You can’t assume much about Cloudland Canyon. The malleable Memphis collective, founded in 2002 by Kip Uhlhorn and Simon Wojan, sprouted from hardcore/punk roots rather than an archetypical Can-style art rock commune. Though their echo-laden explorations provoke imagery as majestic as, say, a scenic state park in Georgia, the moniker sprung purely from happenstance. The band’s sprawling, nuanced psychedelia hatched from a music scene more noted for electric blues and crunchy garage rock than blaring monolith-of-sound sonic sorcery. And the band’s latest, Fin Eaves, is their most pop-oriented effort, despite its origins in personal tragedy. It’s a huge-sounding record despite songs about, as Uhlhorn puts, “how small you are in the grand scheme.”
Uhlhorn discusses these dichotomies, along with Cloudland Canyon’s new lineup and live show that includes his wife Kelly Winkler.
AZ: Does Cloudland Canyon actually reference the real park?
KU: Honestly, we were driving by there at some point, and it was kind of a joke because at the time it sounded like some hippie band in the ’60s. I’ve gone through periods of either loving or hating [the name], but it doesn’t have any huge significance. I think just saying those two words together almost makes you think about certain things – without the whole band aspect. And I’m always a fan of liking how words look aesthetically.
AZ: How did Cloudland Canyon come about, particularly considering how different it is from your previous stuff like Panthers?
KU: Panthers was something more laid back. We were all friends and there wasn’t a ton of common ground musically. It was a fun thing that got serious later on, but it wasn’t anything we expected. I was in a hardcore band on Troubleman for a while, The Red Scare, and I see a continuum between the stuff I did with them up until now, but Panthers was just more of a one-off. Maybe the common thread for me is sonic density. I tend to gravitate toward things that are heavy or dense, which can be accomplished in a lot of different ways.
AZ: Does Cloudland Canyon feel a little more like what you want to peruse for the foreseeable future?
KU: Absolutely. We had a weird beginning, which was nice but caused a bit of difficulty, especially when my bandmate was in Germany for the better part of the year. He had King Khan as well, and because of that, more and more of Cloudland became my thing – it became synonymous with what I was doing.
AZ: Was Simon Wojan part of the lineup during Fin Eaves?
KU: No. I started recording what became Fin Eaves around September 2008, and Simon went back to Germany after we played out. I started recording, knowing it was going to be a while before Simon was able to do anything, calling it a solo project. At the same time, Kelly had Eden Express, and we started playing music together, in our minds, as that. I ended up recording 60 songs for Fin Eaves and along the line, Kranky was pushing me to use the Cloudland name for whatever I was doing. Kelly and I were trying really hard to write songs together and it occurred to me, “why don’t we just play the songs I’m recording for this record?” I finally, somewhere in ’09, decided to call everything [I did] Cloudland Canyon, which required me to talk to Simon and make sure it was cool. It was the first thing I’d done without him.
AZ: To me, Fin Eaves compared with Lie in Light seems a little sunnier. Is that difference a result of new personnel or was it was another outside influence?
KU: It’s funny actually. I understand how you’d think Fin Eaves was sunnier. I mean, it’s the most pop-oriented thing I’ve ever done, but, without sounding dramatic, the two years that I was recording Fin Eaves was probably the worst time in my life.
Our drummer, Jerry Fuchs, died. My grandfather, who I moved back to Memphis to be closer to because he was more like my dad than my own father, died during it. And a lot of other factors I won’t even go into. I literally was working on that thing every day to the point where I just felt… I don’t think I’ve ever been so intense about something. Lie in Light is kind of a celebration of life, especially right about the time when you turn 30, which is corny, I know. I think there are a lot of changes and unanswered questions during this time. Fin Eaves is really about loss, and existential and actual crises.
AZ: Listening to Fin Eaves, I find it hard to distinguish between sampled or electronic sounds and traditional rock instrumentation. How much do you rely on electronic instruments over acoustic?
KU: Recorded it’s about half synthesizers and half guitars, processed in a strange way so they don’t sound like guitars. I’m definitely more into synthesizers now and just stopped playing guitar live. We were trying this crazy shit out when we were playing shows with Bear In Heaven and I don’t know if they were the best we’ve ever done. I lived with this record for so long that I almost needed somebody to be like ‘this is the lineup for who’s’ playing what,” because it’s impossible to recreate that shit. It would require, like, 10 dudes with laptops or something. So someone suggested that I do a kind of “guitar army.” Just super loud, don’t worry about the electronics that much. I’m glad we tried it, but what we’re doing now sounds awesome. It’s the first time I felt like it clicked and I realized that’s what it’s supposed to be like. It required me accepting that [our live show] wasn’t going to sound exactly like the record, so I think once I let that go, everything has been better. My friend that died, Jerry… you can’t replace him. So I thought, I have an 808 drum machine, let’s just use that. When you put it through a preamp, it sounds super loud. We still have someone on guitar, but I would say it’s mostly heavy on the electronic aspect. We’ve always had to figure out how to play our songs live after they were recorded, which I wouldn’t advise, but that’s more, I guess, how people are doing things. It just took us longer to figure out how to do it this time, and I’m finally comfortable with it.
AZ: Do you go to guitar or synth when writing songs?
KU: It just recently occurred to me that the guitar is a kind of trap for me. I always revert back to it: “Oh, I’m gonna write a song, I must go get the guitar.” For me, there are so many years associated with me playing guitar that it feels limited. Right now, it’s just more fun when I’m by myself to say, “ you can go write a song with a synth or a sampler.” It makes things fun again, where I think guitar is a really rigid way of doing things sometimes.
AZ: That seems to be a trend – bands start out with the traditional set up, then do something different–exploring the electronic side, and end up coming back full circle with some new understanding. It’s as if you need to escape it to make it feel, as you said, not rigid.
KU: I’m old enough that I’ve been through that cycle a couple times. [laughs] I should stop referring to myself as old all the time.