Daniel Robertson, founder member of Vancouver post-punk tearaways Crack Cloud, discusses the contrasting calm of his new solo project, Peace Chord
Daniel Robertson is Peace Chord, but the Canadian musician and composer is best known as a core player with Vancouver’s Crack Cloud – art fuckers extraordinaire. If you’re not aware of their work, then I heartily recommend you see to that immediately. The best place to start might be the video for ‘Swish Swash’, with its radical imagery and nirvana-like oblivion achieved through repetition. Or there’s ‘Ouster Stew’, a frankly terrifying vignette of a post-apocalypse tribe of head-slicers in rampaging gangs as everything goes up in flames around them.
Also exciting in dark, unsettling ways are the spiky post-punk electronics of the DIY Giger-esque ‘Image Craft’ and ‘Tunnel Vision’, which features the band in a series of dystopian environments staring down the camera while producing sounds of immense tensile power. If you’re a fan of Gang Of Four, early Talking Heads, Devo and New York no wave all mushed up with transgressive Warhol Factory energy, you’ll find a great deal to love here.
Crack Cloud, you see, are an art collective as much as they are a band. There are loads of them, a cast of – if not quite thousands – many dozens populating their videos and popping up here and there on the records. They all met through drug rehabilitation and mental health programmes, whether as participants, workers or volunteers.
A bunch of them live together in a house in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, a part of the city that’s been described as “the site of a complex set of social issues, including high levels of drug use, homelessness, poverty, crime, mental illness and sex work”.
If the collective were an artistic response to the neighbourhood’s multi-dimensional social woes, Peace Chord is a much-needed quiet space carved out by Robertson in a shed he moved into behind their shared house. But while he might only have taken himself to the bottom of Crack Cloud’s garden, his output is about as far removed from their volatile nature as you can get.
At first glance, Robertson doesn’t have the CV to place him in a band like Crack Cloud. From a Christian background, he’s a quiet and introspective personality whose musical journey has bounced from pop-punk to hardcore and screamo as a young teen, through Arcade Fire and Grizzly Bear, and onto his discovery in adulthood of ambient, noise and classical music.
Robertson is a committed community activist helping people with dependency issues, and that’s where his path intersected with the group. The shed he lives in resembles an exercise in monastic asceticism, but may well be sheer expediency. Or both. He’s in there when we speak, and he’s pretty pleased with it.
“Before I moved in, put in insulation and renovated it a bit, it was literally just for garbage,” he says proudly. “The house was really full – there were eight of us living in it – so I thought I’d try to make the shed into something. I can show you… over here, it’s sort of like a studio space…”
He guides his laptop camera around. It might well be just a shed, but it’s actually quite a substantial structure. There’s a bed and all the necessaries for a home studio, including a self-built modular Buchla synthesiser.
So how is life chez Crack Cloud?
“It goes through different seasons,” says Robertson. “For a while, when we were making our first album, ‘Pain Olympics’, it was non-stop projects. We were working on the record and the videos at the same time. It’s very collaborative – spending a lot of time together, obviously, seeing each other every day – although these days it’s a little more come-and-go. A few people who normally live here are visiting family right now because of Covid, and we don’t have any touring planned, so it’s definitely less intense.”
For a band that permanently operates in the key of intense, lockdowns have stopped Crack Cloud in their tracks. They came together when Robertson met drummer and lead vocalist Zach Choy and guitar player Mohammad Ali Sharar volunteering at the New Fountain shelter in Vancouver.
“Once it got going, it was pretty immersive,” he recalls of the group’s formation and speedy trajectory into international touring, record releases and ambitious video productions. They soon became a centre of gravity around which orbited an ever-shifting crowd of creatives.
“There are different people helming various aspects of the project and the videos, and everyone’s level of commitment is different,” says Robertson. “Then there’s the touring band aspect, and the people we spend a lot of time with because they’re our friends in the community. They may not be visible in the project, but they’re still integral to the whole process. As with any community, there are ebbs and flows for each individual. It’s a big cast.”
It was actually the ebb forced on the band by Covid that gave Robertson the time to focus on creating Peace Chord.
“A lot of the lyrics and different instrumental parts had been brewing for a long time,” he explains. “We were on tour a lot and whenever we came home, Zach, myself and Mohammad would go straight back to work at shelters and overdose-prevention sites, and we were also trying to finish the record and videos. It’s been a total shift since Covid. I’d stepped back from the shelter work for a bit and then touring stopped, so I was able to make the things I’ve wanted to for a long time.”
