How the Childlike Vulnerability of Andy Kaufman Inspired Majical Cloudz
Photo by Sarah O'Drissoll
There is nothing about Montreal electronic duo Majical Cloudz that isn’t stark. After bubbling under the surface for a few years, the band, comprising vocalist Devon Welsh and producer Matthew Otto, broke out in 2013 with the blistering “Childhood’s End.” Their output is restrained both in its musicality — a carousel of sparse synths — and its lyrics, like, “Someone died / Gunshot, right outside / Your father, he is dead.” Which, in itself, is certainly not subdued, but stark comes in many shades. The rest of the album that the song came from, Impersonator, is bleating with that kind of interplay. It cocoons you in devastation, but the heavy timbre of lead singer Devon Welsh’s voice is alternatively comforting.
Just last week, the two released Are You Alone?, their second for indie beacon Matador Records. It is a much less somber affair, still clutching the ability to gut its listener, but much more ubiquitous than their debut. For Welsh, detaching himself from writing meticulously detailed lyrics was by design. “The music that we made before was being pretty transparent,” he says. “This time, there was more conscious thought that went into what I was writing about and what I wanted the music to communicate...there’s just kind of limits to working on music and being like, 'This is going to be about this thing that I need to talk about and I’m going to give it to you as a series of bullet points.' There came a point for me where it became more interesting to abstract things a little bit because it gives the song more life.”
Welsh doesn’t think he intended to make the songs more universal than the meticulously detailed output from Impersonator, but, he notes, “Maybe being more conscious of it kind of censored it a bit some way." There could have been some other forces at work while crafting their latest release. Last year, the group was invited to open for “Royals” pop star Lorde on her North American fall tour. And while Lorde is a mainstream artist with outlier interests, the only thing that truly connects her work to Majical Cloudz’s is the personal and poetic touches to their respective lyrics. The Canadian duo’s live show is both assertive and tenuous, minimalist and intimate, the kind of thing that shouldn’t necessarily be experienced in a place as cavernous as Washington Heights venue United Palace Theatre, which is where they opened for her in New York.
Majical Cloudz could have conformed to the platform, but this “big break” moment wasn’t transformative for them in the traditional sense. “There [used to be] a sense of open-ended motivation to do something and get our music heard. After we played that tour, I felt a little less strongly,” Welsh says. “It was a really awesome experience and felt validating of the music and what the band was doing… The tour was really fun, but it just made me appreciate certain smaller shows. The audience [is] more flexible about what was going to happen on stage. An audience at a Lorde show, we were just there and people just wanted to be entertained. To do something that bombs — not necessarily a song, but a way of behaving or a way of trying to interact with the crowd that doesn’t go well — is OK when you’re playing in front of 200 people because they’re more accepting in a smaller space. But playing shows that get bigger to that point demands a certain degree of rigidness. To entertain the crowd and to keep the crowd interested demands a bit more thought-out executed performance.”
But to say a Majical Cloudz live show doesn’t at least feel thought-out would be to deny the emotional captivation Welsh and Otto can command onstage. Even as spartan as their live set can be — sometimes just a mic and a synth — Welsh’s live power is almost contentious, both in the way he sings and how he interacts with the crowd. This is unsurprising, as one of his biggest influences is the schismatic late comic and performance artist Andy Kaufman. Kaufman was famous for putting his audience in seemingly clumsy positions, confronting them with austere, lip-synced renditions of the Mighty Mouse theme song or transparently performing his own humanity in front of them.
“Maybe I’m misreading Andy Kaufman and getting something out of it that’s not meant to be gotten, but in a lot of his performances, he’s not necessarily being a total joker where he’s totally just pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes,” Welsh says. “There’s times where he’s using the distance of comedy that the audience sort of grants him as a comedian to do something that is so ridiculously earnest and he’s actually getting this earnest pleasure out of it.”
Welsh is the same way. In the fall of 2013, he led a Portland audience in an ongoing push-up contest throughout the entire show. This wasn’t to make a mockery of anyone there to see the show, but to take down the impersonal walls of seeing live music with so many strangers. “It was a quiet, awkward room and it just seemed like a good thing to do, to just have fun and break the ice with the audience,” he says. “[There are] circumstances where I’m performing and it’s ridiculous — there’s something that’s ridiculous about the band and the show itself. And I can recognize that. I’ve become more into cultivating that sense of ridiculousness, to create a situation where it’s awkward but not cynical so that it ends up putting people in a different mental space than they would otherwise be in. It makes the atmosphere of a show more uncertain.”
Even with the new — more accessible, so to speak — music on Are You Alone?, the band does not intend to make the live show any different. The intimate unpredictability will remain intact. When asked if there would be anything to expect from their Brooklyn show at new Williamsburg venue National Sawdust on October 21, Welsh can only admit that it will include a “big secret.” But to concoct your own vision of what it could possibly entail is to hear him speak about why he loves Kaufman so much: “He often — not all the time, because he had this whole other side to his comedy that’s aggressive, but there was this one side to him where he sort of performs vulnerability. He performs this innocence and childlike quality that kind of allows people to take some of that on themselves. That’s the part of his stuff that I think is cool. It complicates it and makes it more interesting because he has this whole other side, which is his wrestling thing and his Tony Clifton thing. All of those things sort of seem like the whole package, which is, he is like a child, who is sometimes aggressive and is sometimes extremely fragile.”
Majical Cloudz play National Sawdust on October 21. The show has sold out, but tickets are available on secondary markets.
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