For beloved indie-trio Cloud Control their latest album ‘ZONE’ is the mark of a new beginning. Heidi, Ulrich and Alistair Wright caught up with Dan from Backyard Opera to discuss ZONE’s arduous four-year recording process, embracing the magic of Roland drum-machines, and the creative freedom of producing your own record.
We had sky-high ambitions about futuristic sounds and the sound of the future, and we were like “who could we do that with?” Every producer we thought could be good was a million dollars and we thought - “crap, we don’t have much money, let’s just spend the money on gear and try and learn how to do it ourselves”
BYO: You took three years to put the album together. Now that it’s all done, is it kind of hard to sit back and enjoy it after you’ve worked on it for so long?
Alistair: No, not really for me. I’m having a break from it at the moment because I listened to it a bunch and was like, “um, not feeling it any more”. There was a while about a month ago when I hadn’t listened to it for ages and I put it on and I was like “this is sick! This is really good!”
Heidi: You were taking it for walks for a while though, weren’t you?
Ulrich: Yeah and then all the final masters came out and I couldn’t download it onto my phone so I literally don’t have a copy of it anywhere.
Heidi: Neither. I actually haven’t listened to it for a couple of months.
Alistair: Yeah, I just gave it up for a while,
Ulrich: So, I’m just going to wait for the torrents to come out and then download it illegally
BYO: That’s it, download your own album illegally. Why not?
Ulrich: It’s a bit of a tradition, really.
BYO: Do you always download it?
Ulrich: Yeah, I did the other two.
BYO: Ha! Honestly?
Ulrich: Yeah, well because that means someone thinks it’s good enough to torrent
Heidi: See, piracy really helps us – is that the message we want to put out there?
Ulrich: We love piracy.
BYO: All for piracy. That’s cool. The past three years, have they been a transformative three years? Yeah? It’s kind of a big question.
Alistair: I mean, it’s hard to see the forest for the trees, to use a really old expression. Does that apply here?
BYO: It’s about the journey, not the destination anyway, right?
Alistair: I guess an album is a good time to take a snapshot, like a ‘save game’ – you know, you are kind of sitting there and you go *chink*. It’s a whole chunk of life and you can go “okay, all this stuff happened since last time”
Heidi: I feel like the reflective questions sometimes come a bit early. I feel like we could answer that question in a couple years’ time really well. But at the moment, having just pressed the button…
Alistair: Still in the middle of the forest. Maybe when you look back you can have some life perspective and go, “That was when this happened, it was really different then because of this…” So, thinking about the future and looking back…
Heidi: Questions like this require us to be airlifted out of the forest in some kind of blimp so we can oversee the kingdom.
Alistair: Yeah, so we can get that introspective kind of vibe.
Ulrich: That was a masterful question evasion that we just pulled off.
BYO: You guys should all run for politics. You became a three-piece before you started work on this album, how was it re-navigating your dynamic? Was there doubt?
Heidi: It was interesting. Remember that day we got back to Australia and the three of us met up in Redfern Park? We sat and talked about whether or not we wanted to make another album without Jeremy because him leaving took us by surprise. He literally told us half an hour before we all got on an international flight to leave our American tour and go back to the UK.
Alistair: Duh, good one Jeremy!
Heidi: This sounds like a dick manoeuvre, and we’re not trying to paint it that way, but it did come at a critical, international crossroads.
Alistair: But Jeremy was under heaps of pressure and he obviously didn’t want to do it, so that was probably why it was such a last-minute thing, but all these things came to a head and he had to make a choice.
Heidi: And we were sitting in a park on the side of a highway in LA!
Ulrich: It wasn’t a highway! It was a small side street. Some dude passed and yelled out the window “Cheer up, guys!” Because we were all just sitting in a circle just look at each other, contemplating the future like “fuck, what are we going to do?”
BYO: That’s tough stuff. I mean, I’ve been kicked out of bands, and I’ve quit them. There’s never a good time to drop that bomb. It’s great when you still want to work together though
Alistair: It was kind of like, “Should we do it? Yeah?”
Ulrich: I think at that point we underestimated what that meant.
Heidi: We were so naïve
BYO: How long did you expect it to take?
Heidi: A year, year and a half.
BYO: I feel like it’s almost a stupid question, but why did it take so long?
Heidi: There were some circumstantial reasons. Ulrich was still living in the UK so he was going off for two months at a time and coming back and joining us, and we kept finding it hard to find spaces in Sydney where we could play a drum-kit.
Ulrich: We got nailed. We were in like, 6 different places.
Heidi: …Logistical nightmare. And there was a lot of learning how to write together and knowing when to call a song-thing done.
BYO: Was it a big change for you, Alistair, doing the production?
