Cloakroom Unveil ‘Natural Unnatural’ Approach to Shoegaze
It’s a long drive up to Chesterton, Ind., home of bass player Bobby Markos and the rest of beautifully doomy three-piece Cloakroom. The band recently built a new recording and writing space, which “doesn’t really have an address." It’s hard not to enjoy the solace; the peace of the Midwestern weather coincides with the home’s autumnal accents.
At Cloakroom’s recording space (a large building shed of a former trucking business), XLR cables snake overhead between various rooms — each four-walled space encapsulates a different sound, a distinctive echo allowing the band to experiment endlessly. Vocalist / guitarist Doyle Martin, drummer Brian Busch, Markos and producer / unofficial fourth member Zac Montez are behind the mixing console, finishing a mix for an upcoming compilation. They laugh over the van breakdown on their recent Russian Circles tour, which forced them to finish up alternating between a U-Haul and Toyota Yaris. With customary Hoosier honesty, Busch mentions that he’ll head down to Texas to pick up the van from the repair shop soon. He doesn’t seem all that concerned. There’s an energy in the room — Cloakroom’s future is so tangible that it’s nearly overwhelming.
After a tour of the space and the expansive collection of gears and amps, Martin and Montez head back to Markos' place, following a quick stop for beer at the desolate liquor store across the street. At home, they crack open brews on the kitchen cabinet handles, relaxing on the living room couch and floor. From the speakers along the wall, Rowland S. Howard’s Teenage Snuff Film gloomily plays on an evening most delightful.
Bobby, you used a different name for Cloakroom in order to create separation from your past, i.e., playing in Native. Can you tell me a little more about that?
Bobby Markos: I think [it was] out of respect to the Native dudes, just because at that point we put so much into Native. I didn’t want anything that was just me to ride on that name. If Cloakroom had a bunch of press releases that mentioned “member of Native,” to me, if one of the other dudes did that, I might have felt slighted by it. So, it was an effort to separate entities. Cloakroom was never a side project.
Definitely. Usually, it feels like something goes that way because of embarrassment. It’s weird for you because Native was so well-liked.
BM: It wasn’t a matter of that. I wanted to be respectful of those dudes.
Doyle Martin: You wanted to ride your fame …
BM: It wasn’t that! There was no fame to ride! [Laughs] I didn’t want either effort to be tarnished.
Would you affirm that Cloakroom is a very collaborative band?
BM: Yeah, for sure. When we first started writing for this band, Doyle and I met up in my parents' basement. Doyle had a couple riffs and I had a couple riffs. Things that would have probably never worked in Native, but stuff that I really liked. Whatever we showed each other, it just clicked, and ever since then, it’s been the natural process. The natural unnatural process. It’s never the same way twice.
Through that scope, what I’m really curious about — and what excites me — is you’re coming from a band where you were the bassist / vocalist to where now you play bass and don’t sing. What’s that transition like?
BM: It’s a huge relief, honestly. I was never a vocalist. I didn’t want to be a vocalist, and none of us wanted to be the vocalist [in Native]. So, it was, “Well, I guess I’ll do it.”
So, writing with Cloakroom is maybe more transparent?
BM: I enjoy it. I never enjoyed singing, even after being in a band for seven years. I thought that was the weakest part of the band, and I was never comfortable. Being in a position where I don’t have to worry about that is such a luxury to me. Just to play bass and never worry about that. I’ve played since eighth grade, and it’s something I’m very comfortable with. I avoid any unnecessary attention, play my instrument and have a good time.
You just make Doyle do it …
BM: Yeah! And he excels at it, so it’s totally cool! I never liked it. I didn’t like the attention that came with it. I hated — I dreaded recording vocals every single time. To the point where I was having these nervous breakdowns. My bandmates were like, “It’s not a huge deal,” but I was like, “I hate this! We took all this time to record these instrumentals, and now I’m going to ruin it with my crappy vocals.” I know that sounds really narcissistic, but I was never comfortable. It’s fine — I didn’t grow up singing. I’m not a singing boy ...
DM: Are you calling me a singing boy?
BM: [Laughs] You’re a singing boy, dude!
There’s always the question of a band being either a live band or a studio band, and you guys have said you’re predominantly a live band, but you’ve also mentioned to me that the most important thing is writing the songs. I feel like “writing” is always left out of the equation when discussing live versus studio.
BM: I think we appreciate all aspects. We really enjoy performing [because] we really love playing together. We like going on tour for a number of reasons: It’s fun to meet listeners and hang out, but at the same time I feel like we’re at our best when we all get off work and show up at the practice space and just jam for a couple hours. That’s what this band was founded on. We always like to joke that this is our “dad band” in that it’s like getting off a shift at the mill and heading to the practice space. The dynamic is ever-changing. We really do appreciate being on the road, but then when it’s the three of us — or four with Zac — being in four walls, it’s something special. We’ll just jam nothing for three hours, but it’s a blast, and we’ll turn that into something. Or Doyle will play “Runnin’ Down a Dream” and we’ll jam that for a while.
