By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
It's often said that a band is a family, and in this case the statement would be as factually true as it is metaphorically. Jed Smentek's brother and Patrick Donohoe's sister have been married for the past nine years, and in that time, the two quasi-siblings have shared a musical education by trading, collecting, and shopping for rare vinyl. However, it wasn't until the two enrolled at St. Thomas and met Sara Abdelaal that CLAPS was born. The fledgling band specializes in minimal synth, a.k.a. minimal electronics, a niche genre that traces its roots to European analog synthesizer music produced in the late '70s and early '80s. Depeche Mode's Speak & Spell probably stands as the most accessible exemplar; however, the groups strictly classified as minimal synth, such as Absolute Body Control, Bal Pare, and Stereo, tended to be brutishly short-lived, their work receiving spotty distribution at best.
"The problem with electronic music," says Donohoe, "is that everything is so clean and arranged. It's nice to not have things [so] perfect. Like punk rock, [minimal synth] is messy." While synth-pop, minimal synth's more renowned descendent, and the computer-generated music of today have, intentionally or not, minimized the role of the creator through technological advances, minimal synth uses the electronic medium to underscore human fallibility, not eliminate imperfections. The analog synthesizer is central to this mission. Each analog keyboard possesses a uniqueness that makes it nearly impossible for the sounds to be replicated, rendering it as responsive to the human touch, to the artist, as any stringed instrument. Minimal synth isn't quite as deliberately unkempt as punk rock, but like its guitar-based forebear, it shares a commitment to simplicity and a belief in the raw power of live performance.
Sharing the bedrock philosophies of minimal synth's progenitors, CLAPS strive for immediacy: Their songs are boiled down to their essential components, and the band, as much as possible, limit the use of prerecorded tracks when playing live. "I think the worst thing you can bring onstage is a computer," says Smentek. "It puts a wall up." Adds Donohoe: "We don't want to sequence anything [because] you lose a big chunk of your music if you put it on a backing track." Their approach to performance strongly informs the songcraft. CLAPS' debut EP, New Science, resists complication throughout, with songs constructed from little more than skeletal drum machine beats, patterned synth lines, and disembodied vocals. The band credits veteran engineer Ryan Olcott (Mystery Palace, 12 Rods) for helping them to achieve their vision, encouraging them to excise unnecessary flourishes and embrace the songs in their most elemental, overtly melodic forms.
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In the Twin Cities, minimal synth recordings have mostly languished in cobwebbed $1 record bins, where collectors like Donohoe and Smentek scour for buried treasures. However, the genre has enjoyed somewhat wider recognition and resurgence of late, especially on the coasts, thanks to the dual efforts of Minimal Wave and Wierd Records. Minimal Wave has re-released a number of long out-of-print and seminal minimal synth works, and its website (minimal-wave.org) has served as a hub for collectors and genre enthusiasts, a place to learn about some of the more obscure acts and trade rare vinyl. As the founder of Wierd Records in New York, Pieter Schoolwerth has set out to prove that minimal synth is not a dead letter. With his label and weekly live showcases in Brooklyn, dubbed "Wierd Nights," Schoolwerth has successfully cultivated and nurtured a contemporary minimal synth scene. Bands like Xeno and Oaklander (New York) and Opus Finis (Miami) proudly carry the torch, ushering the long-forgotten sounds of the past into the present.
As fans of minimal synth, CLAPS express deep admiration for the efforts of both labels to revive interest in the genre. "There's no record store you can walk into and ask about some rare minimal synth band," says Smentek. In a show of support for the ongoing efforts to introduce minimal synth to a wider audience, he, Donohoe, and Abdelaal will travel to New York for their Wierd Night debut on April 7, making them the first Minnesota-based group to participate. Here at home, CLAPS may feel like a band—a family—apart, but as they'll soon discover, they're hardly alone.
CLAPS play an EP-release show with Gospel Gossip and Mercurial Rage on SATURDAY, JANUARY 23, at the KITTY CAT KLUB; 612.331.9800