Q&A: Ben Sharp aka Cloudkicker
The American progressive metal artist on his new album, ‘Subsume’, finding inspiration in travel and coming across instrumental metal band Pangea
Few get as lucky as Ben Sharp has. Sharp, who has a day job, the details of which he has never made public, tells us that his prog metal project Cloudkicker, has found ample inspiration in his work. “A big part of what I do for a living is travel. I like movement. I like going from place to place. I like the idea of a journey. I think that comes through in my music,” says the Ohio-based multi-instrumentalist over Skype. It all started in 2008, with Cloudkicker’s first album, The Discovery. Says Sharp, “I’d gotten a lot of emails from people asking me ways they could donate, ways they could give me money. I would always say, ‘No, it’s okay, don’t worry about it. It’s something I do as a hobby’.” After 2010’s Beacons, Sharp realized his music was widely-heard and purchased across the world, using the popular pay-what-you-want model of sales. With his latest release, Subsume, which was out last month, Sharp says he likes the balance between Cloudkicker and his regular life to stay the same as it’s been over the last five years and five albums. Says Sharp, “If Subsume has taught me anything, it’s not to stress out about music and not to worry.”
RS: How has Subsume been received so far and what have you done differently on this album?
Ben Sharp: It’s been received incredibly well. I’ve not heard anything negative so far. Again, not like I seek out negative reviews. People who have got in touch with me have really enjoyed it.
This album, well, I wouldn’t call it a step backward, but I’ve revisited the style of the music I’d written before. Ever since Beacons, I didn’t want to rehash anything. It was actually fun to revisit that style of music that I haven’t really indulged in for a while. So to write in that style, it was like being with an old friend again. You instantly pick up where you left off and things are just kinda easy. In that regard, it was very comforting and it was very fun. It felt like I was doing it for the fun of it. Not trying to justify anything in my head.
At what point did you start making money from Cloudkicker? When did the project become big enough for you to consider T-shirts, vinyl editions and other merchandise?
That was, again, when I put Beacons out, when I switched from MySpace to Bandcamp. It was right around the time or right after Radiohead put out an album that was donation-based [In Rainbows], Nine Inch Nails put out an album that was donation-based [The Slip]. That was the new thing and I had never considered that. Bandcamp enabled me to do that.
Obviously, if you’re going to buy a shirt or vinyl, then I have to justify the production it requires. All the profits that I make I’ve used for equipment – I bought a new computer, a guitar, obviously, guitar strings. Then, of course, putting out albums – everything is funded. At this point, it’s a self-sustaining machine.
Cloudkicker is a studio-only project that’s gained a lot of internet attention over the years. Have you ever met any of your fans in person?
Yeah, I live in Columbus, Ohio. I’ve met two or three people, maybe a little more than that. I’ve been out for shows where someone will recommend me or they’ll email me and say, ‘Hey are you going to this show tonight? We’ll meet up.’ That’s clearly the only way I meet people [who are fans]. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone on an airplane. I don’t think I’m that well known.
Which was the last gig you went to?
That was the Saturday before last, when I saw a band called Intronaut, about five minutes away from my house, in Columbus.
Did you meet any of your fans there?
Yeah, I met a couple of people that played in some of the opening band.
What other music have you been listening to?
Well, to be honest, I don’t really listen to a whole lot of metal. So recently, I’ve been listening to… there’s a great Classical music stage in Columbus; I find myself listening to a lot of ambient music. There’s a band called Helios that I found through Spotify that I really enjoy. I think it’s their most recent album. There’s a classical composer called Arvo Part. I’m just going to open up Spotify and share with you some of the playlists I’ve created.
I mentioned this on my blog. A band that I recently discovered called Dawn of Midi – a Brooklyn-based jazz trio. Makes very rhythmic, odd-tempo music in the style of jazz. There’s music soundtracks that I really dig – The Social Network by Trent Reznor, the soundtrack to Assassination of Jesse James, which was done by Nick Cave. I listen to a lot of Hans Zimmer.
Listen to Subsume by Cloudkicker:
The prog metal stuff you’ve done always has great production. Is that to reflect the current scenario of how most prog metal bands give a lot of importance to production?
I do everything myself when it comes to Cloudkicker. Everything from the guitar tone that I come up with to the time and effort to the song construction, mixing and mastering. I like getting things to sound as close to the way it sounds in my head. I certainly feel very strongly that production should not necessarily be polished, but reflect the way that’s balanced. But for bands that I listen to, and people who send me music, I’m not nearly as critical of the production of their music as I am for myself.
