As home studio equipment becomes more and more accessible, it seems that the narrative arc for new musical projects has taken on a few twists and turns. Now, instead of bands honing their sound in a rehearsal space or out in the clubs, they are able layer sounds and record entire albums without leaving their homes.
It’s not exactly a new development, but certainly one that’s become a familiar trajectory in recent years. A few notable examples of this trend happening locally are electronic artists Elite Gymnastics and Observer Drift — the former of which has noticeably struggled to translate their masterfully composed songs to the stage, and the latter of which has yet to perform a single show.
When newcomers Cjell Cruze wrapped up a year of recording and played their album-release show at the Fine Line last month, it was only their third time performing live. Even more remarkable? Cjell (pronounced “Shell”) Cruze is the first serious musical endeavor for many of its members, and more than one bandmate took up a new instrument just so he could join the band.
“We kind of went an opposite route,” says lead singer Matt Zittlow. “We basically wrote the album as we recorded the songs. And then once the album was recorded — with two microphones, super low budget, as you can probably tell from the sound of it — once it was recorded, then we were kind of like, all right, now we need to start playing some shows. But we don’t even have a drummer.”
“[Guitarist Aaron] Poole sent me a text message and was like, hey man, do you want to come play the drums and kind of make a lifestyle out of it?,” remembers Nick Vanderheyden. “And I was like, no dude. I don’t even play the drums — I played the drums in sixth grade, for like two years. But I asked him to send me the songs, and they sent me all the songs on the album, and I just listened to it for like three days straight. I just fell in love with it. I just kept showing up and they haven’t kicked me out yet. So I’m the drummer.”
Similarly, bassist Nick Maddux says he was recruited to join the band without any past musical experience, and he bought a bass and taught himself to play it on the fly as the group was beginning to record. On paper, that sounds like a recipe for disaster — or at the very least the recipe for a mediocre debut. But the end result of all of this impromptu creativity, Cjell Cruze’s debut full-length The Ropes, is a charming, creepingly infectious ode to lo-fi Americana that suggests great possibilities for the future of the group.
Taking “the opposite route” to recording an album has become more common recently, but home recording has been popular for years among lo-fi fans. In fact, when talking to the quartet of 26-year-old newcomers that make up Cjell Cruze about home-recording their debut, it actually brought to mind a longtime staple of the Twin Cities scene who recorded his entire 1997 debut in his living room: Mason Jennings.
“I’ve had way too many people tell me that. I’m like, dude, I’m not trying to be Mason Jennings,” says Zittlow, laughing and blushing. But there are more than just vocal similarities that tie the two musicians together; Zittlow, along with his songwriting partner, Poole, craft harmonies that stretch all the way to the Laurel Canyon and back and hearken back to the compelling simplicity of Jennings’ early work. And that everything is filtered through a few layers of fuzz on The Ropes somehow makes it all the more compelling.
Now that the album is finished, the band has already found themselves solidifying their sound and expanding into new areas in the live setting.
“It’s been kind of cool because the songs were written and recorded all at once, so they really didn’t have time to evolve into anything, but once we got Nick and started playing around with stuff, now I feel like the songs are actually something,” says Zittlow. “When we play it live it’s actually completely different than what it is on the album. So I think the album is cool in its own way, like the lo-fi kind of acoustic-folky vibe, but now that we’re playing live it’s a little more rocking.”
“It’s a different product altogether,” agrees Poole. “It’s a stark contrast, and I think that’s probably the main driver behind our energy and drive right now, is just the contrast and knowing we can evolve into a new sound.”
Poole also says he thinks that the deep bonds they’ve formed as lifelong friends (all four members of Cjell Cruze grew up in the St. Cloud area and have since trickled to the Cities) have helped them to connect musically. “The whole process has been organic just because we were already friends, we’ve always been friends, so that’s first but then music kind of comes with it and it’s just gotten stronger and stronger,” he says.
As for the name? It’s inspired by another longtime friend, who is featured on the cover of Cjell Cruze’s debut. “He’s pretty much a vagabond, in the sense that he’ll bike across the country, he’ll ride trains — the kid is nuts — and his trail moniker is Cjell,” explains Vanderheyden. “Honestly, it’s the only name we’ve ever even thrown out there. It’s been the only band name we’ve ever discussed.”
“We just really liked what he was doing with his life,” adds Maddux. “He wasn’t setting an anchor down, he was just going with it and living.”
Cjell Cruze play their fourth show ever at the 7th St. Entry on Wednesday, August 15 with Portage and Brilliant Beast.