by Ben Gardner
CLIFFORD is a Boston-based progressive/technical deathcore metal band made up of 4 Berklee students: Luke Green (Drums), Lucas Koughan (Bass), Thomas Reuter (Guitar), and Drake Plotkin (Vocals). Their distinct style combines elements of different extreme metal genres such as deathcore and tech-death, perfectly exemplified on last year’s Soulless, their debut album. They’ve been playing numerous gigs around Boston and the general New England area, and are looking forward to their appearance in Inkcarceration, a festival this July. WRBB’s Ben Gardner met up with Thomas and Drake to discuss their future plans and learn about their artistic process.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
Ben Gardner: How are you guys feeling about your upcoming festival Inkcarceration? What does it mean for you guys as a band?
Thomas Reuter: Yeah, it's definitely something we're very stoked about. We got it through this great thing that Berklee has: the Berklee Popular Music Institute, where they basically just go through a huge application process where they have, I think it's seven festivals that they have ins with, and each one is a different style. You just apply and then they pick which bands they feel like are the best fit for each one. And we were lucky enough to get onto the metal festival, which is Inkcarceration. There was some competition with our neighborhood rivals Nailed Shut. And by neighborhood rivals, I mean some of our best friends. And, you know, they deserve it just as much as we do.
Are there any artists you are excited to see or also share the stage with?
Thomas: On the day that we're playing, the two huge metal bands are Megadeth and Slipknot. I know for the metal core side on our day specifically is Gideon and Dayseeker. That'll be cool.
Drake Plotkin: We Came as Romans is a cool one. There's Asking Alexandria on our day too. That's going to be fun.
The first CLIFFORD show I went to actually was a little over a year ago, in a Berklee Ensemble room with Nailed Shut. It was one of your first shows.
Thomas: It was our first, like, big show. Not big, but it was the first show that we organized. Yeah, because everything before that was a Berklee thing.
You've grown a lot in just one year — now you guys are playing more shows at bigger venues. Is there anything specific you would attribute your success to?
Thomas: Just people. People we play with. And then those bands like us. And then they want to book shows with us. I know when we started, it was a lot of us reaching out to bands and begging them, “Please put us on your bills,” and stuff like that. And now, there's still some of that, but it's definitely about an even split of us asking to be on shows and people asking us to be on shows, which is very cool.
What are your plans for the future?
Thomas: It's kind of up in the air. We have a lot of music that we're working on in the background and are eventually going to release. Right now, Inkcarceration is our next big step. And I think a lot of our future depends on how that goes. Maybe there will be someone from a record label or some band that is a lot bigger than us, that likes us and tours with us or signs us. There’s also a new EP on the way.
One of my favorite parts about Soulless is the composition. All your songs definitely have a definitive and interesting shape/structure. How do you guys even come up with the structures for your songs? Is there a defined process you have figured out?
Drake: Yeah, we have. We are still trying to specifically dial in our process, but around half of the album, half of the Soulless album was written at least instrumentally before I joined. So you'll hear around half of the songs have a very similar feel to them because that was Thomas and Luke or Thomas and Lucas at a computer working it out. And the common denominator there is Thomas. So you know, you have songs like “Dark Descent” or “Grandeur,” which have very similar forms… I wouldn't call myself a songwriter, but when I have ideas, I can structure songs in my head, but I am not good enough on any one instrument to make it happen. So having me and a person like Thomas, who over time we found out that we work really well when it comes to me having ideas and Thomas being able to put them onto a guitar works for us. It also helps that I play guitar so I can at least communicate effectively rather than just saying noises and stuff in order to make it happen. Some of the other songs were structured and the seed of the idea was me, and then me and Thomas would sit in a room and just go through it. Now that me and Thomas are writing stuff together consistently rather than me not being in the band for half of Soulless, it might not be just ‘riff, riff, riff, riff, chorus, breakdown,’ for every song. And especially with this new release we're working on. It's an EP. It's less about the form of the song and more about how it flows in terms of the message we're trying to get across because it's a concept EP. Thomas takes more influence from composed, super heavy songs. And I take influence from really basic metalcore, which has really catchy songs and also pop music. So it's a blend of styles that kind of merge together to get the best of both worlds. And you'll see that a lot when we end up releasing the EP. It’ll hopefully come out in the fall of this year.
