Spotlight: Todd Clouser

I immediately pegged Magnet Animals’ debut, Butterfly Killer [Rare Noise Records] as a shoe-in for one of the best records of the year, but whether under Guitar Moderne or Roots Moderne was up for grabs. The twang and blues elements seemed to lean toward the latter, while the noise-guitar and free-form vocals ultimately pushed it over the edge to the former. Either way it is a must-have recording, and an interview with its instigator Todd Clouser was a must have as well. Clouser’s efforts with drummer Jorge Servin, Abraxas guitarist Eyal Maoz and bassist Shanir Blumenkranz reveal a musician thoroughly grounded in technique, while ignoring it as any kind of end—my kind of player.

What music were you playing when you first became proficient on guitar?

I was into rock, blues, and some folk music. My early guitar life was really ordinary. I learned ‘All Along the Watchtower,” and tunes like that.

Where was that?

Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Did you study jazz at some point?

I studied jazz at Berklee. I’ve always been “fringe” jazz. I really couldn’t be straight Jazz. I have a pretty good grasp of harmony and composition—the basic elements of jazz.

What music did you start playing when you started playing professionally?

I gravitated towards the “downtown” New York guys. After I moved to Boston, I started taking clinics in New York, where I met people like Steven Bernstein, the great trumpeter in Sex Mob and Levon Helm’s band. He was a mentor. I started playing with Steven and at some little jazz clubs, but I was always in an experimental realm in between rock and jazz.

Did you live in New York at that time?

I was living in Boston. I just traveled to New York a lot. I would take the train down there, where I would take classes or go to shows or a play.

What brought you to Mexico?

I toured for some years in a band in the United States, not glorious stuff, but it was a great learning time. I just got really tired of that and was self-destructing. There was a lot of partying and everything was falling apart, so I needed a big change.

What band were you touring with?

It was a number of different rock and jam bands. I was playing a lot at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis, doing production stuff, playing on other peoples’ records—a mix of everything.

Where were you based at that time?

I was in Minneapolis. I had a little home studio. After I was done in Boston, I spent a little time in New York, and then went back to Minneapolis. At the beginning, the move to Mexico was for personal reasons. I definitely needed a change. That cliché about moving to Mexico and being rejuvenated actually worked.

I got a job teaching music to kids. I started touring the country and met two musicians, Hernan Hecht and Aaron Cruz. We started the band, A Love Electric. That’s really why I moved to Mexico City, and it’s become home now for almost five years.

Who were the guitarists that inspired you when you were younger?

The first was Hendrix. Once I realized that he was improvising and it was largely blues based, I started tracing it backwards. I found Lightnin’ Hopkins, Son House, and Skip James. Not only as guitarists, but their vocal phrasing and the way that their voice and the guitar interacted. I fell in love with that music: the traditional, Deep South music from the United States. Of course, I was surrounded by rock as well. I was listening to Nirvana. When I was really young, I listened to Led Zeppelin and all those bands. Through connecting with the downtown scene guys I met Marc Ribot, who I love, and David Tronzo, another guitarist with a unique way of playing.

I know David. I used to see him play with Bernstein and Marcus Rojas in Spanish Fly.

I still listen to those guys, a lot, but also a lot of traditional, folkloric music.

When you first got into jazz, were you into straight-ahead players, or was it always the experimental bands?

I felt like traditional jazz was something I should love, but never did, especially guitar jazz. I loved Thelonious Monk and could get into Miles and some of his electric bands, but, honestly, the competitive nature of Berklee was a big turn off and intimidating. I came to music for something other than the competitive mastery thing.

You mean like who can play “Giant Steps” the fastest?

Exactly. It was hard for me to be around that. In time, I just embraced that it’s not what I do.

A Love Electric has had a certain amount of success. Were you mostly touring in Mexico, or did you also come to the States?

