Clarksville

On June 13 and 14, from noon – 6 pm, InLiquid presents Art for the Cash Poor 16. Go Mad for Music as the three-day event includes all the elements that drive us crazy-in-love with Philadelphia’s creative sector. Musical therapy comes in the form of live bands. Throughout the weekend, eight bands will donate their music to the cause of art for all, while Disco Hootenanny turns Friday night’s preview into a dance while you drink-shop-eat kinda night.

Clarksville’s cure has been in the making for over 20 years, with roots in the rabid Brit pop scene of 1990s London. Band founder James Rosenthal talks about the importance of song writing – and writing in general – while the band preps for their Sunday performance.

Do you want to start off by giving me a bit of background on Clarksville?

Yeah that’s easy. I started the band in ’93 in London. It’s got a history. And it’s on its fifth lineup of people. It’s usually a three-piece band. We were [in London] playing when Brit Pop was going, so we’ve gone through a lot of phases. I was an American in London. So I tried to play that up. Doing American indie rock surrounded by all these up and coming British bands like the Stone Roses and Oasis. I just heard one of the Gallagher Brothers being interviewed, he was saying why music is so terrible. And he said there’s just no good songs, songs don’t have hooks any more. Clarksville always has hooks. People always say, “James, you can write a good hook.” And that’s quite a compliment. So I wish we could get a record deal and have some singles out there. It’s only taken 25 years.

There’s no time limit on it.

That’s pretty cool, there isn’t. I don’t think the band ever had a signature sound that sounded like a time period. I’ve given that a lot of thought. It’s based on 60s garage and rock, it’s always through the rose-colored glasses of the late 70s, so that ends up being up to date in a funny way. I’m always expanding the type of tunes. People say what do you sound like, it depends on who I’m talking to but I’ll start with mentioning Neil Young and Tom Petty, rather than someone really obscure. But having said that I write a lot of songs that are a little more piano based. They have diminished chords and we don’t really play them because we’re a guitar band, and they sound a little more like The Beatles and The Kinks in their heyday. I’m letting my ego go there – that’s who I’d like to sound like. Carnivals, and merry-go-rounds, and slightly psychedelic things. But the lyrics are all pretty good. Nobody hears them at a live show so it doesn’t matter. The drummer always says why are these lyrics so depressing? And I say, it doesn’t matter. The melody’s cheerful, that’s what counts.

You said you always stick with a three-piece band. Why three pieces, is there a reason for that?

We had a four piece for a couple months last year, and it’s hard to keep that many people focused. It sounds really nice when it’s fleshed out. Sometimes I’ll just play an acoustic guitar through a whole set. It could be a five piece, put a piano in it. I think it’s a matter of time and money. I’d love to have a female bass player too.

You don’t see that too often. You started out in London. How does the London music scene differ from Philly’s music scene?

It was very easy to get gigs in those days. You’d get a gig in the back room of a pub and there would always be people there. You didn’t have to get in touch with a booking agent. These were in the days of cassettes, so if you had some sort of demo cassette, you’d just hand it in and they’d play the tape. Now, we could handle a gig at Johnny Brenda’s, we might be a little rough around the edges, but we’d certainly put on a show. It’s a little disappointing. I’ve been here a while. People are a bit uptight about it, and a little overly concerned with money. I’m happy to play a free show. The more audience the better. That’s what I’m worried about – whether anyone’s going to be there or not, not how much money I’m making. If I wanted to make money, I would have gone into high tech.

It’s easy to forget that. You used to work for InLiquid. What’s your favorite memory from being here at the start?

I think it was great when I started writing reviews, because I didn’t know I could actually write. I’m an artist, so I knew what I was writing about, but I didn’t know I could use sentences to convey what I wanted to mean. So I’ve just been working on a novel. Writing is the big thing. And I put it all down to writing songs when I was 20. You’ve got maybe 30/40 words in a song, and they’ve gotta match and rhyme and make sense.

And sometimes writing in short form is so much more challenging than long form.

Exactly. And trying not to repeat every rock song that you’ve ever heard. Which is the most difficult thing. Not using the same exact songs as Lou Reed used over and over. It was exciting getting started at InLiquid, because I’d just arrived here, and I was just getting my bearings, and there was a lot of potential. And there still is. Musically this is a great town to be. You end up knowing a lot of musicians. In London, they would be pop stars. London’s a very small place too, and also rabid indie rock fans. They try to be a little more laidback in America. When you get out your skinny black jeans there, you really mean it. And when you have that long lock of hair in the front – which I can’t do anymore, I never could. I don’t think there’s a cooler look than that. We’re not a country band, but we do have a bit of country that comes in. Something in the lyrics – complaining about life. The name Clarksville, there’s that little hint of Monkee’s songs that were written in Nashville – because most The Monkee’s songs were written in Nashville.

How did you get into music originally?

Art school, I always played guitar. I slowly got better at writing songs. They were always derivative of some other people. And it took several earlier bands to get any unique song writing. There was a period where everything I did sounded like The Police or The Clash. Now if I borrow from anyone it’s out and out stealing. It’s meant to be there, it’s not an accident. I do like a dub, a reggae, and a ska beat. If we can fit that into a tune, I don’t mind. If the band can do it, and if we have time to rehearse it. It’s been a long gestation, which is why I still do it. The older dudes in bands say hey old timer, and I’m like hey I’m still here. We can still play much too loud. Which is a claim to fame. I remember a teacher saying James you should just do one thing, why don’t you just paint? And I thought, how insulting.

If you can do more than one thing, why would you limit yourself?

It would have precluded learning how to write too. I’m hoping if anything pans out in my whole life it’s going to be the novel that I’ve written. It’s the only product I’ve ever made that’s sellable. Everything else is too artful. It’ s made to be a popular novel. It is about the art world. The artist in it is in a band. I’m looking for a publisher in Philadelphia. I’ve done the workshops and I’ve talked to agents, and you just have to meet that one person who thinks the project can go all the way. And it’s like meeting the person you want to marry. They’re very rare indeed. I’m going to keep doing art and painting until I get a book deal.

What are you looking forward to most about playing Art for the Cash Poor?

I’m looking forward to meeting the sound man. There’s usually quite a few people. If we don’t have to bring a PA, I can sing and hear my own voice, that’s a nice change.

The weekend-long fair invites attendees to navigate the Crane Arts space, which will be bursting with art vendors, live musical performances, culinary curiosities, and an outdoor beer garden. The addition of a Friday night ticketed preview party on June 12, 5:30 – 9 pm, serves as a meet-and-greet with the artists and a fundraiser for AIDS Fund, offering guests an exclusive sneak-peek at the festivities to follow. More details, including a full list of bands and participating artists, at the link.

Caitlin T. McCormack

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