'Clerks' at 25: Kevin Smith, Tommy Stinson & More on Its Time Capsule Soundtrack

Clerks 1994
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Kevin Smith, Brian O'Halloran, Marilyn Ghigliotti, Lisa Spoonauer and Jeff Anderson in a promo photo for Clerks.

Based upon the cues of Clerks II and the newly released Jay & Silent Bob Reboot, it seems as though the official theme song for the iconic slacker comedy duo has become the 1988 dark wave classic “Goodbye Horses” by Q Lazzarus, immortalized by its inclusion in the 1991 horror masterpiece Silence of the Lambs. 

However, that wasn’t the song which introduced us to the tandem portrayed by Jason Mewes and director Kevin Smith, whose comedy styles have given a new generation its very own Laurel & Hardy in so many wrong ways that somehow feel right. Instead, Jay & Silent Bob first appear onscreen as a pair of post-teen wallflowers loitering in front of the Quick Stop in Leonardo, NJ in Smith’s 1994 directorial debut Clerks, which turned 25 on Oct. 18, 2019, while the opening strains play from “Kill The Sexplayer” from the D.C. post-hardcore group Girls Against Boys. 

Clerks, like Slacker, was one of those films that kind of defined what was called Generation X,” states GVSB frontman Scott McCloud. “It was the post Nirvana boom but still part of it. Terms like ‘slacker’ and ‘hipster’ were being thrown around for a generation caught between consumerism and art. Pavement is the clear leader, musically. Sarcasm, etc. I don’t remember -- none of us do -- how our Girls Against Boys song ‘Kill the Sexplayer’ ended up on the soundtrack, let alone in the film. It must have been circa 1994. We were an up and coming band on the indie label Touch & Go. Maybe because we were releasing our second LP on that label we got picked? At the time we did not think of our song being in the film as a big deal. I remember seeing a few clips and probably as it was being proposed as a good idea and we readily agreed. I liked these kinds of films, as an NYU film graduate myself. But we could never have expected the impact this film would have.”

Girls Against Boys were just one of several bands from the vanguard of post-hardcore, metal and alternative rock featured on the soundtrack to Clerks. Yes, there were some marquee names peppered across the soundtrack, namely Alice in Chains, whose Sap highlight “Got Me Wrong” is prominently featured in the beginning of the film when protagonist Dante Hicks gets the morning going at the store, and Soul Asylum, whose “Can’t Even Tell” video was directed by Smith in the style of the infamous rooftop hockey game from the movie.

“It was really cool, because it was so early in Kevin’s career and he threw us into the whole scenario,” explains Soul Asylum frontman Dave Pirner. “We’re playing hockey with the fuckin’ actors up on the roof of the Quick Stop. I felt like it was all part of the same production, only this was the colorized version of the film. It was all the same actors and everything. So to that effect, it was really fun to be standing there watching these guys reprise their roles in the movie right in front of us for the video. I felt like, ‘Wow, I’m on set!’ The hockey part was easy because I played hockey as a kid. It was really fun, and we all enjoyed hanging out with Kevin and his people. He’s done so many great things since then, he’s become this cultural icon. It was nice to have worked with him back in the early days."

"I fell in love with Dave from Soul Asylum the moment I met him,” admits Smith. “It was a blast shooting the music video with him. Then we reached out to him again for Chasing Amy and I asked him, ‘Hey man, did you ever score something? Do you wanna score our new movie?’ So he wound up doing that for us as well. But when we shot the music video, they were just coming off the whole ‘Runaway Train’ madness and their next one Let Your Dim Light Shine was about to come out. He was dating Winona Ryder at the time. He was like peak mid-90s.”

“It’s funny because last year I saw Soul Asylum play Webster Hall,” explains actor Brian O’Halloran, who played Hicks. “And Dave told me to this day, the two songs that people always go nuts over is ‘Can’t Even Tell’ and then ‘Misery’ from Let Your Dim Light Shine, which played at the end of Clerks II. He told me, ‘I cannot get away without playing those two specific songs for all the Clerks fans in the audience.’” 

Some of the bands realized they were embroiled in an obvious corporate tie-in between the film’s production company Miramax and Sony Music, as Columbia Records had put out the soundtrack under its Chaos imprint.

“My assumption is some of the stuff he wanted on there while there are other songs where the label was like, ‘Hey, dip into our catalog,’” believes Corrosion of Conformity guitarist Mike Dean, whose band’s powerful tune “Big Problems” scores the climactic fight scene between Dante and Randal. “It was obvious there was a corporate tie-in with the inclusions of bands like CoC and Alice in Chains and Soul Asylum because we were all on Columbia at the time.”

