Part 1 of a 3-part interview conducted with Los Angeles DIY label Deathbomb Arc, on the birth of clipping., the meaning of experimental music, and the curses and blessings of liking everything:
I love Seattle, but after developing a nasty case of seasonal-affected malaise last month, I did what any miserable person would do: took some work in Los Angeles, California. I later realized that the dates I’d be there included the evening of the Grammys. I began to imagine a scenario in which an award would be given to artists who take chances with music rather than make popular music, and little Los Angeles label Deathbomb Arc came to mind. I did what any self-doubting writer would do: I requested an interview.
Deathbomb Arc is the label that birthed Sub Pop signees clipping., a group whose music works as much to entertain as it does to muddle and expand genre. Their 2013 release midcity did the unlikely and combined two of my great loves: electroacoustic interference music and hiphop. I wanted to understand the genesis of their sound, so I talked to label boss Brian Miller and to my surprise in one evening he’d rounded up two-thirds of the members of clipping., Jonathan Snipes, and William Hutson (Daveed Diggs was away and unavailable), rapper I.E. (Margot Padilla), noise musician Tik//Tik (Stephen Cano) and label videographer and graphic designer Cristina Bercovitz for an all-pro interview session.
I did my best to avoid the Grammys in LA. I sped up Mullholland drive, tumbled down Topanga Canyon, and watched paddle boarders surf in the sunset at Malibu. I went to Watts, talked to the daughter of Harlem Renaissance player Leo Trammel about the Charles Mingus Youth Arts Center. We agreed Los Angeles’ legacy of great musicians (Eric Dolphy, Schoolboy Q, John Cage, Ice Cube, Tyrese Gibson, Barry White just to name a few) was shamefully not its most recognized feature. I watched a girl play guitar at Watts Towers, heard her father sing, and became aggravated at the police helicopters looming overhead. I relaxed in the sun. That evening I found my way to Mid City LA and met the Deathbomb Arc crew at the home of Jonathan Snipes. We sat around the kitchen table and talked. My malaise melted and was recast as a sense of belonging.
My first exposure to clipping. was through their mixtape for No Conclusion. The group took a leak of Kanye West’s Yeezus, and the idea from their Twitter followers that Kanye might have been listening to clipping. during its making, and put together a mixtape over their favorite parts of his leaked songs (there weren’t many) that included their favorite rap music from the year prior. The person who pointed me toward clipping. mentioned to me that this label had been releasing artists music on cassette like the medium never went out of style. clipping. released an untitled cassette on Deathbomb and very few sold until their album midcity drew attention with a free online download. Midcity was also later released on cassette. I asked Brian Miller about that.
“I feel pretty out of touch with the history of its hipness. I put out the first cassette on Deathbomb in ’04 and at that point I felt late to the game.” He and Jeff Witscher (aka Rene Hell) put out work on cassette as Foot Village. He reminded me that the cassette has always been the chosen medium of the noise music genre and that it just never went away in that small corner due to its relative cheapness to produce. Brian is soft spoken and obviously cares deeply about music. He’s seen to it that his younger musicians get albums put out on cassette so they can see and hold quality, visible copies of their work. He does it to show them he cares.
The idea comes up that older cars accommodate the medium, as well as the fact that it can be produced in any length cheaply. “The thing I love about cassettes is that nobody is making the argument that they sound better,” Snipes jokes. “They sound awful, so the the appeal really is all fetish or novelty.” "I have no idea what many of the younger acts I work with think about me putting their music out on cassette," Brian Miller says. "For them it’s not novelty or fetish at all, they didn't grow up with them, and acts like Signor Benedick The Moor have been completely shocked when I describe releasing music on actual physical cassette” I.E. is sitting off to my left and confirms the notion when he asks if she had an opinion about the release of her work on a certain medium: “I didn't care what the hell it came out on!”
