Mention The Clarks to most music fans outside of Pittsburgh, and you’re likely to be met with a look of blank indifference. However, the fact that the four-piece band stole the show when sharing the stage with Three Doors Down at the Iron City’s IC Light Amphitheatre last summer, tells you all you need to know about The Clarks’ popularity in and around their hometown.
This month, 15 years after forming at Indiana University, vocalist Scott Blasey, guitarist Rob James, bassist Greg Joseph and drummer Dave Minarik will release their sixth studio album, and hopes are high that Another Happy Ending will be the one that finally puts the national spotlight on the music of these affable and talented local heroes.
However, if the various members of The Clarks are feeling any kind of pressure to build on the kind of local adulation that they have become accustomed to over the past few years, it certainly doesn’t show during a lengthy conversation with Rob James; a musician so refreshingly at ease, it’s surprising he doesn’t play shows lying prostrate.
“We’re all really pleased with how the record came out,” James said, during a short break between promotional tour dates with O.A.R. “And we didn’t feel any pressure at all whilst making the album, except maybe a pressure to maintain the great creative process we have with each other — it’s the best thing about recording.”
Giving a clue about the reasoning behind the new album’s title, he adds: “The other thing is that the whole recording process for us was long but it wasn’t laborious. We came out with another happy ending at the end of it we are all really happy with the disc.
“We’ve learned over the course of time to trust our instincts, that what we’re doing isn’t shite, and to get to the core of what we’re feeling creatively without much effort. In the studio, we were saying to each other ‘these songs are great, let’s go with that’, and Justin [Niebank, the band’s producer] was the same.”
It’s fitting that James refers to the unique chemistry The Clarks have always enjoyed, as it’s a quality that has in no small part contributed to their incredible longevity as a group. However, James is also indebted to the input of Niebank, a man he admits is like a brother, and the man who saw the quality evident in the sum of the band’s parts and harnessed it to a bold, modern and new approach on the band’s previous disc, Let It Go.
Whilst it did not catapult the band to national fame and fortune, Let It Go introduced the band to a wider audience and was something of a breakthrough album. The band had earlier seen the demise of a short-lived deal with MCA affiliate Way Cool after releasing the aptly titled Someday Maybe in 1996 and seemed to be at a crossroads. Following this disappointment though, Razor and Tie, one of the larger independent labels, saw the impact the band had at radio and at shows across the Pittsburgh region and it was the start of the kind of mutually beneficial relationship so rare within the music industry.
Razor and Tie, distributed nationally by BMG Entertainment, gave the band the freedom to experiment with their straight-ahead sound, and in return The Clarks delivered an album that cemented their popularity and sold more than 50,000 copies off the back of the catchy-as-hell single “Better Off Without You”.
To follow the success of that album, James admits he had no hesitation in selecting Niebank to man the producer’s chair once more. “Justin was predominantly the first choice when the time came to get back into the studio,” Rob affirms. “I personally felt I had a lot more to learn from him; there was so much more inspiration he had to give to me.
“Having worked with Justin before, this time we went into the studio knowing him really well and as such we were on a completely new comfort level. Since our last album he had been working on various country projects and blues projects that he wanted to share with us, and he’s one of these producers who needs an outlet for his influences! We are the perfect outlet for him!”
As a result of such diverse influences, Another Happy Ending takes as many, if not more chances than its predecessor, raising the band’s earthy, all-American sound to a new level in the process with the seamless addition of loops, strings, and other contemporary touches. It’s The Clarks most complete work to date, and a further progression of the band’s sound.
Certainly, tunes like the bouncy, infectious pop-rock of “On Saturday”; the modern, fresh sounding “Superstar” and the achingly pretty ballad “So You Can Sleep at Night” are sonically different to anything the band has done in the past. From the tongue-in-cheek humour of “Boys Lie” and the superbly melodic modern pop of quirky opener “Maybe” to the brooding power of “Wasting Time” and the soaring, sitar-flavoured “Love Is What You Need”, it’s clear that once more The Clarks have pushed the creative envelope to previously unprecedented levels.
“I agree with you man,” Rob says when I suggest the new album is even more diverse than Let It Go. “The ironic thing about that is we had very little material written going into the recording. Whereas with Let It Go we had a stack of material all ready as we had been writing a long time since Someday Maybe came out. This time around it was remarkable the way we did it — we wrote a lot of stuff whilst recording and it added to the spontaneity and excitement of the creative process.
“This band has always seemed to keep elevating everything we do from project to project, and to keep moving forward and it’s always been that way for us. I think that if you think about a lot of bands whose career you’ve followed, the best ones are bands that take chances, that step a little bit outside of their comfort zone.
“I mean, for our forthcoming headlining tour we’re putting together a computer system for certain new tracks with strings and samples from the studio versions to add a bit of flavor. It’s a big leap to take as we’ve always been a pretty low-tech band of just drums bass and guitar, but we wanted to try it and see where it goes. Maybe in the future we’ll get back to making a stripped down kinda rock record someday but for now, we’re all really pleased with how this one came out.”
