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photos:Joe Putrock

Waking Time
By David King

The Clay People return from the dead, and hope to bring the heavy-music scene back with them


On Oct. 27, at Saratoga Winners nightclub, the Clay People made their official return. In the middle of their set, before an audience of almost 200 people, they found themselves in an uncomfortable position: Drummer Dan Dinsmore’s kick drum malfunctioned.

“Well, we’ve got a problem up here with the kick drum,” lead singer Dan Neet informed the audience. “Gotta fill some time,” he continued in an uncharacteristically self-conscious manner. “I used to know what to say up here.” Dinsmore motioned to Neet, prompting him to fill time in a more creative way.

“Confidence is running low/ There is something missing/ Who am I?” Neet crooned into the mic a cappella. “Well, come on,” Neet prodded the audience. “I can’t do this alone.” Voices at Neet’s feet began to lift up accompanying him. Fans raised their hands into the air, clapping along to provide the beat, and then band members Eric Schwanke, Brian McGarvey and John Delehanty joined in with the voices of the crowd.

“I don’t know what it is,” muses Dinsmore later. “Time after time I am surprised by this band. There’s some kind of spirit,” he says, clearly in awe of the fans’ reaction at the show and at the realization that perhaps the band would not have to start again from scratch as he’d imagined. “I didn’t expect things to be the same,” he adds. “Someone came up to me and said, ‘Don’t feel bad about the turnout.’ I thought the turnout was great! I was expecting less for a Thursday night.”

In the summer of 1999, the Clay People were at the height of their local popularity. When they played for the second year in a row at Edge Fest (this time on a bill with Rob Zombie), a screaming hoard of hundreds greeted the band with their hands in the air, devil horns raised. Finally, after years of packing area clubs, releasing records on underground labels and playing classic New Year’s shows at QE2, the Clay People had acquired the fan base they had spent years fighting for.

The Edge Fest fans, however, had not yet gotten what they had come for. Guitars squealed in a psychedelic torrent, spiraling around the pulsing bass and the tribal pounding of drums. Yet there was something missing. There was a hole where lead singer Dan Neet, the only original member of the Clay People, was supposed to be. Then, as the crowd reached the height of its anticipation, Neet took the stage. Raver goggles resting on his brow, he briskly walked to each side of the stage, returning the fans’ devil-horns salute. Even more hands sprouted up to greet him as if he were a messiah. The crowd roared back louder, in anticipation of the storm to come. Then, contorted in an operatic pose, his right hand holding the microphone to his mouth, his left bent forward, beckoning to the crowd, Neet let his guttural howl explode through the PA: “PARI-YAAAAAAH!”

The band locked into unison, and minutes later the Altamont field echoed with the crowd’s chanting of Neet’s lyrics: “I don’t want to die here/I don’t want to die here/I don’t want to/No, no!”

Those familiar with the Clay People in their earlier years would probably not have recognized the band on stage that day. The Clay People’s first album, Toy Box, was released in 1991, and apart from Neet’s very recognizable voice, features barely anything recognizable as the Clay People today. Featuring Cure-style guitar squeals and clangs, Depeche Mode- and Duran Duran-styled synthesizer riffs and robotic drumming, the album is easy to forget.

However, the band were quickly signed to underground industrial label Reconstriction, and their tone soon became much darker. Guitars and drum machines were wrapped in distortion and Neet’s voice dropped any touch of new-wave influence to assume a deeper, more sinister tone. Their first album for Reconstriction, 1993’s Firetribe, featured songs from Toy Box with grunge guitar layered over dance beats. For their third album, The Iron Icon, released by Reconstriction, the band received production help from national acts Sister Machine Gun and Fear Factory. The band’s final album on the label, Stone Ten Stitches, found the group still involved in distorted electronics, but crafting more whole, perhaps poppier songs.

That album gave birth to the band’s anthems: “Pariah,” “Mechanized Mind” and the radio-friendly single “Strange Day.” It was during this time that Dinsmore and then-member guitarist Mike Guzzardi helped establish the band as an intense, unmissable live act. Then, in 1997, the Clay People were signed to SlipDisc Records (an industrial-metal offshoot of Mercury) by David Chackler, the man who brought Queen to the United States.

