Clockcleaner - "Vomiting Mirrors" (A Dusted exclusive.)
In the film "Sir Drone,” Raymond Pettibon's "love letter" to the late '70s L.A. punk rock scene, there's a scene where aspiring ne'er do well punker Scooter (portrayed with wet-paper-bag proficiency by Mike Kelley) answers a phone, says "Oh really? I'll write that down, hippie" and hangs up. "Who was that?" asks Duane (played by Mike Watt). "Oh that was my mom. What a joker. All she said was 'you tear down - we build up.’"
Well, Clockcleaner guitarist/vocalist John Sharkey both tears down, and builds up. And given the opportunity he's three times as vituperative than the whole rash of real-life counterparts in Pettibon’s film. While bulldozing the "decrepit edifices of corporate punk rock one poser at a time" might not be a definitive mission for Sharkey and Co., it's definitely a by-product of their day-to-day operations. Take the balls-out maneuver of titling their Reptilian Records debut full-length Nevermind.
"People think that record is like the Bible," says Sharkey via phone from his North Philadelphia home. "Fuck that record. It's completely piss-poor. It did not stand the test of time. I can understand the mania that it caused, and I mean, it's good because hair metal sucked, but it almost caused another fuckin' trend that I have no concept of at all – alternative or modern rock. So, Nirvana were dogshit, and I thought it was funny to name our record Nevermind. I kind of wanted people to react like, 'What balls! Who the fuck are these assholes?'"
So noted. Sharkey has led the trio since June, 2003, having previously been a member of Cleveland's thrashcore wrecking crew Nine Shocks Terror. (According to the man, he's "sort of still in the band" on a touring or gigging basis as needed). Bassist Karen Horner (formerly of Readyset) and ex-Rallycap drummer Richard Charles round out the lineup. Although he cites the influences of the first Modern English and Dead Can Dance records, mid-period GG Allin (the Holy Men and Scumfucs, in particular Sharkey notes), and the seminal hardcore knuckledragging of the Cro-Mags, Sharkey offers, "We've never sat down and thought of what our aesthetic is gonna be, or really thought out a game plan.
"Things have leveled off now, and we're starting to find more of a grasp on what the three of us enjoy, and what works better," he says. "Most of the new songs seem to work on the first try. It doesn't take much to get it to come out right or to sound like Clockcleaner."
After priming listeners with 2004's Hassler mini-LP on the now-defunct Manic Ride label, Clockcleaner offered up Nevermind last year as a crashing upgrade of sorts to mid-’90s post-hardcore, though Sharkey dismisses similarities to the AmRep noise rock camp. "People throw a lot of those AmRep names at us, but I really couldn't pinpoint one," he says. "I guess bands that influenced those bands also influenced us, like Scratch Acid. But, I really couldn't give two shits about, like, Janitor Joe or Lubricated Goat. People say we sound like AmRep bands but my stock answer is 'who?’"
Stylistic genealogy attempts notwithstanding, Nevermind twists Big Black-styled noise rock together with more downtempo thuggish crossover (a la the late-’80s D.R.I. trudge of Blood Driver). "Big Black, they're just an excellent band," says Sharkey. "I've looked up to them for a long time. Anything is going to seep into that just from rampant listening." Though she appears on the band's two EPs ("Missing Dick" b/w a cover of the Crucifucks' "By the Door,” on Hit Dat records, and a forthcoming single for "Early Man” on Charles’ Richie Records), one Nale Dixon is credited with bass (check your Black Flag history, kids), as Horner had yet to join.
In the flesh, Clockcleaner whips their own material into a sardonic concoction of angst and bared teeth. Onstage Sharkey plays the tightly wound frontman, crouching, lunging, spitting through their antisocial numbers in a singsong bellow, all the while, assaulting ears with his barbed guitar playing – the nearly exclusive use of minor bar chords; post-hardcore chugging riffs; the vicious sonic shrapnel produced by his use of a quarter as a pick. In this manner, he eschews solos for extended bouts of sawing at his strings with the coin's serrated edge through a digital echo effect. Imagine dry-wall nails scraped across a blackboard, or throwing handfuls of change into a cavern.
And they've been known to get physical. One time, the only thing that prevented Sharkey from cleaning the clocks of a certain trash-talking co-billed band at Philadelphia's Khyber Pass was a dislocated right shoulder suffered during his band's performance. The result of that altercation involved said band's merchandise and a stream of Sharkey's own urine, which secured Clockcleaner's permanent ban from the venue. And less, when this past March at Manhattan's Cake Shop, Clockcleaner's set ended with a sweat-drenched Sharkey/Horner/Gibson flying V/six-string bass dogpile that only further manifested their music's unsettling creepiness, perhaps even more on account of Horner's phony black-eye makeup job.
