INTERVIEW: Clams Casino on His Creative Process & Keeping Control of His Sound

They say that good things come to those that wait. Today, we’re granted something very good after a long time waiting. New Jersey based producer Clams Casino has for over five years existed in two different realms of the music world – insane popularity among hip-hop heads, and insane popularity in the mainstream for his work with artists like A$AP Rocky and Mac Miller – although though the name itself has remained largely unknown. With his long awaited debut album 32 Levels releasing today, we got the chance to chat with him just as his career kicks into the next gear. Past work, his creative process, and control of his sound – he had plenty to say on it all.

Five years in the making, it’s surreal that your debut album is finally here. A few years ago you said that making music was just a hobby to you, what made you want to make it into a career?

Just when I realised I was able to. I never really thought it would be realistic, things kind of starting taking off own their own after I had gone through school. The music started taking off at the same time I was graduating so I just figured, “let me just see how far I can take it, and if it works out, it works out, and if not I’ll go look for a job.” It ended up working out so I never ended up getting a job for what I went to school for and just kept going with it. I think it happened over a few months. One of the big things was I’d gotten a bunch of music licensed on TV, for Adult Swim, the cartoon channel. They reached out and gave me a pretty good amount of money for the time for licensing a bunch of beats to play on their commercials. That’s when it kinda hit me, like “woah I can really do this.” So it was about five years ago when I became full time music.

Just on the note of your studies, you studied physical therapy and interned at a hospital while you were starting producing – what were your aspirations for that career path?

My favourite was working at a hospital in the inpatient department, which is like giving people therapy soon after surgery, or a few days after. I interned at a bunch of different levels of it. One of them was a little too much for me. My first internship was at a brain and spinal cord injury long-term care place, and I really wasn’t into that one. Then I worked with outpatients which was very light, people drive themselves to the clinic and do exercises and things like that, so I saw a good range of it. I liked working in the hospital, so I probably would’ve stuck with that.

Why call it 32 Levels?

It’s taken from a lyric from a Lil B song I had done, I’m God. When I was trying to think of a title the first thing I did was go to that song, because I feel like that was a major turning point in my career, and me making music. It really helped me find a direction, and where I was going to fit into music and my musical identity. I tried to get something from that song and it’s the first thing that popped out of that. So for me that’s the origin of it and why it’s special to me, but also I chose it because it can be open to interpretation for the listener. It can mean whatever, so that was important to me that they can think whatever they want to get out of it.

What do you want people to feel when they listen to this record?

Hopefully they feel or they hear things for the first time, or things that they’re not familiar with. I always hope to challenge people, and I don’t want people that listen to my music to be fully comfortable or to get everything or nothing more than what they expect. People that know my music, I hope that they get what they expect, but of course more, and I hope to challenge people and show them something new. That’s always something that I keep in mind, it’s at the forefront of everything that I make.

What made you realise you wanted to make your own album rather than releasing beats for rappers? Has that been a different process?

It hasn’t been too much. It’s a lot of the same, where I’m making a lot of stuff at home most of the time. I usually make the best beats that I come out with at home by myself, so that process hasn’t changed too much. Here and there I’ll make some things in the studio with other people or rappers but not very often. For other people’s albums and mine, there’s really no difference that I can see. For example, the Vince Staples stuff. We started working on the song for my album, and during that process he was asking for beats for his album because he had to finish his up. So those songs all came out of the process of working on mine, and the beat for his song Norf Norf on his album I actually made for my album. I couldn’t get anybody on it, and then he found it and made it, so it’s just funny how it works. So really, no difference from working on other people’s stuff and mine, it’s just where it ends up I guess.

I remember reading a while ago you saying that “I usually try not to think about who I’m gonna make [beats] for.. cause then I end up thinking too hard and it doesn’t work right.” Is that something that’s stayed the same in producing your album? Or are you now making beats with people in mind?

That hasn’t changed. I would say that every beat that is made, if I make it for somebody in particular, I’ll give it to them or they just won’t end up using it. But, that’s a good way to get stuff done – because then I’ll have a really good beat for someone else. I don’t know why, maybe it is because I overthink it, but for whatever reason, whenever I try to make something specific for somebody, 95% of the time they’re not going to use it. That’s still true to today, that hasn’t changed. So probably everything that was made on here was given to somebody else after the first person I thought of just didn’t work out.

And you don’t like to play a part in the songwriting either, why is that?

