Clipper Arnold used to worry me.
I stumbled upon his band Red Tank! in 2017 following the release of the raucous X EP. The opener, “Destroy Me,” has the lyric, “I wanted you to destroy me / And rebuild me into something else / Only go outside to smoke cigarettes / Or go to another city.” It’s an earworm of a line, for sure, but also one that exudes such profound nihilism that you genuinely fear the sort of soul who’d ever sing this into existence. As it turns out, Arnold’s a great guy—if you enjoy earnest, painfully self-aware artists who love Wire just as much as German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. And much like that list of inspirations, Arnold’s life and work aren’t quite so straightforward.
In a recent phone call, Arnold mentions he started out as a fan of The White Stripes and Arctic Monkeys. As he got older, he discovered acts like Minutemen, Marked Men, The Wipers, Ty Segall, and Jay Reatard, all of which track with the Red Tank!’s riotous, bare-bones brand of punk. But we still have The White Stripes to thank for his overall trajectory. “I watched that documentary IT MIGHT GET LOUD,” he says. “It’s a really great thesis for the power of songwriting and everything. It seemed like, to build this [film], they were like, ‘Oh, here are the greatest guitarists, The Edge and the guy from Led Zeppelin [Jimmy Page].’ Then we got Jack White, and it just seems like his songs were simpler, but it also seemed like he was basically the one bringing the real capacity there.”
He adds, “But I think really that was definitely one of the catalyzing moments, where I just kind of picked it up and ran with it. I think that thread is the same thing that still persists to this day. Obviously, Red Tank! has seen a lot of different metamorphoses and different incarnations, but the one thing that we always hear is how that was really energetic, very raw, very powerful, in-your-face stuff.” Red Tank! was born circa 2009, when Arnold’s college band, Asterisk Asteroids, ended abruptly. Aside from his studies at ASU, Arnold had ample time left to devote to the band’s ongoing development. After just a few years of grinding away, the band had carved a sizable niche across Arizona circa 2013-2014 and were playing up to three shows a night at times. (“Rather ill-advised,” Arnold explained.) It helped that this occurred amid a musical boom in Phoenix and Tempe, with the house show scene particularly blowing up.
“I remember someone saying that Phoenix has one of the best house show scenes in the country,” Arnold says. “And I thought to myself, ‘That can’t be true.’ Sure, Phoenix is the fifth largest city in the nation, but I can’t even fathom that our house shows were better than Los Angeles or Philadelphia or New York. Because it just seemed very personal, in a way that I had a relative degree of ownership over and I couldn’t really see that way it was.” Arnold says he and other acts could “Put on a house show with four hours notice,” and they’d almost always be packed. “I recall standing in a living room and seeing just some amazing local bands, and thinking, ‘Wow, this is really something special,” Arnold says. “This is really where I want to be. I can’t imagine anything ever getting better than this.’ I don’t want to use the word transcendental, but that might be the closest approximation to it.”
Alongside bands like Injury Reserve, Destruction Unit, Diners, and Dogbreth, some of which achieved national fame, Red Tank! helped push Phoenix’s music scene to new heights, both creatively and regarding overall market appeal. They certainly stood out—if only because they were among the most aggressively direct bands in town. “Some of it was just circumstantial, right? A lot of the people who were playing Red Tank! songs live are just my friends who have little-to-no experience playing music,” Arnold says. “So I had to figure out a way to make this work, and make it easy and make it accessible to them, which I think in turn had this effect, whether intentional or not, of making it very easy for audiences.”
“I don’t know the exact quote, but I’ll paraphrase it,” he says. “Essentially, art is made from the intersection of creativity and what’s available at hand. When you’re some broke college kid, playing in a sweaty garage with friends who you just want to make a racket with, that’s kind of the recipe. We’ve always kind of tried to make it work, even if we didn’t have all the materials or the training or expertise.” To a significant extent, that spirit rests at the very core of the group’s sound. A song like “Sovereignty,” from 2015’s I WANT YOU TO CROWDSURF MY BODY AT MY FUNERAL, is the very definition of frills-free, wildly snarling punk. Even a more recent song, like 2021’s single “Night of the Assassins,” maintains that simplified heft amid more robust production.
But don’t take simplicity as meaning boring or easy: Red Tank! know how to use that form to lethal efficiency. “Obelisk,” from 2016’s BIO/FEEDBACK, may sound repetitive but there’s a grace and subtlety in this monster-sized jam. Meanwhile, “Blues Jam,” from the recently re-released SQUALOR IN THE YEAR OF BLACK MAGIC takes the blues in its title and makes it into something all the more grimy and infectious. Arnold is a student of great punk, but he’s never afraid to mess with the foundation to make something that’s as catchy as it is unnerving, as primal as it is profound.
For all their aural chaos, Red Tank! were also noted for their profoundly intellectual lyricism. One reviewer once called them “academic,” likely given Arnold’s references to the aforementioned Hegel as well as French psychotherapist/philosopher Felix Gattari, among other college-level references. Arnold’s never been entirely comfortable with the descriptor—”I kind of have mixed feelings about that,” he says—but also recognizes that it’s the nature of his efforts.
