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Space Deserts: Cruising the Clouds with Cloud Cruiser’s “I: Capacity” EP

Cloud Cruiser - I: Capacity Album Art

Desert rock really got its start in the Palm Desert scene, kicked off by bands like Kyuss and Fu Manchu in the mid-1990s, faintly distinguished from “stoner rock” by the harsh locales the music came from. At some point, Europe got ahold of it and demonstrated an affinity for the fuzzy, white-hot sound despite being far removed from the namesake terrain. As it turns out, even some of us that live in concrete jungles plunked down on grassy plains can sometimes feel inspired to write a sand-speckled riff that’s been calcified by scorching heat, rather than freeze-dried from interment in a frozen-over snowbank. Chicago’s Cloud Cruiser brings a druggy form of desert rock to the Windy City that stays honorably true to the name, despite being laced with 1990s grunge and high-concept flair. Witness a story of abduction, release, and unearthly trials, as we’re streaming the full I: Capacity EP ahead of its Friday release.

These five songs (plus two live renditions) rip through the stoner-rock stratosphere, laying out planet-destroying stoner riffs while gruff chants bombard the sands. Take a look at the lyrics, and you’ll notice that there’s a coherent story transpiring throughout the record, but not told so obtusely that it would be apparent without investigation. The band couches the story in epic phrasing and weed-fueled abstraction, creating an obfuscated narrative that’s straight up fun to listen to on repeat without getting tired of a straightforward story — which is good, because these crunchy riffs are worth more than just a single spin. You’ll immediately get hooked by “Transmission”‘s deliberate, meditative qualities (including the catchy repetition of the title), and later tracks like “Glow” embark on experimental trips into the void that pack weirder bits in along with the hooks.

Grunge and stoner rock enjoy a certain boundary; a borderland where nihilistic fuzz can be stretched into any number of shapes without obviously belonging to either faction. Cloud Cruiser has ventured into this frontier, certainly: some of the riffing delights in string-smashing chunkiness, and occasionally the relative mellow is violently harshed by squealing start-stops that herald unexpected changes of pace. I say “relative” because the cantankerous guitar and bass tones are heavy and commanding in their own right, but they’ll sink into your receptive eardrums anyway with a stupefying rumble.

This EP isn’t the first sign of life from the band, who have been operating at a quick clip since their inception in late 2018. They put out a single just around a year ago and then packed in 12 shows, mostly in Chicago, with their sights set much farther this year. Hard work and a passionate, undiluted form of stoner rock has gotten them this far — it seems likely that this recorded material and further vigorous gigging will launch them into higher orbits.

Last weekend in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood, I spoke to Tim Ramirez, Cloud Cruiser’s bassist and vocalist about the band’s sound, and the stories that drive Cloud Cruiser forward.

Cloud Cruiser Band Photo

Your upcoming album focuses on a concept with each song having its own identity. How did you come up with the idea behind the album, and can you explain it a little bit?

I kind of wanted to treat putting out albums how X-Files puts out episodes. They have one main storyline, and then they have little fillers here and there, and different ghost episodes, not aliens, they have all sorts of different stuff going on because they’re filler episodes.

I wanted to do something like that, where we have one main story line, and the first two albums will be connected, the third album will be a standalone story. Each one will have to do with a different cryptozoology creature, so I’m just gonna build a story around them and just basically start researching. There’s a lot out there that I didn’t even know existed — like you always hear about Sasquatch, and Nessie, and the Chupacabra, but there’s hundreds of them. Some of them are relatively similar, but they’re all very regional and have very specific things about them that might pertain to that region. So, I feel like it’d be really fun to tap into those “off” ones, the ones you don’t really hear about so much, and see if I could create something fun behind them.

Are all five tracks dedicated to the concept?

All five tracks in the first album, and then the next album, are all one story. That’s a linear timeline of things that are happening, so tracks one to five all go in order for the storyline. Each one does have its own track artwork: I wanted to have something different, something extra that’s gonna come with our tape release. I know that for me, as a fan of stoner metal, anything in that realm usually has fun limited edition things, and you always want to hop on those things ’cause they’re fun and cool and it’s neat to have these extra, tangible items that you wouldn’t normally get at other shows, things like that. I wanted to do something like that, have cards that show each track and show what’s going on in each track.

