A Beautiful Tragedy: An Interview with Conrad Clifton
Photo cred: Ross Figlerski
I met Conrad Clifton at an event and like most new producers I meet at these events, I immediately checked out his music when I got home. I was impressed by the versatility in his beats and eclectic nature to his sound. There were elements of hip-hop, trap, indie, latin, and dream synth oriented electronic music that had me dubbing his sound certainly as unique. I couldn’t quite put my finger on a specific genre, and at the same time, I couldn’t stop listening. When I normally hear someone who makes “beats,” I’m waiting for a top line (aka vocals) to help the track add another layer; however, Conrad’s beats stand alone and that need for a vocal element doesn’t necessarily exist. Although he has some vocalists on certain tracks.
Conrad Clifton has been praised by various publications. He is an Independent Music Award Winner for BEST DANCE/ELECTRONICA EP. He was dubbed one of the Top 10 Standout Act at SXSW 2017 by Culture Trip. He performed at Billboard Hot 100 Festival in 2015 and has continued to work with artists and other producers in the industry. His sound production and arrangement narrative are super professional, and he does a lot of his acts LIVE. This is NEXT LEVEL if you ask me.
His newest album, Beautiful Tragedy, was released this spring. I listen to this album while I work, while I clean my house, and I’ll throw it on in the background if I have a bunch of people over. It’s the perfect ambiance music, and I’ve heard through the grape vine that his live act really takes his music to the next level.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Conrad Clifton. You know the drill, click the Spotify embed below and read his full interview below to get the FULL Conrad Clifton experience.
Where are you from and how has that shaped the musician you are today?
I grew up in the Midwest, where everything I listened to was also influenced different genres. I mainly listened to hip-hop, but being in the middle of the country, rap didn’t really have it’s own distinct sound, so we pulled heavily from the East Coast sound as well as West Coast and Dirty South. I came up listening to a lot of Wu-Tang, Nas, Snoop, Dr. Dre, OutKast and UGK. Hip-hop and the samples being used in their productions really exposed me to all different genres of music, so from that, I started studying songs from jazz, soul, indie rock and experimental electronic music. It wasn’t till much later that I got into dance music and started seeing how all these sounds and vibes fit together, or (more importantly) how they could fit together.
What instruments did you play when you were younger?
I studied piano for a few years when I was a kid. My parents got me lessons, but I had too much energy and would’ve rather been outside playing basketball or doing anything else that was actually fun, haha. So I didn’t stick with it, unfortunately. I retained just enough to be creative, now. Can’t really read music anymore. I just play by ear.
Are there an instruments that you currently wish you COULD play?
I’ve always wished that I could play the drums. Percussion really, really speaks to me. You can hear that in my music, I love the creative possibilities of what you can build with only percussion-like sounds.
Tell us the story of how you started creating music on your computer?
I use to play around with rap when I was really young, rapping to songs on the radio or rap instrumentals, but eventually I decided I really wanted to try to write lyrics and make songs. That’s what made me start producing; the necessity of original music to make songs to. I started using really lightweight programs like MTV Generator & Hip Hop eJay, where you just drag and drop samples into place on a timeline. I’ve come a loooong way since those days, thankfully. I graduated to hardware samplers, and then heavyweight DAWs like Cakewalk, Nuendo, Cubase, and ultimately ProTools. Now, I do all my work in Ableton.
What was your favorite studio moment when producing your latest album, Beautiful Tragedy?
Wow, I’m not sure. Probably when I was able to finesse my field recording Roll Call into a percussive transition going into Prince of Crown Heights. I actually recorded the sounds of the West Indian Day Parade, around the corner from my apartment. Then I layered up those live sounds with some tribal percussion that I use throughout POCH. It’s so important for an album to be more than just a collection of songs. It should breath. Like there should be moments, you know? That whole transition from track 1 through track 3 really gave the album a unique feel.
What do you like to do when you’re simply hanging out – aside from music?
I’m pretty heavy into movies. Thrillers and Sci-Fi mainly. And of course, that’s where you hear the most interesting and creative sound design and score. So even there, I can’t get away from it, haha. I’m determined to make music for movies some day. S/O to RZA and Trent Reznor.
Who are your musical influences?
