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Interview: Bobby Markos (Cloakroom)

28 January 2022

Photo by Vin Romero

When he’s not working as a consultant and on-air personality on the Peacock TV show Lost Speedways, hosted by Dale Earnhardt Jr, Bobby Markos is slinging bass for the shoegazing Indiana power trio Cloakroom. Now a decade into their career, Cloakroom’s latest album, Dissolution Wave (Relapse Records), is a dreamy space western centered around an asteroid miner’s life with lyrics written by singer/guitarist Doyle Martin, who you may have caught playing guitar on Nothing’s most recent tour. And, making his debut on Dissolution Wave is drummer Tim Remis who joined Cloakroom in 2019. Check out Michael Toland’s review of the stellar release.

My conversation with Markos started innocently as I shared some past issues I’d had with a recording app on my cell phone. I quickly learned that Markos is a trained journalist who followed in his dad’s footsteps writing about race car drivers and tracks. It’s quite a double-life for Markos who tells me that, for a while, he rebelled against the race car driver stereotype and poured his energy into punk rock.

The call moved from the potential worthlessness of Journalism degrees in a social media influencer world to how quickly technology has advanced.

The fact that I can have almost every single song ever recorded in the palm of my hand is absolutely amazing. But, as much as I currently love the new Cloakroom album, I’ll probably forget it by August because by that time I’ll have listened to 300 other albums.

BOBBY: You nailed it. Honestly, that’s a big part of why we didn’t put our record out sooner. I feel like the pandemic sort of intensified that phenomenon of what you’re talking about. Everyone was at home, everyone was digesting content. People are rapidly throwing music on the internet and the tide of the music industry started moving so much faster than it already had been. Hum put a new record out last year, it was like their first record in 20 years, and people were really psyched about it for a week and then no one was talking about it. I was like, “Oh no!” That’s Hum! That’s like Nirvana. If Cloakroom puts a record out, for like 30 second people will be psyched about it and then they’ll be onto the next thing.

At that point, we knew we had put so much time and effort and thought into our record that the thought of it going into people’s hands and them not even having the attention span or mental bandwidth to dig into it for more than a day, it was just too heartbreaking. We were like, “Let’s wait and see if things will calm down a little bit.” For the most part, it seems like things have returned to where they were with people putting out music and digesting music. Spotify and Apple Music and all these incredible streaming platforms where you can just discover a lifetime’s worth of music every day, it’s made it to where you have to write the next OK Computer to stay on anybody’s mind for more than a month. It’s really changed the ballgame for musicians.

Has the album been done for a while?

BOBBY: Yeah, we went into the studio in December 2019 and started recording it. We had a few sporadic sessions between then and the early part of 2020 when things started shutting down. I think by the time the finished product was in our record label’s hands, they were like, “We don’t know what’s happening.” So then it got pushed off until 2021. And then, at that point the record industry was trying to catch up. Physical product is still kind of a big deal for a band like us, we still sell a fair amount of vinyl so we were really waiting on that. The pressing plants were backed out the door forever. Nobody could get their records pressed. Bands like us, we were so far down the totem pole, it was like, “Well, good luck.” It just took forever to be able to get the pieces to line up and, thankfully, as we were coming out of things late summer into early fall last year, our record label was like, “Looks like January 2022 will be good. You guys can be the first thing out.” We put out our first LP in January too. I think our music has a winterish, cold, desolate feel. I think a lot of people associate our band with winter time. So, I think it was kind of fitting that it worked out that way.

I just interviewed The Dollyrots and they decided to skip vinyl for their latest release and, instead, released it on CD. It’s interesting because CDs seem out of fashion but you can turn them around really quickly.

BOBBY: Relapse, our record label, they still do CDs of our releases. I don’t know what kind of numbers they press, but I would have to assume that would be so simple. There’s so much less that goes into that, pretty much anybody can get set up with a tower and mass produce CDs.

I started thinking CDs were a wasted format but then Matt Talbott from Hum, when we were recording at his studio, he got me into CD quality and explained it to me. He has this insane, state of the art, high definition CD player in his control room. He was like, “I’m going to burn you the craziest CD you’ve ever heard quality wise.” I’ve come around on CDs. It’s actually a pretty good way to listen to a band if you’re into having something physical. CDs might end up making a real re-emergence over the next couple of years.

