Soft-spoken and unassuming, Clams Casino ruminates on the song he’s had stuck in his head—the Lin-Manuel Miranda-penned Disney hit, “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” is “the number one right now at our house.” One might not immediately imagine one of the most influential producers in hip hop as a dad driving on the New Jersey turnpike to the Encanto soundtrack, but the family man’s humble demeanor and passion for his craft belie his notoriety as a defining beatmaker of a generation.
The cloud rap pioneer born Michael Volpe recounts his early career hustle where he would send “20 beats to every email I had,” pulling contact information off artists’ MySpace pages in the hopes a placement might land. Eventually, lightning struck with the most inscrutable seer of the skinny jeans era, Lil B. Samples of Imogen Heap and Adele were warped and woven into the fabric of tracks like “I’m God” and “Realist Alive,” muddled by textural ephemera and zany flows from the Based God. A murky new style was born; dubbed “cloud rap,” Clams Casino’s beats of this time were permeated by classic coastal hip hop, moody lo-fi textures, and the endlessly branching growth of Internet culture.
A young rapper from New York took note of the ghostly aura around Clams Casino’s output, rapping over the hypnotic instrumentals before the producer ever reached out to collaborate. Together, the two would create five tracks for Live.Love.A$AP, A$AP Rocky’s 2011 mixtape that pushed the cloud rap sound to the forefront of hip hop. The emerging genre grabbed ahold and firmly steered the musical direction of the 2010s; every rapper wanted a beat that played like it was enshrouded in a thick fog of Purple Kush and unfathomable depression. Following the success of Live.Love.A$AP, Clams Casino went from sending unanswered emails into the ether to fielding requests from Mac Miller, The Weeknd, FKA twigs, and Vince Staples to work.
The apex of this sound was realized in Clams Casino’s only major label release, 32 Levels. With a name lifted from the lyrics of his breakout hit “I’m God” with early supporter Lil B, 32 Levels is scattered with features from the aforementioned rapper, as well as collaborators old and new. The essence of the Clams Casino aesthetic is distilled in the aptly named “Ghost in a Kiss,” featuring Samuel T. Herring of Future Islands. Undercut by wistful piano chords, the drums sweep like crashing waves as the memory-faded baritone rattle of Herring’s voice plunges into a black hole of the howling unknown.
This darkly emotive sound aided the transition into Volpe’s next projects, such as the cigarette-stained, emo-guitar sludge of Spider Web, his 2018 EP with Wicca Phase Springs Eternal. Volpe’s path continued to push him into the orbit of fellow innovators, touching the discographies of late rapper Lil Peep, 88rising star Joji, experimental R&B vocalist serpentwithfeet, grime emcee Flohio, and Tumblr princess Lana Del Rey.
Volpe’s 2019 mixtapes found him traversing the long road back to where it began, sharing selections of instrumentals from his vast collection of beats. Whether he’s emphasizing the use of naturalistic sounds in the immersive Rainforest, or peering into the reflective pool of nostalgia in Moon Trip Radio, Volpe likes to keep his listeners engaged in the emotion behind the music. “My expression is kind of like that, the sounds and things that I’m interested in, using textures and sound design and the motion in the music—that’s what I put out.”
Clams Casino’s latest album Winter Flower is a collaboration with Jazztronik, the free-form brainchild of prolific Japanese musician Ryota Nozaki. Nozaki first made his name as a Nu Jazz pioneer with his long-running Jazztronica!! house parties at The Room in Shibuya. There, he enthralled audiences with his enigmatic hybrid of electronic elements integrated into traditional Japanese sounds, all professed through his jazz keyboard. Leading his fluctuating multi-member project Jazztronik, Nozaki has released 14 full-length instrumental projects throughout his nearly 30-year career.
Winter Flower sprouted in the fertile grounds of an email inbox. Nozaki initially reached out with original recordings of his own cleared samples, encouraging Clams Casino to utilize them in whatever way he found inspiring. The samples immediately caught Clams’ attention; “I listened through and made one idea, or one and a half ideas a day, and it came really quickly, which is not [the] usual for me. I was a little surprised by that, but I kept going [to] see where it would take me.” The music continued to flow from the New Jersey producer, who created the entirety of Winter Flower during the initial pandemic lockdown.
