Cloud Control: The Year In Between

For a while there, it seemed like Blue Mountains-born band Cloud Control just never stopped touring. But following their stint on the road with Angus and Julia Stone, the band has fallen silent save for their upcoming Urban Country Music Festival gig in May, and for good reason: there’s a third album in the works. Liz Ansley spoke to keyboardist and vocalist, Heidi Lenffer about changes to the band’s lineup, writing music surrounded by hundreds of wombats, and what we can expect from LP three.

“I’m currently in Newcastle visiting my sister in law who’s got a new baby!” Heidi enthuses to me over the phone. “So we’re doing family duties. It’s really nice, we’re just at my relative’s house watching the surfers doing some serious shredding today – cos it’s mammoth waves at the moment. I’ve never actually watched surfers before in my life, but I think it’s pretty mesmerising. I’d probably go as far as to say it’s worth going to see a surfing comp or something, cos it’s beautiful. And terrifying. I’m gonna get into it, maybe get some binoculars and get all creepy about it.” So, it’s clear that she’s not shy – is she game to brave the waves herself? “Oh, no way,” she laughs, “I tried, I had one lesson and just couldn’t stand at all. That was a big barrier.”

Although we’re only a few months into 2015, the year has already wrought upon Cloud Control what is probably the most significant changes any band can go through – the loss of a member. After a decade of music making, bassist Jeremy Kelshaw departed in the name of familial responsibilities, playing one last show with his bandmates at Southbound in WA. “[It’s] really sad. I mean, we had warning from Jez that it was just getting too hard to be away now that his family is growing, so we were prepared. But even then, even though we had like six months lead up, it’s another thing to actually turn up to a show and Jez doesn’t arrive.”  

An empty position in a band as lauded as Cloud Control was never likely to stay empty for long – and luckily, long time associate Robert Muiños was more than willing to take to the stage. “We love Rob, he’s a friend of ours. We’ve worked with him before in a gig scenario – like, he’s been our stage tech and also tour managed a few times. It’s been really nice, it’s been quite natural to have him on tour in that respect. He’s a really good bass player as well and a fun party-man to hang out with after shows. So it’s a mixed blessing, you know? The whole someone leaving and bringing on a new element can be rewarding, cos it shakes things up and it makes you examine assumptions, or routines you’ve got into after being together for ten years. A shake up is good usually! But Jez is still in our lives and we’re still friends.”

It’s no new concept that occasionally, new members can cause a little – or more than a little – chaos, whether that be related to creative differences, personality clashes, or fans being a touch too overzealous with their loyalty to the original lineup. But to Heidi, it’s been a much smoother transition, bringing in a new person who was already close to Cloud Control, however permanent or temporary the current lineup may be. “Nothing’s locked in, we’re not sure what the future will hold in terms of having a permanent member on bass, but Rob’s definitely our guy in this transition period. So we’ll see. Cos we’re not planning a tour for like a year, I guess, we’re just writing our album. So there’s no hurry to make decisions.” And what about that aforementioned shake-up – what has Rob brought with him so far, during his Cloud Control debut on their support slot for Angus and Julia Stone? “He’s a ball of energy on stage, and totally technically great, and brings a really great vibe. He likes to shred in particularly rhythmic sections of the songs, and he’s good on the mic as well. He’s definitely a tour de force.”

The tour itself has been somewhat of a celebration of the notoriously close-knit and fluid Australian music scene, with Angus and Julia Stone, Little May, Jarryd James and, of course, Cloud Control quite literally banding together (sorry, couldn’t resist) to entertain their audience. A post to Twitter by Angus and Julia during the tour sparked speculation that there was a Cloud Control collaboration on the way. This wasn’t the case, but the reality was just as enjoyable for all that attended the extensive summer tour: the “joint songs” that Angus and Julia teased were covers. 

“We covered Little Red’s Rock It, which was a particularly poignant choice because the year that Big Jet Plane won the Hottest 100, Little Red came second with that song. So we’ve been doing that most nights, and then on the quieter nights, like at the theatre shows we’ve been playing Neil Young – Only Love Could Break Your Heart and also Sam Smith’s Stay With Me. So we just have a changing roster of three songs and they just call it before we rock up on stage so we never really know until we’re onstage what we’re gonna play.” That, I say to Heidi, is definitely one way to keep things loose on a long-winded tour! “Yeah,” she jokes, “Keep it fresh, keep them guessing, keep the band guessing! We were never really good at learning the lyrics so that was always a bit scary every night. One of the nights, everyone stuffed it up and I think there were three different versions being sung at the same time at one point.” 