I like to leave that up to them. If they ask me for advice or with decisions they can’t make up their mind on, I’m happy to do that, but I don’t have too much to say lyrically to be honest, I speak in different ways. I don’t like to get too in the middle of that. Whatever they feel from the music I try to get that out in the best way and have them deliver that in the best way possible. I’m aiming for the best performance out of them.

Your previous work was chockfull of samples, particularly by female vocalists. 32 Levels has almost none of that. Why the decision to move away from sampling?

Well the process changed a lot mostly because of legal issues and not being able to release things that I’d sampled on. So after a little bit of that and finding that process a little frustrating, of sampling things and things not being able to get commercially cleared, after a while I had to figure out a way to switch it up. So now, most of the samples are basically being recorded either by me or by my buddies that play instruments. We’ll go into the studio and just record sounds, or play some drums, play a little guitar – not that I’m good at guitar or keyboards – I can do basic things, just enough for me to chop up and sample. I’m recording it all into my computer, everything still ends up in the process that I’ve always done as far as the software that I’m using and the computer program and stuff. The only difference is now I’m recording audio into it. I’ll be at home or running to the studios. In the process of this album I was going to a few different studios in New York and LA, and London, and the main points of those trips are to record sounds. I would go the studio for a week at a time or five days and just block it out, and record as much as I could, and not really even try to be making beats but just be recording all this sample material. When I got home I would just take everything that I’d collected over those months and during those sessions and I’d have stuff to pull from. I was gone for almost a whole year just going to studios and just pulling as much sounds from everything that they had.

With Rainforest and the release of your instrumental mixtapes, you really demonstrated how your music is able to sustain itself not only with vocals, but also as a standalone product. 32 Levels is fitting in your trend, getting a release with all the features, as well as an instrumental version – has that always been something you wanted to do?

I did that because, firstly I didn’t know how the album was going to end up. When I first started working on it I really didn’t know. My intent was just to make music and whatever ended up being the best stuff would be what went on. So I didn’t know if it was going to be all hip-hop, or mostly hip-hop and some instrumental or some singing stuff. I really didn’t have any idea so I was just going with all different types of artists, whoever I could work with, and just experimenting. I got a lot of stuff I really liked, but not instrumental stuff. I know that’s such an important thing, especially for my fans and people that just want to hear from me, so either way, however it ended up, I wanted to make sure that there was a way to get access to all of the instrumentals. I know people are really interested to hear that, and there’s a lot of detail in there that I really want people to hear. Sometimes with the vocal stuff you just can’t hear that. It’s just a whole other layer and an experience that the listener can have, and so I’m glad to be able to have that for them too. It’s two listening experiences in one.

Did you know you wanted a certain number of instrumentals on the album from the beginning, or is that something that shifted and changed?

It definitely shifted and changed. Some of them were made in the studio with the artist, but I would say most of them, probably three quarters were made at home by me first. Some of the ones that are instrumentals are just ideas that never got finished. Like for example there are some beats on there that are instrumental, but I tried to get rappers on them for months or even longer. If nobody ended up using them then I would say, “okay, well now I’ll make an instrumental version of it.” I would treat it a little differently. I knew I’d have a little more room to add some detail, and tweak it. Usually it’s just because they’re laying around and I want people to hear them and nobody has used them.

It goes without saying that you were instrumental in the creation of the ‘cloud rap’ sound, which has now become much more mainstream with artists like Rocky becoming so huge. How has that knowledge influenced the creation of your music?

I’m aware of that and I try not to let that affect it. I just think it’s something that I did naturally, and I feel that of course I’ve played a big part in bringing that to light, but I feel like if other people start doing it and I stop doing it then that’s me giving it up to them. I don’t see why I should do that, so I just keep doing my thing and I do what I always do and if people want to try to copy it then they can do it. I definitely don’t feel like shying away from that just because other people may try to do it. It’s mine and I’ll continue to do what I always do.

Now that your debut is out, are you already planning your next move? What’s next?

I’m just getting back into making music again. There’s a lot of stuff I want to do. I want to move into scoring, soundtracks and film things like that. Also just getting back into other people’s albums and working behind the scenes, so it’s a little bit of everything. It’s good to not be working on the album anymore, it’s a little refreshing. I was getting so deep into it so it’s good to just do anything right now. Whatever comes in I’m happy to work on some new stuff right away.

Check our full review of Clams’ debut 32 Levels here.

Image: Pitchfork