The room is dimly lit, ageless dust plugs every crevice, the odor permeating from the walls tells the story of every cigarette smoked and every last whiskey poured. Littered throughout the old saloon are faces deep in intriguing character. A snarl, a smile, a wink, a laugh, each is a portal to story rich in mystery. Apparitions of another time? It’s hard to say. To the back of the room is a delightful band who may very well be a 1920s vaudevillian act plucked from the down-on-its-luck traveling carnival that broke down on its way through this town. Combining traditional jazz and folk instrumentation, along with a few musical devices of their own creation, they could perceived as “old-timey” and “whimsical”. Listening to them play gives rise to imagery of a dustbowl-era carnivals, intricate music boxes, and dilapidated moonlit playgrounds. Anyone familiar with the carnivals of yesteryear also knows that beyond that initial surface of colorful humor and whimsy, there is a bizarre and complex world of tragedy, mystery, alienation.
This is Cloacas.
An oddball septet seemingly from another era, Cloacas is a Santa Fe band that strays from trends to define their own place in the world. As a mostly instrumental septet, their songs tell stories without words. For those with only a mild familiarity with the band, Cloacas might be the kind of band to hire for an upbeat mixer event. It’s not unlike when a clown is hired for a children’s birthday party. Beyond the balloon animals is a layered character that ultimately may not be “child-friendly”. This is not to say Cloacas are like emotionally disturbed clowns (they’re actually all lovely people), but rather that their music contains a certain sense of danger that lurks beneath the whimsical guise of the eccentric sounds of bicycle horns, singing saws, and kazoos.
On Friday, September 30th, Cloacas will release their second full length album …and the skies are not cloudy all day. The album perfectly encompasses this city’s most idiosyncratic band at their best. They’ll be celebrating the release with local release shows in Santa Fe (Thursday at Iconik), Taos (Friday at Taos Mesa Brewing Tap Room), and Madrid (Mineshaft Tavern) later this week.
With the release just days away, I reached out to founding members Damon & Sabrina Griffith. The pair has been kind enough to provide insight into the history of the band, as well as their new record.
The Origins of Cloacas
Damon Griffith: When this project started, sometime back in ought-something-or-other, it was just Sabrina and I, and it was to be Aunt Kackle and the Coleslaw King. After years of doing a spoken word and experimental heavy drum based performance troupe called Bull Seal, Sabrina and I decided (it was her idea, really) to experiment with actual music. Outside of an occasional Irish fiddle and drum session, we didn’t play much music together outside of Bull Seal (which we still do, but on a lesser occasion). She was playing violin. I used to fancy myself a guitar player, but wasn’t feeling it, so I picked up the mandolin I’d had since I was a teenager. Same strings even. We didn’t know what it was going to sound like (the project, not the mandolin; I had a pretty good idea what that was going to sound like). I think we were expecting something more obviously weird, but it seems subtly weird won the day. We had a couple interesting and intuitive improv sessions, came up with some forms, one of which, “Horseradish Rose,” we still play. We thought we should invite Johnny over to play.
We had met Johnny Bell between a long wall made up of many smaller walls and a wall that was just one big wall. We worked on crews for various event production enterprises about Santa Fe for a couple of years and always talked about getting together to play, had similar ideas, but just never did it. When we finally did it wasn’t formal.
Then we invited violinist Liz Phillips, with whom we also worked professionally. Liz added a classical polish to the outfit. She plays violin on the first album, but has since relocated to LA. Still miss her.
We had met drummer Michael Smith through High Mayhem a few years prior and had worked together in Bull Seal. Knowing Michael “Smitty” Smith as a bombastic juggernaut of a drummer from his work with Bull Seal and We Drew Lightning with Roland Osthiem, I didn’t think he would have any interest in joining. We weren’t even certain we wanted percussion at that point, so I actually wasn’t going to approach him about it. I told him how relaxing and fun it was to play these simple tunes after years of yelling at people and banging on things (not that I don’t still love yelling at people and banging on things). He got a far away look in his eye and said with a certain quiet, “I wanna do that.” I said I couldn’t see actual drums for this project, but maybe more of a ticky-tacky-slappy sort of rhythm. We didn’t talk any more about it until he came to a session with this percussive contraption of his own making. At that point, we started thinking of ourselves as having started a band. But now there were so many of us we’d have to be to be “Aunt Kackle and the Coleslaw King and……….and………and………” so we came up with another name. I can’t even say for certain where “Cloacas” came from but it seemed like a good idea at the time. Sabrina and I have since rebooted Aunt Kackle and the Coleslaw King, but our work with both Cloacas and The Grannia Griffith Story have informed what the project has become.
