Cuckoo Chaos is an energetic rock band based out of San Diego, CA. The five piece formed in 2008, and spent two years perfecting their sound before releasing their debut EP We Are From Deerplants in 2010, followed by the 7-song EP Women in 2011, released on Lefse Records. Beginning as a solo acoustic project, Cuckoo Chaos has changed significantly, shifting to a spirited rock band with prominent pop hooks and a fascination with tropical and African guitar work. The members of Cuckoo Chaos had previously played in other San Diego bands including Vision of a Dying World and the Paddle Boat. The band won the award for Best Alternative at the 2010 San Diego Music Awards.
Formed in 2008, Cuckoo Chaos are a San Diego-based band that mixes Afrobeat, complex math rock beats and surfy reverb-soaked guitars into a pop frenzy. It took them a couple of years to crystallize their sound before releasing their debut EP Woman on Lefse Records, but the wait was worth it. They're a band that makes music purely for the joy of it, and that enthusiasm is contagious. Woman bursts with sunshine, even as the lyrics tell a less upbeat story in a The Smiths-style juxtaposition of happy sounds and sometimes melancholy words. We spoke with frontman Scott Wheeler, while he prepared for the holidays in San Diego, about his love for Talking Heads, music with a groove, and the importance of never standing still as a band.
Band of the Day: Question: You started out as a solo acoustic act, right?
Scott: Kind of, I had recorded those songs when I was 20. This band didn't really form until four years later or so. Someone had a hold of that and put it out under that name [Cuckoo Chaos]. My management or Lefse, I think they had it and put it out so, that's kinda, it's weird because some people ask me about that record and I don't know what to say because I don't really remember it .
Band of the Day: You mean the EP We are Deer Plants?
Scott: Yeah, that weird folk thing. I did that in my bedroom, I went through a phase you know?
Band of the Day: So do you feel like Cuckoo Chaos is a totally different entity from that?
Scott: Yeah totally. That's what the name implies to me, it's not the same entity. From album to album you may come to find something different. It's a dynamic sort of thing. Who knows what the next thing will sound like? Well I guess I know what it will sound like because we're recording it!
Band of the Day: I read that you guys took a while finding your sound and practicing before you ever put out any music.
Scott: It started sort of as a twee project. I was living in Portland, and I had bought a piano from the school district and was writing all these kind of twee, folk poppy songs. I ended up back in San Diego and we tried to play those live and it just didn't work, I could tell the audience wasn't really responding in a way you'd want an audience to respond, it just didn't feel right. So we kind of disbanded for eight months or so, then when we reformed we added two new members and shifted things around. At that point, I told everyone that I wanted to play Afrobeat stuff. I think even after we recorded Woman we were still shifting sonically, that's something that we will always do as we get more comfortable with each other. Kind of like a doctrine that we prescribe to as a band to continually move forward. And stay forever dynamic, that's the important thing about music.
Band of the Day: Are there any other influences that have been on your mind lately that you want to explore?
Scott: Definitely, I think what we like most about our sound now is the groove with the bass and the drums. I think it's really neat because not a lot of American music is doing that right now. That's something that we will try to always retain as it ends up being one of those underlying foundations to music that is very important to all of us. In Woman, all the guitars are really busy, right out the gate everything is doing as much as they can, there's counter melodies going one way...for this next record we wanted to play with space a little more, having space within music is something that I, and I think all of us, have taken notice of. Bigger bands that we like aren't always playing all the time.
Band of the Day: It definitely heightens the drama when you do that.
Scott: Definitely. I think we just wanted to keep the nice back beat groove there because I really dig on that, but we also wanted to stay away from straight up African sounding music and make it a little more of our own. I think that's a natural progression that most bands go through. New influences on the new record, are a lot of Deerhoof, Talking Heads, a little bit of Radiohead.
Talking Heads are a band that encapsulates that sense in African music of having an awesome groove where the drums and the bass aren't something you push to the side. At the height of their career they really innovated a certain style. Talking Heads are amazing, they were coming out at a time when the punk movement was huge, and here you’ve got...looking at punk music and saying well this is punk music to me. And they really innovated what they were doing at that time.
Band of the Day: Especially considering that for most of the punk and post punk bands back then drums and bass were so basic, usually root notes and a simple, fast beat.
Scott: Definitely, everyone will forever talk about the Taking Heads. That's something from what I see all the music blogs and media sites now, there's all that electro-pop chillwave stuff going around, seems like it's the new punk. And that's something that we're trying to stay away from, though some of it is really good.
