Todd Clouser's guitar riffs come from drive to 'ruthlessly create'

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Todd Clouser
Jazz and rock guitarist Todd Clouser photographed Friday, Feb. 1, 2013 at MPR studios in St. Paul.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

In a crowd, Todd Clouser could be just another guy whose struggles are his own quiet secrets.

But on the stage, he's a monster, pouring out guitar riffs with electrified ease.

Once inhibited by self-doubt, Clouser, found meaning and a creative spark in Mexico. He moved there five years ago to teach music and to renew, and heard his artistic voice soar. To see him ride a groove now, eyes closed, is to witness a rising improvisational star.

"It's still my dream," he said of performing. "There's a depth and a truth there that evades me in daily life. It's been that way since, even growing up. The first time I was able to play guitar or just hear sound, hear music, there was something there that I felt very close and attracted to."

Clouser, 31, is on tour with his band A Love Electric, which performs Saturday at the Icehouse restaurant in Minneapolis. The group will be playing tunes from The Naked Beat, his third recording in a year for the Royal Potato Family, a New York label.

"They wanted to release something and I proposed doing three records in a year which seemed pretty ridiculous," he said. "But at the time I really needed not only these deadlines but this impetus to just ruthlessly create and not doubt myself and say it's going to go out, all these records are going to come out."

And he did, in impressive fashion. The first record, "20th Century Folk Selections" featured songs by an eclectic mix of composers, from Buddy Holly to Nirvana. For "Selections in Garage Jazz," Clouser used his own tunes, shaped by jazz, rock and other influences.

"I think that's maybe the constant in this series of records... rebelling against what we've already done or we know we can do."

Although he's a devotee of master jazz pianist Thelonious Monk and at home in modern jazz, Clouser isn't a straight-ahead jazz player. But neither is he a typical rocker. Indeed, the guitarist and singer defies categories, intent instead on delivering honest and unconventional art.

That outlook serves him well on "The Naked Beat," a rock album of mostly original tunes that features his guitar playing, and singing. It also includes a couple of classic rock tunes in the Tears For Fears Song "Mad World" and Black Sabbath's "War Pigs," which Clouser reworks to include new bass line and spoken word. He calls the new arrangements "derangements."

A Love Electric relies heavily on Clouser's Mexico City band mates: bass player Aaron Cruz and Hernan Hecht, a drummer from Buenos Aires. He found living in the sprawling city of culture and creative art and traveling in other countries inspiring — so much so that it strengthened his conviction that his own ideas are worth expressing.

"There's constantly something to be digging at, some further truth," he said. "Nobody's that different from each other. You know. We're all inspired in different ways by sound and interact in different ways with art and music and we want different things from it. To me, it's fascinating and it's beautiful."

But Clouser, who went to high school in St. Paul, returns to Minnesota often to work with friends, among them drummer Greg Schutte, bassist Chris Bates and pianist Bryan Nichols. His latest work taps Twin Cities sax player Brandon Wozniak for the title track.

Now that his trilogy is behind him, Clouser hasn't decided what to do next. But he will likely find another ambitious goal, and "try to continue to explore and push the boundaries, to push ourselves to discover something new, and kind of rebelling against ourselves.

"I think that's maybe the constant in this series of records," Clouser said, "rebelling against what we've already done or we know we can do."