Clarke Howell is one of the most respected songwriters and performers in the American underground. She generally tours as a solo artist but if you see a bill that says Clark & The Himselfs and Friends it’s more a full band lineup. But whatever the configuration, Howell is a magnetic performer whose fuzzy, often ebullient, pop songs capture a defiance and melancholy that seems ideal for the times we’re living in right now. Howell has been writing her music for the project since 2004 and the music is reminiscent of early Flaming Lips and The Reatards. Released in March 2017, In Your Hear You Know She’s Clark and the Himselfs includes contributions from Built To Spill’s Doug Martsch.
Clarke & The Himselfs current tour is a pairing, a showcase if you will, with fellow Scavenger Cult label collaborator Brett Netson. The latter is perhaps best known as a member of Boise, Idaho-based alternative rock band Built to Spill but also for his tenure as a crafter of brilliantly strange guitar sounds for experimental psychedelic band Caustic Resin. Netson will soon release a collaborative album he did with Snakes and like-minded Canadian band Crosss due out on cassette and vinyl on November 8, 2017 on Scavenger Cult.
We caught up with both musicians via email during their current tour. They will be playing tonight, October 6, at Lion’s Lair with the mighty Denver psych-garage band Ned Garthe Explosion and Nelson Crane. The tour will also visit Fort Collins and Boulder respectively over the next couple of days. Ask a punk, or whatever expression people are using now. What follows is a back to back Q&A with both artists beginning with Howell.
Clarke & The Himselfs
Queen City Sounds and Art: You’ve been in a band or bands before Clarke and the Himselfs, what about the more kind of solo format was appealing to you initially?
Clarke Howell: What’s most appealing is the ability to keep playing music without having the handicap of having to have other people. But it’s still best to play music with others, that’s how I learned how to play in the first place. But there wasn’t really any kind of intention, mostly default.
The project has been around since 2004. What made 2011 the point where there was a re-amalgamation and what prompted that?
When I was 15 I learned how to multi-track record and made the first album that I called Clarke and the Himselfs and made about a dozen albums after that. But I couldn’t play live shows that actually sounded like the recordings. In 2011 I figured out I could play guitar while holding a drum stick in my hand and started playing a set with my friend Demmi on double drums, which was originally going to be a different band, but after I started touring and moved to New Orleans it just kind of ended up turning into a new version of C&TH with a different sound and set-up.
Much of America or the world has no clue that Boise, Idaho has any music much less anything of note like Built to Spill, Caustic Resin and more recently what you’ve done, Finn Riggins, Sun Blood Stories, Wolvserpent, Street Fever and Magic Sword. Or that there’s an actual, viable music scene there. At least now. What kind of music world was there for you when you were starting out playing music, particularly with your current project as I know many cities go through various cycles where a scene is good and thriving and then seemingly dead for a while. What kinds of places did you play early on and what bands do you think impacted you or maybe took you under their wing?
I was born and grew up in Boise during the largest birthing boom in the history of civilization. All these people moved to Boise to raise families. I was lucky because I was surrounded by a large amount of extremely talented and creative peers that were largely disenfranchised in a town where there wasn’t much to do. Around 2008/2009 there was an extremely great house show scene thriving in Boise – that’s the scene I came out of. There’s a documentary I made about it called Bands of 208. I think it’s your friends that impact you the most of all – you kind of grow as they do and it helps if you’re interested in the same things. In those days, if I could say anyone, it was really getting to know David Strackany, who plays under [the moniker] Paleo. [He] made me realize, most of all, that it was possible tour by yourself. Beyond that though, his music is so amazing and relevant. David is a true genius and everything he touches continues to blow me away. Also getting to know Rob Morton and The Taxpayers solidified[my] sense of adventure and how much fun and how free it is to travel and play music for people.
In Your Heart You Know She’s And The Himselfs is such an interesting title for an album. What’s the significance of it especially considering the use of two gendered pronouns to refer to a single person?
I came out publicly as transgender in January, I’ve been transitioning and taking hormones since October of last year. I had struggled with gender dysphoria since I was little kid and for the most part basically knew that I was transgender or something [like] that probably since I was 12 or 13. It was something I constantly struggled with that constantly made me depressed and suicidal. I didn’t even realize the full extent of [how constant that state of mind and being was] until recently. I didn’t tell anyone until 2015 [because] I was too afraid to. I didn’t really tell anybody else until last year [when it] kind of came to [a head and] I didn’t have any choice but to deal with it. I had kept it this secret and it was totally fucking me up inside—for years I could kind of manage waves of dysphoria and crippling depression but it was apparent it couldn’t go on any longer.
You can only swim against a current for so long, if you don’t start swimming with it, you’ll drown. So I needed to do this, for the sake of my life, to save myself. I can’t begin to explain the kind of mental anguish you have as a closeted trans person thinking about coming out and transitioning. On top of that, it’s like, fuck, I play in this band called Clarke and the Himselfs and I’m this trans-woman but nobody knows, but they’re gonna fucking know, all these people are gonna have to deal with that [just] as you’re trying to learn how to deal with it yourself, which is really the point. I knew I was trans when I named that first album, it’s in there somehow, it’s in the “s.” But I can’t stop playing music, I don’t really have a choice, [and] I knew there had to be some kind of happy marriage I could [navigate]. That’s the point of the title, there’re some other points, but that’s the main on: it’s a literal title. It surprises me sometimes, or at least for awhile it seemed like people weren’t taking it as real, like I’m some kind of fantasy artist who doesn’t mean what she says. It’s like you have remind everyone that what you are reading right now and listening to and watching on a TV or the internet is a real person in the same world that you live on – this one is a woman that plays in a band called Clarke and the Himselfs.