My daughter, Grannia Griffith, a brilliant musician herself, was living with us at the time, so she hung around for a lot of rehearsals. One evening, Smitty taught her how to play the saw so she started playing and singing along. Eventually, she was brought in. She’s part of the reason we have so much vocality. She’s on both albums but she lives in New Orleans now. We miss having her around.
We didn’t ask for a clarinet player. I’m not even sure how she got there. I was wary when approached with the idea. I thought it could be great on some things but didn’t want someone Benny Goodman-ing all over the place. Turns out Lenore Gusch is one of the sharpest and most sensitive players I’ve worked with. Now our haunting is more haunting, our jaunty is jauntier.
One morning I got a phone call from Johnny Bell. He had a dream that Cloacas had added a bass player. And in that dream that bass player was his friend, Ben Gerhards. He called his friend, Ben Gerhards, to see if he would be amenable to fulfilling this oneirial destiny he had for him. He would. We were all very excited. Now Cloacas has a big swinging booty.
Sabrina and I, in the beginning, had a fuzzy sort of vision of a Spike Jonesy clunky thing involving our traditional folk and jazz backgrounds, but as we accreted new members it became an organic creature with a vision of its own, with commonly unspoken rules that we all seem to know when it’s okay to break. We have an agreed upon direction but an unspecified destination. There is no Cloacas tune that is what it would be without the rest of the band.
Sabrina Griffith: When we began we just wanted to play something acoustic and small. It was so refreshing to us to play tiny melodies without words.
Since then it has formed its own sound. Every player bringing fresh vision and new capability to the table.
The only parameters in place since inception have been a primary desire for wordlessness and a natural sound. Genre remains open at all times,as long as it is original, and is largely determined by the strengths of our members at the time.
The Creative Process
Sabrina Griffith: The creative process has become stronger and more involved over the years. We now spend more time work-shopping forms and dynamics in order to create specific textures and spaces. It all still begins from the same experimental roots of trust, share and elaborate, but instead of repeating long rambling jams every time we also use sketchbook recording to help us form our sound. This process has allowed us to get tighter and more dynamic as a group and to create more in a short period of time. We have also been getting darker and heavier as a sound, though not as a rule, just as a way to express new characters, new stories.
Damon Griffith: Our process hasn’t changed much fundamentally, the broad strokes are about the same, but it has grown to be a more vivid version of what it already was. When it started we would just improv for hours. Not long into it we started recording everything and going back to structure and learn the bits that we liked. The ones that ended up with a title were more likely to be worked. On a rare occasion, one of us will come to the group with a fully composed piece or a form to be worked over, but most of it happens extemporaneously. Johnny, Sabrina and I have been the principal composers, but when it comes down to arrangement and structure, the band functions as a unit.
Over the years we’ve had a few lineup changes, grown more familiar with our instruments and learned more about how to communicate our ideas without ego. And of course I think we all have greater musical knowledge and ability now than we did when we started. As a result, our sound has definitely evolved, but again in the way of becoming more of what it already was. I think, so far, we’re avoiding what happens to a lot of bands that grow and gain sophistication and a greater level of prowess, but move away from what gave them their appeal to begin with. Our music is darker and heavier at times, more prone to histrionics, but I think it still has the whimsy that started it. Some of the songs have gotten more complex, but there’s still simplicity in the over all work. That is reflected in this upcoming release and continues in the body of work yet to be recorded.
Finding Right Balance:
Professionalism, Craft, Play and Humor
As adults, we tend to treat the word “childish” as an insult when it is used to describe art. In many instances, it is indeed meant as one. But a child’s playful, and often fearless, approach towards creative pursuits is often what’s missing in the work of the more formally trained artist. Throughout modern music history, whenever music has grown a little too pretentious, there have been artists such as Frank Zappa, Sparks, Devo, and more recently Dan Deacon to provide a reminder that sometimes artists need to just stop being quite so self-serious and just have fun. While the members of Cloacas are skilled musicians serious about their craft, there’s also an undeniable sense of play within their performance. Sabrina and Damon spoke a bit about trying to find the right balance.
