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Last year, The Mommyheads released an album that found the band completely jettisoning their traditional indie-rock for a deeper, darker sound. The shocking stylistic change didn’t harm the band; if anything, it proved the talent of its members, willing to take a risk with a sound they’ve developed and honed for the past twenty years and try something new.
This year’s Mommyheads, if you will, would have to be longtime Big Takeover faves, The Orange Peels. Led by the talented songwriter Allen Clapp, the band’s sound has always blended indie rock with sunny, upbeat singer/songwriter fare and Power Pop crunch, with gorgeous harmonies and catchy melodies thrown in for free.
Their new release, Sun Moon, is initially jarring; first song “The Words Don’t Work” is a loud, brash sad song that doesn’t really sound like anything that they’ve done before. Those expecting the sunnier side of albums like Circling The Sun and So Far might be quite shocked at the almost prog-rock first half of the album. The second half of the album circles back to a more traditional Orange Peels sound, yet with a more melancholy tone.
It took this writer a few listens to fully appreciate the new direction of Sun Moon, but it was a task worth doing, as it shows that Clapp has matured as a songwriter and is willing to take a chance and try something new.
BT:I’ll be honest, it took me a few times to really warm up to Sun Moon. It’s a very different record for you, Allen. It’s nice to see an artist shake up their image and their sound—what was going on with you that inspired you to go in such a darker direction?
ALLEN CLAPP: I don’t think it was anything we ever planned on doing. I mean, I’m always more interested in artists that evolve and grow than the ones that stay in their little niche. It is a more conscious decision to say “Yeah, I’ve got this sound, and no matter what, I’m gonna stick to it,” than it is to just let change occur. People change. New information becomes available. New friendships and collaborations emerge. Time passes. To retain the same aesthetic is to make an effort to not change, and that’s just not something that interests me on any level.
So, that’s the philosophical answer. The answer to what really happened is fairly simple. In 2009, A month after releasing our fourth album 2020, that lineup of the Orange Peels inevitably disintegrated, and we kind of scrambled to put something together to tour on the record. What we emerged with was a version of the band that just felt a little more open to experimentation. John Moremen, who had been drumming for the band, moved onto lead guitar, and we acquired a new drummer, Gabriel Coan, who comes from more of an ambient-electronic music background. Jill (Pries, longtime collaborator) has always wanted the band to sound a little heavier, and I’ve always wanted the band to sound a bit spacier. The addition of John on guitar and Gabriel on drums pushed us to do something a little different.
BT: As a musician with a long-standing reputation for making a particular sound and style of music, was jumping into something completely different a nerve-wracking, scary proposition?
AC: Well, it was really exciting at first, because there was this feeling that we could just do anything. The first couple times we got together to record with the new lineup, it was just really fast and free. We’d literally learn a new song in the studio, and then record it a couple hours later. We started off with a couple songs I’d already written (“Aether Tide” and “Grey Holiday”), but eventually, it ended up that the band was showing up for sessions and I didn’t have anything prepared. That’s when it got really interesting, and a little scary.
Typically, if someone is going to bring a song idea to the band, it’s pretty well formed before they bring it in. I don’t exactly know why, but that’s always been how things have gone down. So to start a session by explaining to the band, “Well, I don’t have anything today,” was a little nerve wracking. But it was also a totally new idea for us. So we wrote about half the album on the spot, in the studio, recorded the tracks a couple hours later, and then it would be up to me to figure out what to sing and say. Usually, a few days later in the middle of the night, I’d wake up with an idea and by the end of the week I was sharing the results with the band. The first time that happened, we wrote a song called “Your New Heroes.” The last song on the album, “Yonder” is another good example of that process, and is my favorite song on the record right now.
Maybe the fact that I had just put out an Allen Clapp & his Orchestra album in 2011 had something to do with it. You know, I could have been reacting to this poppy solo album I’d just released and wanting to kind of push myself into new territory. Who knows? Just from a practical standpoint though, it would have been silly to have the band I have now and try to limit its creativity in some way by trying to steer it in some particular direction. Not that I could have done that anyway…this band has a mind of it’s own. Who knows what will happen next?
BT: How has the reaction been to such a different record? Did you have any expectations before its release as to how it would be received? Are any of the criticisms you’ve seen about the record valid? Or have you avoided looking at any of those things?
AC: Initial feedback has been off-the-charts positive. It’s almost like people have been waiting for us to make this album for a while and we just didn’t realize it until now. Maybe it makes sense. I think we were already showing signs of heading in this direction on side two of 2020 with some of the more sprawling arrangements, longer song forms and slightly darker approach. I mean, when I say darker, it’s still coming from the perspective of a kid who grew up a block from the San Francisco Bay in a modernistic house filled with sunlight. It’s not Black Sabbath; it’s still The Orange Peels, but there are definitely some prog-rock and neo-psychedelic threads running through the album. It’s just maybe a more intense, more melancholic version of us.
BT:I noticed, though, that on the back cover, you’ve done something rather clever. It seems that the dark songs are all under the “Sun” section, while the fare that is most like your sunny-day Orange Peels falls under the “Moon.” Coincidence? Intentional?
AC: Ha! I wondered if somebody might notice that. It was as much of a design idea as it was an album-sequence idea. I do all the graphic design for the Orange Peels albums, so it gives me a chance to put little visual ideas into the artwork that people may or may not pick up on. The funny thing is I consider the first half of the record to be more of a summery, daytime sound; and the second half to be more of a night-time, darker thing. Maybe lyrically, the first side of the album is a little darker and you’re picking up on that?
BT:You’re always a busy guy, so what’s next for you?
AC: Around 2009, when I was out of work for a year, I started a record label called Mystery Lawn Music. I had been producing other bands out of my home studio for a few years, and one thing led to another, and suddenly the idea of a label imprint took shape. It’s basically a bunch of artists that I’m friends with, and we all have something in common musically. Not that we all sound the same, because we don’t, but there is a common thread running through all our music, and I’m still not sure what that is. Last year, I had the pleasure of producing an album by my good friend Jim Ruiz over the course of 8 days in a Minneapolis mansion. Unforgettable experience.
This year, I’m working on new albums by The Corner Laughers (their fourth), Flotation Device (an instrumental band fronted by the Orange Peels’ John Moremen), Rudy Trubitt (ex-Sippy Cups) and probably a new record by piano-rock god William Cleere, and a couple other things I’m not allowed to talk about yet. We’ll see. Later this year, there will be a couple new releases on Mystery Lawn, including the second album by Agony Aunts and the debut album from the Paul & John (Paul Myers and John Moremen). There’s always something going on here!
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