A Chat With: Clearance
Earlier this year, Chicago four piece Clearance followed up their 2015 debut with their sophomore full length: At Your Leisure. Released July 27th via Topshelf Records, the record combines bright, buoyant tones with easy-going melodies, creating the perfect laid back summer soundtrack. In recent years, the group has spent time touring around the country and even branching out to Brazil, all the while sharing stages with the likes of Widowspeak, Slowdive, and Alvvays. Although they’ve had their fair share of triumphs as a band, Clearance’s extensive history of DIY tours and the common hardships of being in an indie rock band trying to make sense of the industry is a subject that lead vocalist and principle songwriter Mike Bellis doesn’t shy away from in the songs of At Your Leisure.
The album’s release kicked off yet another tour for the band this past August, but now the band is back home and this week, they’ll play their first Chicago show since the album release show on August 3rd. Ahead of Wednesday’s show at Subterranean, where they’ll play with Hypoluxo, Goody Gel, and our pals Pool Holograph, Mike Bellis took some time to sit down and talk with me about the journey behind the album, Clearance’s place in the Chicago music scene, the metaphorical meaning to the band’s name, and more. Check it out in our chat with Clearance.
What was your first musical memory?
I grew up with The Beatles probably first and foremost. My parents had a lot of CDs around the house, but I think as young as three I was just kind of fixated on The Beatles, as many people are. I was very encyclopedic about it from an early age. By the time I was in first or second grade, some of my friends and I had actually made a fan zine about The Beatles, called The Beatles Hotline, which was fan lyrics and fan fiction. We were like six or seven. That was my first punk moment, making a zine.
Nice! Did you start playing music around that age too then?
Yeah I took piano lessons when I was five or six, but I started playing guitar when I was seven and just kind of stuck with that primarily ever since. There was an episode of The Wonder Years where he got an electric guitar and I finally got the nerve to be like mom, I’m getting an electric guitar. If Kevin can get a guitar, I can.
So when we first started talking about doing an interview, the Clearance record had just come out, and now it’s been a couple of months. Can you talk a little bit process behind the record, like the songwriting and where you recorded?
We recorded the record a little less than 2 years ago at this point. It’s our second LP at this point. We’ve been a band for five or six years at this point, and wee recorded with our friend Dave Vettraino.
Oh yeah, everybody works with Dave!
Yeah we’ve been working with Dave for four years now and he’s recorded the last three or four of our recordings. And he used to be roommates with our guitarist Kevin Fairbairn when Public House was still physically a thing in Logan Square. We’re comfortable recording with him because we did our last album with him and a couple singles. We recorded this record with him in a studio called Minbal, which is now called Jamdek near the West Side. We recorded at the end of 2016 and it took like a year and 9 months to come out after that. We went on tour a lot last year. We went to Brazil and supported our friends Widowspeak for 6 weeks and did a couple DIY tours. Playing it a lot, and looking for labels. Topshelf was looking to put it out this summer. It was kind of a long time coming, but sometimes you just kind of have to play the game, as it were.
I know you just did a tour in support of the album, but what have been some highlights generally of the last year or so of touring?
Brazil was certainly a highlight. We played a couple festivals. We opened for Slowdive in São Paulo, which was incredible. We’ve gotten to play-- when we book our own tours we just play with our friends in different cities. We’ve played with EZTV in New York City, our friends throughout the midwest. A lot of international bands when they come through Chicago, like Ultimate Painting and a lot of those Trouble in Mind bands. We’ve opened for maybe a dozen of their bands. Playing with Widowspeak for 6 weeks was really fun. We did a full US tour with them about a year ago now.
Nice, what would you say is the biggest lesson you’ve learned since you started Clearance about five or six years ago? Either a life lesson or a music business lesson.
Don’t put too much stock in other people handling things for you. Because for better or worse, my experience has shown me that I’m gonna be the only one that really cares too much about it. So don’t wait for other people to validate what you’re making, just keeping moving forward. Be confident in what it is that you’re doing, and it’s a weird kind of moment with indie rock. It’s certainly not a big money maker to be playing guitar pop and guitar rock these days, but if it’s what you want to do, just kind of look to yourself and don’t put out too many external signifiers for validation. You’re not gonna get them, probably.
