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Interview with Thomas Clark of Divingstation95

Memphis indie pop act Divingstation95 just released a collection of emotionally-wrought and meticulously produced songs that delve into topics ranging from death to revenge, body image, and mental illness. The album borders on art pop, post-punk, and even dark wave, with lyrics that ruminate on grim places ranging from funeral homes in Memphis to the remote wastelands off 1nterstate Highway 45 in Texas, also known as the Texas Killing Fields.

I was fortunate enough to chat with Thomas Clark, the creative force behind the project, and we discussed a myriad of topics ranging from the pandemic, to learning to play the violin at three-years-old, Radiohead, and the new album, Fear is My Constant Companion.

Q: So my first question is how would you personally describe yourself as an artist? What is your style, and would you classify your music in certain genres or do you believe you transcend genre? Who are your biggest influences?

A: I’ve been calling myself “doom pop,” which might be a bit pretentious but it’s the best description I’ve been able to come up with. I’m making pretty bleak music most of the time, especially with this last album, and even though it goes into abrasive territory sometimes, I usually try to make sure there’s a fundamentally catchy pop song underneath it. I think a lot of artists limit themselves by setting out to make rock, or hip-hop, or electronic music rather than just letting the ideas flow. For the most part, I don’t actively try to make any genre of music – I just use ideas I think are interesting regardless of where they come from. That’s part of why Radiohead are such big heroes of mine, I feel like they look at music the same way.

Q: I totally agree, and that’s a perfect segue into my next question. I have really enjoyed how you regularly post mini journal entries about your influences, like Xiu Xiu, Nicole [Dollanganger], and Perfume Genius. Would you say that Radiohead was the first act to disrupt the way you looked at music as a whole and your approach to songwriting, or were there others?

A: Definitely – Radiohead was the first really big one. I wanted to be a writer as a kid, and then I heard “Creep” in the video game Rock Band when I was 10 or 11 and that basically changed everything. I dug deeper into their catalog as I got older and it blew my mind.

Burial also changed the way I looked at music, the things I could do with vocal manipulation – initially I didn’t want to use my own voice, so I applied the pitch shifting and autotune techniques he used.

Xiu Xiu was another revelation for me, and the most recent one I think. I first got into them though their album Angel Guts: Red Classroom and was amazed by how it was both brutally harsh and deeply sensitive and empathetic. This was extreme and shocking music, but it wasn’t just trying to push buttons. There was this really sensitive soul to it underneath the harshness, and that set it apart from a lot of the very abrasive music I’d heard before. I had long been obsessed with the epidemic of sexual abuse in our society, the way it’s covered up and treated like it doesn’t happen at all (especially pre-#MeToo), and Xiu Xiu opened a door and provided me with a blueprint for tackling such horrible subjects in a way that was neither preachy nor insensitive.

Q: That was another thing I found extremely refreshing, the way you unabashedly tackled this bleak subject matter–whether it be sexual violence, body dysmorphia, or death–and I was wondering how important it is for you to purge those feelings in your songwriting. How do you feel you are able to find a balance in your life while tackling such harsh subject matter. Do you ever feel that you need to take breaks and decompress?

A: It’s definitely really important to get it out into music. I have obsessive-compulsive disorder, so I don’t let go of bad feelings easily. My life is pretty great compared to a lot of people, but I spend a lot of time struggling with internal problems. I don’t really need to take breaks because there’s nowhere to run, as bleak as that is. We live in a time when things are very, very bad, and to me music and art is a reason to keep going, even if the subject matter is awful. I feel best when I can listen back to a song and go, “yes, that’s exactly what I’m feeling.” It validates those feelings in a way.

When I hear a song like Giles Corey’s “I’m Going to Do It” (“it” being suicide), it doesn’t depress me. It makes me feel like someone else understands. That’s what I try to aim for.

One thing I do try to be careful about is desensitizing myself, because if I’m writing about Junko Furuta and I don’t feel anything, that’s a problem.

Q: I actually wasn’t aware of the Junko Furuta and Nikki Kuhnhausen cases until I heard the songs you dedicated to them on the album, and I remember being in disbelief at what happened to these women and also feeling guilty for not knowing their stories. Did you feel it was almost sort of a responsibility for you to put those songs out for listeners who may have not been aware as well? I would also love to hear your thoughts on the concept of “revenge” since the legal system that had a responsibility to deliver justice to these women is so fucked up globally.

A: Yeah, I’m never sure how to say this without sounding self-important, but I do feel some obligation to write about these things, because it seems like so often people just don’t care. I have conflicting feelings about true crime as entertainment, because I found out about several of the deaths on the album through the unresolved mysteries sub on reddit, so I’m likely as guilty of indulging in that as anybody else. But it bothers me that these things get turned into pure spectacle for people to gawk at and get a thrill from. I feel like people respond differently to music than they do, say, a podcast – there’s a more visceral emotional response there. Songs can get under people’s skin.