Although only having been, as Heidi puts it, a “full time band” since 2011, Cloud Control has existed in some form or another for a decade now, ever since meeting at university – although a joke origin story that Heidi made up, involving Gilbert & Sullivan’s classic comedic opera The Pirates of Penzance is still cited as being true on several websites, including the band’s Wikipedia page. That’s a long time to stay close to a group of people, especially considering how much we as humans usually change over the course of our twenties. And Cloud Control are close – in fact, they’re undeniably straight up pals, as even a cursory glance at any of their Instagram accounts will reveal. What’s the source of this social and creative longevity? “Moving overseas, relocating four families overseas when we went to London, was definitely a milestone of throwing all our cards in together and starting a new journey on the other side of the world. That really brought us all pretty close. We’ve always been good friends, but I think that’s definitely grown in the last five years. We’re definitely a family. [Of course] now Jez isn’t in the band, but we do see him quite regularly, and he has put his hand up if we need someone to sub in occasionally and we’re in a tight bind. So the transition is still going, and anytime Jez wants to rejoin the band we’ll happily have him back! [Especially] if circumstances change, like we win the lottery and we can afford to have his whole family on tour.” 

Cloud Control’s first two LPs garnered them significant critical acclaim and quite a following of fans – over 68k likes on Facebook is nothing to be sneered at. Their debut album Bliss Release won the Australian Music Prize by virtue of its loopy 60s charms, and follow-up Dream Cave heralded a new era in auditory experimentation for the band. It also, loosely, followed a kind of thematic narrative. By no means was Dream Cave a concept album or a story in the traditional, rigid sense of the word, but the flow-through was there, though unintentionally, taking even the band by surprise. “There is a coherence to [Dream Cave], and we definitely felt that as it was being written, but none of us – it didn’t become clear until it was finished, and there definitely wasn’t a particularly conscious decision at any point. But I think when you’re writing together and living in the same area, reading similar ideas and hanging out and discussing the world together, that sort of thing forms naturally.” So it would seem to follow, then, that Cloud Control’s upcoming third album will have a narrative of sorts too. “If there is an overarching theme, we’ll probably find out when you do! … It’ll be interesting, for me, to see whether that happens again [with the new album] now that we’re all back in Sydney. Ulrich’s currently living with me, he’s still based in London but he shares a house with me when he’s in Sydney. And Al’s living in Bondi, so we’re a little bit further apart than where we were in London… I’m as intrigued as you are to find out.”

That’s a maybe, then. But Dream Cave was such a beautiful and inspired development for the band – although not a complete metamorphosis, with its roots planted firmly in the hippie sensibilities that Bliss Release introduced us to… which begs the question, what sort of shift in musical paradigm will album three bring with it? “I think it’s an extension of Dream Cave,” Heidi muses, “With a bit of a throwback to Bliss Release. We’re definitely exploring some of the recording techniques that we used on the first record, and we’re doing it more or less ourselves at the moment. We’ve got a little studio set up in Redfern, and all the current demos are just self-recorded. Al’s gonna put on more of a producer hat, so he’s been learning more about production techniques. We’re really keen to get a real classic band sound but we’re also not gonna let go of that experimental [element]; program drums, and with the inclusion of some analogue synths. We’ve just picked up a Juno, like a beautiful – oh no, it’s called a Jen. A Juno is what we want to buy, so if you know of anyone who’s selling a classic Juno we’re in the market for one! But we’ve got this analogue synth called a Jen, which is just instant warmth and Ulrich’s been writing a lot on that. So I think it’ll be a good mix of what you’ve come to know of us from the two previous releases. Like, we’re not going into a whole new territory, I think we’re exploring and revisiting the past. We’re exploring where we’ve already been with Dream Cave, and revisiting some of the elements of Bliss Release that we miss.”

The creative process for their upcoming release has been a little different to what the band has done previously, thanks to an invitation from the Bundanon Trust extended to Cloud Control for residency. Bundanon, a beautiful hideaway in regional New South Wales, hosts several artists-in-residence, exhibitions, and education and performance programs year-round, and has been the backdrop for much of the writing of the band’s third LP. “We were really pleased to be invited last year, and we’ve been, I think, three times now – for various lengths of time, sometimes three days, sometimes two weeks. Sometimes I went on my own for a bit, and the three of us have been down together, I think Al’s gonna go down on his own next month. We have a really good relationship with them, and if you’ve ever been there, you’ll know it’s just the perfect land for a recluse. The lake, five hundred wombats, kangaroos, and a river, there’s limited internet access so for those of us  for whom the internet is a problem” – Heidi laughs, clearly referring to herself – “it’s pretty good on that front. We’ve written about four or five demos down there so far that we’re pleased with. I’d really recommend it. The other really great thing about it is there’s about six different cottages all filled with creative people from various professions, like writers and dancers, choreographers, videographers and then us. So every time we’re down there, we get to hang out in a little community and get to know what other people are up to! We’ve made some friendships out of it too.” It sounds a little like school camp. “Yeah, well I think there actually is a school camp there sometimes! And it’s perfect for a wedding, they have weddings there like every weekend. The grounds are gorgeous, it’s like an old, Federation style stone house, double levels, with these big columns down the front, and fig trees… it’s pretty glorious.”