The Clay People went into the studio and produced an album full of influences from bands like Tool and Queensryche, though they preserved their electronic flourishes and Neet’s unmistakable howl. The self-titled effort featured skittering death-metalesque dirges, slow metal-industrial grooves, ballads and straight-ahead rock radio tunes.

While other, larger area bands were slowly dying off, it seemed the Clay People had made it. The sound they had helped pioneer was now on Top 40 charts. With their live shows packed to the brim, it seemed to a lot of people, including Dinsmore and Idols Never Die lead singer Rocco DiDonna, that they were going to finally “make it.” “I was in high school at the time,” says DiDonna. “I remember thinking, man, these guys are gonna break! They are gonna be huge.”

It was during this time that the band’s shows became legendary. But as the music industry began its implosion and Mercury was merged into Universal, the Clay People found themselves without promotion, and basically without a record label. The band continued on, producing an EP named The Headhunter Demos. Band squabbles led to the departure of McGarvey, and finally the Clay People collapsed.

Although the 2005 reunion show began with familiar cries of “I don’t want to die here,” in some sense it seems the band are becoming a little more comfortable with their home city.

That Thursday night, it was clear that a good portion of the crowd were fans of the opening acts, local hardcore heroes Brick by Brick and Last Call. Seeing fans out for these bands is heartening for the Clay People. This time around, the Clay People have decided to create a reason for bands to be proud to be from Albany. Dinsmore’s own promotion company, OverIt, has become a functioning record label with the help of David Chackler, the man who signed the Clay People to Mercury. The label features a roster of local bands including Last Call and Idols Never Die, a band Dinsmore founded with ex-Clay People guitarist Guzzardi in the wake of the Clay People’s breakup.

Neet’s side project, Iron Lung Corporation, is signed to Cracknation, a label with national distribution founded by Jason Novak, lead singer of Chicago industrial act Acumen Nation. Neet insists that OverIt is by no means hoping to re-create what Cracknation has achieved. In fact, Neet is thinking much bigger. “Jason Novak is involved in all the acts on that label. They are all his projects,” Neet explains. He envisions OverIt as growing into more of a powerhouse along the lines of Victory or Roadrunner.

Dinsmore points to OverIt’s success in garnering international distribution and radio airplay for Idols Never Die as the foundation of what it hopes to achieve with its other acts. The return of the Clay People promises to spark local interest in OverIt’s roster as well as the heavy-music scene in general. Idols Never Die have not been able to capture the level of local interest that the Clay People did. There are few bands currently in the area’s heavy-music scene who have that kind of crossover potential and the ability to fill clubs. Dinsmore says that while the Clay People are now hoping to both reinvigorate the local scene and draw more attention to OverIt and bands on that label, “It always comes to that one song that the kids can sing along to. It always comes back down to the music.”

Exactly what has been missing in Albany’s heavy-music scene since the departure of the giants—the Clay People, Section 8, Straight Jacket and Stigmata—was on display at the Clay People’s return show Oct. 27. Although Brick by Brick got the crowd moving, all of the opening acts struggled to connect with the crowd.

The distinction between die-hard hardcore kids who had come for Brick by Brick and Last Call and the people who came for the Clay People was clear. Backward baseball caps, tank tops and sports jerseys stood out in contrast to the stark black dress of most of the Clay People fans.

While respectable circle pits were formed for both Brick by Brick and Last Call, many members of the crowd remained in the recesses of the club. Last Call singer Ralph Vrenna spent more time demanding the crowd move up or step forward than barking his lyrics. He asked the crowd more than once, “Are we boring you?”

Pile of Heads, another band on the OverIt roster, featured heavy use of electronics and may at one time have been a logical accompaniment to the Clay People, but they were unable to raise the interest or even the ire of the crowd despite the abuse the lead singer hurled at them. “Oh I get it,” he whined between his band’s Linkin Park imitations. “You can’t play football to our music!”

