Cliffs figures it out together on new album 'DNA'

It's a Cliffsgiving miracle: the local band will celebrate its long-in-the-works album, recorded in 2018, at Ace of Cups on Saturday, Nov. 27.

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
Columbus band Cliffs

Long ago, during a hot, sweaty, daylong recording session that now feels like a fever dream, Cliffs made its new album, DNA. Plenty of memories linger from that day in June 2018 at Jeremy Ebert’s home studio (aka Jerbil House), but none more than the oppressive heat that defined the sessions as singer/guitarist Aaron Cottrell, singer/bassist Adam Hardy and then-drummer Jason Winner tracked eight songs with engineer/producer Alex Douglas. 

With no fans or air conditioning, Winner’s bare foot kept slipping off the bass drum during recording. Later, the drummer’s sweat soaked through his jeans and infiltrated the cracks of his phone, frying it. At one point, Cottrell and Hardy said they had to take Douglas to Grandview Café for a food and water break to keep him from passing out. “We looked like we had just played a basketball game,” Hardy said. 

In the end, after adding some overdubs and a couple of lo-fi acoustic tracks, Cliffs walked away with DNA, which the scuzz-pop band will celebrate with a release show at Ace of Cups on Saturday, Nov. 27, with new drummer Chris Mengerink and local openers Tetnis and Mukiss. (As is the band's Cliffsgiving custom, entry to the show will be discounted with a canned good.) In addition to cassette copies of DNA, the band will also have a new B-sides and rarities tape for sale.

“We have all these recordings from right before [2015 album] Self Portrait, where it's just Adam and I in our old living room on Fourth Street, and I'm playing an acoustic and Adam is playing a cardboard box for the drums with various other percussion, bells and whistles, quite literally,” Cottrell said in a recent video call with Hardy, who also lamented the gone-but-not-forgotten Val Keyboard, i.e. an old keyboard with a playing card of Val Kilmer as Batman glued to the top. “There are all these recordings that we used to do that are very much rooted in acoustic and weird, lo-fi recording with avant-garde noises and stuff. That sort of vibe has always been a part of Cliffs.”

That vibe carries through to DNA, which features two acoustic tracks with copious tape hiss and found sounds: Hardy’s “IDK” and Cottrell's instrumental pastiche, “Inland.”

“I would be working at the Idea Foundry just staring at my computer all day,” Cottrell said of the genesis of “Inland.” “I found this guitar thing that I had done a while ago and just started finding different samples that I had recorded on my phone from when I went to Europe and other times of my life and started stringing them together while I was at work.” 

“IDK,” on the other hand, resulted from late-night inspiration. “I was going through some weird shit at 3 a.m., and something struck me,” Hardy said. “I was like, you know what? I'm going to try to record a song on my phone that sounds like it's not on a phone, but sounds more like it's early Elephant Six or early Elliott Smith — those old lo-fi recordings where nowadays you can do that on a phone because your phone is more powerful than any of the recording equipment they had back in the early ’90s.”  

The rest of DNA features the loud guitars, big drums, shout-along choruses and rumpled pop melodies for which Cliffs is known. Some of the songs, such as leadoff track “Block out the Sun/City Life” and “Radio,” are several years old, which prompted the bandmates to reflect on previous eras of their lives.

“I see a person whose life was kind of chaotic. Their mind was a lot more chaotic and directionless. What I think of now when I hear ‘Block Out the Sun’ is, like, you're blocking out something that could be potentially useful to yourself in order to stay in a more stagnant position,” Cottrell said. “Maybe I didn't even see that when I wrote it.” 

“Radio” dates back to Hardy’s college days, when he wrote the song after a frustrating philosophy class. “There was this person in class I just didn't like, so I kind of wrote it in spite of that person, pretty much calling them nothing,” Hardy said, quoting the first line of the song: “So being something is nothing/Or it's just how you perceive it/Because if something was nothing/Well that'll make something out of you.” 

“It's a nice little pat on the back, but at the same time a jab with a knife,” Hardy said, noting how the song has slowed and become more pensive and Tweedy-esque over the years. "The pace that we play it now and the way that we do it, it's a lot more Wilco-ian. Papa Jeff would be proud about this version.” 

Cliffsloquialisms like "Papa Jeff," "Cliffsgiving," "Val Keyboard" and other amalgams all fit nicely into Cliffs’ “weirdos making art” aesthetic, which has grown even more varied on DNA (including a ’90s-throwback hidden track that incorporates both Satan and Lou Barlow). “This record is a lot more eclectic than past things,” Hardy said. 

“I think there are elements of both Adam and I that are undeniable in this recording, but then there are also very Cliffs moments that are the two of us ... working in cohesion and figuring it out together,” Cottrell said. “Calling it DNA just made sense. The double helix.”