California Man

by Roger Holland


Like Clark Kent, Peter Parker, Bob Parr, and Jessica Simpson, Allen Clapp has a super secret identity. By day, he’s a mild-mannered graphic designer and assistant editor on a North California weekly. By night, if there’s nothing good on TV, he’s the equally mild-mannered leader of The Orange Peels—a Sunnyvale-based force for musical good. Together with his wife, bassist Jill Pries, and multi-instrumentalist Oed Ronne, Allan Clapp stands tall(ish) against the tide of musical darkness, raging against the dying of the light with a nice line in clever pop hookery, wielding warm summery harmonies with the most delicate of touches.

The only question is, which is the secret identity? Which is the real Allen Clapp?

Don’t worry, it was rhetorical. They’re both the real deal. When you’re dedicated to your music, but you’re not shifting the big units, and you still want a roof over your head that doesn’t belong to your parents, you soon learn to make compromises.

“It’s pretty much a constant struggle,” admits Clapp. “A battle to reconcile two lives. You find yourself making important career decisions based on the need to have the most freedom possible for your music. Which obviously means that you don’t do as well, or get ahead as quickly in your career as you’d wish. And that might prove to be a mistake in the long run.”

When you live on the San Francisco South Bay Peninsula, the cost of maintaining your roof can be something to behold. Clapp has lived there pretty much all his life.

“It can be savage here. When I was growing up, the area had a much more laid-back vibe. It wasn’t so competitive or cut-throat.”

But now?

“Nowadays, you get used to seeing your friends leave.

“It’s just such an incredibly expensive part of the world, and when you think that really it takes an eight to ten hour commitment from four people—a full work day—for a band to play just a local show, then you can see just how hard it can be to keep things going here.”

Clapp has even thought about moving on himself. To find somewhere cheaper to live. Somewhere he and Pries can give yet more of themselves to their music. But he can’t.

“This is my favourite spot in the world. The weather is probably the best in the world, and we have everything here, from beautiful hiking trails to an amazing city.”

To paraphrase the bard: this land’s the place he loves, and here he’ll stay. But Clapp can’t give up his music either, so he’s pretty much trapped.

“I guess so. The thing is, I have this sound in my head. Some of the best music from California has this sound; it’s something so tangible that when you listen, you can almost feel the desert or the ocean, the fog or the sand. And I’ve spent most of my adult life chasing after the sound in my head. If I didn’t try to get it out, I’d probably go crazy. I have no other option, Music is the most important thing Jill and I do.”

Speak to just anyone about the Orange Peels and it’s a penny to a pound the first thing they’ll tell you is that they’re a “California band” with a “California sound”. Clapp obviously feels this deeply. Like Lucinda Williams among others, he uses geography to define moments, to provide a framework and a point of reference for his songs. Songs with titles like “Back in San Francisco”, “Redwood City”, and “The West Coast Rain” from the Orange Peel’s 2001 release So Far. Or “California Blue” from this summer’s largely excellent Circling the Sun.

So he’s a little surprised when I tell him I think the Orange Peels have lot of very English elements to their sound. After a long pause, he confesses he’s confused by the comment. And then he begins to explore the possibilities.

“Well, many of my influences are English. The Kinks, Ray Davies was an incredible songwriter. The Beatles, obviously. Early Pink Floyd. And XTC. XTC’s Skylarking album had a profound effect on me, listening to that record was almost a youthful coming of age experience for me. So I guess, yes. There are some pretty English influences there and what you’re probably responding to is a classic English song structure and sense of arrangement in our work. But we’ve definitely applied a West Coast sound and texture to those structures.”

Perhaps the truth is simply that this “California sound” has become so international that these days it’s only Californians who consider it to be a West Coast Thang. Whatever, when I listen to “Circling the Sun”, I don’t hear the Turtles, I hear the Mock Turtles—a late ‘80s, early ‘90s band from Manchester, England, that started out covering songs by the Kinks and Syd Barrett. Mind you, I also hear hooks of Weezer proportions, and a couple of songs that are crying out to be sent to the Fat Dancer, Robbie Williams. Because Circling the Sun is what happens when indie-pop grows up, moves out of its four-track studio apartment above its parents’ garage, gets married, and settles down in a home of its own. With a studio in the garage, obviously. It’s a very deliberate pop. Guitars chime, classic pop rhythms flow, multi-tracked vocals soar, bells tinkle, the sun shines and there’s plenty of opportunity to spot the influences and make up your own mind.

