exposure to the rest of the student body.
This often leads to students forming bands with each other, having crowds of fellow peers and students go out to their shows, and then moving on to playing notable venues around the Triangle. In many ways Clockwork Kids was one of the first bands to start gaining notoriety thanks to CCM, so it’s kind of cool to see all the new bands popping up in town these days thanks to it.
If Swain was shaped by college life, what’s influencing the upcoming full length?
Ellis: The purpose of The Swain Sessions was to define who we are and what we wanted to sound like. As a result, from a thematic and sonic standpoint, that EP was about self-discovery, some political expression, and individualism. On the upcoming LP we’re dealing with more universal themes like hope, loss, disillusionment, and love.
So it’s a lot darker, a lot more reflective, but there is also beauty in not knowing, and I think the musical richness on the LP will show that. We have lots of organs, strings, and even French horn on this record, a lot of textures that we could have never done live on something like The Swain Sessions. We also had a week to make this record in a full studio with our co-producer Thom Canova rather than two days by ourselves on a soundstage, which also meant we could play on the three-guitar format. Some songs have eight guitar parts and others have just one.
Given the freewheeling vibe of “June” it seems like the outsider on “Swain.”
Ellis: “June” is the song we close almost every show with because it’s big, loud, fun, and catchy. Its main purpose is so we can say “Here We Are.” And by consequence I suppose it is one of our more approachable songs.
“Brave” is adventurous, rife with ambiance. Can you speak to how its soundscape came to be?
Ellis: “Brave” was a really interesting song from the get-go and it’s quite unlike a lot of our catalogue in the sense that it doesn’t really have a chorus or a hook or anything like that, but with its quasi-dubstep feel and its three interlocking guitar lines it’s certainly one of the most sonically interesting.
There really wasn’t any one guitar part at its genesis that ties the whole thing together or anything, but rather a keyboard riff that we ultimately stopped playing since we had three guitars and a double-octave bass part covering pretty much everything. Since Dylan joined the band we’ve been opening more shows with that song as a warm up.
Thom Canova has a variety of bands he’s produced. What he did to push or get you to be your best?
Ellis: The best thing about having someone like Thom as a producer is that he’s constantly cognizant that we want to make the best record possible. And thanks to our vast crossover of musical influences, he knows exactly what we want if we refer to the guitar tone from a specific Smiths b-side or something as an inspiration for what we want one of our parts to sound like. He’s also always willing to try anything once, twice, or a hundred times. Best of all, he’s a sixth voice in any discussion when we try and figure out what a song might need or what might be too much. We couldn’t have recorded twelve songs in seven days without someone like him helping us out.
How did time you had in the studio evolve songs you rehearsed?
Ellis: We actually spent every free day in late November in a friend’s barn drilling the songs so we knew exactly how they were going to sound before we recorded them. We arranged and wrote out string and horn parts and played most of the songs live to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Being so certain of the songs meant that not only we were recording efficiently, but we had a little time left over to experiment with guitar tones and effects.
Is a member of Clockwork Kids also in Virgins Family Band?
Ellis: Actually, I have played bass for a couple songs at some Virgins Family Band concerts, and they’re all dear friends of ours, but none of us were official members of that band.
(Clockwork Kids only full studio album was released in April 2014, titled Rememory. Ellis would go on to form The Color Exchange)