How Boredom Breeds Rhythm: A Conversation with Field Agent
Rhythm is everything to Stephen Lee Clark. “I’ve always said my entrance into music is rhythm; if I didn’t have rhythm, I’d be fucked,” he tells me.
We’re sitting on a rooftop in Brooklyn on a particularly sunny — and windy — day, the second of the borough’s annual Northside Festival. This year, Clark’s here to perform on the Pitchfork stage as Field Agent, his new techno-noise moniker.
Although many know him by his former role as a bassist in popular metal band Deafheaven, Clark is unfazed by stepping out on his own. If anything, he seems excited, ready to show old fans and new just how flexible rhythm can be. For Clark, Field Agent is less a departure than a perfectly sensible next step of his musical career.
Here, he elaborates on why boredom made him creative, how he discovered techno music and what lies ahead in the world of Field Agent.
Can you introduce yourself?
I’m Stephen Lee Clark. I have a project called Field Agent, and yeah, I’m pretty excited to be playing [at Northside Festival].
So why did you decide to go in this techno direction?
I grew up in punk and metal bands and I was in Deafheaven for a long time, and I’ve always listened to techno, I’ve always listened to house and acid, all this shit, and being a huge metal fan, you inevitably start getting into noise and all this shit, and then, yeah I was just like, I wanna do it.
We were on tour six, seven months out of every year, and I was just fucking [around] in the back of a van [listening to music]. I lived my life in the back of a van for years, and yeah, I was listening to a few things where I was just like, ‘Dude I gotta fucking start making this shit.’
So I just bought one of the cheaper samplers. You know, I just spent so much time in the back of a van and I was like, ‘I’m gonna try to be productive back here.’ I would fucking just waste my days, not waste, but I was just reading like fucking five, six books on tour and just be like, ‘I need to make something back here.’ So I got this MPC and it was cheap and I just started diving into it.
Yeah, so I just started learning it and I wrote the whole demo in the back of a van, basically. I did a split with a friend named Granite Mask, and that song was the same thing, and it was just field recordings. I was just utilizing my time. We went to Barcelona and I just literally was taking days of just walking around and recording shit.
I have something else coming out over the next couple of months and this is the first time that I’ve been able to sit down, not be gone all the time, not write it in the back of van on the road, so I’m excited to see how that goes. But yeah, it was just something I always wanted to do. I’ve always said my entrance into music is rhythm; if I didn’t have rhythm, I’d be fucked.
So it made a lot of sense when I was learning how to use Ableton and shit, to me it was just this grid that you plug into. I mean that’s what it is: it’s a grid that you plug in rhythm. And a lot of techno and a lot of stuff that I write, and a lot of stuff that I listen to is like just strictly rhythm. And I love that shit.
I feel like a lot people are like, ‘Wow, this is such a different direction,’ but for you it probably seems like a very seamless transition.
It’s very seamless. And more … I mean, I was in a band with my best friends for a long time, but now it’s just me and all my gear and I know everything that’s going on, you know what I’m saying? And it’s super fun. I really like it, yeah. And I mean, me and our drummer Dan always used to say, ‘Dude, we’re just so on point with each other.’ And now I’m just on point with these machines that I control, and I love it, it’s really fun. It wasn’t a crazy transition to me. It felt really natural and felt really good, and like, fun.
What’s the first techno track that you made? When were you like, ‘Oh wow, I could actually do this on my own?’
The first one I made, it was called ‘F 35,’ and it’s about an airplane, because that’s like my favorite shit in the world. And it was the first intro, really. It was the first track that I put all the way together and was just like, ‘This is the first Field Agent track.’ Yeah, it was my first experience with finding these riffs online … I didn’t have any money for this shit, and I would … I mean I still don’t, but I would look up synth demos and just chop them up and import them into my computer because I didn’t have any money for a nice synth, so I’d just try to find demos of really good ones. And I was like, ‘Man, this is fun as fuck.’ You know, this whole thing was me trying to be like, ‘Yo, I don’t wanna be in this fucking dark metal band anymore. I wanna fucking make dance music,’ you know? And then F 35 came out, and everybody’s like, ‘Hey, this is hella good, it’s fucking dark.’ And I was like, ‘No, I don’t want it to be dark.’
What was your point of entry into techno music?
The fucking Haxan Cloak record man, that Excavation record. I was listening to it in the back of the van … Two records, there’s that one, which is the embarrassing one. That’s the embarrassing one, because he’s a cool ass dude, and I kind of know him now and he’s super fucking nice, so it’s funny for me to be like, ‘Hey that record is like …’ But, for real, I was in the back of the van, and it’s so vastly different from anything I do. I was just like, this shit’s mind-blowing to me, man. And his love of bass was something I really was like, ‘Hey, I feel that so hard,’ because bass is my favorite thing in world. It’ll make you throw up.
There’s answers to the world in sound vibrations and I think that’s why I like bass so much. It was that record, and it was the Raime record, Quarter Turn Left of a Living Line, and I was literally just in the back of the van again, and I was like, in the middle of the night, driving in the fucking woods in Europe, pitch black, listening to these records and I was just like, ‘Dude, I’m not saying I have to make something like this, but I have to try to fucking … I just want to utilize this gear and make the heaviest bass shit I can,’ you know?
What was the first show you played as Field Agent? Where was it?
The first show ever as Field Agent was in San Francisco, and I didn’t even live there anymore. I think I moved down to LA, but there’s a record store in SF that is called RS94109, and seriously, I grew up in and around the Bay Area.
I was just lucky as fuck, man. I had friends that knew those dudes and they literally … Like that record store is the last shining light in the Bay Area to me, like seriously.
That was like a real big thing for me because in the beginning man, I was just like, ‘Oh I’m just some metal fool that’s gonna fuck this all up.’ But it went great and I was like, man you guys are fucking amazing.
Did you grow up in the city?
I grew up in San Jose. And at the time — I mean kinda still, there’s not much shit going on in San Jose artistically. If you dig, you’ll find it.
After San Jose, I left to go to high school somewhere else, because even San Jose, it was too expensive for my parents, for my dad. So I went to Central Valley, where the rest of Deafheaven is from, or two of them, Kerry and George. We didn’t know each other there, but we both grew up in this dark hole that had no culture whatsoever.
How do you think growing up in a place with no culture fosters your creativity when you don’t really have these other cultural things to reference?
It all depends. Like in a place like that … I think it’s pretty universal that lack of stimulation — a.k.a. boredom, right? It transfers. It all accumulates and it manifests into something, and it’s up to the person on what they want to do. And that’s why I think I feel lucky, because there’s a lot of small, nowhere towns in the mountains, where they don’t get shit for culture, where people manifest it into smoking meth, or people manifest it into watching TV every fucking day. And me, man, I was just like, so fucking ADD that I was just like … And I just felt so out of place because I grew up with nothing but like, you know, fools that I just played sports with, dude, and they were just like, the fuck? You know, you’re our boy, but you’re really fucking weird.
So that’s what it was, it was boredom. I started playing guitar and bass. Luckily I had a mom that was like … I told her I wanted a bass guitar and she fucking got this cheap-as-fuck used bass guitar and sent it to me, because we didn’t live in the same town. She sent it to me with a funk CD, and so I would just … Dude, I mean I was a kid man, I would just fucking rage in my room playing funk bass, by myself.
Do you have any upcoming music plans you’d like to share?
I have a record coming out soon. I don’t know exactly when, but within the next few months. I’m just trying to play as many shows as possible, and as many shows as possible that are good for the Agent.
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