It’s not often you find artists willing to put a fan base built up over four years on the line for the sake of a shift in musical direction. It’s risky business, changing your name. But for local rockers Cobalt Cranes, now ExSage, it seemed impossible for them to move forward under the same moniker.
At the end of a nationwide tour last year, the couple at the group's core, Kate Clover (formerly Kate Betuel) and Tim Foley, broke up. “Nobody really knew that that, too. It was kind of like a secret,” says Clover — a surprising thing to sweep under the rug for a band highly visible in the L.A. music scene, with an EP on Lolipop Records and frequent appearances at the Echo and Echoplex.
After their split, Foley hit the road once again for a countrywide trip, this time without his partner, and Clover made a few gigantic changes in her own life. “I stopped taking a heavy pharmaceutical drug, and I’d been taking it since I was a teenager. I felt kind of unlocked,” she says. “Honestly, it was scary. And with that I just started re-evaluating everything, because I didn’t realize how much that had had a hold on me.”
Clover decided that she needed to get out of L.A. and the Koreatown apartment the couple had worked in together for years. So she picked up and headed out to Joshua Tree in hopes of clearing her head and rediscovering herself. To her surprise, she bumped into Foley again in the desert, and their partnership was rekindled.
“I think for a while we didn’t know if we wanted to continue to make music together,” says Clover, recalling their unexpected reunion. “But then sometimes when you’re in a creative space, you don’t make that choice.”
Both Foley and Clover admit that writing together this time around was much more intense and difficult — not because of an inability to reconnect as artists but because of the uncharted territory they crossed together in putting everything out on the table.
In Cobalt Cranes, “We were a little bit at arm's length,” says Clover, explaining that they wrote songs separately. But for ExSage, the pair wrote together in constant collaboration. “I think now we’re a little more honest and straightforward than we were in the past.”
The metaphors present in Cobalt Cranes’ lyrics have given way to the likes of, “I don’t want your love, I don’t need your love,” evocative of the literal push and pull involved in penning tracks such as “Love Me Doom,” off of ExSage’s forthcoming EP.
In addition to finding a new style of writing, the duo essentially found new versions of themselves while out in the desert — people who were less inhibited, less afraid to be loud and more in touch with what it means to be a Californian, while catching their breath away from what can, at times, be a suffocating local scene.
“There’s a freedom to the fact that nobody’s listening,” Foley says of writing in the desert. “You can get more in touch with what you want to create, because nobody cares. Nobody is there to care.”
Clover and Foley were able to home in on some influences that had fallen by the wayside when they were immersed in a crowd of prolific local bands that also happened to be some of their closest friends. They returned to classics such as The Velvet Underground and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, as well as some newly discovered and somewhat unexpected inspirations, including Nick Cave, Dead Moon, The Cramps and even The Misfits.
Once they had their songs, they returned to L.A. to record with producer Alain Johannes (Queens of the Stone Age, Mark Lanegan, Brody Dalle), a process you can catch a glimpse of below in the new mini-documentary “Out of the Blue.” By the time the tracks were completed, they were left with something that they agreed could not be released under the name Cobalt Cranes.
“A lot of people were like, ‘Oh no, why are you doing that?' You know, they instantly projected fear,” Clover says of their decision to start fresh with a new band name. “But I think sometimes you have to mark the change. Picasso had a blue period.”
“For the record, we’re not comparing ourselves to Picasso,” Foley says with a laugh.
Clover gives a shy smile and picks up where she left off: “Sometimes you need to differentiate in order to process it yourself, and I think I’m clear-headed enough to know that it wouldn't be the same to put it [out] under Cobalt Cranes. … We’re not the same.”
You can catch Clover and Foley as ExSage at Harvard & Stone on June 23.