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The Three Hearts of Beauty Pill’s Chad Clark

Last summer, when Beauty Pill frontman Chad Clark was in the hospital recovering from open-heart surgery, his friend, author Bill Beverly, visited him. “I asked him, ‘How are you doing?’” Clark recalls. “And he said, ‘Well, you know, first heart.’” Clark erupts in laughter. “That’s exactly his style of humor. It’s subtle and fantastic. And I’m jealous of people who are on their first heart.”

Clark, who is in his early fifties, is on his third. In late 2007, the musician — who previously fronted the celebrated Washington D.C. post-hardcore group Smart Went Crazy and engineered and/or produced records by Dismemberment Plan and Fugazi — contracted a virus. He still doesn’t know what it was, but it gave him days of fever. A few years earlier, Beauty Pill had put out The Unsustainable Lifestyle, an album panned by critics at the time, but which has since garnered a cult following. So he was feeling dejected and depressed at the time. Then the virus made its way to his heart, where it developed into a potentially fatal condition called viral cardiomyopathy.

Clark was lucky. Open-heart surgery, an operation in which he says doctors “crack your ribcage open like a crab,” allowed him to get an electronic heart in early 2008. “My heart machine sort of stirred blood throughout my body,” he says. “If you put your head against my chest, you would hear this whirring sound and not a heartbeat.”

When the battery-operated unit’s manufacturer recalled that model last year, he waited patiently for a donor heart. Finding a perfect match was difficult, since he stands six feet four and needs a heart that can power more circulation than someone shorter would need. He spent weeks agonizing that any minute could be the moment he died, waiting and hoping for the right heart to come through. One finally arrived last summer. “I’m borrowing [this heart] from some beautiful soul who gave it to me,” Clark says. “I’m living with another person’s heart, and I’m extremely, profoundly grateful for it. I don’t know how ‘deserving’ works; I don’t know if I deserve to be alive. I certainly feel grateful to be alive.”

The scars from his operations have forced him to approach music differently. It’s more comfortable now to play electronic instruments than to hold a guitar against his chest — he likens the pain after surgery to being hit by a truck — and he no longer wants to tour rock clubs, partially because he’s now severely immunocompromised and therefore more susceptible to Covid, influenza, and other diseases than most healthy people. (Also, he says, the toilets in clubs are disgusting.) But he knows he wants Beauty Pill to continue and find new ways of connecting with listeners that won’t endanger his health.

His first order of business with his third heart is releasing Blue Period, a compilation of some of Beauty Pill’s earliest releases, including The Unsustainable Lifestyle, the 2003 EP You Are Right to Be Afraid, and unreleased outtakes and demos. Clark did not want to revisit this era, which, for years, he associated with “the feeling of failing.” The releases had come out on Dischord Records, the D.C. punk haven that has been home to Minor Threat, Fugazi, and Jawbox, and critics at publications like Pitchfork had used that association at the time as an indictment against the light touch Beauty Pill applied to its indie-rock sound and witty lyrics. Clark took it personally, and the Blue Period title reflects both the depression he felt at the time and the tint of the releases’ covers, as well as a nod to Picasso. Now, with hindsight, he wishes he’d lightened up.

“Talking about Blue Period is challenging, because it brings me back to another time when things were a bit darker and less certain — and, ironically, before I had any health problems,” he says. “If you told me in 2004, ‘By the way, this bad review from Pitchfork is going to be dwarfed by … you know, you’re going to actually lose your heart, so, maybe keep it in perspective, dude.’ … ”

Instead of ending his hypothetical flashback, he just chuckles.

Beauty Pill formed around the turn of the millennium when Clark and two other members of Smart Went Crazy, which had won over fans of post-hardcore with their 1997 album Con Art, decided to try something lighter. Ryan Nelson, who worked at Dischord and played drums in the hardcore group the Most Secret Method, knew Clark from the D.C. scene and had bonded with him over their mutual love of De La Soul and Latin Playboys. When Clark engineered a session for the Most Secret Method, he played them Beauty Pill’s first EP, Cigarette Girl From the Future. “We were just blown away,” Nelson recalls. “It was otherworldly and awesome, and it didn’t come out for years after.” By the time it did come out, in 2001, Nelson had joined Beauty Pill, where he helped Clark evolve the group into a live act.

They practiced and practiced and, taking inspiration from the prolific modus operandi of one of their shared heroes, Elvis Costello, decided they’d be an act that would put out a release a year. They quickly put together the five songs on You Are Right to Be Afraid. “There’s a noticeable lo-fi element to that record that is not at all like Cigarette Girl,” Nelson says. “I thought it was cool because we’re going to be prolific, and this is just the sound we’re doing right now. We could we do anything we want.” Songs like “Copyists” are slow and contemplative as Clark and vocalist Rachel Burke, who has since left the band, sing about “rejected renegades” and “a different kind of people.” They didn’t want to be like everything else going on at the time.

The Unsustainable Lifestyle came a year later, and Clark still feels critics missed what he and his bandmates were doing with that record. When he recently remastered it, he was struck by the textures Beauty Pill produced on tracks like the opener, “Goodnight for Real,” where Nelson and drummer Devin Ocampo trade the beat back and forth to the left and right speakers. He’s also proud of “The Mule on the Plane,” which takes cues from loungey Brazilian music and uses it as a backdrop for lyrics about a rich addict sitting on a plane next to an impoverished drug courier. Some songs, like “Quote Devout Unquote,” tackle everyday misunderstandings using lyrics like “Santa Claus, he died for your sins,” while others, like “Terrible Things,” describe how people have the ability to turn into assassins and dictators using simple, catchy melodies. “I don’t expect everyone to get those sorts of [conceptual] things,” he says. “But I feel those feelings and that richness of intent is in the songs. The songs have an energy from that devotion to concept.”