Now down to brass tacks. When, I ask Heidi, can we expect this intriguing new album to drop? “Well we just delivered about nine demos to our label to check out, and they were pretty stoked with them, and we’re excited about them too. So I think we’re gonna try and write another lot like that, and then hone it in about June/July, record, have it finished by September. I think it’ll be released in February next year, so that’s the timeline we’re working with. If it happens earlier than that, great, but I think that’s pretty realistic with us. We are slow and deliberate writers.” If one thing is for certain, it’s that the good old tortoise-and-hare fable very much applies, even if it does make life a little difficult for Cloud Control sometimes. “Sometimes it’s hard to feel like you’re not stagnating when it’s so long between releases, and each day you try and make a new song and sometimes it works, but most often it doesn’t. It’s hard – sometimes you wanna see results faster than they happen, in band life, in my experience. So it’s good to hear feedback that, you know, gotta keep on keeping on and what we’re doing is working.”

Because of their commitment to their writing and creative process, you won’t be seeing much of Cloud Control this year. Currently, the only gig they’ve got on the horizon is headlining the Urban Country Music Festival on May 1. “We really weren’t meant to be doing any touring, we’ve done more touring than we were meant to, to meet our deadlines, so I think if more tours pop up we’ll be deliberating strongly over whether or not to take them, cos we really wanna get this third record out already! But other than that there’s nothing except bunking down in our studio every day and trying to make something good.” Why then, did the band decide to play a slot at a festival like Urban, that is so obviously outside of their usual realm? “Well, it was just an invitation from them – and we looked at the lineup and saw that Augie March were playing as well, and we’ve been long time fans of theirs. It was very flattering to be asked to headline the indie stage. It was a pretty easy decision to be honest! And also, it’s nice to try different festivals, like, every festival has a slightly different flavour. This is the furthest we’ve ventured outside our genre, I guess, to play a country music festival. Although there was that time – oh, what’s it called – I think it’s called Future Sounds or something, it’s sort of like a Big Day Out crowd – I can’t remember the name, but it’s a festival in Sydney that happens every year (Blank: Heidi may have meant Field Day, which the band played in 2012) and it really just wasn’t our crowd at all.” The feeling of being an outsider wasn’t fun for a band who usually puts on such a raucous and energetic live show. “We just kind of shrunk into one corner. And a smattering of fans came to hang out – we played a good show, but it definitely wasn’t the right vibe for our music.” 

That in mind, Heidi isn’t worried in the slightest that something similar might happen at Urban. In fact, she sees the festival as another chance to revel in the affinity she feels with her fellow musicians. And to fangirl a little bit, too. “I think it’ll be great. I’m really looking forward to it, if only to meet Augie March. And Last Dinos[aurs] are playing, they’re friends of ours, we used to play with them back in the day. They’re really fun guys. Who else is playing – British India, I’ve never met those guys but it’ll be nice to see them.” 

But when the discussion turns to the (obviously heavy) focus on country music outside of the smattering of indie bands on the Urban lineup, Heidi openly admits her lack of education in the genre. “I’m a bit ambivalent, I don’t really know – I will say [country music] doesn’t feature heavily in my playlists. But that’s not to say that I’ve dismissed it as a genre that doesn’t hold anything for me, I just haven’t really gone past some of the classic Dolly Parton tracks, that’s really as far as I’ve gone. And some early Taylor Swift.” She laughs as she admits this. “Haven’t we all! But yeah, I can’t really talk with any breadth of knowledge about country music – which is also another reason to do something like this. So we’re definitely keen to check out every band – or, as many bands as possible on the day. I think country music is probably something we could learn a lot from, cos as far as I know, there’s a much heavier emphasis on storytelling. The music is almost the foundation for a narrative, and we don’t really approach our songs that way, but it might be a good thing to learn to do, just to experiment with different ways of writing songs. It’s an old type of music, isn’t it. It definitely has reams of followers worldwide. I think it’d be great for us to mingle with that kind of crowd. Meet Lee Kernaghan, see what his story is!”

Unable to resist, before the interview is through, I press Heidi for a little taste of their third album. A lyric snippet perhaps? Song title? Hint about cover artwork? Heidi laughs and puts on her best serious-business voice. “I’m sorry, that’s entirely confidential, it’d have to be off the record!” Then she pauses, and it almost seems like she’s about to give something up. “Well… oh no, I really shouldn’t. But good try!” Good try indeed.

You can buy tickets to what very well might be Cloud Control’s only 2015 gig here.

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