Blood and Justice
Despite being horror obsessives, clipping.'s earliest memories of hiding behind the sofa are wonderfully lame. Bill Hutson gets the most credit for surviving a midnight screening of The Shining aged 12 – but the terrors of Jonathan Snipes and Daveed Diggs' childhoods (Fiddler on the Roof and the 1985 version of Godzilla respectively) don't offer the same bragging rights.
“My mom had told me before I left, like, 'If you get scared, you can leave – just tell your dad'” says Diggs, who came to the cinema aged six, armed with a light-up sword he got from a circus. “But I was like, 'No no, I'm not scared'. And the opening credits of that movie … there's an old ship with water leaking through it and it looks pretty dark and scary. I told my dad immediately that I wanted to leave and he was like, 'Are you sure? It hasn't started yet'. And so I stood up on the seat in the middle of the movie theatre and said” – shouting – “'My mommy said if I wanted to leave then we would go!'” he laughs. “Like, it was just swelling music and the dripping and I was like, 'Nope, I'm out'.”
Thankfully, the experience didn't scar. In fact, clipping. have made a career of leaning into things that disquiet them – most recently, to birth their fourth, thundering studio album Visions of Bodies Being Burned, which is an ode to the horror genre. Snipes says that since he was a kid, growing up in a family of Seventh Day Adventists, he approached disturbing cartoons and movies with a desire to unpick them. “And that's true of my taste in music too. When I would hear records that made me feel like, 'This is not music', I would ask, 'Why did somebody make it and what else did they make?' You know, that's always the window in for me.”
I'm talking to the band just after their online premiere of “enlacing/Pain Everyday”: an art-house take on the dance video, complete with wind-blasted suburban landscapes and writhing contortionists. They joke that trying to keep up with the conversation from fans made them feel old – even though, according to one attendee, the turn-out was quite modest. “It was funny, one of the comments was, 'It's so cool to be here for something so small in terms of numbers, but so great in terms of quality'” says Hutson. “I was like... 'What do you usually watch?' Like, I was really proud of ourselves!”
“We run into this a lot,” adds Diggs. “Because our fans tend to be younger than us and they interact with technology in a different way. So every time I find myself trying to interact with a large group of them, I'm always like... 'No, actually, you guys just handle this'. That's fine. I'm too old for this.”
There's a particular kind of fandom that grows around bands like clipping., whose every facet – from lyricism to aesthetic – is meticulously considered. The trio insist that they don't want to erect unnecessary barriers to people discovering them (Hutson argues that one of the reasons they don't like the term 'noise rap' is that they don't want to be “ghettoised” from what others consider more accessible sub-genres). And at the same time, they often approach things theory-first. “We are all fairly academic,” says Diggs. “You're pretty much sitting in on what it's like to make a clipping. song.” Snipes grins. “It's like four hours of this and playing each other music and arguing and then, like, 30 minutes of actually making a song.”
“There's never been a moment where we were just jamming one day and we came up with this,” Diggs explains. “If a song gets made, we worked really hard to make it. But I'm not trying to bar anybody's entry into [our music]. It's like, this is a good ass song we enjoy listening to. You don't have to nerd out to it in the same way that we do to also enjoy it... we hope.”
Snipes offers a different take. “There is a subtle distinction for me between intent and result, right? In my professional work as a sound designer and composer for film and theatre, I talk about 'getting credit'. It happens all the time on things that I'm working on: I make a thing, I hand it to a director, they listen to it and they say, 'Oh, it's cool. But I really wish it did this thing'... and then describe to me exactly what I thought I was doing.”
“I used to be really annoyed by that, right? And I used to say, 'But I fucking did that! I did the thing that you're talking about!” he laughs. “And now I realise that – 'Oh, no, I thought I did that. But clearly they're not receiving it. So what can I do?'” Snipes provides the song “Run For Your Life” – from the band's last album, There Existed An Addiction to Blood – to illustrate that they do, to an extent, want their listeners to acknowledge their process. “We played that beat through a car that we recorded driving past the microphones, right? And we did that about three or four times, because the first time we did it, it didn't sound like we had done it.”
“And it wasn't enough for us to know we did it. We had to really design that process – go to the location and put the mics in the right place and design the way the beats sound out of the car. So that we knew we would get credit for having done all that work when somebody heard it.”
It's clear from a quick scan of YouTube – where clips of “Run For Your Life” are accompanied by compliments from fellow engineers and sound designers – that many listeners do give them credit. But, as Diggs points out, making art means surrendering meaning to your audience. When I ask them about being misinterpreted, they laugh a little too hard. Hutson remembers a time when they were first starting out, and Diggs used to open their shows with the phrase 'It's clipping., bitch'.
