Adored and revered in equal measure across the underground DIY math-rock scene, Cleft have been peddling their unique brand of telepathically-charged ADHD riff madness across the UK for four and a half years. Over the course of two Eps and two albums, Cleft have managed to warm the hearts and win over the minds of even the most cantankerous math-rock fanatic by paradoxically throwing in all the kitchen sinks whilst stripping away the instrumentation to just one guitar and a drum kit. Music this complex and challenging is rarely attempted by two musicians, so what made them decide to make this a strictly two-man club? ‘I don't know if it was ever a particularly conscious decision,’ says guitarist Dan Beesley, ‘but it was really nice the first time we played just the two of us and it dawned on us that this was the band! We didn’t have to wait for anyone else to arrive, we didn’t have any extra gear to bring, it just seemed like the most logical step to be as minimal as we could.’
The date of this first jam between Dan and drummer John Simm was the numerically pleasing 11/11/11 after both parties had submitted an advert to lonely musicians’ website Join My Band. ‘Dan already had a couple of tunes written at that point,’ says John ‘ and he sent me a couple of Soundcloud demos with some programmed drums on them and said, 'This is what I'm trying to achieve...' and I said, 'Really? I don't know how to do that!’ We got into a rehearsal room and I preceded to be terrible for the next four hours, until Dan showed me how to play stuff that isn't in 4/4.’ ‘It was nice to not be the s**t one for a change’ adds Dan.
Those two tunes were Interglutial and Pudendal, (which ended up on 2012’s Whale Bone EP and 2014’s Bosh! respectively) and remain the only two Cleft songs with a sole writing credit, the majority of the band’s material having come out of the two musicians jamming in collusion. The looseness and improvisation that comes from two people playing in a room together is an integral part of what makes Cleft such a thrilling proposition, particularly as a live band, where Dan and John have honed an almost telepathic ability to communicate on-stage. ‘What I like most about being a two-piece is the spontaneity,’ says John ‘the fact that we can change stuff live on stage. If I do something differently on-the-fly, Dan's so fast to react that it doesn't matter whether I've screwed up or changed something deliberately because he'll change tack in a heartbeat.’ ‘It means we can make tons of mistakes and no one ever notices’ says Dan. ‘That's brilliant!’
It’s fair to say that the news that Cleft would soon be no more was met with utter dismay and puzzled bewilderment amongst a modest, yet loyal, and deeply passionate following. Cleft’s reputation has grown rapidly year on year since their inception, to the point where they are easily one of the most-loved bands in the math-rock community. But the band’s decision shows remarkable fore-sight, a quality which other bands often lack. ‘I feel like we've reached the end of our run in terms of what we can actually produce’ says John. ‘I think we've written some absolutely killer stuff over the years that I'm really proud of and I know Dan's really proud of it as well. We don't really mind if anybody else likes it or not, we've just made stuff that we really like. We've always written tunes by gathering riffs, beats and ideas and putting them together in a rehearsal room. Some of those ideas turn into songs, but sometimes those ideas end up being shelved and as time’s gone on, we've gradually been shelving more and more stuff. We’ve got to the point now where we don't really have that many more ideas. No doubt we could make more, but it would feel like we’re repeating ourselves and neither of us want to rake over old ground. I like the fact that we're ending on a high, here's a new record that we're really pleased with ... now that's it! We're not doing anymore, that was Cleft, this is our body of work and we're done. Thanks for all the support. And that's where I want to be.’
Cleft’s decision to cease their quest to spread peace throughout the world via the medium of jumbo-sized convoluted riffgasms is made all the more bittersweet by the fact that their new album, Wrong, is the best recorded output of their all-too-short career. Recorded in four different locations across the UK, (Manchester, Lancashire, Leeds and Cheshire) the band indulged their audio nerdery by choosing studios and engineers that were applicable to the sound of each song, a bit like the Foo Fighters’ Sonic Highways under-taking but with a lot less budget, time and resources. ‘The idea was to have the different characters of each studio come through in the recording’ says Dan ‘I'm glad we did it that way, even though it was more difficult than either of us could have possibly anticipated. It was absolutely gruelling at times, just the amount of driving and being in a new place every day. We had quite a few gear malfunctions as well, but we'd already booked the time in, so you've got to do something.’
‘If you're paying for just a day in a studio, you've got to spend time setting up which only gives you 3-4 hours to actually get anything done’ adds John. ‘That focuses you into getting on with it, whereas if you're in the studio for several days, you're more likely to relax, you can leave all the gear set up and everything's ready for you to come in the following morning refreshed. There were some points where it got really tough to get the performances right and I think this process reinforced for us that, at the end of the day, the performance is what matters the most. You could record on an 8-track tape recorder and nobody would be any the wiser if you capture a great performance.’
