Feature image by: Anthony Harrison
Gregory Clifford, 23, has spent the last year touring, writing and recording with Austin based indie-psych rock outfit, White Denim. The band’s two newest albums, Performance and Side Effects, were released within half a year of one another and feature Greg on drums and percussion on several tracks. Drumhead recently got together with Greg before a show in LA to discuss his life as a drummer and how he ended up as the newest member of a band that’s hosted a very talented cast of drummers since they released their first album in 2007.
CW: What sparked your love of drumming?
GC: My parents got me a kit when I was about three. It was a Pearl Export Series. Because, they saw I was hitting on pots and pans when I was little. I started taking lessons when I was five, and I took private lessons up until college. I went to University of Texas for Jazz Performance. I graduated last spring, in 2018. And then I hopped on with White Denim in July.
CW: Before you joined White Denim, what type of gigging were you doing? What kind of stuff would you play?
GC: Everything that I could do, because I refused to get a real job. I’d make it a goal to have a gig Wednesday through Sunday. I would do a bunch of freelance jazz gigs, a few cover gigs here and there. I played with this one band called Swells, and they’re on a U.S. tour now…that group was an electronic pop band, and I used an SPD and ran triggers. I also played in this salsa disco band that would have salsa and cumbia breakdowns, but still pretty disco-y. That band is called Cilantro Boombox. … I don’t know if I really should have gone to school for music, because it was a lot of money. I got a learning experience, and a piece of paper. That makes it official I guess.
CW: Where did you grow up?
GC: Kind all around Texas. I was born in Strasbourg, France and my parents moved to Houston when I was about three months old. Then I moved to Shreveport, Louisiana when I was about eight, and then San Antonio for high school, and Austin for college. And now I’m still there.
CW: What do you like about Austin?
GC: It’s still the cheapest place for musicians, I think. Austin is cool. It’s small. It’s getting bigger. A bunch of tech companies are coming in, pushing up rent, but that’s happening everywhere. But the music scene is super tight. Everybody knows everybody. White Denim is a rock band, but what’s crazy is James [Petralli, founding member of White Denim] saw me at a jazz jam, and that’s how he picked me up. I was the house drummer for the night.
CW: Did you recognize him?
GC: I didn’t know who he was at first because for a period of time he had a big beard. I thought, ‘this guy seems pretty cool.’ And then I saw his name, he wrote his phone number on his receipt. I was like ‘James Petralli, holy shit!’ I had been a fan of theirs since I was in high school. It made learning all of their songs pretty easy.
CW: Did you have to learn the whole catalogue?
GC: I’ve learned every song basically from Stiff  onward, and then pieces from all the other stuff. I watched every live set on YouTube that I could find. [James] only gave me a list of like 30 songs, and I had to learn them in two weeks.
CW: How many times did you get to rehearse with them before you started playing a lot of shows?
GC: My first gig I had with them was at Float Fest, which is this small festival outside of Austin. So yeah, I had to learn those thirty songs, and we basically ran through them all in one day. We ran right through them, and it was fine. They do a bunch of medleys with their songs, so then we were able to string them all together. But since I had watched a bunch of their previous live sets, it made learning the medleys super easy.
CW: Do you have a favorite White Denim Medley?
GC: Yeah, actually! The album Side Effects that just came out, I play on the song “New York Money.” It was the first tune I recorded for them on drums. So we’ll do the first verse of “New York Money,” and then we’ll do “Mess Your Hair Up” from their first record, and then we’ll go into “Holda You” from Stiff, and then “Anvil Everything” from D. It’s really fun to play because you have to be on it for the entire medley. And they want me to burn the tempos, which usually comes naturally just because of adrenaline. And coffee.
CW: You recorded on several tracks on the two new records – when you were asked to be in the band, did you know you would be recording with them?
GC: When James gave me his number, he said ‘just come in for a session for some auxiliary percussion.’ So I laid down congas for “Small Talk.” Then two months after he asked if I wanted to record drums for a commercial. Which was actually the audition. From then on, he was just like ‘okay, here’s some songs.’ It was a low-pressure way to see how I worked with them.
