Cloud Becomes Your Hand might be thought of as Brooklyn’s indie-pop answer to Baltimore’s late, great Teeth Mountain: Dada-minded insurrectionists hellbent on dismantling various genres then re-assembling them inside out with gleeful aplomb. Classifying some of the pastiches on the quintet’s 2010 self-titled album and 2011’s Doggy Paddle Tore Tape (both self-released) is almost impossible, due to the volatility of the music’s surrealism abacus from moment to moment: radio-serial interlude organs segue to Cave Bears-worthy primitivism to warped, sunny folk to miniature psychedelic masterpieces to manic Tortoise-esque sprints to spasms that suggest a malfunctioning tape deck mangling the innards of an cassette copy of an early Animal Collective record.
Here are two amazing things of note: 1) a submerged, intuitive logic connects all of the diversions and somehow keeps them from sounding random, and 2) these albums sound startlingly new everytime you re-crack their metaphorical seals and collapse anew into Cloud Becomes Your Hand’s hair-brained hailstorms. Theirs is a sound that more than deserves to be heard beyond their borough. Singer/guitarist Stephe Cooper, violinist Hunter Jack, synthesizer player Weston Minissali, malletkat player Sam Sowyrda, and drummer Booker Stardrum are nurturing a sound that deserves to be celebrated beyond their zip code.
This email interview with SOTC was the band’s first.
Where did the name Cloud Becomes Your Hand come from?
Stephe Cooper: The name “Cloud Becomes Your Hand” came from a puppet show I made with another group, called Living Things. There was a scene when a cloud beast with three eyeballs floated onto the puppet stage, and I was in charge of operating the cloud without my hand being seen.
Do you have a lot of background in puppetry?
SC and Sam Sowyrda: Our experience with puppetry started when we were in a performance-art group called Eagle Ager that often performed in large human-sized puppets/costumes. Living Things is an outgrowth of that group; it focuses on incorporating movement and theatricality into experimental music. In 2009, Living Things toured a piece that involved a bunch of sound-making puppets that we made out of instrument pieces and googly eyes.
The lyrics to “Nuclei Spinoffs” have haunted me since the first time I heard them; they come to mind at random moments. It’s a profoundly mad-lib lyricism, on a surface level at least, but somehow you invest it with this profound longing. Where did this song come from?
About half of the lyrics in “Nuclei Spinoffs” – including the title – were written by my friend Robert Kocik, who is a poet and collaborator in the Prosodic Body. The rest of the lyrics I wrote based off of his words. The words are a testament to a brain pulsating with many different thought molecules, all bouncin’ around. Robert also wrote the lyrics for “Butter on the Fire,” which is on our first release.
Is there ever any weirdness or discontinuity for you in singing lyrics written by another person, even someone you know well? I know that pop music history is full of examples of this, but I’m always interested in artists’ takes on that question.
SC: No, it’s not a problem for me. A lot of times I splice in my own lyrics into someone else’s anyway.
The cover art on Cloud Becomes Your Hand releases is always very playful and eye-catching, evoking a slightly surreal view of our world. Can you tell me about the artists who created the art for Doggy Paddle Tore Tape 2011 and Cloud Becomes Your Hand, and how you came to choose those pictures?
SC: The cover for the self-titled release was done by the artist Beethcake, aka Lindsay Rhyner. She usually does sculpture and textile type art; this was just a little doodle she sent me.
The second release, Doggy Paddle, has a cover by Jessica Cook, my former roommate whose artwork usually features some kind of little creatures. I asked her to make something for the tape, so it was created with that mind.
I like fantasy worlds; I always have. I grew up playing video games, and there is no doubt that the visual and musical aesthetic has stayed with me. I saw Ralph Bakshi’s animated Lord of the Rings when I was a kid and read the books; it’s safe to say that was a crucial influence as well.
That sense of play and possibility definitely comes across in the music, which is sort of an idealist’s vision of prog-rock. What are some of your favorite video games?
SC: The Legend of Zelda I and The Legend of Zelda II for the NES. I actually just put on the music from Ninja Gaiden II right now, to get in the mood.
Hunter Jack: My favorite video games are R.B.I. Baseball ’94, Toe Jam and Earl, and Snake for the early Nokia phones.
How does a multi-mood suite like “Piss On The Mouth Of Hell” – which feels like four separate songs, plus a couple of spoken-word abstractions – come together as a whole? There’s so much happening in here, and it’s all so wonderfully bizarre: it’s as if the song were rolled out at the same time it were being built, as if a full construction crew was actively hammering in nails and sawing beams and playing tile while you were wheeling it out to market. Is it difficult to recreate live?
SC: Most of the structure of that song came straight from an improvisation I recorded playing guitar and singing gibberish.
Booker Stardrum: A lot of our material is originally realized as a recorded version. Sometimes we attempt to make the live version a true reproduction of the recording, but often, in arranging it for the full band, it becomes its own thing. Most of our music takes a long time to unravel itself into a structure that we’re all happy with.