I’m really influenced by “1-of-1” artists and producers, which is what I hope to become. Like, there’s only one Timbaland. Nobody could innovate the sound of a genre the way he did. There’s only one Four Tet, Flying Lotus, Hudson Mohawke, Thom Yorke or J Dilla. So it’s hard to be different. It would be much easier for me to go out and emulate the lit trap artist, or the most pop sounding future bass producer, and win. But that’s short-term thinking. Long-term it makes more sense to be genuine to your creativity and passion.
Who is one of your favorite acts right now to watch live?
Instrumentally, I’d say Bonobo. I love the way he makes use of the players in his band, and all of the sections of his music where he’ll bring in a full choir, or whatever’s necessary to fulfill his vision sonically. In terms of overall music and creative sound design, I love seeing Four Tet or Hudson Mohawke. The way they compose and deliver the music in a live format, and the music itself, really gets to me.
Who has been one of your favorite artists to collab with?
I’ve been working with some really amazing artists that everyone needs to hear. I plan on putting more music out with them in 2018. As far as more established artists, I really loved working with Yelawolf. We did a lot of work together in the past, and to see him become so successful has been really dope. He’s always been a true artist.
What are some of your favorite venues to play and why?
Soundpieces at Monarch in San Francisco was really dope. The sound system was incredible, and the crowd was one of the best I’ve ever experienced. So much love and good vibes from the people there. Also, the main room at Flash in DC was super lit for pretty much the same reasons: the sound system bangs, and the people were dope. In NYC, Rough Trade and Knitting Factory are really good too.
Have you played at any festivals?
Yes! Looking forward to doing more. Billboard Hot 100 Fest was sick, I actually got to watch Lil Wayne’s show from backstage. This year, SXSW was amazing. I got to do a showcase that included some of my favorite artists, like San Holo, Sweater Beats, Chrome Sparks and a lot more. I really loved NXNE in Toronto, as well.
What DAW do you use and why?
I’ve used so many over the years, but now, I do everything in Ableton, composing, mixing, mastering, and performing. It’s the best thing I’ve found that allows you to creatively make different pieces of music, and randomly trial-and-error how pieces fit together like a puzzle. It’s really freeing to be able to work that way, verses lining all your pieces up on a linear timeline, and building song sections that way. It’s also really fun to perform with, triggering audio clips, and throwing in sound effects on the fly.
Do you have a typical music production process? If yes, can you explain it?
Since I’m influenced by so many genres, it’s hard for me to just pick what type of song I want to make before starting on a track, so I don’t fight that. I usually just start by searching for a sound element or virtual instrument that inspires some feeling. After that, I follow it down a rabbit hole, in a way. Depending on what vibe I’m getting from the initial sounds I used and chord progression, I can start to hear/feel how the drums should sound, and I’ll adjust the tempo before starting to add percussion sounds. From there, it’s a whole building process, all driven by feeling. I just go were it takes me, and I never force it. I can’t even complete a song, unless I’m in love with it and feel like I could listen to it over and over.
What is your favorite MIDI Controller or instrument to produce with right now?
In addition to a few other keyboards, I use the Ableton Push 2 when producing and performing. It’s definitely my favorite piece of gear. The tech is deep, and it makes everything easier. I don’t even need to look at my laptop screen when I’m performing, and my sessions are really involved, so that says a lot.
What is one of your favorite or go-to VST Plugin?
I use Native Instruments Komplete, which is more of a collection of VSTs, but it’s definitely a go-to. So many options to choose from to spark ideas.
Do you have a key production tip for our young producers out there?
I’d encourage young producers to take a class on audio mixing, or take lessons from someone who knows. Sooner or later you’ll realize how important it is for you to be able to manipulate the sound spectrum, and be able to bring all your ideas to life. Plus, it’s great to not need someone else in order to finish your own song.
What food do you eat the most?
I’m vegan, so mostly fresh vegetables, big salads, and thick hearty soups.
What is next for Conrad Clifton?
Well Beautiful Tragedy came out this spring, and I released the Nitemare remixes in the summer, but I’m ready to put out some more new music. So I’m currently finishing a follow up to the album. It’ll have a crazy remix of Time on it, plus some really vibey new originals, and a surprise VIP mix. Beautiful Tragedy was such a strong overall project, and I just want to continue where it leaves off, like a stream of consciousness in a way. You’ll understand when you hear this new EP. Can’t wait to share it!