In Conversation: Tara Clerkin Trio

The wonders of improvisatory art, and finding solace in Bristol...

The opening bars of a Bach suite travel through the chilly, mid-afternoon stillness of Stoke Newington Old Church. The music has been sampled, looped, stretched, and layered into a mesmerising sequence, courtesy of Tara Clerkin, Patrick Benjamin and Sunny-Joe Paradisos the Tara Clerkin Trio. The Bristol-based musicians are performing ‘Once Around’ from their newly-released EP ‘On The Turning Ground’ to a rapt audience. As Clerkin gradually ramps up the intensity of the delay, Paradisos picks up a white cello and begins to play long, drone-like notes whilst Benjamin brings in a dubby bassline on a small keyboard. It’s this particular reimagining of a sample, in all of its off-kilter, delay-heavy, dub-like glory, which makes the Tara Clerkin Trio a distinctively Bristolian band. 

“It’s sampled from a YouTube video,” Clerkin says about the Bach loop as we sit together with her bandmates at a nearby pub after the set. They are due to play again in a few hours – a second London show has been added due to popular demand. Above our heads, a football match is being shown at full volume, causing Paradisos to lean in as he explains further. “We did a YouTube party at a cinema in Bristol. If you press numbers on a YouTube video it skips around, and you can play it as a sample. I made a loop out of it and we kind of jammed over it.”

The band is relaxed, but their easygoing demeanour belies years of commitment to their music, and to each other. Prior to the trio, Paradisos was involved in psychedelic bands Taos Humm and the Edward Penfold Project, whilst he and Clerkin were active in an experimental collective called the Belvoir House Band. Paradisos and Benjamin, real-life brothers as well as musical collaborators, were also in a self-proclaimed angry, angular post-funk band called Luxury Dad. All three have a solo output. It’s clear that they’re at least partly responsible for Bristol’s diverse musical output, and vice versa. 

“Pat brought the jazz. Because he’s actually good at the piano and can play chords and that,” Paradisos begins self-deprecatingly. “We kind of called ourselves the Tara Clerkin Trio as a bit of a joke,” he adds, “because we’re not a jazz band.” Clerkin however acknowledges that improvisation is part of their process. “It’s how we make music. Quite often, we’ll improvise a piece that we then take bits from. We sample ourselves basically, just having a little jam.” This approach is heard in the opening track ‘Brigstow’, a dreamy percussion loop underscored by Benjamin’s jazz piano chords, inflected throughout with shard-like samples of melodica and guitar. Whilst Benjamin admits that the band doesn’t belong to any particular music scene, he acknowledges the influence of Bristol’s particularly thriving improvised music community, led by bands like Iceman Furniss Quartet and Big Fuss, as well as nights like Harry Furniss’ Improv’s Greatest Hits and No Clique. 

Further conversation dips into the parapsychic connections within Miles Davis’ groups, Tiktok videos featuring mad polyrhythms, and the divisive subject of Jacob Collier. “A lot of modern jazz has a tendency for everyone to overplay, so I’m not a massive new jazz fan especially, but I love a lot of the older stuff,” remarks Paradisos. 

This minimalist leaning, shared by all three musicians who cite John Cage and Terry Riley as inspirations, shines through in ‘On The Turning Ground’. The earlier church performance was reflective and meditative, restrained so that space took precedence despite the tempting array of keyboards, samplers, and other acoustic instruments scattered across the stage. It’s a careful, intentional approach to music characteristic of the band’s creative process. “It’s put together incredibly painstakingly,” Paradisos explains. “People describe our music as effortless. Actually, we spend fucking hours positioning everything, EQing it, and fading it in, every little bit of every song. Until you go insane. That’s just how we make music.”

He pauses. “But then, why do we intentionally make it sound effortless?”

“I like things sounding accidental,” Clerkin interjects. “One in a hundred times, you get something that is genuinely accidental, that is amazing. If we want a part of a piano take, quite often it’s really out of time, and it cuts off too short. But it sounds great.” This use of alternatively pitched, out-of-time samples harks back to the psychedelic sound of Massive Attack and Portishead. The bass-heavy, dubby flavour, which seeps through Benjamin’s synth lines, especially in ‘World in Delay’, is also another familiar hallmark. 

Yet the city isn’t just felt through musical influences, it’s physically embedded throughout ‘On The Turning Ground’ via the lo-fi, ambient nature of the loops. ‘Soundsaroundme_’, the band’s Instagram handle, was initially a field recording project begun by Clerkin as a way of documenting the sounds around her, which then started to feed into the trio’s music. “I realised that I had so many moments in everyday life where I was really enjoying the sound of the environment I was in,” Clerkin explains. Her attuned ear runs like a thread throughout the EP. ‘Marble Walls’, with its hint of sampled birdsong, evokes the feeling of wandering alone down a street, listening in a dream-like state to the surroundings.

We’re momentarily interrupted by two audience members who come to wish the band well, en route to their train back to Brighton. “I met someone earlier who came from Cologne,” mentions Benjamin. The trio are admirably trying to reduce their air travel, limiting overseas gigs. It could be one of the reasons why their adopted city speaks so clearly through their music. “We’ve lived here for fifteen years,” concludes Clerkin. “I didn’t even play music until ten years ago. So living here, learning how to play music whilst going to gigs, learning about the history of the music. It’s naturally informed everything we like to hear and like to make.”

‘On The Turning Ground’ is out now.

Words: Gail Tasker

Join the Clash mailing list for up to the minute music, fashion and film news.