By Brad Lopez
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By Noah Hubbell
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Indian summer: the kind of day that makes you keenly aware of time's steady passing. Overhead, a breeze rustles through a tall tree in the back yard of the Arvada home where the Morning Clouds rehearse, sending a few more leaves down to the lawn.
"It's definitely fall now," says Josh Wambeke. "When we left on our tour, none of these leaves were on the ground."
That was less than a week ago, but it probably feels longer than that. Wambeke and the rest of the Clouds — his girlfriend, keyboardist Lanette Walker; bassist Matt Schild; drummer John Fate; and guitarist Spencer Alred — just got home after covering some 2,800 miles in five days. They pulled back into town at about three in the morning from Las Vegas, where they were supposed to play a show but didn't. Had they played, it would have been the sixth show they ever played together. "It happened really fast," Walker admits. "Everything just happened super fast."
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Thing is, the Morning Clouds weren't even supposed to be a band. Wambeke was already the frontman and primary songwriter for Fell, his longtime space-rock outfit, and in his spare time was playing bass for Jim McTurnan and the Kids That Killed the Man. But McTurnan was down for a while with a broken wrist, Fell wasn't doing much, and then Wambeke got laid off from his job as an insurance adjuster — all of which combined to help set things in motion.
"I was starting to really feel like time was passing me by, I guess," Wambeke recalls. "It was a really hard time for me, with all the uncertainty of losing my job and not knowing what direction I'm going in, and just reflecting back on my twenties and stuff. I mean, when you reach this point — I'm 32 now — and you don't necessarily have a set career path, it can be pretty scary. And of course I enjoy playing music, but, you know, I can't rely on that for money. So it's just — it's a very scary feeling: You're trying to figure things out, and I guess I just utilized that to make music instead of sitting here worrying and jumping the gun trying to find another job right away that, you know..."
"Another job that you hate," Walker finishes.
And so he started writing songs, taking the moody, rarefied pop sensibility he brought to Fell and hushing it, filling it out and cultivating it into something simultaneously more substantial and more ethereal. The result, Wasted Youth Blues, the Morning Clouds' first EP, is indeed spacier than his work with Fell, awash in lush reverb and ebbing delay, soaring and drifting with the epic delicacy of My Morning Jacket or Sigur Rós. And yet, in its own way, the music is also more hook-driven, many of the songs subtly anchored by the kind of classic doo-wop progressions that Weezer used to build the "Blue Album."
The sound the group arrived at suited the subject material. Wambeke's plaintive mood is evident on songs like "A Walk Home," Wasted Youth's opener: "These days are going slow/The night is dark and cold," he sings, and that air of melancholy holds through the EP's closing lyric: "I trusted you/I've been a fool."
The last album Wambeke put out was Fell's 2008 A Farewell to Echoes, which was released on Camera Obscura, a tiny imprint out of Australia. "That guy, the guy who ran it, he passed away from lymphoma," Wambeke reveals. "So that was really hard to go through, just because, you know, the fact that he passed away just sucked. He was the only person who'd ever put out my music, and that was just a really hard thing to lose. I had never even considered another label wanting to put out my music. I had never even thought about that."
So with little interest in forming a new band and nothing else to do with the songs he'd come up with, he put them up on Bandcamp for friends to listen to and called it a day.
"Yeah, you weren't even trying to do anything with it," says Fate. "You were never even going to play them live or anything."
"Yeah," Wambeke agrees. "I just put it out because I was like, well, these are good songs. Why not?"
And they were good — good enough, anyway, to attract the unsolicited attention of L.A.-based Lefse Records. "Yeah, they just found it on there," says Wambeke. "I don't know if they just sat around and listened to it for a while and decided if they wanted to do something with it, but I got an e-mail from them, and they said, 'How would you feel about putting that out on Lefse?' And I said, 'Yeah. Sounds awesome.'"
With a label comes a release, and with a release a tour, and Wambeke set about the task of putting together a band, initially recruiting Fate, who'd also played drums for Jim McTurnan, and Schild, a bassist and music journalist who had interviewed him for A Farewell to Echoes, and with whom he'd hit it off. Fate had also worked with Alred in Hindershot, which had recorded its previous album at Wambeke's home studio, and he got on the horn and recruited Alred to play lead guitar. Wambeke didn't have to go far to find his keyboard player: He and Walker live together. Once everyone had a copy of the record, they learned it, and one month later, they went on the road.