With 3 critically acclaimed albums, several high profile performances, and a talented and formidable lineup, The Aaron Clift Experiment is a force to be reckoned with. Aaron Clift and his band, which features Devin North on bass, Tim Smith on drums, and the recently announced Mathew Aboujaou on guitar, will be performing at Progtoberfest in Chicago later this year. We caught up with Aaron to ask about his musical background, their recent album If All Goes Wrong, and what’s in store for the Aaron Clift Experiment.
1.) What is your history and background with music?
Music has been an essential part of my life since I was a baby. While I don’t have a lot of clear memories from my childhood, I do remember my parents always playing music for me on their old turntable. I recall it being a mix of children’s music, folk music, and rock music from their collection (my first introduction to The Beatles). My mom tells me that one of the first words I learned was “side,” which was my term for music (referring to the sides on vinyl records).
My dad’s family is very musical (my dad learned to sing and play piano and french horn), so I think that also influenced me to learn music. When I was 12, I started playing viola and was very active in my school’s orchestra. Around that time, I also started getting into a lot of the grunge and hard rock bands that were popular in the early to mid 90’s like Soundgarden and Alice Chains. When I shared that music with my dad, he would tell me of how Soundgarden reminded him a lot of Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin and how Alice in Chains’ vocal harmonies reminded him of Crosby, Stills, and Nash. So, I guess you could say that the grunge groups became my gateway into a lot of classic rock bands, and eventually, that’s how I got into a lot of the classic progressive rock bands like Genesis, Pink Floyd, and King Crimson. I continued studying classical music in high school and later majored in vocal performance and composition at Tufts University.
After college, it took me a while to figure out the musical direction that I wanted to go in. For a while, I tried my hand at classical composition, and while I was good at it, I missed the more visceral connection with an audience that came from playing rock music. Eventually, I realized that I could combine my love of classical and rock by performing progressive rock, and that’s what lead me to form The Aaron Clift Experiment.
2.) If you had to name the most important albums of your life, what would they be, and why are they important to you?
Aaron: Superunknown by Soundgarden was the first rock album that I got into, and I guess you could say that it was the album that started my music career. Before I heard this album, I had never heard music that was so heavy and yet so catchy and melodic at the same time. Hearing Chris Cornell sing was the moment that made me want to become a singer. I go back to that album periodically, and it continues to stand the test of time for me.
In the progressive rock realm, there are 3 albums that shaped my musical development. Selling England by the Pound by Genesis is the first album that showed me how classical music and rock could be seamlessly combined. Everything on that album seems almost magical – the way the lyrics and performances mix together is very inspiring. I’ve been writing poetry and short stories since I was a little kid, and Gabriel’s lyrics showed me how that kind of writing could be applied to the world of rock music.
Another prog album that has that magic factor for me is Hounds of Love by Kate Bush. This is the album that got me seriously interested in music production. Even though music technology has come a long way since 1985, Bush found a way of making her songs feel very cinematic. Whenever I listen to that album, it sweeps me away with its vivid sound painting.
Speaking of being swept away, that’s how I felt when I first listened to Discipline by King Crimson. I’m not exaggerating when I say that this album blew my mind. I had never heard such a high level of musicianship in a rock context. And yet, King Crimson knew how to balance that mathematical complexity with music that resonates with me emotionally. It’s pretty rare to find a band that can walk that tightrope so effortlessly, and that’s why Discipline will always be one of my favorite albums.
3.) Tell us about the new album, If All Goes Wrong. Where did the name come from?
Aaron: In fall 2017, we geared up to launch a crowdfunding campaign for the album before we headed to the studio to record the album. All of us in the band felt that our campaign would go better if we had an album title, so everyone started brainstorming titles. After going through about 40 titles, we narrowed it down to an idea from Devin North (ACE bassist). When he proposed the name, “If All Goes Wrong,” I initially worried that the name would sound too negative, perhaps suggesting that not all was well with the band. However, Devin explained that the title didn’t have to necessarily be seen that way. He said that if things go wrong, our friends and loved ones can help us out. This concept resonated with me – I was getting married in a few months, and my wife had always been there for me when I needed support. So, I wrote the lyrics to the title track with this idea in mind.
4.) How do you feel like this album differs from previous Aaron Clift Experiment albums?
Aaron: Compositionally, If All Goes Wrong is The Aaron Clift Experiment’s most collaborative album. Devin and I co-wrote the majority of the album, and for the first time in the band’s history, I wasn’t the only lyricist on the album (Devin wrote lyrics for 2 songs and co-wrote lyrics with me for another song).
Musically, the album is our most diverse to date. All of us in the band have a lot of musical influences beyond the classic progressive rock bands, and you can hear a lot of those bands in the sound of this album. For example, “Better Off Before” is our tribute to the pop music of The Beatles and Queen, and “Savage in a Fancy Suit” is a heavy blues rocker inspired by Deep Purple and Black Sabbath.
One of the other things that we aimed for with this album was to create songs that would all be playable in a live setting (previous ACE albums had a few songs that were not easy to reproduce in a live setting). Likewise, when we recorded the songs, we sought to do as much as possible in the same room at the same time. The end result is a much higher energy in this album compared to our previous albums.
5.) Tell us a little about the guest musicians that were featured on the album.
Aaron: When Eric Gutierrez, our long-time guitarist, left the band in August 2017 to pursue another musical direction, we had already written 90% of the music for If All Goes Wrong. We were also partially booked to begin recording the album in November, and we didn’t want to push back the recording of the album in order to bring a new permanent guitarist. So, we decided to recruit the best studio guitarists we could find to record the songs on the album. The advantage of taking this approach is that we were able to pair the guitarists with songs that were suited for their musical styles.
