Interview: Cloud on Playing With Fire

Earlier this year, Cloud released their third album Plays With Fire via Audio Antihero. It’s a nostalgic record which is both autumnal and spring-like. Sonically, it fuses Galaxie 500 with Animal Collectice, while lyrically it is evocative and metaphorical. To explore some of the themes surfacing on Plays With Fire, I talk with Cloud’s driving force Tyler Taormina. It is a grey evening in Oxford and a sunny morning in L.A., and Tyler answers my questions from his car. They aren’t questions, really, but rather things I noticed about Plays With Fire that I wrote down. Anyway, we manage to explore the album in detail.

When asking Tyler about the release of this new album, he sounds positive: “It was a really pleasant release. I didn’t go into it with any expectations, but just let it run its course. I’m also very happy with the way the vinyl came out!” This relaxed attitude is reflected on Plays With Fire, which sounds very different from Cloud’s earlier albums Zen Summer and Comfort Songs. “The two albums you are referring to sprung out of being in a very specific place for each one,” Tyler explains, “places where the emotional weight was very intense in either a euphoric or a painful way. In those places, certain types of music were interesting to me.” Plays With Fire, on the other hand, “exists on a wider emotional spectrum, and is influenced by a lot of other types of music that I loved already or have grown to love since. I do feel as though I’m getting older and the music that I’m interested in making now seems like music that a younger Tyler wouldn’t have appreciated as much.”

One of the more obvious ways in which Plays With Fire differs from its predecessors is the short length: it’s a compact collection of nine songs, none of which are redundant. This was exactly Tyler’s purpose with the album. “There’s this weird thing that happened, where for Comfort Songs I recorded however many songs are on that album, and for Zen Summer I recorded two more songs which were only cut because they couldn’t fit on a vinyl record, but for Plays With Fire I recorded twenty songs and chose only 11 to mix [two tracks, ‘Watch Your Mind Wander’ and ‘Plays With Fire’, ended up as B-sides]. I really did want to make the album a collection of songs, rather than a narrative. I wanted it to be the best collection of songs that represented what I wanted to do.” This, of course, raises the question of what it is that Tyler wanted to represent with his collection of songs. The answer is simple: “What playing with fire is.” But what is ‘playing with fire’? “It’s that transition into adulthood and into ‘the real world’. When you’re younger, you have a lot of institutions that can usher you through time, but when you’re not in those institutions anymore you only have yourself, your own ambitions. I consider those little things that drive you and keep you going to be like a fire. Living with those is very intense, and I wanted to show the joy and wonder and horror and all the emotions that go with that. I wanted all those experiences of this larger experience I am speaking of to be represented.” This explains the way Plays With Fire is much more varied and less monochrome than other Cloud albums. It’s spring and autumn in one, because in the end, both are distinct colours belonging to the same palette.

The ‘fire’-metaphor pops up throughout the album in various places, most notably on lead single ‘Wildfire’, which goes: “Every flame wants to be a wildfire”. Expanding on this, Tyler says: “That lyric to me really sums up life just expressing itself in a very dangerous and beautiful way. I like to see in me this wildfire that wants to burn everything. That’s not a misanthropic statement; it’s more about how these facets of life show themselves within me and people around me.” Although not misanthropic, there seems to be something self-destructive about Tyler’s notion of an indiscriminate wildfire. “Yes, actually, yes,” Tyler admits, “I was going to say no, but it is. It’s this impulse for growth, for whatever you might call a flame to become a wildfire. But this impulse is, I think, dangerous, and there is an element of self-destruction there which is evident from humanity’s arch. For example, if you think of how we are destroying this planet, that greed is based on the same idea of wanting to grow and become a wildfire. And you see what we live with.” On the other hand, I also feel the title and the songs refer to something playful. But Tyler disagrees with my interpretation. “I didn’t intend for that kind of double entendre”. Nevertheless, he feels he is “playful by nature, despite any heaviness or cynicism.”

One example of a flame that wants to be a wildfire is sexual desire, which is a present theme on Plays With Fire. An example of that is the comical last line of ‘Heartfluttered’: “And now’s your big moment / as she’s taking off her dress  / it’s your chance to perpetuate the human race!” I ask Tyler if there is something reductive about this, as if nothing matters from the grand perspective except the biological urge to procreate. Tyler thinks you can find nihilism in there, but you don’t need to. “There’s a line in that song that says ‘Of course it doesn’t matter / whatever could that mean?’, and I think exploring what these flames are may lead to nihilism, because it’s not easy to realise the context in which life exists.” But there is is also an alternative: “Another route could be the following lyric: ‘In the grand lack you are free’. And I sometimes feel that freedom, and not that emptiness.”

Apart from writing music, Tyler is also into film-making. I think this shows on Plays With Fire, which to me is an evocative and cinematic album, but Tyler disagrees. “It’s actually kind of funny. The first two albums to me are far more cinematic than Plays With Fire, even though my directing had only begun after Zen Summer.” If there is a way in which his film-making and music-writing overlap, “it is not in the lyrics, but in the notion of tactility. For example, I picture Comfort Songs to take place on a walk, and the movements kind of flow. The has a scene-to-scene movement and an arc that crescendoes and comes down again. These are the same kind of impressions of space and moment that I like to have in my filmwork, and now my films have almost become like musicals. The worlds are really spilling together, but on Plays With Fire there are at most a lot of references to films I love. I do not see that album filmically. That’s also why the album cover is different.” It’s interesting that Tyler mentions the album cover, because in my review I mentioned the moving still as a particularly cinematic aspect. The picture has an interesting backstory: “A close friend of mine took it in my living room. I’m actually going to be moving away from that living room in three days. It’s funny, because now I remember that one of the intentions when going into the album, that it didn’t stay true to, was for it to be set around two friends drinking tea in their living room and talking about their experiences of playing with fire. That living room was the starting point.”

When I ask Tyler whether he is going to focus more on film after Plays With Fire, he answers “Big time!”. Does that mean Cloud is over and done with? Unfortunately, yes. “I don’t think I’ll continue with Cloud. I had this reallisation in the past year that the things that make Cloud, Cloud, which are the way in which it’s produced and the narrative that threads through all the Cloud albums which is like a spiritual journal, are not the kind of things I find myself jumping into again. But I can’t ever escape music, and when you’ll see the film I’m making you’ll see music is breathing life into it.” I’m looking forward to it! (Incidentally, this is the second time I’ve interviewed a band that basically no longer exists). 

Finally, of course, I ask Tyler whether he would consider himself a Beautiful Freak, an open-ended question I always ask and that keeps spawning wildly different answers. Tyler talks about the burden of what you have to give up to pursue truth and art. “On a good day, I would care for myself enough to call myself beautiful, in a way that all people are when you get to know them enough. Do I feel like a freak? Hell yeah I do. I feel like I’ve given up something that is very evident in my peers around me to pursue what I am pursuing in truth and art. You don’t take that difference lightly – I feel it all the time.” And that’s certainly part of what it means to be a Beautiful Freak, and people like Tyler and bands like Cloud are the reason why this blog exists.

-- Caspar Jacobs, May 15, 2018