Cutting The Mystery Lawn with The Wizard Of Sunnyvale, Allen Clapp
In my last blog entry, I spoke about a lovely day I spent in my old hometown, Toronto, making musical discoveries with old friends and some new ones within my old and not-so broken social scene there. It was nice to make new memories up there because, since 1997, I have been away from that world, mostly here in the San Francisco Bay Area. When I first moved here, there wasn’t much of a “scene” to speak of, and I’ll never forget the first time I enquired about it with Wes (John Wesley Harding) and CVS (Chris Von Sneidern) over at some cafe near the Castro that first year there.
“If you’re looking for a scene [like the one you had back in Toronto], you’re out of luck,” said Wes, um, helpfully. “And If you want to make it in the music business, go south to L.A., that’s what everyone here does.”
Now I’m not sure if Wes would remember that conversation, but it was kind wet blanket epiphany for me. I had really grown to enjoy the sense of community that the Queen Street West scene (in Toronto) had given me. And now I was being told that, while art can flourish here in the Bay Area, it’s pretty much every band for him (or her) self. So I had my friends, and we all kind of quietly kept tabs on each other, while probably never being conscious of what it was we were doing. What we were doing, was finding each other. Not a cult. Not an exclusive and hard-to-get-into clique. But a community.
One of the first bands I really liked here in this “scene” was The Orange Peels (above), lead by Allen Clapp (lower center). Slowly, over several years, Allen has been refining his skills and perfecting his home studio, the Mystery Lawn in Sunnyvale, California, down the peninsula from San Francisco. Out past where the big planes land, and the Neil Young roams. Full disclosure, of course, I am working with Allen on The Paul & John, and I did the cover artwork for John Moremen’s Flotation Device debut.
Allen is the mastermind and center of what I have dubbed the Mystery Lawn Scene, having produced, done graphics for, played on, and released a slew of the acts who hang around with us, most of whom will be appearing at the Bottom of the Hill, on Wednesday April 25, 8pm ($8) in a marathon show that includes Allen Clapp & his Orchestra, Alison Faith Levy, The Corner Laughers, John Moremen’s Flotation Device, William Cleere & His Marvellous Fellas, The Hollyhocks and Agony Aunts. And because we’re family, The Paul & John will do a song too!
Perhaps self-servingly, therefore, but mainly because I love, I decided to interview Allen for this blog, and get him to demystify some of the Mystery Lawn’s, um, mystery. I began by asking Allen to tell me the story of the name “Mystery Lawn”.
ALLEN CLAPP: “‘Mystery Lawn’ is the first thing I released on The Bus Stop Label back in the early ’90s, the title track to which I wrote and recorded in an afternoon while home from work with a high fever. Somehow, the whole song got written and committed to cassette tape via Tascam Porta-One four-track before I really knew what happened. The phrase “Mystery Lawn” was total gibberish that just happened to fit the four-syllable gap in the chorus. The tune became a fairly popular number in our live set, and The Orange Peels re-recorded it for our second CD, So Far in 2001. An entertainment lawyer in New York at the time was convinced the song should be re-done with strings and a big production (which was probably a good idea), and he suggested calling my publishing company “Mystery Lawn Music.” From then on, Mystery Lawn just sort of became the umbrella for all things creative, and an example of how something unexpected and totally spontaneous can kind of change your life.”
Paul Myers: Talk about how Mystery Lawn went from being just for the Orange Peels to having other “label artists”. Is it basically a label for work that you produce? Would you like to expand the label someday?
Allen: “After completing So Far, in the early 2000s, Orange Peels multi-instrumentalist Bob Vickers asked if I would produce his solo album. I wasn’t honestly sure if I was up to the task, but I heard his demos, and was just kind of knocked out. So I told him I’d do it. That album, The Incredible Vickers Brothers, was the first thing I produced that wasn’t under the Orange Peels or Allen Clapp banner. And the thing was, I really, really enjoyed doing it. The next band to approach me was The Corner Laughers. Again, I was reluctant but their lead singer, Karla Kane, is very persistent. Finally, after seeing them live I knew it was going to be a great project, and their album Ultraviolet Garden was the result. As more production opportunities started coming in, it just kind of made sense to try and help artists get the word out. I’ve been on several record labels and have had experiences with everything that goes on in that world; from song licensing, touring, album design, publicists, whatever . . . and I figured I could probably help out. So Mystery Lawn Music was born. I get requests from artists who would like to be on the label, and I’m still not sure how to go about making those choices. For now, it’s a boutique label that’s very specific in its output and its client list, but I could see it growing into something bigger.”
Paul: Talk to me about this idea of a “Mystery Lawn Scene” in the city and discuss the concept of like-minded artists banding together.
Allen: “There are a few reasons it happened like this . . . for one, I’m incredibly picky about the artists I produce. I don’t make a living as a producer, so the last thing I want to be doing in my spare time is working on music I don’t absolutely love. The other reason flows from that one: Because I love the bands I work with, I naturally have an interest in helping them get their music heard by fans. And the third thing is that a lot of these bands end up knowing each other because there’s something cool happening with their music in the first place. They play shows together, they play on each other’s records—they are mutual fans! After a couple years of making albums with this group of bands, it just kind of became clear that we were already part of something special, and the decision to call it Mystery Lawn and make it official was the easy part, because it had already created itself.”
