In late 2007, Chad Clark found himself in the emergency room, convulsing from a fever that had lasted six days. “I was shaking like the characters in Jacob’s Ladder,” he says. Clark, leader of the group Beauty Pill, felt like he was dying, he says, and his doctors had no clue how to diagnose him, save that his ailment was probably some sort of virus. When his fever eventually subsided, he went home.
Some time later, Clark’s doctor was listening to his heart through a stethoscope when she paused. She could hear a heart murmur. “I think we should run some tests to be sure,” she told him.
A cardiologist diagnosed Clark with viral cardiomyopathy, an infection that had caused his heart to swell to the point of nearly killing him. And so on Feb. 22, 2008, surgeons opened up Clark’s chest. By March his heart was shrinking, while metal rings held his ribcage together. He couldn’t lift objects heavier than five pounds—which limited his musical activities to his laptop and his piano. He didn’t play guitar for a year.
“I don’t recommend near-death experiences,” says Clark, 38. “There’s a lot of clichés about near-death experiences, and most of them are true.”
This week at the Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint, suicide.chat.room opens. It’s an experimental work by Taffety Punk Theatre Companythat weaves dance, sound, and text, drawing words from usenet groups frequented by individuals with suicidal thoughts and compulsions. Clark wrote the music and recorded it with Beauty Pill—it’s the group’s first recorded work, aside from a demo posted to MySpace in 2006, to see daylight in nearly six years.
“I accepted the commission to do something seriously frightening to me,” he says. “If we’re not delicate with the work, we suck. There’s going to be people who are survivors at suicide.chat.room. We know that, and we have to take it very seriously. But we also suck if we’re maudlin or mawkish.”
In art, Clark says, “there has to be a degree of wrong or daring. Wrong is a spice.”
Clark’s lifestyle has changed significantly since his surgery. He takes things easier; he’s stepped back somewhat from running his recording and mastering operation, Silver Sonya; he hasn’t played live since a rainy Fort Reno gig in 2007.
But musically, a turning point came some time earlier, in 2006, when the group, then known for jagged and often lush indie rock, posted a rough mix of a song called “Ann the Word” to its MySpace page. A gloomy yet delicate song highlighted by keyboardist Jean Cook’s distant, pretty vocal, it was a large leap from the group’s earlier work. And thematically it was something entirely new, with none of the arch and impersonal sociopolitical commentary that drove Beauty Pill’s album and two EPs. “Ann the Word” was more of a nightmarish set piece: suicidal, resigned, crystalline.
“I put it up as a middle finger,” Clark says, as a declaration that the band’s sound was evolving—just as he originally conceived Beauty Pill as an antithesis to D.C.’s emotive, aggressive post-hardcore following the breakup of his ’90s band, Smart Went Crazy: “Our interest in femininity, grace, and detail developed as a kind of ‘fuck you’ to what we perceived as a stale hipster orthodoxy at the time. We took delight in running the other way.”
“‘Ann the Word,’” he says, “has very little to do with rock music.…it also has an almost Japanese feel to it.”
In the months after Clark posted “Ann the Word”, he says he began to hear feedback from fans who reassured him they liked Beauty Pill’s new direction (the song has almost 50,000 plays on MySpace). “‘Ann the Word’ has changed my life,” Clark says.
suicide.chat.room’s music reflects that. Several songs that Clark sent me, as well as ones I heard at a rehearsal, could be chopped and screwed remixes of “Ann”—all spectral female vocals; nervous, tinny drum hits; cinematic, industrial-sounding samples that move in three or four directions at once. Director Marcus Kyd says he wants suicide.chat.room to feel as though it’s simultaneously coming apart and reforming as it unfolds—a disorienting aesthetic that the Beauty Pill score channels perfectly. Kyd says that when he thought of Clark to compose for suicide.chat.room, “Ann the Word” came to mind. “It just seemed like the same wavelength, how it was dealing with mortality,” he says.
Clark began work on the score last fall, both in solitude and with his band. Mobile recording setups have always been central to Beauty Pill, and Clark does much work these days in public settings, using a MacBook, a Monome (a minimalist sampler controller that sort of looks like an LED display for a bus’ route number), and found sounds. He says he sometimes works on the National Mall and inside the Hirshhorn Museum.
“Those kinds of landscape changes in your mobility are going to have an impact,” Cook says of Clark’s post-surgery restrictions. “I think that’s probably contributed to the direction he’s headed sonically. He’s always immersed himself in these lush and detailed and very emotional and really cinematic soundscapes. That’s the kind of thing he could do before that he continued to do, but all the other things, like playing guitar, he couldn’t do.”
As for the group’s material that could end up an album? “There’s a lot,” Clark says. “There’s too much. I’ve spent a lot of time not very intent on releasing it.” Some possibilities, he says, are a suicide.chat.room soundtrack, an “Ann the Word” 12-inch, and two albums—a “nocturnal” album in the same cinematic vein as “Ann the Word” and a louder, “day-glow” album more centered on guitars.
While he stresses that he’s not a perfectionist (“I’m punk so I don’t know what I’m doing”), Clark says he’s approaching any new Beauty Pill releases with caution: “It is important to me that the next thing I drop is strong. I’m a very critical person. And I don’t want to pollute. Being part of indie-rock pollution would be a dismaying fate.”