Following its release in late 2021, the two artists once again traded samples and stems to deconstruct the album into a more ambient, new age soundtrack for the meditation app Calm. This turned into Winter Flower Reimagined, Ryota Nozaki’s reworked vision of the inceptive project. “He’s sampling me sampling him, so it was like a back and forth, full circle [moment],” Clams explained. This causal loop in his artistic output hones in on where Clams started—digging around for interesting music on the Internet, unearthing new styles from unlikely sources through extensive recontextualization of samples.
Our conversation unpacks Clams’ discography, along with his creative philosophy after nearly two decades in the industry. What truly makes Clams Casino’s catalog timeless is not just the accolades and awards, but his steady growth and love for creation itself. In acting in service of the process, and letting life inform the work, his music transcends the limits of genre through universal emotion.
First off, how was the pandemic for you? Were the past couple of years stressful?
Clams Casino: As far as work-wise, it’s not been that bad compared to a lot of other people’s situations. Thankfully I was able to do what I usually do. 75% of the time, even before everything happened, I was making music from home and sending things out. For a little bit that became 100%, but it wasn’t too much of a switch, really. I mean, that’s how I started making beats and everything, I was making music by myself for years and sending stuff out, so I was getting back to that for a little while. I switched up what I was doing a little bit. I don’t really do too much playing out live and everything, so it wasn’t too bad. A lot of people, that’s mainly what they do and they weren’t able to. I feel lucky I was really able to keep doing what I do and not be too affected by that.
Did you feel creatively impacted by not being able to work with people in sessions, or did you feel like you knew how to handle the adjustment?
Clams Casino: I like collaborating with people so I don’t get stuck doing the same things again. I always like to try to collaborate with people because it keeps things fresh and interesting for me, just bouncing ideas off of each other. I do enjoy that. I was still able to do that online during that time. For certain situations, I do like working with people in the room, so it was good to get back to that again after a long time. I’m able to adapt to what’s going on and get back to doing stuff by myself while collaborating back and forth on the Internet.
The Winter Flower mixtape was made through online collaboration, how did you approach that project?
Clams Casino: Someone had forwarded music to me—Jazztronik, Ryota [Nozaki]’s music. I had never heard of it, and they just forwarded it. It got to me, saying, “if you want to try messing with any of this stuff, you’re free to do whatever you want, if you want to do anything.” I had never even really heard much, it was jazzy, traditional Japanese music and jazz mixed. One of the projects got sent to me and I just started listening through. At the time I was doing stuff by myself. I think this was in December of 2020, so I was just making beats by myself at home, so it came… so yeah, that music, I just listened through it and made one idea, or one and a half ideas a day, and it came really quickly, which is not really usual for me.
Usually, I spent a lot of time just doing half an idea, putting it away, and coming back to it. Combining ideas from months and years before is always a big ongoing thing. I’m pulling old things, it takes me a long time. But this music for whatever reason just—maybe it’s the timing, I don’t really know—it fell into place pretty quickly and naturally. I was a little surprised by that, but I kept going to see where it would take me. I was inspired by the music that I was sent, and Winter Flower came out quickly. It was not really a typical process for me, it came out faster than usual.
That has to feel good when it flows really easily like that.
Clams Casino: It’s probably a combination of the music itself and then the timing of what was going on. I was in the zone to do something, and with everything kind of coming together at the same time, was able to get it done pretty quickly.
What led you to revisit the project so shortly after the initial release?
Clams Casino: It all started as a collaboration with the meditation app called Calm, so I planned a different version of the project. Ryota made a new version that was focused on an ambient kind of new age and meditation version for that app. I was sending everything, then took all his parts and flipped them into my own beats, and then sent all those stems back to him. He’s sampling me sampling him, so it was like a back and forth, full-circle moment.
Do you meditate?
Clams Casino: I don’t really myself but I hear it a lot from people that listen to my music, [they like] using it like that or as studying music, focusing, meditating. I hear a lot of people find what they get from my music is in that kind of zone, so I’m taking that feedback over the years and getting even more to that.
