Black Clouds:
The TVD Interview

Signed to the local label Australopithecus Records, Washington, DC’s Black Clouds—Justin Horenstein (guitars, keyboards), Jimmy Rhodes (drums), and Ross Hurt (bass) released their first full length album Everything Is Not Going To Be Okay last year—composing a cinematic tale that celebrates the dark skies that haunt our time, infiltrated with hints and glimpses of light.

The album begins with a penetrating fear that perhaps the beginning simply starts with the end in “Telluric” and turns a brighter corner with “Parallels.” “Divide” arrives suggesting some hope, yet slowly heads back into the unknown—each song creating the next movement within a thematic journey.

You can catch Black Clouds headlining the 9:30 Club this Saturday, July 27, presented by the DC Party Action Committee (DCPACC). This is a unique, all DC-based bill that includes Shark Week, Warchild, Typefighter, True Head, and Highway Cross. The party will continue through the night with Black Out DJs, but get there early as the first band comes on at 7pm sharp.

In addition, Black Clouds will have Everything Is Not Going To Be Okay for sale on vinyl with limited color copies. Shark Week will also have their debut 7″ single, “Santurce,” available for purchase.

We went record shopping with Ross and Jimmy of Black Clouds last week at DC’s Crooked Beat, where we talked about their inspirations, the importance of visuals for their music, and of course vinyl.  

As an all instrumental band, Black Clouds is often compared to Explosions in the Sky.

Ross: Our sound is a little bit heavier. We get that comparison a lot because instrumental bands are often lumped into one type of band, but that was not our goal. Our sound has a more cinematic vibe to it.

Jimmy: We are all into movie soundtracks and wanted to do something with that. When we started we didn’t know what we wanted to do; we just knew we wanted to do something heavy and crushing sounding but also very pretty. We wrote the album over a year and half and a spent a quarter of that time recording Everything Is Not Going To Be Okay. We were kind of in a bummed-out mindset, so everything we wrote we thought sounded sad—but that was just the way we interpreted it, so we thought no one would like it.

Ross: When we were writing, our personal emotions spilled into it, and we were all just pretty frustrated with the politics, social issues, and crap that surrounded us daily. Overall, everything that was happening in that year was so infuriating, so it became a nice and natural release for how we were dealing with it all.

Jimmy: We looked to the movie soundtracks for films like 28 Days Later and Sunshine for inspiration and soon realized that we wanted our record to sound like the end of the world.

Ross: The most depressing parts of the record are the parts that we actually laugh at the hardest.

Jimmy: Every time we wrote a depressing riff, we just couldn’t stop laughing!

Like in Donnie Darko

Jimmy: Yes, actually, funny because I just watched that movie today! I feel like our record is like the part in Donnie Darko when he’s looking at Patrick Swayze’s character and ranted, “What the fuck, this guy sucks, and there is nothing I can do about it, but this guy sucks!”

The Donnie Darko soundtrack brings out a hopeful darkness that reminds me of the inspiration for your record. You wrote the album in a somewhat depressed state of mind, not only in your personal lives, but also by what was happening in the world around you, yet still managed to see the bright side…

Ross: Yeah and that’s the thing. When I was in high school I heard, for the first time, Dmitri Shostakovich—his 5th symphony. He’s a Russian composer writing under Stalin’s rule. Stalin commissioned him to write a gorgeous nationalistic piece of Russian music, yet it’s the most “fake-smiled” music you’ll ever hear. It is very patriotic sounding, but the chords are a little off, and it isn’t genuine. It’s this gorgeous, nationalistic, and triumphant piece, but so haunting and unsettling as a slap in the face to Stalin. Not to compare us to Shostakovich, but I think that is the mentality we were growing through—trying to put a fake-smile on what we couldn’t control.

Jimmy: Yeah, we would write a crushing riff and find it hilarious. During that entire time period we laughed because there was nothing else you could do, as was the case with the political climate at that time with the Presidential election in full swing.

Would you say your songs have a political bent to them?

Ross: No, I wouldn’t say we are political at all; it was just a funny aspect. There was an instrumental band that did a political concept record during that time though, and I “get it,” but that is sort of an out there approach to it. We listen to scores such as Nick Cave and Warren Ellis soundtracks and Trent Reznor’s and think about what we would want our movie to be about.

Jimmy: And it would be one where everyone dies at the end.

Ross: Yeah. It documented that time period well—when we were in full swing writing—but it just so happened that we were also affected by what was going on politically; however, it wasn’t meant to be a political record in any way. We had themes and a basic storyboard of what we wanted to do. However, the listener’s interpretation of our album is the best thing about it because most of what our listeners hear is something we never thought of.

Jimmy: It’s cool to get that perspective from people outside the band, as we often came from a completely different realm of thought.

Is your writing process more of a visual thing compared to a composed process? Normally musicians will create a riff, and they’ll play off that riff. Do you guys see a different picture and then play off that picture?

Jimmy: We all see different pictures, and it ends up becoming one picture. We are all idealistic guys, so when we wrote our record we had a vision of what we wanted to do, but at the same time we didn’t know how to put it to music, which was frustrating at first. As soon as we were able to put all of our ideas in a funnel it all started coming together, and we were like, go go go! It is always exciting when that happens.

Ross: The record really came together when we started to consider the artwork for our album. Our friend Adam had this picture of a crowd watching a glowing red light. Visually, it is really terrifying.

Jimmy: It looks like people staring into a red abyss, but what it is actually is something we have decided not to tell people—it’s really funny if you knew what it was. We love it because it looks like everyone is gathering for the end of the world, which helped us hit the stride for the record.

