We all get sick. It happens, no matter how many times you wash your hands and take vitamin C. It happened to Chad Clark in 2007; he thought he had the flu. But it turned out to be a life-threatening heart ailment that almost killed him. Twice.
Clark is the main songwriter, producer, arranger and overall leader of Beauty Pill, an art-rock band from the Washington area. After eight years of health struggles and false starts, the band last month finally saw the release of its new album, “Beauty Pill Describes Things As They Are.” And last week, the band performed for the first time in seven years at Arlington’s Artisphere, the venue where it recorded much of the new album in plain sight — a sort of experimental public art installation.
This is a grand comeback for Beauty Pill and the culmination of an intense, decade-long journey for Clark and the band. It’s the group’s defining statement, and the album’s mere existence is a testament to Clark’s survival. But if it seems as if the stakes should be impossibly high, you’d never know by observing the band practice on a recent night in Southeast Washington. The members of Beauty Pill are tucked inside a quaint single-family home, downstairs in a basement full of instruments, dusty amps and Apple computer screens. The vibe is relaxed and laid-back. Clark, dressed in an olive-green athletic jacket and his customary beanie cap, sings faintly amid the clatter.
When the sauntering rhythm of “Afrikaner Barista” takes shape, Clark’s opening lines declare a certain vitality: “I’m here again, I’m here again, I’m here again, I’m here again.”
In a way, Beauty Pill’s new album depicts Clark’s personal wellness. He doesn’t directly address his condition; instead, the music dissects mortality through bright pop collages and textured grooves. There’s “Ann the Word,” a song about two lovers drowning in a car. “Dog With Rabbit in Mouth, Unharmed” is a moving ode to Clark’s dog, Lucy, who died of cancer. The album opens with an explicit line from the 1982 movie “Blade Runner,” offering a candid glimpse into Clark’s spirit: “I want more life, f---er,” he exclaims. On an album full of nuance, it’s a rare chest-thumping moment for Clark.
“We’ve been silent, but the more we went away, the more interest there’s been in the band,” said Clark, 43, shortly before the album’s release and the accompanying comeback gigs. “But I’m feeling really encouraged and optimistic. I feel like the world is coming back around to us in a way.”
Clark’s career dates back to the 1990s, when he was a founding member of the D.C. rock band Smart Went Crazy. The group released two albums for iconic local label Dischord before calling it quits. Longtime bandmate Devin Ocampo said that Clark always preferred progressive sounds and wasn’t completely satisfied with how things turned out.
“He had a vision but wasn’t able to express his ideas,” says Ocampo, a percussionist with Smart Went Crazy and now playing with Beauty Pill. “Technology has changed. It’s a lot cheaper to make a record like [“Beauty Pill”] than it was in ’97. In the [Smart Went Crazy] days, he was held back by sonic limitations and budgets.”
The beginnings of Beauty Pill’s new album date back to 2006, when Clark posted a demo of “Ann the Word” on MySpace. (How very 2006.) The band’s first EP, 2001’s “The Cigarette Girl From the Future,” was greeted warmly, but Beauty Pill’s full-length debut, “The Unsustainable Lifestyle,” was released in 2004 to a much chillier reception. Clark fell into a deep depression as a result.
“I was feeling lost,” he recalled. “I felt alienated by modern professional indie rock and didn’t feel like I belonged in that world.”
Soon, Clark began to experiment with new music production software, opting for a deeper electronic sound that could be heard on “Ann the Word.” He didn’t expect fans to like the change in direction, but the song became popular. Clark created more electronic music and incorporated “Ann the Word” into Beauty Pill’s live sets. It seemed Beauty Pill had turned a new creative corner.
“Then I got sick,” Clark says with a thud. “That really took the momentum out of that.”
Clark went to a hospital with flu-like symptoms. After his doctor discovered a heart murmur, Clark revisited the medical facility and was diagnosed with viral cardiomyopathy. He had open-heart surgery in 2008 to fix the condition. For a while after the surgery, he didn’t even have the strength to lift a guitar. But by summer 2011, the band was back at it, and Beauty Pill was holed up in Artisphere’s Black Box Theatre, recording songs in public for its new release. The band spent its days laying down tracks, listening to the recordings and tinkering with the music. Visitors to Artisphere could gaze down and see the band playing — or maybe just sitting around.
Then, during a vacation in Michigan, Clark’s friends noticed his movements and reaction time were slower than usual. He shrugged it off at first. But when he revisited the hospital, doctors discovered his heart was failing again. He needed surgery once more. Clark says he had only “a 22 percent chance” of living a year after the procedure. The album — and Clark’s life — was on hold once more.
“He just kind of got used to feeling bad and accepting it as normal,” says Basla Andolsun, Beauty Pill’s bassist since 2002. Before learning the severity of Clark’s illness, Andolsun admits, she was frustrated that the music wasn’t released sooner. But “looking back, I know now that his illness was impacting his ability to focus on the record,” she says. “At the time, I didn’t realize what was happening.”
Now, Clark’s heart works partially through a battery pack that he wears on his waist.
It was a family atmosphere at Artisphere’s Black Box Theatre on Friday. In the room where the band put itself on display for the recording of the album, the tables were now somewhat turned. Audience members stood in the center of the room as Beauty Pill members were set up on five individual stages surrounding them. The idea, Clark said, was for the listeners to visit the different stations to get their own show experience. Some stood by Ocampo’s drum set all night; others were intrigued by vocalist Jean Cook’s multi-instrumental arrangement. Maybe you wanted to hear guitarist Drew Doucette’s chords a little closer. Clark — again in his olive-green athletic jacket and customary beanie cap — manned his own stage that served as the natural focal point. At his feet were a handful of effects pedals for his guitar; around his waist was the battery pack that helps keeps his heart working.
Reflecting a couple of days after the show, Clark feels as if the wild idea actually worked. “I feel less crazy, in general,” said. “I’m feeling emboldened by the way it worked. I feel very confident about proposing these ideas in the future. It doesn’t feel as alien or bizarre.”
Emotions ran high after Saturday night’s performance, Beauty Pill’s final gig of its three-night Artisphere residency. Once band members loaded their gear into a van, Ocampo told his bandmates it was the high point of his artistic career. He broke down crying.
“I played with a heart condition, and I haven’t played in almost eight years,” Clark said. “Playing a show was a big thing for me. I felt like it was a victory, and I’m glad people were there to see it.”
Moore is a freelance writer.