After the implosion of his highly regarded but under-heard experimental indie band Fog in 2007, it took a couple of years for Andrew Broder to chart a new course as a musician. That’s not to say he didn’t keep busy, releasing nearly seven hours of ambient Fripp/Eno-style instrumentals in 2009, recording the soundtrack for Alan Moore’s audiovisual project Unearthing last year, and touring as part of Anticon indie-rap group Why? But with his new band Cloak Ox, he’s laying down the most straightforward and hard-charging indie rock of his career, backed by three longtime friends and former Fog compatriots, bassist Mark Erickson, guitarist Jeremy Ylvisaker, and drummer Martin Dosh. Cloak Ox plays a CD-release show for its debut EP, Prisen, Sept. 30 at Loring Theater. The A.V. Club met with the band after one of its weekly morning jam sessions—where the Creedence Clearwater Revival covers were the biggest clue how different this band is from Fog—to talk about the joys of keeping it simple.
The A.V. Club: Before we get into Cloak Ox, could you talk about the end of Fog, and how you evolved as an artist from there to here?
Andrew Broder: Fog [became] kind of unsustainable. And even though it’s not true, it felt like I didn't know how to write a song anymore, didn’t want to write songs. But it wasn’t like, “Oh, I’m so burned out.” [Laughs.] It was just like, “Well, this band’s not working.”
AVC: What wasn’t working about it?
AB: Oh, just the mechanics of being a successful band. [Asks Mark Erickson] Right?
Mark Erickson: Well, it was a burn-out, but in the sense that it failed mightily. We put a lot of ourselves into the Ditherer record, and I think it turned out well. But because of some circumstances beyond our control—specifically people we were involved with, mostly in Europe—we weren’t able to get it over. And after you invest that much into something, and you can’t get it over, you burn out. There’s just not enough humility in your soul to continue doing that, because you’re just beating your head against something that’s not giving you anything back.
AB: Yeah, sounds about right. That record, we worked hard on it. And when you’re playing the bookstore in Manhattan, Kansas, for 10 drunk kids, you know, you realize, “This ain’t right. Something ain’t right.” [Laughs.] So then it stopped. And then I kind of didn’t know what the hell to do. Then I did all the guitar stuff, which was good to do. And I did that Alan Moore thing—a weird, weird project to be involved in, but I’m glad I did it. He’s a cool guy, you know. He’s a trip.
AVC: Cloak Ox is a pretty big shift in sound for you, as well as a return to leading a band after a long time doing solo work. What led you to get back to that kind of songwriting?
AB: Some of [the Cloak Ox songs] I’ve had in my head for a long time, maybe a year or more. But I didn’t get serious and buckle down to actually writing new songs to play with a band until last November.
ME: Well, we were on tour [as part of ] Why?, Andy and I, for a year. I think after a year of playing someone else’s music, it’s time to stop playing other people’s music.
Jeremy Ylvisaker: And nothing against Why?, of course, but it probably gave you an idea of what you’d rather hear.
AB: Yeah, that whole experience definitely helped me. It was a re-discovery: “Oh, yeah. Here’s what I want to do.”
AVC: And what was that, exactly?
AB: It streamlined things a lot. In retrospect, what I’m not fond of about all the Fog records is that they’re trying to be too much, and it’s too scattered. Sometimes that works and it’s compelling, but a lot of times it feels like too many ideas haphazardly thrown together. Once I got back into writing songs, I wanted it to be more economical.
AVC: Cloak Ox is the most straightforward thing that I’ve heard you do.
AB: Yeah, for sure. And I wanted it to be more fun. I was tired of playing depressing music for depressed people.
ME: After Fog had finished, Andy’s friend Sam Rosen was getting married, and he asked the four of us if we could play his wedding. And we didn’t play any Fog songs or any weirdo music. We played covers of songs that we grew up listening to, and we did it pretty straight-ahead. And it was a lot of fun. And we all kind of realized it’s okay to do that music, to do simple songs that we enjoy that don’t have this, you know, pretentious ambition behind it. To strip it down and make songs that are basic.
AB: I don’t think we’re turning our brains off or anything. But I want the playing of music to feel joyous, even if it’s a sad song. Often, playing with Fog, it felt labored. It could be beautiful, but it felt like a struggle a lot of the time. The song can be complicated, but it should feel joyous.
AVC: Before this interview started, you guys were prepping a set of CCR covers [for an August show at Minneapolis gallery CO Exhibitions].
AB: That’s the pinnacle of that shit, for sure. I don’t want to [say that] I only want to write songs with three chords. The more new songs I write for this band, I feel like they’re getting a little more complex as we go.
JY: But, they’re still tuneful, so they still fall out like you’re saying.
AB: Yeah, like this should be memorable, and—
JY: —and groovy.
AB: And groovy! And sort of remind you of other songs. That’s the other thing I realized: I always was afraid of that, in Fog. It was a really hard process writing songs, because if I did anything that reminded me of something else that sounded like it, I’d want to sabotage that. And now I’m embracing that.
AVC: “Vacuum Cleaner” reminded me in some ways of Styx, or one of those 1970s arena-rock songs, especially the guitar part at the end.
AB: These guys all said Joe Walsh. Yeah, for sure.
ME: But if you ask Jeremy what his cue at the point was he’d probably say Queen, because that’s what we were talking about when we were recording. You can come at any song and list 15 different antecedents. The point is to not let that trip you up. And I think that’s what Fog did, is that it let those antecedents trip it up. Where if you come at music more naturally, you just kind of let it go.