So how does the songwriting process between you an the band generally work? Is it you who does most of the writing?
Yeah, I write the songs and then I’ll demo them or whatever with a four track or on my own. When I bring them to the band we kind of interpret them as a group. This time around, I ended up playing a lot of the music on the record. I played the bass on the record and I played a lot of the guitar. We’ve done more live stuff in the past, but Greg Obis wasn’t in the band at the moment when we were recording this record because he was touring with another band at the moment. So I ended up doing bass. Usually when I’m bringing songs to the band, it’s just a matter of I have an idea of what the song should be, and then I bring it to them and they kind of color it in.
Basically you do the outline and they fill in the lines?
Yeah, I think especially in the last year and a half, since the time that we started recording this record and the time that we’ve spent putting it out, we played well over a hundred shows. We really sound like a four piece now in a way that we always hoped to.
Yeah, it’s evolved as you’ve played more together right?
It’s a little more automatic now and when we record again, it will be a little more reflective of that. I won’t be leaning so hard on my own ideas of how these songs should sound. Certainly when were making this one, the guys filled in the gaps of what I’d written.
I’m sure it’s different for each song, but as far as influences go, do you usually prefer not to listen to other music and kind of do it all as personal experiences, or do you ever go outside of yourself for inspiration?
I just went to New Zealand and Australia right before recording this record, and I’ve always been a fan of New Zealand indie rock from the 80s and 90s, the current crop of Australian indie rock bands, which I think is the ground zero of guitar pop at the moment. So many good bands coming out of Melbourne in particular. So I’ve always been influenced by that, and I think all of us in the band have, but I’m not…I’m certainly guilty of being influenced by the things that I listen to, but I also don’t let that weigh down too many things in the end. It’s always gonna end up sounding like you or the band anyways. You can get fixated aesthetically on some kinds of things and try to hit them, but I think in general we were more influenced by making a pretty straight forward guitar pop record. A couple of the songs are more straightforward like a band like Ultimate Painting or Omni that we’re friends with, something like White Fence and Tim Presley making more retro throwback, 60’s Brit Pop stuff. But a little bit off, like more influenced by Faust and interesting krautrock elements. It sounds very straight forward, but it’s influenced by more out there sounds.
Do you ever find yourself looking to books or films, where you read it or watch it and think oh I should write a song about that?
I think just in terms of like a mindset or an approach. I’m really influenced by Ray Davies and his skepticism not only towards the music industry, but just convention in general. His kind of irreverent attitude, no one’s really been better at doing that than him. But when we were writing this record, it was a lot about our experience of doing this as a band. Indie rock and touring and kind of like a dispatch from the DIY world we’ve been participating in and taking an irreverent look at that and star making machinery that the indie rock world is not immune to. I think Ray Davies has been someone I’ve always looked to. People like Stephen Malkmus are good at that too. Just kind of thumbing their nose at the pageantry of it all, even though you’re still beholden to all of the forces. But you can’t take it too seriously.
So I recently interviewed your friends Pool Holograph, and I asked them to compare their music to an inanimate object. They said Pool Holograph is a closed a Urban Outfitters store in 2008. What would Clearance’s music be?
That’s very specific! I don’t know, we kind of have a ready made capital image. Every time you see a sales rack, you see a clearance sign. That certainly was in mind when we came up with the band name, cause it’s pretty ubiquitous. It’s everywhere, but it’s also just like, it shows the absurdity of how we value things. Something that would have full price like a week ago is now 80% off so it’s kind of that contrast is something that resonated when I was thinking about that band. It’s all about context and what you bring to something. To answer the question directly, though, I would say literally any clearance section. There’s a negative capability there that you project value onto something you know. Or you’re beholden to the value that capitalism or the system gives it. So it’s like you know I think there’s a mirror going on there.
So talking more about the music scene then, there’s a specific conversation going on after The Orwells disbanding about making the scene safer in general. So what would you say are your goals as a band to make sure you play a part in that?
Yeah totally. Everybody that we’ve surrounded ourselves with have always been inclusive and progressive and everybody that we know and play with sort of has a zero tolerance for that shit. If you would have asked me four, five, six years ago what I thought about The Orwells, it probably wouldn’t have changed. I think most people had them pegged for what they were a long time ago. Obviously now that people are speaking out about it, they need to be heard and it’s pretty horrifying.