On release day, are you going to do anything to celebrate? Are you going to go to a record store and see if they have it in stock? Or, is it just pulling up Spotify to make sure it got uploaded correctly?

BOBBY: We’re going to have a whale of an album release show in Chicago. Relapse has sent me our copies and I have it in my hands and it’s awesome. I don’t even know if our record is going to be carried in stores. It might get carried at Reckless Records [Chicago] or at Amoeba [various California locations] but I feel like our band, we historically have sold out of our pressings so quick that I don’t even know how many go into distribution. It’s mainly just point-to-point order from the record label to the consumer.

I do feel like release day is like Christmas. You wake up, you know that going to bed that it’s really going to happen after all the anticipation, this one especially because it’s been built up for so long. It’s finally coming out and I think that in our career as a band, this is the most excited people have been. I don’t know if it’s because more people are listening to us now. More and more people are posting on social media “Two more weeks until the new Cloakroom record comes out!” I feel like it’s going to be a collective celebration and the internet will come in handy because I’ll be able to celebrate with our listeners across the world all at once.

I don’t think I’ve ever done, in my entire career as a musician, an album release show on the day of the release. It worked out with it being a Friday. There’s not much going on in Chicago right now because it’s the dead of winter. We were able to get a date at our favorite venue and we have a great bill with musicians who helped contribute to the making of the record. It’s going to be the ultimate celebration and show.

Where is the release show?

BOBBY: The Empty Bottle. That was the last venue we played before we recorded the record, pretty much the last show we played. We played one show during the pandemic at Matt Talbott’s bar in Champaign, Illinois but the last show we played pre-pandemic, pre-recording Dissolution Wave was at the Empty Bottle in December 2019. It was like, “Come see us play one last time before we go and record our new record.” It really turned into “Come see us one last time before the world ends.” We didn’t know at the time that was going to happen but it’s kind of fitting. In my brain, that show back in 2019 was like the sunrise on this entire process and this will be the sunset and then we’ll move on to a new horizon from this point.

How did you hook up with Matt?

BOBBY: I was in another band that was my senior year of high school band and then my undergrad band. We were called Native. Back in 2012 or 2013, we were getting ready to record a new LP and we were going to work with this engineer who is out of Electrical Audio, Greg Norman. He’s an awesome engineer and works a lot with Steve Albini and a lot of great Chicago bands. We didn’t have the budget to record at Electrical Audio so Greg was like, “There’s a more affordable studio down in Champaign that is owned by Matt from Hum if you guys are interested in making the trip.” I was like, “Oh wow, that would be insane. I wonder if we’ll meet Matt?” I grew up a Hum fan. I used to see JBTV when I was young, I’d stay up late and watch that and I’d see Hum videos. There were like the Midwest grunge connection. I was the black sheep of my school where I didn’t get into nu metal but I went back into grunge. I missed grunge by two years. I think Kurt Cobain had been dead and buried two years by the time I first heard Nirvana, but I really got into it. As I got more into that world, Hum was like our Nirvana in the Midwest.

We ended up recording there and I did meet Matt. I think he made us pancakes one morning and I got a kick out of that. Cloakroom was forming around that time and we were getting ready to record our debut LP and we were like, “We should do what Native did and record with Greg at Earth Analog.” The record came out awesome. I think our drummer reached out to Matt about renting the studio. Maybe Matt listened to us. He said, “You’re more than welcome and we’d be happy to have you. If you’re interested, I would love to engineer your record.” We were like, “Oh wow, that would be pretty wild.”

We ended up making that first record with him. We became family. We grew so close, he’s such a dear friend to us. He’s been such an integral part to our band’s existence. He’s a mentor to me and Doyle in a lot of ways. He did what we’re doing and he was part of an era we’re borrowing from, that we’re inspired by. He continues to do things in such an awesome way. I guess I’m little desensitized to it now because I’ve been friends with him for almost 10 years but I still get a kick out of saying, “Matt from Hum.”

Native sounds a lot different than Cloakroom. I feel like a lot of young punk and hardcore bands evolve into shoegazer type bands or go the folk-country route.