Capturing the performance, essentially the essence of Cleft, is what makes Wrong stand out from its predecessor Bosh!. ‘We spent a lot more time on guitar overdubs and adding extra bits and pieces to Bosh! to make it sound more interesting’ says John. ‘We had different bits of feedback from that, some people really liked it but some people didn't at all because it didn't sound like our live sound, they wanted it to sound a bit rawer. We’d both had aspirations to make a really great sounding polished production and that’s what Bosh! was.’
Wrong presents Cleft in a much more lo-fi, DIY punk aesthetic when compared to Bosh!’s hi-fi bells and whistles approach, with the songs representing the pinnacle of Cleft’s recording achievements. When asking the band for their personal highlights of the record, John is quick to respond, ‘Desperate Elvis is definitely my highlight on the album. It's got the dynamics in it, it's got the weird time shifts, it's got quite a few memorable riffs and a great breakdown bit where I play an out of tune piano. There are so many elements that I just really love about Cleft in that song and really define who we are. It's one of the most together pieces of music that I think we've ever written.’ ‘We definitely pushed ourselves on that particular tune as well,’ adds Dan. ‘There's a few bits that we had to practise for hours to get right because it's pretty technical in places. That second verse is hard! Every single time we play it, I'm just about hanging on by the seat of my pants.’
‘It's not the most demanding song on the album physically though,’ says John, ‘that would be Face Plant. It’s so intense, it's played at about 100mph all of the time, from start to end, it’s so bludgeoning-ly fast. Face Plant is all the hits, all the time ... as in drum hits, not ‘hits’ hits.’ ‘I'm really pleased that we've got three very low-tuned tracks on there’ says Dan. ‘Frankenstien, Desperate Elvis and Bees, Beads, Beas, which I think is my favourite tune on the album at the moment. It changes quite regularly, but I love how nasty that song is, it’s filthy! I think it's a tie between Bees, Beads, Beas and Drop A Bastard from Bosh! for the nastiest, low-tuned, most horrible song in the Cleft back-catalogue.’
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Cleft’s desire to knock things on the head whilst they’re still on the up is noble, even if it’s hard to stomach the fact that, come the end of August, we’ll never get to see their wild-gurning faces contort in response to their face-melting riffs again. Modern music history is littered with more examples of bands who didn’t know when to quit than those that did. ‘Even from before we’d released anything, we’ve talked about how bands end and why that happens and isn't it sad blah blah blah’ says Dan ‘But really it's only sad when bands don't know that the end has already been and gone and are desperately trying to drag this carcass around. We've been to a few farewell gigs by bands that have sadly decided to stop and it's always been a bit too late. There's already been some sort of horrible fracture within their relationships or maybe they should have done it 5 gigs ago or something like that. We just decided to do it properly, get really well rehearsed and go round to all the places that we've played before and say goodbye properly. And I'm very glad we decided to do it that way as well.’
‘Bands are often desperate to hang on to the idea that they’re amazing and they're going to release something incredible on their next album’ says John ‘but more often than not, it never comes. We don't want to end up at the point where we're just furiously clawing at this idea that will never turn up. We feel like we've done what we wanted to do within the boundaries of this band and we're quite happy with how it went. I'm not sure if it's going to progress any further, because we play very niche, complex, difficult-to-get-into-music. It's so easy for a band of our size to just peter out because if you stop doing anything for six months or you don't update your social media or you don't record new music, people forget about you pretty quickly and we're well aware of that. We've been working pretty consistently for the last four years just trying to keep ourselves going and as soon as you stop that, the wheels fall off basically, and people say, 'Oh yeah Cleft, they were quite good a couple of years ago' and you're done, you're a piece of history at that point.‘
So, to paraphrase Neil Young, it’s better that Cleft burn out than fade away and surely even the legendary Canadian grump couldn’t disagree with that. Cleft may have caused but a small ripple in the broader musical ocean, but that ripple will be felt by generations of music geeks who come out in a nasty rash when listening to songs in only one time signature. ‘It’s nice that we’re going to be missed, says Dan. ‘I'd much rather end when people actually still care, so I’m glad that people are sad ... I know that sounds really awful!’ ‘We revel in your pity and shower in your tears’ John jests, before maniacally and somewhat disturbingly adding ‘GIVE THEM TO ME!!’
Cleft will be showering in your tears across the UK on their last tour culminating in a final performance at ArcTanGent Festival on 19th August. Wrong is released on Vinyl, CD and Digital on 9th May.
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