An Interview With Ben Sharp AKA Cloudkicker

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Ben Sharp is the man behind Cloudkicker, a largely unclassifiable studio project that has spanned everything from Post-Rock to "Djent," and whose releases are always offered under the pay-what-you-want-model (excepting Live With Intronaut, as that album features musicians under contract).

Despite mounting interest from labels, Sharp continues to release his music under a Creative Commons license and doesn't even get pissed off at other people profiteering from his work.

Sharp spoke to Empty Lighthouse via e-mail about his fantastic new release, Little Histories, music industry politics, and his influences. Read the whole exchange below:

Q: Congratulations on the new EP! As this is your first release since Cloudkicker made its live debut, did the experience of playing with other musicians shape your approach during the recording process or was Little Histories already in progress at the time of the tour?

A: Yes absolutely. Little Histories was written in the months that followed the tour, and the experience of playing every night along with recording and mixing the live album informed a great deal of the aesthetic of the EP. I wanted something that felt as close to a live performance as I was able to achieve on my own. I used a lot of first takes and recorded long passages of unedited lines to try to mimic that groovy feeling of playing live. And I didn't worry about the EP not sounding super polished, the grittiness of hearing music played in a room by real instruments was something I became very fond of because it's such a true thing, if that makes sense.

Q: It might not be right to call your albums conceptual, but you've been known to use a thematic ties with your song titles at least. What's the story behind this one?

A: This one is probably the least themed album I've done, which I guess could be a theme on its own. I used two tunings and three guitars so the sound isn't exactly the same from track to track, and the songs don't really sound all that similar, but they were all written around the same time so there is some kind of link between them.

The titles of the album are all callbacks to fond memories that I made on tour with Intronaut, and the songs are very inspired by all the new music I heard through them, as well as listening to their set every night.

For example, "Hassan" was the name of a guy that worked at one of the hotels where we stayed, "Parliament" is the brand of cigarettes that Dave smokes, and "Chameleon" is the title of a track on a Herbie Hancock album that they turned me on to.

Q: Now that you've completed a tour, spent time on the road with struggling musicians and witnessed firsthand how unglamorous that lifestyle can be, did you ever think "geez, I should be getting paid more for this?" Or is it simply too idealistic for bands to expect to make a living from album sales and touring?

A: It's a tricky thing for me. I got really lucky by making a certain kind of music in a very narrow window of time where a lot of people were getting turned on to that particular sound.

I didn't plan on doing that, but as a result I became somewhat well known and the audience grew itself without anything more needed from me besides continuing to make music.

I couldn't in good conscience feel like I had the authority to tell people how to conduct themselves in order to accomplish the same thing.

However, it's impossible to set yourself up for disappointment if you approach a challenge from a realistic perspective. I think it's safe to say that most bands that go on tour are not going to be able to make a comfortable living doing so. Just think about it.

Not counting the bands that are so terrible it's not worth mentioning them, there are thousands and thousands of bands that want to do it, and they are all very passionate about it. People don't have unlimited money, and it turns out that they're actually pretty selective when it comes to paying for music.

You're in a totally saturated market where the going rate is approaching free. You need a whole lot of talent and motivation and even more networking and luck to be able to make it work.

Q: The fact that you've released your music for free and generated enough demand for a tour (as opposed to touring to generate demand for an album) kinda spoils the "starving artist" argument. If you're able to maintain a day job, have a prolific artistic output and still find a way to monetize that output (to an extent and despite your reluctance), is the industry tactic of putting people on guilt trips for piracy even appropriate anymore? Shouldn't those bands just take a page out of your book?

A: I don't think so, and I get emails all the time from people who feel really guilty about not being able to pay me what they think my music is worth.

I would never put someone on a guilt trip for that because I get such a kick out of people simply listening to my music, and I think people really get that about me.

Some might call me foolish for feeling that way, but these are the very same people that go out and tell all their friends about Cloudkicker.

I think it's very possible that if I had been super protective of my music from the beginning, I wouldn't have nearly as many fans (substitute "wouldn't have as much money" if you want to think of it in those terms) as I do today.

Q: I was reading through your Reddit AMA and it seems the advice you give to those who follow in your footsteps is that they shouldn't make music for any other reason than their own enjoyment.

Obviously the way you carry yourself is a shining example of this, but is it easy to maintain that attitude with the press paying more and more attention to you? Do you ever catch yourself worrying about how your fans will react before you upload new music?

A: Of course I think about what the reaction will be on the days prior to putting new music up. However, the overwhelming message that I get from everyone that talks to me about my music is that I should keep doing exactly what I'm doing and keep making the music that I feel best represents myself.

As long as I continue holding myself to my own high standards of integrity, honesty, and quality of composition I don't think I will have anything to worry about.

I mean, people even gave "Hello" a chance, which is really saying something.

Q: I imagine you get a lot of questions about recording technique/gear from aspiring "bedroom" producers, is it annoying that a lot of these types tend to obsess over shortcuts and truly believe that their mixes will sound professional if only you would share your EQ settings with them, or are you happy to help?

A: No, it's not annoying. It's human nature to look for an easy way out of a challenging situation. Music production doesn't come naturally to a lot of people, and I would include myself in that since it's taken me over ten years just to get to where I am now--I still feel like I'm just barely grasping the concept of compression.

The point is that it's confusing, and I'm happy to share techniques with people if it will help them get on with the business of creating music, which is what it's all for anyway.

If people actually knew how simple my setup and mixing techniques were they would probably be relieved. I'd like to make a youtube video or something but I don't know how.

Q: I've also read that before Cloudkicker, you had some minor experience with touring. I'm interested to know a little bit about your musical roots. Was there any point in your life where music was the main priority?

A: Maybe for a couple years when I was 16 or 17 and incredibly idealistic. Outside of that I've been pretty down to earth about where music stands in my life.

I love it and I wouldn't be nearly as happy without its influence, but I think trying to turn it into a reliable paycheck would be one of the most terrible things I could do.

Q: Did Cloudkicker come to be because you didn't want to work with other people or was it more a matter of practicality?

A: At the very beginning it was a reaction to all the bands I had been in and wanting to do my own thing, but when I moved from Los Angeles to Columbus it did become a matter of practicality since I didn't know anyone there. At this point, I've gotten comfortable with the fact that Cloudkicker is totally a representation of myself.

It can be a lot of work sometimes, but if I want to refund someone or send someone something for free or release some music whenever I want, I can do that without any restrictions at all.

I can do anything I want really. I love that.

Q: What have you been listening to lately?

A: Lots of Tortoise and the Interstellar soundtrack. It's Christmastime now so I'll be listening to a lot of Christmas-themed jazz.

Q: Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions! Feel free to add anything if you'd like.

A: Thanks for asking me interesting questions!