THE INSPIRATION BEHIND… Allen Clapp’s “Something Strange Happens”

The 1994 tune from Clapp’s debut continues to inspire.

 BY TIM HINELY

Ed note: We continue our series devoted to tunes that hold special places in our hearts and in our collective experience as devotees to and lovers of timeless indie rock. To kick the series off, we asked Eric Matthews, of both solo and Cardinal fame, to talk about his classic number “Fanfare,” from his 1995 Sub Pop hit It’s Heavy in Here. Next was Bill Janovitz of Buffalo Tom pulling back the curtain on one of his early gems: “Taillights Fade,” from 1992’s Let Me Come Over, cut with fellow bandmembers Chris Colbourn (bass) and Tom Maginnis (drums). After that we dipped way back to 1970 for the proto-power pop of Crabby Appleton’s “Go Back,” penned by frontman Michael Fennelly, and then fast-forwarded to 2000 for John Conley talking about his band the California Oranges and their pop gem “John Hughes.” Now Prof. Hinely lands in 1994 and a slice of pure pop perfection, Allen Clapp’s “Something Strange Happens.

It had to be sometime in the early ‘90s that I first heard the music of Allen Clapp. A fresh-faced gent who called the Bay Area home. He began releasing 7”s on several different labels (in our country mostly on Brian Kirk’s Bus Stop label). I booked him at a local café in Santa Rosa, California and it was a pleasure to find out that not only did I love his music, but in person he turned out to be a great guy (I can’t imagine anyone saying a bad thing about him). This particular song came out on his 1994 debut LP (under the name Allen Clapp and his Orchestra…these days he still leads his longtime combo The Orange Peels) called One Hundred Percent Chance of Rain. The song just….hit me! That clap-happy drum beat that opens the song, a purring organ and then Clapp and his boyish vocals and jangly guitar pop in and all added up to a near-perfect pop song. I was curious about the origins of the song so I shot some questions to Mr. Clapp and……

Allen began with, “Just incidentally to this request, the Orange Peels are embarking on the recording of album No. 7 in a few weeks, working again this time with Bryan Hanna, the Minneapolis studio wizard who produced our first album, Square. It’s kind of appropos, because this year is the 20th Anniversary of Square. So, at any rate, the guy who recorded The Orange Peels making our version of Something Strange Happens is flying out to our mountain studio in Boulder Creek to record us again 20 years later. Surreal. And good timing on your part for asking about that particular song!”

What was the initial inspiration for the song?

It’s a song about all sorts of things — everything that’s important to me, realy. But to be more specific, it’s about the quicksilver moment you realize some big life-truth — that lightning bolt from the clear blue sky that you can’t explain, but that changes you in some significant way. You might be realizing for the first time that you’re in love, or that someone or something is more important to you than you previously thought. The moment of realizing something like that. Or it might be a realization of how you fit into the universe. For me, it was all those things. It’s a song from my younger self to my wife Jill, it’s a song to God, it’s a song to the universe, and the seasons. It’s about realizing how dependent I am on them, and how my dependence on them frees me to be who I’m supposed to be.

Did it take long to finish writing it?

No! This is one of those songs that arrived fully formed in the blink of an eye. It’s the kind of thing you always hope will happen to you as a songwriter, and it did not disappoint. It happened while finishing some routine shopping at the market. I loaded the bags into my car (a 1967 Ford Falcon, at the time), opened the door, put the keys into the ignition and boom, it just flooded over me. The melody for the chorus just started playing in my head and I sat there with my hand on the key for what seemed like an hour. I’ve replayed this over and over in my mind a thousand times, and I’m still just amazed by it. So after hearing the song play in my head — the swirling organ in the intro all the way through the hymn-like ending — I finally turned the key, started the car, and drove home where I immediately fired up the Tascam four-track and began making a demo.

Any idea how your long time fans feel about it (ie: would it be considered a “fan favorite” or anything?)

I think the song has its fans. It appeared on a few indie-pop compilations over the years, and it’s maybe the only one of my songs that’s ever been covered by another artist — Jim Ruiz and Shoestrings recorded a lovely, haunting version of it as a bonus track to Jim’s second album, Sniff. Every once in a while, someone will come up to me and say something about that song, or ask me something about it. So it is a special song to a few people out there.

Was it a staple of your live sets ever years later?

It’s always something we talk about playing. I think I felt obligated to play it for years, and finally the last tour we did in 2015, we just left it off the set list. That felt kind of weird, but liberating too. After playing it for basically 20 years, it was nice to take a break from it. Will it come back on our next tour? Maybe. Probably.

Is there anything about the song you’d change?

Well, since I recorded it twice, you’d think the answer would be “no.” The first version, on “One Hundred Percent Chance of Rain,” is everything I wanted it to be. Even on four cassette tracks, it captured that mysterious thing I was after. When we signed to Minty Fresh and they wanted us to re-record it for “Square,” we didn’t really change anything in the arrangement — we just made a different recording of it in a great studio with a great producer. I guess I wish we would have done something a little different the second time around on it, but for the life of me, I couldn’t imagine what that would have been at the time. Drop out all the guitars on verse 3? We’ve done that live, and it’s kind of intimate, but who the heck knows. We’ve done a live version with a drum machine for the first verse and chorus with the band slowly entering as the song builds. Who knows, maybe we’ll make a third recording of it someday, or maybe someone else will.

Tell me a little about the recording of it – where and when, how long did it take, any watershed moments or glaring problems, etc.?

The original version was recorded in the spare bedroom of our duplex in Redwood City, and it was a challenge to fit all those ideas onto 4 tracks. I had tried to record the drums in the Youth Room at our church, and it just didn’t feel right. So I took samples from the drum take I had on tape and edited them down so I had a snare, a kick drum, two tom toms and a hi-hat. Then I laid them out on the keyboard and just played the drums back using different keys as triggers. So I used that take to build everything on. For the longest time, I just had the drums, the bass, and the rhythm guitar on 3 tracks, and I knew that bouncing all those together was either going to make or break everything else I added. So that was nerve wracking. I took like a week, just listening every day, trying different levels and EQs. Nothing seemed to work. Finally, I tried just pushing all the faders way up and distorting the channel. I took a stab at the bounce, and that was the sound. Drums, bass and rhythm guitar all distorted a bit and combined onto one track — that’s the sound of that song. Once I had that, I could add the vocals, hammond organ, guitar melodies and finishing touches. I still can’t believe it came out as good as it did. It was the last thing I wrote and recorded for “One Hundred Percent Chance of Rain,” and it really made that song collection feel like an album.

How do you feel about it now?

Grateful. Surprised. Hmmmm . . . proud and humble. It’s a once in a lifetime thing having a song like that just show up. I still feel surprised by it mostly because I didn’t labor over it. I didn’t spend weeks writing it, even days. It just appeared. I feel like it was a gift that showed up and changed my life.

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