Alistair: I think it was good having heaps of time to do that stuff, but then I reckon the thing is… I’m always an optimistic guy - looking into the future. This would be my optimistic statement about doing another album: I’d be like, well, because we were doing it and I was producing it, but really, I hadn’t produced anything before, it was kind of like “Is it good?” We just didn’t know. Was the stuff recorded well enough? There were a lot of questions about stuff so we didn’t have the confidence to say, “this is done”, or “this is sounding good”, or “this can sound good if you mix it”. I think that stuff meant it was a fish out of water kind of thing.
Heidi: Having an external member who could have an eye over the project and have an input for that reason would have been helpful
Alistair: I can’t think of that many people who would have been able to do it
Heidi: But when the three people making the calls are the ones creating the whole thing…
Alistair: It’s gnarly.
BYO: What made you want to produce it yourselves? You didn’t want to bring in anyone from past albums?
Alistair: We had a pretty bad experience working with Barney [Barnicott], and we loved working with Liam [Judson] on our first album, but that wasn’t what we wanted to do. We had sky-high ambitions about futuristic sounds and the sound of the future, and we were like “who could we do that with?” Everyone we thought could be good was like, a million dollars and we thought “crap, we don’t have much money, let’s just spend the money on gear and try and learn how to do it”
Ulrich: I think DIY is the way of the future too in this era of genre-bending and stuff
Alistair: It is, but I want to produce for other people now, so hopefully it’s not the only future because I want to DI…OPB…do it…other people’s bands?
Ulrich: You heard it hear, first. DIOPB.
Heidi: Is that going to be the name of the production house?
BYO: I notice on a lot of albums you sample the environment; it’s a big part of what you do. Like the start of ZONE – you recorded it in Forster, Charlotte Bay at a house – and I was reading in the press release that you talked about a storm. Where did you record the sounds at the start of ZONE?
Ulrich: That’s actually from my mate Tim’s sound-effects CD. He was like, “Dude, I’ve got my dad’s sound-effects CD” – it wasn’t actually a storm, but it was well-recorded storm. His dad used to work at a TV station or something and had all these burnt CDs [in the?] libraries
BYO: Sounds like something you’d just listen to while you watch Bob Ross. How did ZONE come together?
Alistair: Yeah, this one was a fun jam – we had a reference beat on a track and said, “Let’s write a song with a really cool slow beat” and then we were layering up stuff on Ableton. Heidi played some piano chords, then Ulrich played some cool beat and then at the end of it
Heidi: We took turns just singing lyrics and melodies over it, and Ulrich came up with a great line…
Alistair: How did the game go? It was like, one person goes in, and the other two would be waiting outside
Heidi: We had three minutes or something
Alistair: Yeah, it was really short. Say, Heidi would go in and sing stuff – I think it was like, did you mute all your stuff and then the next person would come in and do stuff?
Heidi: Yeah so you couldn’t hear what the other person had done
Alistair: And then we all went in at the end and listened to it. Ulrich’s line was “I hate it when you walk away” and I was like “Zing! We’ve got a winner!”. It’s a strong lyric.
Heidi: That song was a real turning point for us, we hadn’t written a song really deliberately collectively like that over a few weeks so it kind of kick-started a new thing
BYO: Did that song come about towards the end of the album?
Alistair: Towards the end of the song-writing period of the album, yeah.
BYO: And with your normal song-writing, how did that compare?
Alistair: There’s different ways. Heidi’s probably the main person to bring in songs, in terms of a song with lyrics and melody that’s ready to go - Heidi brought in Goldfish good-to-go. I feel like I bring in production ideas and bits of melodies and lyrics. But I often take a while to work on stuff, I think. Ulrich will bring in melodies and a production without lyrics, namely. From that point, if I feel like it’s my song, I’ll work on the lyrics for ages and try heaps of different ideas and, at the same time, trying to work on the sound of the song and arranging it as well. It’s pretty random. It always feels like a fluke; whenever I finish a song that I like, I think “How am I ever going to write another song” – I just have no idea.
Heidi: It’s almost like you don’t learn. You can’t create the conditions that did it again. Stuff like Panopticon – I workshopped those lyrics, that was a grind. That started with the bridge line, actually, that was the only thing in that song for ages. We had all the music, so it was a matter of finding the lyric, the concept that was going to run through the song and tie it together.
BYO: Where did you come up with the lyrical idea for Panopticon? Are you worried about mass surveillance becoming a big problem?
Ulrich: It’s because our first studio was opposite a police station.
Heidi: In Redfern, we had this little window open to the sky and there was a palm tree, and the blue sky, and the cop shop. We kind of felt like we were in Malibu, or maybe next to the LAPD or something.
Ulrich: I think you mentioned you saw a TED Talk or something, about surveillance.
Heidi: Yeah you know, we’ve all been listening to Snowden and getting data protection into our lives somewhat. Last Pass, password protect, all of that. And I was thinking about the fact that we’re actively complacent about it – people decide not to care. They’re like, “Theoretically this is bad, and data falling into the wrong hands could mean a lot of trouble, but right now I want this app, I’m going to tick this box because I want the app.”