‘Peace Chord’ – the album’s title as well as the project name – is made up of voice, idiosyncratic piano and subtle electronics, with a little bit of guitar here and there. Sometimes Robertson’s fragile vocals are layered and mixed like a kind of lo-fi 10cc, becoming a swirling texture across an album which evokes a sense of intense personal space. Mostly, the voice is naked and exposed, as is the music.
The hiss of the recording process (he used tape), the creak of a chair, the muted percussive action of the piano hammer and the lyrical poetry all create a singular and moving experience. In places it’s almost sound art, as with the grainy interlude of ‘Spectral Processor’, which evokes a boat mournfully making its way through a dark ocean at night. By contrast, ‘Omphalomancy’ recalls Sufjan Stevens’ more introspective songs – if they’d been recorded in a bin shed, that is.
Crack Cloud’s ongoing mission as a self-described “healing mechanism” springs from their members’ life experiences and work in the community. Although Robertson doesn’t have any personal history of drug dependency, one of the most affecting tracks on the album, ‘Crescent Of Sun’, is a eulogy to a friend lost to an overdose.
“It was actually quite a number of years ago. I was working with my friend who was a recovering addict – he was such a vibrant person, very inspiring to be with, and I spent a lot of time with him. Then he disappeared, and I found out he’d relapsed, overdosed and passed away. That was the impetus for me to get involved in the overdose crisis happening at the time, and which still is. It was a pretty significant turning point for me.”
Yet while Crack Cloud and Peace Chord share a common source of pain and anxiety, the way this has been processed through the two vehicles couldn’t be more different.
“I think if any one person from Crack Cloud is making solo work, it won’t look like the group’s,” muses Robertson. “It’s funny, but a lot of people who know me were very surprised hearing the band. They thought of me as a quiet person, so it seemed as if the collective came out of left field. I do think the Peace Chord project is far more personal and, in a sense, more reflective of my demeanour and personality. But that’s not to say I don’t feel very strongly about the Crack Cloud project.”
The collective’s fierce precision is replaced in ‘Peace Chord’ with a beat-free looseness, the ambience of the room playing its part in the spell it casts, synthesiser tones nudged into the mix without dominating the cosy, space-sharing sense of the album.
“I always resonated with sounds that felt like you were in a room or hearing a fragment of something played back in the room – just things that seem to have a physical presence in the world,” he says. “You can spend so much time in MIDI and VSTs, and of course I love records made primarily this way, but I really wanted you to sense the human touch in every sound.”
Playing a key role in creating this mortal vibe is the piano. It sounds like an old friend being coaxed into drunkenly singing a much-loved song – rusty, not fully in tune, but with real feeling.
“It’s in my family’s living room,” explains Robertson. “I muted the keys in different ways and then was recording to tape, trying to keep it out of the box and create a real sound.”
His Buchla synthesiser – which he constructed himself while working on the album – was another perfect fit, its legendary personality and idiosyncratic interface proving indispensable to the ‘Peace Chord’ mojo.
“I tried building one a few years ago and it failed miserably, but I’ve since worked at a synthesiser shop and understand circuits a little better, so it was a lot more successful this time. Towards the tail end of the writing process, I added a lot of vocals processed through different pieces of the Buchla, so it was a big element.
“I started learning about modular some years ago and got into Eurorack. But pretty quickly, just from listening to other artists and watching online, I realised how much I loved the Buchla’s sound and how it was an instrument in its own right. With Eurorack there’s so much and you can carve out your own space, but it requires a lot of self-discipline because you can go on forever. I like the idea of the constraints and restraints of building something myself and having a very limited palette of capabilities. When you have that, you can go very deep.”
‘Peace Chord’ has been released into a world not yet certain when live shows will be back and, even when they are, what they’ll be like. Is Robertson planning to do more around the record? Or is the work done and he’s finished with it?
“I feel in limbo right now, as everyone does to a certain degree,” he reflects. “I’d love to grow the project and play these songs, perform in that realm of music, and tour. At this stage, I’ve only been able to do any of this with my friends. Otherwise, everything is online. It is very insular.
“It would be wonderful to be able to play shows and talk to people, but then Crack Cloud are also working on new things constantly. I don’t have any plans at the moment, but I’m always writing new music and I’m very interested in film and scores. I’m trying to continue to move and create in whatever sphere I can.”
And in the meantime, there’s still Crack Cloud to attend to.
“There isn’t anything I can speak about specifically,” says Daniel Robertson, carefully. “I can just say that we’re working on some stuff and it is exciting.”
‘Peace Chord’ is out now on Unheard Of Hope