At some of your shows you have a black duffel bag with green light coming out of it. What’s the connection to the story with those?

That’s strictly for the first story. We’re probably gonna carry over the bags anyway because it’s such a great, easy light source to have as an additional little thing. But the first story, the first album, is about this guy who’s smoking, ran out of bud. He calls up his guy, that’s the first track – just a story about this dude, scraping his fuckin’ resin, being a skeevy fuckin’ stoner. Then the next track is when they’re hanging out, there’s a glow that comes into the window and they go out to check it out. First, the dealer, the main guy, gets taken away — he’s who we’re narrating for — then he gets brought back. The pass-off is pretty much what’s on the card. The glowing, the weed — it’s something that I basically just took from Pulp Fiction. I really liked the whole glowing suitcase idea, and I thought it was a neat little idea that was easy to take from one show to another. You don’t have to unpack anything, you don’t have to set anything up. That’s where the black bags come from — just a nice little easy way to pack up a light and also tie it into at least the first story.

Cloud Cruiser Lighting
Cloud Cruiser. Photo credit: Ted Nubel

The main guy we were talking about, he gets brought back because his lungs aren’t up to snuff. They’re harvesting human lungs in this first story — not very obvious at all, but that’s the main story, and that’s why it’s called I: Capacity: because they’re going through, trying to find the people with the largest lung capacity for this machine that they’re building. It’s not spelled out all Bob Dylan-like, for sure, but people who wanna know about it or who want to listen to things like this, or read things like this, they can know more about what’s going on. But I kind of want people to have to dig for it, I don’t want to come right out and say exactly what’s going on. Because I’m also not good at that [laughs].

Did you hand off your ideas for track art to your artist, or did you tell him generally what you wanted to do?

I try and be as specific as possible with what I want, because I know exactly. I have this mess of ideas in my head, and I draw — I’m a terrible artist — I sketch out very sloppily what I’m looking for: the angles that I’m looking for, the exact scenery. I’ll send him pictures of, for the album, there’s the beautiful New Mexico style house in the background — that was something I sent to him, pictures online. This is the kind of landscape, the kind of house I would like in the background — just set that scenery. Any kind of ideas for shots is usually me being like “okay, it’s got to look like this, this, this, and this” and he — Danny Joe Brown — does such a good job of translating what I want into something usually a little better. I’ll give him pretty much exactly what I want and then he’ll do that, but make it more comprehensive — you can tell what’s going on, it’s not just scribbles.

You’re working with Shuga Records on this too, did they pitch in on the vinyl colors, because I know you have a couple different ones?

Oh, we have so many. We’re in the double digits of the different kinds of colors that we’ve got… we’ve got a lot. We didn’t have a say in what they do — they pretty much do their thing. I think there are ways that you can pick what you want to do, but the way we went about it, it’s kind of like a random assortment and they blow it out of the water and give you a lot of different colors.

Then, there’s that company within Gotta Groove Records, where we got our records pressed, called Wax Mage. They do all the custom hand pours and I guess they choose who they want to work with, or you pay however X amount more to get those kinds of pressings. But they’re straight-up pieces of art, like nothing I’ve ever seen: I guess they auction them off and they give proceeds to some charity or benefit, which is really cool.

What inspires Cloud Cruiser’s sound, and how do you approach songwriting?

When we first started, it was me and Ryan, the guitar player, just by ourselves. Our drummer hadn’t moved up here yet and we’d been talking about getting him up here, been urging him for a while. Him and I worked so well together for years in our old band, and he’s always great to be in a band with, so I really wanted to do that again. Ryan and I had been playing together for a few months by ourselves before he actually came up and started practicing with us. Ryan and I were pretty much like, let’s do something that sounds — not “sounds exactly like” — but we just love Truckfighters, Kyuss and Fu Manchu. Those three were the main three that anytime we’re talking to someone who’s like “What does your band sound like?” — well, if you like Truckfighters and Fu Manchu, you’ll like us. You never want to put yourself into a pocket, but you also gotta be able to tell people what you’re doing. If you’re all over the place it can be hard to pin down any certain thing.