What would you like to see as a band here going forward or what do you think venues can do to make sure shows remain safe spaces?
Speaking personally, we always prefer to play bills that have women or non-binary people. It’s boring when it’s an all white male bill and it’s like you’re playing into an echo chamber at that point. It’s not as good of a show. There’s something to be said for having more voices on a bill every time. With the exception of maybe two or three bills in my memory of at least 100 shows that we’ve played, there have been women on the bill or trans individuals. It makes for a better show. It’s not a box we’re trying to check, it’s a better show. It’s objectively better when you are drawing upon a larger group of people. It includes more people in the audience, it gives the audience more people to listen to, and it’s a better experience for everyone. Performers and audiences. There’s no room for exclusivity.
Yeah, I put on ANCHR showcases occasionally, so that’s something I’ve been trying to be more conscious of. I’ve had so many all white male bills and I need to change that. Last night I had a showcase with Seasaw, a female duo from Madison, and it just felt so much better to have that diversity.
We deal with that very personally, cause we’re an all white, straight male band. Very cookie cutter, very traditional, and there’s more responsibility as someone that is like that. We embrace that responsibility. We absolutely should be people that are leading that change from within that traditional framework. This is what our band happened to be, fully realizing that’s not the most vital voice that needs to be heard right now. We’re just doing our thing and while we’re in this world, we’re gonna be extra conscious that we’re including as many voices as possible.
That’s awesome. While we’re on that subject, anyone that you want to shout out like any new artists you’d like to put the spotlight on that we should all check out?
Everyone in Chicago is doing really good stuff. Lillie from Lala Lala put out a great record yesterday. She’s phenomenally talented. OHMME just put out a new record. I’ve been friends with Sima for almost twenty years now, I grew up with her in Chicago. I think the Chicago music scene has become a little bit different in the past few years. It’s not quite as vibrant a house show scene as it was a few years ago, with some prominent places closing. But that’s just kind of the nature of it. It always changes and as people like us get older, we’re gonna get out of touch with what’s going on. There are great new houses that have been popping up. There continues to be incredible music being played everywhere. Marbled Eye from Oakland is a favorite of ours. Some Melbourne bands like School Damage… Trouble in Mind continues to put out great stuff. Nap Eyes...Omni. Ethers. They’re friends of ours! There’s tons of great bands on our label Topshelf, which is based on the west coast. Ratboys is a Chicago band on that label.
Lots of great recommendations there! Do you frequently DJ too? [Mike had just wrapped up a DJ set at Big Star]
It’s more like a side hustle.
What are some of your favorite records to spin?
It depends where I’m at. We’re at Big Star right now, full disclosure, so you play a little bit more country rock or country adjacent stuff. Like Arthur Russell or weird Neil Young records. I try to play like the obscure records from major artists. Like a weird 80s Dylan record or like 80s Neil Young. Just play things that I think are interesting. And then I throw in things like The Feelies or like a weird Alex Chilton single. I typically play all that stuff plus some early post punk, late 70’s stuff. Just the stuff that I listen to in general. Gang of Four. Wire. A lot of new records too. I’ve played some Omni here, a live Ultimate Painting record…
Where’s your favorite place to shop for records?
I used to live around here, so I would shop at Permanent when it was still Permanent Records. It is now Joyride Records. I live in Pilsen now. But Reckless is great. Any good mom and pop record store, and there are a lot in Chicago.
So wrapping up, what else are you looking forward to throughout the end of the year?
We have a couple of local shows in November and December. I’d like to start working on another LP. We’re not touring a lot at the moment cause we’ve done the DIY tour grind like 10 times now. It’s hard to keep pushing that boulder up the hill. So we’re gonna be a little bit more deliberate about when we tour and what opportunities we take. In the meantime, just working on new material and getting our shit together at home.
Cool, any last closing comments?
Support local artists. Believe survivors. This has been a weird week. I think that’s been on the mind of everyone. Speaking personally it’s just a matter of reaching out to those survivors in your life and take stock of all that, and value their voices.