“When we got signed to Subpop, we started playing for people who weren't our personal friends or people in our music scene. And all of a sudden, we're this harsh 'noise rap' group that's going out on tour and people don't necessarily recognise that's a reference to Britney Spears and are like, 'Oh, I don't like the use of that word'. And we were like, 'Yeah, we don't either. That was... never-mind'” he laughs. “'We will stop. You're right. You're right'.”
“I think that's the main thing to be learned right now from a lot of these social justice movements,” adds Snipes. “That intent is important, but it's not enough. It's not an excuse to say, 'Oh, I didn't mean to hurt anybody.' You actually have to acknowledge that whatever you meant, you hurt somebody, and then change your behaviour.”
A more curious occurrence is when listeners straight up ignore these politics, as boldly-worn as they are. Recently, clipping.'s track “Chapter 319” – written explicitly in support of Black Lives Matter protests – became an unlikely TikTok meme, with users rapping along to the words “Donald Trump is a white supremacist / If you vote for him you're a white supremacist”. The band reTweeted a video of Claudia Conway, daughter of KellyAnn, Trump's former adviser, doing just that – to mixed response.
“We got some backlash from right-wing fans who were like, 'You're just like forcing your politics down our throat,'” sighs Hutson. “I was like, 'First off, what band are you listening to?!' But second, um, the statement 'Donald Trump is a white supremacist' does not have any politics to it. It is agreed upon by both sides. One side says, 'Yep, that's why I'm voting for him'. And the other side says, 'No, that's why I'm not voting for him.' I don't see why that should even be a particularly controversial statement.” Snipes interjects: “But there were all those Death Grips fans who gave up on us, right?” Hutson laughs. “Yeah, I mean, once we started actually having politics, they all ran to, you know, the other bands that don't necessarily articulate their politics in the same way. So that they can still post on 8Chan.”
Diggs sits quiet throughout this exchange. Surely, if fans aren't engaging with the band's politics, this suggests they're not engaging with the lyrics – his primary contribution. “I'm just another percussion instrument,” he says, with a sort of faux-solemnity. “I'm a maraca!”
“But yeah, I am sometimes convinced that people don't listen to words. That I'm like... just an appendage to clipping. for a lot of people. Like, you could amputate my part, and it would still be fine and they would get all of the same things out of it. There's an aspect of our music that is there for angry people to enjoy, right? It's good. It's that which I don't disagree with. But like, a lot of those people are angry because they're feeling threatened by things that politically we would encourage. So yeah. I'm gonna say I can disagree politically with fans. I don't mind. I also don't care if I lose them.”
For the fans that do stick around, clipping. have quite a charming approach to easing in the less 'rap experienced' members of their audience. “We open every album and every show – usually – with an a'capella. Because if you're dealing with people who don't go to rap shows all the time, you have to train their ears to listen to words at that rate.” Diggs says this is a policy he extends to his other creative work. “Like, if I'm doing some other kind of show – like a reading or a poetry gig or some shit – very close to the top of the thing, I'll do something pretty virtuosic and bare and naked. And then we'll add in other things to distract you. There's a certain amount of hand holding and training that you have to do.” Snipes pipes up. “It's funny – I've never associated these two but that's exactly what horror movies do, right? It's like the first kill in a horror movie. In those first 10 minutes, you find out what you're in for.”
Visions of Bodies Being Burned is a concept album, made up of songs recorded at the same time as There Existed... Each track toys with a different horror trope – from “She Bad”, which riffs on the classic 'Cabin in the woods' set-up, to “Neve Campbell 96”, a dedication to the Final Girl. I ask the band their favourite surviving heroine and they all have the same one: Laurie Strode in the original Hallowe'en. “Especially now,” says Hutson. “The new... I mean, the 'elderly' Laurie Strode in the new film is so bad-ass.”
The band are characteristically down with the 'nerdy' implications of making a concept album, despite the visions of wanktastic 70s prog LPs it generates. Snipes says he always felt disappointed by those records, since the music always seemed like an afterthought. “I'd be excited like, 'Oh my God, this album is about robots and it's gonna be fucking crazy'. And then I'd put the record on and it's just another dumb butt-rock album... they just sing about robots, you know? I want to make a concept album in which the music sounds like it is related to the concept on a more concrete level.”
