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20 Questions With Bryce Clifford

The singer-songwriter on meeting Chappelle, hosting Japanese band & loving Van.

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The next Canada Day contributor has some cross-border appeal: Singer-songwriter Bryce Clifford recently returned to The Great White North after a decade-long stint in Austin, Tex. A few weeks back, he and his band Brother Superior showcased their new video for Second Hand Smoke HERE. Now he gets fired up for my borderline-stupid questions. Enjoy. And smoke ’em if you got ’em.

 


 

Introduce yourself: Name, age (feel free to lie), home base and other details you’d like to share — height / weight / identifying marks / astrology sign / your choice.
I’m Bryce Clifford, songwriter & producer. My music is indie-rock, with Americana influences and echoes of post-punk. I spent the last decade making music in Austin Tex., and have recently moved back to Canada. Since Covid I’ve been sheltered-in-place in Hamilton, ON.

What is your musical origin story?
I played my first shows around age 14 with my older brother Brad on the drums. We started a band called Pedestrian Status. We were a power trio, and I was making up songs to sound like our heroes: Hüsker Dü, Replacements, Pixies. We played the Ontario high school lunch circuit, and then underage shows at veteran halls, and on to small clubs. One time we showed up to a bar in London and the booker didn’t know in advance that I was underage. The other guys could play inside but I had to run my mic cable and guitar cable out onto the sidewalk and sing from there.

What’s your latest project? Tell us everything we need to know.
I have a 12-song record coming out in a few months called Rebounder. The first single, Second Hand Smoke is out, along with its music video. I wrote all the songs in two weeks following a breakup. Then I spent two years piecing it together between various studios in Austin and Ontario. It’s been an enormous effort and I’m having a hard time making all the credits fit on the jacket sleeve. Stylistically it weaves through a lot of sounds — upbeat indie-rock, Wilco-esque Americana, some piano ballads, and it revs up for some aggressive rockers too. I think the 12 songs all stand alone in their own right, and when all put together it makes for a pretty eclectic record that still makes sense. It’s long been an aspiration of mine to have a band in the south and the north, so I’ve put a band together in Hamilton. We were out and played a few shows before Covid hit. We’ll be recording, and filming some things, and hopefully back to booking shows … sooner than later?

What truly sets you apart from other artists?
People tell me I have a sound and I think that’s true. A unique cocktail of my influences. I guess that gumbo would include the aforementioned bands, plus E Street Band, Elvis Costello, Nina Simone, The Jam, Uncle Tupelo, Lucinda Williams and a lots of blues & country influence I picked up from seeing live-music nightly in Texas. I don’t sound blues or country but those shadings definitely seeped in and come out in my stuff in odd ways. I’m looking forward to seeing how the reviewers peg the new stuff.

What will I learn or how will my life improve by listening to your music?
I think good art improves life. I think the variant on art being “good”, “bad” or less-so is honesty. Whatever format – movies, photography, literature, instrumental music — if it’s coming from a real place and is a genuine urge, tapped into something universal, then it’ll have weight, and the world needs good art. It’s a mysterious thing how these things improve life. Maybe it’s about finding out we’re not crazy to be anxious, hurt, exhausted; someone else is feeling it too.

What album / song / artist / show changed your life?
In relation to this new record, a few years back some friends were putting on a night of George Strait music at an Austin pizza & beer hall. I’d just had my heart broke and was feeling despondent. I decided to go. Somewhere in that set the band sang Amarillo By Morning and I’ll never forget it. They were impeccable, and this song has the saddest fiddle part ever — that way that country can be utterly depressing & jovial at the same time. Everything about the song got to me, and it has a line that goes “everything that I’ve got, is just what I got on.” I was some version of the character. Somewhere in the middle of it I decided I was going to get in my car the next day and move to Canada. I started telling people around me what I’d decided. And I did it. I allude to this story on one of the new songs, called Can’t Go Home.

Tell us about the first song you wrote and / or the first gig you played and what you got paid.
The first song I wrote that seemed to stick out was called Inside Out. I’ve always been into production simultaneously with songwriting. They go hand in hand in this age of multi-tracking. And I recorded this one on a 4-track cassette recorder, creating some weird drum effects by flipping the tape over and playing parts backwards. Some friends in school put it on their mixes, alongside real bands that they were listening to, so that was really encouraging.

What is the best / worst / strangest / most memorable performance you gave?
During the SXSW (South by Southwest) festivals I would throw house parties almost every night, or as many as I could get away with. I was renting at a great location with other artists, a three-story house on a steep hill, across from Barton Springs pool. I’d try to squeeze in as many bands as I could, including mine, before the cops showed up. In 2015 I met the organizer of the Japan bands. I somehow convinced her to send some Japanese acts to my party. The party bulged at the word that they were coming, and the deck and kitchen and living room were filled. The first night she sent over Starmarie, four girls in pink tutus who sang to backing tracks and danced and jumped in unison to aggressive thrash-pop. It was surreal, and totally awesome. The next night she sent over Samurai Dynamite, six guys wearing swords on their backs and playing Pogues-esque thunderous Japanese folk-rock. Incredible. These bands couldn’t speak English either so it was great to see everyone intermingle. The cops showed up. I think a neighbor noticed the swords. In retrospect, I wouldn’t have wanted to live beside me either.

