Clay Parnell For Mayor!
Move over Bono. Clay Parnell is the new Mother Teresa of the live music world. He is humble, modest, easily approachable, and as genuine as they come. Not only is the man an astounding musician, he has managed to stay grounded over the course of his career. From playing bass with Brothers Past and his new drum and bass driven baby BioDiesel, to campaigning for Democratic politicians, Clay is versed in philanthropy and grassroots benevolence. Clay discusses the future of Brothers Past, the development of BioDiesel, and life on the political circuit. However vacillating the state of Brothers Past may be and however unpredictable politics is, Clay’s dedication to live music and governmental affairs is steadfast.
Jared Hecht: Tell me what’s going on with Brothers Past. It seems that the band was reinvigorated when [drummer] Ilya [Stemkovsky] first joined the band, but that energy has dissipated over the past year. Now you only have several shows booked. In what direction do you see Brothers Past moving in the next couple months?
Clay Parnell: It’s the sort of thing that when you have a band like ours, when you go as hardcore as we did for so long – essentially playing 130-140 shows a year for as many years as we did, I have to allow people to focus on other things and have a little more diversity in their lives. I think that’s part of the thing with Brothers Past. Also we felt like we really worked with the material that we had for a very long time. We’ve always pursued our big touring endeavors with regard to our album releases. We could have come out with Ilya and played four to six months and come out with a record, but we really wouldn’t have given him time in that case to meld with the band. So we played a lot of shows at first and now we’re in the process of writing for the band and thinking about the next record and thinking about how that will form us stylistically. So it has always kind of been about our albums and our albums usually steer our course artistically. In a sense we’re taking time to write and develop, and at the same time we’re giving people the space they need to be able to stay creative.
JH: Particularly being
CP: Not anyone per se. I’d rather not get into the specific perspectives of different people within the band. I don’t think it’s my place to speak for anybody. But there are some involved who feel like they need more time and need space and distance from the project. Then there are others who don’t agree with that. I would personally prefer to be playing and recording more than we are now. I’ll leave it at that.
JH: You were saying that your studio work formatted the way you toured and play live. In that sense would you say that the primary focus of Brothers Past is based on producing a studio album or being a live performance-oriented band?
CP: Well obviously with as many shows as we’ve played, the live thing is a huge part of who we are. This is the scene from which we’ve sprung. One thing we always did to differentiate ourselves was to really focus on our records. None of us got into music because we were following some band around at age nine. We got into music because of the albums that we had, the albums that we heard, and the albums that inspired us to pick up instruments in the first place. That’s something to us that seemed like a no brainer going in. We were going to be a band that focused on the art of making a record. 95% of our influences are dead.
JH: Can you talk a bit more about how you feel about this static state that BP is in right now. Do you wish you were on the road playing more shows with the band?
CP: I like to play. But as much as I’d like to be out playing I can respect the fact that some people aren’t in that position, they don’t want to be out playing. And I can understand why a band like us needs to take a step back and assess what we are and what our goals are. And I’m not saying that that’s necessarily what we’re doing now but everybody is in a slightly different place and I respect everyone involved.
JH: In 2005 you released This Feeling’s Called Goodbye with Brothers Past, arguably one of the best studio albums in the jamband realm. You mentioned that you’re thinking about the next record. Can you talk a bit about where that stands?
CP: Absolutely. There’s certainly a good amount of material that we have that we know has a place on an album. I feel that right now what we need is four or five more tunes to pick from. We also tend to record a lot more tune than we use. At least that’s what we did with This Feeling’s Called Goodbye and we found that that worked for us. A Wonderful Day was a little more of a scripted affair. We knew what we wanted and nothing was edited out. But I feel like with three to four more tunes, we’ll have more than enough for the next record and we can move forward from there. Obviously we’ll cut some of those out. We’re not trying to make a double album or anything. But we do have the material and we have the framework laid out. Essentially we’re trying to make arrangements to get in and really demo the stuff out. We’ve done the demoing of some of the tunes and recorded some of the songs for the process of demoing them and figuring out where we want to go with them in the studio environment. It has certainly been discussed and it’s certainly in motion.
JH: How do you envision the future of BP unfolding?
CP: HmThat’s an interesting one. You know all I can really say about that, as it always has been, is that our albums are what bring us where we’re going next. They define different eras of the band. I think that the next record will help form that. That’s basically what I’m focused on as far as the future of Brothers Past. The future of Brothers Past to me is about the next record.