JY: Yeah, and you’re going to fail at sounding like what you think it sounds like. So you’re accidentally sounding like yourself.
AVC: Jeremy and Martin, you both also play with Andrew Bird, and you each have your own solo projects with Alpha Consumer and Dosh, so you’ve already got a lot of opportunity to express yourself in other places. What does Cloak Ox offer you? What musical muscles are you trying to flex here?
MD: Bird is taking a pretty long hiatus. By the time it’s over, it’ll be almost two years since we really did touring. So timing-wise, it’s great. And it’s really fun to just play drums and not have to deal with loop pedals and that kind of stuff. Just a drum set; I don’t have to plug anything in. I haven’t done that in a band in maybe five, six years.
JY: [I feel] the same. This is the time of my life where I’ve had the most ideas ever. And that’s not necessarily practical, you know? [Laughs.] But playing with these guys is so easy and so fun. Andy’s songs are so smart, and now they’re so catchy. And I just get to be a guitar player—a lead guitar player, you know? I’ve already gotten way better at it. [Laughs.] It’s what I set out to do, and I just never did it.
MD: Everyone has a very defined role in this band. In Fog it was like, “Well, if you’re good at drums, you should play bass.”
MD: Or, “If you’re good at saxophone, you should play keyboard.”
AB: Or you should play all those things simultaneously in the same song. And now, it’s real cool for everybody to focus on a simple task and do it very well. That was another thing about playing with Why? that was valuable, is that I got to just play guitar and sing background vocals on somebody else’s songs, and try to do that as well as I could every night. And so my singing got better, and my guitar playing got better. And I realized how nice it was, yeah, to not worry about—
JY: Not to be accountable for the content, either.
AB: That is nice. It’s freeing. I don’t think I want to do it forever.
AVC: It gives you the opportunity to focus on the craft in a way that the audience isn’t necessarily going to notice, because you’re more in the background.
AB: Totally. Yeah, that anonymity was refreshing. Being able to focus on just doing one thing real well, for yourself. That was the satisfaction I would get every night. It’s just like, “I play guitar really well now.” You know? I like that. I think we all approach it like that. I feel really strong in this band. Like, I know the songs are cool. I know the lyrics are interesting. And I know the rhythm section is fucking sweet. It’s like, “I don’t have to do anything.” So, everything I do can be only what I want.
AVC: Besides Cloak Ox, you’re also doing a weekly podcast of instrumental hip-hop, Broderbeatcast.
AB: I’m really excited about that, too. What’s cool about that is, I learned that I need to keep my thoughts a little more segregated, you know? So, making beats, that’s this separate thing. Then there’s Cloak Ox. I’m not worried so much anymore about finding an interesting way to mesh all my different interests together in one unique [band]. These are my rap beats. This is my rock band. This is my weird metal band. And never the twain shall intersect. It’s just better that way. And I can be equally excited about all of it. It’s cool.
AVC: The Cloak Ox material is pretty hard-hitting live, almost like it’s a counter-reaction to the really studio-bound stuff that you were doing in Fog.
AB: I started backwards. And then did that for 10 years, did a backwards-ass process of like, “I’m going to make a record, and I’m going to do all this weird shit, and do 75 percent of it myself,” and then have no clue how to translate it live, but just try. With [Cloak Ox], now that’s flipped. Most of the songs we play at shows, we haven’t recorded yet. And I don’t want it to be super comfort-food-y, but at the same time, it’s nice to have that bar-band mentality, where you’re just in the trenches.
JY: I was very struck, hanging out in Nashville, going to honkytonks and drinking bourbon and watching these folks working for tips, just shredding players that you’ll never hear of otherwise. Working their asses off to entertain people. That’s their job in the world, is to make your week go better. And they have to earn your money, you know? It’s their face attached to the tip jar.
AVC: Minneapolis is a big music town, but I don’t think we have that culture.
JY: No. Some hip-hop shows are a little more like that, I think, where they like hold up their disc when they’re done and they’re like, “I’m really proud of this. Come and check it out.” But, yeah, a lot of indie folks kinda just hide in the background. I love that about [Cloak Ox], I love trying to deserve people’s attention.
AB: This is a very confident group. And Fog was the sound of, not [lack of confidence], but just trying and not succeeding, and hoping that that sounded interesting. Sometimes it did. But, now it’s like, “No, let’s be good. You know, let’s just be good.”
JY: Being useful. [Laughs.]
AB: Let’s write good songs. Being useful.
ME: Productive members of society.
AB: Get a haircut.
JY: It’s kind of that simple.
AVC: Maybe it’s important to note that Cloak Ox isn’t a band of young 20something guys. It’s an older, more experienced group.
ME: I’ve known Jeremy for 20, 25 years.
AB: We are not the rock ’n’ roll age. But, there are rock bands that still play that are that age, and they wear it well. You know, when you’re 20, you can do whatever [you want], and whatever the consequences are, none of it matters. Everybody in this group is at a certain age and point in life where circumstances matter, a bit, you know? You just have to be a little smarter about your activity level. But, in terms of the music itself, I feel younger now doing this then I ever did playing Fog. Fog felt old. You know what I mean? It felt, like… burdened by something. There was this big weight on it. And now I feel a lot freer. [It’s about] trying to capture that feeling of what made music awesome when you were 14.
JY: It’s gotta feel like skipping school, that’s what I think.
AB: That’s right. That’s right.