BOBBY: When I was starting my first bands, we were like, “We love punk music. We love At the Drive-In.” Nobody was writing grunge music so I just adapted. The guys in my old band Native did not like Nirvana. None of them grew up listening to Nirvana. So, I was like, “I guess I’m going to go do this thing here.” Doyle and I have known each other since we were 15. Our high school bands always played together so we’ve had a long relationship together. He used to live in this house and they had shows. This was in Michigan City, Indiana. They always had punk shows going on in their basement. I remember going out there, this would have been after I graduated high school but before Doyle and I really got into a conversation about being in a band together. I remember going there and he had a CD player in the living room and he was listening to Nirvana’s Incesticide. I was like, “Oh, sick dude. You’re listening to Nirvana! We both like this band.” All of a sudden there was this brief flash of Nirvana being cool again. The music that Cloakroom likes, Doyle will probably tell you the same thing, this is the more naturally I’ve been able to write music ever. This just feels like the music I was always meant to write. I just ran away from it because of what was cool around me when I was getting into bands.

When we started writing Cloakroom music, and to this day, the riffs just fly out of us. This is what we’re meant to write. It’s who we are as musicians. I think a lot of that is influenced by growing up listening to Nirvana or, if you were real cool, listening to Mudhoney. If you were real, real cool, you knew about Pixies. And if you were somehow little kid legend status, you knew about Hum and Failure and Swervedriver. You can just imagine a 10-year-old listening to Fantastic Planet or You’d Prefer an Astronaut. We were out there.

What was your first “real” concert? Not seeing local bands or friends playing in a basement.

BOBBY: By the time we were getting old enough to go to the city to see gigs, we were really into punk music. I think I might have went to a Warped Tour because we were into NOFX or The Casualties. We were skateboarders and that went hand-in-hand. I think we went to the Metro and saw a Chicagoland showcase, maybe Rise Against played before they became a huge radio band. They were still a Chicago punk band. I think I went to a Riot Fest when it was an indoor show at the Congress Theater and the Angry Samoans played. We loved the Angry Samoans because Mudhoney covered the Angry Samoans. I think The Germs were playing and I met Pat Smear. Here I am, maybe 14, and, in comparison to most 14-year-olds, I was listening to some cool stuff. Now, maybe it’s some cringy punk music but it got me to where I was going. It was a portal leading to who I was going to become as a musician.

When you met Pat Smear, that was after he had been in Nirvana.

BOBBY: Yeah. I think The Germs were doing a reunion. We were psyched because we knew Pat Smear from Nirvana. We went and shook his hand. He was so perplexed. He was sitting and talking to people on the balcony and we went and shook his hand. We were freaking out. We were more psyched about that than watching the bands play. “He played with Kurt Cobain!” He was so cool about it, he wasn’t put off by it but I’m sure it was a weird thing to have two very young people come up to him and want to shake his hand.

Things have changed. Maybe it had something to do with those bands that influenced you but the wall between artist and fan has been broken down for some time now. You probably interact with fans all the time.

BOBBY: Definitely. I try to make myself really available. I don’t like the word “fans”, I prefer “listeners” because I never want to insinuate that we’re on some different level. I’m a fan. I’m a music fan too, I just happen to make some music too. If anyone wants to talk to me because of Cloakroom or any other reason, please, that’s awesome. With a band like us, it isn’t a lot, but there are some people that get excited and that’s great, I’m arguably more excited than they are because when we started this band, we really thought nobody outside Indiana would hear ever hear it. Maybe out girlfriends and our friend Zac [Montez] would hear it and that would be about it. I’d play it for my parents and they’d be like, “It’s too loud.” When we go on the road, or if somebody happens to see me out and wants to talk, I get a charge out of it. I always ask how they found us. I always want to know what road brought you to me. It’s incredible. The music industry for rock bands was tame enough by the time I was getting into it that I recognized I was never going to be a household name or a recognizable person so to have it on any level to be recognized and to have people that are die-hard listeners and really like Cloakroom, I still get a real charge out of that. I struggle to find the words to say what that means to me still.

And you’ve even had the chance to play overseas quite a bit.