Dave North, brother of ACE bassist Devin North, was one of the MVPs of the album – he’s featured on 4 of the album’s 10 songs (lead guitar on “Faith,” “Savage in a Fancy Suit,” and “If All Goes Wrong,” and guitars solo on “Wild Hunters.” He was a lot of fun to work with, and he happens to play my favorite guitar solo on the album (the solo for “If All Goes Wrong,” which was recorded in only one take!). Arielle, a well-known singer/songwriter and virtuoso guitarist and student of Queen’s Brian May, did an incredible job on “Castle in the Sky” and “Better Off Before.” Van Wilks, who plays rhythm guitar on “Faith,” is a successful blues-rock guitarist in Austin. Derek Halfmann, Dave North’s former guitar teacher, plays guitar on “Last Crash.” Kevin Chin, who has been my keyboard tech and Ableton mentor as well as producer and mixer of ACE’s “Live at RosFest 2017” album, plays incredible guitar on “Dream Within a Dream” and “Wild Hunters.” The epic, “Absent Lovers,” was a mix of Devin North on electric guitar, Fred Springer on classical guitar, Dave Sebree (owner of the studio where we recorded and longtime mentor of Devin and Dave) on electric guitar solo, as well as our friends, Charles Anderson on violin, Lana Dziekonski on viola, and Ellie Prager on cello. University of Texas at Austin piano major, Milo Hehmsoth, plays guest piano on the CD-only bonus track, “Back to the Water.”
One of our most interesting guest performers is John Blangero, who plays Mellotron on the title track. John was the top-tier contributor to our crowd funding campaign, so his grand prize was to play on a new ACE song. Originally, we were going to have him play a few extra keys on “Absent Lovers,” but Devin thought that it would be more special to write a song specifically for John’s classic 1970’s Mellotron, which is how the album’s title track came about.
6.) What themes do you find most compelling for writing lyrics and why?
Aaron: I use a variety of different techniques for developing lyrics, but I always write lyrics that come from a topic that emotionally resonates with me. The stronger that I feel about a topic, the more likely that I’m going to be able to write high-quality lyrics. For example, the lyrics to “Faith” are based on my experience growing up Jewish in a very conservative Christian part of Austin and having to deal with people constantly praying for my soul. I had to deal with a lot of condescension and humiliation being a part of a religious minority, so the anger that I felt growing up became fuel for the song lyrics. On the flip side, I based the story in “Back to the Water” around the nostalgia I felt for my childhood when I lived on a harbor in Centerport, New York.
Some of the other lyrics that I wrote for If All Goes Wrong weren’t necessarily based around my personal experiences but were inspired by other works of art that I really like. The reckless, cruel behavior of Cersei Lannister in the Game of Thrones episodes, “The Winds of Winter,” was one of the primary influences for the characterization of the narrator of “Last Crash.” Likewise, “Castle in the Sky,” is a retelling of the Hiyao Miyazaki movie of the same name.
7.) How do you balance virtuosity with the pop sensibility that makes a song approachable and still rewarding after multiple listens?
Aaron: When progressive rock is at its worst, songs contain lots of complicated parts that sound cool but end up being gimmicky and don’t do much to actually tell a musical story. However, when the genre is at its best, you have bands like Genesis and King Crimson who write arrangements that are incredibly sophisticated but are still grounded in something accessible that can take the listener on an emotional journey. For me, one of the greatest challenges of working in the progressive rock genre is finding a way to make interesting music that tells a good story without succumbing to “prog for prog’s sake.”
I don’t know if there’s necessarily a formula for creating music that can successfully straddle the line between complex and accessible, but I do ask myself a few questions when I do my songwriting that help guide me. When I’m done writing a new song and am ready to start editing and arranging the song, I’ll start by asking myself: “Would I enjoy listening to this song if I were a listener?” and: “Did I say everything that I needed to say in the song?” If no, then I will go back to the song and figure out what else could be added and/or clarified. If yes, then I ask myself a follow-up question: “Could have said the same message in a more concise manner?” If yes, then I go back and edit the song. If no, then I’m ready to do work to tweak some of the song arrangements. When I go through the arranging side of things, I’ll ask myself questions like: “Does this instrumental part develop the story of the song?” and edit the song accordingly. With each draft of the song, I’ll go through these rounds of questions until I’m convinced that the song is as good as it can possibly sound.
8.) Will the Aaron Clift Experiment be playing any more live dates this year?
Aaron: We’ve got some local shows coming up this fall, but the show that I’m most excited about is The Aaron Clift Experiment’s performance at Progtoberfest in Chicago on October 21. The whole festival is going to be a really cool lineup of progressive rock bands from all over the world playing over 3 days. I can’t wait to be a part of the festival because Soft Machine and Screaming Headless Torsos – two of my favorite jazz fusion bands – are going to be headlining this year!
9.) What is the Aaron Clift Experiment? Does it follow the scientific method?
Aaron: I wouldn’t necessarily call it the “scientific method,” but my band mates and I will put a new song under a lot of “stress testing” to make the song the best song it can be. I have my own process of questions that help me out with songwriting, and my band mates have their own criteria for editing songs, and together, we all make a great team.
10.): What is the proggiest Children’s cartoon/TV Show?
Aaron: If using the word “proggy” to mean diverse and boundary-pushing, then I can’t think of a more proggy show than “Sesame Street.” That show WAS my childhood. Plus, I think that the music from the Pinball Number Count segment was my backdoor introduction to jazz and funk.
Check out The Aaron Clift Experiment’s latest album, If All Goes Wrong, and don’t forget to see them at Progtoberfest in October of this year! Keep up with The Aaron Clift Experiment at http://www.aaronclift.com/