On Isolation and Hopeful Loneliness

An Interview with Cloudkicker's Ben Sharp

posted on 9/2013   By: Dan Obstkrieg

The relentless cycle of PR puffery and tweet-jacking journo echo chambering being what they are, there are some bands you're likely to be sick to death of before ever hearing the slightest whisper of new sounds. In that sense, hype can be a hope-destroyer. There's another way, though. Some bands, some individual artists, they just choose to ride with Bartleby and repeat, "I would prefer not to."

Ben Sharp seems like one such dude. The Ohio resident, recording under the name Cloudkicker, has been crafting impeccable, self-recorded instrumental metal of the highest order since 2007. No label, no PR team, no needless hype-wagon: just--from where this writer sits, at least--some pretty matter-of-fact, information-age word of mouth. When I interact with Cloudkicker's music, I settle into a pretty blissful zone, and the no-fuss way it gets to my ears makes me imagine the following introduction from Mr. Sharp each time I click 'play': "Hey. I, uh, made some songs. Take a listen. Cheers."

As someone who doesn't much like to be sold, it's a hell of an effective sale.

Sharp will be releasing a new full-length Cloudkicker album on September 14th. It's called Subsume, and, by my count, will mark Cloudkicker's fifth full-length album. Because I'm curious about the new album, and because Sharp seems like an approachable fellow, we struck up a conversation over email regarding the new album, his writing process, and other factors that influence the beautiful, internally logical world of Cloudkicker's music.


Dan Obstkrieg: A bit of cursory research suggests that the song titles on Cloudkicker's upcoming full-length album Subsume are quotes from Haruki Marukami's 2011 novel 1Q84. What is the connection between the album and the novel?

Ben Sharp: I was reading this book during the majority of the writing I did for the album. I found it to be absolutely enthralling in the way that it created an entirely different world--every time I opened it, it was like visiting a different place. The sense of isolation and hopeful loneliness that Murakami created found its way into the music that I ended up writing in some ways.

DO: You were a pretty early adopter of Bandcamp as a platform and methodology for releasing independent music. Are you as enthusiastic about Bandcamp now as you were when you began? Would you like to see any changes to Bandcamp?

BS: Yes definitely. I only have very small critiques about the site and the people that run Bandcamp have reached out to me and we keep an open dialog so I am certain that the experience will only get better in the future.

DO: Was Bandcamp your promotional vehicle of choice out of necessity, or intentionally? Have you ever been approached by a label? How do you weigh the dependence that self-promotion grants you against the possible further reach that a label might offer?

BS: Bandcamp came along at exactly the right time for me, which was a few months before I released Beacons. I don't think I could have gotten to where I am now without them, considering what options were available at the time. I have been approached by a few small labels but none have been able to convince me that the additional help I would get from them would more than marginally improve my situation. They seem to emphasize reach and income whereas I am primarily focused on whether the decision will help me write and record music or interact with people more directly.

DO: What recording software are you currently using, and what does your recording set-up look like? Have you found any innovative ways to capture sound and get around the need to work in a traditional studio? The reason I ask is that your material continues to evolve sonically, and sounds almost absurdly impeccable at this point. What tips can you pass on to others interested in recording at home? Taking gear and software into consideration, what do you think is more important: mastering your instruments or mastering your software?

BS: I am using Logic Pro X, and my setup is fairly basic. I use a small compliment of pedals into an Axe-FX II which is connected to my iMac via USB. I am also using an Apogee Duet as my audio interface as well as some JBL mixing speakers as well as Shure SRH940 mixing headphones which help a lot since my office is not ideally suited for mixing and mastering.

I'm big on practice rather than theory so the primary way that I have gotten to where I am has been by doing it a lot for a long time. My big tip to people that ask me is just to get into recording and everything that comes with it, learn by doing, and find their own theory:practice ratio.

DO: Do you have any experience with or interest in electronic music? I ask this because, despite the fact that your drum programming sounds very organic, the rhythms you use are sometimes reminiscent of drum and bass music.

BS: I wouldn't say that I'm intensely familiar and I know very few drum and bass artists if I know any at all. My kind of electronic music is what plays on Spotify when I run Tycho radio.

DO: Your last full-length Fade saw you going pretty wide-screen with the fuzz, a la Hum or early Smashing Pumpkins. Are there other musical influences that you've thought about exploring with Cloudkicker?

BS: Not really. Fade was unique in that it was the first time where I approached an album with certain influences in mind. Most of the time--including with Subsume--the influences pop in and out while I'm writing.

DO: Because you're making this music on your own, you don't have bandmates to serve as a sounding board. Does that make the editing process more complicated? How do you know which songs are keepers and which ones ought to stay on the cutting room floor?