Sabrina Griffith: When it comes to the work we are all very serious people. We all strive to present something professional, powerful and unique in this project. But every one of us is also snarky and humble and highly expressive. There are nights where it is a wonder we get anything done but have a good time but I’m glad that everyone is committed to maintaining that lightness alongside a die-hard work ethic. It takes an enormous amount of trust to make music that covers the gamut emotionally, without a written chart, and I think that humor enables us to trust each other deeply. We have a deep range of trust. We are lucky for that. It gives us the ability to tell many stories together.
Damon Griffith: That balance is what Cloacas is. I think it’s important be serious about the work, but not take the work seriously. As stilted and epic as our music can get, there’s always a nudge and a grin under it. Or at least a smirk. Even when it’s obviously humorous there’s an underlying cynical leer (not literally; we’re usually all making music faces). That balance is what makes it work.
If it was all humor it would be novel, comedy music. If it was all musicality it would be overbearing.
It has to be playful because it IS playful. It’s not a difficult balance for this band to maintain. I am fortunate enough to find myself working with uniquely talented and creative musicians with a passion for the work who are also a quick-witted, damn funny bunch of people. We crack each other up. Seriously.
Hot Hamburger Pizzas and Croissant Moons:
How Cloacas Songs Get Their Names
Looking at the tracklist of …and the skies are not cloudy all day or any other Cloacas release, you’re bound to have a chuckle. Though the band rarely utilizes vocals, their songs often possess extremely clever titles that can often tell their own stories in just a few witty words.
Sabrina Griffith: A good deal of our number are word people. Writers, poets, followers or practitioners of comedy, so song titles tend to fall out of the sky and into notebooks all through rehearsal. In spite of the wordlessness of the music, it’s character presents itself strongly. So it is rare that a piece remains without it’s title for long as they typically spring forth in their own identity. There is no sense in it though, purely expression of the character intrinsic in the sound. Anything goes.
Damon Griffith: Songs take names in different ways. Sometimes it’s a true story, as in the case of Hot Hamburger Pizza or Aunt Dorothy Keeps Napkins, sometimes it’s random nonsense like “Knuckle Butter” or “Cute Little Teeth”, but it’s always in context with the music. It’s hard to say what matches a song up to an appropriate bunch of words, but there’s definitely a chemistry. The sound of the words and the image that they might inspire fits with the character of the piece. Not in any literal way, obviously, as it’s mostly instrumental, but on some other abstract level.
Sometimes after a particularly engaging improv, somebody says “What do we call that?” Now and then something leaps to mind as though the song named itself. The word “Spank-Eye” seemed appropriate for a recent tune. No idea why. First thing that came into my head, and then subsequently came out of it, and now we have a song called “Spank-Eye”. If I’d said “Cuttlefish Efforts” it wouldn’t have worked and we’d continue shopping around. Maybe draw from the running title list filled with turns of phrase, things that come up in conversation followed by “that would make a good song title”. Lines of poetry missing their poems. But one can’t be randomly assigned, it has to represent the imagery that the music evokes. And then we would put “Cuttlefish Efforts” into the list. I might just do that now.
Taking It To The Stage
On Thursday, September 29th, in celebration of the release of …and the skies are not cloudy all day, Cloacas will be performing the entire album live for the very first time. Although the band has performed the songs live many times before, playing them in this particular sequence provides unique perspective and an occasional challenge.
Damon Griffith: This will be the first time we perform this selection of songs in album order. It’s a great listening order, but actually a strange order for us to play in. The perfect set list or album order should flow and almost create an implied story arc, but for performance there are other factors to consider as well. The album starts with “Playing in Traffic” which is a strong start to the album, but one we usually build up to for a show. There’s a lot of material packed together that we would normally spread out to create the peaks and troughs of a solid set. The album has it’s own peaks and troughs, but being jam packed with tunes we usually spread out over a three hour evening, it feels strangely compressed. The album doesn’t feel that way and it won’t to an audience, but it does feel odd to play after knowing these songs in a broader context. There is a whole other art form to song order, be it live or recording. With so much of the music industry and audiences trending toward single track consumption, it’s a part of the creative process I worry is being lost.
