For the Seattle trio Cumulus, making music is more about impulse than ambition. Thus when Alexandra Niedzialkowski (vocals, guitar), Lance Umble (guitars, keyboards), and Leah Julius (bass), decided to record, mix, and master their first album, the idea of chasing after labels and waiting for one to pick them up wasn’t an avenue they had much faith or interest in. They turned instead to the close-knit community of friends and fellow artists around them, launching a kickstarter campaign to raise a small amount of money for a self-release. By some incredible coincidence however, their eventual path to its release would soon be aptly described by the debut album’s title, I Never Meant It To Be Like This.
Just a day away from putting in an order for their first 1000 CDs, Chris Walla followed his own impulses and approached the band about releasing the album through his own Trans- Records. It was only by chance that their finished debut made had made it to the ears of the Death Cab For Cutie guitarist/producer through the same community of artist and friends they relied upon. For a band with members who came into adulthood while growing roots in DIY enclaves like the Department of Safety in Anacortes, WA (an all ages venue/art gallery/recording studio where both Niedzialkowski and Umble have lived at one time), one could understand some trepidation when considering the offer. “Whether it be recording, touring, or making merch,” says Umble, “it’s always made the most sense to do everything ourselves and with our friends.”
To Cumulus however the change in trajectory definitely felt meant to be, fully certain that Walla’s interest and enthusiasm were coming from the right place. “We just made this record that he fell in love with,” explains Niedzialkowski, “we don’t have an extensive discography or one million twitter followers, so we know we are more than just a business investment to him, he really believes in us.”
Forever singing to herself and collecting lyrics in scrap books while growing up, Niedzialkowski would truly begin to believe in her own strengths as a song writer and performer after encouragement from mentors at a Rock School summer camp she attended while in high school, and would mentor at herself in the years that followed. She began searching for female voices to look up to, and drew inspiration from the likes of Mirah, Kimya Dawson, and Pretty Girls Make Graves among others. It was during this time that she came to realize her idols were real people, and thus gained the confidence needed to perform her own material. “I could go to a show, and shake their hand, and tell them how much their music meant to me,” she recalls.
Following college in Bellingham, WA Niedzialkowski moved to Seattle where she would link up with Umble. Despite never playing in a band together until that point, the two were well acquainted. They had bonded years earlier in high school over shared interests and strangely similar pasts, both having been born to military families in West Germany in the mid 80s before both moving back to the states at young a age. Umble had spent the past few years playing and touring in different punk and indie rock bands before moving to Seattle himself. It was by fate that they both found themselves new to the city at the same time, and seeking familiarity, they gravitated towards and relied upon each other. The musical collaboration was a natural offshoot of that friendship, and quickly grew into something substantial. “Musically he really balances me out,” says Niedzialkowski, “I’m into pop song structures and he’s great at understanding my tone and intention behind a song, and matching it with guitar tones and lead guitar melodies that bring a new complexity to the music.”
Soon enough the final piece of the puzzle would fall into place for Cumulus when Julius, knowing the band was in need of a bassist, presented herself as one even though she had never played bass in her life. Julius did have experience paying guitar and drums in her own band Sundries, and to her the bass sounded like a compromise between the two. In Niedzialkowski and Umble, Julius found kindred spirits. “On a very basic level,” she relates, “music ties the three of us together as we have common interests and goals for our band, but we also enjoy spending time with each other outside of the band, which definitely brings about a family-like dynamic I haven’t always felt in other groups I’ve played in.” That synergy certainly lent it self to the creative process as well. Julius quickly picked up the parts, and with a rhythm section in place Cumulus were able to achieve the potential of the songs as louder, fully realized compositions. Friends, fans, and music writers in Seattle began to take notice, leading to local acclaim and steadily growing crowds.
Live and during practice the group worked on and tweaked the songs until they felt they were ready to head into the studio, recording at Phil Elverum’s The Unknown in Anacortes. With their friend Nich Wilbur acting as engineer, the band self-produced the record, and through kickstarter raised money to pay for the album to be professionally mixed by Sam Winston (The Lonely Forest), and mastered by TW Walsh (Pedro the Lion, Sufjan Stevens, Damien Jurado). Though far from their original intentions, Cumulus credit the funds raised through kickstarter as being a major reason why the album that eventually made it to Walla was something he took interest in. Only through the support of their friends and fans were they able to afford to make a record, that as Niedzialkowski puts it, “does the songs justice.”
Though plans for their record release have changed, the band’s approach to their art remains the same. “Realizing that playing music wasn’t only for pop and rock stars had a huge impact on me,” says Niedzialkowski. “You never know if your neighbor down the street is writing a record that will change your life. I want people to walk away from our songs and our music feeling inspired to make something of their own too.”