Cloud Control’s Alister Wright explains to SARAH SMITH how he channelled “Roy Orbison trapped in a cave” to write his band’s new album.
Cloud Control may have won $30,000 when their debut record Bliss Release was awarded the 2010 Australian Music Prize, but they are certainty not rolling in it just yet. “I don’t have any savings or anything, but at least I don’t have to ‘work’, so that’s pretty fucking awesome,” frontman Alister Wright assures me, when I ask him how life in the UK is working out for the Blue Mountains four-piece who relocated to London two years ago.
Like so many ex-pats before them England is now a second home for Cloud Control, however, they will return to Australia this month to play Vivid LIVE and finally unveil some new music. The band’s second album is due out later this year and, as I discover over a 30 minute conversation with the softly-spoken frontman, it is a more playful record this time around, partly recorded in a cave and inspired by the likes of Beastie Boys and Roy Orbison.
Why did the band decide to move to the U.K permanently?
It was just that time where we had to choose to either record another album, or try and tour overseas. We had just played so many shows in Australia, people were like “Come on guys, seriously, do something else please!” We were offered a record deal over here and it just felt like the right time to do some touring. We just toured for a year around the U.K and Europe.
Do you have the same kind of popularity over there that you have in Australia, is it comparable?
It’s comparable; I don’t think we’re quite as popular here as we are in Australia. I don’t really know how popular we are in Australia anymore. The last shows we played in London were about the same size as shows in Australia, so it’s pretty good. We all think that it was a bit tricky putting out the album over here a year after it came out in Australia. The people who wanted to hear it had probably already heard it and downloaded it. Although, we did get a good response – we got heaps of radio play on Radio 6, which is a pretty cool station. We did a lot of touring and had a lot of fun. I feel like we have a home over here as well, as a band.
We recently wrote a story about how much money Australian musicians really make. Do you feel like you had to move to the U.K to “make it” so to speak?
Oh yes, I remember reading that. To be honest, no I don’t think so. We made most of our money in Australia and for a long time our record label just supported us over here, because we couldn’t support ourselves. I guess that is income coming from something, but without that we wouldn’t have been able to live over here, no way.
Are you guys able to live as full-time musicians?
Yeah totally, we just scrape through. We’re all pretty tight on money. I suppose it would’ve helped if we got jobs…
I guess it’s a bit hard to achieve what you want in a band while holding down steady jobs at the same time?
Yeah it’s tricky. To be honest it’s the most money I’ve ever had in my life, coming from being a university student. When I was a uni student I used to work off the books at some ridiculous – actually awesome – café in Newtown for $9 an hour, and then I was on Centrelink. I was pretty poor. I’m still poor now, I don’t have any savings or anything, but at least I don’t have to “work”, that’s pretty fucking awesome. It’s really, really cool. I don’t feel jibbed or anything, it is what it is.
“Through high school I was really into Aphex Twin”
It’s pretty tricky but I think you can make money in the Australian music industry. I think it is like in your article, you can make money if you have a really successful album. Our album was pretty successful, from humble beginnings. We won the AMP [Australian Music Prize], played some pretty decent sized shows and it seems like we’ve still got a lot of love from the response I’ve heard coming back. For a band I feel like we’ve got a pretty good, solid foundation in Australia. It’s not like we make that much money really, but bands also need a lot of money. If Cloud Control was a solo act it would be pretty sweet, but when you think about it, it’s four people and we have a lot of costs. It costs a lot to fly us around and pay production costs and all of that.
How much did the AMP help you guys out? Has that funded the new album?
Not really, we actually just put that straight into our bank accounts. That was one of the first payments that we had. We thought, “Sweet let’s just use this to live and eat.” We did all have jobs for a long time. At that point we were all over here and we were living off music. We are pretty much always waiting to get paid. It’s always like “Oh my god I’m about to not be able to pay rent, or buy anything.”
It’s not ideal, but it’s alright. I can deal with it because making music is what I want to do. I haven’t had to go back to university yet, or anything. Not that that’s the worst thing in the world, we’re pretty lucky.
Is the new album done and dusted yet?