Paul: Is there something “Californian” about the diverse acts on the “label”?
Allen: “Geographically, yeah. . . I mean the bands on Mystery Lawn literally circle the San Francisco Bay in their membership, so there’s sort of a vibe that just naturally springs forth because we’re all living here, making music here and being inspired by some of the same things. I think there are other unifying factors, too . . . everyone on the label has a certain obsession with songcraft in addition to a focus on a kind of sound. I think a lot of modern groups focus too much on their sound, and not enough on their songs; the net effect of which leaves you feeling kind of in love with new bands for a very short period of time, but forgetting them quickly. For me, it’s always the bands that can really write a song that win out in the end. Sounds come and go, and sound is obviously important, but when you’ve got a band that can deliver a unique sound and a timeless song, then you have something special. I think that is the secret underlying recipe for the music on Mystery Lawn.”
Paul: Thank you for inviting me and John to do a song at the big Mystery Lawn night (April 25, Bottom of The Hill), and thank you for helping us finish The Paul & John debut album, Inner Sunset, which will grace the Mystery Lawn label as soon as we can get it delivered. Tell me a bit about the main featured bands that night, including your own.
Allen: “Architectural pop music from Oakland, featuring airy female harmonies, walls of atmospheric guitars and roomy beats. The intricate interplay between the four of these musicians is the key to their sound. They spent 5 years placing notes along the timelines of their songs to achieve something organic and exciting. Their new album, Understories features the best Def Leppard cover ever (although it’s almost unrecognizable as “Photograph”) and features SF-based Magik*Magik Orchestra.”
Alison Faith Levy
Allen: “Just because she’s a famous Kindie-Rock artist (former member of SF fan faves The Sippy Cups) doesn’t mean she can’t pen an album that adults won’t love. This is like mind-expansion music for kids built on solid songwriting and Alison’s larger-than-life voice. Alison and I played just about every note on that record ourselves, and finished the album in record time. Love it.”
The Corner Laughers
Allen: “We just finished our second album together—Poppy Seeds. These guys love to experiment in the studio! The new album is like a sonic sightseeing trip up and down the California coast featuring handbell choirs, string sections, thunderous doubled-drum tracks and copious amounts of harmonies, chimey guitars and chickeny ukuleles. I think it’s tremendously ambitious and original.”
John Moremen’s Flotation Device
Allen: “John—who is also the lead guitarist in The Orange Peels—is too ridiculously talented. Everyone knows this. So when he started suddenly making these instrumental recordings last year at the rate of one each week, it was a very good thing. Flotation Device is like what it must be like inside John’s head—Thelonious Monk, Robert Fripp, Jimmy Page all hanging out on the San Francisco coast, drinking Blue Bottle Coffee as the fog rolls in. I understand that Moremen and a friend who shall remain nameless will be performing a track from their nearly-completed Mystery Lawn album called Inner Sunset, so that should be interesting.”
William Cleere & The Marvellous Fellas
Allen: “Piano rock done right. My earliest musical memories were those of early ’70s Elton John, and one of my favorite albums from the day was his live trio album, 11/17/70. When I saw Bill and his band playing these songs live, it just made sense to try and record his album in a single, marathon session at Mystery Lawn. The band liked the idea, and it happened! With minimal overdubs, it’s the energy of a band bashing through a set of impeccably crafted songs and Bill’s amazing voice anchoring the whole thing. We’re already talking about making the follow-up album.”
Allen: “The psychedelic alter-ego of The Corner Laughers, Agony Aunts was the first non-me, non-Orange Peels release on Mystery Lawn, and it wasn’t even recorded here! These fanciful tunes percolated at KC Bowman’s Timber Trout studio in Oakland, and feature alternately stilted and lilting melodies to the accompaniment of what sounds like a Northern California sunshine rock revival during a total eclipse. Irresistibly catchy, brainy and ridiculous. They have some sort of a conflicted good vs. evil thing I can’t totally figure out, which is probably good.”
Allen Clapp & his Orchestra
Allen: “I usually write and record my tunes with The Orange Peels, but every once in a while I end up with a batch of songs that just begs to be recorded and performed solo. So I putter around in the studio for a while and emerge with something like Mixed Greens, which just arrived on vinyl here last week! It’s nice to be able to just arrange and produce stuff without anybody else’s input sometimes—there’s nobody to argue with you and nobody to rein you in, but also, nobody else to play any of the parts. For the live band, I’m using a combination of Orange Peels and Corner Laughers for a 7-piece “Orchestra” that really brings the new and old tunes to life.”
Mystery Lawn Music Night at Bottom of the Hill, San Francisco, Wednesday April 25, 8pm ($8) The Paul & John will also make a cameo appearance. So there’s that.
1233 17th Street, San Francisco, CA 94107 (415) 621-4455 www.bottomofthehill.com