I arrived in Santa Fe last week to say goodbye. I started the trip with my dear friend Rochelle, and ended it with friends I didn’t realize I was so connected to. Those friends play music together, in a small room on the south side of town. They laugh and experiment and smirk and concentrate, and what comes out the other side is a song, typically with a name someone meant as a joke.
I’ve been photographing Cloacas for a year and a half. We met at Meow Wolf‘s opening night, as if by predestination. I was one of thousands of people all discovering this massive installation, without hype or expectation. And there they were, playing a strange, deserty-gypsy-folky-droney instrumental, in the center of the whole thing. Not only were they making my kind of music; not only was it the perfect music for that space at that moment (I haven’t since seen so many people writhing at a Cloacas show, which is a shame); but it imprinted on me.
I’ve been back to Meow Wolf a half-dozen times, and it’s never been the same. I even shot Cloacas there again, earlier this year. That band, in that place, at that moment, was a prismatic experience for me. Strange and approachable music was happening, in an even stranger-but-still-approachable place, and everyone was into it. Someone had pierced normal, broken it into a dozen constituent colors… and I was there.
I had my camera with me, so I shot. I was taken with their perfect getup. Damon’s endless mustache, which couldn’t have been grown for one show alone, and Sabrina’s blue hair. Johnny’s second-to-the-ringleader’s shock of a pompadour. Lenore’s black lacy-shouldered dress (to match Sabrina’s), and banana-shaped maraca. Ben’s little fedora, sleeves rolled up, and confidently undone top. And Michael’s full suit, minus the jacket, breaking his drumsticks as he pounded from the front-center of the stage. I couldn’t name it until last week, but they looked like the Caterpillar’s house band, playing on a leaf at the center of Alice’s Wonderland.
More accurately, the music was curling around the corners, seeking me before I saw them, but I’ll tell you this story as I remember it. Strange, melodic, ingenious, full of trap-doors and hidden cubbyholes. Everyone contributing just the right amount. Just listen. Their self-description is pretty accurate, too:
Cloacas composes the imagined folk music of a fictional country…. A tiny mountain orchestra in a wooden box with rusty hinges. Listening to Cloacas is like traveling sideways in time.
As always, I went out of my way to shoot every member of the band. Everyone had both heels dug in, but when Ben saw me leaning over a railing to make his portrait, he straightened up, threw his whole back into his bass. After the show, Johnny made a picture of the audience, and I gave him my card.
A few months later, I was shooting them under the heat at Fanta Se DomeFest. (Damon now says when he saw me that afternoon he thought I was going to accost him. Then he realized I was there to make him famous.) We all chatted after the show, and I felt like I was making new friends.
And that’s how it went. They’d play three shows in Albuquerque; I’d shoot three shows in Albuquerque. Every time we got together, I’d chat a while with someone different. Ben and I talking cameras. Lenore and I talking our love of New Mexico. Sabrina and I talking puppet-making and her years as a theater tech. Damon and I talking puppet-making and ambient music. Johnny and I talking touring dreams. Michael and I talking high-end audio (and those drumsticks, which he breaks every show!). And me, always talking about how much I loved their band.
It makes sense our last time together (this go-round) would be our most intimate. I’d stayed at Sabrina and Damon’s a night once before, earlier this year. This time I came for rehearsal. It’s hard to describe exactly what happened. This is, in part, because Johnny brought me a six-pack.
Really small. And really dark. They played a few songs, got warmed up. It was like listening to a record on the best sound system of my life. All those years with my ear tipped up, imagining a band playing in a particular room, the influences of the wood and the windows, the sight lines and echoes, and here I was, listening in genuine surround sound. Then they asked what I wanted to hear. I realized while I know their music really well, I don’t reliably know a single track title. So they became my own, living, Cloacas jukebox.
They broke out a new song, demoed a few weeks before on Johnny’s iPhone. They played it a few times, and I wish I could’ve recorded that. For a band, recording everything is a waste; you’d never make time to go back to those iterations, extract the good bits, and stitch it all into place (unless you’re Mark Hollis). But for a fan, a couple of recordings of a piece in progress… well, that’s a special rock you found at a special time in a special place.
At one point, someone missed a few notes. One by one, the instruments started falling out of the mix, a cascade in reverse, everyone chuckling at themselves and one another. And for a moment, only Sabrina was playing. Then everyone seemed to look at her without looking at her, and came back in within a measure. Put aside how it sounded (which was beautiful, almost choreographed). It was a magic moment. A prism. The folks in Cloacas—Cloaqueños, we decided—love playing with one another. The roots of their musical family are profound. I told them they should do that very thing on stage, whenever they feel it. That, there, was my demo. That was my special rock.
We took a break. Ate the creamiest ice cream I’ve ever eaten, courtesy of Ben. Ate red chile chocolate-infused honey, and green chile pistachio-infused honey, courtesy of me. And Damon told me how strange it felt to have a camera pressed in his face while he played. That it was only reminding himself I was the person wielding it that helped him return to the music.
Thank you for your trust, friends.
They played more. Midnight passed, and one by one, we hugged goodbye. I caught the train home the next morning, went back to packing.
Yesterday, I sent these photographs to Johnny. He wrote back last night, and I cried. I’ll miss you a lot, friends. You gave me a small and special thing I’ll never forget. I hope against hope you get the recognition you deserve… and it tours you right to Boston.