That was our main inspiration, just wanting to start something that had a lot of fun riffs and something that was catchy and palatable enough for people who maybe don’t listen to doom or heavy music, because there’s plenty of people who don’t like listening to doom and heavy, and that’s kind of where our love of Queens of the Stone Age comes in. They’re just heavy enough, and just pretty enough, with melody, so everything they do is real good.

You’re kind of unique in Chicago because most bands here will do the stoner rock thing, but they’ll bring all the doom into it as well. Not that you guys aren’t heavy, but I feel like it’s a really stoner rock sound. Are you trying to keep it within those lines?

I feel like it’s all about the way that we make our music. We each have such a good overlap of the things that we like, mutual interests musically, but we also have different stuff that sets us apart. Ryan, he’s in like grind bands, and punk bands and stuff, but he’s also really into stuff like Cloakroom and that wall-of-sound, heavy, pretty stuff that’s awesome, but he also brings that grungy, 1990s vibe to the table, and I feel like that helps [us] stand out a lot.

I like vocals a lot in heavy bands that you can understand at least a little bit of what they’re saying. I don’t mind listening to a band at all where you can’t tell what they’re saying because it’s not really a big deal to me, but for a majority of people it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. If you can make it more palatable for people while doing something that you like, then totally do it.

Our drummer, Craig, he’s really into bluesy rock-‘n’-roll: Them Crooked Vultures, The Raconteurs, Jack White, that style of rock-‘n’-roll. So we all bring in a little something to the table.

Brett, our new guitar player, is all over the place. We have a lot of similar interests in the desert rock realm, but he’s also even more elsewhere too, so that really helps.

The name of your band seems to be extraterrestrial focused. You already talked about cryptozoology, but do you have any personal UFO experiences that went into the ideas here?

I have one experience that I’ve always held onto, from high school. Sober, driving in the middle of nowhere – I used to live in a town called Alpha, which is by Galesburg, Illinois, and I went to a school called Woodhull, which was in Woodhull [laughs]. It’s the tiniest town, seven hundred people. But we’re out there, clear skies all the time, it’s really dark, me and three other friends are driving. I was driving, I had my friend Travis in the front seat, my buddy Ryan in the backseat and someone else, can’t remember who.

I see this green light shoot from over the car straight ahead into the horizon. I was like, “Oh, that was cool, a comet or something.” Iit had a green gas, fume kind of thing trailing behind it like a green light, some sort of haze. It shot forward, and it was really cool, a comet, and then it shot straight back towards us overhead. It was really high up, but it went straight to way back, in an instant. It was very, very crazy and I was the only person who really saw what happened. My buddy next to me was like “I saw something.” That’s the only major experience I’ve ever had.

So really an X-Files thing where you see it and nobody else does, and you’re like, “damn it!”

I know! No one else really saw it, and I’m a pretty reasonable person. I feel like aliens exist, it’d be really weird if they didn’t. The universe is very large and always expanding, it’d be weird if they didn’t.

Did you write that into the story at all?

Nope, that’s just one of those things I’m always gonna have and probably won’t ever write about it. All the stuff after this album, this is the only album taking place on Earth. The first track on the next album talks about them leaving Earth. It moves perspective from the guy who goes crazy after seeing and being abducted by aliens to the aliens’ perspective: them leaving earth, going out and harvesting, and they crash into this planet for this new one. There’s gonna be all sorts of fun stuff going on. We’re like four tracks in, for the new one.

This last album is more like an EP. Are you going to move to a full-length in the future?

The next one will be more of a 12-song full-length. We have some really, really good ideas for new limited edition stuff that I’ve been holding onto since the beginning of this project. It’s like, “Can’t wait ’til the second album so I can do that!” But yeah, I’m excited, I feel like people will be like, “How did, where did you get this, how did you do this?”

You’ve collaborated with Kuma’s Corner in order to create a special burger this week including your own hot sauce, I think?

Yeah, Soothsayer is a company here in Chicago — I don’t know if I can say “company,” because it’s one guy and then a few of his friends that help. He makes small-batch hot sauces, his own personal ones and then he makes some for other local bands. Typesetter had one, and Turnspit I think also had one.

