The Weight of Words: An Interview with Clearlake

Devon Powers

'I think for music to be good, it needs to go quite deep,' says Jason Pegg, front man of British rock band Clearlake. But are American audiences -- who will get their first taste of Clearlake this spring as they tour with the Decemberists and Stereolab -- ready to go deep with them? PopMatters takes a look.

If there's one thing to be known about Jason Pegg, lead singer of Clearlake, it is this: he can be very passionate about grammar.

"To get a phrase right sometimes comes down to half a word," he says. His tone is careful and his speech meticulous, as if he's constructing his sentences in space, words carved into the air like an etching in wood. "You say [to yourself], should I use that word, should I use this word."

He pauses.

"You've got to go with what you feel because, for me, it seems to satisfy me better and it's what I consider to be better work. If you start thinking about what anyone else thinks, you end up a bit lost."

Of course, it's obvious that Pegg is a thinker; he analyzes his moves -- be they musical, lyrical, or in this case, conversational -- with sincere, deliberate strategy. And of course we're talking about more than vocabulary and phrases, rhyme and rhythm. What's really at stake here is the power and position that words can carry, the attitudes and assumptions that underlie language. For the lead singer of Clearlake, the magnitude of these issues is always at stake in the process of songwriting, especially as British artists embarking on an inaugural tour of the United States -- and poised to take on the international audiences, both onstage and off.

Clearlake began their career in their native England in 2000. Both their first single Winterlight (2000) and debut album Lido (2001) were received with intense critical acclaim. Where most bands would try to ride the wave of hype by speedily churning out a new album, Clearlake took the opposite route, spending nearly two years in the studio crafting their sophomore effort, Cedars. "We took a long time to make this record -- I am quite a slow writer," Pegg, also the band's chief songsmith, admits. "But a lot of it was getting some equipment where we could do it ourselves, and learning how to use various things. I think it was all part of a huge, organic thing -- this band developing in lots of ways."

That painstaking growth is audible in their music, which often seems to be wrestling internally with its own expansion, charting a fine line between guarded restraint and explosive release. Again, the sonic metaphor is apt for the band's real world experience. "I was really shocked when we made the second record and it finally came out -- I just thought, 'oh, we've blown this, everyone has forgotten us,'" he notes. "But actually, it was really critically received. So I feel confident in terms of going to another level [with the band]. I feel more confident to be able to say to the world, 'this is what we do,' and I feel like we're ready -- I don't know what for, but to do something on a larger scale."

This spring, the scale will be enlarged considerably, as Clearlake launch their first major tour of the United States, opening alternately for Stereolab and the Decemberists. Pegg, who's only traveled to the States once before with Clearlake (to play last fall at the CMJ Music Festival in New York) is buoyed by the prospects. "Being in America is going to be a completely mind blowing experience," he says. Weeks of playing live, however, can surely take their toll on anyone, not to mention the temptations that couple being on the road. "[Last time] we came to New York, we had four days before the gig, and we just went a bit nuts," Pegg confesses. "I think we'll survive but we're going to have to pace ourselves."

There's also the issue of being a British rock band playing for American audiences, which gets back to the issue of language. "The thing that annoyed me for a long time is we always get 'oh my god, this band is so English.' We get the quintessentially English thing. I got to the point where I would think well, if that's what we are, then so be it."

He pauses again, scrutinizing his position. "I think it's a vocal thing, really. I enunciate my words a bit overly precisely at some points. Which I like because I want to be clear, but at the same time I'm getting to a point where I'm realizing more of the musicality of singing. And I'm letting some of the sort of uptightness go, hopefully, and make it a bit more musical."

It's my turn to hesitate. Is being English synonymous with being uptight?

Pegg answers. "I sing in an English accent. But at the same time, I think there is some part of my personality that comes through in what I write and that maybe at points..." Silence. "You know, I'll admit to being a bit uptight. It's something I'm working on."

There's certainly something English about Clearlake's sound, but it's not just Englishness that gives them meaning; as far as being uptight -- well, this time around, Pegg may not have found the right word. In its place, a bevy of adjectives come to mind: brooding, powerful, tight, intelligent, clever, modest, structured. Their music harnesses a grandeur that manages to remain nuclear, and brews with kinetics yet still maintains control. And while Pegg's vocal style (which has at times been compared to Syd Barrett) is perhaps the most obvious gateway into the cultural differences which are stitched in the notes and phrasing, Clearlake are able to transcend being merely a product of their context. For the tools they use and feelings they transmit are universal, and there's no losing any of that in the translation across the Atlantic.

Ultimately, Pegg agrees with sustaining their style and creative integrity, regardless of who they're playing for. "This band is my dream band," he says with a quiet calm, but the conviction behind the statement is palpable. "And I'm just continuing to make the music that I want to make." That includes at times pushing his audiences, emotionally and intellectually and sonically, in the same way Pegg and Clearlake push themselves to deliver something profound and shattering when they play. "I love language, it's one of the greatest things," Pegg notes. "I think for music to be good, it needs to go quite deep."

If there's one thing to be known about Clearlake, it is this: they're a band with their own gravitational pull.

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