The economic compromises and deep personal commitments made by musicians like Clapp quite clearly reap a toll on their relationships and their productivity. New albums from the Orange Peels are no more frequent than the Summer Olympics, and each one is a case study in the interpersonal politics of dancing. The story behind Circling the Sun is one of break-ups, breakdowns and—believe it or not—the monsters of ‘70s rock.

The album’s pivotal moment, “Long Cold Summer”, reads like the end of a passionate love affair. Actually, it’s a full and frank document of the summer that passed Clapp by after the apparent end of the Orange Peels. Which, he allows, was the much the same thing.

“I dropped you off at curbside
Feeling so paralyzed
And I knew that a part of me had died ...
I aged a thousand years last night.”

Things had been going well for the the Orange Peels. Despite the Olympian pause since their 1997 debut release Square, the cheap and cheerful So Far had been warmly received.

“Critics were loving the home-made record. Our faces were, inexplicably, on the cover of SF Bay Guardian, and feature stories followed in just about every other major newspaper in the Bay Area. It was totally crazy. We toured here and there, making appearances at Noise Pop and South By Southwest, and played about 30 concerts over a six-month period that year. Everything was going great.”

Clapp believes the Orange Peels were on top of their game in spring 2002. They were, perhaps, halfway through the recording of a new album and about to set off on a tour rescheduled from the previous fall after the attacks on 9/11.

“We had a couple of weeks of shows booked up and down the East Coast. We were well-rehearsed. We had new material under our belts. And the makings of what seemed to be a new chapter in the band’s success. Little did we know ...”

By the end of their two-week trip to the East Coast, the band had fallen apart. Communication and morale had collapsed. Clapp isn’t sure why, but says that the timing certainly didn’t help. So Far was pretty much old news, and the Orange Peels’ tour coincided with the release of his solo album, Available Light. Consequently, much of the publicity and press around the tour gave it the air of an Allen Clapp solo event. More than one paper described him as the “former Orange Peels singer”, and it became something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“The tour turned into a bad eighth-grade field trip; the band had split into two parts. It felt like a family breaking up”

When Clapp dropped off his band at the curbside check-in for the flight back to California, he felt frozen by the way their relationships had imploded and came close to bailing on the flight.

The band played two more shows before splitting—a local wedding and a bar show in San Francisco. But long before the inevitable telephone calls—drummer John Moremen was doing the solo thing, guitarist Larry Winther was getting the hell out of Silicon Valley, it was very clear to Clapp that half his band had absolutely no interest in completing their new album, and he admits he took it personally. So personally that he retreated into a summer-long depression.

The way he tells it—now and in song—he fell into a cycle of work and musical therapy. His drug of choice? Led Zeppelin’s “Rain Song”. No, really!

“I was depressed for the whole summer, not knowing what was going to happen next, not knowing if I was ever going to be able to continue. It was a six-month period of listening to nothing but the ‘Rain Song’. Yes, it’s weird, but it somehow pulled me through.”

“I put on the ‘Rain Song’ and listened to it every night / Just trying to convince myself that it was alrigh.t”

Fortunately, Clapp’s relationship with Pries—by day the mild-mannered director of a local Montessori school—remained rock solid. The pair had met at college when Clapp was playing Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive” as loud as he dared in an attempt to annoy his roommate, and she came knocking on the door.

“I thought she’d come to complain, but no. She said she just wanted to find out who else liked ‘Interstellar Overdrive’. I immediately thought ‘Oh, I’m going to marry her.”

When the opportunity came for the couple to promote (oh, the irony!) Available Light as the support act for their friends Ocean Blue on another East Coast tour, they were able to “borrow” that band’s drummer and guitarist. The tour went so well that a rejuvenated Clapp and Pries immediately invited the Ocean Blue Two, drummer Peter Anderson and guitarist Oed Ronne, to join them in Minneapolis’s Terrarium studio to record Circling the Sun.

Though flawed in parts, Circling the Sun is head-and-shoulders the Orange Peels’ best work so far. It’s a fitting reward for Clapp’s dedication to his art, and for Pries’s support. Clapp hopes now to break that four-year cycle and build up some momentum for his band. Let’s hope that one day Allen Clapp finally manages to get his perfect pop sound out of his head and onto the radio.

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