Interview: Clarke Sondermann

Clarke Sondermann, as the figure behind The Washboard Abs and Pleasure Systems, is currently one of our favourite recording artists. This year saw the release of a new Pleasure Systems record, Antumbra Pull, and Clarke has been kind enough to answer some questions about the album and other more general things.

Hi Clarke, thanks for speaking to us! How does it feel to have you new album Antumbra Pull out in the world?

Hi! Thank you for reaching out. It feels good having the songs out there, and it mostly felt good to give the album a little bit of a spontaneous/quick release. I don’t particularly enjoy the promotion process or sitting on material for too long, so it feels like a weight off my chest to call these songs done and move on in a sense. Joshua from Antiquated Future is wonderful to work with, he handled nearly everything while still keeping my creative vision central. We wound up releasing the album less than two weeks after we decided to work together on it, which is a dream for me.

You’ve described the songs on the album as “thank you notes and love letters” to your partner, who is currently going through some pretty terrifying health issues. First of all, are you both holding up okay? And what influence did the news have on you releasing these songs now?

Thanks for asking, we’re trying to keep our heads up (which he’s better at than me most of the time). I gave him the final version of the album as an anniversary present, which happened to only fall four days before the initial hospital visit and diagnosis (stage IV renal cancer with metastasis in the lungs, spine and ribs). It was timed perfectly in a sense, I was able to give him this (in my opinion) grandiose statement of love and gratitude right before everything got distorted and scary. The songs on the album mean a lot to him, they’re a reflection of our time spent together and he tells me constantly how much strength he’s found in them.

I had talked briefly with Antiquated Future about releasing it before I got the news that he was sick (which rapidly transformed my world – the vast majority of my time was immediately focused on supporting him) so I’m grateful that we were able to get the album out so quickly. Like I said, I have a hard time sitting on material prior to release and I really wanted these songs out in the public as sort of a declaration of love.

We’ve been following your work (as The Washboard Abs and Pleasure Systems) for a while now. To me this seems like your most accomplished work to date, but I’d be interested to know how you feel your music has changed and matured over the last few years.

Thank you! This record is some of my proudest work to date. In the last couple years (really since I started collaborating with my current bandmates in the Washboard Abs, who are all far more skilled musicians than I am) I’ve started to take my musicianship much more seriously and really expand my vocabulary of harmony. But more than that, I write as an immediate reflection of whatever is happening in my life at the time, and I think that’s a much better way of charting the growth of the material. I wrote have u scanned ur club card? from the depths of a depression that followed the death of a couple close friends, I wrote Recurring Chasms as a statement on my recovery process from a sexual assault, and I wrote Antumbra Pull mostly about being head over heels in love and finding a lot of healing within a relationship. Goes without saying that I view Antumbra Pull as my happiest album, but it also feels like my most mature album. I think it’s reflective of the clarity I gained after writing so much material during the darkest points of my life.

How does the music you make as Pleasure Systems differ from the Washboard Abs stuff? Are they two very separate entities in your mind? Or do you use songs for either project depending on what you’re working on at the time?

The idea behind Pleasure Systems came about after the Washboard Abs evolved into a fully collaborative band. Working with my bandmates has been a transformative experience and I’m really humbled to be playing with them, but I had self recorded under the name for about three years at that point and really missed the process of creating music entirely on my own. The key distinction between the two projects for me is the recording and arrangement style, I listen to a lot of electronic music and wanted an outlet to explore digital sounds further – the band is a fairly standard two guitars, bass and drums lineup. There’s a little bit of give and take between the two projects though, I scrapped my Pleasure Systems version of “Through the Air” when my bandmates wanted to play it with me, “Haunt Me” became a pleasure systems song when the rest of the band wasn’t enthused about arranging it, and we’ve been playing “Bathroom Stall Prayer” as a full band in the last couple months.

Besides the aforementioned highly personal stuff, what are the current big influences on your songwriting?

Like I said above, I tend to write from a perspective informed by whatever’s consuming my exterior life. So these days, I’m writing a lot of pretty sad songs about watching someone you love battle serious illness. I’m sitting with a lot of fear and it shows up in the songs more than I want it to, so I’m consciously trying to shift into writing from a more hopeful perspective.

Past that, I have a deep admiration for the arrangements of Stephen Steinbrink’s songs, his music has this every-element-in-its-place type of perfection to me, there’s so much nuance and texture that all fits together seamlessly and somehow still feels restrained. In a similar vein, I find myself very drawn to the deceptively restrained songwriting of the bands Florist and Big Thief, both melodically and lyrically. My friend Mat Cothran (Coma Cinema/Elvis Depressedly) will always be one of my biggest lyrical influences, I’m constantly moved by his unflinching honesty through songwriting (this newest/final Coma Cinema album especially). Chris Weisman is my absolute favorite songwriter and has been a huge inspiration for me, but his music is so complex and intelligent I’m not sure his influence will ever be audible in my work.

What are your plans for the foreseeable future? Do you plan to tour Antumbra Pull? And can we expect more Pleasure Systems releases?

We have a couple exciting Washboard Abs shows lined up this spring in Washington state, and this February I’m going on a short east coast US tour as Pleasure Systems with Body Meat and Ada Babar. I’ve already started working on recording the next batch of Pleasure Systems songs, and the Washboard Abs are gonna start recording our next album early next year. No idea when those songs will see the light of day though. I’m still working on new material, but for the last few months (and into the foreseeable future) my energy has been pulled away from creative outlets and refocused on helping my partner. He’s recovering from two major surgeries pretty rapidly and regaining a lot of his strength, so hopefully we’ll be able to return to more normalcy soon. For me, normalcy is constant creative work.

Lastly, could you recommend 4/5 artists that you’ve been liking lately? They can be new releases or golden oldies, it’s up to you.

Well, my all time favorite album has slowly become Rendezvous With Rama by Ruth Garbus. I can’t recommend this record highly enough – it’s the perfect blend of soothing and energizing, it’s really mystical and healing music to me. My best friend Chris (who mastered Antumbra Pull) has a project called Body Meat that I think is the best band in the world at this point. The Washboard Abs put out a split tape with him on the label Citrus City this summer. His whole discography is mind blowing to me, and he’s been a tremendous help with critique and motivation. He constantly makes me want to work harder. Angela, the other guitarist (besides me) in the Washboard Abs, makes mesmerizing loop-based ambient music on her own under the name noneforme. She’s taught me an immeasurable amount about harmony and has really helped shape me into the songwriter I am today. The two of us also used to play in our friend Ben Varian’s backup band ‘The Ben Varian Approach’. Ben’s music is triumphant, melancholic and uplifting. He’s an absolute master of weirdo pop. Lastly, I guess what I’ve found myself putting on most often in the past year are the many projects of Lily Konigsberg. She plays in the group Palberta, is half of the magnificent electronic pop duo Lily & Horn Horse and released a wonderful split under her own name with Andréa Schiavelli this summer. Past that I’ve been listening to a kind of silly amount of Steely Dan.

Be sure to check out all we’ve written about Pleasure Systems and The Washboard Abs, purchase Antumbra Pull from Antiquated Future and support the rest of Clarke’s music via Bandcamp.

Photo by Heidi Kleder