Jun 2020 26

Releasing his first album as System Syn since 2013, Clint Carney speaks with ReGen about music, art, emotions, video games, and whatever else comes to mind.


An InterView with Clint Carney of System Syn

By Brian H. McLelland (BMcLelland)

Clint Carney is an artistic virtuoso that works in a variety of mediums, but most relevant to ReGen currently is the new System Syn record Once Upon A Second Act, his first since 2013’s No Sky to Fall. Carney’s extensive credits include remixes for a huge list of artists, work with Imperative Reaction and God Module, collaborations, world tours, and that’s only talking about his music career. He’s also an accomplished actor and director, with 2019 seeing the release of Dry Blood, in which he not only starred, but also wrote and created the soundtrack, as well as providing its bloody visual effects. Carney was kind enough to sit down and talk with ReGen about the new album, the future, and what inspires him.


First off, on behalf of System Syn fans everywhere, welcome back.

Carney: Thank you. Sorry it took so long.

The record has been long awaited. I first became aware of it in our InterView back in 2016. So quite a bit of time has been spent on it.

Carney: Oh yeah, I was working on it back then, huh?

With that in mind, how much have the compositions changed over the years? Did you have to scrap things and start over or just iterate on what was there?

Carney: I mean, I believe out of all of the stuff that I had worked on up until that point when we had spoken, only two of those songs that I’d written up to that point made it onto this album, and that was the song ‘Weightless’ and the opening song on the album, ‘The Wreckage.’
Both of those songs changed considerably. ‘Weightless’ was essentially just a key change that changed the way I sang it; other than that, it’s pretty close. But ‘The Wreckage’ was a complete overhaul. But you know, I had laid the seeds earlier on and it turned into the track that you hear now.

So essentially the rest of the record was composed fairly recently?

Carney: Yeah, well, I really dove into it headfirst starting in November of last year and just spent the last six or seven months on it. That’s been just focusing on the album and kind of putting a lot of other projects on the back burner. By the time the record comes out on June 26, that will have been just about six-and-a-half years since the release of No Sky to Fall, and I knew something was due. First off, I didn’t know if I had a fanbase left. But I figured if I did, I wanted to reward them for their patience and I really just wanted every song on this album to be something that would hit me personally, you know, emotionally. I wanted every track to be something that would hit me on an emotional level and I thought if I could do that, if I felt good about all of the songs, hopefully that would translate through to the audience and at least some people would feel it was worth the wait.

A lot has happened since November. November feels like about five years ago at this point.

Carney: Yeah, it’s been a crazy, crazy ride.

On that note, did current events influence the record? It seems pretty somber in parts.

Carney: Not at all, actually. To be honest, I finished writing all the songs before the whole COVID-19 thing hit, or it had been around, but before we had gone into lockdown and so forth. So, there’s nothing – even now, going back and listening to the album, I can listen to the songs with fresh ears and go, ‘Oh man, I can relate to that song in a different way now because of current events,’ but it didn’t actually influence. It wasn’t a direct inspiration for any of the songs on the album.

The record is a lot less angry than some of your previous work. Would you agree with that? What do you think helped push it in that direction?

Carney: You know, I don’t sit down to write an album or a song and deliberately say, ‘Oh, I’m going to write a song with this mood,’ you know? It’s one mood or the next and whatever is going on with me had to work its way into the songs – and I think vocally it’s a lot less aggressive. I’m not screaming on any songs on the album or anything like that. But yeah, I think there’s some aggression in there in the lyrical content, but musically, less aggressive than some of the other tracks, but I’ve always tried to make my albums dynamic in terms of not having two songs on the album that sound the same or having different feelings. I think it’s okay and I’m hoping that the fanbase will go along for the ride with me, even if it’s not overtly an aggro album.

Was it difficult to get back into making music for System Syn? The last thing you did prior to this was a soundtrack for Dry Blood, which is fantastic as well. Do you feel like making the soundtrack helped grow your experience or teach you anything that was brought to bear on this record?

Carney: The way I compose for a soundtrack is so different from writing an album because all the inspiration comes from the visual, so what you see on the screen, you’re writing music that’s supposed to enhance that or supplement it in some way. Whereas writing an album is basically me just pouring myself out into the music. So, the process, for me at least, in my home, it’s quite different. And it had been a while since I’ve gotten into that headspace of knuckling down and knocking out an album. So, it took some time, mostly just to refamiliarize myself with the software and recording process and the technical things I found that work for me. I just spent a while and really focused on that, so that once I got the ball rolling, it actually went quite well. I wrote a number of songs that aren’t on the album that didn’t make the cut and that’s another reason why it took so long. I wrote a lot of songs and then I just shot them, as I always do. Of the songs that I’ve released to the public, it’s less than a quarter of the songs that I’ve written in my lifetime. I write a lot and I just try to recognize that not everything I write is going to be gold. Some songs honestly become a waste of time for people to listen to. So, why would I do that? Right?