We toured everywhere. We did stuff in Europe. I’m still with that band; we go to Europe at least once a year and have been to Japan once, but we are mostly in Mexico. We play big festivals here—some are rock, some jazz. We played Winter Jazz in New York. We’ve gotten around. We get in the van, the bus, or whatever—not a tour bus, but like a Greyhound bus—and then go wherever. We did a tour in February. We went from Costa Rica to North Mexico by land because we wanted to play in different types of venues: embassies, little bars, etc. That’s been the history of that band.

How are you able to book a band based in Mexico in Europe, the States, and Japan?

Something about what we do is unique and interesting. There is a scene in Mexico City that is unique. There’s stuff worth looking at. People get interested and inquisitive. We are not the type of band that sends out a press kit to a big festival and they book us. Sometimes we have to educate people a bit. First we have to go to someplace like Germany, lose a little money, play wherever we can for three weeks and make connections. People like it and invite us back. It gets better each time. We don’t wait around for a big festival to call. We just go and play.

I think it is important for people to hear that, because a lot of guys are sitting around waiting for that big festival to call.

It doesn’t happen.

How did Magnet Animals evolve?

A couple of years ago, I played the John Lurie Tribute at Town Hall in New York. It was like a dream, I played with John Medeski, Billy Martin, and Jesse Harris. Shanir Blumenkranz was the bass player. I talked with Shanir about doing something. I always wanted to play with him. I love how he plays. I love his band. We talked about him coming down to Mexico at some point. I’m fan and a friend of Eyal’s as well.

How did you meet Eyal?

Through mutual friends in New York; the Zorn world intersects with Bernstein. I invited Shanir and Eyal down to Mexico. Jorge Servi, a young player here, played drums.

I do a lot of different projects, but this is a magic record. Because we had a certain amount of success with A Love Electric, there are expectations, so we spend a lot of time thinking about what we should do and what we shouldn’t do on our next record. With this record, we wanted to do completely the opposite; just be impulsive. I think there’s something attractive in raw expression, not overthinking it. I wrote these tunes in two days in a cabin here in Hidalgo, close to Mexico City. The guys came out a week later. We played every night for five nights in different towns in Mexico, and on the sixth day, we went in and recorded. We had two days in the studio, but we recorded a lot of the tunes in six hours. We played live and it just worked. Sometimes bands don’t work, or there’s something there but it doesn’t have its own sound.

It wasn’t all me. I had the tunes. I wrote parts we were reading and it was specific in that sense, but it was really open for everybody’s ideas. Shanir had ideas for arrangement and feels. I wrote the tunes to be very inclusive. The band was surprised how it turned it out. We really created something really cool in a short time.

What did you write exactly? Was it just melodic motifs that you all arranged and improvised on?

No, there are parts notated like in jazz tunes. I wrote out A sections, B sections and the harmony. We would make some changes in the studio or over the course of the shows they’d get arranged a bit. The solos were improvised and there would be a big open section in the middle of a tune where it could be noise, but there was a solid skeleton of a tune, and the melodies were there

How did you and Eyal divide up the parts?

We could feel whose sound was gravitating towards a certain melody. Eyal has such a specific sound. It doesn’t sound like a traditional guitar. It’s like a combination of Theremin, electric piano, and guitar. It’s unique, an energetic way of playing, chaotic in a sense. There were certain melodies that were great for his sound. It was not only about the guitars but also about all of us expressing our unique voices within what was written.

Are you and Eyal strictly left and right in the panning through the record?

It’s mostly that way. I’m on the left. Eyal’s sound is more effected, he has a Whammy thing going on and different octaves.

Who is playing the seagull type slide sounds?

That’s Eyal

Did you overdub the vocals, or did your do them live with the tracks?

I overdubbed all of the vocals. The voice is something I can be judgmental about. A lot of vocalists are like that. I plug this little Shure Bullet mic into a preamp and just let myself go. A lot of it would be improvised, and then I would go back and think, “That’s a title for a song,” or “There’s a little backing vocal part.” It was a fun record to make, and the vocal part was fun. It was playful.

The guitar sounds from both of you are great. What were you using for guitars, effects and amps?

