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Beauty Pill : Q&A with Chad Clark

story by tim mcmahan



Lazy-i: April 28, 2004

Beauty Pill
w/ The Bombardment Society & The Mariannes
April 29
Sokol Underground
13th & Martha
9 p.m.

You'll pick it up on first listen -- the fact that Washington D.C.'s Beauty Pill was born out of the ashes of everyone's favorite masters of dark cynicism, Smart Went Crazy.

The connection is immediate upon hearing singer Chad Clark open "Goodnight for Real" on the band's just-released Dischord full-length, The Unsustainable Lifestyle. His dry, well-enunciated delivery is one-of-a-kind in an indie-rock world filled with thin-voiced mumblers with nothing to say. Clark has plenty to say, and wants to make sure you hear (and understand) what he's saying. This time around he's saddled up with female co-vocalist Rachel Burke to give a feminine touch to a musical style that some (including Clark) would say is subversively feminine to begin with.

I'll make the background brief: When Smart Went Crazy finally committed itself to breaking up in 1998, Clark and Abram Goodrich decided to put together a new ensemble with vocalist Joanne Gholl, and recorded the EP The Cigarette Girl from the Future. Drummer/instrumentalist Ryan Nelson joined shortly after. Goodrich and Gholl's participation was short-lived as those two decided to get hitched and leave behind the rock-n-roll lifestyle. Enter vocalist Burke, along with guitarist Drew Douchette and bassist Basla Andolsun.

Beauty Pill's music is laid back but not withdrawn -- it's almost sinister in its deployment, quietly sneaking up on you with its dark stories of everyday life soaked in tension, hope, fear and necessity. Clark and Co. paint pictures with words and music about everything from drug mules to assassins, pulling from influences as diverse as Morrissey, Lou Reed, The Clash, Spinanes, early Liz Phair and of course Smart Went Crazy.

We caught up with Chad Clark April 25, 2004, as the band was in transit somewhere between Buffalo and Cleveland.




How was last night's show in Buffalo?

Last night was a nightmare actually. The club was really seedy, and I think we collectively have vowed to never go back there.

What exactly was wrong with it?

I can't site anything specific. It was an accumulation of things. The sound guy had fangs. He had actually sawed his teeth into fangs. It was impressive, convincing. He looked like he had plastic fangs like a kid would wear on Halloween.

Was it some sort of goth club?

You would think it was a goth club. I got a feeling there's a serious goth thing going on in the Buffalo punk scene. But it wasn't a goth club. There are a lot of moments while touring as a rock band where your dignity gets put into question, what you're doing gets assaulted and you get rocked and have to remind yourself that what you're doing is important and that you love what you do.

I hope last night wasn't indicative of how the tour has gone so far.

The tour has been totally wonderful. The night before we played at Cornell and that was perfect; and the night before that we played in Boston and the shows have been going really well. Last night was an anomaly. You try to laugh through it. Right now everything internally with the band is great; we're all getting along terrifically. These are the times when you grow closer. It's probably similar to what I imagine happens in the military in times of stress -- you gather closer.

That works well into what I planned on asking you next: Has the band settled down after going through some line-up changes over the past few years?

I understand why it appears that way, but really this group has been together for quite a while. I work at a studio and Beauty Pill had not been a big focus in my life, it really wasn't a group. For the first time it feels like a real band and not an imaginary band.

Well, the liner notes on your new CD discusses the personnel changes and how the CD was recorded over the last couple years.

The CD actually was recorded fairly quickly, but it started at a time of transition when it was just me and Ryan (Nelson). We weren't sure what we were doing. I had a collection of songs and a set of ideas and set out pursuing them, and a real band emerged around that. It was recorded in a valley between the two ensembles. Part of the reason I put information in the CD's liner notes is that there's a perception we worked for a long time on this record, but there were really a lot of gaps between when we were working.

Didn't recording for short periods divided by long spans of time impact the consistency of the recording?

Well, I always wanted to make a really colorful, mosaic-type record like The White Album or Sandinista! or Fleetwood Mac's Tusk -- really sprawling, large records with a lot of different colors and a lot of different moods. It suits me, because I'm restless creatively. It's not a question of consistency. When Rachel (Burke) came into the band, she had a good view of the shape of the songs, and that was enlightening. Had I tried to make a record without Rachel, I wouldn't have had her insight to draw upon. So there were some advantages in taking so much time. But it was a drag. I wish I could have devoted more focus to it.

There are a couple themes that turn up throughout all the songs. One is empathy and considering other people's experiences -- putting yourself in someone else's shoes -- and also finite resources. Those themes kept coming back, and once I realized that, it helped shape the record. I wanted to make a record concerned with the idea of compassion. People presume I'm being sarcastic, biting or ironic, and that's disheartening to me. I wanted this CD to be sincere and heartfelt.

I think part of the preconceived notions come from the baggage you carry after being in Smart Went Crazy -- that band had a reputation for being cynical and ironic.

