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In slapstick there is a gag, like "Pie to the Face" and "Kick to the Groin," that every aspiring physical comedian must master before walking (somersaulting?) into the festive and frightening procession that I imagine Clown School graduation to be. I call it "Rabbit to the Jugular," though it works with any small, furry, feral animal (rabbits just seem best suited for the job, what with the jumping and the teeth). You've seen it a million times: Guy in pet shop sees cute bunny. Guy pets bunny. Bunny attacks. Cut to guy clutching a stuffed animal to his throat (usually a different color than the real rabbit), writhing in such a way that it appears he's trying to pry the rodent's teeth from his neck, all the while being careful to keep the thing glued to him. It's a delicate balance. A dance. He's flailing in circles. He's hollering bloody hell. He's on the ground, sizzlin' like bacon. He's shaking the bunny.
Can you see it? All right, hold it.
Now, take the bunny, and replace it with an electric guitar. Any color will do, nothing too fancy. Next, switch out your Guy for a Paris Hilton-skinny dude in a tight T-shirt. He's short and blond, and rather than focus on his delicate neck, the guitar is attacking his whole twiggy frame. Now knock down the walls of the pet shop set, revealing a dark stage, a thin crowd, and four of our hero's best friends surrounding him, each one hunched over an instrument that throbs with a tortured, stuttering song. Zoom in on the guitarist's eyes: They've rolled back into his head, which bobs loosely as he fights off his instrument. The drums are steady, the keys are droning, and the bass is throbbing. The guitar lets slip its terrible death cry.
Comedy? Not anymore. This is Clipd Beaks and they're looking to put your tender indie heart in a blender, Twin Cities, lest you come 'round looking for more of the same comfy, meat-and-potatoes bar pop. They're dishing out experimental noise rock by the fistful, so say "Ahh!" before the airplane crashes and you get gravy all over your new holiday sweater.
"Fuck the conservative attitudes toward music in this town," keyboardist Greg Pritchard proclaimed before a humdrum crowd at Big V's two months ago, right before launching the band into "L.A. Law," the first song from their EP Gang Caves. It's a scattered collage of a song; each guy kind of does his own thing, the whole band teeters on the brink of falling apart, and yet it's lively and thick. In a town that uses its guitars to reel listeners in with, say, chords and melodies, the guitars on Gang Caves are apt to sound more like a steel tower precariously swaying in the wind, or a mile-long freight train lurching to life. And that says nothing of the synthesizers, whose capacity to sound fucked-up is considerably greater. It's artsy, yeah, but their brand of art is more friendly than fartsy, and despite the smug looks that come prepackaged with this sort of music, Clipd Beaks don't take themselves too seriously. They were only half-serious when they requested I spell "Clipd Beaks" differently each time I write it.
"We're trying to push the envelope and do something that's maybe a little more relevant on the scale of the entire world, instead of just the little universe of Minneapolis," declares Pritchard as he welcomes me into the huge Lowry Hill house that the band shares. "People don't challenge themselves. We try to do that, challenge them and ourselves to move beyond what's pleasing to the ear."
"And pleasing to your friends," adds guitarist and synth player Scott Ecklein, rolling his eyes.
Inside their house, the band's five members lead me to the basement, because, as guitarist Nick Barbeln puts it, "it would be the most low-fi." Indeed, the main floor is anything but low-fi: The entryway leads past a piano into a vast and well kept living room. Another arched doorway takes you back into the large, sunlit kitchen, furnished with a pleasant wooden dinner table and a cooking island. It's Martha-fi, if anything. Downstairs, lounging next to their practice space, Ecklein is trying to explain the group's live performances, engagements so enrapturing for them that several months ago at Big V's, when a woman came in off the street, jumped on stage, and started singing along, Ecklein insisted he didn't even notice.
"Energy is the best word to describe it," he says, making an obvious attempt to avoid the word "jamming." "A lot of it is made on the spot, but it's not like Sweet Potato Project or anything."
Actually, it's not like anything around here, and so far, Twin Cities audiences have given Clipd Beaks a reception only slightly warmer than their uppity Lowry Hill neighbors have (the band can hardly get through a practice without someone calling the police). Ecklein has one reason.
"People here are super passive-aggressive," he says. "I've never actually heard anybody say, 'You really suck, your music's shit, you're just a bunch of drunks,' but at the same time, here's a conservative backlash against us and our friends. We've had people at a venue, even before we sound check, be like, 'Okay, you and your friends are not coming backstage.'"
But Barbeln has another.
"I think people think we're way too full of ourselves because we have too much fun," he says. "I think we have more fun than any band here."
Is that what's going on up there on stage? Fun? Being devoured by your instrument while shaking the very foundations of what Minnesota bar patrons consider enjoyable is fun? In that case, Clipd Beaks are having the time of their lives.