As for revenge – I’m kind of an angry person in a lot of ways, and the idea of merciless justice is pretty appealing to me as an idea even if real life is more complicated. The way things are set up now, there’s no real way to make sure any kind of justice is delivered – our system of dealing with sexual abuse is so broken that the only resort victims have left is to rely on public accusations via social media, which comes with its own issues. I liked the idea of a pure revenge fantasy where everybody responsible gets what they deserve with no ambiguity. I wanted people to feel the hate and rage in the Junko Furuta song – to deliver a reminder of its realness in a way that hits harder than just reading the facts to spook yourself.

Q: How did growing up in your hometown [Memphis] shape your music? What sort of scenes, if any, were you surrounded by and do you remember what age you started playing?

A: I’m from Memphis, but the internet was more formative to me than any live scene. I used to go on this long-dead streaming service called Grooveshark and just devour hours upon hours of new music while I did my homework, from The Smiths to Aphex Twin. I had a friend who knew more about music than I did, and I got a lot from her as well.

A ton of great music has come from Memphis but at the moment the only type of music that thrives there is hip-hop, a genre I love and respect but obviously don’t belong to. Every other scene is kind of backward-looking, like at the moment the feeling is “well, we had Elvis and the blues, so I guess we don’t really need to try anymore.” It’s cool that all that history has been documented and preserved, but turning an entire music culture into a shrine for the past doesn’t seem healthy to me.

I was about three years old when I first picked up an instrument – I played violin – and was composing my own pieces within a few years (though obviously they were all terrible, because I was a small child). I never had any interest in following it as a career until I discovered Radiohead, though. They changed just about everything for me.

My mom died when I was young, so I was a disturbed kid – getting into physical fights and things like that. I was depressed from a very young age, I just didn’t know that’s what it was. Music became an obsession because I saw myself in troubled artists like Thom Yorke – they made me feel like I wasn’t alone. It was like having a friend.

Q: I love what you said about musicians feeling like long-distant friends cause that’s exactly the same way that I felt about the third-wave emo of the early 2000s, as corny as some of it was, because those bands were accessible and singing about mental health in ways that felt real and not sensationalized or mocked like it was in mainstream media. 

The glitches and distortions on the production with the track “Me and My Fucked Up Body” felt like they obscured your vocals. I was wondering if that was intentional, since being vulnerable and laying bare a lot of those thoughts can be a lot sometimes.

A: Part of why the vocals are mixed like that is because I just think it sounds good. But you’re right that that’s another part of it – it can be really uncomfortable exposing those feelings to people. And it’s not telling strangers that makes me uncomfortable, it’s family members who might listen to it and think of it the next time they see me. This is probably the furthest I’ve come out of my shell, though – I could never have written “Me and My Fucked Up Body” or “Suicide Forest” a few years ago.

The next album is even more upfront, though it isn’t quite as bleak. I’m trying to be more confident in how I write about sex, which is maybe the absolute most awkward thing for family members to hear me sing about, but it’s kind of unavoidable – I have a complicated and tortuous relationship with my own sexuality, and for a long time I’ve wanted to get to a place where I can comfortably dissect that in my work. Nicole Dollanganger has been a big inspiration there.

Q: With “Overseas” in mind, I was wondering how you feel like the current political climate has affected your work with all that’s been happening globally?

A: “Overseas” wasn’t supposed to be the first single, but I ended up releasing it that way because it looked like we were about to invade Iran and start World War 3. I deliberately wrote it so it would be dated to a specific time – the narrator was born in 2003 and turns 17 in 2020 – as a way to capture the way things were at that moment.

Outside of that, I would say the political climate has influenced the music a great deal but mostly indirectly. The perpetual fear referenced in the title might not exist if our civilization weren’t hurtling toward destruction. I spent about a year paralyzed in terror over climate change, smoking as much weed as possible to squash the feeling, and though the album was written after that period was over I think it came out the way it did because I was in such a dark place for so long.

Q: Lastly, I noticed that you also have another project in the works and I was wondering how being in lockdown has changed your approach to creating. Has it made you more productive, or vice versa?

A: Honestly, my process hasn’t really changed much at all, because I’m kind of a hermit. If not for work, I would go lengthy periods of time without leaving the house. It’s an unhealthy habit, but I isolate when left to my own devices. I’m trying to get better about that, though at the moment I don’t have much choice but to stay in my old ways.

The new album is coming together way faster than any of the previous ones, and I’m not sure why, but I’m not complaining – it feels good.

Fear is My Constant Companion is available on all streaming services.

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