“And I had a similar response to movies. I think a lot of filmmakers our age want to make a whole movie that is as cool as the box art of the VHS they remember from the 80s. And I remember being constantly disappointed by this incredibly, incredibly cool poster art, and I'm putting on this movie and it's, like, a cheap piece of crap.”
The other band members have different reasons for finding the horror movie concept liberating. Diggs says that narration and analogy gives him the ability to extract himself from the song, whilst still making meaning. “A lot of the time we're trying to remove a central first-person perspective,” he says. “And so, one of the ways – and this is the way every non-musical and particularly non-rap artists work – is that you tell stories, and your politics are woven into the stories. Horror movies have always been a particularly good [vehicle for] that – like, you can define what a monster is and what deserves to be saved.”
The band joke, however, that of any of their interests, “Hutson knows the most about it.” After that run-in with The Shining at the dawn of his adolescence, he went onto to do a PhD in Theatre and Performance Studies and teach a summer school class at UC Berkley on monsters, the uncanny and American popular culture.
“I watched The Shining a thousand times in the next, like, two months after [the midnight movie showing]. I was just obsessed with it – I wanted to live in that movie. That was so formative. I grew up obsessed with Universal movie monsters. And I loved Frankenstein, and the Bride of Frankenstein. I mean, that's still one of my favourite movies ever. But I was never frightened by the monsters in those movies. The Shining was the first horror movie I saw where I was like, 'Oh, this is what they're supposed to feel like. You're supposed to be frightened. Oh, and it turns out I really like this!'”
With this information, I conclude that it must be Hutson who's been Tweeting from the clipping. account about making a Hellraiser theme park. When asked, perhaps ill-advisedly, to elaborate, his fandom cannot be contained.
“You would want it to be, you know, themed on The Gash – the dimension that you see in Hellraiser II, right? So maybe your ticket looks like the LeMarchand [puzzle box] configuration and to get into the park, you have to open it to expose the barcode to get let in. Then when you go in... let's see. I mean, you're obviously greeted by the Cenobites, by hierophants of the order of the Gash. I mean, the thing is, it's a very adult-themed park because the whole premise of that world is that you can do the craziest sex stuff that would kill you in real life. But you don't die.” In the background, Snipes is suppressing a laugh. He enquires about the name. “Unnecessary Surgery Land” jokes Hutson. “I'm picturing a log flume ride on a river of blood and urine or something.”
As active as their imaginations are, the members of clipping. haven't escaped the reality of LA under lockdown. Well, apart from Diggs, who is currently working on preproduction for Blindspotting, the TV series – based on the 2018 film he made with Rafael Casal. “I'm, like, sort of woefully busy at this time? And it's good because it's a distraction.” It turns out, with a global pandemic, it's cheaper to build a house inside than try and film on location, so he's been spending three days a week on a soundstage. “It's very different. It's actually maybe the closest to a nine to five existence that I've ever had in my life.”
Diggs is also highly conscious of the scarcity of work for many of his creative colleagues right now. “It puts a weird pressure on it, because there are 100 people working on that set. So we can't fuck up, we can't get cancelled, right? We at least should give everybody this season of work they were promised. But there's a million ways that this can go bad right now. So it's pretty, pretty stressful.”
“Still, I came out of there yesterday, and the debate was on and I could feel my whole body tensed up, like, really. And it's not like November 3rd is going to be a particular amount of relief from that. We're in a very tense time right now.”
When I ask the others how they've been managing, Snipes gestures to the studio around him, with synths stacked on worktops and suspended from the walls. “I really don't leave this room,” he says. “I haven't been further than our mailbox in like... two weeks?” Hutson nods. “I don't know, really. I annoy my cats. And I cook a lot. That seems to be what we do. It was funny, there was another interview we did a couple of days ago with someone from New Zealand. And he was like, so what's the vibe like in LA? I was like, 'No idea. We can't go outside. What's the vibe like here in my apartment?' Like that's, that's all. That's all that I get to see, man. Like, I don't know. Cats are cool.”
There's a subtext to our conversation: that life in the US today provides an experience to rival any fictional nightmare. And because clipping. make work that centres more on concept than creator, the fact that they're a trio goofy nerds who value empathy and respect doesn't really stem its impact. “I think when you listen to a lot of the artists we listen to – like Killer Mike, like 2Chainz – the way you feel about what they're saying is coloured by how you feel about them,” says Diggs. “But whether you like me or not can't really come into play when you listen to these songs.” He shrugs. “I'm a nice guy. But that's not going to help you feel comfortable.”