I came to him with the idea when I first started the band. I was like, “Doing this desert rock band, it’ll be really fun, but it’s all gonna be desert imagery. Do you want to do a cactus hot sauce for us? I don’t think you have anything like that, I haven’t seen anything like that, is that something you’d be interested in?”

I feel like because I came to him with a good, different idea, he was immediately hooked on it and really liked the idea of doing it. I talked to my artist, who does all of our stuff — Daniel — do the label for the hot sauce, so it looks really, really cool. The hot sauce is serrano peppers, lime and cactus — the three main ingredients, there’s obviously some vinegar and stuff like that.

For the burger, did you just give the sauce to Kuma’s and go, “Here, figure something out,” or did you design it too?

The really amazing thing about Kuma’s is that they asked us what we wanted on it. I thought it was really cool that they gave us any kind of freedom like that. My first stoney-baloney suggestion was, “Let’s put a Southwestern eggroll on it!” Any time I see a Southwestern eggroll on a menu, I’m pretty much going for it. It’s such a silly appetizer, but it’s so good. I thought that would be a fun idea since we’re going with the Southwestern theme. And, he laughed, but he seemed to really go for it. I was like, “What do you think?” and he goes, “I think we should go with your egg roll idea.” Well, that’s perfect, let’s do that. Everything else was theirs: the pickled cactus, the cotija cheese and… what else was on it? I can’t even remember, there’s so much on it. But I’m very proud to claim Southwestern eggroll… I had that idea.

Have you had the burger yet, or do you have to wait until the 6th?

I haven’t had it. It’s killing me inside, I look at it every day.

Saturday, you’re playing your release show at Beat Kitchen. Do you have any other shows coming up that are gonna be cool?

So, we have that Saturday one, then Sunday we’re playing in Bloomington, Illinois at a place called Nightshop — a really nice place, owned by our friend Chris Golwitzer. We played there maybe five months ago with our friends Minsk and Varaha. That place is great, it’s really fun. Their food is good, they’ve got really good vegan and vegetarian food and also meat entrees. So that one’s coming up, it’s with Larks’ Tongues and our friends Karat’s Gold, a really good technical mathy band.

That’s all we’ve got set in stone and announced. We’ve got something in Lafayette coming up in… I don’t want to give a date, I don’t remember, that’s in March, and also one in, it’s not Milwaukee, but it’s a small town outside, I haven’t heard of it before. Oh, the Doom Room, that’s the one in Lafayette we’re playing.

Do you feel like doing all these shows is getting people interested?

Definitely — I feel like since we’ve started, we’ve had a really good reaction to it. We’ve had some really nice turnouts, and been offered some really flattering shows that have helped us out a lot. That’s the biggest thing — someone willing to take a chance on your band, that’s really the biggest hurdle working in Chicago, where there’s a million bands, a million bands so deserving of everything, that they want in Chicago. So to be able to play some of the shows that we really wanted to and get on some of these shows that we’re like “Wow, we got on this show!”, that’s really, really great. And being recognized by anyone who’s interested in us, wants to talk to us, it’s been very nice. People have been buying shirts and stuff, and that’s always really cool when people will support you in that way: not just coming out to your shows, but will actually put a shirt on their body, or a sticker on something.

I: Capacity releases February 7th; physical preorders available via Shuga Records. The band will be playing the following shows:

February 8th @ Beat Kitchen (release show) – Chicago, IL
February 9th @ Nightshop – Bloomington, IL
March 21st @ Metal Monkey Brewing – Romeoville, IL

Listening Party:
February 6th @ Kuma’s Corner (2900 W Belmont) – Chicago IL

Kuma's Corner Cloud Cruiser Burger
Source: Kuma’s Corner Facebook page.

Have you been mad at your stomach recently? Want to get even? As enthusiasts of strange, customized offerings, Cloud Cruiser is kicking off their release party for I: Capacity with a hyper-limited bespoke burger from the Chicago patty titans Kuma’s Corner, featuring a Southwestern egg roll drenched in the band’s official (also hyper-limited) hot sauce.

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