Interview: Clock Opera

Clock Opera were first earmarked for success in 2009, when they captivated listeners by splicing found sound with live instrumentation on debut single "White Noise". After two and a half years spent honing their craft, the London-based quartet are set to deliver on their early promise with their first full-length offering of cerebral electronic-pop.

Ahead of its release, we spoke to frontman and producer Guy Connelly to find out about the origins of Ways To Forget, his successful sideline in remixing and why causing mischief is top of his agenda. Read our exclusive interview below.

Preview and download Ways To Forget »

So Clock Opera started out as a solo project, right? How did you meet the rest of the band?

Only at the very, very beginning, when I started coming up with ideas. There’s been four of us for quite a while and we translated all the ideas into full songs quite early on.

I used to live with Andy and he was in another band with Che – who’s now our drummer – and once I recorded them. So when I first came to thinking about who I wanted to play with, he was definitely at the forefront of my mind. Dan’s another friend of mine, who I knew was really good on keys and at singing. It all came together quite quickly and naturally.

You self-produced Ways To Forget, too. Were you ever tempted to bring someone else in to produce the album?

It didn’t really come up because we don’t write songs on a guitar and then think about how we want to produce them. All the sounds and methods come at the same time as the writing, really: we record something and then we cut it up into bits and construct a song out of that. We got some help mixing the record but apart from that we just did everything ourselves. Who knows what’s going to happen next time; maybe we’ll work with somebody else. We did spend a day trying out a mix with Luke Smith, who’s done Foals’ stuff before. He’s got a lot of very interesting tricks up his sleeve.

We’ve heard that you describe your sound as “chop pop”...

Well that’s how somebody described it; I think it’s variously attributed to me. It’s a good two-syllable description that describes some of what we do: the choppy samples and the deconstructed element of it, and the fact that there’s a strong emphasis on melody in our songs. But [the term] seems a bit too concise to me. I think we go a bit further, but I guess that’s up to people to decide.

As much as it’s a constructed album, you need humans playing instruments to make it come alive, don’t you? And live, I think it’s a slightly different beast, a bit more aggressive and energetic. We’ve played four shows on our tour now, and it’s the first time we’ve played all the songs on the album, and it feels like it really comes together. It builds a sense of euphoria from start to finish, and people seem to be responding to that.

It feels like Clock Opera have been being tipped as “ones to watch” since about 2010. How long did the album take to write and record?

I guess the record started right at the beginning of the band really, from the very first idea I recorded. "White Noise" was our first song and the noises that I came up with – recording buzzing sounds and mechanical whirrs and clunks – became what was on the album. It probably took two-and-a-bit years. It’s strange for us, because we’d only played about two gigs and people started talking about us. Which was great, but we hadn’t finished our album.

How do you feel now the album’s ready?

I’m going to feel relief when it comes out. In terms of expectations, it’s not something you can control. Like everyone says, once your album’s out it doesn’t really belong to you anymore and I’m quite excited about that. I find the period between finishing and releasing an album quite hard: I’m still thinking about that album, and I want to be thinking about the next one already. It’s almost as if I need to hold it before I can start something else. I got the first copy yesterday, and I’m actually holding it now. So maybe I can start writing something else this morning, on my day off. That would be good.

What were your musical reference points when writing the album?

Well, I’ve always really been into people like The Associates. They were this 80s duo who used to make experimental pop music: really melodic and memorable songs using a lot of noises you wouldn’t expect. They’d fill up bass drums full of water and push them down the stairs, and generally create a bit of havoc. I think I’m inspired by causing a bit of mischief and trying to think of other ways of doing things. Like people like Scott Walker. I still really love the Walker Brothers’ stuff but combine that with his later ideas of slapping slabs of meat, and that’s an interesting combination of making really accessible music that has its origins in unexpected places.

Lyrically, where do you find your inspiration?