After the album failed to connect with critics, Clark felt devastated. He understands the Pitchfork review better now and feels it wasn’t so much about the album as it was his past. “Beauty Pill had a distinct femininity in the way that we sounded and approached what we were doing, where we celebrated feminine energy, and I think that there’s a portion of the Dischord audience that are really into being tough guys,” Clark says. “They’re just not going to respond to us. ‘Goodnight for Real’ has no guitars until the chorus. I think Ian [MacKaye, the Fugazi frontman who co-owns the label] said to me, ‘Sometimes the last people to understand your new band are the people who liked your old band.’”

Not everyone in the band felt as shaken by the review as Clark. “It didn’t bother me,” Nelson says. Still, he remembers playing gigs to audiences as small as 12 people. His attitude was that they needed to tour to get a bigger audience, but he eventually quit the band; he and Clark remained friends, and now Nelson’s wife, Erin, is a Beauty Pill member.

Three years after The Unsustainable Lifestyle, Clark contracted the virus that upended his life. Beauty Pill wouldn’t release another album until 2015’s Describes Things as They Are, which contains the song “Near Miss Stories,” Clark’s account of surviving heart surgery. On the track, he sings, “Near-miss stories, I have a crazy one to share” and describes his surgery, repeating “I’m so lucky” 24 times in a row. For nearly a decade leading up to the album’s release, he worked on other musicians’ albums and a mostly electronic score for a play about a suicide hotline, which Beauty Pill released in 2020 as Sorry You’re Here.

Beauty Pill Describes Things as They Are received better reviews than its predecessor and has become the band’s bestselling album, which has come in handy over the last year as Clark waited patiently for a new heart. “There’s definitely been moments of poverty in the last year,” he says. “The band sells a fair amount of records on Bandcamp.” The band had intended to go into the studio this past September with art-rock guitar hero Arto Lindsay producing, but Clark’s emergency surgery in June sidelined their plans. Now they’re figuring out what’s next.

The day before Clark’s second heart surgery last year, Nelson phoned him up and the two talked and laughed for a couple of hours. When the drummer, who now works as a schoolteacher, got a text the next day that Clark’s new heart had come through and he’d be going under the knife, he paused. “For the rest of the day, I’m just thinking, ‘He’s going through a heart transplant, he might not come out of the operation,’” Nelson says. “I’ve had a lot of moments like that where Chad is in the hospital, and I see him, and he looks terrifying. Or he tells you, ‘I’ve been bleeding.’ There’s a lot of times when I’ve been with him where I’m like, I hope I get to see him again.”

Even though half a year has passed since Clark received his third heart, he’s still getting used to all the considerations that come with it. The weekend before this interview, Clark had to visit the ER via ambulance because of a 104-degree fever. It turned out to be a common cold, but with his lowered immune system, he needs to take more precautions. Every time he ventures out into the world, he does so at his own peril.

“Any time I spend with a group of people, I am taking a pretty serious risk,” he says. “Does this mean that Beauty Pill needs to end? I don’t want it to end. The band doesn’t want it to end. And they’ve been very patient, supportive, and understanding about my health crisis. But they want to move forward.

“I just have to take reasonable risks to move forward,” he continues. “Everything that I do, when I’m exposing myself to an illness… I have to weigh whether it’s important enough to me to do that. And the band is worth it.”

Clark hopes to make that planned Beauty Pill record with Arto Lindsay this spring. “But it’s going to be a risk,” he says. “Everything I do for the rest of my life is gonna be a risk.”

He’s still contemplating what touring will look like for Beauty Pill. Their last gig was with Laurie Anderson, an artist known for challenging herself with unique technologies and performance concepts. Clark found the experience inspiring, and he no longer wants Beauty Pill to be “a rock band in the conventional sense anymore, if it ever was.”

Recently, a Beauty Pill fan named Daniel Belquer, who is also a scientist, approached the band with a new form of haptic technology he’d worked on for deaf people to help them experience music by conducting vibrations through their bones. The whole band took a day trip to Philadelphia to see how it works. “He created this interesting suit, essentially, that you wear that injects music directly into your bone,” Clark says. “If you plug your ears, you can hear melodies coursing through your body, conducted by your bone. Some people like it, some people don’t. The bass player in my band, Basla Andolsun, didn’t like it; she felt it was like an alien groping her. I loved it, and Erin loved it. That’s the kind of thing that I’m into.”

Whenever Clark talks about the future, whether experimenting with bodysuits or an upcoming book reading he has planned with music industry exec Nabil Ayers, his voice brims with optimism. “[Chad’s] got all these things that he wants to work on, and maybe that propels him,” Nelson says. “[His resilience] might be the support of his family. It could just be the science of whatever’s going on in the physiology of his body. I don’t really know. He’s had a tremendous amount of near-death [experiences], though. It’s hard to explain how frightening it is.”

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When asked what he’s learned from those near-death experiences, Clark laughs and says he wishes he could offer something beyond clichés: “Appreciate where you are, recognize the blessings in your life …  I don’t really have anything else more profound to say than you can find in It’s a Wonderful Life or the Beatles’ ‘All You Need Is Love.’ I’m just super grateful.”

Even though he has spent the last few months thinking about the past and coming to terms with it, while prepping Blue Period, Clark’s main drive is the future. That’s because he knows what life is worth. “You’re on your first heart,” he tells me. “I guarantee you that that’s a concept you’ve never had in your life. At no point have you thought about your own heartbeat. You probably haven’t even thought for a long time that you even have a heart. So be grateful and present. … I’m more aware than the average person of how fragile and vulnerable my reality is. But I am very optimistic about the future.”

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