Thomas: That's accurate. Drake will be like, “I have an idea for a riff,” and then I'm like, “All right, let me do that real quick.” Me and Drake are probably the core songwriting duo of the band. We've definitely found that we work really, really well together over time, and when the new EP comes out, it is going to be insane.
Would you say your songs are generally written around the guitar?
Thomas: We usually write an instrumental demo first and it'll be real recorded guitar and then programmed bass and drums. So by that nature, it's going to be guitar-centric. And it's also helpful working with Drake because Drake is also a drummer. And the bass is generally just doing what the guitar is doing because that's just metal.
Would you say the guitar-centrism is a reflection of the genre? Or is that a CLIFFORD thing?
Drake: I feel like most metal either starts with guitar or vocals. We start every song with an instrumental demo and vocals come last, but I feel like there are definitely bands where vocals come first. maybe you'll have the rare case of drums first, but that's definitely not a common thing. I will say that this EP that we're writing is pretty guitar based in the fact that it needs to kind of flow with each other. So it's more about writing the guitar riffs that convey whatever we're trying to convey. For any songs post-EP it could be really anything because I've had ideas for certain drum beats just in my head, and I just haven't acted on that before. As our band grows and you see what we have in store, you might see a bit more drum-centric parts or parts where I have a certain vocal rhythm. Maybe some songs will be guitar-based, and others will be vocal-based. So I know I’m being pretty vague right now, but in due time, I think you'll see how CLIFFORD might become a bit more all-around centric rather than specifically guitar.
So back to what you said about having to write your vocals over pre-made instrumentals for half of the Soulless songs. How was that for you as a vocalist?
Drake: I had just joined, so I tried not to overstep when it came to completely changing songs, but there were a couple of songs where I was sent the demo and then because of what I had in mind for vocals, after hearing that demo, I changed a couple of things up. There are a couple of songs that were sent to me, I didn’t change anything and it was done. But I'm not going to write vocals over a song that I’m not happy with. For this upcoming EP, we’ve had songs that we have considered done or at least pretty much done as a demo but something about them doesn't feel right. And then we’ll go back and rework it. And then once they’re reworked, then I’m confident that I can write vocals over it. So all the stuff that CLIFFORD sent me when I first joined was either good enough for me to write vocals or required minimal change in order for me to write vocals. And because it was our first album, we were just trying to get music out. There was no concept for the vocals. It was just like whatever I would come up with at the time. So it was pretty easy, I didn’t have to constrain myself in terms of topics. I guess the most difficult thing was exploring my influences and seeing what I could do, pushing my limits as a vocalist. I take a lot of influences from pop music and rap music. So I pay attention to the way I say my words and the flows that I use.
For Thomas, a lot of the rhythms you play are really complex. How do you guys come up with that stuff? And how are you able to execute it consistently at a high level?
Thomas: It's so dumb. What I'll do sometimes is, let's say it's an eight-bar thing. I'll just take eight bars and I'll put the kick drum on every single 16th note, and then I'll go through and I'll just delete random ones. And then I'll workshop it from there or something. That's how “Dark Descent” was written. I mean getting it under your fingers and into your brain and being able to play it, that’s a difficult thing but it comes with practice basically. It’s also just because this is a style of metal that I’ve played for a while before CLIFFORD. I also listen to bands like Periphery and Meshuggah which have a similar style.
Is there anything you want to tell the world about your new EP?
Thomas: It’s all not necessarily guitar-based songs or guitar-centric songs.
Drake: It’ll be different, but it'll be cool.
Thomas: I’m just excited about it because it’s going to be played on one guitar as opposed to Soulless, which is on three, so I won’t have to do as many guitar swaps live.
All right. I have one more question for you guys. Do you guys have any other local Boston artists you think people should check out?
Thomas: Date Nite, Nailed Shut MA, Yet To Bloom. Survive the Sun. Those are the big ones.
CLIFFORD is planning more gigs around Boston before their festival performance in July. Check out their Instagram: @CLIFFORD_band, or their website. Buy tickets to Inkcarceration here. And don’t forget to stream Soulless on all streaming platforms! Spotify Apple Music