(Extended version of article published in Star News, with additional Q&A below)
By Brian Tucker
Over the bridge outside of Castle Hayne is a tract of land around thirty acres in size. On it is a barn where a group of friends gather weekly to rehearse and play music. The Clams is that group, making music for fifteen years on property band founder Tucker Hill’s in-laws own. Without that barn, and its atmosphere, The Clams wouldn’t have formed the way they did.
“I think Tucker named (the band), it’s a play on words. And we’re here by the beach,” Jeff Sanchez. “Second, a clam is a bad note. If you’re a jazz player and play a wrong note it’s called a clam.”
The name also suggests the solitude in which the band operates away from the world, out there in the country to themselves. Sanchez adds, “And a pearl can grow in a clam.”
The Clams play a CD release show Saturday at Art Factory for their Greatest Hits Vol. 1. The tongue-in-cheek title reflects part of the wealth of their material. Until 2008 The Clams mostly performed live during Wisteria Fest held on the property.
Sanchez (also part of locally in Upstarts & Rogues, low.victor.echo.) joined a decade ago as their second drummer but now plays guitar and sings. Three years in he proposed tightening things up so they could play live and “take what we do here and do it in public.”
“When you’re up there playing you’re separated from everything. You can really tap into the spirit of the music,” Sanchez said. “Anything goes, and it’s safe and secure. Nobody can hear it. Nobody can see it. We’re lucky we can play live in town and still keep that open energy we’ve got from the barn.”
The Clams are a rock and roll band that goes off in various different angles. They play a little country, do some improvised, jam stuff, but its mostly rock and roll with country and jam band aesthetics. Retaining a clubhouse mentality, the band’s welcoming vibe is reflected in members coming and going. Musician and artist Josh Moore moved away and may be in town for the show. Sanchez says his “Circus” is one of the best songs on the album. (Star News writer Si Cantwell has been a member of the band for many years).
“(Bass player) Phil Eldridge, now in Colorado, is on it, and when he comes to town he’s in the band (The Lyndes’ Alex Goodell plays bass in the band),” Sanchez said. “Josh, Si, and Tucker’s songs are on it. It covers all the bases and these songs were written at various times. I bet Si’s songs go back the furthest.”
The album was recorded live at Low Tide Studio (two songs – “Nine Minute Prophecy” and “Hot Sauce Blues,” were captured during a December 2008 gig at Bottega in downtown Wilmington) and mixed by Karen Kane with Sanchez producing. There’s a loose, potluck vibe to the rock and roll songs also dosed with country and jam band flourishes.
“We were trying to get closure, let’s finish these (songs) so we can write another batch. We went in last year to make a demo. We ended up recording twenty-eight songs and seventeen are on this album.”
As a document highlighting the last decade of the band, the live recording lends the music immediacy, a freewheeling performance sans audience (save for some Bottega recordings). The album has an old school vinyl double LP pedigree. Songs sectioned in four sides, each ending with a piece of music by former Clam Robert Pritchard, a composer who passed away.
“This is exactly the way we sound live, a perfect representation of the band. I’m really glad I did this because it documents the band. My feeling to document it was right. Now it preserves this band that I care so much about.”
Additional Q&A with Jeff Sanchez
Is there a philosophy to the band?
Sanchez: We’re not trying to go to L.A., New York, be famous, or go on tour. We just like to play music together. Luckily we’ve been able to keep that vibe even though we perform out (seldom). I’m sort of responsible for us playing out. When Dylan and Tucker and Phil started the band many years ago they never had a thought about being a bar band and playing out. It was about hosting the Wisteria Fest and playing there. I joined (in 2006) and it took about three years before I said, if we just tightened it up a little bit we could play, live take what we do here and do it in public. Little by little we started to do that.
The hard part that we’ve been able to do, is that we’re the same band we were when weren’t trying to go anywhere, except that maybe we rehearse more. We’re the same band, we have the same fun. That’s a tough line to maintain, because if you start to put a lot of attention on it, and start to think we’re such a good band, we’re gonna be this and that, it adds a whole other level of pressure to it. We have been able to not go in that direction.
The album was all recorded live?
Sanchez: Two songs were recorded at Bottega – “Nine Minute Prophecy” and “Hot Sauce Blues.” Everything else was recorded at Low Tide Studios. We’ve also edited in other things, like voice mail messages and sound effects. The title is tongue-in-cheek. We’ve been together so long we figured we’d start at the top and work our way back.
This (album) is all the original songs; the first is a Bob Dylan song (“Odds and Ends”) and the rest are original songs. We were trying to get closure on the songs, trying to say let’s finish these so we can write another batch of songs. It’s really a document of the band. I just wanted to document the fact that we get a lot of work done up there (at the barn), we’re not just fooling around. Most of the original songs are written by Tucker. He had a burst of songwriting for a while, he wrote about (complete) twenty songs in his basement in about six months. Eight songs on the album are Tucker’s. Si Cantwell has four. Josh Moore has three.
You feel the energy from the band, captured as a live recording.
