With her third and most acclaimed album yet, Strange Mercy, it’s hard to imagine that Annie Clark – better known as St. Vincent – was ever someone else’s backup guitarist and vocalist. Beginning her music career as one of 20-something members of the psychedelic-choral wonder The Polyphonic Spree and then going on to be part of Sufjan Stevens’ touring band in 2006, Clark has absorbed experiences from all sides of the musical pond. And now as she embarks on a highly anticipated North American tour and album collaboration with Talking Heads’ David Byrne, it begs the question, is there anything this girl can’t do? She spoke to Saturday Night Live and Portlandia funny man Fred Armisen who, like many of us, is in awe of her multi-layered sound steeped in symphonic fuzz, trip-hop beats, and delicate melodies. Armisen got the nitty-gritty on the Southern songstress’ mesmerizing gear set-up, and learned why Phil Collins is awesome and what it’s like to crowd surf atop a sea of adoring fans. So kick back, have your music equipment dictionary handy, and get a glimpse into the intricate and musical genius that is St. Vincent.
FRED ARMISEN—OK, these are real questions that I really was curious about. What are the effects that you are using when you plug in your guitar?
ANNIE CLARK—I am using about five pedals. Two of them are Eventide pedals. One of them is called a PitchFactor and then one of them I think is just called the Space. The PitchFactor is a modulator and pitch shifter, like an H3000, but is a little pedal that doesn’t take up a lot of real estate on your pedal board. And then the Space is a reverb, delay-ish pedal. But they’re very adaptable. And then I use a Death By Audio Interstellar Overdriver Supreme.
FA—That’s for distortion?
AC—Yeah, it’s for overdriven kind of distortion. It’s not for the fuzz; it’s kind of like the rattier sound. Then I use – actually I think it’s a pretty cheap pedal – a Z.Vex Mastotron, and it’s like if the Fuzz Factory had girth. So really I’m not using tons of pedals.
FA—But that pitch shifter, does that change the octave of what you’re doing or does it double up on some of the notes that you’re playing? Because I thought for sure you added an octave below everything, every time you did a solo.
AC—Yes that’s the pitch shifter but it can do a lot of things. I’ve set up my pedal board basically like a space station. My whole show is programmed. For example, “Oh I need to go from this crystal sound in the bridge of Cruel to a distorted sound to play the ‘da-na-ni, da-na-ni,’ lead [riff].” I’ve programmed this little thing called a MasterMind that saves every setting that needs to happen so I don’t have to do like a tap dance on stage. My keyboard player is midi synced to my pedal board and is changing my guitar parameters on cues.
FA—That’s amazing. So you don’t have to do it every single time.
AC—I barely have to look down at the pedals except to tune.
FA—Oh my God, that’s so great. Has there ever been a mishap?
AC—Honestly, very very rarely… actually Coachella, the first weekend we played, I was back to the grounds and testing my gear after the flight. We flew in from Mexico City. I plugged it in and it wasn’t changing and I couldn’t even manually change my little MasterMind. I was like, “Holy shit, what I’m going to do?” because it’s so streamlined and I couldn’t even really play a show if it wasn’t working. I mean, I kind of could but it would be a shit show.
FA—I bet you could. I bet you would be fine.
AC—I don’t know what I would do exactly. But finally I did whatever troubleshooting I know how to do and then everything was fine. But that’s the only time I was full on panic, like, “Holy shit, if my board isn’t working what am I going to do?”
FA—And what’s the keyboard player’s name?
AC—His name is Daniel Mintseris.
FA—And who are the other members because I really like this band?
AC—Daniel, the keyboard player, is the guy who’s got the laptop and is running the show in some ways… Daniel is amazing. Toko Yasuda had been in Enon forever – she’s playing mini mo [synthesizer], so she’s playing all the funky bass parts. And then Matt Johnson who was Jeff Buckley’s drummer is the drummer and he’s doing… well you’re a drummer, what’s it called when you play ambidextrously or open?
FA—You mean like his left hand is on the hi-hat and his right hand is on the snare? He doesn’t switch it over?
AC—Yeah, he does any combination… I think that’s how he plays.
FA—He’s such a great drummer. That sound you get when you play, I’ve never heard anything like it. But then at the same time I felt a little bit like this when I heard Dream of Blue for the first time or Robert Fripp and that school of people.
FA—I was kind of wondering what’s that sound and even how you got it?
AC—Well, one, I think it’s this guitar, this 1967 Harmony Bobkat, which is for all intents and purposes, a crappy guitar. No quote-on-quote serious guitar player would necessarily be like, “Oh yeah that’s my guitar of choice.” But it’s light, it weighs nothing so I feel like I’m not going to get osteoporosis playing hour-and-a-half sets. And then also the pickups on it sound great. They’re P-90s I guess. I don’t totally know what that means but they’re great.