With “Piss,” Stephe brought in a notated arrangement of the recorded song, restructured for our specific instrumentation. Through experimentation and selective memorization and forgetting, the material was reinterpreted into a live piece of music that still pulls you in and out of contrasting musical places, retaining the chaotic energy heard on the recording.
While Living Things feels like a more surreal, absurdist project, Cloud Becomes Your Hand seems like an attempt to pull back the curtain a little, to sort of slow waltz with pop on its own terms, though I definitely get the sense based on Youtube videos that the flair for the theatrical that informs the former carries over into the latter; I get the sense that you’re trying to inject a looser, freakier energy into the music sphere. How did Cloud Becomes Your Hand come into being?
SC: Cloud Becomes Your Hand first started out of the desire to focus on multi-track home recording after not having done it for a while. I had been focusing on more abstract/composed/conceptual music for a few years and my excitement for it was waning. I wanted to do something energetic and not afraid to embrace “catchiness,” while still feeling open enough to consider all different musical and non-musical possibilities.
The lineup for the band has changed a little bit. When we first started, we had an additional percussionist (Dennis Sullivan) and a banjo/clarinet/guitar/anything-ist (Zach Paige), which morphed into Sam Sowyrda playing the Malletkat. Another important credit is Mercer West, who emailed me some raw guitar and drum machine tracks that I jammed on and evetually grew into “Felt Beetle,” and there’s another song on the way that was made like this.
HJ: I remember meeting Booker at the first Cloud rehearsal at Le Wallet and thinking he was 34 years old, but he’s much younger. I met Sam and Stephe at an Ashcan Orchestra/Living Things show at a dance studio in Greenpoint. They made a ton of sushi, which all came from a dumpster. Weston and I were just talking last night about how we don’t remember how we met which sounds way sadder than it is because whenever we’re in a car together I think he’s my soul mate.
SC: Hunter, that sushi did not come from the dumpster, but all of that cake did!
Weston Minissali: At a certain point, you can boil anything down to being surreal or absurd. Without cultural expectations/norms, song structure and lyrics are certainly just as strange as anything else.
Although we don’t talk about this dynamic often, I think that’s where the band begins in a way. Approaching tonality, rhythm, instrumentation and all things sound with as much freedom as we can possibly find, all under the rather absurd limit of fun songs.
The videos of your live performances are actually the best advertisements you could hope to have; when you guys lay into “Felt Beetle” live, it’s a lot more affecting in a context where a crowd is wilding out and the tonal clashes and war whoops are especially pronounced. Do you find that audiences generally grasp what you guys are about, or do people seem confused or nonplussed?
SC: Yeah, thats true. The live shows generally have a more rock-type energy than the recordings have. I used to be in punk and hardcore bands, and I think that part of me still needs to be satisfied. One time there was a dog in the audience and it bit Booker’s butt while he was modern dancing.
HJ: The best video is of the Harrisonburg, VA show which has like 57 views. It was in the orange cat pee room where no one wanted to be. When you’re weirded out by a scene in a weird place, you tend to by defense inject an inner temple mainline into the show. Weston becomes this freaky robot; he lazers his machine. Sam turns into the TINMAN. I don’t even open my eyes and he’s in the bathroom with a snare on his face playing his riffs. YouTube’s the best.
Is there a lore or legend that undergirds Clouds Become Your Hands songs? And when I ask this, I mean beyond anything lyrical.
SC: I’d say the legend of the cassette tape recorder. Documenting any sound you want to preserve and having it in an unlabeled, messy format where you have to search through the tape to find that 20 second nugget. This process has been a crucial element in the generation of new material.
What song are you presently unable to stop listening to, and why?
SC: “Beatleboro,” by Chris Weisman. I’ve been listening to it as a little reward, like a cookie. I’m trying hard to not over-listen to it.
Is there any new material on the way?*
SC: Yes! We’re working on it right now, and currently gathering enough material for a full length album. We’ll have a self-released CD of this material ready for a tour in late spring.
One of the things that fascinates me about your music is that in a lot of ways it isn’t sure what it wants to be: sometimes the vibe is very affected and pastel, and then jagged and discordant, and then folk-y, and then like something out of an old-timey radio serial or something, then a math-rock break. But you guys manage to make it work as a whole without coming off like tourists or dilettantes. I’d love to be a fly on the wall when these songs are being assembled.
SS: In composing music – as in any practice – you have the freedom to approach ideas or questions from a perspective or an orientation, rather than from a method. It’s this orientation that can make a band, or an album, or a set “work as a whole.” It allows for a wide variety of results, and even for the possibility of discovering the unforeseeable in the process. When your medium is flexible, and you have players who can embody a broad range of musical and non-musical modes, a surprisingly rich diversity of material can very honestly express a single artistic perspective without the risk of incoherence or aesthetic disorientation.
In the act of expression, we are like a porous membrane, filtering the super-set of our past experiences and turning out something derived but none-the-less unique. As sexual reproduction varies the genetic outcomes of offspring, having disparate influences and experiences can lead to divergent yet cognate expressions.
SC: Songs/pieces/albums finding their identity is the greatest miracle.
Cloud Becomes Your Hand play The Stone tonight, March 3.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 3, 2013