Ross: Neil from Clutch did vocals for the closing song “Santorum Sunday School,” which are the only vocals on the record. We sent Neil the image and told him that his role was to be like the person addressing this crowd pictured. He was really active in finding inspiration through Jim Jones speeches, Heaven’s Gate videos and stuff, none of which we asked him to do. We never told him what the picture was, but he said that was what helped him in the writing. We could not have been happier with the result. So yeah, art and visuals definitely go a long way in terms of inspiration for our sound.

Jimmy: Sometimes we bring visuals into our practice space.

Ross: Such as the movie, The Fountain. We set it up on our laptop and tried to play our own soundtrack to correlate with what is happening in the movie or how we think it should sound like.

Jimmy: We’d like to eventually get into the movie scoring aspect of music. People have come up to us after shows and told us that our music reminds them of a certain movie soundtrack. That always makes us feel like we are doing everything right, because that is exactly what we were going for and what inspires us. Our live show is an event—it’s loud and bright. We have special lights and haze to create an environment for the audience to experience not only the musical aspect, but the visual element is an important part of who we are as a band.

Speaking of your live show, congratulations on headlining the 9:30 Club. It is rare that a local band headlines the club. It’s an important step in the right direction for DC music, having a venue like the 9:30 giving back to DC by supporting an all-local show. How did you end up getting such an amazing opportunity?

Ross: Thank you. It is weird for us to think about still. We are worried about how many people will show up. All the bands on the bill are doing really well right now, so hopefully that helps get people to come and support local music.

Jimmy: Steve Lambert, who I worked with at DC9 and Rock and Roll Hotel for Hood Booking, had an idea to put together a showcase of DC bands that are a little more edgy and aggressive. All of the bands are also good friends with each other, and it was one of the nights the 9:30 didn’t have booked, so they agreed to host it. Steve asked us to headline, and were like, “There’s no way…” and he said, “Dude you are headlining.”

Ross: So, if you want to see how the club looks super empty, Saturday night is the night. (Laughs) Everyone wants to play the 9:30 Club, let alone headline, so it is a real honor for us to be chosen. I keep thinking that it will be like that dream where you show up at school naked.

Jimmy: It’s something I can check off my bucket list—headlining at the 9:30 Club; it’s my favorite venue of all time. The 9:30 stage moves, so they will probably move it up for us.

Talk about what it was like working with J Robbins—a legend. 

Ross: I had recorded and worked with J for almost the past ten years in some capacity. I’ll never forget when we recorded our Black Clouds album with him and we were going a mile a minute with so many ideas. He just gave us a look and nodded and smiled and said, “I know.” He just got what we were going for.

There is no other producer out there who will capture a “live sound” better than J Robbins—he is able to “use a microphone and turn sound into electricity.” It was really important for us to record an album that we could also reproduce in a live setting. He’ll probably produce our new record as well—any chance to work with J is a chance that we will always take. We will be playing a few new songs at the 9:30 show.

Are there specific songs on the album that you consider special?

Ross: “The Lodge” was the first one we finished—it’s a real bummer and terrifying. Once we finished “The Lodge,” we knew what direction we wanted to go—it reminded us of the darkness of Twin Peaks and other David Lynch works. It allowed us to hit our stride and run with the rest of the album; “The Lodge” is special to us in that respect. Also “Santorum Sunday School” came together nicely as the final track.

Jimmy: “Parallels (It’s Not As If We Mattered, Part 2)” is my favorite song on the record. That song encompasses what we are all about, and it gives me goose bumps every time we play it, which hasn’t happened often in my musical career.

What was your first experience with vinyl?

Jimmy: My dad owned a surf-skate shop in Bethesda where he’d play vinyl records, so as a baby I was exposed to the Ramones, Bad Brains, Black Flag, and Minor Threat. I still remember seeing and hearing those records.

Ross: My dad has an impressive record collection, so he gave me my first experience with vinyl records. Blues records such as Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker were on constant rotation. He’d play them, and it felt awesome sitting there with the LP book open in front of me while listening to it. Whenever I hear any of their songs today it always triggers the times I sat on the floor listening to my dad’s records as a kid.

Jimmy: Vinyl is a forced listening session.

Ross: You can’t put it on shuffle, it’s an investment.

Jimmy: Vinyl is bigger—you look at the artwork and read the lyrics. It makes you appreciate what people put into it even more.

Ross: And you don’t buy a vinyl record for two songs; you buy it for the entire album.

Do you have standard procedure for how you shop for records?

Jimmy: I usually have a list when I go into a record store. Today I want to get the new Justin Timberlake, Bosnian Rainbows, some Smiths, and Cold Cave records that I don’t have, and Lil Wayne. (Laughs)

Ross: Typically when I go digging, I look for records that are somewhat new that I didn’t get on top of the pre-order for. I also like later Leonard Cohen releases, so I look for those. In a record store I stay in the jazz section for a long time—I love jazz drumming. The records that get the most spin on my player are older jazz records—that is the closest I’ll ever get to seeing those guys live as most of the records are live recordings. I have a very honed-in interest in certain jazz sounds. I love New Orleans and 1930s French jazz.

What DC bands do you think more people should know about?

Ross: Lady Cop is awesome; they are doing something great. I like Typefighter a lot. Highway Cross is a band I can’t wait to see live. The Mauls are a very new band, and I looking forward to hearing more from them. I have only heard demos but expect something promising from them soon.

Get out to the 9:30 Club this Saturday to support local music, and don’t forget to stop in and support your local independent record store every day of the week. 

Black Clouds Bandcamp | Facebook
Photos: PJ Sykes

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