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Life in reverse: Josh Wambeke of The Morning Clouds

Wearing a green jacket, loose jeans, sandals, and a pair of oversized sunglasses, Josh Wambeke doesn’t necessarily look like some image-wary indie musician. Instead, he looks like a regular guy — one who wants to relax after a hard day at work. The funny thing is, Wambeke has been unemployed until recently.

In May 2010, he was laid off from his job as an underwriter at a marketing development firm known as The Warranty Group. Around the same time, Wambeke’s main band, Fell, was starting to fall apart. Wambeke was down, but he remained diligent, especially when it came to making music.

By fall 2010, Wambeke started messing around in his home studio. Using nothing more than an electric guitar, a bass, a synthesizer, a drumset and his voice, he recorded a dreamy, catchy six-track EP called Wasted Youth Blues then released it online under the moniker The Morning Clouds. Come spring 2011, his new project was signed to the buzzworthy Lefse Records.

Today, the sun is setting in front of Josh Wambeke as he sits in his backyard and tries to recall how he started playing music. After a few sips of beer and a bite of pizza, Wambeke begins telling a story, only to get distracted by his dogs, Bug and Bella.

As Bug scratches at the leg of Wambeke’s patio chair, Bella looks at him curiously from afar. Noticing this, Wambeke pulls a piece of pepperoni off his slice of pizza and throws it toward the dogs. Then, he looks up with a smirk, acknowledging that he spoils his dogs and that he doesn’t care.

The white Maltese’ chomp away at the sliver of meat and Wambeke gets back to talking about some of the lowlights from his childhood in Bailey, Colo. When Wambeke was 11, his parents got divorced. Then he had to deal with his mom’s boyfriend.

“I caught them making out and that was’ really hard for me,” Wambeke said, humorously noting that, at such a young age, he didn’t want some guy to steal his mom away. Although Wambeke felt bad about his Mom’s new relationship, something positive came from it.

“One weekend, I came home and there he was, all moved in. But he had bought a guitar with him. I used to sit there and strum it. I didn’t know what I was doing,” Wambeke said. “Eventually, one Christmas, I came home and they had bought me an electric guitar and an amp; I was hooked.”

From then on, Wambeke began writing songs and by his freshman year at Platte Canyon high school, he had started his first band, Static Low. After graduating, Wambeke enrolled at Red Rocks community college. During his first semester, he ran into his old childhood friend, Patrick Porter.

“We started talking about music and what we were doing. He was recording under the moniker Phineas Gage and I was really drawn to him because he had this album that was so fucking good,” Wambeke said. Soon, Wambeke and Porter started playing and writing together as a duo.

In 1999, Phineus Gage recorded its first “official” album and shopped it out to some labels, one of which was the now defunct Australian-based imprint, Camera Obscura Records. Unfortunately, by the time Camera Obscura picked up Reconsidered and began distributing the record, Phineas Gage had dissolved.

Wambeke remembers that his musical relationship with Porter was pretty rocky. “He’s just a guy I looked up to,” Wambeke said. “But he constantly accused me of stealing his [creative] identity. We parted ways. After that, basically, my chaotic 20s began. That’s when my drinking days started and the chaos that came with them.”

It was during this tumultuous time that Wambeke, along with a few key musicians, began recording as Fell. Like Phineas Gage, Fell was rather psychedelic. Soon Wambeke’s songwriting got more expansive as he started to experiment with alternate tunings and odd rhythms.

Still, Camera Obscura Records was interested in Wambeke’s experimental sounds. In 2006, the label started distributing Fell’s self-titled debut and ended up releasing the band’s second album, Incoherent Lullabies, as well. Wambeke self-released the third record A Farewell to Echoes and, recently, he has putting the finishing touches on Fell’s final effort.

“Fell — we had a good run man, but you could really tell it was reaching its end,” Wambeke said. “We had reached our pinnacle locally. We could never seem to get together and record. I was getting pissed off, because I didn’t want to sit there and do nothing.” That’s when Wambeke decided to start The Morning Clouds.

Because of the overall quality and emotional depth of The Morning Clouds’ debut, Wambeke immediately found some devoted fans. At the same time, a few Denver-based musicians have turned to Wambeke for studio time.

This past summer, the local pop quartet, Sauna, recorded a tape with Wambeke. CJ Macleod, the band’s guitarist and main songwriter, wanted a good product to sell on the band’s tour in late June. “The first day we met him, without even knowing us, he let us have free reign of the studio and his house. He was super welcoming and warm,” Macleod said. “The final product blew me away the first time I heard it mixed and mastered.”

After one last drag of a cigarette, Wambeke walks inside from his patio, through his kitchen and down the stairs to his studio. The dirty glasses, random blankets and empty beer bottles strewn about Wambeke’s main mixing room show that Wambeke has spent some time here. As he holds down the power button of his sleek desktop iMac and waits for the screen to wake up, Wambeke reaches over each monitor and turns them on like he’s done so many times before.

“I love recording. At least I care about recording,” Wambeke said, before rhetorically asking, “Who wants to work a job?” But out of all the time he’s spent mic-ing up guitar amps or layering vocal tracks, he understands that recording is tough, especially if you don’t have any formal training.

“Recording other artists is one of the hardest things. It will kill your ego because you think you know what you’re doing and then you start recording someone and they’re unhappy with it. Ultimately, I think most of the people I’ve recorded in here have enjoyed their experience and their records,” Wambeke said.

Beyond Sauna, Wambeke has recorded full-length albums, EPs and single tracks for bands like Fingers of the Sun, Hindershot, Girls Walk By and The Don’ts and Be Carefuls. According to Wambeke, who is sort of a homebody anyway, the studio is his habitat; its where wants to be.

The production value of The Morning Clouds debut, as well as the new tracks for an upcoming full-length, proves this sentiment.

Of course, Macleod understands Wambeke’s knack for recording better than anyone. “Listening to the EP, you’d never guess it was only him that wrote and recorded it. I always find it admirable when someone can create an entire work from start to finish solely by himself or herself,” Macleod said.

But Wambeke didn’t want to be a lone wolf forever and, after being signed to Lefse, he assembled a full band to play live. First and foremost, he asked his longtime girlfriend, Lanette Walker, to play keys. Then, he recruited Spencer Alred and John Fate from Hindershot, only to pick up local Journalist, Matt Schild, as his bassist.

From March 13 to 18, the group played at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. Because South by Southwest is one of the largest independent music festivals in the U.S., Wambeke and his bandmates got the chance to rub shoulders with some big PR promoters and major artists.

Tonight, Walker is getting bombarded by her two Maltese as she maneuvers her way through the front door. After she sets down her things on the kitchen counter, she comes back to pet the excited dogs. Walker has been out most the evening nannying and Wambeke needs to start studying for a test he has to take at his new job.

In many ways, the “golden years” of Wambeke’s youth have been reversed. During his 20s and early 30s, he faced some hard times and two failed bands. At 32, he’s become a relatively successful musician who owns a nice house with his girlfriend. The Morning Clouds didn’t build this life, but the music is still a valid part of Wambeke’s existence.

“I’m not trying to make groundbreaking music,” Wambeke explains. “I think a lot of musicians get on this track like, ‘I’ve got to make something groundbreaking.’ You don’t. You’ve just got to make good songs that speak to people.” Honestly, living is what speaks to most people and Wambeke, well, he’s figured out how to write songs that reflect life.

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