Deep in the heart of Texas is a growing community of bands and musicians pushing the boundaries of music and rejuvenating progressive rock. Expose is in the forefront in elevating the visibility of these bands to our readership through reviews, sponsoring the now annual Voyager Fest, and band interviews. For this latest installment, I have had the pleasure of interviewing the mastermind behind the Aaron Clift Experiment, Aaron Clift himself in advance of the Holiday Charity Rocktacular on December 3, 2016. I would have preferred to sit down at one of Austin’s relaxed outdoor venues for this interview, but work forced me to conduct the interview via email.
by Henry Schneider, Published 2016-11-22
Having reviewed both Lonely Hills and Outer Light, Inner Darkness as well as attending their CD release concert for Outer Light, Inner Darkness I was interested in learning more about the man behind the music.
Hi Aaron, would you please provide a brief overview of your career and the bands you’ve played with?
My first instrument was viola, which I performed in my middle school and high school orchestras. After high school, I switched to voice and keyboards and studied vocal performance and composition at Tufts University. During this time, I also performed vocals in my first rock band, Attack Plan R.
Following college, I spent a few years pursuing a career as a classical composer, but around 2007, I had a change of heart and started moving back toward rock music. I had always wanted a way to combine my interests in classical and rock music and loved the music of progressive rock bands like Genesis, Rush, and King Crimson, so starting a new project writing and performing progressive rock seemed like a good outlet for my creativity.
I founded The Aaron Clift Experiment (ACE) in late 2011 as a solo outfit to perform my rock songs. But as time went on and the band membership changed, our sound evolved. We became more of an actual band that happens to have my name. Today, I’m proud to be co-writing songs with my very talented band mates.
ACE has played with a wide variety of bands over the years, but we especially enjoy playing with like-minded groups who share our love for progressive rock and boundary-pushing music.
Thank you. That leads into my next question. How did you meet Herd of Instinct and what was it about their music that resonated with you?
My friend Ted Thomas, who’s a DJ for the Austin progressive rock radio show Virtual Noise on KOOP, recommended Herd of Instinct to me. I checked out Herd of Instinct’s music on their web site and was impressed with their intricate arrangements, intensity, and unusual instrumentation. The Aaron Clift Experiment has now played two shows with them and we have had a blast getting to know them.
What was your earliest musical experience?
When I was little, my parents would play music for me from their record collection. Usually it was children’s music from Sesame Street, Tom Glazer, and the like, but sometimes I would hear the occasional Beatles or Elton John song in the mix.
My mom likes to embarrass me by telling people about how, when I was a few months old, she heard me grunting along to song that was playing in the car. At first, she said that she thought were was something wrong with me, but later she realized that I was just trying to sing along with the song!
Here is an off-the-wall question. If the Spanish Inquisition came to your house and demanded that you give them a description of the music you make, what would you say?
The Aaron Clift Experiment creates contemporary progressive rock with influences from classical and jazz music.
Thanks, so what music do you love to listen to?
There are certain genres and artists that I tend to gravitate toward, but more than anything else, I like to listen to music that engages my emotions, intellect, and body. As a vocalist, I also tend to be a sucker for music that has a powerful vocal performance.
If you had to choose from your favorite of all your recordings, what would they be?
It’s hard to narrow it down to one because I have three albums that are jockeying for the top spot in my favorite recordings of all time. Those albums are Superunknown by Soundgarden, Selling England by the Pound by Genesis and Hounds of Love by Kate Bush. These albums are pretty different from each other stylistically, but the thing that they have in common for me is an ambitious scope, amazing songwriting, and meticulous production. They are also among the few albums that I’ve listened to since my teenage years that still stand the test of time for me.
What music do you hate? Why?
I can’t really pin down a specific style of music that I can’t stand. Rather, the music that I dislike is the kind that bores me because it fails to connect with me on any level – whether that be emotionally, intellectually, or physically.
How have your musical tastes changed over the years?
When I was teenager, I would say things like “pop music sucks!” but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize that it’s ridiculous to dismiss entire categories of music because every genre has examples of good art and bad art. I still have my preferences toward certain types of music, but I try to keep an open mind toward new music and judge it more on its merits than by its style.
If you could cover any song, what would that one song be?
It’s difficult for me to pick a song to cover because so many of the tunes that have had a profound influence on me are so perfectly-performed by their creators that I wouldn’t feel right about covering them unless I could find a way to put a much different musical spin on those songs.
There’s an album in my music collection by soul singer, Bettye LaVette, called Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook. On the album, LaVette takes songs by British invasion bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and makes them into soul songs. I especially love her spine-tingling rendition of The Who’s “Love Reign o’er Me.” I was impressed by how she was faithful to the emotion of the original song while still making the song her own. That’s the kind of quality I would want to capture in performing someone else’s work.
So, I don’t know if I can think of a song off the top of my head that I would want to cover, but who knows – maybe I’ll figure something out and ACE will have a cover song in one of our future shows!
Based on your recommendation I looked online and found a video of Bettye LaVette singing “Love Reign o’er Me” at the Kennedy Center with Peter Townsend and Roger Daltrey in attendance. I agree, her cover was spine tingling and you could tell that both Peter and Roger were quite impressed as well.
So, talking about live performances, what was your most memorable experience in a live performance?
I’ve been performing music for most of my life, so it’s hard to pick a most memorable moment, but I can mention one from a fairly recent performance:
This September, The Aaron Clift Experiment performed at the Voyager Festival in Austin. The festival, which focuses on progressive rock and experimental music, was a great experience for us as a band because it featured one of the largest and liveliest crowds we’ve performed for yet. I especially loved the camaraderie and community that ACE developed with the other bands that performed at the festival.
