DRAB MAJESTY: THE SADDEST THING EVER
photography by alex the brown
It is Andrew Clinco’s fascination with human relationships—between two lovers, or two family members, or even between a cult leader and their followers—that animates the steely-cold new album by L.A.’s Drab Majesty, The Demonstration. But there’s another relationship even closer to the heart of the album, which takes its major sonic cues from the somber expansiveness of bands like Echo and the Bunnymen or the Cure. That would be Clinco’s own relationship with Deb DeMure, the genderless frontperson of Drab Majesty and a persona Clinco created as the “vessel” for his songs. (Live and in these photos, DeMure is accompanied by keyboardist Mona D.) The construction of Deb, who has been the center of the act since the debut Unarian Dances EP in 2012, was a way for Clinco to become more comfortable with the songwriting process. (He feels Drab Majesty’s songs are “received” rather than written). But Deb is more than that. When Drab Majesty appears live, Deb—Clinco, in an eccentric costume that looks more like Ace Frehley-meets-Andy Warhol than a drag ensemble—is a lightning rod of meaning, inhabiting the space somewhere between a statue and an oracle. We spoke with both DeMure and Clinco about the slippery nature of authorship, the rituals behind Drab Majesty’s performances, and why people are much more interesting when they’re weird. Drab Majesty performs Sat., June 17, at the Echoplex. This interview by Chris Kissel.
How did your original development of Drab Majesty’s music evolve hand in hand with the realization of Deb DeMure?
Drab Majesty never set out to be this new wave post-punk project. It really came from me wanting to step away from being a drummer in bands—getting away from being that accompaniment—and write songs. I’d never gone about writing songs and seeing what was inside or outside. The sound palette I had kind of lent itself to this sound, and the tunings I was working in kind of became the Drab Majesty harmonic palette. As those songs took shape and this aesthetic came to be, I started to realize it was far beyond me as just Andrew Clinco, this person who wants to write music. I’m not a proficient guitarist, nor do I understand anything about harmony or chord structures or anything like that. It started to feel like there was this other animator underneath me trying to write songs, and that was really exciting. I felt that the songwriting process was an out of body experience. That turned into, ‘Well, hey, I feel so removed from this process—why not give it an entirely different persona to represent it as well?’ Because it’s so far outside my normal self. And of course taking cues from Klaus Nomi and David Bowie and these aesthetics we’re all familiar with. I wanted to wrap it up in something that’s an homage, but that also spoke to this different kind of vehicle that is delivering the songs to people.
So that evolved into your live presentation.
I wanted people to see it—to have an ocular experience as well as a visual experience. For me, ‘live’ is not just about hearing a band live, it’s about seeing a band live, too. I think I’ve become pretty disenchanted with live acts coming out of L.A. right now. Sure, they sound great, but, really it’s just an extension of the recording done live. What am I looking at? There’s no spectacle. Those are the things I miss from my favorite performances. Even if I see Douglas P. hack out his classic songs as Death in June, there’s still something really mesmerizing and captivating about those masks he wears or the German sniper hats. It’s exciting to see something so different on stage. I’ve cited Geneva Jacuzzi as one of the artists who has maintained the visuals and never half-stepped on it. I’ve always enjoyed her performances. Lumerians as well—they’ve always had a really cool take on their whole ethos, culling from that whole mythology of the vortex and Mount Shasta. So that’s how Drab has come to be. And it’s taken a sci-fi route lately because of my interest in UFO cults and the idea of the cult leader—because of how absurd it is but how powerful it is. Especially when the cult leader chooses to dress in this fantastical garb. For example, this woman Uriel who is the leader of this cult called Unarius in San Diego—if you’ve seen her clothing, it’s so ostentatious and loud and crazy, but it’s powerful. There’s a whole aesthetic there. That’s how it’s all forming together. It’s still definitely a work in progress.
A lot of your videos focus on statues, which you also feature in your live show, these revolving statues. And I’ve thought of your presence and delivery as statuesque, too—a figure that transmits, rather than one that creates. Is that how you think of it?
