Shock and awe consumed me while my eyes drifted back and forth across the artwork for Piranha Rama’s third album, Omniscient Cloud Cover. When I first listened to the new record, I was doing some chores around the house, and I had it on to experience it as the average listener might: passively. On my next run, I sat down in front of my laptop to have a cup of coffee and a joint while focusing my attention, so that I may give the music the dissection that it deserves.
The album opens with the deceptive track “DAYLIGHT.” What masks itself as some pretty traditional psychedelia — affected vocals, reverb guitars, and some tasteful use of the occasional flute — lulls the listener into a false sense of security about the nature of the album to come. Meanwhile, deep in the back of the mix, a steel guitar cuts through, giving a taste of what is to come.
Within the first two seconds of the next track, “A DOOR,” it has become blatantly clear that Piranha Rama will pull no punches, as that same steel guitar hiding itself behind the psychedelia jumps into center stage. While it wouldn’t sound out of place at a hoedown, “A DOOR” serves as a signal to the listener to either prepare oneself for the occasional punch to the face, or to get out of the way.
What follows are a number of well-made psychedelic tracks like “WATER, YOU THINKING” and “PLACATE,” interspersed with some truly shocking left hooks. During “GOLDEN BLUES,” listeners will find themselves in the middle of a horn-driven dance number that unconsciously inspires hip gyration, to an almost disco-reminiscent drum beat. Another shocker is the country-and-western-inspired tune “RABBIT MOON,” once again featuring that steel guitar. This time, though, the listener is led in a march on the snare drum, and a perfect replication of mariachi-style trumpet melody flowing just behind the vocal line.
Bringing it all back around, Piranha Rama wrap up the album with another well rounded psychedelic tune, “TIME BEING.” Serving almost as a bookend, this track reminds the listener of where they started and ties a nice bow at the end of what is a whirlwind of a listening experience. Even as it does so, it states clearly and loudly that this record is, at its core, pure psychedelia.
Astounded by the work, I scheduled an interview to speak to a few members of Piranha Rama about this new endeavor. We gathered on the lawn of the VMFA on a beautiful August afternoon that was perhaps just a little too hot. I set up in the shade of their garden, in sight of the Neptune statue, while next to me a waterfall cascaded over black slate pouring into the reflecting pool outside the Best Cafe patio. I gathered my notes and got my recorder ready while two girls behind me contemplated love in the wake of one of them having gone through a very empowering breakup.
First to arrive was John Sizemore, the bearded mastermind behind this newest album, providing multiple things, mainly guitar, to the band’s mix. We chatted amiably for a few minutes before we were finally able to get a hold of singer and lyricist Chrissie Lozano over FaceTime. She was sitting on a beach in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, looking very relaxed in her straw hat. A few minutes later, the band’s drummer, Tim Falen, sauntered up, and we were able to begin in earnest and talk a little bit about their backgrounds.
Falen began his career in music at the age of 14, when he performed percussion in middle school band while playing punk songs for himself on a full kit at home. He later came to Richmond with a group called The Diamond Center, who moved here in 2009 from Austin, Texas so that the lead singer could pursue her graduate work at VCU. After she finished, the band moved back, but Falen decided to stay, and has been playing in Richmond ever since. His post-Diamond Center resume includes bands like Hot Dolphin and Lady God. He met Lozano while the two of them were playing in the latter.
Lozano grew up in a religiously musical family. After noticing that the church band was where people were having the most fun, she decided to pursue that path. However, church band eventually ebbed away as she began joining punk bands in high school. Sizemore began playing guitar at the age of 15, learning Creedence Clearwater Revival songs by ear with his friends, and cut his teeth in the surf-punk-esque Richmond band Milkstains.
Coalescing under the name of Piranha Rama in 2017, the group quickly began releasing music and have since put out two albums with the project. Their third, Omniscient Cloud Cover, is set for release on September 30th, and will feature some of the most prolific horn players in Richmond. With names like trombonist Reggie Pace (NO! BS Brass, Hiss Golden Messenger), saxophonist Gordon “Saxman” Jones (Corey Harris, Oregon Hill Funk All-Stars), and trumpeter Bob Miller (Bio Ritmo, The Mountain Goats), Piranha Rama is poised to become a towering ensemble in the Richmond music scene.
With such an experienced team and such a long history of playing music in Richmond, the three members of Piranha Rama had a lot to say about the way the local music scene has changed over the course of two decades. Said Falen, “Richmond goes in cycles; you know, sometimes it’s crazy and there’s a ton of stuff going on. Sometimes there’s a real lack of venues and everyone does house shows. But I think it’s really a big core group of people that just continue to make cool stuff happen.”
