Crack Cloud are not a band: that much they want you to know. “Music is just one thing at this point,” states Zach Choy, the Canadian group’s singing drummer and de facto mouthpiece (for current press purposes, at least). “‘Pain Olympics’ is our first step into this world where we’re really trying to become more multimedia in our expression and you’ll see that over the next year or two; we’ll continue and the music will just be the skeleton to the greater picture.”
Describing themselves as a collective, the amorphous troupe (which features a core touring party of around seven, and a host of other contributors that weave in and out) largely met through recovery and mental health programmes in their hometown of Vancouver. Some - including Zach - identify as recovering addicts themselves; others work within the programme. Crack Cloud itself first began life as, if not an extension of their work, then a device that would help its members in tandem. “When I started making music it was all about self-discovery and exploring a lot of the trauma,” he explains. “It turned into a fully-fledged rehabilitation endeavour for me with Crack Cloud; that was the whole principle of it and it just so happened that I had been surrounded by a bunch of really wonderful musicians.”
Eventually it birthed two EPs, later combined into 2018’s self-titled release. This month they’ll release ‘Pain Olympics’, their first conceived as a deliberate album. Soon, they’ll start work on a children’s TV programme – a narrative-driven concept influenced by Jim Henson and John Waters that, they hope, will be “something that isn’t too preachy, but that’s easy for any child to digest, regardless of their societal stature.”
When Crack Cloud resist being pigeonholed as a band, then it’s easy to see why: from ethos to output, what the project represents clearly extends to far more than just jamming sessions and having a lark on the tour bus. But it also belies the fact that, whether they like it or not, Crack Cloud are actually very fucking good at being a band, too.
“I think it was important for us to be transparent about where we come from, as addicts and as people with histories of destruction.”
— Zach Choy
A dense and adventurous journey packed into eight tracks, ‘Pain Olympics’ is the product of more than two years’ work, and it shows. It’s a wild ride, that moves from tense, bleak claustrophobia (‘Bastard Basket’) to something approaching fun (recently-released, Devo-esque single ‘Ouster Stew’). At no point is it ever less than 100% invested in the cause. “‘Pain Olympics’ is an exercise in dichotomies and dualities. You have one track that becomes the antithesis of the next and it was engineered that way to explore highs and lows. It ebbs and flows and jumps all over the place; we’re pretty emotionally erratic people at times, so we try and transcribe that into the experience,” Zach explains. “By the end of the recording and the writing, it had very much become this full-fledged concept; we stitched together this narrative of chaos and adventure. I like to think of ourselves as storytellers because that’s what we set out to do. It’s more like theatre.”
If Crack Cloud’s latest deals in theatre, then it’s more Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty than anything you’re likely to find on the West End. It is, after all, a conscious, perhaps shocking delve into life’s dark parts to open your record with a track entitled ‘Post Truth (Birth of a Nation)’ - a reference to the hugely controversial 1915 film of the same name that is acknowledged as giving rise to the rebirth of the KKK. “I felt like that song embodied the same sort of propaganda and insidious energy that that film embodied during its time,” explains Zach. “I wanted to create this false pretence of a world that quickly disintegrates.”
During this journey of disintegration, the group create something that explores turmoil both inside and out. There are moments, such as in the aforementioned opener or the chaotic visual that accompanies ‘Ouster Stew’, where the world of ‘Pain Olympics’ is one that’s visceral and demonstrative - a literal setting on fire of things and watching them burn. At other points, the trauma is clearly more personal: “High strung without volition / One toke away from twitching / All wounds resurface in the night / Eighteen with no remission,” goes ‘Favour Your Fortune’. “I don’t want [those parts of my life] to be the mission statement, but you don’t grow out of those things. I struggle every day,” Zach explains. “I wrote those tracks in 15 minutes lyrically - the authenticity of how they came out justified in my mind being an exhibitionist in terms of those feelings and sharing that with the world.”
“We stitched together this narrative of chaos and adventure.”
— Zach Choy
It’s something Zach is clearly conscious about. In Crack Cloud’s still-fledgling time in the limelight, much of the attention has been focused on their beginnings. In some ways, it’s enabled him and his group to connect with people in ways he had never imagined; “there have been a lot of people who’ve come to us and been so vulnerable in revealing or confiding in us about what they identify with. It’s been really amazing,” he says. In other ways, there’s an element of “mythologising” to the story that he’s clearly uncomfortable with, something that he would like to push through until Crack Cloud can exist and be seen as their own entity. “I think it was important for us to be transparent about where we come from as addicts and as people with histories of destruction and unseen angst so that we can move forward and grow as individuals and artists,” he continues, “but I would like to say ‘Pain Olympics’ is the last attempt at exploring the past and I would like to think that moving forward into our adulthood, the art will be more of an exploration into the future.”
And really, it would be doing Crack Cloud a disservice not to focus on the wealth of creative energy they’re clearly ploughing into their future endeavours. If their latest musical release and its wild visual universe (more of which is set to unfold over the next months), is a marker of things to come, then the collective seem unstoppable – even to the, er, law. “The way we find locations, and everything we do in terms of how we capture a shot is sometimes illegal so we’re not really out of our element with this lockdown,” Zach shrugs. “You just need to know how to navigate city infrastructure...”
From adverse beginnings, the group have emerged as a genuinely inspirational force - musically, artistically, personally, all of it. They’re a testament to the powers of intense creativity; weirdly, for a man last seen getting his head ripped off on video by a group of enraged women, you can sort of imagine him making a pretty educational kids’ TV show. “Outside of the thematic narrative, the medium is the message,” Zach concludes. “We made that record DIY, everything we’ve ever done is DIY and if there’s a message to take from it, it’s that art isn’t owned by anyone and any person can hone in on their potential and their vision and make it. Nobody owns your train of thought or your ability to explore whatever corners or recesses are tucked away; you don’t need to rely on a label, it’s on you.”
'Pain Olympics' is out now via Meat Machine.
As featured in the July 2020 issue of DIY, out now.