After years of trolling through the underground, he’s finally found balance—and a musical home—with the progressive indie band Tera Melos.
As a teen and early twentysomething, John Clardy hopped to and from punk and underground bands, playing house parties and venues like the legendary Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios in Denton, Texas, with little commercial success. Although Clardy was gaining invaluable experience as a professional musician, things just weren’t clicking for him.
Since joining the experimental rock group Tera Melos in 2008, however, Clardy, now twenty-nine, has never been more focused or at home. “I had gotten as good or confident on the drums as I possibly could without being surrounded by musicians like Nick [Reinhart, guitarist] and Nate [Latona, bassist],” says Clardy, who splits his time between Tera Melos’s home base of Sacramento, California, and, when the band is inactive, the Dallas–Fort Worth area. “I wanted to play with guys like that for a long time—guys who can be very technical but also very melodic.”
Clardy’s excitement and determination are palpable on Tera Melos’s latest hard-edged disc, X’ed Out (Sargent House). Throughout the record, John launches tightly wound bundles of percussive fury, enveloped by clouds of cymbal hiss, which ricochet off the foundation of tricky song structures textured by trashy electrified tones, melodic math-rock angularity, traces of African and Indian drumming styles, and knotty guitar riffs à la the worldly, new-wave-ish ’80s incarnation of King Crimson. This layered diversity is the engine driving Tera Melos’s multidimensional material, and it helps explain why the yoga-loving Clardy just might be on the path to attaining musical nirvana.
MD: Tera Melos seems to play in a lot of odd times. How much of this is intentional?
John: We like exploring and operating in that context. It comes pretty natural in this band. We all came from the punk-rock thing, so the way we operate when it comes to difficult song structures or time signatures is just to plow through them. We don’t usually say, “We’re playing three bars of five and then a bar of seven in a particular feel.” There’s none of that. Nick’s guitar parts are mapped out pretty tightly. I refer to them as guitar skeletons. He spends a lot of time getting his parts down and then sends something to Nathan and me, and I’ll pore over them for a while with headphones. Like most drummers, I always have some kind of weird pattern floating around in my head that might fit what he’s playing.
MD: Were any of the songs on X’ed Out especially challenging for you?
John: The song “Surf Nazis,” which was one of the first we started working on when I was writing my drum parts separately from the band, has a lot of subtle little things in it. Nothing is “bash you over the top of your head” odd, but extra beats are thrown in here and there, and beats get taken away in certain phrases. I’m also really proud of the song “Sunburn.” I think that’s the best single take I’ve ever done when recording in the studio. There were no punch-ins or anything. There’s this kind of drum ’n’ bass–inspired riff that I play. I play those kinds of patterns a lot in Tera Melos, and they end up being Bill Bruford or Billy Cobham types of patterns. I’m also a massive Stewart Copeland fan, and I love Fela Kuti’s music and South Indian Carnatic—mridangam—drumming. So what I’m doing, I think, is informed by that stuff. I wanted to take that and send it through Tera Melos’s filter.
MD: Are you employing polyrhythms for the material on X’ed Out?
John: Sometimes I don’t realize what I’m doing. I guess it’s a reflection of the fact that I’m a bit naïve about rudiments and the technical aspects of my own playing. I only realized in the past year how much I use paradiddles, for instance, especially between the ride, kick, and snare. I’ve digested certain styles and approaches for years and included them in my playing without realizing exactly what they are.
MD: Your drums are sometimes very aggressive in the mix. Your cymbal sound must send the recording engineer scrambling for the de-esser. Was there much talk about how your kit should be recorded for the album?
John: Pat [Hills, recording engineer] and I had a few conversations over the phone about what I wanted drum-sound-wise, and he was receptive to it. He even had a lot of cool ideas of his own. Pat has been professionally engineering for about four years now. What I tend to notice with more established engineers is that they have a set way of doing things. You know, “We’re going to do it this way. I know you really want room mics, but you’re too busy to have them so high in the mix.” Pat was a little more willing to push the envelope.
MD: Do you find that you construct certain patterns based on the tone of the drums or how they’ll sound when mixed?
John: Absolutely. In this band we’re all about sound. I’m a huge Captain Beefheart fan, and I love John French’s playing. Some of the sounds he got on Trout Mask Replica, I mean, he had a big, swooping hi-hat sound. That kind of swing affected the way I play. Mitch Mitchell’s snare drum sound on [the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s] Axis: Bold as Love is another one of my all-time favorites. Bill Bruford, going back to King Crimson’s Red, got an unconventional sound out of the kit. If you get an unconventional sound, then that can impact what you play, because you’re hearing things differently. That might make you go to a place that you might not have gone otherwise.
MD: Were you aware of Tera Melos before joining the band?
John: My brother had actually seen them at a house show in Denton in 2005. I knew they were an interesting band and played crazy technical stuff. When they were looking for a new drummer, back in the height of the MySpace days, their blog described the kind of musician they wer looking for. I fit their description, except for the part about living on the West Coast. I sent in a video of myself jamming with Carson [McWhirter, bassist/guitarist], who’s played with the band Hella, just the two of us improving. A couple of days later they said they’d seen the video and liked it. Long story short, they told me to familiarize myself with their live performance list.
MD: Was there an actual audition?
John: It wasn’t a tryout, like you play and they stand there with their arms crossed. We just played together for about ten days. Once it was official that I was in the band, I flew back home to Texas, and knew I had to woodshed and work twice as hard. We practiced and even started tightening up songs. We were also working on a covers EP at that time [Idioms, Vol. I], which we recorded before Christmas 2008. My first tour with the band was in January 2009. It was a little West Coast run. As soon as that tour was over, we stopped in Los Angeles and booked a practice space and started writing what became [the 2010 debut full-length studio album] Patagonian Rats.
MD: Sounds like you had a seamless transition into the band.
John: Well, there were definitely some growing pains.
MD: Like what?
John: Just getting to know each other better as people and musicians. Patagonian Rats took a long time to write, I think, because we were feeling each other out. It was also a matter of learning the material and putting my own spin on it. There were a couple of songs that ended up on the album that they had been playing live for a while, and they were really great about letting me interpret them in my own way. It was almost like hitting a growth spurt as an adolescent—you’re clumsy in your new body in some ways. There were times when we would be playing and I’d notice an improvement in my playing from week to week. So the record was done in these long, kind of painful chunks. Writing all the songs for X’ed Out was so much easier. Three years down the road our chemistry had improved so much that we wrote and recorded this album basically in two weeks.
MD: In your MD blog entry a little while back, you talked about practicing yoga. Did you use yoga in the studio before recording your drum tracks?
John: We recorded the bulk of my tracks in one day, and I ran through some postures before I played. I found it really helped to get the circulation going. The next thing I knew we were halfway through the day and halfway through the songs I had to record. I was on a roll, and it felt good. [Doing yoga exercises] can make you feel relaxed and focused while you’re playing, which is a really big benefit. When they say, “Rolling…” this switch happens in your head. Yoga has really helped me to get past a knee-jerk reaction of, “Oh, man, there’s pressure all of a sudden.” We don’t record with a click, so having a kind of elastic feel is important. The more relaxed you are, the more you play like yourself. That’s the big thing about our records: They’re a reflection of who we are and how we play. Hopefully that comes through in the music.