DM: Well, that’s our bar band …
From here on out, I can only imagine Cloakroom as a Rigs of Dad band.
DM: That’s where we make our money, man.
BM: It is! The way the band operates is like a dad cover band. It’s just three grown dudes getting together at the jam space. Cloakroom wears many different hats. I’ve never been one to subscribe to bands that are the same thing in both ways [studio versus live]. I like an album, but I want to go see something different in a live experience.
To musicians, it’s pretty obvious that having your own recording studio is fucking awesome, in that it achieves that automatic fluidity with writing and being able to track. It’s easy to understand why you’re recording yourselves. However, I wonder if there’s also an urge there to try and capture your live sound more accurately by doing things yourselves, specifically in that you guys are a pretty loud band live.
BM: I think it depends on where the songs are. Every time we’ve recorded and listened to the album, the songs sound different. We do play pretty audibly loud, and that’s because every band I ever loved was just loud. It’s a product of that. It’s representative of the live sound. Seeing as we’ve been playing new songs live for almost a year now, I think that will stand out more in that certain songs will take on their live entity recorded. Like the song we were jamming on tonight: That song has changed so much since we recorded it.
All of these components …
BM: Go hand in hand.
Right, because you’re recording yourselves.
BM: Oh yeah. Us doing this record ourselves gives us the liberty to fully develop ideas and sounds. If we were in a different studio setting with an engineer who didn’t know our band that well, a lot would be left to interpretation. Zac is with us all the time. All of our shows, Zac is there. He’s been there since day one and knows our band better than anyone else, so he’s going to be able to find the best representation of us.
DM: Don’t make his ego any bigger than it already is!
Seeing as you guys are often lumped into the shoegaze subset, I thought you would be perfect to discuss this with. There’s this kind of rising conflict between guitar and bass players that are either super gear-centric or others who say gear tends to be a means to making bad shit sound good. Cloakroom have such an excellent dynamic effect-wise, so I wonder what your perspective is and how you prioritize gear.
DM: I like the position that if someone takes a photo and gets all of Bobby’s pedals, then it’s not like they’ll be able to do exactly what he’s doing with them. There’s no way.
BM: Yeah, if someone buys a Sunn O))) head, then they’re going to make that sound the way they make that sound. You’re not going to get what I get out of it. I don’t know. I think having gear that caters to what you’re trying to do as a bass player or guitar player is what is important. I alone know where I want my bass to sit and how it [should] sound and what my presence is to be. If it’s not exactly that, then I stress about it. I’ve never wanted to be the guy that throws his shit up, plugs in and just goes. It’s a different room every night, and my stuff needs to sound good in that. The gear I use, and my approach to bass playing has changed so much over the years. When I first started to where I am now in Cloakroom, I think the most important thing a bass player can do is find his place in the band. It’s not about trying to pull power. It’s stepping back from the song and saying, “Okay, where do I fit in? Somewhere between guitar and drums.” Brian and I lock in together so well when we play that it allows Doyle to ebb and flow with the tempo of the song. That’s kinda what makes Cloakroom. We’re a three-piece, so what do I need to do to make it heavy? I play a lot of chords and use a heavy-ass fuzz and a bass amplifier that is capable of having some really low, rounded-out tones. What speakers work? It’s all relative. All the gear was a conscious decision, since day one. What cab? What speaker configuration?
DM: You’re giving away all of our secrets. Now everybody is going to play chords! [Laughs]
BM: If you haven’t thought of that yet, you’re doing something pretty dumb. I appreciate bass players that borrow from Paul McCartney. A guy like Krist Novoselic, he knew when to hang back and when to take the bass for a walk. And then, I know he’s a contemporary, but I’ve always liked how Brian Cook finds his place in a band. Especially with Russian Circles. There are so many melody-driven parts that it’s crucial for them to have a sonic impact. Brian had to figure something out, and he did. So, I think of bass like problem-solving. What’s the problem of the song? Not heavy enough? Doesn’t drive enough? What does the song need? Then I go to work, and from there, my gear has always been reflective of that. Dudes that have a lot of awesome gear and play real loud — I’m always a sucker for that, but in Cloakroom, it’s practicality, too.
I’m unsure how to word this last question. I want to ask how the Region influences your work, but it’s complicated because Cloakroom are so precisely the embodiment of northwest Indiana. In the past, you’ve told me such miraculous stories of how important this community is to you, and I’ve experienced even more of that today. The Region is your soul.
BM: I think that we’re all just sort of doomed to be this. We were all born and raised here. I mean, Brian moved around a little bit, but if you live in this area long enough, you just kind of become that kind of guy. If you take the time to talk to some people, you’ll realize the unspoken thing about living in this area. Like you said, you become the embodiment of it, and if you make art, [the Region] just comes out in it.
So, maybe not so much “doomed” …
BM: I love it! I say "doomed" as being destined. We’re all destined to be here.
Mike Hranica is doomed on Twitter.