You have contributions from Doug Martsch on the album. How did you come to know Doug and come to work with him?
Boise is a pretty small place, and Doug was always kind of around. When I was in class at junior high, I would see him play basketball on the courts outside. He was just this dude in town. I grew up with Brett’s kids and I guess I mostly knew of Built to Spill through them. There were a couple years when W.I.B.G. would come play Boise they would ask Doug and I to play guitar with them, I got to know Doug a little more through that, and of course later when I went on tour with Built to Spill.
Queen City Sounds And Art: You have an upcoming vinyl and cassette release with the Canadian psych/experimental guitar band Crosss. How did that collaboration come about? What about that band did you find interesting enough that the idea of working with them appealed to you?
Brett Netson: Crosss got put on a few shows of a Built to Spill tour a few years ago and they blew me away. We had them do a whole tour later and we stayed in touch.. They were passing through Boise last year and had a few days off so I just asked them to do a session and they said yes. It’s such a great mix of the darker Syd Barrett songs (“Scream Thy Last Scream,” “Lucifer Sam”) and classic heavy riffs. Why hadn’t anyone done that before? Really unique and excellent guitar playing. Heavy, weird. I’m generally a big fan of that.
When was the last time you toured places like you will be with Clarke Howell? What do you miss about it, what do you hope you don’t have to deal with now that maybe happened often when you were touring as many bands do across America playing small clubs, bars and DIY spaces?
The last Caustic Resin tour in 2003. I love the shit ass small venue/hose show touring. It’s hard, but a lot more engaging and rewarding than a larger venue tour. Being deep in the environment that you move through, is infinitely more rewarding in the end. You meet some really priceless solid people on the way. But it truly is an assbeating though.
I happened to make it to Treefort in 2014 but can’t remember if Caustic Resin played or not. Had I known about it I probably would have gone. Have you reunited that project for any shows in recent years?
We did play a couple shows last fall for the release of Medicine is All Gone on vinyl. It was a great wild time for sure.
For this current tour what kind of lineup will you have? Is there a certain pool of your music you’ll draw from for this tour?
Mostly new stuff written with these Taurus bass synth pedals. I’m really into it. Stereo tape delay, electric guitar, vocals and bass synth. Doing a Caustic Resin song here and there. The goal is drug effects [as therapy].
Totally random, but you reference snakes in one of your bands and the music having come from the Snake River Plain. As a kid, by any chance, did you family see Evel Knievel try to jump Snake River Canyon?
Didn’t get to see it in person but I remember it well. Apparently it was a gigantic fiasco around that area. The ramp was there next to the canyon for many years.
You were in a punk band before Caustic Resin. What inspired wanting to make more the kind of music you have since then?
I’ve always been more into arty and hard guitar rock but took the invite into a punk rock band, The Pugs, just cause they asked. It was pretty ridiculous sounding with my rock riffs and echo. It didn’t last very long.
I’m a bit of a fan of various bands from Boise but know only obvious bands and maybe some more modern underground groups. When you were coming up, was there a local music scene that you could be a part of and tap into? What were some local bands you felt impacted you as a young musician if any? What kinds of places did your punk band and the early Caustic Resin play?
What made the biggest impact on me was seeing an “industrial” band. Underground Cinema was the most notable one. Banging on metal and screaming with random synthesizers and tape loops. Subversive politics and transgressive theatrics. I loved it. But you see, I was also obsessed with playing Stevie Ray Vaughn riffs for hours on end. I was about 16 at that time. Played my first show ever at a place called the Crazy Horse in an offshoot of that band called Nietzsche’s Birthday.
Maybe it’s being near/in the Pacific Northwest but how did you get connected with Mark Lanegan and Dylan Carlson? Mark you toured with over a decade ago, of course, but you recently recorded with Earth. Did they discuss with you what they appreciate what you bring to their music?
There was a somewhat connected network over the years. In this case it was Chris Takino the guy who started UP! records. An incredible person who was a conduit to a lot of people. He had worked at SST and then Sub Pop before starting UP. Those guys didn’t say much about why they asked me to play, just told me to do what I do. It’s pretty cool to have friends like that who write truly great music and are in a position to hire various weirdos to play with them. I am truly grateful for those situations. I am very lucky.
Why did you start Scavenger Cult?
Clarke has also worked to make Scavenger Cult a reality. It could kind of be considered more of a collective than a label. My music has never fit real well in any particular scene or genre. Scavenger Cult is that. A place for orphan type music. Also, I am obsessed with recording on tape machines only. There aren’t many labels that want to get into that kind of hassle. More people than ever can sell a modest amount of vinyl records these days and I’m into that. Otherwise, the internet and digital music is a worse than useless shit show of disposable novelty garbage. Scavenger Cult records will sound good and mean something to you years from now. We’ve made deals with esoteric elements, good, evil and beyond to make sure of that.
What about Clarke and the Himselfs made you want to release something by that project?
Clarke is a hard working and genuine artist. It’s just real deal stuff. Clarke and everyone else from that scene (see “Bands of the 208“) are true and unique people. Incidentally my daughter was part of that scene. I’m proud of them and honored to be able to work with Clarke. It may be kind of a Boise thing but it’s also obvious that Clarke writes world class songs and is a solid performer. We’ve worked and sacrificed to make, hopefully, timeless records that exist outside of styles and genres. That’s a common goal for a lot of people I know, but I think we’ve done it to some extent. You learn so much every record you do.