The leader of Why Are We Building Such a Big Ship? experiences another side of the music business.

Photo of Dark Dark Dark
Dark Dark Dark with Walt McClements (left). By Tod Seelie.

"Schizophrenic" is too strong a word, but Walt McClements has feet in two different worlds. He leads Why Are We Leading Such a Big Ship? and plays in the Panorama Jazz Band in New Orleans while performing with Minneapolis' Dark Dark Dark as a sideman. Tonight, his worlds partly come together when Dark Dark Dark plays Cafe Istanbul.

His relationship with Dark Dark Dark came about organically. He met the band when it came to town six years ago and realized there was an affinity between his musical interests and theirs. His bands would play with Dark Dark Dark, and when he was a member of Hurray for the Riff Raff, the two bands toured together. He performed on Dark Dark Dark's recordings and toured with them as a guest. "Over time, the lineup became inclusive," McClements says, choosing his words carefully, more out of a desire for precision more than self-protection.

That inclusiveness led to the band's recent album Who Needs Who, a collection of dramatic, piano-led songs that grow in musical and emotional intensity. It doesn't refer as obviously to New Orleans and Eastern European folk as previous recordings did, but enough so that you can hear why McClements would find a place in the group. His choice has forced Panorama to hire another accordion player, and Big Ship has taken a hiatus until he completes his touring commitment with Dark Dark Dark, which will last for at least six more months and include tours of the U.S., Australia and Europe.

"For many years, I've thought of what my healthy musical life would be like," McClements says. "A good portion of that involved my own songwriting, but there's something I really enjoy about backing up songs I believe in. It's a different mental space to be in to think about how to frame someone else's song. My parts are the simplest of any of the projects that I'm working with, but it's the most difficult to play in because everything is so delicate and exposed. With most of the other projects I've worked with, they've always leaned toward high energy. There's a recklessness. Your mistakes are part of it."

Being a sideman takes some adjustments and discipline, particularly as a songwriter. "I have very strong feelings about music and arrangements," he says. "When you make a suggestion about how a song should go and someone else has a different idea, you're like, 'Clearly, I'm right.' But they're right too. If we all had the same ideas of what was right, all bands would sound the same. But there's something super-satisfying about getting obsessed with how to do your part as well as you can, and making sure your voice and your horn's warmed up, especially when you're on a long tour and doing the same set every night. There can be a certain calmness in this routine."

His personal connection to Who Needs Who than the previous recordings. "It's the first Dark Dark Dark album that's been very collaborative. It's a group of songs and a recording and project that I'm proud of. It's a part of me."

Having a place in two musical worlds, related as they are, offers McClements an opportunity to experience the music making enterprise in a more complete way. With Dark Dark Dark, he's with "a group of people with a clear trajectory," he says. On the other hand, there's a fundamental impracticality built into Why Are We Building Such a Big Ship? starting with the name. When Dark Dark Dark was scheduled to play South by Southwest one year, he and Big Ship considered going as well, then decided against it. The conversation ended with, "What do we want from the record industry? Nothing," McClements says. "There's nobody telling us when we need to make another record."

"Dark Dark Dark has a highly functioning infrastrustructure," he says, whereas Big Ship has been relentlessly and proudly D.I.Y. Dark Dark Dark knows where it will be and what it will be doing for the next six months from now, while the last Big Ship tour was a more ad hoc affair. "We played outside on people's land and farms a lot and it felt very well-rounded. And we broke even. That's great."

"That's a group of my favorite people and material I feel very strongly about," he concludes. There's not really a desire to put that band through the music industry." That has meant making peace with its vague future or potential lack of one. Big Ship unanimously agreed that it wouldn't play unless it could perform as a fully functioning, organic band. One-off, opportunity shows and reunion gigs that reflect a band in a state of stasis weren't for them.  

He's not putting the band to bed, but McClements isn't afraid of terminal points. He likens the situation to that of the Krewe of Eris, which began as an a very informal Mardi Gras parade among friends that grew far beyond its initial scope or social circle. Last Mardi Gras when Eris ended up in a confrontation with the police, he was on the sidelines thinking, "Well, that was fun. Obviously it's not feasible anymore. Time to stop. That was a really beautiful and important thing when it started, and it was really nice and manageable - a group of friends do something. What are you going to do when it doesn't feel the same?"