Smith himself feels grateful to the people at Sony, most notably the man who helped put together the soundtrack with him, music supervisor Benjamin Gordon, whom the director fully acknowledges in assisting him in parsing the acts in consideration for the final tracklist.

“All this music was put on my radar by Benji,” Smith tells Billboard. “Sony liked the movie and met with Miramax to do the soundtrack. And Benji was this young music exec and he sent me a sampler with a bunch of different bands. ‘Go through and listen, and then tell me what you like,’ he told me. ‘If you like enough of it, we might have enough for a soundtrack.’ Some of the bands we immediately recognized, but some of them we never heard before -- a lot of them were just breaking at the time. But it all came down to Benji, who had this vision when he watched the movie and felt that a bunch of the artists on the soundtrack would be into it. So he sent the bands an early cut of the movie and a bunch of them responded right away.”

One of the aforementioned acts that was quick to respond was actually friends with Gordon in Tommy Stinson’s first post-Replacements group Bash & Pop, whose inclusion into the soundtrack “Making Me Sick” (which Smith calls his favorite song on the album) was the last song recorded by the group until Stinson revived the name again in 2017

“Benji Gordon was a buddy of mine,” Stinson tells Billboard. “I haven’t seen him in ages, but he was someone who used to hang out with us and stuff. So when we found out he was working on this soundtrack, he threw us in the mix and it worked out great. Y’know, lucky us. During that time, I was still trying to keep the Bash & Pop thing together. And coincidentally, as they are on the soundtrack as well, I had Brian Baker from Bad Religion playing guitar with us at the time. That was the last thing we did as Bash & Pop because he wound up auditioning for R.E.M., didn’t get that, and then joined Bad Religion. And what happened was that it had been evolving in a particular way that I was into but ultimately it turned out to not be a tenable situation. By the time I replaced Brian Baker, I decided to just change the name of the band altogether, so we became Perfect.”

Meanwhile, GVSB wasn’t the only band from the Chicago indie powerhouse Touch & Go Records featured on the Clerks soundtrack. The Windy City’s own noise-rock superheroes The Jesus Lizard appear via “Panic In Cicero,” the song that serves as the music for the rooftop hockey game at the movie’s crescendo.

“It had the most action and activity to it, which made it perfect for the hockey scene,” Smith revealed when asked why he chose the tune. “When we originally shot it, we scored it with these piano clicks. But the Jesus Lizard song fits perfectly -- it just felt like ‘We’re up to no good.’ And this was coming off the scene where Dante was like ‘We’re not playing hockey in the street!’ And Randal’s like, ‘Well, where are we gonna play then?’ It has a mischievous kick to it, like these guys are up to something, and it just clicked. Playing it during the game was pretty sweet, too.”

“We wrote ‘Panic In Cicero’ with the intention of it to be a stand-alone single specifically for the movie Clerks,” explains Jesus Lizard guitarist Duane Denison. “And they gave us a nice little budget to work with and gave us some studio time. At that time in the band, whenever we weren’t on the road we would get together two or three times a week and practice new material constantly. We all lived close by to each other. And that particular song, that riff, seemed to lend itself to the Clerks thing and that scene in particular. It was cool the way the hockey game aligned with the off-tempo feel, which was unlike anything else we did at the time. It was almost like a Bo Diddley beat. It just worked out that way.”

Another more underground group from the era featured on the soundtrack was Tacoma’s Seaweed, one of the last of the great Sub Pop grunge bands from Washington State during the mid-90s. Their donation to the cause was an amped-up rendition of Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way.”

“It was a little bit of a struggle to get that Fleetwood Mac feel in a punk rock framework,” admits Seaweed guitarist Wade Neal. “But it worked. We messed around with it for a while, and Aaron [Stauffer], all credit to him, he was adamant about doing Fleetwood Mac. We were all kinda skeptical, but it came out really good. We recorded it in our guitar player’s basement with really low budget gear. It was a very small little eight track studio.”

Telling this anecdote to Smith immediately prompted him to tell a very different tale of getting a Fleetwood Mac song on one of his soundtracks years later.

“When we made [the 2014 movie] Tusk, we wanted to use the Fleetwood Mac song ‘Tusk’ in it,” the director tells Billboard. “The whole finale of the movie was cut to ‘Tusk,’ so when we reached out to Fleetwood Mac, they priced to song prohibitively high, like ‘if they pay this much for it they can have it.’ And they priced it at a quarter million dollars. That was the single most expensive item in the entire movie. Think about that, man. In a world where an actual song by Fleetwood Mac cost us $250K to use, we got another song of theirs on the Clerks soundtrack for way less because someone else was doing it.”

