Q&A: Dedric Clark of Social Animals on losing his ‘Best Years’ and finding new ones

Social Animals, Dedric Clark

Social Animals. Courtesy of Rise Records.

When you’re desperate for paying work, you take anything available to you. That was the case for Duluth, Minnesota’s Social Animals, who had followed a motto to never say “no” to an offer. That’s how the quartet found itself with a gig at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire one day and a tour starting in Seattle three days later.

“We had to drive like 50 hours to get there,” singer-guitarist Dedric Clark said in an interview earlier this year. “We couldn’t stop. … It was in the middle of the night, driving, and [I asked], ‘What the hell are we doing? We’re all like grownup kids, traveling around, sleeping in this van forever. Is this even worth missing out on all these things that I’m clearly missing out on?’”

This was, of course, long before the entire touring industry shut down because of COVID-19.

During their earlier years in the van, what Clark, guitarist Tony Petersen, drummer Boyd Smith and bassist Roger Whittet were missing was the relationships that they had to put on pause, with friends, family and significant others who continued on without them. The first time the band left on tour, their relatives held a going away party for Social Animals. When they returned, the people in their lives were there to greet them. But as they started drifting back and forth like ghosts, their loved ones began to move on.

This was the inspiration behind Social Animals’ song “Best Years,” as Clark sings, “Some nights when I drive, I’m not sure who steers/ I can’t tell if I’m wasted or just wasting all my best years.” Nearly a decade after getting their start, the future is looking clearer for Social Animals, who have toured with the likes of Angels & Airwaves, signed with Rise Records and no longer have to book their own tours.

The cross-country drives in the van weighed Clark down, but he never questioned Social Animals’ dream.

“It’s, like, ‘Shit, I hope I really love this. I hope I want to keep doing this,’” he said. “We just knew it was gonna work. I don’t know how or why, but we could all tell.”

No one’s playing shows now. Social Animals were in the middle of a European and were set to open a U.S. jaunt with Beach Slang with shows at Berkeley’s Cornerstone and San Francisco’s Bottom of the Hill. Everything ended up falling apart. Instead of criss-crossing the country, Clark is explaining how he’s home in Nashville while the bandmates are spread throughout Minnesota and sharing updated about the unrest caused by the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police office.

“We’d just finished our first year of ‘time off’ as we put the finishing touches on the [forthcoming new] album,” Clark said, by email in June. “We aren’t used to being off the road for this long. We always joke that we are in purgatory, that maybe we died somewhere along the road together and we are now forced to live in a constant state of one step forward, two steps back. For example, we worked tirelessly to get this album just how we wanted it, only for [single] “Get Over It” to be released at arguably the worst time to release music in the last 100 years. But this pandemic doesn’t care about our wants and needs, and we recognize how lucky we are to be alive and healthy.”

RIFF: Social Animals have been together for almost a decade. How’d you meet?

Clark: In one form or another, yes. I didn’t play music or do anything, really … until the very end of high school. I’d watched our guitar player, Tony. He was the music guy at my tiny, tiny school in northern Minnesota. I got out of school and eventually linked up with him just because I started playing live in Duluth. There’s was really nobody else to play with. We started that and then we became really good friends.

Boyd, the drummer, thought we were good for some reason. He never should have because we were awful then. He wanted to join, too. We let him—and we didn’t like him. After the first show we tried to fire him in our Minnesotan passive-aggressive way. I was not able to actually tell him. So he just refused to not come to the shows, which was super awkward. He would just come and set up—like literally come to the show we told him not to come to and set up before we got there. It was too awkward to say no, and then he eventually got really good and became my best friend, but it was a weird process.

Roger, the bass player. … We drank a lot in college. Most of our shows were basically just to get free alcohol. It’s what we played for. I was going in [to a liquor store] on like a Tuesday or Wednesday morning to get a case of beer and he was working there. He was playing bass behind the counter. I asked him to play the show with us [that night] because I was sick, and I figured I could be hidden a little bit better in the noise if there was another bass player there. He came, and joined and never quit.

Is Boyd’s story something you guys still talk about?

Yeah, we do. He doesn’t like it that much. He thinks it’s funnier now, but he’s like, “I don’t know if you should tell people that.” I’m telling everybody. It’s awesome. It makes him look relentless, which I love. Which he is.

A couple of years later you moved to Portland. What pulled you to the West Coast?

