The drummer with the modern prog-metal act Circa Survive has never shown much interest in repeating ideas—his own, or anybody else’s.
Story by Ilya Stemkovsky
Photos by Alex Solca
Modern rock bands sometimes fall victim to the “bigger, faster, more” syndrome, as if they’re involved in a competition decided by the number of notes they can squeeze into a song and how loudly they can play them. For the past decade, Philadelphia’s Circa Survive has been plying a brand of melodic hard rock that, though featuring unexpected shifts and odd time signatures, always puts technique in service of the song.
Don’t be fooled, however; each member of Circa Survive is highly accomplished, including drummer Steve Clifford, who brings a big beat and the kind of flavorful parts that prick up ears all around. On the band’s latest record, Descensus, Clifford attacks songs with a measured conviction, often avoiding predictable kick/snare parts and judiciously sneaking in fills that are fun but not distracting—and that always rock.
Clifford is also involved in a number of extracurricular activities that focus on ideas even further afield, including his solo project, Door Open Door Close, whose self-titled EP is an accomplished amalgam of cut-up drums, percussive vocal samples, and electronic mayhem. MD recently spoke with Clifford about the varying demands and approaches he takes to these projects.
MD: Your drumming approach is atypical. What about your introduction to the instrument—were you playing Mom’s pots and pans?
Steve: I started when I was eleven or twelve. I found a drumset in my neighbor’s garbage, but it didn’t have cymbals, so I banged on an old doorbell. I’d have friends come over from school, and I played double bass all the time. I was into hardcore bands that I don’t really listen to anymore. But I wasn’t really influenced by other drummers at first. I took lessons for a summer, and the guy started me out doing rudiments. I don’t think he could even do them fast or anything…but I had no interest; I was twelve. It was just about my friends coming by and making stuff up. Learning drum covers isn’t something I’ve ever done much of.
MD: How did Circa Survive form?
Steve: I was in a band called Reflux and then a bunch of other metal bands. Circa Survive’s guitarists, Brendan Ekstrom and Colin Frangicetto, were in a band called This Day Forward with Vadim Taver, who knew me and also knew I wanted to stop playing metal. This Day Forward broke up, and Vadim told me I should try out for their new band. Eventually I went and jammed with them and Circa singer Anthony Green, and they told me I was in the band.
MD: What drew you to them? That it wasn’t metal and constant double bass?
Steve: It was pretty much exactly what I wanted to play. At the time my favorite bands were Sunny Day Real Estate, A Perfect Circle, Radiohead, and Further Seems Forever. And that’s what Circa Survive sounded like in the beginning.
MD: You’ve mentioned Josh Freese as a drummer you admire.
Steve: I use him as an example when someone asks me what drummers I like, because every time I hear him play and someone points out that it’s him, I think, I like that.
I’m also really into percussion and electronic music. Currently my favorite stuff is Flying Lotus, Four Tet, and Caribou. At this point there’s a kick drum and a snare drum and a hi-hat and ride and crash cymbals, and every time you play drums you have to come up with something using those. But with electronic music, the rhythm could be anything. When I’m playing, I don’t think that I’m playing this type of beat or that type of style; I’ll try to do something I haven’t done before.
MD: Descensus features a number of odd times and grooves that change within the songs. “Only the Sun” is a good example of this. How do you come up with parts?
Steve: It’s different every time. We talk a lot. We’ll jam on parts. Sometimes one of the other guys will program something on a demo and I’ll try to play something like it but make it my own. But we’re a very collaborative band, especially this time. We ended up writing a lot in the studio. The process for most of Descensus was that producer Will Yip—who is the man and the best dude to record with—would go with Anthony in one room and cut up the song that we made, and they’d write vocals to it. Then, when it was time to record, we’d discuss if a part should go longer or have a solo or something percussive added to it. And now with computers, even at our practices we’re constantly multitracking everything. So when we write in our rehearsal space, we go back and edit things and arrange a song from pieces we were jamming on.
MD: Are you open to drumming suggestions from Will or your bandmates?