Sanchez: The biggest reason is that Tucker is the main vocalist. He wrote a bunch of songs, he sings them and he’s the drummer. The way you record normally, you record a rhythm track without vocals first and then do the vocals separately. We rehearsed that way but when we got to studio we set up to do the vocals in the drum booth (intending) to change it later on. So we recorded with the vocals live and drums live.
That’s why there are no overdubs (on the album), because there couldn’t be. His vocals are in the drums tracks, because he’s singing in the drum booth live. We went there and he had the same mentality as us, said ok, let’s try it. At the time it was great, it had a great energy and vibe.
Is the band membership fluid?
Sanchez: That’s a good question. It’s very fluid. There have been up to twelve members. Clint used to play violin. David Silverthorne used to be a vocalist. Richard Welsh was a guitar player. Lucien Rowland is on the track recorded at Bottega, and he lives in Colorado now. He’s listed on the album because when he comes into town he’s in the band. Phil is in Florida. Josh Moore lives in Richmond. Dan is in about three other bands – The Casserole, The Casserole Duo (with Steve Todd). And Alex is our bassist now. She’s not even on this recording.
The bass player Phil was playing when I first started but he’s come and gone several times, right now he’s gone again. But the album features his playing. He was here last year and played on the studio recordings bit moved to Florida. So now Alex Goodell plays bass with us, she’s in a (local instrumental) band called The Lyndes.
We used to set up with two drummers and little by little I became more of a guitar player and a singer in the band. Tucker is the drummer. I’m a rhythm guitar player and think like a drummer. Alex on the bass is very, very steady. Not to take anything away from Phil, because he’s a wonderful, natural musician. But the band now, you see us live now; we’ve taken a quantum leap, in my opinion. We sound totally different because of the bass player.
Is that a personality trait of the band, a welcoming open door mentality?
Sanchez: It’s very loose but at the same time, listening to the first side of the album, those songs are highly orchestrated and arranged, for live recordings they’re extremely tight. We did that without doing it the normal way, layering the recording. It’s rare for a band to record live anymore. There’s a lot of energy and when the band plays its hard to just corral that energy and (tell the band) no.
The album has four sides, like an old vinyl double LP. You ended each with material written by Robert Pritchard.
Pritchard was a keyboard player in the band for a while. He played with the band during its first live gigs. He was a composer and brought a bunch of recordings and asked that they be listened to and maybe collaborate on them. I took the recordings and played them for Tucker and we were figuring out how to do them. None of us knew this, but Pritchard had a brain tumor and it was affecting his personality.
One day he came to rehearsal and became upset over a song. Because the band is very fluid, we would pick up songs in rehearsal and might not ever come back to them. He came in with sheet music he’d printed up and we said we weren’t playing the song (that day). He got upset and stopped coming back to rehearsals. The massive tumor was growing and affecting his personality. He later he died from the tumor.
When it came to put this all together, I thought, I have time. Let me go back and see if I can find those recordings. I had to dig through a lot of stuff and finally found them. I listened to them all and picked out four songs, edited them, and they’re included at the end of each side of the album. At the end of each side there’s a piece of his music. He was a Clam and we felt like it was important for us to include his stuff.
The band gets together away from everything in Castle Hayne to rehearse?
Sanchez: When you’re up there playing you’re separated from everything. You can really tap into the spirit of the music. I can’t describe it. When we’re up there anything goes and it’s safe and secure. Nobody can hear it. Nobody can see it. That’s what I’m trying to say, in that we’re lucky that we can play live in town and get paid and still keep that open energy we’ve got from The Barn. There’s a big barn there where we rehearse. It’s super peaceful out there.
Tucker is the leader of the band, it’s his band. I was able to organize it a little bit and instigate us to play live. But I’m easygoing, and I like that it’s democratic. Whenever we play you see the real band. I sing. Si sings. Tucker sings. (The way the album is set up) Si has a song on every side. Josh has one on every side.
Why cover “Odds & Ends” and open the album with it?
That’s us at our essence. We always use that to open our shows. It’s an easy rock and roll song. It sort of the essence of the way the band sounds.
Talk about the “Gimme a Break” song?
Phil and I wrote that song in the studio, rehearsing. He came up with the riff and the idea of ‘gimme a break.’ It turned out it had the same the progression as “Everybody Needs Somebody (To Love)” so Dylan had the idea to segue between the songs. I’m the guy who tends to write things down and try to remember things. I had Phil’s idea of a song and pushed the arrangement, working it a little bit. It was Phil’s idea, I helped with the arrangement, and Dylan who said let’s segue. I think that’s the best song on the album. It’s all live. That’s a live performance. Everything on the album is a live performance.
“Circus” is the next best song on the album. It’s Josh Moore’s song. The imagery on the song is really powerful. I’d sit with Karen Kane mixing and I kept hearing the lyrics, hearing so strong this story about a circus and these characters. I thought let’s add sound effects of these images and that’s what the “Spooky Mixdown” version of “Circus” is on the album. “Circus” is such a strong piece.