After sundown in an Alhambra industrial park, I walk up the stairs of a converted business loft to find Corbin Clarke manning the deck with several artists strewn around him in varying states of inebriation and exhaustion. Makan Negahban sits on a stool with his head tilted to an Ibanez semi-hollow, fingers in mid-pluck. But Corbin is in full-swing, oblivious to my presence until I knock on the door. Three bewildered expressions turn to me, and after what feels like a mini-eternity, Corbin announces that he was scheduled to handle this interview for his upcoming release, Adrift. I quickly apologize, but Corbin passes it off nonchalantly; they were only recording parts for Bür Gür’s upcoming album, and that could wait.
Since 2013, Bür Gür has been the main musical outlet of Corbin and Makan, childhood friends who sparked a musical relationship during their college years in Santa Cruz. The project, whose sound has been described as tropical-ish psych-pop, grew into a full band with Cody Bergmann and Chip Monk (neé Adrien Lopez). But Corbin’s electronic alias Corbo came years earlier.
“Corbo was actually around before Bür Gür,” Corbin tells me downstairs as he’s rolling a spliff. His thumbs support the translucent paper as the index fingers pat down the mixture of tobacco and ground marijuana. Makan’s guitar can still be heard through the walls.
“I was making my own electronic music maybe in like 2009, and I had a release around that time (Mirror Stage). It was like surf-dubstep, chillstep. That period in time was very exploratory for me—I wasn’t thinking about any kind of restriction. I was thinking of what exactly I wanted to hear, about this concept of the mirror stage where you just reflect ideas around you—your identity is constructed arbitrarily based on external factors. And once you’re aware of that, then you’re choosing which external factors you allow to dictate an image of yourself.”
Raised in the cradle of Orange County, Corbin took guitar lessons for some time but showed more interest in water polo.
“I was never into making music seriously until when I moved to Santa Cruz. I was living with a lot of musicians so I just picked up on it again. Got more serious.”
Corbin would go on to teach himself how to play keyboards with Youtube channels—the first song he covered was “Untrust Us” by Crystal Castles. His frequent collaborations with Makan (pomdip, Sun Campus) led to the “Ya Popers” single through their first group effort, Snacks. By 2013, Bür Gür had been conceptualized with an array of digital and analog instruments—samplers, drum machines, guitars, microphones, synths, and even a harmonica.
It started off well. Bür Gür threw its own shows, displaying artwork (Corbin and Makan are multi-disciplinary artists) and booking other musicians to play with. The band had set goals, the sort every band would consider rites of passage: touring overseas, making the pilgrimage to SXSW, getting airplay on a critically acclaimed underground radio station. After settling back in Highland Park, a stone’s throw away from Los Angeles’ vibrant music scene, Corbin met and worked with a plethora of collectives in the Southland: Rootnote Collective, Noise Met Sound, GRN+GLD, Beat Cinema, Wordovmouth, and Cutting Room.
“We were playing in Echo Park, and then a bunch of the people in the beat scene would ask for us. And then the Calarts scene, the bar scene, Porch Party Records down in Long Beach, Top Acid. We don’t really have a scene for Bür Gür, and then Corbo is even less clear as to what it is.”
In summer of 2014, Bür Gür released their debut album Alligator Cheesecake through the garage label How To Be A Microwave. The band was later inducted to the artist roster of New Los Angeles, home to GRN+GLD veteran Repeated Measures (who introduced Bür Gür to the label), hyphy wunderkind AshTre Jenkins, and masked rapper The Koreatown Oddity. He was still dabbling with Corbo, treading ambient waters and letting off creative steam that didn’t quite fit in with the Bür Gür sound.
A week earlier when we first met, Corbin confided that back then, he’d felt amiss in the Echo Park scene. For being different in stature and expression—Corbin admitted that he probably looked like a jock when his head was shaved—he was summarily dismissed by other artists and patrons. Exclusivity was a quiet truth Corbin, and others, had come to accept about the Southland’s music scenes.
But the past two years were especially anxious ones for Corbin, who surmised that his bandmates were no longer as motivated about making music as he was. He took a break from alcohol, and mostly secluded himself from the outside world, making time for only friends and family and music. It’s not to say that 2016 was a bad year for Bür Gür—they put down a residency at the legendary beat showcase Low End Theory, opened for Animal Collective, graced dublab’s Friendly Futures with a live in-studio session, and threw down a set with Team Supreme’s Kenny Segal. But in spite of those accomplishments, Corbin lambasted himself.
“I was still feeling inadequate and like I was blowing it—not where I wanted to be. I felt unsuccessful and depressed and frustrated. And then I realized that I would always feel that way and I would never be happy with what I had, so I might as well just be happy with it and enjoy it. And it sounds corny to say but just be happy and grateful to be able to wake up and make music. Period. Should be enough in theory.”
And with Adrift, Corbo’s debut album on New Los Angeles, he put theory to test.
“There is no thought process that went into it. It was just like I’m here, I’m going to make music everyday. And this is some of the stuff I made, and I should try to finish it and put it together with some cohesive thought.”
Adrift comes somewhat out of left-field for fans of Bür Gür, going from shimmering soul and slouched, sampled downtempo R&B into an oasis of atmospheric compositions and reconstructive mood pieces. It’s the answer to Corbin’s existential quandary, melding thoughts across genres without discrimination. I ask if there’s a connection between the title and the tracklist.
“I think all my music is aimlessly shambling, slowly meanderingly in the same direction. It’s just, I try to be very unconscious with the music I’m making. [I want to be] conscious with my intention and in the direction of my life, but unconscious in the creation of the art. So I think it’s a projection; I’m doing what I wanna do and I’m happy. And I have a general idea of where I wanna go in the future, but it’s unclear in the short-to-midterm of how that’s gonna happen. I’m just adrift in LA. I don’t know what’s going on. I’m just handling it, making the music, and thankfully a few people like it.”
Those people include the collaborators he’d met and bonded with over the years, featured throughout Adrift: Genevieve Artadi, Leilani Lancaster, Remy Kay, and Sudan Moon. Corbin recounts each introduction through puffs, going from New Orleans to the first show he’d ever played, to a Highland Park party with jazz cats. Which led me to wonder if song titles like “Crack”, “The 81”, and “Cho Wavy” were attributed to those and other experiences. Corbin declines.
“They’re just names. I mean, there are funny stories behind that, but they’re just names. Nothing mysterious about it.”
“‘Shunryu’s Crutch’ is based off this meditation book, Zen Mind: Beginner’s Guide by Shunryu Suzuki, that I got from Repeated Measures when I was in Japan. I used a piece of the page as a crutch.”
But he did read it, and he did finish it, and he does practice it. Corbin chuckles. That very book is sitting on the table next to the RAW papers and bag of loose-leaf tobacco. His spliff is ashed out.
As he leads me to the door, I can’t help but wonder if Corbin’s found peace with himself and a sense of belonging through Bür Gür’s existence, or finally grappled with those feelings of self-doubt and laid them to rest with the Corbo record. Past the goodbye and the drive home, all the way to the end of this piece, it’s taken me this long to process the uncomfortable truth that maybe Corbin hasn’t resolved his struggle, and that not everything can be wrapped up as easily as an album or story, that different people move in different directions while some barely move at all. But that’s okay.
For Corbin, the direction is not important. Simply moving is enough.
Adrift is the debut album of Corbo, Corbin Clarke’s solo project. It comes out today, February 24, on New Los Angeles Records. Listen to “I’m Good”, the first single off the album featuring Remy Kay.
Visuals | Michelle McCausland @himccausland