I once did a show in Portland with Stephen Malkmus of Pavement. Through his music I had an idea of what he'd be like and what his intentions were. I was moved and astonished with what I witnessed at the show and back stage. He's a very different person than I thought he'd be. He was just much more kind and sincere, almost somewhat childlike and genuine. He's probably closer to what people perceived Elliot Smith would be like.

Listening to his music you, I could see where you'd expect him to be kind of snarky.

'Snarky' is exactly the word I was looking for. But he wasn't snarky at all. He played the guitar so soulful and with such passion and verve. And I really loved it. I realized I had always presumed him to be much more of a 'clever-guy' type person than he means to be.

It's so weird. I friend of mine came by the studio to hear some early mixes of the Beauty Pill record, and I said, 'All the songs are about compassion.' And he said, 'Whoa, that's a switch for you.' I said, 'What are you talking about?'

Beauty Pill has the distinction of having lyrics that are clearly discernable -- you hear every word that comes out of yours and Rachel's mouths. It's almost like a gimmick compared to the unintelligible singing of most indie bands. So are you making a conscious effort to enunciate?

Definitely it's part of what I'm interested in doing. I may be trying to get an idea across that's too abstract or too difficulty to communicate clearly, but at least I'm always trying to be understood and be clear and confident expressing those ideas. When we play shows, Rachel is sort of like a laser pointer on the text. She's very presentational in how she performs.

What do you mean 'presentational'?

It's hard to describe. You know those angels at the front of old ships? She's sort of like that -- provocatively clear and confrontational. It's a way of singing, a desire to be understood. Indie rock is often lazy. There's a retreat in mealy-mouth imprecision. I come from the deep deep, punk scene. Even though we don't sound like other Dischord music, I'm interested in being provocative and stirring things up.

I love The Clash. I like substance. I like elements of style, and certainly there's a strong aspect of design to Beauty Pill. I always want to be as elegant as possible, but at the end of the day I want to give something of substance for people to get their heads around. If it's not cool, I don't give a fuck.

















"There are a lot of moments while touring as a rock band where your dignity gets put into question."















"I've been cultured in DC punk and want to be understood. I want to fuck shit up."



Well, it's a clear characteristic of this band and of Smart Went Crazy before it. Your style demands listeners to pay attention.

I'm glad that people notice that we're making the effort. We're on the inside of it and can't see how well it's going over. Part of me wants to make the next record completely abstract and freaked out so you can't tell what we're going on about, almost as a reaction to this style.

I think part of the reason so many indie bands mumble their lyrics is because they know they're not singing anything that's relevant.

It seems like a terribly wasted opportunity. We have an i-Pod in the van, and one of our favorite songs is Morrissey's "Sing Your Life." It's such a great song with such a plain idea. There's a line, 'Walk right up the microphone / And name all the things that you love / All the things that you loathe.'That's the opportunity if you're in a band, to throw it out to the world and make a gesture at changing it. Certainly that's always been an appeal to me. I have a lot of things I want to say. No one ever picks up on this, but I'm heavily influenced by Ian MacKaye. I've been cultured in DC punk and want to be understood. I want to fuck shit up.

That said, for your next album, have you ever considered writing more political songs?

We talked about it as a band. Our model has been The Smiths. Their music is political, but most people don't think it is because it's so seamlessly incorporated into the songs. They have songs that are political that you could mistake for love songs and vice versa.

I'm too much of an eccentric to be a voice of a generation. And everyone in this band has strong beliefs one way or the other. It's a balancing act between art and interpretation. How do you stay elegant and artistic and get a point across?

There's also the whole 'preaching to the converted' possibility. If a band has an audience that's sure to agree to them, they don't say anything provocative because everyone is already signed on. That seems clumsy.

It has to feel exciting and provocative. We move by instinct, so it has to feel electric and a little scary to say something, or we need to find a new way of saying it. I had a couple times on stage where I regretted being pointed and proselytizing. It's a balance. There's a reason why there's lots of clumsy art -- shitty hardcore bands that preach to the audience or awful folk music that isn't helping anyone because it's awful music and doesn't have any impact.

Tell me about the song "The Mule on the Plane." What motivated you to write a song about drug trafficking?

There are a few different things that are going on in that song. I was listening to some South American stuff and I wanted to write something where the shape of the chords had a south-of-the-border feel to it. And I had been reading a couple things. One was '100 Years of Solitude;' the other was 'America's Longest War' which is about the drug war. I liked the idea of writing this whole song about a mule, which was something I learned about from reading that book. I love the idea of being able to picture a mule, this fantastic or surreal or cartoonish image. It's a song from the new CD that I'm the most emotional about because it's about what connects you to other people, and what divides you. It's about rich and poor being right next to each other. It's about compassion; the first line of the song is 'Look beyond the things you know.' Drew Doucette is doing an EP where we rearranged the song back to the original boss nova-sounding arrangement that will come out at the end of the year.

Give me your thoughts on this record's themes. It seems almost oddly sinister with it's images of mules on planes, bomb-sniffing dogs, Mark David Chapman, it's almost as if the band is trying to reflect society's fears and needs.

The songs aren't meant to feel removed but to convey actual concern. In a personal way, it's protest music. I definitely wanted to tell stories.

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Copyright 2004 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.