JH: Any idea of when you think the next record will be ready?
CP: Nope. I don’t know.
JH: Now you seem to have put your musical focus into BioDiesel, your project with Johnny Rabb and an ever evolving cast of rotating keyboardists. How did that come to fruition?
CP: Brian McEnany, the guy who does the Zen Festivals whom I worked with in the past, is a great guy and has a great ear. He knew of me and he knew Johnny. Johnny expressed interest in getting a project together. Brian got us together. He got Johnny to a show where I was playing and was like, “What do you think?” I came on and we played. It sort of started as just throwing together a project with rotating musicians, blah blah blah. But before Johnny and I even played note one together there was already a musical connection. And then we played and decided, “Well fine, it can be a rotating musician ordeal but the core of it is going to be me and Johnny.” Ever since then we haven’t really looked back.
It’s a developing thing. We still haven’t had one rehearsal. We’ve recorded in the studio but we’ve never rehearsed. We’re kind of doing this backwards, or sideways at least. We played our tenth show not too long ago in Baltimore. We’ve been around about ten months now and we’re averaging about a show a month. It hasn’t been taking up a ton of time but we certainly are enthusiastic about it. We have a blast playing together and it’s really something we will continue to do. In fact, we’re booking a tour and planning a release.
JH: Is that refreshing to you, coming from a band like Brothers Past where everything is dictated by practicing and recording?
CP: It feels good; it’s a whole different exercise. It’s similar in a lot of ways to the things I’ve done with Brothers Past and a lot of groups but it’s a new twist on it. I’ve always been the type to be open to these new opportunities and adventures so I welcome anything like that.
JH: What has been your favorite BioDiesel performance and which keyboardist has melded best with the group?
CP: That’s tough to say because we’ve been lucky enough to play with different great cats. It’s hard to really pick just one. I’d rather just say what I maybe like a little about each one. Dr. Nigel [Psylab’s Neil Larson], he just came with an energy and an ear for it and a great tonal palate. He just melded with us right away and I loved that. That was one of my favorites one to date. I thought it was great. The night before we had Adam Holzman who had been in Miles Davis’s band. He’s an older cat with impeccable credentials. That was a major privilege to play with him. I learned a lot playing with him. We’ve just been really lucky to play with a lot of great players. Dr. Nigel is fucking ridiculous. At our next show after that two weeks later we had Aron Magner which of course worked out great. I’ve known Aron for a long time and we’ve played together before here and there in different projects. That was a treat and worked out great. We had Ian McGuire [MJ Project], this great young talent and keyboardist from Philadelphia, who was killer. He just killed it and it was a pleasure to work with him. We did a show with pretty much the entire lineup of Future Rock on keys and Felix [Future Rock keyboardist] was playing some bass and D. Heitz their drummer was pretty much focusing on the drum pad. That was equally awesome. It’s so hard to pick because they’re all different. That’s the fun thing about it.
We’ve done two piece performances too which is great. That’s sort of where we see the future of the project going. We’ll always have guests here and there, but we’re really trying to focus on honing our skills as a two piece outfit now.
JH: What do you and Johnny have in store? Any plans on releasing the studio work?
He’s out on tour now with U.S.S.A. which is one of his other projects. We’re kind of just focusing on just preparing for a tour this Winter and moving ahead. We have a couple tricks, a couple things up our sleeves that we’re planning that should be a lot of fun. There should be some interesting announcements coming down the pike at some point. We’re just having fun with it. It’s just the two of us and our manager and we’re all good buddies. Half the time we’ll get an idea to do something just because we’re sitting around drinking coffee and we start laughing our asses off about something and we’re just like, “Fuck it! Let’s do it! Let’s just buy an ambulance!” Then we end up buying an ambulance and now we have an ambulance. That’s as much as I’ll tell you.
JH: Okay. Fair enough.
And for the record I’m not saying we have an ambulance, and I’m not saying we don’t have an ambulance either.
JH: Do you plan on stringing together a bunch of dates and going on tour or will you just stick to the one-show-a-month ordeal?
CP: I don’t think we’re ever going to tour like Brothers Past does, just grinding them out as sixteen week tours. I just don’t think that this is that kind of deal, I don’t think we need to do that. But we’re going to play some runs and certainly play some shows. Nothing too crazy. Obviously my primary commitment is to Brothers Past, but at the same time, BioDiesel is something I’m very focused on.
