One day, a 4-year-old Dave Menzo tripped over an old Beatles tape lying on the carpet of his brother's bedroom.
"That's where it all started for me," he says. "I was one of eight kids, most of whom were older than me, so, at 4 years old, I had seen my brothers put a tape in a tape player and press play."
You can imagine this young kid, staring curiously up at a towering hulk of plastic and wood, waiting to hear what would jump from its speakers.
"All of a sudden, I'm hooked for life. It was that easy."
That crinkled old Beatles tape instilled in the Lansing-based multi-instrumentalist an intense drive to make music, and Menzo has since been pouring out songs and ideas almost nonstop. He's a bit of a figure in the Lansing rock scene, having been in dozens of bands, and he has produced and promoted scores more.
His latest collaborative project, Cloud Magic, is heading into its second fruitful year, and is celebrating the release of their debut album, Puff, which landed late last year. The album is also available for free download on Cloud Magic's website.
Interestingly enough, even as they give the album away for free, there's a healthy demand for the physical product. "I've been impressed," Menzo says. "You think if you put your album up for free, people will only download it and you'll never get anybody to buy it."
That's a sign of something, right?
Cloud Magic — rounded out by the jaw-droppingly gorgeous and classically trained vocalist-percussionist Sarah Price, bassist Chad Golda and drummer Jerod Brocklehurst — grew from remnants of previous versions and various obscure bands — and here Menzo is on lead guitar, sharing vocals with Price. The band's musical cohesiveness is deceptive; you'd never guess that this young band, basically hailing originally from Rochester Hills, is but two years old. And so far the group has been tagged mostly a "jam band," but that tag is a disservice, as it suggests images of sometimes tediously drawn-out songs, plastic jazz fusion and instrumental wankery. Cloud Magic manages to steer clear of such pretentious pitfalls and actually has well-crafted songs.
"That's one thing we've come across," Menzo says. "A lot of people will hear that we're a jam band because of the bands we're playing with, and they'll show up to our shows and be surprised that we actually have songs and that we actually have more progression than just jamming for two hours."
In fact, Cloud Magic's sound is predicated on a love of '70s prog, free jazz and even a shade of James Brown funk. Spacey songs, such as "Transmission Mode," bring to mind electronic rock pioneers Silver Apples or the deep, repetitive grooves of some early, lost '70s krautrock act.
Now, there are hordes of bands that can pull off a Pink Floyd-like sound — tired, grandiose and full of sociopolitical lyrical imagery —but not many rock 'n' roll bands can successfully weave jazz (especially avant-garde) into a rock context. But, where Cloud Magic does that, they mostly succeed; songs like "Seven" flow with jerky 7/4 rhythms and Menzo's sax-like guitar lines tease the song under Price's lovely soprano.
When listening to Puff, there's a kind of movement, fluidity; each song slips into the next, like scenes of a movie. There's beauty, and, because of Price, grace.
"My favorite albums are like that," Menzo says. "It's a full-on production. From beginning to end, you get every little sound as part of the story. By the end of album you realize you've been on a journey of sound. That was just how a lot of the music that I grew up on was, and the other members too."
So he and the band set out to make one of those old-fashioned albums that you sit and listen to from start to finish?
"Yeah. We held it to the standards that we've held albums like Dark Side of the Moon to."
Even when you can spot the band's influences back to the '60s or '70s, they're not just aping the mojo of their heroes. They understand that it's not about copying the product, as Jimmy Page once said, but understanding the methods that made it happen.
Puff was initially nurtured at Menzo's home studio in Lansing. When it came time to mix and master, the band enlisted veteran producer Glenn Brown, whose résumé affiliations run the gamut from Bill Laswell to Iggy Pop.
"He's worked with a lot of big names out of Detroit, out of Michigan, out of L.A.," Menzo says. "He's a guy we were lucky to work with so that we could really do an album 100 percent on our own, take it to Brown and mix it with his vintage compressors and EQs."
And for an album so steeped in a '70s sonic milieu, the warm analog sound is a must. "He's just got the perfect combination of gear, so if you want to make a classic album, you can have all your electronic effects but you're doing that on analog gear. And it dates it a bit. It kinda ends up sounding like a crazy album from the '60s or '70s."
Having worked their asses off on the record, the members have been hauling around the Mitten, and have shows lined up through the summer, all done DYI-style.
"We've played Detroit and Royal Oak and Lansing, Mount Pleasant and Grand Rapids," he says. "We've been trying to hit a lot of cities in Michigan. We've played in Ohio as well as Denver and Omaha. We're kinda booking a mini-tour right now. It would be easier if we had management, but it'll be more rewarding showing and realizing we've done it all ourselves. We're getting to a point where all the hard work's starting to pay off."
For a band so rooted in rock, jazz, jam and prog, their lyrics are a bit light in the way of political ideologies and social awareness. Yet, Menzo regrets not putting a bit more of his and the band's own spiritual and philosophical ideas in the music. "The reason I was so moved by the Beatles was because I could hear that message in their vocals. When they had these passionate and unique vocal harmonies, I could hear the love they were pouring out into the world. As I started getting older and becoming more knowledgeable about the environment and about American capitalism, about what we're doing to the rest of the world, about what we're doing to ourselves, about the Earth itself and its ecosystem — you know, even just the morality of everything — I realized that I finally have a tool to where now I could help change the world."
Menzo says that the band has even coined their own term for their message:
"The vision has always been there to change the world with this message of hope and open-mindedness, and I don't want to sound cliché but, ... you know, there's that term, the 'cloud of unknowing.' It's a Chinese term talking about frustration of ignorance or not knowing something. We came up with this phrase, thinking just the opposite: the 'cloud of knowing.'"
For more information on Cloud Magic show dates and music, see cloudmagicmusic.com.Kent Alexander is a Metro Times music critic. Send comments to [email protected]