I first came across Clay Tarver in the very early 1990s. His guitar playing drove two of my favorite bands back then: Bullet LaVolta and Chavez. The former was, like a lot of the bands of the time, a hybrid of punk, metal, and some third strain of rock that was brewing but had yet to boil. I noticed producer Dave Jerden’s name on the back of several CD jackets in and near my player: Mother’s Milk, Nothing’s Shocking, Facelift, Symbol of Salvation, and Swandive. Swandive (RCA), Bullet LaVolta’s last proper record, came out the same day as Nirvana’s Nevermind (DGC), September 24, 1991. They broke up not long after.
Tarver’s next band, Chavez, recorded two of the best records of the decade, both of which sound as firm and fresh now as they did then. Gone Glimmering (1995) and Ride the Fader (1996) helped Matador Records maintain a hand in the choke-hold on the decade-defining sound (The other hand belonged to Sub Pop). Along with Matt Sweeney’s lilting vocals, it was Tarver’s guitar that formed that sound. I’ve always considered him among players whose guitar sound is their band’s identity. Think John Haggerty, Bob Mould, J. Mascis, Steve Albini. Here, just listen to “Break Up Your Band” from Gone Glimmering (1995):
I saw Chavez play in Seattle in 1996, and after the show I went to say “hi” to Clay. I shook his hand and introduced myself, then noticed that I’d interrupted a three-way conversation-in-progress. There were mildly annoyed dudes standing on either side of me. I soon realized I was standing between Greg Dulli and Donal Logue, two of Tarver’s old friends and stars in their own right. Dulli is the lead singer of the legendary Afghan Whigs, and Logue, though he’s done tons of other things, was the dad on Fox’s Grounded for Life (2001-2005) and currently plays Harvey Bullock on Gotham.
I recently asked Donal about Clay, and he had the following to say:
Clay Tarver is smarter and more talented than anyone I’ve ever met, but the super-human thing about Clay is he’s never been an attention-seeker or used any of his insanely unfair talents in some kind of narcissistic pursuit. He was the last word in any conversation regarding art or politics, but (and this is hard to articulate), he was never a dick about it. He was always just right, and his thinking was always at another level. High school all-state basketball star? I wouldn’t have known it unless his family told me. One of the best guitarists of all time? His own kids didn’t know he played guitar. No one has influenced me more than Clay Tarver. It’s impossible to describe Clay Tarver in a sentence, Roy, so I don’t even want to try!
Donal reiterated that the thing he finds so amazing about Clay is his modesty. “What really blows me away,” Donal said, “is how he avoided any kind of self-serving behavior, despite his gifts and talents.”
Toward the turn of the millennium, Tarver made the switch from music to movies and put together some outstanding and memorable clips in a place where it’s difficult to stand out. He directed the “Jimmy the Cabdriver” spots for MTV, which featured Donal as a greasy, fast-talking cabdriver, directed the ubiquitous “Got Milk?” commercials, and co-wrote the feature film Joy Ride (2001) with J.J. Abrams. He now serves as a consulting producer and writer for HBO’s Silicon Valley. Tarver recently signed on to script the sequel to Dodgeball for Fox, but he says that’s not likely to happen. He also owes Greg Dulli a phone call.
Roy Christopher: You’ve been on stage as a guitarist and are now writing scripts and producing. How do the two roles—one out in front of the crowd and one behind the scenes—compare? Which do you like better?
Clay Tarver: Well, the first question is easy. Being on stage is one hell of a lot more fun. And not because you’re the focus of the attention, of all the applause, etc. To me, it’s more about getting some kind of visceral gratification for what I’m doing as it happens. It’s tremendous.There’s nothing like performing with a group, in front of people, where you’re kind of all in this special moment together. Writing is the opposite. Writing is all about creating that moment for others. Sometimes fool proofing it. It’s about craft and discipline and serious self-editing. And I suppose I enjoy the challenge. I do. Even in music, you can’t get on stage without doing the hard work of writing. But writing’s not fun. Look, I feel very fortunate to be doing what I do. I’m creatively challenged to the hilt. But I’d be lying if I told you I don’t miss playing whenever I wanted to.
RC: Man, the 1990s were a weird time for music. Looking back, it seems like genres were bending and blending in such odd ways. What do you like these days?
CT: Huh. I don’t know if I agree with you. For me, my favorite time of music was the Creem magazine days. Genres were all over the place. Any issue could have Cheap Trick, Aerosmith, The Sex Pistols, Blondie, KISS, Nugent, Elton John, Rick Derringer, and Bowie.
The 90s were more a generational thing to me. I was glad to be a part of it. But it was much more sort of straightforward. What am I into today? Not much new… Tinariwen… Queens… Still listening to a lot of Dennis Wilson and Glen Campbell… Love the Master’s Apprentices… Saw John Prine for the first time recently and loved it.
RC: Fair enough… Donal Logue and Greg Dulli are two guys whose paths have crossed yours at various times over the past twenty-odd years. Tell me about the connection among you three.
CT: Donal was my roommate in college. And he was Bullet LaVolta’s road manager and general best friend. He came on tour with us.
In Champagne, Illinois the day of the World Series Earthquake — 25 years ago last month — we met and have all been friends ever since. In fact, I owe Greg a call right now (he lives right near me), and he gets real pissy when I owe him one.
Donal and I later did the cab driver things. I’d gotten a job at MTV when I moved to New York to start Chavez. That’s actually how I became a writer. They wanted to turn it into a feature so I thought I’d give it a try. I figured if I ever wanted to direct more stuff it would be a good skill to have. The movie never got made. But it gave me my career.
It’s funny. I never wanted to be a writer. I was one of those guys who, when I finished college, was thrilled to never write another paper again. Now fucking look at me…
RC: Ha. Speaking of, you’re a writer and consulting producer on HBO’s Silicon Valley, which is hilarious and accurate as far as my experience in start-ups has been. Have you worked in that world at all?
CT: Nope. Never. But Mike Judge did a million years ago. He’s the creator of the show, and a guy I’ve done feature work with for something like 15 years. (A great musician, by the way. Sick stand-up bass player. A pro before he got into animation.) Also, Alec Berg (our show runner) has a brother who worked in that world. Between us we read, did research, went on trips up there. But we also have really serious advisers who help us. We’re in the midst of Season 2 right now… Really in the trenches.
RC: Awesome! I can’t wait to see where it goes next… Okay, having been successful in two different areas of entertainment, do you have any advice for those aspiring musicians or writers out there?
CT: Ya know, people always want to “break in” to music or film or whatever. But I always found that to be a weird phrase. I think you just do what you want and hope people like it. And now, more than ever, that’s possible. Music’s great because there’s no barrier to entry. You have instruments and guys and you just go do it. If people like it, there ya go. Film is obviously more expensive. But, Christ, there’s so many different ways to get stuff out there. People make shorts and bits and all kinds of stuff. And if it’s good, usually people will find it. I say just keep doing. Keep making stuff. Keep at it.
RC: I know you’re working on Dodgeball 2, but what else is coming up?
CT: I’ve got some stuff in the works. Dodgeball 2 doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen. But I’m hoping to keep at it with Silicon Valley. I have some pretty exciting feature things kicking around. And I’m even making a music-based TV show. But in truth, who the hell knows?