There’s also logistics that have to be considered in a set that have no relevance on an album as most of us are switching back and forth between various instruments. There’s couple of bizarre instrument switches that I normally wouldn’t prefer. I play hand percussion for two songs in a row, the second being on a hard wooden box, and then attempt an intricate picking pattern on six string banjo with buzzing fingers. Not my favorite thing, but the listening order is right so I deal. Form trumps function.
Sabrina Griffith: I feel that it tells a story as a recording and so I’m very interested to see how it plays to an audience.
From Sound to Visual
While the music may be the main attraction of…and the skies are not cloudy all day, the accompanying artwork is beautiful enough to justify owning a physical copy of the record in the digital era. As visual artists, Damon and Sabrina Griffith devote just as much creative energy and passion to their work as they do to music. Working tirelessly, the pair crafted elaborate three dimensional scenes comprised of handmade versions characters which had originated from the artwork of their first album The Oatmeal Commission. It’s remarkable work of art that is best left to be elaborated on by the artists themselves.
Sabrina Griffith: Oh boy, where to begin.
The art of Cloacas is really special to me. The music suggests so much imagery because it’s in a cinematic style that it’s almost overwhelming. A lot of times the ideas I get for album art are just too big. I think its part of why we have so much art attached to each album. Maybe next time I need an editor.
For our first album, The Oatmeal Commission, Damon and I created a whole pantheon of characters and wrote a comic book detailing the story of the Oatmeal Commission; a nefarious supernatural squad of dark bonnet-ed women that make you desire oatmeal by changing the weather. There was also some neighborhood imagery (merch. associated) and a little boy character on a rocker horse who we have since named “Kid Cowboy”. It was all very cute and sweet and small and just a little ironic.
For this album we wanted to use the same characters to show a progression of the story but we are no longer as simple or musically sweet anymore so things had to be different. We needed the look for And the Skies Are Not Cloudy All Day to be spacious and vivid and grownup and frankly more slick.
Johnny had the idea to build it in 3 dimensions,which Damon and I jumped at as longtime puppet and world builders, and Ben and Smitty offered up camera skills at the very beginning to round out the collaboration. A team was born.
The front cover idea initially came from looking out the window on our first tour of Northern NM. The sky here is so big it makes you daydream. I just kept picturing Kid Cowboy, who I had just drawn up for the first album, running alongside us in the roadside meadow. That daydream was the idea of being set loose into that sky, on the road, free. It is often the feeling I get playing with these fine people once we get soaring.
Damon and I do a lot of brainstorming to crystallize ideas for projects like this. In these sessions we came up with 2 full separate ideas. One: the sky and crows and banners front with campfire back cover and Two: a raucous old style western saloon. We loved both ideas so much that we wound up using both once we had band consensus under the auspices that more art is always more fun.
The creation process was long and incredibly involved. We created the full saloon and the 2 outdoor scenes in our front room which is not enormous. We could only build and shoot one at a time due to space constraints.
I spent the first stretch of work making 3D sketches in clay of characters and drawing up the composition of the shots. Kid Cowboy and his horse were the first finished characters followed shortly after by the crows. I also at this stage began sewing the meadow intermittently though it was the last thing to be finished.
We shot the night scene first as it was the most simple to build and breakdown. Most of the night scene is about lighting and camera-work. The rocks are from our yard. The groundcloth is the partially completed groundcloth of the meadow. The campfire unit is under a blocked structure inside of an cardboard oatmeal can. The night sky is taken from an Audubon guide and is the summer sky looking Northwest and yes that is a hot dog onna stick over the campfire.
The saloon was obviously the most involved set. It is in forced perspective so everything you see has been customized and created to make that effect happen. Damon was chief carpenter, perspective engineer and furniture maker for he has a beautiful eye for precision and scale. I took on painting, props and characters.
There are 35 inhabitants in the saloon who also range in size to fit the perspective. They are constructed with wire armatures so they can be positioned in the set.
I loved creating stories for all of them as I was making them, crafting weird details that we didn’t even catch all of in the photos. It makes them more present. Example: Lars, the Swedish farmer at the bar, has full sleeve tattoos, he used to be a sailor before he came to the new world. Other favorite bits were painting the playing cards (all 52), creating the tiny frames and painting and of course the elk and moose heads.