Speaking of people who send you music, I understand that’s how you came across Pangea. They were pretty thrilled when you left a comment on one of their YouTube videos. Have you been sent any other Indian metal, and what did you think of Pangea?
I don’t know a whole lot about the music scene in India, I just know what people have told me. They [Pangea] emailed me with a link to their Bandcamp and I found them on YouTube as well. That’s primarily how I’ve found out about bands in India – just people getting in touch with me. I was blown away by the concert video they’d posted. I was really surprised at how put together everything was, how good it sounded – it seemed like the venue was very good as well. I think I have a lot to learn about… well, India in general, but the music scene in India as well. Would you say, in your opinion, that it’s kind of blooming now? Is it something that’s been established now for many years, or is it taking off?
It’s getting pretty massive, especially progressive metal.
Yeah, that’s really cool to know, especially for me, not knowing very much about India. I do get emails from people from India, telling they support me and ‘You have fans in India’. It’s always mind-boggling to know people that far off in the world are supporting you.
That must happen with a lot of other countries as well, right? What was the most unlikely country where you found fans?
I just got an email from someone in Pakistan, saying they like my music. I never expected that. If I go back and look at some of the places we’ve shipped records or CDs to, it’s scattered everywhere. I think I’ve never sent anything to Antarctica. I think that would be pretty unlikely. I’m kinda surprised at how much stuff I ship to Australia.
You have to remember that I never planned on doing any of this. I never planned on getting in touch with people from all corners of the world. So when I get an email from someone in Japan, or an email from someone in India or Russia, or the Czech Republic or Brazil or anywhere – I’m always equally amazed. So I think the unlikely thing to me is just that I get emails from anyone at all, much less from all around the world [laughs].
How would you describe your life outside of Cloudkicker?
Well, I don’t know if it’s normal – because I travel quite a bit. I’m gone three to four days a week for work. I think compared to a touring band, it’s a pretty normal life [laughs]. I went on very small, localized tours when I was 20-21 years old. I’ve never done full-scale tours and I never really want to. I think compared to that lifestyle, how I conduct myself is pretty normal.
Listen to Cloudkicker’s Let Yourself Be Huge:
What are your influences outside of music? It feels like travel plays a pretty big role.
Yeah. A big part of what I do for a living is travel. I like movement. I like going from place to place. I like the idea of a journey. I think that comes through in my music. When I write songs, they don’t really have the standard structure of repetitiveness in a sense that you start with this part and you come back to it every 16 bars. The way I think about writing is you start at a place – you start with an opening theme or a riff – it evolves into a journey. It’s like an exploration. In the end, you return to a place similar to where you’ve started, but it’s different. That’s the feeling that you get whenever you explore anything – be it travelling to a different country. Just to do research or explore different aspects of knowledge. You always come away different from when you started. That’s very much reflected in my music. It should take you somewhere, but that’s just the music that I write.
You’ve told fans online that Cloudkicker might see the end one day, but do you have any goals for your project right now?
That’s just it – I don’t know. When I finished Beacons, I didn’t know I was going to make Let Yourself Be Huge. It was a reaction to Beacons. Just like Cloudkicker itself, when I started writing, it was a reaction to the music that I played in bands prior.
Right now, I have a couple of ideas of what I’m going to do next, but I’ve spent so much time – the entire month of August I was working on Subsume and the entire month of September, I was finalizing it – so I’m just decompressing from that a bit. Not taking a break, but just letting Subsume work its way through. I’m not really thinking about music, to be honest.
There are a lot of people out there who try to balance day jobs with music. What kind of advice have you given them?
I feel like I’ve done what I’ve done really well, as far as balancing out music and life, for me. I wanna continue to do that. If Subsume has taught me anything, it’s not to stress out about music and not to worry. Sometimes I get to a point and I think I can’t go any further. Then I just relax and stop thinking about it.
I didn’t know what I was going to do after Let Yourself Be Huge, or Beacons, but I always find a way. As long as I don’t stress myself about trying to compete with my past, I just relax and keep this balance going. I feel like music will always be this part of my life that I can rely on to even myself out. That’s all I really want out of it. My advice to anyone who’s pursuing the same kind of goal is just to stay balanced as much as you can.