Back in May, CLAPS dropped a new seven-inch, "Across the Floor." Wrapped in a gray sleeve and clocking in at just over six minutes, it looks and sounds every bit like a classic '80s dance record. The song starts slow, the melody crackling faintly beneath a squall of electronic feedback, before rattling to life and building into the smoldering swirl of a drum machine and synth. Singer Patrick Donohoe's tenor floats over the top, but his words are elusive, blurred by the bleary-eyed perception of a late night as it turns to dawn.
Now CLAPS are releasing Wreck, their first full-length, and it makes good on the promise of "Across the Floor." The electronic three-piece released a pair of EPs over a year ago, and it appears they've used the time since then wisely: If the band's early songs were skeletal and at times tentative, then their sound has grown to be deep, dark, and dense. But they remain, at core, dedicated to their minimalist muse.
"We were still kind of forming as a band, trying different things with each song," synth player Jed Smentek says of their earlier recordings. Smentek, seated at a picnic table in Brackett Park alongside his bandmates, looks off to the side and then turns and squints into the sun, his eyes gray in the light. "By the time we got to the LP we had a more cohesive sound." It helped that the band had gotten more comfortable exploring their instruments, and were working with a familiar producer, Ryan Olcott of Mystery Palace. As bassist and fellow synth player Sara Abdelaal puts it, "We had a base for things, which was more exciting and more fun to work with."
Considering both Fold and New Science were split between original material and remixes, putting together an entire album proved a whole new challenge. "By the time we did the first EP we probably had enough for a full record, but it wouldn't have been our 'most prime' material," Donohoe says, raising his fingers in scare quotes. He pauses, contemplating his own description, and smirks. With Wreck, he continues, the band could afford to be more selective: "We had a bunch of songs, put some on the record, but a lot wound up not there. And as we were recording stuff we kind of wrote the rest of the record."
It's not too surprising, then, that the new material is a little less experimental in feel, yet Wreck is undeniably a major step forward in every other way. One of the subtler but more significant ingredients to their evolving sound is the addition of bass guitar, which adds a crucial, slinking contrast to the glitchy synth of "Across the Floor" and the stained-glass shimmer of "Book of Love." Of course, it's equally effective when they drop the bass altogether, such as on the eerie, understated closer, "Eyes Remain." On the other end of the spectrum is the slick pop groove of "In My Dreams"—proof, if nothing else, of how capable CLAPS are of mixing things up, even if it's only a matter of simple gradations.
Nonetheless, as Donohoe admits, minimalist synth music doesn't always translate to widespread appeal, prone instead to be dismissed as a throwback or mistaken for goth club. "I think people, when they don't see guitars or even amps onstage, instantly are like, 'I'm not interested'—which I think is valid," he says. One important distinction in the band members' minds, however, is that even if they use vintage equipment, they also play everything live rather than use loops. (Smentek characteristically refers to sequencers as "gross.") Adds Donohoe, "Maybe not a lot of people really know how difficult it is, but there are people from the '80s that are like, 'I have no idea how you're doing this. We wrote songs like you do but there's no way we could ever play them.'"
Appropriately enough, CLAPS have seen their fan base grow the most on their tours out east, a trip they made most recently promoting "Across the Floor." If the Twin Cities' minimalist electronic scene is only so large, then there are plenty of other cities where the genre is flourishing, opening the group up to networks of like-minded people and scores of new bands. They've even forged a relationship with influential NYC label and organizer Wierd Records along the way. "It's rare we get to play shows with bands that are similar to us, especially as there aren't that many here," observes Abdelaal. "So it's awesome going on tour and actually getting to play a show where it's like, 'This is what it should be like!'"
CLAPS play a CD-release show with Night Moves, Oaks, and the Velveteens on FRIDAY, AUGUST 19, at the HEXAGON BAR; 612.722.3454