Still, the Clay People have had some success at bringing people out to shows they otherwise might have stayed away from. A reason they work in this role (besides Neet’s ability to capture a crowd) may be that each band member has distinct tastes. Though the Clay People have found themselves lumped into the industrial genre, not every member of the band has even heard the bands they are most compared to. “I don’t think I’ve ever listened to Ministry,” says Dinsmore. “The Clay People have songs that range to beyond hardcore to songs that aren’t even close to it,” he adds.

Although the members cite varied influences, they can all agree on local acts they think deserve more attention. “Super 400 are awesome! They should be out on tour with the Black Crowes or something,” says Neet. “If there’s one band you could say the Clay People love, it’s Super 400.” “Oh, and the Kamikaze Hearts,” adds McGarvey. “I saw that dude in Proctor’s lying on the floor doing a solo with an electric mandolin! It was this screaming solo!” he exclaims.

What likely will draw most fans back is what drew them in the first time around. DiDonna says that the Clay People’s live show is what drew him to the band. “I never really was into the album,” says DiDonna, “but I saw them live and that was it.”

This night, it’s 11 PM by the time the Clay People take the stage. Although the same torrent of psychedelic dissonance that opened up the band’s 1999 Edge Fest performance pours over the crowd at their reunion show, Neet does not take the stage as a conquering hero. Instead, he approaches the crowd as a reluctant stranger.

Quickly, however, his awkwardness slips away and he soon has the crowd in the palm of his hand. When he demands of the crowd, “We want to thank Brick by Brick, Pile of Heads and Last Call,” they respond with moderate applause. “I said we want to thank our friends in Brick by Brick, Pile of Heads and Last Call!” he repeats. As if suddenly remembering who they’re dealing with, the fans respond twice as loud, twice as angry.

The band tear through Clay People classics while a small circle pit takes off. A line of chubby girls who’d been sitting on the stage giggling at the boys dancing in the circle pit, oblivious to all the previous acts, is quickly replaced by throngs of teens staring upward at Neet, returning his every word. “We are all animals!” they shout with grins of recognition.

At the end of their set, with screams of “Wake up/Time to die!” still hanging in the air, the band members hop off the stage and the house music takes over. The crowd, which has bunched up in the front of the club, does not budge. They fight off the house music with cries of “Clay People, Clay People!” and “One more song!” The floor quakes with stomping and the air stings with clapping and shrill whistles. Then the swell breaks and a hush falls over the crowd as the Clay People reappear.

“One more?” asks Neet, sheepishly. “OK, but that’s one less song we play at the next show,” he jokes as both guitarists launch the buzz-saw intro to “Raygun Girls.” As they collapse the song with exaggerated, wailing blows that cascade into a throbbing explosion of bombastic pomp, fans look back and forth at each other with a glare of recognition. On the way out the door, fans’ chatter echoes the sentiments of the final song’s chorus: “The time has come.”

The one disappointment the show brought for fans was that there was no new album to purchase, no new Clay People songs to take home and memorize. According to Dinsmore, the reason their new album, titled Waking the Dead, isn’t out yet, is because they want to make sure “every song on the album is a single.” Dinsmore says the band has a history of recording quickly on low budgets and then rushing out to tour. This time around Dinsmore wants to ensure they can stand behind their album for some time to come.

Waking the Dead swirls with influence from the Clay People’s past and present. The track “Secret” opens with the dark rhythm of acoustic guitars accompanied by Neet’s sullen, almost confessional croon. After the guitars set a deliberate, seductive pace they are met with the accompanying rhythm of what could be marimbas or distorted handclapping and quickly two worlds of the band meet up to form a danceable dirge that could easily be mistaken for Stone Ten Stitches-era Clay People or more recent Radiohead.

The acoustic guitars eventually give way to an Armageddon of swarming guitars and blistered screams. “Failure” stands above all the new Clay tracks, however, because of Neet’s blatant introspection: “Is this what I really wanted, is this what I really care about/There are so many more things that we must do/Am I a failure?” and also because of its epic goth-pop climax that has Neet wrapped in a shroud of raging guitar, promising, “This time I will not fail you.”

 


ROUGH MIX

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