It’s actually pretty basic. I just play it in a fucked up way. I have a Gibson 335. It’s not old, it’s from 2000.

Is it that blue one?

Yeah.

Does it have the original pickups?

Yes. I use DR .011 gauge strings. I go into a Fender Twin or Deluxe. That’s my only guitar on this record. I have a couple of Fulltone pedals: an overdrive and a distortion. I have an old Boss Delay, the pink one; I think it’s a DM-2 analog delay. It’s one of the really old ones that are now worth a bunch of money, but I got it when I was in high school. [Editor’s Note: The DM-2 has been reissued by Boss as part of their Waza series]. I have an Ernie Ball volume pedal. There’s also the Z.Vex Fuzz Factory. I knew Zachary Vex in Minneapolis and I’ve used that pedal since he started making them. I turn everything to ten and make it sound almost like noise.

On “Martha Fever,” there’s a real skronky type noise rhythm like Arto Lindsay at the beginning.

I think that’s through the Fuzz Factory. I like to steal stuff from Tronzo, like playing the strings behind the nut, down below the bridge, or where you get something that might sound like a pedal but it’s really just bending the string with my other hand, or bending onto the pickups.

You do some looping for the solo performance on the Calma Room video.

I have a couple of basic loop pedals. I use them more to create textures and sounds behind me than for a time-specific loop. I also use the  pedal. You can create harmonies in the moment just by freezing one note and playing over it, then freezing two other notes. There are creative ways to use that, especially when I play in my other band, which is a trio. You can really fill up the space. I use the Line 6 DL4 sometimes, but I didn’t use it on this record. Eyal uses it on this record. Eyal doesn’t have a lot of pedals, but he’ll work the Line 6 with his left foot and the Whammy with his right foot at the same time. His feet are dancing and there are these wild sounds coming out. I don’t know if it’s worked out or impulsive, but it’s pretty awesome.

Was the tremolo on the record mostly just from the amp?

Yeah.

Are you guys going to tour?

We’ve just toured in Mexico again, playing both jazz and rock clubs. There are few dates in July, including a big international Jazz festival in the city of Querétaro here in Mexico. Up until now, it’s been mostly Mexico, based on everybody’s time and what other records they have recently put out. I’m sure we’ll play at least a gig or two in New York and we’re trying to get to Europe. I am talking to the label. It’s great to have the support of Rare Noise on this record, making things go forward.

It’s not just a record, it’s really something to develop and take to the world. It’s an energetic band and we’ve had a really cool response. It’s always a challenge to be able to get this in front of people and then let it grow and create its own energy.

One last question. Has living in Mexico affected your music in a way that you can put your finger on?

Living in Mexico has definitely affected my music, but not like it’s been specifically influenced by Latin music. Living in Mexico, I’ve been able to grow a lot as a person. I was born in Kansas City and grew up in Minneapolis. My perspective has really grown. I never would have dreamed of working with a music school in the mountains of Oaxaca.

I’m not stealing ideas from the traditional music in Oaxaca, but I’m connecting with why they make music. It has allowed me to reconnect with a sense of altruism about music that I had lost right before I moved to Mexico. I was very tired of the cynical touring world. I love touring, but working with people here in Mexico and Latin America, working with kids in workshops, not just playing shows, I’ve been able to connect with something more human that I really needed. Being in Mexico has been a great experience. I’m really grounded.

Eyal Maoz on making Magnetic Animals

“The album is a great example of how each member brings his forte to make it into one strong, mutual statement. Todd brought, apart from great guitar playing, catchy simple songs that were easy to be emerged in. Shanir contributed his amazing ability to arrange and create a very memorable production from such compositions, setting the direction and the vibe of the music and even conducting it sometimes in the studio and on stage. Jorge is a master of groove, which is a rare thing and always needed. He is a very sensitive drummer, which makes the music more interesting and subject to surprising changes, I added my sounds for extra atmosphere and emphasis of important parts. I don’t exactly remember what I used, but definitely Line 6’s DL4 looper and M9, as well as the Pigtronix Distnortion.”

 

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