GEN F: Clams Casino

Photographer Ross Mantle
June 30, 2011

Mike Volpe, better known as producer Clams Casino, has spent his whole life in Nutley, New Jersey. “My town is ten to fifteen minutes from the city,” he says. “An hour away from the beach, an hour away from mountains out west. You can do anything.” He lives with his mother, her friend from college and two small dogs in a nice, partially carpeted house with a straightforward lawn. Gold-framed pictures of Volpe hang in the front room. For the last two years he’s been studying to become an assistant physical therapist, completing some of his residency at the hospital where he was born.

As a kid, Volpe played drums and dabbled with the stand-up bass. He started listening to mainstream hip-hop around 1998 and during his freshman year of high school, bought a sampler so he could start messing around with production. “I make a lot of goofy, stupid stuff,” he says about his beats, which he’d have his friends rap over after school. They made about ten songs, burned them to CDs and circulated them in class. “Our friends’ older brothers thought it was funny and cool. Everybody liked it.” But Volpe was getting bad grades and smoking a lot of weed. In spite of his hometown acclaim, he approached composing without ambition. “I don’t think I’ve ever thought, Yeah, I want to be a professional musician,” he says. Even now he intends for music to remain a hobby. “I don’t think that deep into it, or else it becomes work.” But over a decade’s time, he’s put in a lot of man-hours, becoming an accomplished producer.

Volpe works on music in the third-floor attic on a smallish Dell he bought four years ago, producing beats for disparate rappers. Many of the tracks are instrumentally complex and Volpe struggles to describe what he’s trying to create. Appropriately, his instrumentals sound like the process of figuring something out. He manipulates vocal samples, often from ethereal female singers like Björk or Imogen Heap, to the point of abstraction. Underneath, drums relentlessly push forward toward an occasionally confused, tangled moment, before a song smoothes out and finally crests with the sweet, narrative hum of one of his vocalists. When a beat feels finished, Volpe plays it in his car. “I do that to see how it would sound in a person’s car that doesn’t have nice speakers, which is important.”

Volpe first connected with rappers he admired after a friend started sending rappers Clams Casino beats on his behalf and they began coming back with vocals. “I started talking to rappers that were not that famous but kind of known, and it was like, Oh shit, you can actually talk to them and send them stuff. They were using it and they liked it.” Volpe’s maintained some of these relationships for almost five years, though he never met any of the rappers who’ve used his beats in person. Early this spring, after a number of his productions for Lil B gained traction, he released his bare instrumentals online for the first time. That’s how his longstanding, long-distance girlfriend prefers them. “She hates Lil B, she hates Soulja Boy,” Volpe says. “She’s just like, ‘They’re ruining your songs.’”

Volpe tried to find rappers for each of the Clams Casino instrumentals he’s releasing on his lush Rainforest EP this summer, but no one turned them around. To Volpe, they evoke “landscapes, colors like light green.” He hopes people listen to the short collection and arrive at a similar kind of fresh, foliate place. “I just want people to get different feelings, zone out and think about whatever is important to them.” He acknowledges the EP is dramatic, maybe grave, but the music isn’t necessarily meant to be serious or solemn. “There’s already enough stress in life. This should be the exact opposite of that, taking stress away.”

Volpe hasn’t smoked weed in years, and the friends he used to record with aren’t around. “Nobody has time really. A lot of people are doing shit and growing up.” If he passes a final exam, Volpe will be certified to work as a physical therapist in June and wants to work full-time as soon as possible. “I’m going to move and get my own place,” he says. “But not far. Close to here.”

GEN F: Clams Casino