By Ian S. Port
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With an aesthetic that ranges all over the sonic map, hitting rhythmic postpunk and layered psychedelic drone, Oakland trio Clipd Beaks can be difficult to pigeonhole. Not that journalists haven't tried, sometimes with rather inaccurate results — giving the band such creative tags as "electro-disco noiseniks."
Singer and guitarist Nick Barbeln says getting lumped in with the electronica crowd has been a mixed bag. "It's frustrating to be classified as disco/dance/what have you," he explains at his Piedmont neighborhood apartment, where he's joined by drummer Ray Benjamin and bassist Scott Ecklein. "But at the same time, it gave us an opportunity to be sort of a new kind of proto-rock band. It seemed to illuminate how we work with samplers and effects along with our instruments."
No doubt part of the reason for the misclassification is that Clipd Beaks released their 2006 Preyers EP on local avant-tronic label Tigerbeat 6. But Preyers leaned more in an ominous rock direction — in the vein of England's Factory Records roster — than technoland. However, the band never maintains the same sound for long. Its 2008 Hoarse Lords album on New York label Lovepump United was a more abrasive, No Wave affair. Clipd Beaks' new album, To Realize, is a return to the ambient atmospheres of early recordings, albeit more song-oriented and densely complex.
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To Realize is a leap forward for the group, an accomplishment made more remarkable by its being recorded entirely at the band's East Oakland practice space. Over insistent rhythms and throbbing basslines, Clipd Beaks slather otherworldly guitar noise, effects, and imagistic, intoned vocals. While the album hints at other current, edgy bands like Sightings, it also smacks of vintage experimental rock such as Sonic Youth, This Heat, and even Love and Rockets. It was a year-long labor of love the band takes great pride in.
"Mostly it was a learning process, from learning to play as a trio to learning how to go about writing songs," says Ecklein, who serves as the band's producer and recording engineer. "So the whole process of finding our flow was extremely difficult, but once we found it, the record materialized quickly." Most songs were developed by cutting and pasting the group's giant multitrack jams. Benjamin adds that part of the motivation for putting so much effort into a more epic and thematically unified album was just to see whether Clipd Beaks could pull it off.
Barbeln, who writes all the lyrics, says Realize is more conceptual than prior releases, with the focus being on the members' personal experiences. "This is why we called it To Realize," he says. "It's about how we all just became comfortable in our skin and grew up."
Clipd Beaks formed in Minneapolis in 2003 when a band featuring childhood friends Benjamin and Ecklein merged with Barbeln's band, Leaves. In 2005, four of the Beaks' five members relocated to the Bay Area; member Greg Pritchard has since left. The band name was lifted from a Leaves song, and is yet another double-edged sword. It gets attention, but the trio constantly has to repeat it, and they've seen every misspelling imaginable, from Clipped Brakes to Clit Beats. The guys get a good laugh out of it, and Barbeln jokes that it gives them something to shoot for: "Our goal is to get so big we won't have to explain it anymore."