The first single “Hey You”, has already garnered significant airplay at radio and confirms the belief that the band’s sixth studio album is another step forward, and in many ways a new beginning. For some long term fans of the band, the song may come as quite a shock, bathed as it is in lush string arrangements and possessing a powerful philosophical message quite removed from the songs that make up the majority of the band’s back catalogue.
Yet in the early stages of recording in Nashville, a bout of writer’s block initially hampered the band’s efforts to build on the platform laid by Let It Go, and only the emotions generated by the terrible events of September 11th enabled the band to gather momentum with the project.
“Even though Scott [Blasey] and Greg [Joseph] had been writing, we were struggling a little bit at first, and we were hanging with Justin on September 11th and that was sort of a turning point for the project strangely enough.”
Rob continues: “Scott was sitting there watching all the coverage and then that night he wrote “Hey You”. When he wrote that song and brought it to the rest of the band, something really started to creep in. It’s a really emotional, yet uplifting and hopeful song, and in a strange way because of everything people went through that day, it spoke to me immediately.
“My own personal emotions from that day were that I took stock of everything around me, and I was very inspired by the fact I am doing what I wanna do with my life. I can pinpoint that as the when the floodgates opened for the creative process. Then over the next four to five months we went to Nashville and completed the disc.”
Although the band has always been a unit that collaborates on everything to do with the writing and recording of new material, Another Happy Ending perfectly demonstrates this spirit of total co-operation, and James acknowledges this unequivocally.
“It’s fulfilling when you have a bunch of people contributing ideas,” he says. “For me as an interpreter, or a player, I’m always able to find new inspiration form different influences and it would be tough for me just working within a certain parameter of one person’s songs.
“The new stuff still has that signature sound, absolutely, and as a band we’ve finally gotten to the point where everyone puts their own fingerprints on everyone’s songs, There’s definitely a thread that ties it all together, thematically and sonically.”
The Clarks’ music has never been coloured with much of a local or regional accent. Indeed, songs like eternal crowd favorites “Penny on The Floor”, “Cigarette”, and more latterly “Chasin’ Girls” and “Born too Late”, should by rights, easily translate onto national playlists. Whilst discussing this discrepancy, I ask Rob to explain why his band’s music might be attractive to rock fans unfamiliar with The Clarks, and it’s clear he believes the new album has the potential to reach out to a wider audience.
“If I wasn’t in this band, I would be attracted to this collection because it’s an eclectic mix of many different styles, that would keep me interested from beginning to end. I can honestly say that, and it wasn’t a conscious thing when we were recording. I like bands that take me on a journey; Let It Go was sort of the same deal, and the new record is even more so.”
As a result, Razor and Tie has high hopes of reaching new markets with the new album. The Clarks’ website averages 400,000 hits per month, six-thousand people currently receive the Clarks regular email newsletter and “Clarks Reps” have pursued a vigorous policy of targeting potential new fans at recent support shows by handing out mini “Best of” promo discs. Such marketing contributed to the strong sales of Let It Go and new fans this time around will discover a band that has built a substantial local following with the aid of an endearing honesty and distinct lack of ego. The label’s vision is enthusiastically shared by the band’s will, and James is intent on reaching that shared goal.
“We’ve been lucky as although Pittsburgh has never really been a major market for the record industry, we have created an insulated situation for ourselves. We had a region we were successful in and although we wanted to spread further out, we concentrated on having some place we could always go back to. It’s paying off now as we can have luxuries such as a tour bus, but without a huge corporation throwing millions of dollars behind us, we’re aware we have to get out on almost a grassroots level elsewhere.
“We’re fortunate to have a lot of people that really do care about this band. It’s astounding to me — and very humbling — and I think we are getting our name known elsewhere. In between recording the album, we did some dates with John Mayer and unbelievably the next time we went back to those places on our own, people came back.”
The Clarks demonstrated the reason for that appeal on 2001’s re-packaged live album The Clarks Live, and although Rob is aware that breaking the band in new markets will take a lot of hard work, it’s a challenge he and the rest of the band plan to characteristically meet head-on.
“We’ve got a couple of weeks off over the next few months but for the rest of the time hopefully it’s gonna be incessant touring. We’ve got two headlining dates at the IC Light Amphitheatre coming up and beyond that, each new experience of trying to turn on a new crowd in a new place is something I’m looking forward to.
“So much time and effort has been invested into this band that we feel we haven’t reached our full potential yet and we know what it’s gonna take to get there. It’s not a question, we’ve just gotta do it.”
As The Clarks have come to realise throughout their career, there’s no guarantees and no certainties in the music industry, but if the band do finally mange to mirror their local success on a national stage with Another Happy Ending, then it will be no more than they deserve.
Another Happy Ending is released by Razor and Tie Entertainment on 11 June 2002.