Michael Volpe may seem less prolific than he actually is. Having risen to acclaim in 2011 as a cloud rap innovator thanks to production work for A$AP Rocky and Lil B, the man who performs under the Clams Casino moniker has been in rap's upper echelon for the entire decade.
"I never stop working. It may come across that way, because a lot of people don't follow my behind the scenes production work," the 32-year-old producer explains from his home in New Jersey. "I put solo music out fairly rarely, but it never feels that way to me. If I'm not putting out my own stuff, I'm always working on something new."
Clams' latest LP, Moon Trip Radio, is his first since 2016's 32 Levels. Not including a long-running instrumental mixtape series, the fourth installment of which was released in 2017, this is only Volpe's second official album. Despite his notoriety within East Coast rap, Volpe seems content in his role as a low-key hitmaker. Never drawn to the glimmer of New York City, Volpe has settled into suburban anonymity and welcomed a son into the world, who at two years old is already mimicking the tendencies of his old man.
"I'll watch him play this little drum and he'll hit it really hard. I'm not showing him anything, he just does it," he explains. "But he'll hit it really hard, and then hit it really softly, and then notice how he's changing the sound. That stuff is pretty funny and pretty surreal."
Baby Clams has also influenced his dad's production in other, less expected ways. "I never used to use headphones and now I've started stuff from scratch with headphones and am making things entirely while using headphones. That's a huge change for me. I rarely use speakers now," he says. This note reveals itself in the staggering details of Moon Trip Radio. Opener "Rune" builds around traditional Clams tools: trap hi-hats, pitched-down vocals, and murky synths. But the track is bolstered by the subtle ring to his snare drum. It's the kind of detail that gets lost on bad speakers but rings ecstatically through headphones. "Glowing Bones" sounds like a neo-classical take on rap production, with sparse, experimental drums backing whispered vocals and staggered, vibrating synths.
Moon Trip Radio is Clams Casino's finest work to date, the culmination of an artist tirelessly pursuing perfection and then scrapping it for the beauty one finds in the whimsical and random encounters of life. "I don't like to do things too purposefully. My process revolves around making sounds and following something that sticks out," he explains. "I really like to dig into the sounds I make, but I'd never sit down and think about something then do it. I just like to see where the music takes me." Read on to find out more about Clams Casino's intuitive approach to music, and why Moon Trip Radio is best listened to by yourself.
VICE: How has having a kid changed the way you approach music and your career?
Clams Casino: I'm so used to working from home. I have a studio set up in my house and now I have to switch up the process in terms of when I'm doing stuff and how loud I make music. It's funny, though. I have a bunch of toy instruments around the house and it's crazy watching him pick them up and figure them out. I have drums, pianos, and flutes all around the house. I just watch him try to figure it out and react to what he's doing.
Did making most of the record in headphones affect the way you made it?
A lot of the stuff is super detailed. My music generally is, but maybe in a new or different way. This music is very personal, because I recorded it in a more personal zone. I didn't realize it at first, but when I listen back, it sounds like music to be alone to. It's really nice listening to it in your own world. That's not something I thought about in the process, though.
How long did this record take from beginning to end?
It's hard to say because I started making it in early 2018 but a lot of ideas came from way before that. These are things that were repurposed, brought back, or started way before 2018. It's all over the place, which is pretty typical of my process. I'll generally have half of an idea that's four years old or something, and I'll bring it back in a new way. But I didn't begin seriously trying to put it together until about a year-and-a-half ago.
You work in big spurts, where you put a bunch of stuff out and then go away for a while. Where does that process come from?
As far as my own music, I'm pretty strict on myself and selective of what I put out. I want everything to be good enough to last forever. I have standard guidelines for myself that I have to put the music up against before I put it out. That takes a long time for me.
This record doesn't have any rappers on it. What made you want to tone down the collaboration?
I just go through cycles. I make a lot of music for other people. I love doing production for other people—making hip-hop with other people—but sometimes I get tired of that or I get out of ideas. That's generally when I get back to my solo music. I'll get bored or tired of that—or I'll finish something—and I need to refresh myself, start over again, and make some rap songs. It's natural and more about intuition than anything else.
You grew up listening to stuff like the Diplomats but more recently you've produced music for Wicca Phase Spring Eternal and Lil Peep. How has your music listening taste evolved?
I'll listen to anyone that catches my ear or is doing something interesting that seems different. I'll reach out or try to work with them if they've inspired me. It's all about stuff I haven't heard before or gets me excited. That's what keeps me wanting to do stuff. I don't look for new music to listen to, but when it finds me, I dig in. There's too much access to music these days. I don't want to sit at home looking for music all day. If something finds me, though, I'll listen a lot. That stuff refreshes my brain with new sounds and inspiration.
Do you listen to much music at home?
Yeah, I'm listening all the time. In the car, at home; it's a big part of my day, every day. I listen to a lot of new stuff—Lil Peep, Wicca Phase, Joji, and a lot of the artists I've been working with. I've been listening to a lot of film scores, too.
I know you're a private person. Do you hope your records get huge and you find mainstream success? Do you have goals for your albums?
With this project in particular, it felt like a gift or a thank you to fans that have been waiting for a while. This is the first full-length project I've done with completely new music that wasn't an instrumental tape-type record. There are so many fans that have stuck with me and have listened to my music for so long. They've been waiting patiently for a while. This record is just a way of giving back to them.
This is something they've wanted, and the timing lined up such that I wanted to do it and do it right. It all lined up and felt like the right time to do it. I was in the right zone, too. I played a lot of shows and met so many fans and I could tell they were waiting for something like this. I could feel that energy, it felt like the right thing to do.
Your projects used to be very sample-heavy, but you had to move away from that for some legal reasons. Can you talk about working with your own sound library versus handling samples?
It's a whole different world. It's a whole new layer of experimenting. It's fun and a way to keep me creative in a new format. I'm just trying to figure out how to make sounds I haven't heard before by myself. I like to flip the stuff I create, too, so it's almost like chopping samples. Now I'm just getting deeper into an entire world I'm trying to create. Instead of taking someone else's stuff and flipping it, I'm taking something unique that I've done. It adds a new layer for me. It opens up a new avenue for exploration.
You seem to have a lot of respect for your fans.
When I go on tour, I like to hang out and talk with my fans as much as I can. It's a whole different side from people sending you a message online or on Twitter. When you see them face-to-face, all over the world, and they talk about how deeply I inspire them, that's heavy. That's a lot for me, it's a lot to take in. I like to help people, because a lot of people tell me how my music has helped them. That's my motivation, that's what keeps me making music. It's really rewarding.