Ulrich: I think panopticon is a word that more and more people are going to know what it means
Alistair: It’s a word that, if you know what it means, it’s like, “Yeah, I’m in a panopticon club, I’m aware that I’m in a massive panopticon.” But I feel like it’s also just growing and growing – it’s a panopticon renaissance.
BYO: Lacuna. There’s some cool beats going on there. How do you approach your rhythm playing?
Ulrich: That one was actually bloody Russ having a little jam, pretty much made up the whole song. Russ is our mate who plays in Fishing. We just had a session together; he’s a big rhythmic dude. I’ll tell you what, he’s got rhythms for days.
Heidi: So that actually has Ulrich drumming as well as Russ, as well as the drum machine.
Ulrich: That drum machine just kind of snuck in there right at the end.
Alistair: We used the same drum machine on the whole album, so all the stuff is this Roland TR8 drum machine, and instead of using MIDI, and recording in notes and stuff like that we’d just be plugging in a guitar lead and playing the drum machine in so you can’t change it – just like a mono track. You just loop it and use the bits of the loop you want so you don’t end up editing patterns and sounds forever. It makes things easier and faster. If we didn’t do that, it probably would have taken 10 years.
BYO: You hadn’t done that before, hey - based a lot of the writing process around a drum machine?
Alistair: It helped a lot, but it was just like another instrument. Because we’re a band, rather than coming at it from a super producer-y perspective, we tried to treat as like “that’s like having a shaker”, and use it like another layer. I tried to use the same layers across the tracks to make the whole album work together even though the songs are so different.
BYO: I get the sense that the production and the recording process was a part of the writing process - you weren’t coming in with full songs, you were building it in the studio
Heidi: For sure, a lot of the time. Except for a few songs like Goldfish and Summer Rave. And some that Doug wrote; you know the last track on the album, Find Me in the Water, was written by Al’s brother Doug, who’s the other half of Fishing, and who’s playing bass for us on this next tour. He wrote that song just for his own project, but wasn’t going to do much with it so he gave it to us.
Alistair: We all loved it, and he loved it, and he was like, “I have to start a new project to do this song”, but he didn’t have other songs or the time to do it because he was doing other stuff; Fishing, Body Promise, what-have-you. It took a really long time to get it to sound like a band, because his version of it is really good.
BYO: In terms of your production, did you have a vision of it to bring to the album when you approached it?
Alistair: I think I’m the kind of person who would have a different vision every day and I think that kind of comes out on the album. Different vision, different ideas all the time, but a lot of concepts and things that would link it all together and ways of doing things that link it together as well. We had a palette of sounds and techniques that we used in a lot of different ways.
BYO: I think this is the most complex and nuanced album you’ve made in terms of production; do you feel the same way? It’s really well-balanced, you blend the natural elements with the electronic elements really well. Was it hard to do that?
Alistair: Yes. Well, no. Well, maybe. But I’ve always been really interested in that; getting a band to sound good with that kind of stuff going on. Because sometimes it sounds like shit.
With so many versions of all the songs, it took a lot of experimentation, and I think that was the thing with working without a producer. If we had been with a producer, we never would have been able to do that stuff. When we were doing Dream Cave, I was thinking of heaps of crazy ideas… But having our own studio and the time to really try out that stuff was how this album came together.
BYO: Favourite songs on the album?
Alistair: I don’t know yet. But I feel like it’s also – not that I would know what it feels like to release another album that isn’t a Cloud Control album – but I think this one’s harder because I think the songs are all so different, like, how do you compare them to each other? ZONE’s a big, slow, weird song, I really like Goldfish, Lacuna’s really good, Lights on the Chrome’s really good… They all have such different reasons and structures.
BYO: What’s next for you guys?
Heidi: Well we were talking yesterday about cracking out another album
Ulrich: But it’s always like, once you do a few songs it’s like “Yeah let’s do a whole album!” Five years later…
Heidi: But remember, we’re overestimating how long it’s going take so that it can only take 6 months.
BYO: You think you’ll make another album?
Alistair: I think it’s early days
Heidi: I’m thinking about it!
Alistair: I dunno, in my dreams I’d be like, let’s make another album, Doug would be in the band for real as well. Double sibling band! Having Doug around is good for us. How good is Doug? You know what, we played the other night in Wollongong, and I was like “Uh, I don’t know how to say this, but this is my brother Doug, we’re really excited to have him playing with us tonight” – it was his first gig. The whole crowd was like, “Doug! Doug! Doug!” Just chanting ‘Doug’.
Heidi: We walked off stage and we were like, “Doug, that’s never happened to any of us before.”
Alistair: I want a name chant. Maybe we should start doing that – we could get a random person up from the crowd, ask them what their name is, and then go “Okay everyone, just chant this person’s name.”
BYO: yeah, that’d be cool! A sibling band!
Cloud Control’s latest album ZONE is out now. The band will be embarking on a national tour this month! Catch the dates and the album below: