His Clancyness Talks Recording New Album ‘Vicious’ in Detroit, Creating a ‘Full Sonic Assault’
It’s very late in Bologna, Italy, but Jonathan Clancy doesn’t mind. If his newest album, the tramping, lo-fi 'Vicious,' is indicative of anything, it’s that Clancy, aka HIs Clancyness, is quite all right with darkness. Released yesterday (Oct. 8) on FatCat, 'Vicious' is a hazy foray into a surreal dream-pop landscape, with inviting hooks acting as a veneer obscuring dense themes of malice and injury.
Between making 'Vicious' and releasing the 'Charades' EP earlier this year, His Clancyness has been very busy. The psych-pop architect has perfected the art of building a “sonic assault,” and 'Vicious' is simultaneously austere and emotionally weighty. Next on the docket: perfecting the live show for a string of upcoming shows. Between gearing up for that tour of Europe and the U.S. and, well, sleeping, Clancy sat down to talk with Diffuser.fm about the new album, recording in Detroit and honesty in music.
Many of these songs are about violence and wrongdoing. What made you take the album in that direction?
It’s kind of a reference to how we were writing before this record. Last year, I started noticing two to three songs into the record that the writing process that they’re harsher and stories are a bit more violent. It’s already something you can kind of see with the titles of the songs. 'Slash the Night' and others like 'Hunting Men' and 'Safe Around the Edges' have that pattern of violent words in the lyrics.
So why go with 'Vicious' as the title?
It’s something really opposite of my character. I started thinking about when you write a song, how much of you actually goes into it, and how there’s a part of you that maybe doesn’t want to come out and go into a song. I like the period of music where there’s like mystery in it, like in the '60s and '70s. I really liked the big pop stars. So, all these things started to swirl around in my head and for me, the main word I attached to it was “vicious.” I guess I was kind of feeling more ferocious at the time, with the themes on the record.
That sort of sentiment definitely comes through on many of the songs, 'Slash the Night,' in particular. Can you talk about the background of that one?
We’ll, it’s actually about a murder in the middle of the night. It was a dream I had one night -- and it was just those elements sort of came in, and that’s how [the song] came about. Again, it’s something that’s disconnected to my life, but I don’t know, it’s neat when things come out [like that]. A lot of people say when you write honest music you put yourself into it, and I kind of think that also, honesty is sometimes wearing a mask in your music.
That’s kind of the case in performing though, right?
Some of the songs on 'Vicious' flow into each other. Was it important to you to have a cohesive feel to the whole work?
Yeah. It’s something that’s been important in all the things I’ve done. In general, I’m a fan of albums that have a full sonic assault. I love that idea -- especially nowadays, when making an album is something that people don’t really care about, and they don’t listen to an album in [proper] sequence. I thought that for the people that still care that’s what I wanted to present. I wanted it to make a statement, like, "Hey, this is His Clancyness, it’s 45 minutes long and it’s really dense. If you like it, you like it and if you don’t, you don’t."
The phrase "sonic assault" is very fitting with the title. Let’s talk about that mask of honesty.
It’s hard to say this in an interview and with someone I don’t really know, but people who know me know I’m a very ordinary kind of guy. Even from the outside, my friends who listened to it said, "Whoa, that doesn’t sound like it’s coming from you." That’s something that kind of startled me, and it was something I wanted to explore a little deeper.
Yeah, definitely. You’ve lived across the world in Europe and the U.S.—how did that upbringing filter specifically into this album?
It’s funny, this album was actually recorded in the States, in Detroit. I mean, that city -- it doesn’t totally answer your question, but that city had a massive effect on me just in the three weeks we spent there. The guy who we recorded with, Chris Koltay, is one of those guys who lives by the idea like, "Yeah, you can come record in my studio, but you should live the city, too." So as soon as we got there, he gave us these three bikes and we started like biking around the city which is kind of surreal. If you know the city of Detroit, it’s like, A, no one bikes there and B, there’s no one there at all. The streets are completely empty, and it’s kind of like a bombed-out city. So we kind of started living the city in this really surreal way, and in between takes and recording stuff, we’d be doing this really weird sightseeing thing, and that filtered into the record a lot. I started changing lyrics around to it. To answer more to your question, I think that’s what living in different places does to you. I get very obsessed with places I go to. With Detroit, we decided to record there maybe four or five months before, and I started checking out anything I could on Detroit. I still to this day look up this site every day called Curbed Detroit on real estate listings in Detroit.
I’m obsessed about it. I look it up everyday just to see if there’s new listings. Just because! In the long term, that’s what the process of living in other cities has done to me. Plus, if you haven’t lived somewhere for a long time -- I’m from Canada -- it kind of creates this nostalgia pattern. I grew up in Ottawa, and Ottawa is not like, a cool city. Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but it’s a pretty s---ty place. It’s nothing special. But being far away from it, you kind of create this myth about it: "Ottawa is the coolest place ever" -- even if it really isn’t.
Detroit -- go figure. What about the city inspired the album sonically? Were you getting any of the classic Motor City sounds that played into the album?
We were getting more literally from the landscape. I wouldn’t even say anything musically about it because a lot of people kind of think of Detroit now as like the type of garage-rock city that it used to be. Especially if you go there, you kind of understand why it’s kind of more of a techno city. I’ve been around but the rest of my band -- two of my friends -- are from Italy. They’ve been to the U.S., but they’ve never been to the U.S. and seen a city like that. Everyone here has the myth of the great amazing American city, and then you get to Detroit, and it’s crazy, and it looks like this kind of bombed-out city.
Speaking of your band, this is your first time recording with a group.
Yeah! Up to this record, I just recorded all the instruments from drums to keys and everything at home, but this time around, to change it up, I wanted better musicians than myself, at least playing drums and bass, so I brought two friends around.
Was that a different dynamic? Songs are sometimes so personal, even if that means on that mask. Did it feel like you were baring your soul a little bit in the recording studio?
I guess I got lucky. The two guys that came with me -- Jacopo and Paul -- are two of my best friends. We grew up musically together but had never really played together. Then the time kind of locked in when they could come along [to play on the album]. They really understood everything from the beginning. It was kind of one of those situations where we didn’t even need to talk at all. We tried the actual renditions of the songs like three days before going, so I had kind of written it all down and mapped it all out, and we literally rehearsed two or three days and left and that was it. We wanted to track most of it live so we did that but we literally rehearsed only about three days.
And you're planning on touring the States?
Yes, we have Europe mapped out, and we’re talking about a U.S. [tour] at the moment.
Great, so what’s your favorite song on the album to perform?
We’ve started playing most of them already. My favorite song on the album right now is 'Progress.' Actually, we’ve never played it live, but we’ve been practicing it over the last week, and it’s been the most stressful one to put together because it’s the last song on the album, and it’s a really, really long song. But, it’s been coming together so we’re playing it in two days for the first time. I’m really excited to try it out. It’s kind of one of those songs that kind of tells you that you should be playing it as the last song. It’s a no-brainer.