CW: Did you actually record for a commercial with them?
GC: It was a cover of a song for a European soccer league…we put the White Denim spin on it. We recently did a Mountain Dew thing, but we didn’t get it. It was weird because they wanted us to do “America the Beautiful” but make it rockin’, but that doesn’t sound cool at all [laughs].
CW: Do you know any of the previous drummers of White Denim on a personal level?
GC: Yes! The drummer who played on Stiff, his name is Jeffrey Olson. He went to UT, and did jazz, but he graduated the year before I did. We hang out. He’s got some really cool projects. He’s an amazing jazz guy. I wish I had his finesse. And he writes really good parts.
CW: Could you talk about why White Denim has featured such a cast of drummers over the years?
GC: It’s due to a bunch of different reasons. A lot of it is time commitment. Like Conrad [Choucroun] who was before me, he plays with Patty Griffin. And he’s got three kids. …When we rehearse, we rehearse for like four hours at a time. It helps with muscle memory. And before Conrad was Jordan Richardson, but he’s so busy and he has his own thing. And Josh Block, their first drummer, he’s a really f*cking good drummer. He made all the parts hard for everyone else to learn [laughs].
CW: What’s the hardest tune you’ve had to learn?
GC: Probably “Anvil Everything,” if I’m trying to make it super clean. In the verse, [Josh Block] has this weird linear tom thing. He does this cross-over thing…your arms just look like this [windmilling arms]. And then the old White Denim stuff where it sounds kind of dirty and crazy, that shit is really hard to pinpoint. I would just watch all the live sets to see what they’d do, and try to get in that headspace.
CW: What do you like about playing with the rest of the band? [Steve Terebecki on bass, James Petralli on guitar and vocals and Michael Hunter on synth.]
GC: Aw man. Steve is so fun. He’s like, in it. He’s always in it. It’s really easy to lock in with him because his tone is crunchy but not fuzzy. Whenever we play gigs, he’s got three bass amps. He’s got a bass amplifier, a guitar amp, which gets miced, and then another smaller guitar amp to the side he uses to monitor himself. They’ll mic the guitar amp and it’s still enough crunch but not too “boofy.”
CW: I’ve seen that White Denim has been operating out of what looks to be a home studio called Radio Milk? Could you tell me about that?
GC: When we’re back home, we’re there all the time. It’s pretty great. It’s got a bunch of old vintage analogue gear, European gear, tape machines…the console is a 1960’s Siemens. They have a bunch of vintage microphones. We just got a bunch of vintage pencil condensers from Germany. But the studio is really fun, it’s a rehearsal space and we record all the time with our producer, Jim Vollentine. It’s our home, basically. We’ve done a Radio Milk showcase, where we had Son of Stan, who was our support in the Pacific North West, and Psychedelic Porn Crumpets, who are from Australia – sick band. Toro y Moi came by, too.
CW: Could you tell me about the choice to release two albums fairly close to one another?
GC: Since we have the studio, we’re just always writing music, so why not? We’ll probably release something else in 2020.
CW: If you had to choose a favorite of the two new records, would you choose Performance or Side Effects?
GC: Performance is good, it has really great tunes, but Side Effects has way crazier production. The process for each album was very different. Side Effects is pushing the boundaries for White Denim. Like on “Introduce Me,” the last song on Side Effects, there’s an old-school hip-hop sample that I play over, and a bunch of other crazy samples here and there. Side Effects and D are probably my favorite records. I’ve recently been jammin’ Fitz. That’s a crazy record. Even Tame Impala has credited Fitz as being an inspiration.
CW: Have you been able to get out and explore your surroundings very much on tour?
GC: Yeah, especially when we have double days. We were just in Portland for two days, and now LA. I get to leave my drums onstage, so I don’t have to show up until like 6pm tomorrow. My girlfriend is in town so we’re going to the beach. Maybe I’ll check out a drum shop.
White Denim is on currently on tour in Europe.
Listen to Gregory Clifford play drum set on “New York Money” in the video below: