The Aaron Clift Experiment

The Aaron Clift Experiment returns after a 3-year hiatus with their third release, “If All Goes Wrong” that showcases the evolution of the band in general. Aaron, the band’s mastermind, vocalist and keyboardist, told Grande Rock about the line-up, changes and the stories behind the making of the album among other things…
The Aaron Clift Experiment band pic

Hi Aaron. Welcome back with your new album “If All Goes Wrong”. Do tell us… what are the changes on the band’s camp all these years?
A: The last 2 years have been a time of incredible growth and change for the band. We were nominated for an award by Prog Magazine in 2016 and performed a large show with a string quartet at RosFest in 2017, both of which brought the band to international attention. We had some major lineup changes as well, with Tim Smith joining the band on drums in January 2016 and long-time guitarist, Eric Gutierrez, departing the band in August 2017. For a lot of bands, lineup changes can be very traumatic, but in our case, we used the experience to grow and evolve our sound. When Eric departed the band in August 2017, we had already written the majority of the songs on “If All Goes Wrong” and were booked to record the album in November that year. Rather than search for a new guitarist at that moment in time and potentially delay recording the album, we took the Steely Dan approach and included guest guitarists on the album. The end result was a really diverse album with some of our strongest performances to date.
Can you say that The Aaron Clift Experiment is a full band now with the addition of Smith on drums, or they continue to be your personal music project?
A: The Aaron Clift Experiment has been both a full-fledged band and personal project of mine since its inception, but I would say that the band now is more collaborative than ever. Nearly all of the music on “If All Goes Wrong” was co-written with me and Devin North (ACE bassist), and all of the song arrangements were worked out in rehearsals with all of the band members.
Which are the new music elements that you introduce on your new album?
A: “If All Goes Wrong” is our most diverse album ever – in this album, we add a lot of new elements to our style of progressive rock, including: blues rock, hard rock, 1960’s-style pop, and jazz fusion.
What does the album title “If All Goes Wrong” declare? Is it connected in any way with the album cover?
A: I wrote the lyrics to “If All Goes Wrong” as a tribute to my wife, who has always been there for me whenever I’ve needed support. The message of the song is that when everything around us seems to be crumbling and falling apart, there can be a special person in our lives who can help us through it. The cover of the album definitely reflects this feeling of two people coming together to overcoming tragedy.
Give us a hint about each track:
A: “Faith”: A Rush-influenced heavy blues-rocker, “Faith”, is a song based around my experiences growing up Jewish in a very conservative Christian part of Austin where my peers would frequently “pray for my soul” and do other condescending actions toward me. I never really had a chance to express my indignation with this treatment, so it was really therapeutic in a way to be able to write and perform this song.
“Last Crash”: This bruising hard rock song was inspired by the reckless, narcissistic character of Cersei Lannister from the “Song of Ice and Fire” novels and “Game of Thrones” TV show (especially her actions in the episode, “The Winds of Winter”). Musically, it was heavily influenced by a lot of the grunge and heavy prog bands I grew up with like Alice In Chains, Opeth, and King Crimson.
“Absent Lovers”: Devin wrote this musical theater-inspired rock song as a tribute to several of his musical influences, including Jethro Tull, Andrew Llloyd Weber (specifically, “Jesus Christ Superstar”), and early King Crimson.  The lyrics are based around Oddyseus’ struggle to return home in Homer’s epic, “The Odyssey”.
“Better off Before”: Another Devin-penned song that pays tribute to the pop tunes of The Beatles and Queen. One of my favorite aspects of this song is Arielle’s guitar solo. A successful solo artist and blues guitarist and student of Brian May and Eric Johnson, Arielle nails the Queen vibe that we were going for in this song.
“Castle in the Sky”: A fast-paced prog song influenced by Yes and jazz fusion acts like Return To Forever and Snarky Puppy, “Castle in the Sky” is a one of the pivotal scenes from the Hiyao Miyazaki film by the same name.
“Savage in a Fancy Suit”: My tribute to con artists and hucksters who take advantage of unsuspecting victims, “Savage in a Fancy Suit” is an angry hard rock number whose music was inspired by one of favorite bands: Deep Purple.
“Dream within a Dream”: This neo-prog epic went through a lot of twists and turns from its inception to its final version. Along with “Absent Lovers”, it was the most challenging song to record for the album and is probably the song that benefited the most from the help of our production team of Randy Miller and Russel Miller.
