Clams Casino. Cervantes. 09.17.16
DJ sets have always been an enigma to me. They make sense in the context of encouraging people to dance in a club, or creating the proper atmosphere at a party, but when DJs setup on stage at a venue that primarily caters to ‘live’ acts, it always seems false to me. There are exceptions though. Watching turntablists like DJ Shadow and Kid Koala shuffle through crates of vinyl on the fly always blows my mind, and I would be lying if I said I had never been hypnotized at underground raves in Southern California in the 90’s, as well as on the beach in Ibiza some years later. In those instances, the music was only part of the whole picture though; the soundtrack to a life being lived. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder in a crowd of people, literally watching a guy press buttons on a MacBook, is something else altogether. Even in amazing locales such as Red Rocks, the pretty lights and illegal decibel levels cannot make up for the impersonal, sterile feeling I get when I find myself at those shows.
I realize Michael Volpe (aka Clams Casino) is a producer who lives more in the world of hip-hop than he does electronic dance music. He is more likely to be found at Pitchfork’s music festival than he is at the Global Dance weekend, but that didn’t ease my apprehension as I entered Cervantes on Saturday night. I was walking into a DJ set with my eyes wide open; thinking for sure I would leave in disappointment. As it turned out, the only disappointing thing about the night was that it came to an end.
So what made Clams Casino’s set so much different than anything I’d witnessed before? The short answer is ‘absolutely nothing’. The 29-year-old producer came out, at around 12:45am, looking like he just walked in off the street. Shaved head, groomed beard, long-sleeves and jeans; he was nondescript in every way. The man behind the sound that defined much of A$AP Rocky, Vince Staples, Mac Miller, and Lil B’s careers looked like he could be the little brother I never had. Dual projection screens teased the prospect of cool visuals to augment the set, but nothing more exciting than a changing color palette around the CLAMS CASINO XXXII tour logo was ever delivered.
Volpe’s attention was split between the turntable and his laptop throughout the night, with very little interaction with the small, but very diverse (girl in a mini-dress arm-in-arm with dude in a Converge t-shirt) crowd of about 200 people. The BasedGod’s absence on this stop of the tour was definitely noticeable, but the lack of an emcee wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Unlike many hip-hop productions, Clams’ material actually benefits from the lack of vocal distractions. With room to breathe, the material is able to shine a light on the world it inhabits.
Volpe turned out to be the perfect host of his own material. The set kicked off with “Level 1”, the instrumental track that opens his first proper album of original material. No longer scouring the internet for sounds to manipulate like silly putty, before drowning them in a viscous concoction of his own making, the tracks credited to Clams Casino are now all homegrown. Always the gentleman, the guy behind the keys courted the crowd with a few bangers before inviting us into his personal ‘upside down’. “Norf Norf” and “All Nite” (with Vince Staples’ verses) gave way to the Oxymoron outtake, “Gravy”. A cartoonish Danny Brown came to life during the Adult Swim single, “Worth It”, before A$AP Ferg introduced us to his psycho uncle. Acting as a résumé of sorts, that beginning run of tracks earned him the right to stand on his own.
The Jealous Guys were removed from “Brainwash by London”, leaving the booming skeleton of the track with nothing more than the disembodied haunted screams. The ‘ghost of Björk past’ could be heard throughout “Illest Alive”; “Treetop” was the sole selection from Rainforest; “All I Need” was Clams at his wooziest; and then we came to the LiveLoveA$AP section of the show, which was ironically prefaced by an admission I never thought I’d hear from someone whose music is the foundation for so many songs about drugs. “I don’t smoke weed anymore,” Volpe stated to the mostly lit-as-fuck crowd, “but I got high just by being in dressing room and it’s too much man.” “Wassup”, “Bass”, and (ahem) “Leaf” followed, all with A$AP left intact, but “Palace” was presented in its purest form and acted as the centerpiece of the night. Lil B’s voice was almost as absent as the man himself, but TheBasedGod’s verses on “Witness” came through as crisp and clear as the rapper as ever sounded.
A$AP Rocky was the go-to on this particular night, so it wasn’t surprising when “LVL” and “Be Somebody” showed up later in the set, but the last 20 minutes or so were dedicated to the best from the Instrumental mixtape trilogy. “Angels”, “I’m God”, and “One Last Thing” were three of the main reasons I found myself at Cervantes after last call. I literally could have just played the songs real loud at home, but there was something about being in the presence of their creator (and surrounded by like-minded individuals) that made it special. Something about those tracks move me in a way I can’t explain. Especially the latter two, which closed out the night well after 2:00am.
A few years ago my friend’s 17-year-old son died in a car accident on the way home from an EDM party. I was tasked with putting together a slideshow for his memorial service. I included four songs, two of which were the instrumental versions “I’m God” and “One Last Thing”. Those tracks harbor an insane, almost suffocating sadness, but there is hope built into them as well. Just when you think you’re going to drown, Volpe opens a valve and lets some air in. The air is fresh and sweet and tastes like the promise of something better to come. Those songs, like so many credited to Clams Casino, don’t need words. They don’t need flashing lights and giant LED screens and hypemen. They are perfect just the way they are.
Michael Volpe was an intern at a hospital when he started sending his music out to rappers he’d never met. I read somewhere that he tried to attend a Lil B concert once and left because his friends couldn’t get in, never thinking to try to get on the guestlist. Before Saturday night, I didn’t even know what the guy looked like. Turns out he is just a normal dude with an amazing talent for producing electronic music with a soul. What started out as a hobby has morphed into a signature sound/atmosphere that is immediately recognizable on every track he produces. That hobby has turned into what I can only imagine is a pretty lucrative career. Evidently, success hasn’t stopped him from showing up to the small gigs though.
Watching Volpe behind that table, playing selections from his portfolio for those who showed up to see him do so, was like watching any other producer do the same thing. The only difference between Clams Casino’s set and every other producer-based DJ set I’ve ever seen was the songs. Clams songs mean something to me. That’s it. I have absolutely no objective evidence to prove the set was any better than any given set by Flying Lotus, Baths, or Evian Christ, but I will say it made me realize I have been somewhat of a hypocrite. Michael Volpe helped me understand the draw of DJ sets. He helped me get out of the mindset that a show is all about watching musicians create music. DJ sets (from musicians who actually do create their own material) are more like art shows than they are concerts. The artist shows up and puts their work on display. They are their own curators. That’s how I felt about Clams’ show at Cervantes. I got to hear the songs he wanted me to hear, with or without vocals, in the order he wanted me to hear them…and in the process, he allowed me understand why people enjoy DJ sets.
Level 1 (instrumental)
Norf Norf (with Vince Staples lyric)
All Nite (with Vince Staples lyric)
Gravy (with ScHoolboy Q lyric)
Worth It (with Danny Brown lyric)
Psycho (with A$AP Ferg lyric)
Brainwash by London (instrumental)
Illest Alive (instrumental)
All I Need (instrumental)
Wassup (with A$AP Rocky lyric)
Bass (with A$AP Rocky lyric)
Leaf (with A$AP Rocky lyric)
Witness (with Lil B lyric)
LVL (with A$AP Rocky lyric)
Be Somebody (with A$AP Rocky lyric)
I’m God (instrumental)
One Last Thing (instrumental)