Not quite, its super close, it’s getting mixed at the moment. I think we’re maybe going to re-record a song but apart from that it’s pretty much there.
Why are you going to re-record just the one song – are you not happy with it?
Yeah, it’s just me specifically that’s not happy with it. Jeremy loves it and I feel really bad but I’m not sure about it.
I saw the video you did for Vivid and in it you said recording an album is a bit of a manic experience for you. But I find it is like that for most musicians – they love it and they hate it. Are you loving it more than hating it now?
Yeah I’m starting to even out about more, I think it’s cool; I think it’s a really good album. Most musicians are a bit like that, I think you have to be critical. If you just think everything’s great you’re going to make a crap album.
Can you tell me a bit about what it sounds like compared to Bliss Release? What is the sound you’ve been working on?
One of the main differences would be that on Bliss Release we were pretty hardcore about just using live instruments, super organic and on tape. Whereas this time there is still some stuff on there that’s really classic Cloud Control, but we left on a lot more of what we normally would do in demos, using drum bits and programming.
In the Vivid clip, it sounded like there was drum machines and more of an electronic element?
Yeah that was one of the demos. That never got made into a song but it wouldn’t be too far off. There’s a bunch of stuff on there like that with drum machines. We’ve tried to be careful about using them in ways that will still be really good live, and there’s still live drums everywhere. In the studio we found ourselves saying a lot of the time “Oh yeah make it more like the Beastie Boys”. I think there are ways you can still use drum machines and have them feel really like a drum machine in the room as opposed to a drum machine that’s a guy on a computer. It still feels really energetic I think. It’s not on every song, that’s just an aspect of the album.
What made you go in that direction?
For me, my first experience with writing any kind of music was making crappy computer songs on Fruity Loops [the digital audio workstation now called FL]. That would’ve been when I was like 10 years-old. Even through high school I was really into anything on Warp Records – the big ones like Aphex Twin and Squarepusher. Cloud Control’s kind of weird [considering], because that was pretty much all I listened to through the later years in high school.
“I wrote the song Roy Orbison would have written if he was trapped in a cave”
How did you end up making the music you do today in Cloud Control?
Yeah, weird right? I think it makes sense in a way. Heidi [Lenffer, Cloud Control keyboardist] just asked me to join this band she was putting together for a band competition, and it kept going from there as a really “song-writer” thing. That’s when I started singing as well. I think the interest that I developed in the way things sound and production actually did shape the way we made Bliss Release a lot, because production was such an important element of our sound. Even though it isn’t electronic production, it was super organic. The decision to have a “sound” was really important to us at the time. We could have just gone in with a bunch of songs and just recorded something but I think we really shot to a certain aesthetic which was pretty important to us. I think that came from that interest, early on, in [electronic sounds].
To me it doesn’t really feel like we’ve changed that much [on the new record], but we’re just letting through a bit more of that element. A song like ‘Gold Canary’ – on our last album – it was pretty hip-hop, it’s based around a drum beat. The only difference is this time we’re letting those influences come to the front a little bit more.
Do you feel like you have the confidence to do that because you don’t have to define your sound as much? Do you feel like you have more freedom this time around?
I feel way more confident as a vocalist and musician. I feel like it’s more of our own thing, like we’ve defined ourselves with our voices and the style of our playing. Within that it’s a bit more free.
You recorded the vocals in a cave, or quarry is that correct?
I was told I can’t reveal the name of the album or any of the song titles [just yet] which would help the story make more sense. But, yeah we recorded some stuff in a cave, it’s related to one of the songs mainly, the album has some cave themes.
So it’s just one song in this quarry or cave, is that right?
One song plus a bunch of other random stuff on the album, it’s in a few songs actually. We only did the vocals for one song in a cave because the song is kind of about being in a cave. I wrote it in the rehearsal studio. I was in there by myself and I’d been drinking some whiskey. I tried to write the song that Roy Orbison would write if he was trapped in a cave for like thirty years and was just going crazy. He had a lot of suffering in his life anyway, but [I wanted] this to be as if he’d actually gone insane.
Did you feel like you were going insane when you were writing it?