FA—You don’t just have the one guitar on stage do you?
AC—No, but I have three of the same guitar on stage because I don’t have a guitar tech. I’m not big enough to have a guitar tech yet.
FA—Are all in the same tune?
AC–One is a back up if my main one breaks a string. And the other one is tuned for Northern Lights.
FA—What’s it called again?
AC—It’s a Harmony Bobkat.
FA—Wow, I’ve never heard of it.
AC—Yeah it’s a Sears guitar from the late sixties. The only other guitar I play on stage is a 1980 Hagström Swede. It’s like a Les Paul but it’s lighter and Swedish. That’s the only difference that I know of. It has two humbuckers.
FA—It’s so crazy that Sears was in the instrument making business and probably did OK.
AC—Yeah if you ever find one of those old catalogues, these guitars [which] are now obviously a limited supply, will go for $250 to $800. Back in the day they were like a $49.99 guitar plus a little amp or less! Did you ever have a Sears drum kit?
FA—I didn’t. I think I vaguely remember getting a Sears amp but for some reason I think it was a Mosrite copy that was really a Univox. But yeah they had so much stuff, like the drums I didn’t get but always wanted. That would be a good move for Sears, to just come out and start doing instruments again.
AC—Yeah it would. Although I will say that with the Bobkat they tried to reissue it. They were like, “Oh it’s just like the ’67,” except that it isn’t. It sucks.
FA—At this point aren’t there companies just sort of giving you guitars saying, “Hey will you try this out?” Does that still happen?
AC—I definitely had a lot of pedal companies give me things which I appreciate but I haven’t been able to work it into my pedal board because my pedal board is programmed for this particular show. So I haven’t messed with it. I think I got a Dwarfcraft pedal recently that I have yet to whip out. Gibson has given me a few guitars. But I think the girl who I knew at Gibson is gone so that well has dried up, unfortunately. Vox gave me a guitar that sounds good. I feel like it would be more a studio thing for a specific sound but they’re making pretty good stuff.
FA—Is Vox still Vox? Is it still a British company or is it owned by somebody else? I feel like I’m seeing their amps more and more.
AC—You know what they must be. It’s the same thing with Fender where people say, “Oh the Blackface Fender is better because it was this circuitry and [designed by] this particular person.” With designers there’s modes of, “This is so and so’s period where he or she was designing. Oh, this is their era and this is why it was so great.” Maybe it’s just because people like to say things were better in the past. But everyone says that about every amp so I don’t know.
FA—Totally. I never hear anyone say what they’re making right now is better than ever. That would be the bold thing to do. For someone to say, “Fender right now is making the best thing!” With drums, snare drums especially, [people] are all like that. “Ludwig from 1969, that’s the one.”
AC—You know when you’re a kid and the toy store is really fun and then you hit 12 or 13 and it switches over and the guitar store or the record store is really cool? Well, this guitar store that I used to go to, it had amazing stuff… it was all like vintage Ludwig kits and Blackface Fender amps and amazing old guitars – rare stuff in good condition. But this guy just wouldn’t sell it. People would go in and be like, “I really want this Roland Space Echo,” and he would start bargaining with them and just price it out.
FA—How did he stay in business? Why did he have a business?
AC—I have no idea, it just became a joke. He just simply wouldn’t sell it.
FA—There’s this drum store in Portland called Revival Drum Shop and they found this kit – this guy had it in his attic and he just forgot about it or it got handed down. But he had it from World War Two when even the metal rims and everything are made of wood, because they had to ration metal. It’s the most beautiful thing you’ll ever see. It’s just like this wooden sculpture of drums.
AC—Oh man, did you buy it?
FA—No, I think that might be one of the ones that weren’t for sale. He just left it there, I think. From what I remember someone just sold it to him for cheap because he didn’t know what it was and so he just had it on display. It’s so pretty… With your band are you the type of person who is like, “I need it to sound this way” or are you the type of person who’s like, “That sounds fine. Don’t worry about it.” With your live band are you loose about the way things are going to be?
AC—I don’t have a consistent band and every record and live iteration is kind of reinventing the wheels. So say with Strange Mercy, the record was really like the template. There’s no way for me to have gone out with just a plain acoustic drummer and Nord Electro and my guitar and say, “Hey let’s try and make this happen.” I think at the beginning I’m very much like, “I’ve spent all this time making this thing, let’s try and bring that to life.” Being on tour for almost a year and playing with players who push me and are really good, occasionally I’ll be like, “You know what Matt, don’t play a cymbal on this song,” because I actually hate cymbals. I’ll make little suggestions. But now it’s at that point where the live iteration of the song is more visceral and more alive and maybe better than the record. So now I feel happily surprised when Daniel throws in bits or Toko takes risks on her bass parts. But when I started I was like, “We have this template so let’s be as sonically true to this thing as we possibly can.” It’s kind of like training wheels.
