CLEARED are Steven Hess (H) & Michael Vallera (V). The Key was assembled and mixed by Vallera at home in the winter of 2019-2020. Chicago’s pale, uncertain winter light, which renders objects with a kind of clarity, shorn of glamour or pretense, may have lent something to the album’s aura of lucidity. Meditative and purposeful, Cleared display a preternatural ability to hover on a suspended moment, at the edge of what is yet to come – a liminal space between anxiety and calm.

1: H: More Sabbath than Stockhausen.
V: salt > sugar.

2: H: I’d rather ride a bike.
V: sunrise > sunset.

3: H: Coyotes mate for life.
V: Late era Floyd > Barrett era Floyd.


1. What is the biggest inspiration for your music?
H: Music, art, travel, and nature.
V: Friends, my environment, and travel.

2. How and when did you get into making music?
H: I have been around music for long as I can remember. My father was a guitar player, so I was encouraged to start playing guitar around the age of 5-6, but I did not start playing drums until the age of 11. It started with a year of private lessons, and I only had a practice pad, a full kit happened a year or so later.
V: I have been playing guitar since I was a toddler, and was exposed to many different kinds of music my entire childhood through my parents.

3. What are 5 of your favourite albums of all time?
H: I don’t know if I can say these are my favorites of ALL TIME, but I’ve listened to them a lot over the years. Some days Voivod or
Porter Ricks might be in my top 5 and other days it might be Neil Young or Can. It is always slightly morphing and changing.
Here’s todays:

Talk Talk – Laughing Stock
Codeine – Frigid Stars
Brian Eno – Before and After Science
King Crimson – Red
Labradford – Prazision

V: Impossible to say in such strict terms, but 5 albums that I have spent a lot of time with over this past year are:

Harold Budd – The Room
Robert Wyatt – Shleep
Low – Secret Name
Kevin Drumm – June
U.S. Maple – Purple on Time

4. What do you associate with Berlin?
H: I love Berlin! I’ve had some great shows there over the years as well as some good friends who live in the city. I guess the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Berlin is, Hard Wax! I love that shop and can spend hours there. I also think of falafel kebab at around 2am.
V: I feel as though I cannot answer that question as I have not been to Berlin yet, but have wanted to travel there for a very long time and hope to once the pandemic is more under control.

5. What’s your favourite place in your town?
H: During the pandemic, my partner and myself spent a lot of time walking the North Branch River Trail that follows along a large section of the Chicago River. During the Spring, Summer, and Fall there is a surprisingly large amount of wildlife to see ranging from deer to large snapping turtles, and many many species of birds. It’s very relaxing.
V: During the pandemic, going to Lake Michigan at sunrise and sunset has been a very important activity for me. It is a very special place in all seasons and changes in both dramatic and subtle ways.

6. If there was no music in the world, what would you do instead?
H: I had two passions when I was in my teens; to play music, and reptiles and amphibians. So, if there was no music I’m pretty positive that I would be starving herpetologist.
V: Find another world.

7. What was the last record/music you bought?
H: I will give you the last 3:
Tashi Dorji – Long after we are off the air…
Aaron Turner & Jon Mueller – In The Falls
Testament – Original Album Series (5xCD set)
V: The last record I bought was a used CD of “Talker” by U.S. Maple.

8. Who would you most like to collaborate with?
H: Justin Broadrick.
V: It would be a dream of mine to collaborate with Adrian Utley. His production techniques and approach to guitar playing has been very influential for me.

9. What was your best gig (as performer or spectator)?
H: That’s a tough one to answer. I feel incredibly lucky to even be able to play for any audience, so every show is special in its own way – whether it was in front of 500 folks or 5. I do agree with Mike that the last Cleared show with Pan American at the Museum of Surgical Science in Chicago was quite special – both musically and with the overall ambience/environment.
V: The last show Cleared played was a little over a year ago with Pan American at the Museum of Surgical Science in Chicago. It was my last performance before the pandemic and Im very glad that it was such an incredible experience in a very special environment.

10. How important is technology to your creative process?
H: I think technology is incredibly important in music, but for me personally… not so much. If I were a producer, recording engineer, or strictly an electronic musician I am sure my answer would be different.
V: It is certainly a major part of how my creative process is organized and executed, but simply playing the guitar everyday is of much more importance than anything else.

11. Do you have siblings and how do they feel about your career/art?
H: I’m an only child, but my parents are/were proud… confused but proud.
V: I have two younger brothers who are also guitarists and are very supportive. We were fortunate to grow up in a household that held music in a realm of high importance.

Photo © Courtesy of the Artist