On stage, the likeness of the statues is really interesting for me because the statue holds all this potential energy. The statues are static but sometimes the gestures are kinetic. There’s something really interesting about sending a static object that is frozen in motion, and then putting that object in motion. There’s an interesting performance by Harry Belafonte. He was a master of minimalism, and he would go out on stage and he would not move at all for the first two songs, and when he would make a gesture it would be extremely loud. There was so much meaning because of what came before it. I think of that as a statue—or even the guy that hangs at Venice Beach and you think he’s a statue but then he moves. I know it’s a cheesy example but I think there’s something interesting about that. I’m definitely thinking about the living sculpture, and I try to make my gestures deliberate and pointed. I find that my best shows—the ones that have impacted the audience the deepest—have been the ones where all my gestures are in accordance with the rotating bust. And the rotating bust for me is basically a pendulum on stage that I can return to and I can hypnotize myself by it, and it hypnotizes the audience as well. It’s a constant—no matter what, it will be rotating. I use it as a balance beam.
There’s also an element of ritual—crosses, priestly smocks, and I know you’ve spoken of your live shows as having a ritual aspect.
It’s to convey meaning to an audience. Certain aspects of ritual need to be accounted for. For one, symmetry. I come from a Catholic background and that was kind of where my interest in assembly and rituals taking place in front of an assembly was first kind of piqued. The way we set up now is very symmetrical, in that the amplifiers are placed in symmetry, with the bust dead center framed by two sphinxes that look inward, placed right and left. That balance is very important for the viewer. And, of course, ceremonial garb—it’s important for me to have that regal attire, so we know who is leading the mass. There are other instruments and devices. Like … I use the parasol; I point with it and rotate it as another means of hypnosis. A lot of it is subconscious and I don’t want to say that it’s a very calculated thing because it isn’t. But those are some of the keys. Music is holy—sound is holy, vibration is holy, and it needs to be addressed on stage. I want to get as far from doing band practice on stage as I can. I want to be on the other end of the spectrum.
Were you an altar boy?
I never signed up to be an altar boy. I was a choir boy.
I was an altar boy, and what you’re saying definitely reminds me of, you know, lighting the candles in the right order and folding the chasuble the right way or whatever.
I was too nervous to be in front of crowds like that. Our congregation was so huge—I mean it was really a humongous cathedral church in the west side, near West Hollywood-Beverly Hills area. That’s where my grandmother went. I hung in the back because the choir was behind the audience. It really tripped me out before I learned that’s where all the music was coming from. It’s magical. As a young a kid, it was really psychedelic. ‘Where are all these voices coming from? Are they coming from heaven?’
You’ve talked before about your music being ‘received’ by you, rather than created by you, which sort of insinuates the existence of a higher power, or at least some kind of transcendental force.
The entire forming of these songs is way beyond my competency as a musician. I’m really just putting together pieces I’m given. I really feel that way, very strongly. I think of it as channeling more than anything. It’s something I’ve learned to harness and hone the more I write. I do know that when it’s not on, it’s not on, and I put down the instrument and that’s that. But when it’s on … a lot of the songs on The Demonstration wrote themselves. ‘Not Just a Name’ wrote itself in like three minutes. My hand sort of becomes this divining rod. The fingers are jumping to a fret and it’s the right one or it’s the wrong one, but I’m not going to guess and check for hours and keep beating it into the ground. You know when you play a game of pool—I play a lot—and some days there will be those games where you just keep shooting and both people keep missing, and it’s like, ‘Let’s just call this game.’ No one’s making any shots and everyone wants to be doing something else. But other times, the flow is just perfect. The chords work themselves out. This is not my song—this is a song that was out there. And I feel very honored that I was given this song, and I will do my best to make it pleasing to the ears.
I’ve heard many songwriters say they don’t feel like they have a lot of control over the songs they write. The interesting thing about what you’ve done is you’ve taken that feeling and turned it into part of the presentation.