Maybe, I can’t really remember. It was definitely trying to get into some kind of character because I think that can help with songs, but it always feels real when you’re doing it. It’s definitely a bit of a howler that one.
You mentioned that the title of the album would help it make more sense, does that mean that there’s a theme – is it a concept album?
It’s totally not. The way the album was written, we were just writing separate songs; there was no agenda. I felt that on Bliss Release, even though it was like that, the songs did hold together really well, they all felt like they had the same ideas in them, I was hoping this time around we could do something similar. We’ve come up with ideas of how to link them all together. I think the name Bliss Release really tied everything together and I think this time around we’ve tried to do the same thing – to have an idea for the album that’s like a framework that all the songs can just fit into, like its building something together rather than just being a compilation.
Is it a darker album?
I think just saying “darker” would be a bit reductive. Without you hearing it, it’s hard to say. There is some stuff on there that’s darker maybe, but it’s a little bit funny as well. I can remember recording it and just having a giggle because I was just like “Oh that’s just really silly.” It sounds pretty emotional when you hear it so I’m not really sure, but I feel like it’s more playful. It’s maybe more open. I hope it works, I feel like we’re just a bit more confident and a bit more okay with trying out new things.
Do you think that’s just an age thing also, like you’ve grown up and have one album under your belt?
I’m not sure. I feel like this album would sound younger than the other album. I don’t think it’s as considered as the other album, I think it’s a bit looser.
I know this is an obvious question but do you feel pressure with this album, because your first album was so well received and you did really well for a young band?
Sometimes I’m worried about it but I’ve got a lot of faith in this new album. I’m not that worried. Whether or not people like it, I think we’re all feeling pretty proud of it. I think that’s all you can do, try and make something you like and put it in the world – maybe people will like it, maybe you can change a couple of perspectives. I think we’ve been really true to ourselves and done something that’s really honest and just a cool piece of art.
I’m interested in the Vivid show, can you tell me what you have planned?
Well I don’t really know yet. I think we’ve done the work with writing the songs. We’re pretty much just going to get up there and play a bunch of songs and that’s it. I think we’ve got plans for a special lighting show, or a stage show or maybe some more dramatic things. I think the most important thing is that we’re going to be playing these new songs and I just really, really can’t wait to be able to play them to people and get them as excited about it as I am, I’m just really pumped.
Have you been able to play them live much at all, or not yet?
No, that’s the thing, there’s only two songs we’ve played live off this album. I think we know more about what’s going to work live. Back in the day we’d try out new songs and they’d be rubbish and we’d play them for the first time and go “oh crap” and have to rewrite the whole song. The two songs we’ve played we did on the Weezer tour and they worked really well.
What was that like, supporting Weezer?
Oh it was cool, it was really good.
Did you meet Rivers Cuomo?
Yeah, he was really, really nice – really lovely. He’s kind of a reserved little guy; I thought he was really cute. He’s exactly what you’d imagine from his songs and everything. I don’t know if he’s shy but he seemed like it. He did kick a soccer ball around backstage with shin pads on before the show and stuff like that. What was cool about Weezer was how down to earth their whole show is. You tour with some big bands and they’ll have a tonne of crew and production and stuff. Whereas Weezer play one guitar for the whole show, they’re just a straight up band – they get up there they play the songs. It could be at Oxford Art Factory and they’d have the same setup, they’re just doing it in fucking stadiums or arenas.
Were you a Weezer fanboy? Were you a fan of them before the tour?
I was before the tour but I only really got into them like a year ago. I got into the “Blue Album” and stuff, but the one I really loved was Pinkerton. I totally got into that album. One of my friends over here is from LA and he is a massive Weezer fan and he was so jealous when we got offered that support tour. I got him a signed poster but I haven’t given it to him yet.
How excited are you to be back home for Vivid?
Man I love being back. I feel like we’ve got a home over here and we’ve got friends and everything but it’s like having two homes. When we’re here I really miss Australia and when we’re in Australia I miss London.
Do you think you’ll ever more back permanently?
Yeah for sure, Sydney is such a good city.
Cloud Control tour:
Friday, May 31 – Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney
Friday, June 7 – Corner, Melbourne