If you knew absolutely nothing of Toronto rock trio The Cliks, a band with a slightly mind-boggling history of lineup and gender changes, angst-filled music and notoriety south of the border, at the very least, you could immediately peg guitarist Lucas Silveira as the lead singer — he’s easily the loudest one.
Seated in a semicircle in their cozy rehearsal space in the Annex — a tiny garage decorated with handmade mementos, equipment stacked to the ceiling and no toilet — Silveira, drummer Morgan Doctor and bassist Jen Benton have convened for the first time since returning home from a mini-tour of the northeastern US to play an intimate show for a friend’s birthday and do an interview.
Outside it’s a rainy and cold spring day. When the subject turns to touring and its emotional and physical toll, the room heats up. The chatter comes fast and furious from all directions as the band members finish each other’s sentences.
“It was frickin’ exhausting beyond belief,” says Silveira.
“When they do longer tours somehow you do get little breaks,” adds Doctor. “On the shorter tours they’re just like, ‘Cram it all in.’”
“We were gone for 12 days and it felt like a month of nonstop. We didn’t have one day off,” adds Silveira.
“Twelve days for us is a short tour,” says Doctor. “We’ve been out for five weeks and we were getting into the habit of that being our norm.”
“We got back and we were like, ‘Red Bull and vodka save my life!’” Silveira gasps with operatic flourish, and then sums up flatly, “Yeah, we hate it. It sucks.”
For a band of The Cliks’ stature touring is a grind, but they know they have it a lot better than most: They travel with a tour manager, a sound guy and the publicity department at their major labels (Warner Music in Canada and Tommy Boy imprint Silver Label in the US) schedules interviews. They sleep one star up from the Motel 8, but share a room. They travel with all their gear in a 15-seater van and eat a lot of fast food.
The Cliks’ 2007 breakthrough sophomore album Snakehouse was precipitated by Silveira’s multiple family and personal traumas: a messy breakup, three lineup changes (“You mean, on the last cover of Xtra, they weren’t there?” he jokes), family death and illness and a decision to transition from female to male (he was born in Toronto as Lilia to Portuguese-Canadian parents), to name a few.
A stint on Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors tour alongside Margaret Cho and The Gossip, an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live singing “Money Changes Everything” with Lauper and airtime on The L-Word and the Logo Network has consolidated a queer following in the US. One fan has even created a MySpace fanpage in Benton’s honour. The band spent May touring as the opening act for legendary rockers New York Dolls.
For the third Cliks album, Dirty King, Silveira absorbed the turmoil of a professional musician’s nomadic, lonely existence: the weird feeling of a trembling fan’s hand, meeting new people every day, never having time alone and then feeling completely out of sorts upon returning home.
He spit all that disillusionment back at listeners in the form of 11 revved-up and occasionally graceful pop/rock tunes. He’s hoping this record will earn the band a wider following and shift the conversation from his gender transformation to the band’s more nuanced sound.
“After releasing Snakehouse I didn’t think this band would ever be commercially viable,” he says. “I thought the music was commercially viable but I just thought because of the sexuality and me being trans, I thought it was really going to impede everything. And it didn’t at all. Lucky us.”
Far from a hindrance, The Cliks’ intriguing backstory piqued the curiosity of Syliva Massy, a veteran producer and sound engineer best known for her work on Tool’s Undertow album. A mutual friend of Benton’s had worked in Massy’s Weed, California-based Radio Star Studios and showed her live footage of the band performing a Halloween gig at Lee’s Palace. Massy liked what she saw and wrote to the band: “I want to throw my hat in the ring.”
“I thought they had something special that other bands don’t have,” says Massy. “They have an interesting story and a good energy. It’s an unusual and interesting story. Today for bands to stand out they have to have a story — and sometimes the bands that have interesting stories don’t make good music.”
Massy’s work with bands like Spiderbait, Cryptobiotic and Machine Guns of Loving Grace has earned her a rep as a hard rock producer, but since she started in 1985 she’s clocked studio time with everyone from Babyface and Prince to Johnny Cash and Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Known for her textured, analog approach to recording, Massy famously had Tool shotgun a piano for Undertow and on another occasion, chained a Marshall amp to the side of a cliff before tossing a squealing “sacrificial” guitar over the edge. One day she hopes to capture the sound of a train smashing into a piano.
Massy says she’s not averse to making a band uncomfortable to enhance performance, be it shining bright lights, forcing them to run around the block or restricting food and bathroom breaks. “That wasn’t necessary with The Cliks,” she says. “Bands like Tool, I have made them very uncomfortable. Sometimes voices get elevated but inside I’m smiling. I’m thinking, ‘Oh yeah, this is going to be great.’”
The Cliks’ waltzy track “Emily” is her favourite on Dirty King. It’s also the one that most strongly bears her stamp as a producer. An ode to a “pretty lady” that Silveira is in a relationship with (on which he refuses to elaborate), the song is a graceful departure from the The Cliks hooky, power-chord rock.
Silveira wrote it on piano but thought it too soft and pretty for The Cliks. Massy immediately liked it and encouraged him to finish it, eventually adding fuzzed-out bass, strings and sampled sounds of the band smashing a mirror on the street.
“Sylvia was like, ‘Just go and write.’ She didn’t say, ‘Go write this and go write that,’ says Silveira. “It really opened me up — like a lot. I was feeling a lot more liberated. I feel like I don’t have to keep writing these ‘Oh Yeah’s [the popular track from Snakehouse] over and over again.”
Away from the pressure of the record label in Toronto, Silveira was able to spend a month in Weed concentrating on songwriting. The band also cowrote two songs together, “Henry” and “Career Suicide” — a first for The Cliks.
Both songs happened spontaneously in the rehearsal space and “Career Suicide” went through several revisions in Massy’s studio as Benton experimented with calypso and punk basslines before settling on a four-four groove.
“To me, songwriting is this really personal space and I feel the most comfortable when I do it when I’m alone,” says Silveira. “Writing with other people is like having a therapy session and someone walks in on it.”
All three Cliks admit they can get feisty with each a lot but after several band member departures they’re mature enough to realize bust-ups are part of the business. Doctor is a veteran session percussionist and California transplant who has played with Bob Wiseman and the Toronto Tabla Ensemble and Benton has played bass in several bands and graduated from Mohawk College with a diploma in jazz.
When asked why this lineup works, Silveira laughs, “We love each other as much as we piss each other off.”
“I think we love each other more than we piss each other off,” corrects Doctor.
“No maaan!” Silveira retorts, “I hate you bitches!”
“Professionally we’re all on the same page,” Benton interjects, “and I think the album brought us together. We all got to express our own voices and they all seemed to have a good conversation with each other.”
It goes without saying the conversation was probably a loud one.