Always better to write too much and then edit down.

Carney: For sure.

The title track… I would go so far as to say that it’s one of your best compositions. Could you talk a little bit about the meaning behind the song and what led you to use it as the album title and that whole concept?

Carney: Yeah, sure. You know, in general, I don’t like to explain songs. Because I’ll give you a little explanation on that one just to tie it in with the theme of the album, but my feeling in general is that as a fan of music, when I really connect with a song on an emotional level, that becomes my song. It applied to a certain moment of time in my life when I associated it with an emotion. And I think sometimes finding out what that song really meant to the artist, sometimes it’s lame, or it ruins it for me, and I don’t want to do that ever. I think the beauty of art in general is that it’s a subjective thing, and in the case of music, the listener can take the song and apply it to themselves in whatever way they like. And that’s why music is powerful like that. So, I pull back from overexplaining things because one – I don’t want to ruin it for the listener if their own personal explanation is different from the reality of it, and two – I give myself emotionally to the music, quite a lot, and the music is very personal for me in a way. I’m open with my music in a way that I am not with my human relationships, and there’s a certain amount of myself that I want to keep private and that’s partially also why I don’t like overexplaining things. I can sing about shit, but explaining it is harder. What I would say about the title of the album in general, and as it pertains to that song… you know, I’m older now than I was. The band’s been around for 20-plus years. The reality of it is that I’m halfway through my life, best case scenario… I’m half dead. You know, a lot of things have come up in my life recently or in the past few years that have really influenced this album and it’s been so long since I put out another album that I really wanted to look at this as in the story of my life, as opposed to getting old. Rather than looking at it that way, it’s like no, I have just entered the second act in my life and the second act is where the meat of the story is. Things start to get exciting and the album, at times, is very somber and feels hopeless, but the underlying theme for me, at least, was that this is a rebirth. This is a new stage in my life I started moving into and I’ve evolved with the music and things like that, and that was kind of the impetus for the title.

You touched upon the fact that vocally this is a little bit different, and it absolutely is, but what made you want to go in that direction?

Carney: You know, just in the experience I gained. In between when the last album came out and now, I’ve done so much in my life in terms of creative projects outside of the music realm; you know, film and art. And this may be a boring answer, but I think my work ethic to improve on things in general… it’s translated through to my creative life and I knew I really just wanted to take the time to make it as good as it could be. I wanted the music to be complex, but not unlistenable. I wanted to try out some new things with my voice and I haven’t really pushed the range of my voice that much in recording. What I found out in the past is that I would record a song and then give it to the label and it’s out in a few months. Then once I start performing the song live and get together with the band in rehearsal, I start thinking like, ‘Oh shit, that was a way better way to sing it,’ and I just think differently because I had more time to spend with the songs and giving myself the months to work on this album. It was that same thing, where I just lived with the songs for a long time and I kept rerecording and rerecording until I really found melodies that I thought captured the feeling that I learned from the lyrics as well. So, I think that the short answer is I just spent more time on it and that’s the product of it; you know, trying to be a perfectionist about it as much as I can be.

Would you say that you spent more time on this record compared to previous?

Carney: Yes, I would. It’s not unusual for me to take a year to record an album, but the difference with this one is it was six months to record the album. But during that time, I was there working on the album. I mean, I did little things here and there minimally, but 90% of my focus was just on this album.



Now that Dry Blood is behind you…

Carney: Yeah, well, that’s it. Dry Blood came out in January of last year and then I spent the entire year on this massive PR push. I spent five years or so working on it, plus promoting in the festival circuit last year after the release. So, I really dug in on this album pretty much right at the end of the PR campaign for Dry Blood. So okay, the movie is behind me. Now I’m going to move on to a new project and this is going to be it. This album will be my focus.

Is this the final System Syn record or can we expect more in the future?

Carney: Unless I die. I hope to continue the momentum. This happens on every album, so I guess it doesn’t mean anything just yet, but literally the day after I finished the album… sorry, the day I finished the album, I started working on the next one.
You build momentum and you get on a roll. I didn’t want to stop writing music. But that being said, that happens to me often and then it kind of peters out until I get reinvigorated. And you know, it’s kind of an emotionally draining process – working on an album that is so emotional; not to overuse that word, but there you go. I hope to never have that big of a gap in between albums again. One thing that this album did was it reminded me how much I fuckin’ love the process. For me, it’s different for people without full bands to record; it’s a nice voluntary process – the room with a computer and a keyboard and guitar. And then Ted Phelps, who has mixed and mastered most of my albums, of course came in and did that again. It was great to work with him again; he made the songs better than I could have on my own.