Mostly memory and how the brain works; which is why it’s called "Ways To Forget", I guess. A lot of songs are about figuring out why you are who you are, and why you aren’t someone else. And "Once And For All" is about the feeling of realising that you forgot a lot of things you used to know. Like when you’re a kid and you have this instinctive knowledge that you don’t understand why other people don’t know the same things as you. I mean, [as a child] I felt very strongly about never forgetting things; I’ve always been a bit obsessive like that. And then you kind of realise one day that you don’t remember everything you used to know. And then you think, “Well if I don’t remember some things, why am I so sure I’m going to remember what I know now?” And then once you’re in that loop it makes you question a lot of things: what’s going to stay and how you should be. That’s one of the themes running through the album, I suppose.

And if you had to pick your favourite track on the album, which would it be and why?

At the moment, I think my favourite’s probably "11th Hour". It’s one of the last ones we wrote for the album so it still feels pretty fresh and it was a real reaction to something. It was based partly on the film "The Network"; where this news anchor guy does this insane rant on air, inciting people to get up and shout their discontent. There’s this amazing scene of all these people screaming out of the windows, as inspired by the TV. And it feels like this really amazing, cathartic moment of possibility but it’s totally manipulated by the TV station to become this game show. I found both of those ideas really powerful: the need to make people do something about things they thought were wrong, and whether or not that makes any difference in the world. So singing a song about that to crowds can be quite fun: inciting a riot and seeing what happens.

So if you could score a film for any director, who would it be?

Hmm, that’s an interesting one... David Lynch almost seems a bit too obvious to say, and he’d probably just write his own music... His films have definitely been a big influence, particularly those scenes he sometimes has where something is made to look as if it’s happening and then he pulls the rug out from under you. I just love those moments where you suddenly realise that what was very, very powerful to you, isn’t what you thought it was. Ok, I’ll say David Lynch then. I probably won’t ever get the job but you never know.

Did you listen to his recent album?

I didn’t, no. But I read a book he wrote once and it was rubbish... (Laughs)

You released "Once And For All" on dance/electronic label Kitsuné. Do you feel an affiliation with dance artists? And where do you think Clock Opera fit in the musical landscape?

I don’t really know where we fit. We just make music and it just fits where it lands. We’re all really into electronic stuff and there’s an electronic side to what we do, and obviously in my remixes as well. But for me, it’s a much more limited palette of involvement that I have with electronic music. It’s propulsive and gets me going – and I love the sound of it and it can be fascinating – but it doesn’t really engage with me emotionally. And I still think that’s a massive hole in the musical landscape of our world. We aim to use the incredible range and power of electronic music, but it’s really important for our songs to be songs and to engage with people on an emotional level.

The video for ‘Once And For All’ seems to aim to elicit an emotional response too. When we watched it we were thinking, “What have you done to the old man from [90s TV series] Lovejoy?! He’s crying!”

(Laughs) I know. It was a bit of a surprise to us as well, to be honest. We started off with Andy from the band making all our videos and as we got more busy we decided to enlist the help of other directors. So, other than my own spectacular cameo, we didn’t have any involvement with that one, really. I think those videos take an aspect of the emotion present in the song and run with it a bit. "Lesson No. 7" is our most upfront, aggressive song so, for the video, we asked the director to run with it in whichever direction. We’re not really attempting to elicit emotional responses in people, it’s our emotions coming out, and they’re probably universal emotions enough that people will share them or respond to them somehow.

If you could have anyone remix you, who would it be and why?

I think I’d quite like someone who doesn’t make music to remix us, who wouldn’t know what they were meant to do. I would want Chuck Close, the artist, to do it. I think he’s actually lost the ability to move now but I’m a massive fan of his paintings; the way they’re really high-definition, beautiful paintings constructed of tiny dots/pixels. So I reckon I could sit there at the computer and he could tell me what he thinks should happen and he can make a remix for us that way.

So what’s the plan for the rest of the year?

We’re playing a few shows with The Temper Trap on their tour. And now I’ve held this album in my hands I can start writing the next one.

And finally, if you could recommend one album that everyone should own, what would it be and why?

I think I’m going to have to go back to Scott Walker, and say Scott 4. I’m a massive fan so I think everyone should own everything he’s ever done. But I'd choose that one in particular because, in its own way, it’s quite experimental. It’s quite sweeping and grand and orchestral, but the way his incredible voice interacts with all those arrangements and what he’s singing about, for me, is quite experimental and deeply affecting. That’s the Holy Grail, really.

Preview and download Ways To Forget