“Wild Hunters”: This Police-influenced fast-paced rocker was my first proper collaboration with Devin and the first song that we wrote for the album. Up until we wrote “Wild Hunters”, the band didn’t really have a proper fast tempo song, so it was a nice way to change up our sound.
“If All Goes Wrong”: In September 2017, we launched a crowd funding campaign that helped us raise the funds to record the album. John Blangero, our top-tier patron, selected the grand prize of performing on a song on the album. Originally, we were going to let John perform Mellotron on “Absent Lovers”, but we soon realized that only a small portion of that song featured Mellotron and wanted to give John a better prize. So, Devin had the idea of writing an entire song featuring the instrument. Devin wrote the main music and framework for the album, and I wrote the lyrics and vocal melody for the song. John got some really beautiful sounds out of his 1970’s-era Mellotron, which really added to the vintage vibe of the song.
“Back to the Water”: This is a bonus track available exclusively on the CD version of the album. I usually record my song demos with only vocals and piano and then work on the band arrangements in rehearsals. However, when I shared the “Back to the Water” demo with Devin and Tim Smith (ACE drummer), both of them told me that the song sounded perfect with piano and vocals. When it came time to record the song, we thought that it would enhance the song’s atmosphere to bring in our friend, Milo Hehmsoth (a jazz piano performance major at the University of Texas at Austin) on piano. I love the way he was able to capture the feelings of childhood nostalgia and melancholy in the song.
Where did the recordings take place and who is responsible for the album’s mixing, production and mastering?
A: We recorded the album at Antimatter Studios in Austin, which shares a building with Austin School of Music and is owned by ASM founder, David Sebree. David is a long-time mentor of Devin, so it was really nice to work in a studio that has a personal connection to the band. Sebree is also a collector of vintage gear, so we had the awesome privilege of recording on some really nice equipment like the Dumble Overdrive Special amplifier.
Randy Miller, who has worked with a lot of major artists that we admire (The Beach Boys, Christopher Cross, and Eric Johnson, just to name a few), produced, mixed, and mastered the album. I’ve got to give a shout out to Randy for working his magic on the tracks – he was key in bringing the songs to life and making them sound good. Finally, I can’t forget to mention Russel Tanner, the album’s engineer, for his hours of dedication to this project. When you’re working with a lot of diverse musicians, it can be really challenging to make all of the songs sound like a coherent work, but Russel pulled it off amazingly well.

Do you think that “If All Goes Wrong” is close to what you had in mind since the beginning, songwriting & production-wise?
A: Before we recorded “If All Goes Wrong,” the band had several meetings with Randy to talk about how we wanted the album to sound. One of the things that we wanted to do with this album is capture the energy of live Aaron Clift Experiment performance. To that end, I think we definitely achieved what we set out to do. As far as the songs go, they turned out better than we could have ever imagined.
Do tell us a few things about the guest appearances on the album: Dave North (guitars), Van Wilks (guitars), Derek Halfmann (guitars), Dave Sebree (guitars), Fred Springer (classical guitar), Arielle (guitars & backing vocals), Kevin Chin (guitars), Jon Blangero (mellotron), Milo Hehmsoth (piano), Charles Anderson (violin), Lana Dziekonski (viola) and Ellie Prager (cello).
A: All of the guest musicians who perform on the album have either worked with the band in some capacity in the past and/or have a personal connection to the band. Dave North, brother of ACE bassist, Devin North, is a fantastic hard rock guitarist who added a lot to “Faith”, “Savage in a Fancy Suit”, “If All Goes Wrong” and the guitar solo on “Wild Hunters”. His solo on “If All Goes Wrong” (recorded in one take!) is actually my favorite guitar solo on the album. Van Wilks, a well-known Austin blues guitarist and friend of the band, plays rhythm guitar and a few leads on “Faith”. Derek Halfmann is a former guitar teacher of Dave North and very talented rock guitarist who performed on “Last Crash”. The song, “Absent Lovers” featured the most guests of any ACE song in history: Devin plays electric guitar on most of the song, David Sebree (owner of Antimatter Studios and a well-known guitarist in the Austin jazz and rock scene) performs on the electric guitar solo, and Fred Springer (a classical guitar performance major at the University of Texas at Austin) performs classical guitar. The song also has a string quartet consisting of Charles Anderson on violin, Lana Dziekonski on viola, Ellie Prager on cello, and Devin North on string bass. Arielle, a singer-songwriting that Devin met through their mutual connection to Austin guitar legend, Eric Johnson, performs some blistering guitar parts on “Castle in the Sky” and a really nice Queen-like solo on “Better Off Before”. Kevin Chin, my keyboard tech, Ableton mentor, and producer and engineer of ACE’s live album, “Live at RosFest 2017”, performs some epic guitar work on “Dream within a Dream” and “Wild Hunters”. John Blangero, the top-tier crowdfunding patron and winner of the “play on an ACE song” prize, performs some beautiful Melltron parts on “If All Goes Wrong”. Devin’s University of Texas at Austin jazz ensemble friend, Melo Hehmsoth, plays piano on the bonus track, “Back to the Water”.
