My first Majical Cloudz show was also their last one ever. Both Matthew Otto and Devon Welsh (the band’s DJ and singer) had mentioned that La Sala Rossa, in Montreal, was also the stage for their first show together, in which only the band’s partners and roomies would come to see them. Although this time, on March 10, 2016 it was full and tickets had sold out several days before, there was still an intimate feeling in the venue. Devon said he wasn’t sure how to conduct a good-bye concert, and he did the best he could, joking as much as possible. Before singing their first song, he reminded the audience this was Majical Cloudz’s final show; someone booed and Devon said something like (I’m paraphrasing), ‘You knew this. Don’t make it more difficult. Let’s do something, don’t boo for the rest of the show. Also, if you are here it’s because you’re into the band, so we have a longer set and we’re gonna sing all of the songs we have. Probably we won’t sing all the songs we have, but if we don’t, it’s okay.’
Matthew and Devon were visible at a glance, one almost behind the other, a red light defining their faces. A similar ambient was set up in an earlier concert this year, in Detroit. This was a very photogenic way of remembering them, an allegory of what the band had seemed to be throughout these years—Devon on the front, giving everything in each performance, and Matthew creating the essential sonic atmosphere.
I had the chance to meet Matthew offstage before even knowing he played in such a cool band. A day before the breakup’s official announcement, some colleagues from Concordia and I interviewed Matthew regarding his customized modular system, which he avoided referring to as an instrument. His remarks on how he’s modified an Electribe, along with other Korg synthesizers and guitar pedals, are very much in tune with current discussions on instruments and instrumentality, their intended use or stabilization versus the interpretive flexibility users can make of them, and the complex relational processes of agency established between humans and machines.
Otto is well aware of the sound limitations into which the Electribe (the very first synthesizer he ever had) was putting him. But Otto’s response, instead of getting rid of it, was to hack it and combine it with other devices in order to create a customized modular system. The search for more interesting and appropriate sounds for his creative endeavors, as well as a strong feeling for the materiality of the object (it fits in a case and is highly portable, ideal for touring) were two motivations behind Otto’s drive for customization. Instruments go through different periods of stabilization and change, and Otto’s modular device is a way of ‘opening up’ a technology that was being closed due to the prominence of keyboards and certain standardized sounds in synthesizers. In the interview, Otto described his customized system as an ‘open hood on something that might be sold as a product that just works in a certain way […]. It’s sort of a negotiation’ between him and the device.
How this negotiation is exercised is clear in the way Matthew treats indeterminacy and ‘failure’ in his creative process, which he definitely doesn’t sees as such. He pits different elements of the system against each other (say, one distortion pedal against a delay pedal, or a synthesizer through a series of pedals) to test all the possibilities they can offer. This, of course, is a gateway for ‘mistakes,’ which Matthew finds great. While he was showing us how two pedals were connected, a sound went out of control and he had to turn down the volume. Later on he confessed his inability to generate the sound he wanted due to the instrument’s constraints. During the Majical Cloudz final concert, something similar happened when the device got out of control at the beginning or ‘Silver Car Crash,’ right when Devon started screaming wildly, which forced them to start the song all over again.
These examples demonstrate up to which point things can’t be played the same twice with Matthew’s customized modular system, not even the same song. He also mentioned in the interview that every change in its setup implies a change in the way music is interpreted and performed. This is also probably behind the band’s official reason for separating—that they have explored all the sonic possibilities of their collaboration, and that it was time to move on in terms of their own styles. Indeed, some critics have noted how the two albums and two EPs in which Matthew and Devon worked together have all the same particular style. The band’s joke on playing all their songs in one set may not only point to the fact that Majical Cloudz had a very brief life. It also tells us about the aesthetic homogeneity behind it, and about the meditated and very brave decision to end the project at its highest point, after being nominated to the Juno Awards for best alternative album of the year and right before the ceremony. However, it is more than clear that their careers will be just as breathtaking as Majical Cloudz was, and now I’m just waiting to see a Dahlia show, Matthew’s new project.