Before you pursued music full time, you studied to be a physical therapist. It’s interesting that you see that your music gives back to people in these ways, in a way I believe is somewhat therapeutic. Do you feel like your physical therapy training is something that you pull into your music-making, or fall back on in any way?
Clams Casino: I guess there’s some kind of connection that’s kind of underneath somewhere. I’ve never really consciously thought about that until recently. The connection between that is kind of funny. Something there.
On this thread about your music being a comfort or help to people, I want to talk about “I’m God”. How did the song come together?
Clams Casino: I was messing around with vocal samples early on, and one of my friends had sent me a song by Imogen Heap; a different one, not the one I sampled there. I tried messing with it and couldn’t really do anything, but that was the first time I had ever heard about her, so I downloaded a bunch of her songs after that and had a lot of her music on my hard drive. It was something that I pulled up and at the time, it was just a beat. I liked it but I didn’t feel it was anything really special at the time. I sent it around a little bit. When I sent it to Lil B he was the first one to recognize what it was and what it could be. He recorded it really quickly and put it out. At the time I didn’t really have a special feeling about it or anything, but then after getting something recorded on it and seeing the first person’s reaction to that as Lil B was just like, maybe there’s something bigger.
One thing that struck me about “I’m God” is the niche community around it in Reddit threads and YouTube comments, with fans writing memorials to people they’ve lost. Was it surprising when those comments first started to come up around that song, considering the song’s background?
Clams Casino: A lot of people seem to listen and interpret in the same ways to a lot of other people. I don’t really know what the reason for it is, or what is the feeling of it—it’s interesting to see how many people have similar interpretations of it, or what it does for them. It just had a life of its own after a while, and turned into… a lot of different things for different people, I guess.
I guess when you release something into the world, you don’t know how people are going to interpret it. It must be interesting to see the interpretation once you put it out.
Clams Casino: I don’t know about other artists or musicians, but I don’t really have specific intentions for what kind of music I put out. Especially with the instrumental music I do by myself, there are no lyrics that I’m trying to put out with a message. There’s something, but it’s all just in the feel of the music. My expression is like that—the sounds and things that I’m interested in, using textures and sound design to create the motion in the music. That’s what I put out. Once it’s out, it’s out. People do whatever they want with it, and they take what they want from it, and then it’s out of your control. I like the idea of leaving stuff kind of open-ended. It can reach more people, and they have their own kind of way they connect with it.
I think that plays into who you are as an artist. Even with sampling, you’re taking little pieces of something that other people have created and turning them into your own. What’s your process in finding samples?
Clams Casino: Over the years I’ve tried to slowly teach myself and learn to record things that I can use, so I don’t really look for stuff like that anymore. This project [Winter Flower] is a little different because it’s going back to where I started. When I first was making beats seriously, I was basically sampling 90% of it. Once I actually started doing real things and making real records, not just putting music out on the Internet for free, it became a hassle, so I didn’t really want to keep dealing with that. Creatively, it’s also frustrating when things get held up or never come out for those reasons, and I didn’t want to deal with that. I took a while to figure out how to make my own sounds and record stuff to make it sound like I want, like something that I would use. So yeah, now it’s mostly recording myself or friends that play instruments or things like that.
This last project was going back to the old way I used to do it, but I mostly try to avoid that. Unless it’s this situation [in the making of Winter Flower], where somebody said I’m good to go do whatever I want with their permission already before I start. Then, it’s like a different kind of mindset. Before I even listened to it or started working on it, I knew that it would be able to be cleared, so it’s different.
Making your own samples must do something different for you creatively because you have total control over it from start to finish. I was curious if you ever use something like Splice, or if you had any thoughts on the platform as a resource.
Clams Casino: I think it’s cool, depending on how you go about it. I do use it. I think it’s a good resource, but it’s the same as everything else, depending on how you use it. It’s cool if it’s used in that way where you take it and make stuff your own, so I think it’s a good resource to have for a lot of reasons, but it’s just like everything else. It depends on what you do with it. I think it can be cool or not cool.