BOBBY: Yeah. I think Cloakroom has been to Europe three times. They were long extended tours. We’d usually go for 5 or 6 weeks at a time.

That has to be pretty amazing for a kid from Indiana who never thought anybody outside of his home town would hear his music.

BOBBY: I got a kick out of going to Ohio for the first time! I’m like, “Wow, I’m gonna go play guitar in Ohio, can you believe it?” I remember my dad was always like, “You’re going to go all the way there? Why can’t you do it here?” Growing up, even when Native was touring across the country and going to places I had only seen on postcards, I was like, “Europe is like the final frontier. That’s not possible.” So, yeah, going there … whenever Doyle and I are on the plane together, we’re cracking up. We’re drinking our cocktails and it’s like, “This is so silly that we’re going to Europe to play music.” I think we’re at the point where we say that on tour regardless of where we’re playing. We’ll be in a hotel in Philly and we’ll just start laughing. “Who are we to be doing this?” We’re just really, really fortunate.

Are there any dreams that you still have as a band?

BOBBY: It’s getting harder and harder to think of stuff because we’ve already done more than we ever should have been able to, honestly. The things that we’ve done in 10 years, it gets me choked up. But, I’d love to squeeze the sponge dry and get every drop out of it. I’d love to see all the world if we can. As far as a real tangible thing goes, all the goals, all the things I could have ever dreamt of, we’ve done them. We’ve played with the bands I really admire. We’ve worked personally with people I look up to. We’ve played music in Spain and Portugal. I was able to fly my fiancĂ© to London to see us play in front of a thousand people. I’ve been so, so lucky. It’s hard to imagine what else can be done.

After the release show, are you planning on touring or are you going to see what happens with the world?

BOBBY: You nailed it. It’s unforeseen times. Nothing, they’re playing catch up. They put their record out during the pandemic so now they’re doing their tour cycle so they’re still figuring that out. Cloakroom is doing the same thing. We’ve never been a band that has just hit the ground running. We’ve done some touring but never around the clock. We’re at the point now where we have the lineup and the resources to be able to do that so we don’t feel a sense of urgency like we used to where it’s like “We need to strike while the iron is hot.” Now we just tour whenever we want. When it happens, it happens. With it being our 10 year anniversary, we’ve talked about doing a tour to commemorate that and see all of our long-time friends and listeners and have a special experience. I’m sure that will happen as things progress at some point this year.

When you’re not doing band stuff, you work with Dale Jr., right?

BOBBY: Yeah, he’s my buddy. He’s larger than life. He’s incredible. Growing up a racing fan in a racing household, he was like Elvis. He was the biggest thing in the world. Working for him, and then getting to meet him, it’s been such a trip. That’s another thing that doesn’t even seem real. He’s is the real deal and he’s super humble even though he’s so famous that he can’t even go to the store. I know we’re buddies, we’ve worked a lot together and we’ve spent a lot of time together making the TV show. I’ve been to his house, we’re pals but I know that he’s also a 40-something race car driver who’s lived in Charlotte his whole like and he has his friends. I get where my place is in his life and I cherish my interactions with him.

Does he know your band?

BOBBY: He’s a huge music fan. He actually loves Hum, believe it or not. It’s funny because when I was growing up, when I got into my teenage years and I started getting into my own music, I definitely rebelled against racing where I was like, “This is lame. Racing’s for rednecks.” Dale was on MTV and in Rolling Stone and he’s talking about how he loves Nirvana. He’s name-dropping Hum. I’m like, “Whoa! This dude is awesome.” He changed the archetype of the race car driver and he made it where younger generations were like, “Racers aren’t all country-loving Southern boys. This dude is pretty cool.”

He follows me on Twitter and I think he might have seen one of the write-ups about Cloakroom and he must have read it and then he started following Cloakroom. You never want to be like, “Yo, Dale, you gotta listen to my band.” I figured he would find it in his own time and I figured he would like it. If he likes Hum and Nirvana and Soundgarden and all these bands, we’re essentially a Hum cover band at times. It would be a big swing and a miss if he didn’t like us. I think he might be starting to get into Cloakroom and I’m excited to see that develop and see where that ends up. It would be really fun to have him come out to a gig some time and hang out.