What are the band’s touring plans?
A: We are performing some local shows this fall, but we are most excited about performing at Progtoberfest in Chicago at the end of October. This 3-day prog festival is going to be a great mix of bands from all over the world. We’re especially honored to be performing alongside greats like The Soft Machine and Screaming Headless Torsos. Beyond this year, we are hoping to perform at more progressive rock festivals around the world.
What are your expectations from “If All Goes Wrong” and what do you wish to achieve with The Aaron Clift Experiment in the near future?
A: “If All Goes Wrong” really challenged and pushed the band to grow and evolve. I would like to continue that growth and evolution in our sound as we continue to write and perform.
Do you care to sign to any music label, or do you prefer to do things on your own?
A: Record labels aren’t really a thing in the music industry anymore unless you happen to be a big-name artist in pop or rap music or a legacy rock band (i.e. a well-known band that got its commercial success before the 2000’s). Don’t get me wrong – I know a lot of smaller-tier artists who are signed to indie labels and benefit from the name recognition of those labels, but it’s not like the old days of the music industry where the success of a band depended on being on a label. Fans have come to expect their musical heroes to be easily accessible, and with the growth of social media and direct-to-fan platforms like Indiegogo and Patreon, the DIY approach makes a lot more commercial sense to me, especially in a niche genre like progressive rock.
Do you think the progressive rock music has some “specific” principles that any prog band should follow, or prog music is about music freedom in general?
A: There aren’t any hard and fast rules in music, though there are conventions and stylistic elements that need to be considered.
It’s time for our “weird questions”!!! What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the words:
Rockstar: Mick Jagger
Prog Rock: King Crimson
Rock & Roll: Chuck Berry
Music: Can’t live without it!
Arts: Along with science and math, the cornerstone of our civilization
If you could “erase” one thing from modern music, what would it be?
A: I would love to see less snobbery and more open-mindedness among music listeners toward discovering new genres of music.
Which are the best 3 Prog Rock albums according to you?
A: They aren’t necessarily the “best” progressive rock albums, but my 3 favorites progressive rock albums are “Selling England by the Pound” by Genesis, “Hounds of Love” by Kate Bush, and “Discipline” by King Crimson.
Fill in the phrase… “Prog Rock music wouldn’t have evolved the way it did, if it hadn’t been for…”
A: The innovations of The Beatles…
Top 3 sci-fi movies of any era?
A: “2001: A Space Odyssey”, “Back to the Future,” and the “Star Wars” original trilogy (I’m kind of cheating here since they are 3 movies and are more science-fantasy, but I still love them)…
If you had the opportunity to invite any famous person, living or dead, over for supper whom would you choose and why?
A: I would have loved to meet Frank Zappa because he’s extremely intelligent, talented, and funny. I know that we would have a lot of interesting conversations.
Which is the record you wish you had written and why?
A: “Abbey Road” by the Beatles because it’s considered to be one of the greatest musical achievements of all time and is still beloved by millions of people.
Were you obliged to give just one album to extraterrestrials that would represent the whole human music, which album would it be and from which band/artist?
A: I can’t really think of a single album that would do all of humanity justice, but either the collected works of Mozart and/or The Beatles would be a great start.
If you had the chance to travel in time… where would you choose to go? To the past or the future and why?
A: The turn of the 20th century in Europe is one of my favorite eras of art and music, so I guess I would want to travel back in time to see the art scene that was going on in Paris around that time. Time to brush up on my French!
Which character from the “Lord of the Rings” would you like to be – if you lived in the Middle Earth?
A: I would want to be Gandalf because I would enjoy being able to use magic and create cool fireworks displays.
Imagine that your wife is selling your whole album-collection just to buy an expensive ring for herself. How would you react?
A: I would wonder if a body snatcher took over my wife because she is just as cheap as I am when it comes to buying material things.
Thank you very much for talking to Grande Rock Aaron. Just say anything you feel like saying before we close … take care dude!
A: Thank you so much for the interview and the fun questions. I really appreciate it!