Crack Cloud: Get free
Avon Gorge has been a Mecca for amateur climbers since the 1940s. Carving Bristol city centre in two, the one-and-a-half mile stretch of limestone offers dozens of ascents at varying levels of difficulty and is “a tonne of fun” to climb according to Crack Cloud founder Zach Choy. Sat backstage at End of the Road festival – still glistening with sweat after the band’s incendiary Sunday evening set – the 29-year old frontman and drummer has been reliving the free solo he completed there last week while the band were in town, as part of their first UK tour since the release of Pain Olympics back in July 2020.
“I used to do high-rise window washing,” Choy smiles, as keyboardist Mohammad Ali Sharar and I wonder at his willingness to scale sheer rock faces without ropes. “Climbing provokes a similar kind of anxiety to what you feel on stage too. I think that’s what makes it exciting: it’s a healthy means of overcoming your own anxieties.”
The same can be said for Crack Cloud. A Vancouver-based collective of artists, designers, filmmakers and musicians, the project was initiated as an outlet for members to process mental health issues and struggles with addiction. Indeed, many of them met at an addiction recovery programme, an outreach service that several members have since volunteered with in the midst of Canada’s opioid crisis. Six years on, Choy sees the group’s mission as unchanged, even if the manner in which internal politics are handled has evolved over time.
“Fundamentally, Crack Cloud was and still is a rehabilitative outlet. It’s a means of unravelling, dissecting trauma, negative feelings and cynicism. And I think that we took that really literally in the beginning, living it in a militant way in terms of sobriety and accountability. But as you get older you realise there’s no real way to sustain such an idealism. It’s like, in order to facilitate [Crack Cloud] at all, people have to have their own autonomy and make their own decisions.”
It’s for this very reason that Crack Cloud’s line-up remains fluid. “Motivations change,” Choy explains. “At the end of the day, this will always be an outlet for anyone to come in and try to unravel their psychological state and contribute in an artistic manner. That’s what it is as a safe space. But there are no physical constraints, or rules or limitations at this point, really: it’s just a canvas for people to find solace in.”
Currently, the art-punk collective is made up of around 30 members, with touring duties fulfilled by a seven-piece band, simply because “that’s what the music needs”. It’s a dynamic that Sharar describes as “tumultuous”, but not – as you might think – due to creative differences caused by the number of interested parties. “Because of the lifestyles we had lived, and the trauma we had experienced, everyone’s just very vulnerable,” he explains matter-of-factly.
For Canadian-Pakistani Sharar, those traumas included a strict religious upbringing, domestic abuse, racism and an addiction to narcotics that culminated in suicidal ideation. Choy, meanwhile, has previously cited the death of his father from leukaemia as the catalyst for a prolonged streak of substance abuse that began aged just 11.
As heartening as it is to encounter living proof of the healing power of music, it’s difficult to shake the concern that, by choosing music as a career, they’re ultimately putting themselves in the way of potentially devastating temptation. “As someone that is sober and in a relationship, I find it really stressful,” Choy confirms. “It’s a psychological test.” Sharar concurs: “It’s completely normal to have people yelling at you all the time, trying to get your attention, and the only thing they know how to do is to offer us drinks and drugs. So navigating that is really difficult.”
He cites the band’s last trip to the UK as a low point in this respect, finding him struggling to reconcile the two worlds. “I was pretty pessimistic about this whole industry; the venues that are these drug havens, the bars making so much money from beer… You start to lose sense of why people are even there to begin with. They want to call it culture, but sometimes it’s not really culture. But post-Covid, I can say that I’ve been more open to the special uniqueness of people getting together and making sure we have an outlet.” This sense of catharsis is palpable on last year’s debut LP. Honing the raw power of their first two EPs – which were subsequently reissued as a self-titled compilation in 2018 – Pain Olympics bristles with nervous energy, as Choy pours forth, and the band make sense of, a deluge of disparate ideas. Minimalist post-punk coalesces with sprawling art-rock, new wave-esque synths with doomy, hip-hop influenced beats, bombastic brass and lush string flourishes. What could so easily have been a complete and utter mess is weirdly cohesive in its eclecticism.
“Fundamentally, Crack Cloud is a rehabilitative outlet. We took that literally in the beginning, in terms of sobriety and accountability. But as you get older you realise there’s no real way to sustain such an idealism”
– Zach Choy
Lyrically, Choy looks back on it as “a lot of unravelling”, leaving Shakar to expand. “Visually, aesthetically, topically, it was an unravelling of our youth, tensions, punk lifestyle. And just coming to terms with depression, loneliness, addiction and acceptance. All those things that needed to be put on paper; all these ideas that we feel like we’ve almost been chipping away at over the years.”
The whole process proved such an effective exercise in exorcising demons that Choy is billing the as-yet-unannounced follow-up as “the antithesis of Pain Olympics”, adding sardonically, “I think we’re gonna lose a lot of fans.” When pressed to qualify the statement, he says somewhat cryptically, “I think people latch on to a certain sound with Crack Cloud. This kind of abandons that altogether.”
Self-produced during lockdown, the album is provisionally titled Tough Baby, a phrase borrowed from German philosopher Theodor Adorno, though the band abandon its original context of toxic masculinity to examine the emotional armour we’re forced to acquire throughout life. “It’s still looking back to childhood,” Choy explains, “but it’s about acknowledging all of the beauty that you experienced as a kid, and not so much feeding into the negativity.”
“Post-Covid, I’ve been more open to the special uniqueness of people getting together and making sure we have an outlet”
– Mohammad Ali Sharar
As ever, all song ideas originated with Choy. “I just build the foundation,” he says modestly. “The rest of the band come in and throw paint at the wall.” Sharar describes the entire process as “egoless” but defers to Choy as “the connective tissue that will always keep people listening”.
The exchange is just another demonstration of the quiet loyalty and mutual respect between the two men. Witnessing them listen intently to one another’s answers today, often jumping in to support the other, it’s abundantly obvious that theirs is a friendship forged through shared pain and first-hand experience of the fragility of life. Sharar agrees. “When you deal with social issues and anxiety and stress and depression, you try to make sense of your worth. And [Crack Cloud] has always been a good outlet to fundamentally challenge all these ideas.”
As vital as Crack Cloud has always been as a framework for personal growth, the collective’s true purpose is to affect positive change within the wider community. Indeed, Sharar hopes that this will be their legacy. “It’s about leaving artefacts, just before you dip from this earth that you love, that will hopefully stand the test of time. Something that someone can enjoy and learn from at the same time. If you do that you can live forever in some ways.”
Pain Olympics is out now on Meat Machine