We’d done one tour outside of the Midwest, and we were planning on taking the band full-time as soon as I graduated college. Everybody was just waiting for that to happen in May. We figured that the best way to get really good was to give ourselves no other choice but to make our living completely off of it. So we were all going to move away somewhere together, and Portland was just the place that we liked on the one tour we did together. We just all packed up our lives here and moved out there, found a house, just toured nonstop and practiced nonstop.

Did you consider moving to a music capital like L.A. to start a career?

Kind of, but we’ve always done it so grassroots. In big cities, you either get signed right away and that’s how you make money, or you have a really hard time playing consistent shows and only doing music. In the beginning you kind of have to get a side job because the venues there don’t pay as well, or they go just off tickets [sales]. We were just finding any place that would take us, all across the U.S. … just to play music for two to three hours. That’s how that’s how we decided to do it, and that’s how we got so many hours in. Our No. 1 rule was that we weren’t going to get any other jobs. We had to figure out how to make money. Going into a big city like that was a tough option.

How long did you live in Portland, and what happened next?

We lived in Portland for two years and that was in 2014, ‘15, I believe. We recorded an album that got completely scrapped. … Modest Mouse has a private studio that takes up like a whole city block in Portland called Ice Cream Party, and we met a producer there and he somehow had a connection to that. We recorded a whole album in there that never saw the light of day, but it was really fun for us there. We learned a lot from it, and then we met our current manager, Rich Egan, who started Vagrant Records [in 1995]. He somehow heard about us and wanted to sign us. So we pretty much left Portland right after that. … And then we were just between Nashville [Clark] in Minneapolis [the rest of the band] for the next four or five years.

Going back to that album that never saw the light of day: What happened to it?

We were excited about it. … It was definitely more roots-based. We came to fruition in northern Minnesota, and the bands here are mostly acoustic-based, so our music was pretty acoustic up until we started creating the songs for [the band’s upcoming] album. …

We [decided] to take our sound in a different direction. It just didn’t feel right. Our goal at that point was to define the right label to release it and give it its first big push. We didn’t want that [album] to be the one that most people saw up until then. We were just in a different place, musically. … We demoed [songs] and it became really obvious that this is where we’re supposed to go. It wasn’t easy to scrap them, but I think it was the right choice at this point.

Any chance that some of the songs can get reworked?

I don’t know if I’m in the same place. … I feel like it’s kind of like putting on old clothes or seeing a photo of yourself from high school.

You’ve mentioned that your top goal was to not have to get in any non-music jobs. Were you guys able to stick to that?

We stuck to it and I still haven’t done anything else besides that. Boyd actually started a business here that he runs part-time when we’re not on the road. He does a landscaping thing around here. But now we’re about to go on the road for months. So he’s gonna have to have somebody else run it. … He’s just addicted to work. He just can’t stop.

What was the trip home from Europe like after your most recent tour was canceled as COVID-19 spread through Europe? What did you talk about together? What were your spirits like?

Insane. Basically 35 to 40 hours of straight travel. Our label and management were both under the impression (due to mistakes made in a “presidential” address), that we’d be stuck in Norway if we didn’t get out within 48 hours. A lot of people were under this impression, which therefore clogged the ticket sites, forcing us to take a zig-zag trip into Atlanta. We are generally pretty good at handing terrible situations together, since we have had so many. Plus, we had no idea how shitty this year could really get.

How does not playing shows affect the plans for the rest of your year?

It ruins them.

What about the album you told me about? Do you still plan to release it year or is it getting postponed?

I’m not sure, sadly. We’ll have a new single coming out here pretty quick, but we’re holding off on a hard date for release at this point. We’ll see what happens with the pandemic and the revolution first.

How are your personal lives going now that you’re home so much of the time?

I can’t speak for the other guys, but my life is consumed by recording and writing. I am currently trying to balance updating my home studio with eating. So far the studio is winning. But the ramen I’ve been getting is $1.29, which, by instant ramen standards, is basically like eating at a Michelin 3 star restaurant right here in my kitchen. So I’m kind of splurging there.

How are you supporting yourselves financially right now; are you worried?

I have been fairly diligent about saving money in the past, so I am just slowly watching it go down like I am the prisoner in “The Pit and the Pendulum.” I’m only worried in the sense that typically my income is directly related to touring and being able to play music for people every night, and without that my life as I know it is without purpose or meaning.

Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.

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