JH: Currently, do you get more satisfaction playing with BP or BioDiesel?
Oh they’re completely different. As far as Brothers Past goes, there’s just so much. I’ve just been lucky my whole career to play with great drummers. I’ve just been blessed with great drummers all along. I have to say that playing with Ilya is sick! I know some people are annoyed that we’re not playing as much jungle as we’re used to and things like that but Ilya is one of the finest drummers you could ever hope to work with. He’s amazing. It’s always a new adventure when I go out on stage with him. I can’t say enough good things about him. Playing with him is just out of control for me. I’m glad for our fans who have gotten it and been able to understand and embrace what Ilya does and how he does it. I understand some people miss the jungle beats and shit, but the thing is that Ilya has a ton to bring to the table and it’s always a massive adventure when I play with him.
So I’d say if you had to pin me down, I’d say right now Brothers Past. Obviously I’ve been playing with Tom [Hamilton] and Tom [McKee] forever and I love working with those guys. There’s still a lot of shows I want to play with Ilya and each one I feel we get more in sync and it’s just awesome.
JH: Stylistically, how do you think Rick Lowenberg [previous Brothers Past drummer] and Ilya compare and what has Ilya done to transform the sound of the band?
CP: When you’re talking about music, especially western modern music, it’s essentially a genre dependent on the drum beat. You can take jazz guitar and jazz bass and put it over rock drums and it’s rock. The drumsthey’ll even teach you that in music school, the use of the rhythmic components of a song is what establishes its style. So given that it’s not like you have a drummer come into your band and be like, “This is how I play and this is how we’re playing it.” There’s a lot more thought and collaboration that goes into deciding what’s going with the drums in any given band. Rarely ever does a drummer come in and be like, “This is what we’re doing.” With Rick you need to understand he was a guitar player before. He sort of learned drums as he was playing in our band. He was into that style, we were into that style especially at the time. When Rick told us he was leaving he gave us the opportunity to dig into things that we hadn’t dug into before and dig into things that we thought would turn the songs better. I love Rick, and Rick may play a killer bottle cap, but if one’s heart is not in rock drumming then how are you going to play “Simple Gift of Man”? With things like that, most of the all the songs when Ilya came in got an immediate boost. At that point we were all kind of tired with what we had been doing nonstop for the past three years. We wanted to explore some different things and Ilya, who has such a vast range of skills, gave us the ability to dig deeper into that stuff.
JH: Let’s talk politics. I know you’re currently working on a political campaign in Montgomery County, PA. Care to explain what you’re up to?
CP: It’s Fall. It’s election season. I’ve been trying to help out for a while with various campaigns. Right now I’m working for a campaign for a democratic DA. He’s a great candidate so I’ve been working a lot down there. And I also work for the Delaware County Democratic Party. Delaware County is another county that borders Philadelphia. I help basically recruit and manage volunteers for them, help with their canvassing operations. Just trying to get out the vote and build support for our candidates and that sort of thing and it’s good. That’s what I went to school for. I consider it a hobby and music is my career but it’s nice to be able to do that kind of stuff now.
JH: Do you ever feel like politics might become your career and music might become your hobby?
CP: No. I don’t think so. I think at this point this is what I’m doing and what I’ve invested my energy in. I’ll always do both but I think music is the best fit for me.
JH: I remember the last time we spoke you were somewhat jokingly contemplating running for office.
CP: Laughs. You know, we’ll see at some time. It was never the kind of thingbeing in political office is never really meant for the kind of people who want to be in it. It’s more the kind of thing that once you see that need there and think you can be of service that’s when you do it. I’d love to be able to represent my neighbors for whatever it takes, and I will at some point. That’s not necessarily an aspiration. It’s something I’d gladly do given the opportunity and if the time arises where I can help out, but I’m certainly not looking to be a career politician. I don’t necessarily love that profession if you will.
JH: What do you have in store, politically, for the upcoming year?
CP: This DA campaign wraps up this November. So once that’s done I’ll redouble with Delaware County Democrats. There are a lot of people coming up. Obviously there’s a presidential race that will be huge. It’s a big year, a presidential race, it’s a good time to get people involved and recruit volunteers. I’ll be busy with that. It’s a very important election coming up and I’ll be wherever they need me as far my efforts and leading up to 2008.
JH: Would you rather be the Mayor of Upper Darby, PA or a super rock star.
CP: Duh. I’d rather be a touring rock star who’s the Mayor of Upper Darby!