Steve: Totally. If I don’t like what Will’s suggesting, then we’ll come up with something different. But Will’s a great drummer himself. He played with Lauryn Hill for a while. He’s awesome. So I value his opinion on the parts I’m playing, even fills. And I value the opinions of my bandmates.
Recording Descensus was also fast. On [2010’s] Blue Sky Noise, we spent more than a year just demoing song after song. This was the first time we were in the studio with a lot of unfinished songs. So we really wrote the record with Will. He was a part of the band when we did it.
MD: In that rehearsal space, are you coming up with parts while listening to the guitars or vocal rhythms, or just what you feel fits?
Steve: My favorite thing is when a song is created from nothing, like “Always Begin” or “Descensus.” Those two in particular started with me playing a drumbeat and Colin or Brendan playing a riff. After doing that for a while, we’d stop, then go back and forth with suggestions on how to change something. If I spend a bunch of time and come up with a real techy beat or something really cool, by the time I bring it to them and we mess with it, it’s not the same anymore. So I prefer to work on the drums with everybody there having their input.
Also, I play differently in this band than I did in any other band I’ve been in before. Colin and Brendan play with a lot of pedals, and they don’t really play chords that much. At the same time, both are playing leads that have a lot of delay and are high and washy. So [bass player] Nick Beard and I have to fill up all the space to make the band as heavy as one with a lot of power chords. He’ll have a lot of distortion on his bass and a thick, awesome tone.
MD: Anthony Green says Descensus is the most aggressive record the band has done. Was that conscious? And is that even true?
Steve: It’s definitely not a conscious thing, and I don’t really know if it’s even true. Maybe he’s singing more aggressively than he has before. “Schema” does have some of the most aggressive moments we’ve ever recorded. But a song like “Phantom” is really mellow; it’s one of my favorite songs on the record.
MD: “Phantom” is a nice change of pace. Did you record that with brushes or rods?
Steve: I actually did that in Ableton. It’s samples of rods. There’s this really cool Ableton controller called Push, which has electronic pads on it, and they’re touch-
sensitive if you press or tap on them. The way you can make rhythms and come up with chord structures is so much fun. When we went to record, I intended to rerecord the drums with brushes, but it didn’t sound right. I was obsessed with Ableton Push and was trying to get the band to use it as much as possible. I’d like to continue to do that in the future—use more pads and get into things other than drums.
MD: Do you use that stuff in the live show?
Steve: I run Ableton on the road, so I pretty much use a click the whole time, except for a couple of songs. There are tempo changes within the songs too. When we’re preparing for a tour, sometimes we’ll write a jam that connects two songs. We got this guy Lee Duck of Duck Lights to program lights along to the click to specific versions of songs we would be playing on the tour. So every night the lights would be the same. Strobes were programmed along to drum fills, and colors would change [along with section changes]. Everything was automated to the click. We also have a guy named Jay Wynne who made visuals to all the songs with these projections. Lee and Jay worked together before the tour.
We have this awesome in-ear rig with a Behringer X32 digital mixer, and we can control our in-ear mixes separately, all through an app on our iPhones. And Ableton hooks into it, so I can access any mic that’s on stage and put an effect on it. I don’t do much of that, but when we start writing again I’ll definitely mess with some loopers for the drums and maybe some delay.
MD: That sounds like a lot of stuff to keep track of while you’re trying to rock.
Steve: Yeah, we have people helping us. But it’s really less to keep track of. I just press a button, we play along to the click, and we have a crazy light show! [laughs]
Tools of the Trade
“I have two awesome SJC kits,” Clifford says. “One 3 mm brass—the kick drum is seventy-five pounds—and one steam-bent single-ply cocobolo. My favorite setup that I tour with has the 8×14 brass snare, the 16×24 cocobolo kick, the 8×12 brass tom, and the 13×16 brass floor tom.” Clifford’s Sabian cymbals include 14″ AAX Stage Hats, 19″ and 20″ HHX X-Plosion crashes, and a 21″ AAX Stage ride. He uses Vic Firth Rock sticks with Yonex tennis grip, Remo heads (Vintage Emperor snare and tom batters, Powerstroke 3 bass drum batter), and Tama hardware, including a Speed Cobra pedal.