The Birth of Clay Allison

by Nigel Cross
issued on Bucketfull of Brains #8 Spring 1984

cover of Bucketfull of Brains magazine

Fortunes are forever changing on the merry-go-round of pop music: a year ago Kendra Smith was still very much a part of the Dream Syndicate whilst her boyfriend David Roback was one of the main guiding lights of the Rain Parade. Twelve months later the two of them are out on their own, finding new paths and directions with their recently formed outfit, Clay Allison.
Whilst spending a couple of weeks in Los Angeles last Autumn I passed some pleasurable time in the company of David and Kendra. It was an exciting time for them: the debut album by the Rain Parade was about to be released and alongside it the Rainy Day LP which saw the two of them working and collaborating with other young L.A. musicians. Rainy Day (Enigma 1024) turned out to be one of 1983's most intriguing releases, not least because it brought together various members of the Dream Syndicate, the Bangles, the 3 O'Clock and the Rain Parade to perform a collection of mid sixties folk and pop songs. The whole project was produced and directed by David Roback so when we met up for breakfast at the Penguin Restaurant in Venice, L.A., I asked him all about the background to the album: "It started just by wanting to record some songs we liked. I wanted to record some songs I'd played at home. It was about nine months ago. At that point I decided that I could have a baby or make the Rainy Day album. I figured making the album would be better. It was very spontaneous. It never started out as a David and Kendra project, it started as me trying to work with all these different people whom I'd always wanted to do things with. I just called them up and asked them if they wanted to do it. We'd all talked before about doing something like this. I asked Mike (Quercio) and Sue (Hoffs) and Kendra to pick a couple of songs they wanted to do and I gave some suggestions of which songs they should do".
It's an eminently listenable album; certainly one that bears up to repeated plays. It's not an earth shattering experience but is pleasant and some of the cuts are a delight. Dealing with the less successful tracks first, On The Way Home, a Neil Young song doesn't fare too well with Roback's vocals unable to lift the song out of a dirge-like state whilst the title track Rainy Day, Fade Away is something of a disaster, getting bogged down in a morass of jamming guitars and endless improvisation that not even the usually riveting fretwork of Karl Precoda can rescue. I tackled David over its inclusion, as somehow it doesn't quite gel with the other songs: "It wasn't my idea, I just went along with it. I think it was either Karl's or Ethan's (James who engineered the record). I should have mixed the conga track louder because it's really captivating!!! It was really spontaneous… we just did it. I think Karl's guitar playing is the best thing on it!"
Holocaust (from Big Star's 3rd album) is a stellar cut with Kendra giving the most moving vocal performance of her career thus far. Every line aches with an anguish that surpasses even Chilton's and the piano adds an air of doom to proceedings. Kendra's other singing contribution, on the Buffalo Springfield's Flying On The Ground Is Wrong is nearly as fine, her voice milking the ballad for every last ounce of tenderness and sadness. Sue Hoff's contributions to the album show that she may have an enduring talent, something that her performances with the Bangles have failed to illustrate: her singing on the Dylan song I'll Keep It With Mine is inspiring and it's to her credit that this version holds its own against other superlative readings of this tune by the Fairport Convention and by Dylan himself. Hoffs ain't no Nico but again she infuses I'll Be Your Mirror with enough charm to carry it off. On the inclusion of these two covers Roback comments: "They were songs that Sue and I used to play when we were in a band together a few years ago called the Unconscious, very short lived. There's an old film of us playing in that band, it's pretty interesting but we moved on because we were holding each other back. We didn't want to sing together; we didn't like the sound of the male and female voice together. I'm very proud of I'll Keep It With Mine on the record: Sue's vocals and performance are classic and inspired".
Mike Quercio's renditions also come out well, on the whole, though his frivolous treatment of Sloop John B is not to my taste. John Riley however is an ace with plenty of guts and emotion, characteristics one could hardly apply to his work with the 3 O'Clock: this is almost on par with the Byrd's version on 5D. Enjoying this as much as I do, I asked David to explain its place on the record: "That was Mike's idea. We were going to do Catch The Wind. I learned it on guitar but Mike turned up at the studio and said he wanted to do John Riley instead". All in Rainy Day, despite its piscean depths of loneliness and despair, is a record to be treasured an I'm pleased to say that Rough Trade are releasing it here in the U.K. in the very near future.
One of the most important aspects of Rainy Day is that it represents the first recorded fruits of collaboration between David and Kendra, something which Clay Allison will allow them to do more fully. Back in September Clay Allison was very much a secondary project which ran side by side with the Rain Parade. Kendra also had only recently left the Dream Syndicate and my curiosity was such that I had to question her about leaving such a successful band. Kendra: "The main reason was that my role in it was limited. When the band first started, there was much more improvisation; we developed the songs together and then it became more and more one person finishing a song and bringing it in. Everybody got a little more uptight about live shows, which I think is a normal progression in what happens with most bands. We started touring and people started getting bigheaded, full of self-importance. Touring was fun but it was the hardest I've ever worked in my life. I decided that if I was going to like roll the carpet for someone else, it just wasn't fun any more. I wanted to start writing songs; I was getting bored just playing bass. When we started it was good; I could act up and jam. There was that song It's Going To Be Alright, which we used to play all the time; it was totally open for everybody. But it was getting so the openness was only for Steve and Karl to yank off for a whole show whilst Dennis and I had to be perfectly well behaved. The official statement was that I quit because I didn't like touring which is absolutely stupid. I wanted to work with David and the band were demanding a total commitment of all my time and life which just wasn't a good enough return".
