The Cloth Sea Surface with a Modern Take on ‘60s Pop
Written by Angus McLinn
“In the beginning, there was a loud muffler and an epic journey to get a few miles down the road. We were passed by a U-Haul truck with a sign displaying ‘cloth seats equipped’, except the lettering was rubbed off and it said ‘cloth sea equipped’.” Alex Roman, lead singer and rhythm guitarist in the Cloth Sea is explaining the origins of the band name. “It can be like being with a girl, or just the image of comfort…it’s like a sea, you can get lost in this…lost in something very familiar, it’s a trip though. We want people to think about the music as they’re listening to it.” Roman is flanked by his band mate and brother, Adam Roman, who plays lead guitar and sings, and Drew Ferguson, the Cloth Sea’s other guitarist. The band also includes Michael Sherry on drums and William Schultz on bass, neither of whom are present. We’re upstairs at a mutual friend’s pool party and the trio is dripping wet and bare to the waist.
Such playful pseudo-philosophizing is commonplace for the Cloth Sea, a heavily Beatles and 1960’s pop influenced outfit from Madison. The band recently opened for fellow Madisonians and ‘60s throwback rockers Locksley at the Majestic on June 13th, despite having only been playing in their current configuration for four months. They are currently working on a six-song EP, titled Port Starboard.
The band has its roots in a duo consisting of Sherry and Adam Roman. The group was conceived of solely for personal enjoyment and covered songs from The Whites Stripes as well as few songs from The Black Keys.
“It was just a fun thing that they were doing, and I suggested they incorporate me and make what they were doing more versatile as a three piece. It was February of 2008 and soon after the group decided to find a bassist, which resulted in the addition of Mike “Mikey” Groteuse, a friend of the Roman brothers.
Initially, the group looked to American folk songs for inspiration. “We were using them as springboards for doing our own writing. We would look through these old American folk songs, just the lyrics, and sort of get ideas from them,” explains Alex, “You know, no one really sings folk songs anymore like they used to, so a lot of the ones that were really popular way back when no one has even heard of now.”
Shortly thereafter, the group met their current bassist, William Schmidt, while jamming at a neighbor’s house. Schmidt replaced Groteuse in the fall of 2008. This spring, the band became acquainted with Drew Ferguson through a mutual friend. Initially Ferguson was just going to record for them, but eventually joined the band as an additional guitarist. The addition of Ferguson resulted in Alex playing more rhythm guitar in addition to his role as lead vocalist. Ferguson also brought his own songwriting abilities to augment those of the Roman brothers.
Ferguson studied music at UW-Madison for two years and has an extensive music theory background. He approaches writing from a more visceral perspective, and brings a more untrained and musically gifted ear to the band. “I write what I experience and how I feel about experiencing it…it’s very retrospective. It’s kind of like an homage to what that moment was,” explains Ferguson. “I come into a project that seems like it’s complete but could use that little extra touch and try to find that final realization that will finish it. I try to add my personal touch to what product is put in front of me. I just hope it’s good and hope people like it.”
The result of this process is reminiscent of the Beatles and the Kinks. Intricately woven guitar work backed with a tight rhythm section takes the listener across a soundscape that is a mix of that ‘60s pop with a hint of psychedelia. However, the music has a bit of an electric edge that belies its vocal harmonies and pop roots.
“We play early rock and roll with modern electrical tendencies,” Alex muses. “Buddy Holly didn’t have the chance to use a loud amp, that’s why they were called The Crickets, not The Hurricanes.” Ferguson puts it much more tersely, saying simply that “The Cloth Sea can get turbulent.”
The Cloth Sea’s strong connection and identification with the music and musicians of the ‘60s is both due to the Roman brothers’ longstanding love for The Beatles and a result of the times. “I don’t think it’s [the Beatles] what we were exposed to earliest, but at least for Adam and I, it’s just what we originally latched on to…it’s what music is.” says Alex. “In a lot of ways, we’re poised to have another culture-changing period and I think we’re just starting to get into that now.” More importantly, rather than just drawing parallels between the events and atmosphere of then and now, he can identify with the music and culture on a personal level. “The people haven’t changed, you know? The same people that were doing it in the ‘60s…it’s just 40 years later. We’re still living in the same place, doing the same things every day. It’s just a mindset.”
Even the Roman brothers’ flat on the corner of Russel Walk and Gorham seems to be going through a hippie-era rock and roll revival. Their living room walls are adorned with posters from local shows as well as several pictures and posters of the Beatles. Milk crates filled with LPs line the back wall next to a record player, and the ambience is finished off with a stack of guitars and other bits of musical equipment in the corner. A few books on subjects such as human anatomy and Expressionism dot the shelves along with several empty wine bottles and what appear to be home made super hero face masks. Outside, various chalk drawings on the walls including a giant peace sign and an artistic rendition of the band’s name greet visitors to their alcove.
“It’s the artist’s life, more or less. Broke most of the time; just playing music…modern day gypsies that have lost the will to move.” explains Alex. “Bohemian, you know? completely.” he adds with a grin.
“Neo-hippie-rocker-dude. That’s what my mom describes me as. I think that’s accurate.” explains Ferguson.
Through happy coincidence, the Cloth Sea had the opportunity to open the Locksley show at the Majestic a few weeks ago.
“Our bassist has been dating a girl for a couple months and her best friend works at the Majestic,” says Adam, As the Locksley show was coming up, the first thing I said to her was that I really want to open for them because we obviously have similar influences. I just thought it was one of those passing drunk moments, but…on a separate occasion her boss said ‘if you know anyone who wants to open for Locksley, let me know’. We were just in the right place at the right time.”
After the show, Alex and Drew spent some time with Locksley at Genna’s Cocktail Lounge. “That was pretty awesome. They’re cool blokes you know, just like us, from Madison,” says Alex. “I always find it interesting talking with other musicians. You find yourself in the corresponding musician of other bands. I found myself chatting primarily with the lead singer and talking to him about what it’s like being a lead singer. They seem to be just like us except they’ve been doing it for a little bit longer.”
“They gave us their story about how they self recorded an EP just to put out there and got it professionally touched up and decided ‘Let’s go for it’ so it’s cool to hear…that it can just happen and work out if you want to,” says Ferguson. “Otherwise fun guys, good to talk to, good to drink with; everyone enjoyed their shots of Jameson.”
The Cloth Sea can be found at www.myspace.com/theclothsea and are planning on releasing their EP, Port Starboard, sometime this August.
Angus McLinn attends Macalester College in St. Paul, but Madison is his hometown. He writes for the Middleton Times Tribune, and is expanding his scope to include more of his interests, namely music and culture.