Lastly we built and staged the front cover. It was shot in three sections. 1: kid, meadow and mountain. 2: sky, which was a 10 ft spandex screen lit with par cans and blue gels. 3: a suspension of crows and banners in front of the screens.
Note: making mountains is fun.
The evenings spent shooting the scenes were both focused and playful. For every scene the set took over the bulk of the room and then had to be lit. The result was awkward haunted house style crawlspaces and cabling covering most of the studio in chaos. It was great. I was often at the doorway keeping our dog and particularly our cat from invading the already precious space while Smitty, Ben and Damon stalked the set behind their lenses finding new vantages and stories in the scenes. Much as we collaborate in music, lighting and staging of characters was tended to as a group. This allowed us to find not just the scenes I had composed but everything that the group could find as well. All in all there are hundreds of photos.
This of course leads to the last parts of the process. The choosing of the photos was done as a group. The layering of certain shots with others to create a final image was completed by Damon who then passed the finished images to Lacey Adams. Lacey, who also hand drew the lettering for the new Cloacas font, compiled the whole delicious mess into its final polished shape for both vinyl and CD. So really many hands have touched this cover to bring it to life. I can only speak for myself but I can’t wait for the next one. We hope you bring one home and pour over every detail.
Damon Griffith: I feel that the art for this album reflects how this band has evolved since the first release. The art for the first one was all illustrated, almost like a kids book in some places. It shows the inception of our hero Kid Cowboy and the shadowy Oatmeal Commission (you get more of the O.C. from the accompanying comic book). We wanted to use the same icons, but show a progression of maturity. We thought of showing Kid all grown up, but it felt like he’d lost the playfulness that was part of the reason we liked the image in the first place. So we decided he should strike out into the world, still a kid, still on his rocking horse, but somehow striding across the desert, then drinking milk and kicking ass at rummy with a bunch of card sharks in a saloon. The camp scene on the back implies to me that his adventure continues on without us.
It was Johnny Bell who suggested we think about doing it in 3D. Sabrina and I make puppets as Flying Wall Studios and thought it would be an elegant crossover. First thing Sabrina made was a brilliant puppet of Kid and his rocking horse. She spent months hand sewing the prairie on the front cover. Normally, we both make the puppets for Flying Wall, but none of the puppets on this album are mine. I’m usually more of the builder in our collaboration, so I worked mostly on the saloon in the gatefold. It’s all forced perspective, so everything in reality is much bigger in the front and smaller in the back. The scale is largely based on the floor boards. We figured out how wide they needed to be in comparison to the Kid puppet’s feet at his place in the set, then figured how narrow they needed to be in the back to get the illusion of depth, then based the respective puppet sizes on how big their feet would be in in comparison to the floor boards. Then I marked each end of the floor boards, snapped chalk lines, drew each line with a fine point sharpie and routed them with a dremel so Sabrina could paint them more as individual boards. Sounds tedious, but nothing in compared to all the tables and chairs. I did the wall paper in photo shop, figuring out how big the wall would be if it wasn’t truncated at one end, creating the wall paper to that size, then squishing it like the actual set wall. Much spray mount was then utilized. Built tiny stairs for the tiny saloon girls at the back and a tiny stage for the tiny band. The gatefold was originally going to be the only shot of the band, just a blurry suggestion in the background, but the rest of the group was so happy with the way they turned out, they thought that would be a wasted opportunity, so we included the insert. That also gave us the chance to put all the text on its own page, rather than over the red curtains in the gatefold which was originally the plan. A pricier package, to be sure, but ultimately worth it.
After the work was finally done, the work was far from over. Ben and Michael and I became Cloacas paparazzi for a couple evenings shooting pictures from every possible angle. Some specific to the album design, but also to capture all of the available vignettes we could see. We have a ton of shots. Then I had to process the picks for the album, cropping, color work, etc. The front cover is a composite of three different shots: the banner (which was hung from wires), the sky (a reflective white screen hit with blue light) and the foreground. The back was three shots as well: the sky (black mat board with holes depicting a New Mexico summer sky and lit from behind), the camp scene with only the fire light (a tiny red light in the actual campfire) and the camp scene with just the moon light. After all of this, about a year of work, I was super glad to hand it off to Lacey Adams to lay it out for production. She did a great job and I didn’t have to.
The saloon will be on display for the release party at Iconic, so you can see all of this up close and personal should you come to the show. You should really come to the show.