In its embryonic stages last summer Clay Allison was very much a studio concept which was to quote David "Without players with individual influence and strong identities (except Kendra and myself). But we yearned to become a group. Terry Graham was brilliant and facile on drums, but his involvement with the Gun Club and his personal tastes always stood between him and total involvement". Terry, Kendra and David actually went into the studio and recorded though Roback now maintains that "We are not going to release our early recordings because we feel we have already outgrown them and they reflect what now seems to be an old state of mind". By the way the name Clay Allison "Comes from that of a gunfighter's from the Old West. We took it out of context and thought it had a lot of other associations that were interesting". Originally the music, according to Kendra had "A folk base but it's more warped and electric". At that point in time Kendra felt that Clay Allison was very influenced by Bert Jansch, Tim Buckley and Stones material like I'm Waiting and Flowers Inbetween The Buttons though David added that such ideas were "A complete afterthought". As we sat crunching toast and drinking coffee in the Penguin that morning, Roback was eager to explain some of the basic ideas behind the music he was writing for Clay Allison: "I tend to write a lot about weird morbid fantasies but I don't write about the morbid aspects of life. It's more the spiritual side of living in a morbid world, what becomes of it if you transcend that morbidity. I try to think about children when I write. Certain nursery rhymes are very morbid like Ring Around The Roses from the plague years. Like This Town is a child's song and on another level a very morbid song for adults. Children don't usually see the morbidity of things. It's interesting to note how childlike Kendra's artwork is for the front sleeve of Rainy Day!"
A couple of months after our conversation, Clay Allison played its debut show at the Pyramid Club on New York's Lower East Side in late December. It was an acoustic set with David, Kendra and Will Glenn on violin, warming up before the Rain Parade played. However less than two weeks later fate dealt a crippling blow: David Roback was given the sack from the Rain Parade. When I spoke to him on the phone during the first week of 1984 he was "heart-broken", saying "The band meant almost everything" to him. It must come as a great blow to Rain Parade fans too: as I write it would seem that Matt, Will and Steven will carry on but I've had no official word. Whatever Clay Allison continues and their first recordings are to be found enclosed in Issue 8 of this magazine in the shape of a debut 45: Fell From The Sun is written by Kendra and is the A-side whilst a joint Roback/Smith composition All Souls is the flip. I'm delighted that we can offer readers the chance to hear some truly original unorthodox music and hopefully the record will pave the way for a debut album which will feature the aforementioned two songs plus a further seven or eight originals and possibly an European tour. The music has changed quite dramatically with the current line-up moving away from the stripped down folk sound to what David describes as a "More dark and instrumental area, owing a lot to groups like Weather Report, the Doors etc.", which comes in part from "Long free form electric jam sessions… that were very hypnotic and had a very oriental inclination… very guitar and organ influenced". He sees the current Clay Allison material falling roughly into three categories: "1) Oriental and haunting songs, very electric, 2) Dark folky but electric and drippy ballads that usually feature Kendra's spectral voice, 3) Somewhat more baroque country ballads", adding that the group "Don't want to be like other bands in that (we) don't feel tied to any particular period and/or roots. (We) want to move further away from the pop or traditional rock sounds of bands like the Rain Parade or Dream Syndicate. (We) feel allied with something that pops up in all genres of music. (We) feel music has a lot to do with creating a mood and reaching people who need something".
Apart from David guitar and Kendra bass and most of the lead vocals, the band features guitarist Juan Gomez who was formerly in the Romans, then the Human Hands with Dennis Duck: now they're a band who deserve an article to themselves but all we've got room for here is to send you off after an interesting retrospective double LP and 45 set on Independent Project Records which will give you a good idea of this bizarre brand of subversive industrial pop music. David describes him as a "Versatile organist, soft spoken and intelligent… always stood out to us as a remarkably nice person". They've also recruited a new drummer, an old friend of Kendra, Keith Mitchell who used to play in a late seventies L.A. band, Monitor. During his time with the Rain Parade, David could never find a percussionist who suited the music he was writing a hundred per cent. So it was with great interest that I learnt that Mitchell fitted in perfectly: "I knew Keith would be perfect for us when we were playing one of our new songs, Lullaby with him and he started playing these great ambient and rhythmic droning drums. It turns out he loves tabla and played in a Pakistani band. Finally I'm playing with a drummer who loves what I love". The group will probably remain as a quartet though Sylvia Juncosa former organist with the Leaving Trains (whose debut LP Roback has produced) has been jamming with them recently. The idea of using an organ is important to Roback as it was he who suggested to the Rain Parade that they add an organist and he helped Will Glenn to develop that sound.
If it isn't already apparent I'm tremendously excited and enthusiastic about the music of Clay Allison, their potential seems limitless and both Kendra and David deserve the success, I hope, they will encounter in the coming months. I just wish they were over here now playing this remarkable brand of music - we need a waft of fresh air and unpredictability. Anyway I'll let Mr. Roback have the last word… meanwhile do enjoy the record: "Clay Allison has no desire to make it on dance band circuits. We're not interested in that at all. We're just interested in playing for an audience no matter how large or small. We feel there are a lot of people spread around who would be interested. Kids are taught that liking music like this is very uncool but I think eventually things will change and that very superficial trend will disappear like it always does every five or six years".

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