One band that Smith did have a direct hand in bringing on board for the Clerks soundtrack was Love Among Freaks, a South Jersey-based funk-metal group whose guitarist was an old high school chum of Kevin’s and was responsible for the film’s opening theme as well as a band version of “Berzerker,” the ad-hoc metal song Jay’s Russian friend Olaf sings to the girl in the movie.

“I went to school with the lead guitarist,” Smith tells Billboard. “I remember even back then in high school, he was considered a prodigy. So when we made the flick, I was like ‘Hey man, can you score this for me?’ So he did the initial score music, but then he was like, ‘I got a band and we can do songs for you as well.’ So they let us hear a couple of their ideas, and one became the opening track and then there was an old closing track they did but got replaced with ‘Can’t Even Tell’ after the soundtrack deal.”

And while there was no hip-hop to be found on the Clerks soundtrack, throughout the film O’Halloran -- a huge fan of rap music from the early days of the genre -- dons a House of Pain t-shirt underneath his button-down, serving as a deep Easter egg for fans who’ve watched the movie countless times.

“My personal circle of friends was all cultures and races,” O’Halloran explains. “And I would always go to these Asian history club parties or the African-American studies parties they’d throw on campus at Rutgers. So I would walk in and people would be like, ‘Whoa what’s up with the white boy’ and my friends would be like, ‘Nah nah, man, he’s cool; he’s down.’ And I’d come in and be able to talk hip-hop with the best of them and get that deep dive into the history. So all of a sudden here was this Irish-centric hip-hop group, and I was all over it. I got to see them when they were touring with Cypress Hill, I think they played a Montclair music festival. So when it came to our costumes for the movie, we just dressed as we did if we walked in off the street. I came in and asked Kevin, ‘Is this cool?’ And he was like, ‘Well, what’s under it?’ I told him it was a House of Pain shirt and he was like, ‘Ooh, I don’t know if we can use that.’ So I said, ‘Well look man, the other shirt falls over it most of the time and you won’t even see it, so if you see it, it’ll just be a flash.’ So we got it in there, and keen-eyed people will spot it and ask, ‘Yo, what’s up with the House of Pain shirt?’"

A quarter century later, Clerks remains a fitting time capsule of the moment Generation X seemed poised to take over the world. 

“It’s really about that Gen X thing of working a job at a record or video store and meanwhile, other things are taking place,” explains McCloud. “You want more. Something for your thing/art. It was a great time for indie music, and just that whole culture.”

“The Gen X culture really kicked down the door like ‘F you and your system of doing things; we’re gonna do it our way and you’re gonna have to come to us,’” O’Halloran explains. “And that’s what it was. We did what we wanted and we didn’t care about the consequences, and the masses embraced it. When the Seattle sound finally broke through, you couldn’t get away from it and you couldn’t get enough of it. And that really saved the rock scene. I’m glad we were able to take that sound and that music and that look and put it into a film that really spoke to exactly what that Gen X feeling of being overeducated and underworked was like.”

“Kevin Smith is a guy who realizes he’s grown up in a town with a bunch of goofy characters that he wants to incorporate into his stories,” proclaims Dean. “But then possibly for aesthetic reasons, I thought he was thinking along the lines of Jim Jarmusch in the way it was shot in black and white like Down By Law but it was a little less arty and a little more down to earth. There are all these succinctly New Jersey characters, some are universal but some are just so typical of those specific towns down in South Jersey where one town bleeds into the next town into the next town.”

Stinson adds, “For that time, it was pretty gritty for what it was. I’m glad it did so well and we’re sitting here talking about it. But I remember originally thinking, ‘Man, I wonder how this is gonna play out in theaters.’ There were some pretty wonky bits in there that were funny but not for the general masses, if you know what I mean.”

“The simplicity of Clerks is what’s infectious,” Smith admits. “And a lot of the songs on the soundtrack weren’t these multi-layered complex tunes. They were bare, stripped down and grungy, so it totally complemented the look of the film. I was talking to Jason Reitman, the director, and we had him on [my] podcast and he was saying something about Clerks -- how it really made him want to become a filmmaker. So I said to him, ‘Man, if I was making that movie today it would be so much better.’ And he was like, ‘No way, man. You could never touch that movie. It’s like a punk rock song. It’s four chords and its incredibly powerful and it makes anybody listening to it think they could write the song, too.’ For me, that’s what this movie is and that’s what the soundtrack is all about.”