Falen also noted the hard-working nature of players in Richmond. Since the scene is so small yet devoted, he said, you may see the same players all over town. I told them about my conversation with Reggie Pace at the beginning of the summer, and how half the people I’ve interviewed have worked with him, and everyone knows him. “In my heyday I was definitely doing that more,” commented Falen, “but I’ve been trying to chill out and not play in six bands at a time.”
While Omniscient Cloud Cover is undeniably a psychedelic rock album, many different genres and influences poke their heads in and out to give the whole record an unpredictable air. This serves as a reflection of the unpredictable nature of music in Richmond as a whole. When I asked Sizemore about the phenomenon, he said, “I get really bored with trying to do the same thing over and over again.”
What almost certainly adds to this desire to change things up is the proximity to both VCU and the thriving local arts and music scene that exists separate from the university. These scenes lends themselves to eclecticism and spontaneity that bleeds into the original music being created here. “You have the jazz talent and the symphonic talent in the city,” said Lozano. “When they start crossing into those grittier spaces, some really creative stuff happens.”
With such a varied palette, I wanted to know if the whirlwind of genres was an active choice by the band, or if they were the product of an unforeseen force moving Piranha Rama according to its will. When I asked if he felt that he had control over the band’s sound, Sizemore laughed, flabbergasted, and responded, “Wow… I don’t know!”
Lozano stepped in once again to shine some light on this. “I think there’s just so many influences that everyone is bringing in,” she said. “With eight people listening to so many different kinds of music, it definitely takes on a life of its own.”
Falen countered with a different perspective. “I think we definitely have control over the sound,” he said. “We put everything in there intentionally. I think it is a reflection of the members of the band; the past stuff we’ve done, or what we’re looking to do. I don’t think any of us listen to the same music. We’re just kind of all over the place all the time, and I think that comes out naturally in the music.”
With the release of Omniscient Cloud Cover Piranha Rama has three albums under their belt, and only three singles. The focus for the group is clearly on entire records and not single tracks, despite the more lucrative nature and digestibility that comes along with singles. As most bands these days shift focus to that market, I asked why they continued to collect and release their music in such an old-fashioned way. “Who doesn’t love an album you can just put on and there are no skippers?” asked Sizemore.
Lozano followed up by pointing out that any attempt to pick “the single” in advance is always a gamble, while albums are able to hang together as a larger work. “I like the way you can build a flow. And maybe you know in the beginning which songs are gonna stand out, or maybe not.”
The process most bands go through to record an album follows a pretty standard rubric: write some songs, play them live, workshop, book studio time, lay the tracks down, mix, master, and release. This wasn’t the case with Omniscient Cloud Cover, though. Instead, the band took a fascinatingly unusual approach. The process began at the beginning of quarantine in 2020, when Sizemore started writing and recording a series of instrumental tracks with no real plan in mind. “When I started making it… I didn’t know what it was going to be,” said Sizemore. “I didn’t know if it was going to be a Piranha Rama record, so I was just trying to make something that felt comforting,”
He began playing around with different instrumental tracks that he was recording in his kitchen. “The first song started with playing a choir patch on the keyboard that was just a C for a really long time, and I was like, ‘This is really cool,’” said Sizemore. “I just zoned out for ten minutes, and I thought, ‘Maybe I could do something with this weird thing.’ Then I threw an arpeggiator on it and built it up that way… It turned into a weird process where I wanted every song to have that feel or vibe; something that felt comforting.” After fleshing out the tracks at his home studio, dubbed The Bat Grave, the band took the developing tracks to the Virginia Moonwalker, where they finished the recording.
Lozano explained her process of writing lyrics this way. “I spent a couple months with this music and just listened to it… and if a song jumped out, I would imagine a phrase that would be part of that song, and then it sort of just went from there,” she said. “When I felt like I had something solid I would send John a photo, and I’m like, ‘What about these lyrics for the song?’”
“She doesn’t really need much help with that stuff,” Sizemore commented, laughing.
Omniscient Cloud Cover is a chameleon of an album, shifting from one thought and idea to the next seamlessly. While acting on the will of an ever-changing musical direction, the members of Piranha Rama have a maestro-like control over their sound once they arrive at their destination. What comes out of this strange dichotomy is a vicious party, shifting from one thought and idea to the next in a way that keeps the listener guessing. In retrospect, though, it all makes perfect sense.
Top Photo by Lauren Serpa