Majical Cloudz — the sad clown alter-ego of Montreal-based musician Devon Welsh and multi-instrumentalist bandmate Matthew Otto — were working on their second album, the follow-up to 2013’s devastatingly confessional Impersonator, when they were invited to open for Lorde. “Maybe it wasn’t that big of a deal, but to me it just sort of felt like the end of the road,” he tells SPIN in the Manhattan offices of his label, Matador, in one breath both understating the biggest tour of his career and saying, essentially, It’s all downhill from here. “There was a whole other world of really young people who were extremely excited about music, and about Lorde and about everything. We weren’t really dictating the pace of the whole experience because [they weren’t] our shows, and when I saw what that experience was like — where else is there to go, really?”
The answer, in a sense, is nowhere. Though Welsh and Otto wound up starting a whole new album than the one they had been working on pre-tour, Are You Alone? (due October 16) still sounds very much like the Majical Cloudz fans know, cherish, and have likely wept to while listening on headphones. The 12-track effort is steeped in their signature sound, a cavernous yet welcoming womb of Roland Space Echo and peaks and troughs of buoying synth waterbeds; lyrically, Welsh includes tidbits from his life and songs and people that inspire him, like Kurt Vile’s “Freak Train” or comedian Andy Kaufman. Listeners will recognize his light yet ponderous meditations on relationship tropes like loving someone unconditionally (“Heavy”), short-term romances (“If You’re Lonely”), and something as mundane as singing along to the Beatles (“Downtown”).
The afternoon of our interview, another superstar of sorts — Pope Francis — is visiting New York City, which Welsh has already noted, tweeted about, and admitted that a tour with the Vicar of Christ would top Majical Cloudz’s stint with Lorde. SPIN talked to the 27-year-old about his band’s new album, how he always wins blinking contests, and the appeal of being unapologetically sincere. See who blinks first.
I’ll start with the big stuff. The Pope is a pretty epic backdrop for our interview. Do you have any thoughts on Catholicism?
[Laughs.] I’m reading a book right now about the Reformation. The Pope and the Papacy, and Roman Catholicism in general — I like to think of it as the Roman Empire sticking around. When the Roman Empire collapsed, the nobility and the important people latched onto the church and turned the church into a vessel for this imperial culture. And it stuck around until today, so it’s like the Roman Empire mini-version, where it’s shrunk all the way back to the Vatican. The Pope, all the cardinals, everything that they’re wearing — there’s this regal feeling when he comes to New York, and the procession… It feels like if you want to reach out and touch the Roman Empire, it’s still struggling along.
It does seem like there’s a little bit of — not necessarily religion — but ritual to your music. It evokes the sort of grandeur of a church, of realizing things about yourself. Also, you wear the same outfit for every show.
I like music performances that are like a church sermon — not really, just the format where someone’s on the mic and people are singing songs. Less a rock show where the band’s on stage and there’s a lot of instruments and they play songs — boom, boom, boom — with some banter. I half-jokingly thought of a talking tour: no music, all stage banter. That’s the pinnacle of performance for me. A stand-up comedian with just a mic — they control the energy through what they’re doing on their own. But maybe not with set-ups and punchlines. I’m not attracted to scaling up with music. It just kind of loses the thread of what gratifies me about doing music.
What’s the most emotionally comforting song on the new album for you?
I don’t know if I have that relationship with my own music. I don’t have a fresh perspective on it — it’s more like full of memories of writing or recording. At this point, if I think about a lot of [the songs], they’re funny. “If You’re Lonely” is extremely funny. Just the other day I was watching this Andy Kaufman video — he’s an influence I like to talk about because it seems relevant. He’s an out-of-the-box comedian from the ’70s and early ’80s, and he kind of has this thing where he sort of infantilizes himself in certain regards in a way that is extremely endearing and not cynical. And it just goes so far that it becomes hilarious. I wanted to make music that was extremely innocent-feeling, and that would be funny because of that.
I find Smashing Pumpkins to be like that a lot of the time. Billy Corgan’s songwriting can be really awkward in how sincere-feeling it can be. Elliott Smith is sincere but manages to pull it off in a way where it’s subdued and serious and not really funny, but Smashing Pumpkins is in-your-face with its sincerity. It’s unapologetic about it.
I would like to talk about the music video for “Silver Car Crash” because it seems like you don’t blink throughout the entire thing.
I didn’t realize that until I saw someone say that on the Internet. I have the tendency to not blink when I’m performing. I think when I’m feeling serious, or trying to get into the zone and connect my point to an audience, that’s just one of the things my face does. It’s something to do with the way my eyes moisturize themselves. When I was younger, I was really into staring contests because I just could, like, crush them. I remember being at a show when I was in grade nine or ten and doing, like, a line of people: “Okay, you go, and then you’ll blink, and then I’ll go to the next person and then you’ll blink, and then I’ll go to the next person…”
When you write music and lyrics, is there a character you create or is it autobiographical? Just because on “Are You Alone?,” the references to red wine and sleeping pills are very specific.
Oh, yeah. I took the lyrics from the Radiohead song “Motion Picture Soundtrack” because I was really into the emotional landscape. It was really kind of melodramatic and exhausted, so I started writing a song based on that picture of things. It’s kind of characters, kind of autobiographical. It’s not like, raw truth, like, “No names have been changed, it’s all real!” When I was writing the stuff for this album, I was trying to make music that would have some kind of light feeling to be not necessarily happy, but emotionally comforting. To that extent, I wanted to make it relatable and not utterly specific. If something gets too specific, especially with music, it just gets appreciated from a different perspective.
You’re very open about various influences on your Tumblr, like how Kurt Vile’s songs affected you more than he probably intended. Have you gotten the same feedback from Majical Cloudz fans?
For sure. Something that fans of the band take away from the music is that it can be pacifying or comforting. That’s definitely an intention of mine as a musician. That’s what I like about certain music, too. Sometimes I can listen to music for purely aesthetic reasons — like, “I’m interested in this just for the sound world” — and sometimes I’m listening to music because it provides a sense of safety or communes with my emotional experience at the time. I’ve gotten some feedback like that and I’m happy about that.