As we begin our conversation via a temperamental phone connection, Crack Cloud drummer and frontman Zach Choy is leaving the studio space in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he and his bandmates have been scrambling to edit a music video in time for its release the following day. “We don’t usually leave things this much down to the wire…” he says, explaining that other projects and the time-consuming nature of 3D rendering has caught them out a little this time.
Looking at the finished product – the stunning, DIY-dystopian clip for new single ‘Tunnel Vision’ – you’d never guess that they were learning how to make this kind of video on the job, hours before dropping it into the world.
As our chat unfolds, this combination of spontaneity and intention, autonomy and accomplishment, seems to be a key theme for Crack Cloud: although the sprawling collective remains fiercely independent and anti-convention, they’re supremely skilful at what they do by any standard. They don’t play by anyone’s else’s rules, but that’s a result of artistic choice rather than any kind of creative limitation.
Part of this potency comes from the physical closeness and intimacy of the group’s fluctuating membership. “There are six of us under one roof, the core, for better or for worse,” says Zach, “with other collaborators spread across other houses, and a couple trapped out on the East Coast for lockdown.” Several members also work together at a harm reduction shelter on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, to which we’ll return.
Their new album, ‘Pain Olympics’ – eight tracks of scorching, restless post-punk, noise rock, psychedelia and militaristic groove – and the arresting visuals that accompany it are a product of this intense method of collaboration and collectivity.
“We build off of the commonalities we all have at the beginning,” Zach tells NME, the bustling city streets clattering away in the background as he walks. “’Pain Olympics’ was made over the course of two years, and a lot has happened, personally and socially, in that time. When I listen back to it now I’m transported back to so many manifestations and influences – listening to Kendrick Lamar’s ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’, hearing Pink Floyd growing up – [we took] inspiration from artists who use the album as a way of transcribing concepts that are more visual and more engaging than the music itself.”
As lofty and abstract as this may sound, however, Crack Cloud’s art is firmly rooted in their surroundings, both their shared living space and the community in which they work. For some time now, Vancouver has been at the epicentre of a devastating opioid crisis. A public health emergency was declared in British Columbia in 2016; prior to and during the early days of Crack Cloud, Zach himself fell victim to it.
“Crack Cloud was an outlet for me during the early days of my rehab,” he says. “A way of addressing things I’d internalised over the years, the anxiety and turmoil I used to deal with in more destructive ways.” He describes each evolution of the project as a “baby step”, which may be applicable to his personal journey through addiction too. He becomes reflective.
“I didn’t have much of a perspective as far as the international perception of this crisis until a year or two ago,” he explains. “It’s so normalised here. I guess to understand it, you need to understand what addiction is, the result of economic struggle, historical turmoil and trauma, and it’s an escape for marginalised people. What we’re dealing with here is a very rich, historically dense community who have been afflicted by societal forces.” For example, Vancouver’s homeless population has increased significantly in recent years, and is particularly concentrated on the Downtown Eastside. “Opioids are cheap, and people use them to traverse the difficult territories they face. When I first started working at the shelter, we had four to seven overdoses a night.”
It’s harrowing to hear this, but Zach is extremely careful not to misrepresent or ventriloquise a community for which he has such deep love and respect. “We’re still working with people affected by it, but we’re not speakers for this community, it’s not our place to represent them. The amount of empathy that goes into it is truly life-changing – it changed my life – and I don’t want Crack Cloud to take advantage of it, and its history. It’s where we come from, we still work there, but it’s important not to conflate the two.”
Those caveats in mind, one doesn’t particularly need to project anything onto Crack Cloud, or mischaracterise the community by which they’re surrounded, to understand and value the organic, humane nature of their work. From the communal atmosphere of their recordings to the vertiginous invention of their visuals, it’s clear that their art comes from a very real, visceral place; every drum hit, as mechanistic as the rhythm might be, feels like it needs to be there, every barked lyric a vital mission statement. ‘Pain Olympics’ is the purest distillation of that spirit yet.
Zach considers how their burgeoning fame might impact this sense of grassroots creativity. “I think that we’ve always been wary of the music industry and felt attuned to the more insidious side of it all,” he says. “We haven’t flinched in terms of what we’re doing artistically and remained authentic to our own storytelling regardless of how it may be interpreted. But I think reflection is important, and a prerequisite to anyone with any platform before they put something out.”
Having been forced to cancel their international touring plans due to the coronavirus crisis, Crack Cloud have been hard at work making the most of their newfound spare time (“It’s been a blessing in disguise in some ways,” says Zach), exploring the ideas around ‘Pain Olympics’ as fully as possible, and beginning to work on the projects that will follow – which sounds intriguing, even at this early stage.
“We’ve been working casually but passionately on the next thing,” Zach reveals, casual but passionate being a good summation of the dichotomy at the heart of Crack Cloud. “The idea is to expand on the multimedia aspect of what we do, and present something that’s geared toward children and young adults. It’ll centre on an album narrative but operate more as a theatrical play or story.” However they make that work, it’ll be worthy of attention: this is a special group indeed.
Crack Cloud’s ‘Pain Olympics’ is out now