Band of the Day: Tropical vibes are in that music too, but in a different form from how you do it. A lot of that music is sedate, your music makes me want to start a party.
Scott: We're definitely trying to keep on having a good time…I think that's something that attracts us as musicians, because we really enjoy that dance party vibe.
Band of the Day: Is that something you felt were missing when you were doing the twee pop thing?
Scott: I don't know if it was missing, I just knew that there are people that do that better. There are tons of musicians out there that try to make a certain type of music or that's what they naturally write. We came to this point where we said this sounds alright, but this guy over here does it 10 times better. Maybe we should try something that's a little different for us. I've tried writing a ton of different kinds of music and this has been the first project I've been happy with.
Band of the Day: I feel like it's so hard to write music and not feel like some one's doing it better, that's a trap you can get into.
Scott: For any sort of artist that’s going to be something that's there, I think being competitive can be very healthy and very unhealthy. Knowing when you're being realistic to yourself and when you're beating yourself up is the true balance. We all came to that decision together, it wasn't like someone said I don't want to do this anymore. All four of us could tell. The minute we were formed and had this new thing going you could tell instantly people were liking this, let's have fun with this. That might be because we got older too and have more maturity and patience.
Band of the Day: Knowing you guys are from San Diego and hearing that tropical-ness to the music I imagine that your lives reflect the music. Do you feel your lifestyle reflects the music, or not really?
Scott: How would you describe the lifestyle you get from the music?
Band of the Day: I think of being on the beach, having huge awesome parties at the pool...
Scott: The lifestyle…we live in a place that's, the weather is paradise here. You wear shorts a ton and stuff, but we're pretty hard working individuals and I mean, I don't know, last year Jeremy and I went to the beach a ton and tried to see who could get more tan that the other. But other than that, it's not like Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville or something. In fact I think we've been pretty, we're one of those really focused bands and we spend most of our time practicing, it's less about the partying for us. It's definitely a carefree sort of vibe in San Diego though. It's a very friendly area.
Band of the Day: Do you have day jobs?
Scott: Yeah we all still have day jobs.
Band of the Day: Hopefully not forever.
Scott: Even if it isn't, it doesn't really matter. Our goal is just to not...we try not to spend any money if that makes sense. Whenever we book a full tour or have tours booked for us it's always with the intention that we don't have to pay out of our pocket. If you view it that way we're doing it for fun, no one of us cares that we haven't made a dime, that's not important to us. We love to tour and we love to make music. So as long as I'm not going into copious amounts of debt for it I'll be happy to do it for a long time.
Band of the Day: Your newest album is called Woman, there's definitely some themes of love and romance, is it therapeutic to write about that kind of stuff?
Scott: Yeah, I think of course it is. It's really hard to deny what's going on subconsciously, all the lyrics of that album were basically, visceral, word of mouth lyrics. It's kind of a weird juxtaposition between music and lyrics if you listen to the lyrics, to me, here's this guy singing about all of his heartache that's he's experienced with this woman, but the backing tracks are up beat and make you want to sit on the beach and drink a margarita out of a coconut. I think it's an interesting pairing of the two. At the time I was seeing whatever came to my mouth. I find that's the easiest way to write songs.
Band of the Day: I was just reading your guys' Facebook and you make some pretty awesome claims about the band such as “Cuckoo Chaos is the Richard Nixon of disco dancing. Cuckoo Chaos is the Henry Ford of Dada.” Who would be the official historical figure of Cuckoo Chaos?
Scott: I don't know that's a tough one there's so many good ones, Mao maybe? When we wrote that bio, it was Jeremy and I having a great time doing it and some of the other guys in the band were like I can't believe you said that! Even Facebook took out some of those things we wrote because they were too over the line. Maybe Albert Camus. He's a pretty cool dude. Final answer, there we go.
Band of the Day: What are you most looking forward to in 2012?
Scott: Touring, we've got some great tours coming up. And we are finishing our next album, which I'm really excited about. That's what we're all really excited about, a new direction that we all decided to go in. We're very happy playing them. We're all just very anxious to release it. We're going to start doing pre-production in early February and hopefully shooting for early summer. It should be a good one.
Band of the Day: Any last thoughts or advice?
Scott: You can't hug with nuclear arms and that's about it. Laugh as much as you can, we're all going to die soon.