It's 2009, and many people still can't deal with the sort of wide-screen, instrumental music that has come to be known as post-rock. Much of the population simply cannot wean itself off the sugar-tit of the charismatic frontperson with a microphone. The three unassuming guys in Seattle group the Luna Moth would like to gently coax you to check out some adventurous, (mostly) sans-singer rock over the three-day, 15-band Cumulus Festival, which is happening January 23 to 25 at Chop Suey, King Cobra, and Vera Project (all ages), respectively. Hell, you may already be a post-rock fan without even realizing it. If you've enjoyed a Mogwai or Sigur Rós concert or collected Explosions in the Sky and Godspeed You! Black Emperor vinyl, consider yourself a convert to the (mostly) zip-lipped cause.
Unlike the founders of Kranky Records, a font of post-rock for about as long as the term has existed (about 15 years), Cumulus's organizers don't shy from the term.
"Post-rock literally means 'what happens after rock music,'" reasons Luna Moth guitarist Mark Schlipper. "To me, it's bands that at their heart may be rock bands but have left behind the root element that makes rock music rock music—that blues element. You listen to bands like Tortoise, they're leaving behind that rootsy, bluesy, two-and-a-half-minute pop/rock format. [The German group] Can had some of that stuff in the mix, but they're taking it one step further. But at the same time, I dodge [the post-rock descriptor] because bands like Mogwai or the big, heavy, guitar sturm und drang that's out there has become this definition of post-rock, when it's broader and vaguer than that."
Originally slated to happen in November, Cumulus moved to late January for myriad logistical reasons. Fortuitously, though, according to its directors, the winter climate serves as an ideal analogue to the festival's sonics. The lineup consists of Northwest bands both well known (Earth, Joy Wants Eternity, Hypatia Lake, Bronze Fawn) and obscure (Perish the Island [featuring Schlipper], Waves & Radiation, Unlearn). Portland's Grails unfortunately could not make their appointed date, nor could Seattle's Sleepy Eyes of Death.
Luna Moth's principals—who include bassist Levi Fuller and drummer Kenny Day—first planned to launch a festival like Cumulus four years ago, but they could only think of a handful of bands that fit their criteria. "The scene has totally ballooned since then," Fuller says. "It's exciting."
The kind of music the Cumulus bands create, the Luna Moth's members agree, isn't as well appreciated as some other styles, but "to an understandable degree," admits Fuller.
"It's not the most commercially viable music," Schlipper adds. "We're not playing Iannis Xenakis concrete music, but it is somewhat difficult listening."
"It usually requires patience and open-mindedness," Fuller elaborates. "Not everybody's going to be into a band that plays 10-minute songs—not that all of these bands do. Not everybody's going to be into a band that doesn't have a singer. Some people really latch on to that and require it—like, the point of music is someone singing at you."
"Patience is the key word," Day says. "A friend said about listening to Luna Moth, that if you listen to how it starts off and how it morphs, you start to hear these new things even though we're playing virtually the same thing over and over."
"But at the same time, Sigur Rós is in ads for video games," Schlipper notes.
"Sigur Rós and Mogwai both have large audiences," Fuller observes. "I think there are more people in Seattle that could be into [Cumulus-style music] who maybe aren't hearing it."
Cumulus formed out of an altruistic urge to strengthen the local post-rock community. Fuller has been crucial on that front with his Ball of Wax, an audio quarterly and sporadic concert series, as well. Ultimately, Cumulus's bills reflect the Luna Moth's musical taste—and fervent desire to help their peers. "If nothing else, we get to go to three awesome shows we totally curated," Fuller cracks, and everyone laughs.
As it stands, Fuller and company would consider breaking even a success. They're all realistic about Cumulus's popular appeal. "We don't need sellout crowds every night," Fuller says. "Just knowing that there are a good number of folks appreciating that we're doing this, enjoying the music, and being exposed to some new bands."
"Success to me is positive feedback from peers and people you respect," Schlipper states. "I could lose money on an album, but if the Wire magazine reviews it positively, I would be the happiest man on earth. I feel the same way about [Cumulus]. If people say, 'I can't wait for next year,' but we lost our shirts, that's a success."
"If we manage to make Cumulus into an annual thing, it could be fairly open," Fuller speculates. "It would always be a 'you know it when you hear it' sort of thing. As great as Fleet Foxes are, if for some reason they wanted to play Cumulus, we'd have to say, 'No, it doesn't make sense.' But Pelican would be fucking awesome, you know?"