That feels philosophical—it’s either cool, or it’s not cool.
Clams Casino: If you do something, if you get sounds from it and make them your own, then that’s cool. I do use it and I think it’s a good thing to have, so I think it’s cool.
Okay, we can say Splice is Clams-approved.
Clams Casino: [laughs]
How do you challenge yourself creatively? What do you do to get out of your comfort zone?
Clams Casino: The number one thing that I enjoy is limitations. I still use the same version of the same software for I don’t know how many years. There are certain limitations to that, and I switch up the equipment I’m recording. Just like, setting limits on stuff. I have this one little thing or one piece of gear, how many different things can I do with it? Or certain samples that I’ve used, I’ll make 4-5 different beats out of one source, stuff like that. It’s the most productive for me to tell myself “this is all you have to work with, what can you do with it?” That’s what’s always led to the most fun, interesting things for me. I’ll make something with a sample or a sound or an instrument, whatever it is, and then I’ll know pretty much when I’m at the point where I feel that’s about all I can do, and then I move on or something. It makes your mind—it forces you to do different things and look at things in new ways, and throughout the years, this is the best thing for me.
I love that you also have that self-referential aspect of the work, where you’re using a sample in 5 different ways. Your rise as a producer happened on the Internet, and deep references feel like a very Internet-y thing where you have to understand certain layers of subtext to get the most out of something, sometimes. Is the culture of the Internet something you feel has made an impact on your life and music?
Clams Casino: It’s where I started everything. Early on, making music was a way that I connected with people. I didn’t work with anybody in the studio together until probably four years or so or after I got serious about doing music. The community [I’ve built through] working with people across the country is definitely a huge part of my whole situation over the years.
Moving on to dad life—I read this interview with you once where you said your son’s head nod of approval was what you were using to test beats. Is that still a parameter that you set for yourself?
Clams Casino: Yeah, it’s funny to see things that they react to. I have two sons now, so yeah its funny to see them. It’s a good way to get out of my own head. Pulling back and seeing that is an inspiration in that way.
What are they into?
Clams Casino: Every time they see a new movie, [they] get really into it, and then we get the soundtracks right after [watching] and we’re driving around listening to it all the time. The stuff that I’m being exposed to, I can appreciate things about it. I drive around and listen to scores from the movies too. The exposure to listening to that stuff in new ways, things I heard my whole life that I never really thought about, I can go back and listen to it as an adult knowing more about music with a new kind of appreciation for it. Going back at my age now, it’s like a whole new experience. It’s been interesting.
It has to be fun to see it through their eyes, in a way. Or hear it through their ears, I should say.
Clams Casino: That’s kind of what it is. It’s almost like you’re hearing it in a new way for the first time. Even if it’s something that you’re really familiar with, something new comes out of it from just watching them react. That’s been pretty interesting for me, looking at music in whole new ways that I never really did.
So, you’re trying to tell me you’re flipping the Encanto soundtrack.
Clams Casino: [laughs] That’s the number one right now at our house.
A lot of talk about Bruno.
Clams Casino: I definitely wake up in the middle of the night and it’s stuck in my head.
Who knows, maybe in like 5 years, you’ll be like “Yup, and that’s how I started making music for Pixar movies.”
Clams Casino: [laughs] Yeah, yeah.
Would you ever want to score a full-length film?
Clams Casino: It’s something I always thought at some point I’d do. I’ve started to get into it in the past year, and that’s definitely something that seems to make sense whenever everything falls into place, I think that’s going to be the next thing for me to dive into and have fun doing.
What’s next for you in 2022? Do you have any upcoming touring planned, or more music?
Clams Casino: I have not too much touring yet, just doing the usual of making music.
Well, I know you did tour semi-recently, I was looking at your old tour dates and I was like wow, what a time to go on tour—in February 2020 in Europe.
Clams Casino: Yeah, I got home a week, maybe two, before flights started shutting down. It was a little crazy at that time.
It’s pretty crazy, but it’s the perfect tour run—you did the whole thing and you were able to get back before everything shut down.
Clams Casino: It was a close call. Could’ve been stuck out there. Hopefully I’ll be able to get back out there soon.