OK, now for the flip side, what was your most bizarre experience playing in a band?
We once played a show where the venue completely botched ACE’s name. The marquee had us listed as “The Jimmy Clifton Experience.” The misnaming was so hilariously bizarre, that we just rolled with it as a band and told the audience that evening that this would be our new name.
Ha ha, I remember seeing your Facebook post about this incident! So talking about the unexpected, would you please relate a mishap or triumph when you were recording in the studio?
I love how the final trio of songs on Outer Light, Inner Darkness (ACE’s 2015 album) came together. “The Last Oasis” was the first time that I had ever done an extensive collaborative instrumental suite with Eric, and adding in a string quartet was very exciting, especially when it came alive in the studio. “Moonscape” was one of my personal favorites to record because I got to go nuts with the vocal multi-tracking (I think there are six or eight vocal harmony layers in one part of the song). “Bathed in Moonlight” has some of my favorite production tricks on the album – especially the ending of the song.
So that brings up an interesting question for me. Integrating a string quartet into the music for Outer Light, Inner Darkness was a very nice touch. How do you avoid overpowering them when playing live?
We don’t perform with a string quartet very often precisely because the logistics are very challenging, particularly when it comes to sound mixing. So, we usually save the quartet for very special performances, such as our album release show in 2015 and our upcoming performance at RosFest 2017.
Here is another question to make you think, if you had a time machine and could travel to any time or place to make music, where would you go and why?
I’ve always been fascinated by the classical music composed at the end of the 19th century and turn of the 20th century because it combines some of the most interesting features of the music of the past while simultaneously pointing the way to the future. So, if there were a way for me to go back in time and hang out with composers like Debussy, Ravel, and Bartók, I think that would be awesome.
So given that, what keyboard artists do you have the most respect for and why?
My favorite keyboard performers are Tony Banks (Genesis), Jon Lord (Deep Purple), Richard Barbieri (Porcupine Tree), Richard Wright (Pink Floyd), and McCoy Tyner. I like them all because they’ve brought a unique flavor to the instrument – combining performance and songwriting chops with excellent keyboard tones.
What is the most unusual instrument you either play, wish you could play, or like to listen to?
I would love to learn how to play the Haken Continuum Fingerboard, a synthesizer and performance controller that’s played by moving your fingers across an electronic fingerboard. It looks like a fun instrument that produces some really cool sounds that can’t be replicated by most keyboard synthesizers.
Where do you draw your inspiration from for your music? Who or what is your muse?
Sometimes books I’ve read will inspire me or the movies and TV shows that I've watched. Other times, I'll hear a phrase that sounds like a good title for a song. I also get a lot of my ideas spontaneously when I'm going for a walk and when I'm messing around on my keyboard. There's not really a formula for inspiration – I think that it's a matter of letting myself clear my head of distractions and being more aware of my emotions and what's going on in the world around me.
So once you are inspired to create, what happens next? Are you on you own? Or do you involve your band mates?
When I've got a song idea, I'll usually work on the general harmonic, melodic, and lyrical framework of the song on my own and then present my rough ideas to my band mates. We work on the arrangement together in our rehearsals. Sometimes my bandmates will come up with their own song ideas that they send to me so I can add lyrics and the vocal melody before we start arranging the song in rehearsal. Then there are other times where the genesis of the song is collaborative – for "The Last Oasis," I wrote several of the themes, Eric Gutierrez (guitar) wrote several other themes, and Devin North (bass) helped us put together the ideas and acted as a sort of general editor of the song.
How long does it typically take from inspiration to a final song?
It really depends on the song. I've worked on some songs that took me months of on again and off again work to write and other songs that I wrote in less than a week. When my band mates and I get a good rhythm going, we can average several songs a month.
Do you score the music? Can all of your band mates read music? Or do you just play by ear until you and the band are happy?
All of us in the band have classical backgrounds and can read sheet music. However, we usually use chord charts and/or learn by ear and only resort to sheet music for especially difficult parts or for parts assigned to instruments outside of the band (such as the string quartet parts we wrote for several of the songs on Outer Light, Inner Darkness).
One thing that I have been curious for a while is how the Aaron Clift Experiment ended up with a song on the heavy metal Circle Pit Compilation. Your music seems so out of place with the other bands on this compilation.
Regarding the Circle Pit Compilation: they actually contacted us and said that they wanted "Arsonist Games" in the compilation. Since the song has some metal influences (mostly by way of Black Sabbath), we went ahead and included it on the compilation.
The Aaron Clift Experiment has been playing quite a bit around Austin and Texas. And now I see that you will be performing at RosFest in 2017. Is RosFest your first out-of-state gig? How did that happen?
RosFest will be our first of hopefully many out-of-state performances. Last year, I was introduced to George Roldan, the festival founder and owner, through ACE’s PR agent. George and I talked back and forth for a while after he told me that he was impressed with ACE’s second album, Outer Light, Inner Darkness. He invited me to come out to RosFest this past May, so I took the trip out to Gettysburg and met George plus a lot of other great people. At the festival, George let me know that he was planning to invite ACE to play at RosFest 2017.
It’s an incredible honor for ACE to be performing at the festival. Our musical heroes in the Neil Morse band are going to be headlining the same day as us, so we’re very psyched!
OK, one final question. You released your last album Outer Light, Inner Darkness in Sept 2015. What are your plans for the next?
Right now, we're writing songs for a third album that we hope to release in late 2017 or early 2018. Without going into too much detail about everything we're working on now, I can say that we're continuing to expand The Aaron Clift Experiment's songwriting and instrumental palette to keep our sound fresh and exciting.
Filed under: Interviews
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