The deluxe set for the new album is rather unique, I haven’t seen a lot of other bands offer anything like that outside of as a VIP package for going to the show or something like that. What lead you to that idea?

Carney: Well, I’ve only ever done one deluxe set before, and that was for All Seasons Pass, in which I had written a novella. The album feels like it’s a concept album and so it made sense to do like a package deal with the book and the CD and then some other stuff with it. But on this one, once I knew what the album cover was going to be, I thought immediately, ‘Man, how fucking cool would it be to let people own a life-size mechanical heart’ from the album cover. To that end, let me talk about the heart. The design of that heart is based on a painting from my friend Mike Haffenden. So, Mike happened to have done this painting of this mechanical heart and is a friend of mine, he had also done the album art for the re-release of Imperative Reaction’s first album, but I love this painting so much that I got it tattooed on my chest years ago by another awesome artist, Mikey Carrrasco. So, this heart has been like a reoccurring theme in my life of tying me to other artists that I love, and I love the design. I asked Mike if I could use his design but create it in a three-dimensional form for the album, and he graciously agreed and then I commissioned another friend of mine, James Bonner, who is just an incredible sculptor and a great visual effects artist as well. I’ve worked with him on a number of projects, and he is just a great guy. I commissioned him to do a physical sculpture of the heart. He then did a scan of the heart and turned it into a 3D model, which I was then able to use for the cover and it will be showing up in different videos and so forth. But the heart itself, the physical heart itself he molded and caste in like this old aluminum-coated part resin; it’s really cool. I’m actually holding it in my hand as I talk, and he did a hollow casting of one for me too, which I’m converting into a microphone for future stage stuff, which is going to look cool. But anyway, I just thought how cool it would be to let the people who enjoy my music to also have this physical piece of art that has meant so much to me over the years. Because of its relationship with these other artists, and how it’s all kind of tied together, it’s just become a great symbol of the art and the creative process for me. Also, the album cover is a callback to an older System Syn album called End, where it has an anatomical illustration of the heart on the cover, and I thought also going along with the theme of the album that yes, this is the second act. Right now. This is the new and improved human heart – that’s the gist of it. But then jumping back to the deluxe set, the last set I did came in a box and had a sticker on the box or whatever, and it’s like, what do people do when they get like a box set like that? You know, they throw out the box or it goes on a shelf to never be opened again. So, instead of a box on this again, just like a cool drawstring bag that everything falls into and that way, the actual packaging is functional as well and doesn’t just become a wasted space on top of being filled with a bunch of cool shit when you get it.

I mean, it’s quite the value at $99. I was a little surprised that it was so affordable while still having the sculpture in it.

Carney: Yeah. It was a choice between making the price, probably realistically, more what the value of what you’re getting and then not selling that many, and therefore not having that many people getting to have this fucking cool thing and have it be a part of their collection or whatever. I went with let’s just make it as affordable as I can for what it’s going to cost me to manufacture all this shit so that more people can have it in their home and I just think it’s a cool thing for people to have it.

The album cover is very striking. I like the high contrast and that fantastic ‘Tom-Cruise-in-Cocktail‘ font – kind of sleazy, it’s so good.

Carney: Thanks! I’m happier with this album cover than I have been with any of the ones I’ve done in the past and I have no one to blame but myself for any of the past album covers because, well, I do them all myself. This album just felt more polished and I wanted to reflect that as well and just have a really cool polish for everything.

You briefly mentioned potential future performances. Assuming the world ever goes back to normal, are you thinking of trying to go out on tour?

Carney: I was. I was working on setting up some shows right when this started; a little before, I’d been putting my feelers out, so to speak, to try to book some stuff, and then this happened. So yeah, I definitely want to be playing more shows as soon as well. I want to say as soon as I can, but as soon as it is safe to, yeah, because I would feel far worse if someone came to a show and got sick than if they didn’t have a show to go to. You really just have to play by ear and see how things are when that time comes because depending on what else I’m working on at the time, that will dictate whether or not I do a tour. Or maybe it’s just flying out and doing selected shows in certain markets, that sort of thing. So, time will tell, but right now, it’s impossible, right? The desire is there, and the band wants to go.

In the past, you’ve gone on Patreon and Facebook and streamed yourself painting. Have you ever considered doing the same thing with a live performance?

Carney: I’ve considered it. I’m not opposed to it. And actually, recently, I’ve had a large number of people asking me to do that, but I am far too self-conscious to sit in front of a keyboard and microphone and do a show all my myself. I need the security blanket of my live performance, because they’re just better musicians than I am. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that we could still do it, but I wouldn’t want to sell the performance short. I think the performances are just better with them; that’s why they’re there. So, I don’t want to do it without them is the long and short of it. But to make up for that, I’ll be releasing the album, which is also a challenge right now because I can’t get a crew together to make a music video, but luckily, I do a lot of film production work in visual effects and things like that, so I can still hopefully make it interesting.

