“Well On His Way, Head in a Cloud(land Canyon)”
Cloudland Canyon is a place where sound, song and sonic subterfuge stack atop each other much the same way as do the past, present and future – a persistent illusion. Listening to their most recent album – their third full-length overall, entitled “Fin Eaves” – is an invitation to get lost in a strange landscape, a landscape offering a thousand paths to move you from point A to point B, yet none of the paths are marked. It’s an ambitious, beautiful album and one we don’t hesitate to declare perfect.
Cloudland Canyon is also a state park in Georgia and presumably also no stranger to beauty. Should we ever visit, we might be persuaded to declare that Cloudland Canyon perfect, too.
Yet we worry that declaring an album “perfect” can set expectations when listeners may be better served to have none (we also worry about the pernicious effect of Worthington’s Law when discussing art and music). So we turn to the words of a true Einstein – “All Night” Albert Einstein – who says, “People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
Guitarist and cloud-man Kip Ulhorn was kind enough to give us a guided tour of the persistent illusion supplied by Cloudland Canyon.
One the more useless things one can know about clouds is regarding their make up of frozen ice crystals and masses of water – a bit away from our childish fantasy of reclining on the soft, floating island. In this way, the music of Cloudland Canyon can be similarly deceptive. Listened to at low volume and with low attention, the music has a subtle, drifting quality. A louder and closer listen reveals the music to be extraordinarily harsh. Would you agree?
Sort of. It’s actually funny that you mention this, mainly because “Fin Eaves” is supposed to be almost a paradox. First of all, it is mixed so that there is a different mix coming out of each side of the stereo spectrum. It’s like having two separate (but complete) mono mixes on either channel. Hopefully, this means that you hear something different each time, if you want to, according to how you choose to pan it. A long time ago, I went to La Monte Young’s “Dream House,” in lower Manhattan, which is a permanent installation. I guess the idea partially is that depending on where you sit in the room, you hear a different harmonic variation of the same drone … meaning that the listener is both listener and the performer. The mix of “Fin Eaves” could be heard a million different ways. Also, the other part of this is that while we were recording this, Kelly or I would actively listen to playback through the studio wall, on the outside. Our goal, I think, was to be able to hear only a drone (for lack of a better term) through the wall, but then listening close up unveiled pop songs. So basically the music could function either way. In short, that shit was hard to do. It took me every single day of two years.
Is a balance between the harsh and soothing something you have consciously looked to explore with Cloudland Canyon? What are the elements of “soft” music that appeal to you most directly? And harsh?
Honestly, no … not specifically. Even though in the question before this it seems like everything is over analyzed/scrutinized etc., I actually usually try to work by intuition as much as possible. I have very little classical training so I try and let things be as fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants-ish as possible. I think I really learned a lesson, when I majored in photography in college but found that after 4 years of critical analysis, I had zero interest in that particular medium. I think it scares me to not let things develop naturally, subsequently.
I’ve no problem whatsoever calling your latest album, “Fin Eaves,” perfect – and if certain listener’s mileage may vary, they would at least have to concede to its consistency of vision. “Fin Eaves” plays not as a random collection of weird sounds, but as an album proper – indeed, a very deliberate collection of weird sounds. Did you have an overall goal in constructing “Fin Eaves” – anything close to a mission statement? How has your opinion of the album changed since it’s recording, or since its release?
Man … thanks! Honestly, if I could choose a way for it to be described … I definitely feel like you have come pretty close. As crazy as it sounds, though … I completely agree with you. It’s exactly what I wanted it to be, and I actually think it would be impossible for me to feel otherwise. I just lived those songs for so long, not to mention writing almost 60 songs for that record. However, in the interest of not sounding like a complete asshole, I think that if someone knows exactly how something is supposed to sound going in, and you decide that you won’t quit until every single note is exactly how you intended, then how could it not be? I mean, if you spend long enough on something … how could it not be? It’s almost more a product of functionality or cause and effect than talent, skill or anything like that. I just committed to it.
How did you first hear about Austin Psych Fest? Are there any bands you are particularly excited about sharing the stage with? Is there any value at all in seeking to define what “psych” music is? Should it be anything? Can it be everything?
Actually, I didn’t know anything about it until this year. However, The Black Angels are amazing! Totally exited to see them. Pretty much every band playing is amazing. Crystal Stilts, Black Moth Super Rainbow, Spectrum, Beaches, Pontiak (who we are touring down there with), White Hills … the lineup is amazing!
What music have you been listening to lately?
Ommm … La Big Vic, Future Shuttle, Pink Priest, a lot of DFA stuff – Gavin Russom related things in particular, Electric Sunset, the new Belong record, called “Common Era.” I saw Rene Hell not too long ago … amazing. “Get in the Van” by Henry Rollins – book on tape, the first Stereolab, new Sun City Girls … anything that involves a 303 or 808, I am obsessed with.
Legend has it that Ash Ra Tempel got their start only after buying Pink Floyd’s PA in London. If it were as easy as laying down a few dollars, what band or artist’s sound would you purchase as your own … on the condition that no one would be any the wiser about the transaction?
I guess I’ll just go with Ash Ra Temple … 70’s era.
One song that has been a focal point for our “Fin Eaves” obsession is “Pinklike,” which to these ears sounds like an obscure, sacred religious chant somehow being belted out of a 22nd century robotic hologram of The Ronettes. What can you share with us about this particular song?
Thanks! Ommm … not really that much except that song was written pretty early in the process, so I definitely probably over-worked the shit out of it. Part of me worried about making music that was more pop oriented. “Pinklike” was definitely one that I really liked immediately, but also seemed extremely poppy … almost too much so. However, a couple people have compared it to Brian Eno/ Bowie/ “Berlin” or “Low” era, which makes me really happy and definitely less worried about the pop aspect of it.
What are the challenges, if any, of recreating the Cloudland Canyon sounds for the live performance? How much are you comfortable with leaving to chance, or improvising?
Oh man … it’s impossible!!! We were trying to do it in a way that was true to the record for a while and then I just realized that we couldn’t ever sound like that. However, we have finally gotten to a point where even though the live performance is slightly different, it sounds probably better than if we played the songs 100% accurately. I guess we just learned that sometimes when you are recording songs prior to working them out live, that you are going to have to make certain adjustments for live, down the road. You can really drive yourself crazy, not realizing how different the two methods of presentation are.
On the subject of spirituality in art, Willem de Kooning said the following: “Spiritually, I am wherever my spirit allows me to be, and that is not necessarily in the future … Art never seems to make me peaceful or pure. I always seem to be wrapped in the melodrama of vulgarity.” Is the creation of your art a calming influence on you, all things considered?
Honestly, a lot of times I think that it’s not. Sometimes it completely drives me crazy. I am sooo completely given over to perfectionism at this point that it’s almost too much to deal with sometimes. I know that sounds dramatic, but it’s true. Anyone who has been around while I am making a record knows that for sure.
What’s next for Cloudland Canyon?
I am putting the final touches on an 12″ Ep for Not Not Fun. A couple of singles, including a split with Wooden Wand on Great Pop Supplement. Another record for Trensmat. Some more things I can’t really mention right now. As far as shows … we are playing a few times at SXSW, The Black Angels’ Psych Fest in April and then some West Coast shows afterward. I’m about to start focusing a lot more time on Intercoastal Artists, which is my record label.