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Eclectic Drowning Clowns hitting stride as they arrive at Mr. Small's

| Wednesday, March 26, 2014, 9:01 p.m.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
The Drowning Clowns at Mr. Smalls Theatre in Millvale Friday, March 7, 2014. (left) Jesse Prentiss, Frank Spadafora, Shaggy Marcello, Glen Strother, Mike Speranzo, Levi Graft, Liz Berlin and Evan Smith.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
The Drowning Clowns perform at Mr. Smalls Theatre in Millvale Friday, March 7, 2014.

After the original demos were polished, tweaked and refined, the songs on the Drowning Clowns debut album, “All That's Covered Over,” were transformed into mesmerizing, sparkling gems.

All that remained for Mike Speranzo and his band of eclectic musicians was to road-test the music he's been working on for a dozen years. At SXSW in Austin earlier this month, the Drowning Clowns took their final exam.

“We definitely got way tighter and way better as a band,” says Speranzo in advance of the group's show March 28 at Mr. Small's Theater in Millvale. “It was really amazing.”

The group — which also features Liz Berlin on vocals and keyboards, Frank “Shaggy” Marcello (drums), Jesse Prentiss (bass), Frank Spadafora (vocals and guitars), Evan Smith (guitars and vocals), Glenn Strother (guitar) and Levi Graft (keyboards) — is arguably one of the more diverse ensembles to ever assemble in Pittsburgh. The group can't be pegged to a single genre, with elements of progressive rock and techno, Wilco and Modest Mouse, and even a few undercurrents of hip-hop in the mix.

However the music is perceived, the songs have definitely evolved, providing an ongoing challenge. The musicians had to continually adjust and recalibrate their approaches as Speranzo remixed the songs.

“There was an entire relearning of what parts worked,” says Spadafora, whose resumé includes stints in Crisis Car and Out of the Blue. “When it started in the studio, there were layers and layers, and as Mike pruned it in the studio, it sort of de facto got thinner.”

“As time went on, we started figuring out which folks were really relevant within the song structures and where you could create more space and where you could fill more space, too,” Speranzo says. “Both were the goal for me. I'm never a guy where less is more. Less is more when less is needed, but more is more when more is needed, so I try to keep it that way, as open as possible.”

Concurrent with the musical changes have been some personnel additions. Graft and Strother are relatively new members who have had to quickly adapt to the quicksilver nature of Drowning Clowns.

“Even the changes we made with musicians, it's come a long way,” says Marcello, formerly with The Distractions. “It's special, powerful, exciting.”

Speranzo admits he was never certain if the music was viable beyond the CD. Until recently, the band had played one lone gig outside of Pittsburgh at a skateboard event in California. But, especially, after playing SXSW, where fans who'd never heard the band showed up at successive gigs, the Drowning Clowns seem to have forged a future.

“I think all in the band now see it as more of a formal commodity,” Speranzo says. “We've all been passionately involved in what the band is, but you don't how it's going to go on the road. As long as people like the music, we're going forward with this.”

Rege Behe is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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