“Do I feel like I’m smarter than other people? I don’t know, some people,” he says. “I don’t know if that means anything. If I tell the lay person that I’m in a punk band, they’ll think of like Sex Pistols or NOFX or whatever, which is not quite where I’m at.”
Ultimately, punk just best represented the universal power of making music for Arnold. “The nature of music is really an open expression that allows you to incorporate different ideas and viewpoints and perspectives,” he says. “When I was growing up, and listening to punk music and stuff like that, or, like, hip hop or whatever, the stuff that I really dug into was where they were talking about very specific or obscure references or something that made me feel kind of more accommodated in a way.”
Through writing, he tries to wrangle a slew of unique inspirations into his songs, from political theory and video games to “interpersonal relationships,” Catholicism, and even cyberpunk. “I always heard when I was young that punk was this very politically-oriented genre or whatever,” Arnold says. “Which is certainly true, but I think a lot of that isn’t authentic. A lot of it’s in the fashion. I have a bachelor’s degree in political science, and a part of that was with the intent of having that inform my songwriting in a way.”
Despite some initial success in and around Phoenix, by 2019 Arnold recognized the writing on the wall for the band’s long-term career. He relocated to Los Angeles to find more music and writing work, quickly building back some momentum. However, after less than a year, and with his fiancé landing a job in New York City, Arnold once again relocated. The shift to Brooklyn provided some important understanding of the concept of home, and what it takes to sometimes flourish creatively.
“I do love Phoenix,” he says. “But I will say a large part of the emphasis of moving away was I felt like I had hit a creative ceiling. I needed to be in a place with more infrastructure for the arts, and something that had more opportunities. There are bands that make a living out of Phoenix. I had a conversation with a friend about moving to L.A. And he said, ‘Well, if you feel like Phoenix doesn’t have the infrastructure, do you think there’s an ethic in staying here and helping build that?’ And, of course, but I’ve also been doing that for the better part of a decade.”
It’s a decision made easier by the fact that, in the 10-plus-year existence of Red Tank!, Arnold has been almost exclusively the sole member. In that time, he’s had 100 or so contributors and collaborators—”I have the list online,” he says, all of whom either performed live and/or featured on various LPs and singles. “We’re not making enough money for someone to commit to this full-time over everything else that they have going on in their lives. I can run myself into the ground with it as much as possible, and other people will help out here or there.”
That community-centric approach is essential to Arnold’s work. He clearly believes in his hometown—he noted that local outfits like Captain Samurai “should have been the biggest act on the planet.” But his move was predicated on the problem of “access and exposure” that is still plaguing bands even in 2021. “Everyone talks about the equalizing nature of the internet or whatever,” Arnold says. “But I think that’s a very different thing. I mean, realistically, sure, there are more options available. It’s easier, and it’s more democratized. But there’s a lot more noise, and it’s a lot more difficult to find an audience or find attention on the internet, unless you’re doing something specifically built to go viral on Twitter.”
Arnold has no desire to go viral. For him, the path to success, whatever that might look like, will come via “slow growth and dedication to the craft for years, whether people dig it or not.” The latest phase of the plan involved Red Tank!’s unreleased fourth album, DREAMS & MONSTERS, which has been completed since 2020. “It’s certainly, I would say, the most sonically and lyrically cohesive,” he says. “It’s probably the highest production value record that Red Tank! has ever put out. It’s a lot of punk bangers, but there’s a lot more garage rock influence as well. And there’s some synths on it and some more intriguing production and instrumentation.”
DREAMS & MONSTERS isn’t another “pandemic” record. “I’ve been working on some of the songs since maybe 2016,” he says. “A lot of it is about transformation. As well as the political hellscape and the utility of hope and fantasy toward a better world.” But Arnold is quick to note that he “writes music with legs,” adding that all the best tunes “have to have prescience in a moment and that immediacy, but they also have to be meaningful 100 years in the future.” Based on an early listen to the LP, it delivers on Arnold’s promises, and the LP’s sense of nuance does wonders for the sheer heft of these tracks.
The future is something that’s occupying some space in Arnold’s rather interesting brain pan. In addition to finding a label and releasing DREAMS & MONSTERS, he’s also writing material for the band’s fifth album. And there’s an instrumental album that “may be repurposed or it may be another release.” And, of course, more shows—between the two moves and COVID-19 lockdown, Red Tank! has only played seven gigs in recent years.
He wants the life of any band—albeit one that self-describes as “an autonomous war machine.” In a way, it was those simple dreams that altered my perception of Clipper. Is he a little intense? For sure. But is he also thoughtful, and a person who will thank you for an engaging chat before asking more about your own life? Also yes. It makes you appreciate him all that more, and it’s clear that Arnold, and by extension Red Tank!, are truly something special. A punk rocker who wants to push boundaries, raise questions (and a little hell), and maybe change the world. Even if his own self-perception isn’t nearly as grandiose. “I think that’s kind of what Red Tank! is to me: it’s an authentic form of personal expression,” he says. “And it’s channeled in a very particular way, which is loud, fast music.”