When Cobalt Cranes caught our ear in 2010 with their In Media Rez EP, they'd conjured an appealingly dirty melange of the Stooges and the Vaselines. Now, after the release of their debut full-length LP, Head in the Clouds, they've stepped out of the garage and into a world of pop that's as sweeping and sprawling as L.A. itself. Around noon on an oppressively hot spring day, we met with the founding members at Cafe 101, ahead of their May residency at Lot 1 stating tomorrow. We discussed their evolving sound beside the hum of the freeway.
“I think our EP was very punk, because as musicians, that's where we were,” says Kate Betuel, 27. Her blond bangs hang just above her eyes, and her long-sleeved, lace-lapeled black dress stands in opposition to the spring heat outside. Co-founder Tim Foley wears a T-shirt and a “Thrasher” cap of indeterminate vintage; he's got four-days or so of stubble on his face.
Betuel met Foley, 28, a little over four years ago at a house party in Inglewood, where he lived with nine other guys while he was finishing school at LMU (Betuel was making art at Otis). They bonded over mutual affection for home recording equipment, and after graduation they'd meet at Foley's Koreatown apartment to jam on Ramones songs and record demos. They made a ton of noise, but no one ever complained — apparently the other residents preferred the racket to a visit from the cops. Betuel recalls many times she'd arrive at Foley's door and he'd be playing drums so loudly he wouldn't hear her knocking. The chaotic nature of the place informed their initial sound.
“All our songs start with a riff and you build from there,” says Foley. “But this time we were really conscious to make all the songs really full songs, whereas in the past we'd maybe just stop at a minute forty-five, and just say 'OK, that's song.' This time tried to expand on the little riffs as much as we could.”
Head in the Clouds sees a more mature duo operating with an acute awareness of what goes into a great pop song. There's still an abundance of shoegazey distortion and surf-rock-inspired riffs, but as Foley says, but it's more measured than their previous work. And lyrically, there are more than a few nods to L.A. — both as they've experienced it and in terms of its portrayal in pop culture — as stereotype or archetype, depending on your perspective.
On “Shake,” Foley navigates a space between bliss and boredom, exclaiming that he “wants to feel something real,” and pleading for someone (or something) to “shake me up.” In “Salvation,” Betuel sounds oddly even-keel when she laments: “can't save myself, from myself.” And on closing number “Paper Moon,” they slow things down and let the feedback ride with a stirring track that evokes the emotive twang of Cowboy Junkies.
Both members share an appreciation for L.A. music history. Betuel, for instance, fantasizes about excavating the original Masque basement, where everyone the GoGos to X played in the late 1970s. And she mentions feeling a particular pang of sadness whenever she passes the former site of Gold Star Studios, where Richie Valens, Phil Spector, Brian Wilson, Leonard Cohen, and countless others recorded. “It's sad now because it's like a water store,” she says. “You drive by and it's like, right there, so many records were made, and now it's just like strip mall.”
With Head in the Clouds, Cobalt Cranes make their contribution to the evolving geography of L.A. music. And fresh off a 10-state tour, they're about to take up a residency at Echo Park venue Lot 1. They'll play every Wednesday in May starting tomorrow. Listeners can expect to hear new material from Head in the Clouds, plus maybe a few Angeleno-themed covers, among them “Mötorhead,” written by Lemmy Kilmister just before he formed gus iconic band. But they might also play some Graham Parsons, whom Foley cites as an artist he often looks to for inspiration.
“He's a great songwriter who writes about really big topics,” says Foley. “There's a lot of spirituality in his songs, but it's not cheesy; there's a coolness to it. He captures that early L.A. sound, but before it got too mainstream — like, the Eagles wouldn't exist without him. They cribbed all his stuff.”