BS: I don't think so, in fact it probably makes it easier. I consider myself incredibly honest about the music I make, and I'm not afraid to leave something out if it just doesn't grab me.

DO: On a related note: With the ease of at-home recording, do you think the quality of music suffers since bands or individuals are less interested in sweating it out in the practice room in favor of keeping up a steady stream of releases? How do you strike the balance between precision and passion?

BS: No, not at all, I just think it seems that way since many more people are able to make music now and there's a ton more music available, both good and not as good. I write music until I feel like I have enough of it to make into a cohesive album, which is currently running at ~1 year intervals. That may go up or down in the future, but that's as complicated as I make the decision.

DO: As (perhaps) with any burgeoning musical genre or movement, there are plenty of detractors of the type of instrumental music you're making, which - particularly with your earlier releases - is lumped in with the "djent" subgenre. Even though the field is broad enough to include solo artists like yourself, Dan Dankmeyer, Paul Ortiz, and so forth, plus full-band concerns like Animals as Leaders, Periphery, and TesseracT, I get the sense that there are plenty of listeners out there who have written off the entire style as a trendy leeching off of Meshuggah's innovations. What do you make of that?

BS: Well, if someone feels that put-off by it then it must not be the sort of music they should be listening to in the first place. I don't think it's a big deal; there's a nearly limitless amount of music to listen to.

[This kid is straight-up hating on djent. Hey, kid: grow up.]

DO: I think it's fair to say that you have been a big influence on a lot of players coming up. Is that uncomfortable? Does it put extra pressure on you to keep innovating, or are you just interested in cutting tunes that sound good to you, regardless of how it plays in the grander scheme?

BS: No, it's awesome, and I'm always flattered when someone tells me that I have been influential in their creative process. I suppose it could put a lot of pressure on me if I thought about it too hard, but I've always tried to make music that was up to my own standards before anyone else's, and that hasn't changed.

DO: Do you feel connected to djent as a scene or community? If so, what do you think of the current state of the community? Is it continuing to grow, or do you think it has reached a plateau (of either quality of listener interest)?

BS: Not especially. I'm kind of in my own world musically due to the fact that I don't play or go to shows very often and I tend to focus on my own little social world.

DO: Since I assume Cloudkicker doesn't totally pay your bills, what else occupies your time these days? How do your non-musical pursuits impact (or maybe reflect on) what you do with Cloudkicker? How would you feel if it started to pay your bills and you could dedicate yourself to it full-time? Would that change your writing process?

BS: I'm away from home 3-4 days a week for my job and when I get back I spent my time with my wife and the dog mostly. We go out to eat probably once a week or we'll invite friends and family over for dinner which is always fun. And since moving into a house last December I have found no shortage of tiny projects that I can invest my time in. Cloudkicker is the thing I do after I'm done with all of those other things. I never want to dedicate myself to it full-time because it's so much fun and I want to keep it that way.

DO: Is there anything you'd change about any of your releases? Do you ever go back to older material, listen, and think, "Man, what was I doing?" If so, is it more of an issue of musical choices and preferences that have changed, or simply not having found the best software, recording techniques, and so on?

BS: Yeah, of course I go back and think I could do old stuff better, either by cutting parts down or extending them, or changing parts around, or mixing them differently. But on the other hand, the music is always representative of how I was as a person when I made it and for that reason I don't want to change anything.

DO: Give us a sense of what Ben Sharp's five desert albums would be.

BS: As of right now, maybe:

Jimmy Eat World - Clarity
Tycho - Dive
Brian Eno - Thursday Afternoon
Isis - Panopticon
Converge - All We Love We Leave Behind

[Ed.: I ain't at all mad at this pick.]

DO: And, alright, for an even crueler final question: Let's say you can only listen to one Meshuggah song for the rest of your life. What would it be? (And I'm calling shenanigans up-front on choosing the entire Catch 33 album, even if it is one continuous song.)

BS: Either "Straws Pulled at Random" or "Dancers to a Discordant System."


Our thanks to Ben for his willingness to chat, and a special shout-out to the indefatigable Ian Chainey for his assist with a few of these questions. As I mentioned up top, Cloudkicker's new full-length Subsume will be released on Saturday, September 14th, and will be available--as always--at Cloudkicker's Bandcamp page. You can preorder the digital album through Bandcamp right now, though, and get an immediate download of a remix by t16 (who--utterly by coincidence, I'm sure--happens to be Ben Sharp's brother) of Subsume's opening track. That remix will no longer be available as part of Subsume's digital download once the album is released (though it will be migrated over to Soundcloud), so act soon if you want to stuff your preferred digital music-box device with as much Cloudkicking goodness as possible.