Want to get away?
As the COVID-19 pandemic set in, John Sizemore sure did. The Piranha Rama guitarist and co-founder, who is immunocompromised, searched for a musical escape from life in lockdown. “I was definitely looking for something to take me away from the current state,” he remembers.
So began “Omniscient Cloud Cover,” an eight-song Piranha Rama offering out Sept. 30 on Pavement percussionist Bob Nastanovich’s Brokers Tip Records. Colorful and collaborative, the album provides a genre-expansive psych-pop escape while showing how to cut a path, one step at a time, through difficulty. “A lot of it’s got an idea of a walking pace, or just trying to keep moving forward,” he says. “The whole album kind of moves in a weird way together, and plays up that idea of a walking pace, or a heart BPM.”
Co-founding bassist and vocalist Chrissie Lozano boils it down this way in “Placate,” the album’s first single: “Everyone knows when there’s a disaster / You listen for the heartbeat.”
Lozano’s embrace of Sizemore’s ambling approach wasn’t just metaphorical; she was literally traveling on foot as she put words to a set of initial instrumental explorations, which Sizemore captured solo at his studio, the Bat Grave. “I spent most of the early lockdown days looking for places to run,” she says. “My mom lives on the Outer Banks, all the way down in Frisco, and so we would go visit her once that was OK. I’d go to these desolate beaches and listen to the headphones and find new threads [to follow].”
In “Gold in the Sand,” which would be a sonic fit for the closing credits of a Quentin Tarantino film, the sand becomes a symbol of its own — of our collective insignificance in the grand scheme of time. “I love the whole world of that song,” Lozano says. “It really is someplace else. I [wrote] in the voice of a rock that gets panned… from the perspective of a piece of gold that’s like, ‘Dude, y’all find minerals in the ground. You act like pieces of sh— to each other. I’ve been here for a million years. What are you gonna do?’”
The song’s otherworldliness gets a boost from Lauren Serpa’s flute and Stephen Kuester’s pedal steel, elements that were added after Lozano tracked her vocals and it was time to have “a little extra fun,” as Sizemore puts it. Supplemental recording took place at the Virginia Moonwalker studio run by Russell Lacy, who helped with engineering and contributed vocals and harmonica. Sizemore speaks glowingly of Lacy: “Just a great guy to have around. He’s always excited.”
Piranha Rama is known for its all-star session contributors and live show regulars. While it started in 2017 with a smaller membership, a pivotal early show at Strange Matter with an expanded lineup set the group on the course it’s on now. “It was only supposed to be for that one night,” Lozano notes, “but it was so electric that everybody said, ‘Let’s do it this way all the time.’ And that really changed everything.”
In addition to fellow co-founder Tim Falen on drums, that Strange Matter set featured a number of the players who appear on the new album, including jazz singer Kenneka Cook — “She’s been the rock,” Lozano says — saxophonist Gordon Jones, trombonist Reggie Pace and trumpet player Bob Miller. Jones’ sax gives “Placate” a dreamy, drifting quality, and Miller’s performance on “Rabbit Moon,” weaves Ennio Morricone-style Western soundtrack magic. Horns are also a highlight on “Golden Blues,” the energetic peak of “Omniscient Cloud Cover.” Its punchy hooks and rocket ship of a bridge section are tailor-made for Piranha Rama’s strengths as live act, where it seems like anything is possible.
In the album’s early stages, amid the restrictions of pandemic life, the possibilities were much more limited. During that time, Lozano found parallels in a 2019 fantasy novel by Alix E. Harrow titled “The Ten Thousand Doors of January.” It’s the story of a girl who discovers doors to alternate worlds, and who fights to keep them open while others aim to close them. “It’s just this beautiful story,” she says. “I read it when all of the doors were closed to us, suddenly, and it had this huge impact on my creative thinking. I would dream every night about doorless rooms and things, and I couldn’t get it out of my head.”
Those images made their way onto “Omniscient Cloud Cover” in the form of “A Door,” the album’s propulsive second track. “Find another one,” she repeats, aligning the lyrics’ imaginative exploration with Sizemore’s determined, walking cadence. That pairing now seems prescient, with COVID restrictions continuing to ease and Piranha Rama pushing forward toward some momentum-generating live performances. In addition to the album’s Oct. 5 release show at Fuzzy Cactus, they’re booked for a short string of out-of-town October dates opening for Pavement in Atlanta and Austin. It’s still sinking in for Lozano that she’ll be sharing a stage with the indie rock legends: “Sometimes I think, ‘Wow, this is happening. I don’t know what to do.’ And then I say, ‘Smile and be glad.’ It’s a really great opportunity we’ve been given, and we all want to do a good job.”
Lozano was instrumental in navigating the band toward Pavement’s orbit. Bob Nastanovich lived in Richmond when he was growing up, and Lozano got to know him as a friendly face in recent years at spots like Strange Matter and Bamboo Cafe, where Lozano has worked since she moved to Richmond more than two decades ago. After Piranha Rama released the 2019 album, “You’ve Earned It,” Lozano grabbed a cassette copy from her backpack and handed it to Nastanovich on his way out of Bamboo.
“I said, ‘Hey, take this with you!’ He contacted us within, probably, days, and wanted to put something out. It’s nice to have been offered a home [at Brokers Tip].” Piranha Rama’s first release for the label was a seven-inch vinyl single featuring two “You’ve Earned It” tracks: “Brenda (Breakdown)” and “Cheat Sheet.” “To have a formal single out there in the classic sense is really special,” Lozano says. “You follow in the footsteps of the greats, to put out your best showing on something that’s more tactile and is more design forward.”
“Omniscient Cloud Cover” will get a vinyl pressing of its own, and Lozano is cooking up new merch for the fall: coffee mugs and hair clips to complement more conventional offerings, such as t-shirts and stickers. She’s excited about those, and about “going on the road with my friends — seeing how well we can stand each other shoved into a toaster oven together. I haven’t been out like that in a long time.”
“It’s keeping me going for sure,” Sizemore says of the upcoming gigs. And as we know, when John Sizemore keeps moving, good music follows.
“Omniscient Cloud Cover” is out Sept. 30 on Brokers Tip Records. To hear “Placate,” visit piranharama.bandcamp.com. Piranha Rama will be performing a release show at Fuzzy Cactus on Oct. 5 with other artists to be announced. For more information visit fuzzycactusrva.com.