In addition to everything that you’ve got going on just for yourself and next record and music videos, any plans to try and work with anybody else or any collaborations coming up?

Carney: Yeah, I just completed a remix for God Module. I don’t know if they’ve announced it yet, so I probably can’t say too much about what that’s going to be for. But there’ll be some God Module in the future that will have a remix by me as well as other stuff. But yeah, I don’t want to step on his announcement. And then I will say that Ted (Phelps) is working on a new Imperative Reaction. We live in different states. Now I’m not working on an album with him, but he has been gracious enough to share it with me as he’s working on it and I can give him my thoughts on it, and it sounds incredible. I can’t wait for people to hear that fucking album. It’s so good.

You’re getting cheerleader credit, right?

Carney: Yeah, surely. But there’s also been a while since the last Imperative Reaction album came out, so that’s why Ted and I have worked on our albums. Almost everything we’ve put out, we’ve both been writing an album at the same time, and obviously, I always bring him in to work on my albums in some capacity. It’s cool that as I got back to really diving into recording a new album that he was already working on his and I think we just keep each other inspired that way. I’m always trying to beat him to the finish line.

What are you enjoying right now?

Carney: Oh, let’s see. Musically, although these are not industrial bands, I’ve been listening to, as I work a lot on this album, and this is always the case when working on an album or whatever I’m listening to at the time just kind of seeps its way into the album. For me, whatever I’m listening to musically informs my headspace at the time, I was listening to these records quite a bit, and I’m still listening to these records on repeat. One is Phoebe Bridgers – Stranger In the Alps, which is like this incredible folk/rock album, and she’s a wonderful songwriter. And Gaelynn Lea, I’m not sure if you’ve heard her stuff before and she’s also a folk artist, but she’s basically the most emotional music with a violin, but she’s doing incredibly awesome manipulations of violin sounds and so forth. I would say I don’t even have one album to recommend because the whole catalog is good, I just love them. She deals with a lot of loops and things like that. She’s found a way to work at this enhanced musicianship and that’s only going to make sense if you watch it. Just go on YouTube, there’s a song called ‘Someday We’ll Linger in the Sun.’ Watch her play that live, and if you watch her play that live and you don’t like it, you’re not going to like anything else she does. That was that was the one song I watched, and I was hooked. It’s so unusual and real and beautiful at the same time and I listen to a lot of those two albums… which is funny because the Phoebe Bridgers album is pretty, say, more somber and Gaelynn’s stuff is more joyful, but there’s also like the hidden somberness in the background, so I really latched on to that.
As a side note, I’ve got a couple movies coming out this year that I’m in as an actor. The director on one of the films, Joe Badon posted the link of the video of her playing that song; it’s going to end up being in the end credits of the film. And I just watched her play that and instantly fell in love with it; the music was incredible.

That’s exciting.

Carney: Yeah, small indie films – the other two films that I did that come out later this year are just very small parts. They’re like a single scene in both movies, and they’re both really weird in a great way. One of them, the one I just mentioned that Badon directed, is called Sister Tempest, and I play this three-eyed angel with iridescent glowing skin and I have this white mullet wig on it. And on top of that, I’m not the craziest, weirdest looking character in this film. It’s just like nonstop insanity, but it’s really good. And then the other one is a sci-fi film called Escape From Area 51. A friend of mine was directing it, and he needed someone, and I don’t even know if I have a line that’s on camera, but I and Kelton Jones, who directed Dry Blood and is the Sheriff in Dry Blood, were both in the scene together just playing these rednecks that get killed by an alien. My friend Eric was directing, and he asked me to do it. It was a good excuse to get to do a scene with Kelton again. I get to do a little visual effects on both of them as well.



And last thing, a fan question here. Would you ever want to or have you ever expressed interest in wanting to do a soundtrack for a video game?

Carney: I’d love to do a video game soundtrack. For sure. Okay, this is another thing I’ve been super into that kind of ties in with the last question. I fucking love virtual reality. I’m on my third VR headset right now. I had the developer’s kit for the Oculus Rift, the Beyond, and then I got the PlayStation VR, and I have this one now called Oculus Quest, which is completely standalone – you don’t need a computer or cables or anything; you just wear this in VR, and then, because there’s no cable, you can walk around in this virtual world as big as your room is and it’s great. So, I’ve been doing a lot of that and there are a lot of great games for it that have really cool music in the soundtrack. And I’ve been thinking about that, too. It’s like, man, I would love to have my music somewhere in the virtual reality space, because it’s just such an immersive technology. I love video games, too. But yeah, the short answer is yes, I would love to do that. I don’t have any connections in the field yet, but if anyone reads this and needs me for their game…


System Syn
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Photography provided courtesy of Clint Carney


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