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 Can-style art rock. Their echo-laden explorations are as sprawling and majestic as, say, a scenic state park in Georgia, but the moniker sprung purely from happenstance. And despite its origins in personal tragedy, the band’s latest LP, Fin Eaves, is their most pop-oriented effort to date. It’s a huge-sounding record, even though its songs are about “how small you are in the grand scheme,” as Ulhorn put it. Altered Zones' Kenny Bloggins phoned Kip to discuss these contradictions, along with Cloudland Canyon’s new line-up, which includes his wife Kelly Winkler.
AZ: Does the name Cloudland Canyon actually reference the park?
Kip: 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?
Kip: 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 continuity between the stuff I did with them [and the stuff I do] now, but Panthers was 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: Was Simon Wojan part of the line-up when you recorded Fin Eaves?
Kip: No. I started recording what became Fin Eaves around September 2008, and Simon went 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 feels a lot sunnier than Lie in Light. Does that difference stem from the new personnel, or something else entirely?
Kip: 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 were probably the worst time in my life. Our drummer, Jerry Fuchs, died. My grandfather, whom 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?
Kip: 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. I lived with this record for so long that I almost needed somebody to be like, "This is the line-up 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 [during our tour with Bear In Heaven], but what we're doing now sounds awesome. 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 got 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?
Kip: It just recently occurred to me that the guitar is a kind of trap for me. I always revert back to it, like, “Oh, I'm gonna write a song, I must go get the guitar.” I've been playing guitar for so many years 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; I think guitar is a really rigid way of doing things sometimes.
AZ: That seems to be a trend: bands starting out with a traditional set-up, veering off into the electronic world, then returning to rock with a new understanding. It’s as though you need to escape it to make it feel less "rigid", as you say.
Kip: 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.