But offstage Sharkey's an affable guy – a straight-shooter some would say, albeit with a heat-seeking sense of sarcasm. "It's a wonderful tool that I will exploit to the fullest," he says. "I've noticed that people get offended, and not many people get it; that's fine with me. Again, if you get it you get it; if you don't you're retarded, you're a subnormal. But that seems to be the case with most music fans these days: they have a subnormal aptitude for sarcasm, unless they buy a CD where there's lyrics written with explanations, it's hard for people to get behind it. Use your own fucking imagination; have some fucking balls."
Along that plane, one can't help but note that Clockcleaner may dip a tendril or two into the territory explored by many of the bands found on the Killed By Death compilations, of which Sharkey admits to being a fan. It was a bygone time when punk rock was merely a wink and a nod, or at least a double entendre, away from the truly sociopathic. To wit, contributions from bands like Aryan Disgrace, the Rotters, and the NY N*ggers (disclaimer: the latter band consisted of three African-American guys playing tough street punk).
"We didn't set out to be a 'threat.' It just seems that most people don't seem to know what that was like, for bands to actually be like that anymore," says Sharkey. "I guess I've never thought of music outside of terms like that. You can call us whatever you want, we're still a punk rock band."
Those unassuming listeners who aren't scared back to their Utne Readers by Clockcleaner song titles like "Interview w/A Black Man," "Missing Dick" and "Gentle Swastika" might be surprised at Sharkey's grasp of narrative in his lyrics. It's certainly required to keep things interesting, especially over the verse-after-verse, subdued crawl of their newest material, the demo versions of which stretch to the 6-minute mark. The band's not offering up their "Tangled up in Blue" or "Hurricane" yet, but it's ironic, given Sharkey's assertion: "Were not a very lyrically based band, we're more about sounds. I usually write them in the studio. And the titles don't reflect what the songs really mean: I mean, “Gentle Swastika” could be about pushups. I could sing about grilled cheese for all I care about. [Longer verses] are just the way the newer songs are panning out." Even so, a thumbnail explanation of Nevermind's "Interview w/a Black Man" suggests more crime-noir Harry Chapin than full-on Harry Pussy blast.
"It's about a guy who is telling his best friend that he saw his woman leaving an abortion clinic with some other guy, and then them planning a murder," says Sharkey. "Everything falls into place, except right when they get about to do it, the guy tells his best friend everything, and admits that it was him leaving the abortion clinic with his girlfriend and they turn the whole murder thing around on him, and get him sent to jail." Of course, there's the exception to the norm: "I actually had that theme written when I lived in Cleveland; I remember thinking about a situation like that, and thinking that would be a good song one day."
Aside from currently demoing tracks for their forthcoming record, a busy year is ahead for Clockcleaner on the live circuit. Of the new album, Sharkey says, "We actually just found out that [Shellac bassist, Mission of Burma tape-op] Bob Weston is going to be recording it. I saw him at the Chavez reunion about two weeks ago and he says to me 'Sharkmania, what's up man? When am I recording your next record?' So, I was kind of floored by that. The second he said that, I was like, 'done.' He wants to do it at the end of April." He adds, with promise, "The label it's going to be on is still up in the air, I don't want to say anything confirmed yet, but it's a little bit better than what we've expected."
A two- to three-week March tour with Times New Viking (with whom Clockcleaner will share a split 7” in tribute to that finest son of Littleton, N.H., offering their sure-to-be-lambasted cover of GG's "Die When you Die") will take the group to SXSW and back. "We actually just got the official invite, the big shitter – we get our wristbands and everything. It'll be real great – bunch of assholes handing me their cards saying they're gonna do something for my band," he sneers. West coast tour dates will follow in June or July.
"Pretty much we want to take it as far as we can without looking stupid, and work as hard as we can without putting out the same record twice, playing the same cities tour after tour. We'd like to go to Europe. Basically, I'd like to fucking kill as many people as I can musically. If we start to feel that it's pathetic, we're gonna call it quits," he says.
And after all that, will the scene of Philadelphia break bread with Clockcleaner? With that Khyber Pass incident in recent memory, not bloody likely according to Sharkey.
"That's just one of the reasons why people hate us in Philadelphia," he says. "They hate me most of all, but they hate us as a whole equally. I guess you could say it's my own fault, 'cause people here are really back-slapping, and I'm not. It's just a town full of asskissers, and I've prided myself on being forthright, and that doesn't really fly in this town. Which is fine with me – not everyone can like us. Most people don't enjoy music. I mean, they'd rather go to brunch, especially people who are dealing with music in this city. This town has nothing to offer music; it's all instant gratification. People were waiting for a band to hate - we'll fill those shoes gladly. Everyone in this town can suck my ass."
By Adam MacGregor