“Baby sometimes i don’t understand you/But you’re the abstract art in my modern museum/And baby sometimes we fall apart/But the ruins of my heart stand like the Coliseum…”
-Molly Nillson, lyrics from I Hope You Die
You might know the name Cliff Mitchell. You might not. You might remember his band The Black Roses, which was once a staple of spit-and-sawdust bars like Lee’s Liquor Lounge, or maybe you missed his first go-around in the ever-changing, always moving world of Minneapolis music.
But it doesn’t really matter. The Cliff Mitchell today is a different man (animal) entirely. And that shows, whether intentional or not, in his latest musical project. Evolution is a word thrown around often when discussing a musician’s growth and change. And perhaps it applies here. Or, more accurately, is that it’s simply the logical next step for someone who has never been content to settle for just one genre, one story, one mission, one song.
Vanity Lines: Not so vain after all
We’re sitting on the patio of the CC Club in Minneapolis. I look at the beer in my hand, golden yellow sweat dripping down the side and onto the cement of the patio, through a crack in the bench where my shoes are dusty from the street. The sun is still out, coming in thin shafts through slits in the overhang. We’ve been sitting here for most of the (Sunday) afternoon. Beer number three-or-four-or-five. People are laughing in the background, drunker than we are.
We’re talking about music.
Specifically, we’re talking about the launch, the birth, of New Hex Records, and the recent release of a new EP for his current project, Vanity Lines.
(You can find it here: www.new-hex.com)
There’s an excitement to his voice when discussing the project, certainly, palpable, and why wouldn’t there be: Creating in a world weary with cynicism and divide is something of an act of resistance in itself – to make music for people; people who are fighting and arguing and giving up, people forgetting simple things that make moments worth experiencing, people turning inward.
But when the conversation turns to the fame, the glory, the paychecks and the recognition that is often the pot-of-gold at the end of the musical rainbow for the artists of today, he shakes his head.
“That’s not the goal,” he says. “That can’t be the goal. It has to be bigger than that.”
“As in, if money-making, or fame, is the only goal. Or. The reason for making music. Then the music takes a back seat. The music suffers.”
And the idea that working together, and sharing the love, is a part of that bigger goal; the (limitless) potential for other artists to collaborate, and share their work.
This sort of collaboration is evident everywhere in both the greater New Hex label, and the personal Vanity Lines project: Alicia Williams (alicia_pdx), a close friend and talented designer from Portland, did the cover artwork. Local Minneapolis photographer Moustache Jim (Moustache Jim Studios) shot the photos.
And Phil Trona (pyrepress), of Pyre Press, who also works with 20 Buck Spin Label (well-known a black metal label out of Pittsburgh) printed the record.
“There’s so much content today,” Cliff says, “flying at you from every direction. Things to hear, see, watch, read. We have to support each other so that the best of it can rise above the noise, and so we can find things that are actually worth our time.”
Working together, building a platform for the often-unrecognized artists working in obscurity; fighting a system that values sacrifice for pay; pays more for getting rid of guitars than picking them up.
“I was going to say a focus on local talent. But they’re friends from all over the country… They were local when I met them, and knew I needed to work with them. And if I can help introduce their talents to the Twin Cities, and vice versa, well, all-the-better.”
The journey to Minneapolis (and back again)
But, similar to the project itself, even the place was never guaranteed; Minneapolis wasn’t always in the works. Minneapolis, in fact, comes at the end of a journey that has led across all corners of the country: Born in Oscoda, Michigan, Cliff was raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He then traveled throughout the Midwest (Indiana and Ohio) landed in Minneapolis, then left for Knoxville, Seattle, Portland, before, finally, returning to Minneapolis to stay.
“I’ve got this Gemini brain,” Cliff says. “I’m all over the place… But Minneapolis has always felt like home. The music here. The arts here are fucking awesome, and the support for the arts here. It’s a spot where I’ve felt, after everywhere else that I’ve traveled, I feel I can be most creative.”
The record label, New Hex, is something like the embodiment of this journey – bringing everything and everyone together, underneath an umbrella of creativity of his own design, to allow the creativity of others to shine without restriction.
“…because people want the freedom to make what they love – they don’t want to think about the paperwork or the red tape or the need to change in order to promote or sell records.”
He hopes to grow the label slowly, organically, willing work with anyone with similar intent and ambition. Though, there are some acts he’d like to work with first.
“I’ve been bothering [Minneapolis band] Kill to Kill to release a record through New Hex for months… ” He laughs. “And I’m still waiting!”
But the idea is that it will be organic – that good people, good music, good artists, those with a vision beyond easy-way-out will come together naturally.
“The best fortune cookie I ever got read, Don’t think, just act,” Cliff says. Laughing again. “That should be the New Hex slogan.”
The (semi)final destination (and the latest song)
Now, with a new single, featured on his second EP slated to come out this Fall (2019), that “gemini brain” has been kicked into full gear.
Working with friends/musicians/collaborators Dan Crowe and Luke Olson in a new studio space, at Traxs Studios, “bigger” things are indeed on the horizon.
Connecting through their love of music and the manipulation of sound waves – and reconnecting over a love of synth – the trio knew that they wanted to work together. Cliff writes the music, Dan plays guitar, and Luke lends his skills on bass & synth. This is the first time they’ve recorded together.
“Normally we just get together and make noise.”
The new single, the first of the EP, titled Mirrors, is meant o embody an era at once familiar; something like the music of early The Cure, and the low-fi ramblings 1980’s synth and New Wave, which is, “…what I grew up with,” Cliff says, but has also been updated to fit more modern sensibilities. It’s a different world today than it was in 1983. Or even 2003.
“That’s going be, and should be, reflected in the music.”
This means, perhaps, a little darker than its original inspirations. This means a sampling of all of the twists and turns and ebbs and flows that have happened since then.
“It’s a little more abrasive, maybe…” Cliff says, so as to not fade into the background. Influenced by, but not mimicking, the music that shaped his early life, and now comes out again today.
“We’re not trying to change the world (and don’t want to), we’re just trying to play the music we love, and do it justice… people take themselves too seriously.”
(Often, perhaps, because of the dollar sign attached?)
Listen to the new song below:
Mirrors x Vanity Lines c. 2019