While some band names are created after a crazy drunken night out or some long epiphanic moment in the studio, London-based electro-pop quartet Clock Opera claim that their name came from machines and a composer’s fascination with pocket watches.
“I remember reading a story once about this composer who had written a symphony for pocket watches, and he never made it – probably unsurprisingly,” Clock Opera singer, songwriter and group mastermind Guy Connelly reveals. “But I just really liked the idea of this mechanical symphony of music being made without any people, or people only being required to wind the watch and take it off. And then I started to make the kinds of sounds that sort of suit it. So our stuff has kind of a mechanical feel with a very human element, and I like the idea that we can make that symphony on his behalf.”
And the band’s debut album, Ways To Forget, does just that. The ten track record, released on 23 April through Moshi Moshi/ Island Records, combines Connelly’s emotional yet commanding vocals with a mix of traditional instruments and mechanical sounds that Connelly and bandmates Andy West (guitar/bass), Che Albrighton (drums/samples) and Dan Armstrong (keys/vocals/samples) collected over time. Even though sampling is a practice that would hardly be considered new, Clock Opera stay true to their idea of a “mechanical sound” by recording the noise around them – something that Connelly admits started in his bedroom.
“When it all started and I was sitting in my tiny old bedroom and didn’t have any drums or percussion, I just had a creaky, old sewing desk with an old metal pedal and gears and whatever,” he explains. “I just started hitting that and recorded the sounds it made and other sounds around my house, other objects that I came across. And it sort of expanded out really, something we consciously investigated, and we still do it.”
Over the course of making Ways to Forget, the band posted a number of videos presenting behind the scenes footage as well as showcasing noises the band recorded and reworked for the album. “It shows how we make stuff really, where we record sounds,” he says. “I like the ones where we record the mechanical ones like washing machines and needles and the game Operation – by taking the bones out of that and making music out of, it is a really interesting way to start.”
The idea of splicing and manipulating everyday sounds – especially those from a vintage board game – has branded them as “chop pop.” Even though many bands try to avoid being labelled, Connelly sees where the critics are coming from with this category. “Mostly our sound does reflect cuts and chops a lot of the time. We also have a pop sensibility,” he says. “Our songs need a melody. They’ve got to be songs we have to play. They can’t just be a cold or cool approach to making that kind of cool noise. It’s just they’re definitely songs. So we kind of hint to that, but I think there are human aspects to take into consideration. But if you’ve got anything better, please let us know because this just seems to hang around.”
“Chop pop” or not, Clock Opera could be seen as meticulous technicians who break down sounds to their bare elements and seamlessly sew them back together. They also follow this same approach with their lyrics, in ‘Man Made,’ a song inspired by a story about a beauty pageant held in a Siberian prison that Connelly discovered in a 20p magazine.
“I was looking to apply some of the same techniques to the lyrics as I did for music. David Bowie did a lot of that kind of stuff with chopping up his lyrics, and introducing that chopped element into what you say and introducing different ideas by chance,” he explains. “So I went down to the corner shop and spent £2 on about five magazines, and this one story jumped out about this Siberian women’s prison hosting a beauty pageant. It was true and was in the magazines, but it was an amazing story. It had this beauty pageant whereby inmates were selecting themselves to be part and made themselves up and were judged by the guards. The winner was put on early parole. It was this hideous story of power abuse and has some interesting reflections on the abuse of men judging beauty. It was a very interesting place to start, and I kind of chopped the lyrics from there. And that became the lyrics for a song.”
Magazines weren’t the only written pieces that inspired Connelly. Novelist, poet and playwright Samuel Beckett inspired ‘Fail Better,’ the piano-driven anthem that ends Ways To Forget’s narrative opera. “It’s inspired by Samuel Beckett’s work, which we took some lines from – hence the interpretation in our album credits,” he states. “And I suppose it gives the sense of not being beaten but an elation in the loop that you have to go round and how we’re powered by loops. And that almost sends you right back to the beginning, we sort of made it into one big loop made up of small loops. And that seemed to make sense.”
Aside from books and articles, David Bowie and new wave band, the Associates were also big motivators for his songwriting. “It’s hard for anyone not to influenced by Bowie,” he admits. “I’ve always been a massive fan. I’m also a big fan of a band called The Associates — another kind with an amazing voice. These acts or these voices were able to explore or map up amazing melodies with a kind of aspiration to experiment and that’s something we aspire to.”
But it looks like these aspirations were not as far-reaching as Connelly would make it seem. After playing at this year’s SXSW, not only did Clock Opera’s music take them across the pond but also amassed praise from music lovers and critics alike. “It was really great,” he says. “We played eight shows in four days. It’s kind of like band training camp, you know. Everyone is walking through the streets, carrying amps and dripping with sweat, and nobody ever gets soundcheck. So you arrive and you think, ‘Well, how are we going to do this? We haven’t got soundcheck,’ and worrying about stuff. But you’ve got no time to worry so you just get on with it. And now we look back and think, ‘wow we just did a two-week tour in four days. Why don’t we do this all the time? Why are we wasting so much time?’ So you come back as the marine equivalent of being in a band, I guess. And we got an amazing response, too. So setting off to these far off places and getting that is a thrill.”
And with more and more fans following the band’s very active website and Soundcloud page, Clock Opera have been able to work on a recent side project where they asked the public to submit their own recorded sounds that could be merged into a new original track. “It’s a way of inviting people into our world a little bit and be a part of something we do,” he conveyed. “So we kind of opened it up to our fans and friends and called up bands we’ve played with, and we were kind of inundated with this cascade of weird and amazing noises. It was great fun. We were really happy with the result.”
Because of the overwhelming response, Connelly reveals that there’s a possibility of another call for noises soon. But for now, fans can enjoy Clock Opera’s other expertise – remixing. From Phenomenal Handclap Band to Feist, they have been able to add their own twist while keeping the band’s signature mechanical fluidity streaming through.
“I still want it to be a song,” he says. “All remixes are songs, and that’s fine that they’re grasping for a purpose. I still want our remixes to be songs. I do a lot of chopping up the vocals and essentially just making a whole new musical track and making new choruses and new hooks. And it does take me a long time as well. I guess they’re kind of labours of love. And hopefully that shows. There are songs that have similar approaches, but it’s all more or less different because it’s someone else’s voice. But that enables me to be a bit more free. And brutal as well, I suppose.”
Ways To Forget will be released on 23 April through Island Records/Moshi Moshi.