FA—I feel like that’s how it should be. That feels like a healthy way to approach it. But that’s so funny about cymbals. They really are, just no matter what you do, right at the front and on top of everything.
AC—They really are and as a singer and a sort of quiet singer, a lot of the time the cymbal range and the vocal range, right in that 1k, 2k, 8k land, they just like to fight each other.
FA—Even when drummers are trying to be subtle about it your eyes just go right to it. “Oh, there’s a cymbal.”
AC—Yup. [Makes cymbal sound]
FA—I don’t know how drummers don’t go deaf. People’s ears protect themselves but cymbals are right at head level. They’re just right there. I don’t know how you don’t lose your hearing immediately.
AC—And it’s such a complicated harmonic.
FA—Somehow at the very beginning of jazz it’s always been there. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone without them.
AC—Oh, maybe Phil Collins’ No Jacket Required and Peter Gabriel’s – what’s that Peter Gabriel record… with the hits? Is it So?
FA—That’s the one. That’s his big hit one.
AC—Here’s the story I heard and this may be a drum sound that you hate and would never even want to know how they got it, but you know the drum sound on Phil Collins’ No Jacket Required?
FA—Yeah, it’s amazing the way he plays the toms and aside from the fill that everybody knows, he really got an amazing live sound in the studio.
AC—Yeah it’s pretty cool and apparently – and this could be wrong – he was playing and they pushed the talk-back mic on in the control room [so] there was a little bit of this collapsed delay. I think what they did was recorded the sound of the talk-back mic in the control room in addition to the actual physical drums in the room.
FA—That would make so much sense… I want to make a film that all it is, is throughout rock history someone saying, “Do you want to come and take a listen?” and just that walk from the studio into the [control room]. That must have happened like a billion times of someone just putting down the guitar and like, “Yeah, let me hear how that sounded.”
AC—Yeah, exactly! And there’s this other thing that happens if you’ve been in the studio a long time especially when [you’re] with just one other person or a tight-knit group, is kind of that delirium and short hand that you can get in to. If [Strange Mercy producer] John Congleton ever was like, “Oh that was a good take,” he would just press the button and say, “Squirt.” And then you get to the point where instead of being like, “Oh, how was that?” it’s, “Daddy, do you love me now?”
FA—I think everything boils down to inside jokes. Inside jokes become jokes within themselves, where you’re sort of making fun of a joke. It gets pretty intense how close you become with everyone else just physically.
AC—That is so special, being on the road and also being in the studio. That camaraderie is so intense. You’re all in the same team. It’s like being in a fun war.
FA—There definitely is a battle-like aspect to it. And that’s the positive side to it. All of my best memories are moments like that. You’re just joking around and they’re not even jokes anymore, you’re pretty much just making dumb sounds and everyone’s laughing. So when you’re out and you’re playing, I feel like there’s some anticipation for when you fall onto the crowd. What is happening when you’re out there? It’s pretty intense. You go out pretty far.
AC—That feeling of adrenaline and that balance of “I’m in control” slash “I’m totally out of control,” is really addictive. The fix of playing a good show or an energetic show isn’t enough. I want more of an adrenaline rush – I want more of a feeling of danger. I currently have bruises all over my arms and legs and I really like that. I really like that physicality because I feel like there’s some kind of endorphin relief in getting hurt a little bit. It’s satisfying to me. I feel insane when I jump into the crowd. I’ve never felt afraid except one time in Minneapolis the stage wasn’t high enough to crowd surf so I thought I’d just go mosh with people. That freaked me out a little bit.
FA—It seems dangerous but it also seems really nice because it makes each show feel special, even if you’ve done it, I don’t know how many times.
AC—Yeah in this weird way it’s really a generous exchange and I get off on that. I’m not like, “Oh, I kicked someone in the head. Awesome!” It’s a crazy adrenaline rush but they are actually catching me. I feel grateful that they [catch] me and we have some kind of actual physical exchange and that is also somehow powerful and bizarre.
FA—You should go out into the audience, escape out the front and then have someone go up on stage after and say, “Will someone please get her back? Does anyone know where she is?” Just like a disappearing act. And you should do it so many times that people already know it’s coming but that makes it that much more entertaining. Maybe even have someone put someone else up on stage that looks a little bit like you and have someone else on stage say, “That’s not her.”
AC—Just have a couple decoys running around.
FA— “We really need her – Will you please put her back on stage?”
AC— That was great! Thanks.
FA—My pleasure! These were things I really wanted to know. I’m not kidding.
AC—Good! And these are things I like talking about, as opposed to, “Where does the name St. Vincent come from?” or “What’s it like being a woman in music?” I don’t care. I do not care.