What do you want to be doing in 10 years?
Make a living solely in music.

What living or dead artists would you collaborate with if you could?
Roy Orbison.

What is the best / worst / strangest / most memorable performance you’ve seen another artist give?
I once wandered into an afterparty with Dave Chappelle leading Stevie Wonder’s band. Chappelle had just put on a big show in Austin (which is a Netflix special now). I was shooting my ironic music video I Wanna Buy A Condo Downtown and before heading home we decided to wrap the night by stopping into one of the bars. The bouncer said, ‘You can go upstairs but not into that room.’ So obviously we snuck into that room, and it was Chappelle backed by Stevie Wonder’s band and only a hundred or so people. Small room. Dave sings, and calls out songs for the band, he smokes and quips, and tells the crowd not to film it on their phones — to just enjoy it. It felt like a party, not a show. An hour or so into this and Dave passes his mic up over a rafter and Stevie Wonder’s voice comes through the PA. We can’t see him but he brings the room to a hush with a long speech. Then the band gets back at it, everyone loses track of time and the bar serves past 2 a.m. When that finally shuts down I realize I know the sound guy and he gets me into the after-afterparty upstairs, where there’s a bowling alley and an open bar. I meet all of them, including Stevie, and help to close down the place. That was strange and memorable, and very random.

What artist or style of music do you love that would surprise people?
I recall getting ridiculed in a tour van because I put on some uncool Van Morrison — some late-’90s top 40 Van, which is pretty overproduced. Haha. I didn’t realize how ‘smooth-jazz’ and cheesy some of that stuff sounded until my co-passengers were disgruntled. I’m just a big Van Morrison fan, so I accept all of it.

What are your favourite songs / albums / artists right now?
Mostly podcasts because it’s nice to get away from music when so much of my day is spent with it. Gord Downie’s last record Introduce Yourself really connected with me. I’ve listened to that hundreds of times. I’ve also been making some Conor Oberst deep dives. I mentioned my influence of Hüsker Dü, and Bob Mould is kicking out some great new stuff. I’m enjoying Dan Mangan.

How about some other favourites? Authors / movies / painters / philanthropists / you name it.
The filmmaker John Cassavettes had an impact on me a few years back. His movie Minnie & Moskowitz (1971) came on some channel, and it was just so strange that I couldn’t stop watching. There was so much that was technically ‘wrong’ with the movie — bad cuts, weird pauses, bad lighting — but it nonetheless felt great and was fun to watch. Then i went down a Cassavettes rabbit hole. I discovered he didn’t over-think those technical things and embraced ‘low-fi’ because he had low budgets and just had to make his movies. It was so refreshing and made me want to go back to making my music quick, dirty and low-fi, like how I started. I realized I’d been obsessed with audio quality and it was robbing me from getting a lot of projects finished.

Who would you be (or have you been) starstruck to meet?
I find musicians pretty relatable. But I sat beside Matthew McConaughey in a bar on a slow night. I suppose I was starstruck because I didn’t say much past ‘Hey’ and ‘Hello.’ Once he was drunk he was pushing a guy around in a wheelchair as fast as he could out into 6th Street.

What’s your favourite joke?
Hm, I don’t seem to retain jokes. I think I’m pretty funny, but I’m not good at remembering punchlines.

What do you drive and why? What do you want to drive and why?
I drive a soccer-mom SUV. At least it’s black. It has a hitch so I can pull a trailer with equipment, and there’s decent space for four people to travel … if touring ever resumes.

What superpower do you want and how would you use it?
Just flying, man. Do you have that dream where you learn to fly? And for some reason you didn’t already figure out that you have this ability? I’d do a lot of hovering around.

If I had a potluck, what would you bring?
Ice.

Tell us about your current and/or former pets.
A dog named Barky, cat named Korky, and a parrot named Cheeco. These were in my family when growing up. They’re since gone, all buried beside each other. That was pretty mean in retrospect.

What current trend or popular thing do you not understand at all?
Many, I’m sure. Music has become so fragmented, and now I’m just embracing that fact. It means audiences are fragmented too and so we just gotta find each other. I’m obviously after something, so I’m gonna keep hunting for my version of the ‘perfect song’ within my slice of the landscape.

If you could have any other job besides music, what would it be and why?
I’d be someone who invested in Zoom in February.

Watch Second Hand Smoke above, hear more of Bryce Clifford & Brother Superior below, and keep up with the band via their website, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.