I.E. makes painfully earnest hiphop that stems from her growing up outside of LA (in Inland Empire, hence the name). I ask her how her recent show in Seattle was. “It was terrible.” I played at The Josephine, nobody came, I just kind of played for the two dudes that lived there and the other act.” Brian Miller reminisces on bringing clipping. and Foot Village to Seattle and being well attended, but recognizes the fortune of those in their scene in LA, a place with no apprehension about putting a band on a bill because of their style. It’s this kind of availability and openness at venues (the last decade) that has given way to such a youthful music movement in LA (think Burger Records, Innovative Leisure, Deathbomb Arc).
Snipes, who is also a film score producer (Room 237, the documentary that investigates the myths behind Kubrick’s The Shining, is his best work, which he brought along Bill Hutson for) confesses his love for CDs as a music medium and his worst show in Seattle. He’s hirsute and talkative, smart, and nice. He has a lot of thoughts about music. He recalls his worst show in Seattle with his "ravesploitation" group Captain Ahab (one part of the genesis of clipping.) “I played the Baltic Room, the people who booked the show were very kind, but we got unplugged pretty soon into our set because people who were there weren't there to watch a sweaty white dude rap about buttholes.” Laughter erupts at the table. “It gave me the perspective that my idea—which to me was the most important part of that group—was totally offensive to everyone else on the bill, rappers and DJs whose craft defined them. Since then I've been on a bill or two with acts who I regarded as offensive.” Captain Ahab was a group born out of post 9-11 nationalism and moroseness of a nation, “What Captain Ahab was doing was acceptable in the circles we traveled in because everyone had gotten so conservative and boring, but here was a group of young people with no genre, making art a safe space for dangerous ideas, defending that idea at a point in America where people were questioning the way they expressed themselves,” Miller says.
- Cristina Bercovitz
- “The modus operandi of Deathbomb is punk as a way of being in the world, and not a type of music”
“The modus operandi of Deathbomb is punk as a way of being in the world, and not a type of music,” Hutson interjects. He’s undoubtedly the dissident in the group. He towers over me in height, and he’s ruggedly good looking. There are things going on behind his piercing eyes. He doesn’t speak much, but when he does it’s profound. I’d heard of his work, but he surprised me with his in-depth knowledge of hiphop, noise, and punk. “If you listen to most punk now, it’s the most conservative, closed-minded shit you've ever heard. You can be punk now and not make punk music.”
His comment reminds me that I.E.’s work is a dead ringer for early-'80s LA punk. A self-proclaimed chola rave queen, she could be the child of Alice Bag, and her music recalls The Cholitas and X. “I do listen to that music, but I grew up on hiphop. I’m also big into Euro dance music and new wave.” The great thing about her album Most Importantly is that she reminds every hard-on about the absolutely horrid world women grow up in without a single sad face emoji. Instead she uses chip tunes, noise music, and hiphop to get her truly hilarious, truly feminist point of view through to you.
Besides I.E. and Brian Miller, everyone gathered is into theater or came from that background. Some went to UCLA, Daveed went to Brown, Christina is a well-known puppeteer in Los Angeles and has directed several videos for clipping. and other Deathbomb artists. “We studied very traditional American theater, what can you say about that? It makes you creative in a very production-driven way. It affects the way we all work together.”
“It’s also a style of art we’re all interested in, but realized soon into school that we really don’t ever want to make,” Snipes jokes.
“We learned how to do all this by doing Captain Ahab (Snipes' earlier group). It took us a long time to learn how to brand things, how to package things,” Cristina adds.
Miller brings up the point that the improvisational ability members possess affects their love for their unorthodox performances and musical styles. That the training to recognize others' cues can direct you on stage—theater or musical—and take you somewhere further than just a recital of recorded work, can really bring the music to life.
Snipes talks a bit about how theater relates to composing music: “What is the idea of this entire play, and does every decision you’re making support this one very simple idea. If it does not, you cut it, successful theater is based on this.”
Hutson concludes, “The only other idea I would add is that what theater did for us, for Captain Ahab, and for clipping. is that we have no concern for authenticity. Lying is a performance; we lie a lot.”