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Posted at 7:16 AM ET, 01/21/2011

Be specific: Chad Clark, co-producer of the Dismemberment Plan's "Emergency & I," on how the album might have been very different

By Chris Richards

emergency.jpg

In today's Post, I write about the Dismemberment Plan's secret Saturday night show not just as a reunion for the band, but as a reunion for the scene that formed around them. One of the major players in that scene is Chad Clark, an esteemed local musician and the band's longtime producer.

After the show, Clark and I were talking about his co-production duties on the Plan's beloved 1999 album "Emergency & I" and how, if he had won certain arguments, the album could have been drastically different -- in a Bizarro World kind of way.

"Did you know that Christopher Walken was originally supposed to play Han Solo in the 'Star Wars' movies?" Clark asked me on Saturday. "Could you imagine how horribly wrong that would have been?"

Later in the week, I caught up with Clark and asked him to take me back to when he, co-producer J. Robbins and the Plan headed up to Water Music Studios in Hoboken, New Jersey with a huge budget from Interscope Records to record the band's definitive album.

"If we had made the record that I had wanted to make, it would not have had the massive charisma that it has today," Clark said. "And that charisma is important. So I'm glad I didn't get my way."

Clark explains four things that would have been very different, after the jump.

chad clarkIf Chad Clark had his way, "Emergency & I" would have sounded very different. (Courtesy of Clark)

- It would have been recorded at a different studio.

I wanted to make the record at Inner Ear [the Arlington studio where the band had recorded its two previous albums]. I felt like Don [Zientara, producer and the studio's owner] had given us a lot of free time.. and he had been very kind with us and very understanding in terms of billing us.

So I thought, Here we have all this dough from Interscope -- I want to invest back in the community... This idea that Inner Ear was limited, I thought was clearly disproven by Fugazi's "Red Medicine." The kind of world class, wide screen things they were able to do [were an] unassailable example of how far out you can go at Inner Ear. I was like, If we have any criticisms of Inner Ear, we should make those requests to Don and bring the money to him.

I felt like it was good karma, I felt like it was good to be loyal, and I felt like it wasn't a nice thing to do to -- make two hit records with a guy who was really nice, and then as soon as you get paid, you jet off to some other place.

J. was very loyal to Inner Ear as well... But J. was insistent that it would be good for the band to get away from their D.C. environment because they're very easily distracted, as you might imagine... He also felt that we needed a larger room to sort of capture the beat of "What Do You Want Me To Say"... Inner Ear literally wasn't large enough for what he wanted to do. And I was dismayed, but I went along with it

It was clearly the right thing to do. And to be clear, Don was like, Oh, that's cool. He didn't take it personally, he knew that we loved him and we took the record back to Inner Ear to mix. I had been defending Don and Don didn't need defending. Don was so zen about it...

The sonics of that record are admired by a lot of other engineers and I think if we had stayed at Inner Ear, it would have been a mistake.

- The wonderful keyboard sounds on "Spider in the Snow" would have been replaced with real strings.

I thought, That's cool, but that's a demo. Let's go "Eleanor Rigby." We should get a string octet... this really lush, beautiful string section and set them off at a distance and really capture the grandeur of the song.

It's a beautiful song with a pretty profound message about people trying to solve their lives' problems simply by moving. Maybe there are other songs about that, but I think that song captures that idea as well as any song I've ever heard... The image of the title is very striking. It's pure loneliness, pure being lost. And I felt like we needed a real string section to bring out the emotion of the song.

Travis fought me on this. He hated the idea. He thought it would be too fancy and that there was a beauty in the artificial Casio string sound that we had. And that beauty was intrinsic to its limitations. The fact that it sounds not authentic, the fact that it sounds a little bit camp, that's part of it's emotion. And he argued very fervently for it and he won. And I'm glad he won, because if I had my way, I don't think that song would be as beloved as it is today.

A lot of what they're talking about is that turn-of-the-century feeling of being cut adrift... I think a lot of that communication is in the textures that they chose... I think it was a really good choice and it shows you what a brilliant artist he was...

It was a wrong idea -- organic trumps synthentethic. But that's a very important aspect of the Plan. That synthetic component was very important. It's part of their influence, it's part of what people embrace. So I'm proud of Travis for fighting me on that one. I'm not easy to fight.

- There would have been some turntable scratching on "What Do You Want Me To Say."

To me this is heavy, but for some people it'll just be a small detail. But it's such an important philosophical detail.

[With "What Do you Want me To Say,"] at one point Travis starts, well, scatting's not the right word, but he goes, "Boom-chicka-uh-huhh." You know that part? ... I knew he was imitating turntables.

It was this really interesting thing of reality thrice removed. Someone sampled something, and Travis is imitating a sample and we don't even know what it is... It's just one of inspired things that sounded musically right and made no sense in the context of the song, but he's suddenly doing it. It was a rock-n-roll, sort of "Tutti Fruitti," kind of inspired things you do with your mouth.

Nobody questions it. It doesn't strike anyone as goofy. It seems perfect... I think that's really that band's brilliance. A lot of the stuff that they did, it should make you go, Wait!

But I was like, Let's follow through with that. I'm going to dig through my vinyl library and l actually try to match that with actual samples.

It was a terrible idea. If I had done that, it would have made it too obvious. Everyone would have been like, Oh, it's a sample! It's like a wiki-wiki-wiki! It would have been corny... It would have ruined the emotional impact and made the listener wonder where it's coming from. Where it is, he's just freaking out and rocking to the beat.


- "You Are Invited" may not have been on the album.

When they presented that song to me, I thought it was good but I thought it was a little too obvious. Its metaphors were too bare, it was a little too treacly, a little bit facile... But where I was wrong -- and this is the big thing and why the band is loved -- [is that] the statement of that song is inclusion. Obviously.

I just didn't realize how moving it was and how radical it was to have that stated so clearly in the context of the kind of supercilious cultural milieu of indie rock. That separateness and otherness. For Travis to look out into the audience and sing it, it's something that everybody gets... There's a parallel in Fugazi lyrics... There's a deeply populist strain of Fugazi lyrics, but I think there's a populism to "You Are Invited" that's pretty heavy in how almost Disney it is.

It's this glowing little melody that's so sweet and so pure and I swear that at the end of that song people are choked up... It has an emotional power that I underestimated because I just thought it wasn't clever and enough... I can't imagine "Emergency & I" without "You Are Invited."

By Chris Richards  | January 21, 2011; 7:16 AM ET
Categories:  Be specific  | Tags:  Chad Clark, Dismemberment Plan  
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