Cumulus is Alone, Together

Published October 9, 2013

LEFT TO RIGHT: ALEXANDRA NIEDZIALKOWSKI, LANCE UMBLE, AND LEAH JULIUS. PHOTO COURTESY OF BENJAMIN LINDBLOOM.

“I like to say that I write pop songs, but that we are a rock band,” singer Alexandra Niedzialkowski explains of her three-person band, Cumulus. “I usually say indie-pop with rock somewhere in the description,” concurs bass player Leah Julius. Based in Washington state, the trio released their first album, I Never Meant it to Be Like This, last week. “The title of the record comes from the song ‘Wanderlust,'” offers the 25-year-old. “The end of the song is, ‘We are alone in this together,’ so it’s the perfect track to describe us.”

This week, Niedzialkowski, Julius, and their bandmate Lance Umble are embarking on their first tour: an impressive 27 dates across the US with The Lonely Forest. Fortunately for the trio, they didn’t have to scramble for shows.  “It was an amazing first tour offer,” says Niedzialkowski. “They had already booked all of the shows, so we never had to go through the emailing a million venues.”

We spoke with all three members as they prepared to leave Seattle via phone.

EMMA BROWN: How did the three of you meet—through school?

LEAH JULIUS: No, I met Alex and Lance at a Bruce Springsteen cover night at a local coffee shop in Seattle. They had known each other for a long time, though.

BROWN: What Springsteen songs did you sing?

ALEXANDRA NIEDZIALKOWSKI: Leah was playing with her group, and I was playing with mine, and we were playing “Atlantic City” and “I’m Goin’ Down,” and I think we played a really sad one about the guy getting hit by a car on the highway but I don’t remember what it was called. That was the ballad one. There were two Bruce Springsteen tribute nights and we went to both of them because they were so awesome. But we met at the first one, and then we ended up playing together on the second one. Leah, what was your band playing the [first] night?

JULIUS: I think we did play. We played “Bobby Jean,” and I’ll try to think of the other.

BROWN: Are you Bruce Springsteen fans?

NIEDZIALKOWSKI: I’m a really big Bruce Springsteen fan. I haven’t gotten too deep into his catalog—I really fell in love with the record Nebraska. A couple years ago, I started getting really into Jason Molina. He put out pretty much my favorite record of all time called Pyramid Electric Co. It was when I really started getting into really, really sad stuff that was just so good that I discovered Nebraska, and it kind of blew my mind because I’d always kind of assumed that Bruce Springsteen was “Born in the U.S.A.” anthems. I didn’t realize [there is] this dark somber song side of him too. I actually got really into reading any kind of biography about Bruce Springsteen because he’s really a great guy. I think he’s patriotic in a really intelligent way. He seems like a real person who plays because he loves it. I’m a fan of his songwriting and a fan of what he represents.

BROWN: Leah, was your band angry that Alex and Lance stole you between the first and second cover nights?

JULIUS: They didn’t steal me; I kind of stole them, in a way. They weren’t angry. At this point, I think they are just happy for me. I kind of scouted out Alex and Lance. I saw them play that night and I was really impressed, and I went a couple weeks later to see their full band at the Columbia City Theater, which is just this really awesome old theater in Seattle. I became determined to get myself in the band somehow. I started pestering Alex. It turned out their drummer and their bass player were both leaving, and I played drums in my other band, but that didn’t really work out, so then I was like, “Oh, I can play bass too,” which was a lie at the time. Alex said, “Okay, you can try it out.” So the next day I went and bought a bass and I learned a bunch of the songs. Alex and I got together, and I learned enough that she was like, “Yeah, this could work.”

BROWN: When did you ‘fess up to not having played the bass before?

JULIUS:  I don’t remember—a while ago, I think.

NIEDZIALKOWSKI:  She really could have gotten away with not telling me. Leah’s the kind of person, when she has her mind set on something, she’ll work really hard for it. I wouldn’t have even known that she had just picked up the bass. But she already plays guitar and drums, and she’s just super talented, so I think the bass came pretty naturally too.

BROWN: How did you get into music? Are your families musical?

JULIUS: No, my parents weren’t musical. My older brothers played music when I was growing up, which is what got me interested in it. I played in bands in high school and then I went off to college and I studied political science, grad school for a Master’s in public administration, and I was going to law school. I had taken music off my radar for quite a few years. When I moved back to Seattle, I met my friends who are in my other band called Sundries, and it reignited my musical fire. Law school will always be there—I can go to law school in 10 years, and it’s not going to make any difference.

BROWN: What about you, Alex?

NIEDZIALKOWSKI: My dad is one of those people who played music, and always wished that he did more of it. He bought me a drum set when I was 16, and that was my first instrument. In college, when I started playing the guitar and writing songs, I got a new drum set for the first time and was able to give my old drum set to my dad. Now my dad jams out in the garage with his. I think my dad’s inspired by the fact that I’m playing music, which is really cool. My dad was always bringing me to concerts—that was our thing. We would go to concerts and music festivals together all the time, so he raised me to have an appreciation of live music. My dad actually did go on tours—he was the roadie for The New York Dolls back in the ’70s, but he doesn’t like to talk about it very much. I guess it was not a very fun experience for him. Those guys must have been really hard to be around. He went to Woodstock on his motorcycle; he’s totally the coolest dad ever. He’s very proud of me and really excited that I’m playing music, and he likes to come to all of our shows and he knows all of the words.

BROWN: How do you get to be a roadie for The New York Dolls?

NIEDZIALKOWSKI: I don’t now. He’s was kind of a big, buff guy at the time. He was working general security for concerts and stuff in New York. I think something just happened where one of their roadies dropped off and he hopped on.

LANCE UMBLE: Hey! Sorry I’m late.

BROWN: I was just asking Alex and Leah if they came from musical families. Do you, Lance?

UMBLE: I think that my dad played drums in his high school marching band, but that’s all. So really no, not really at all. Or at  not in a way that ever really influenced me as a kid.

BROWN: Do you write all of your songs together?

UMBLE: With this record, we all came in around songs that Alex wrote prior to the band getting together. The record was developed over the course of the year, rearranged and expanded on with a full band in the studio just adding more instrumentation, things of that sort. Alex comes to the table with a pretty clear vision of the song, and then we hash it out to make it into a Cumulus song.

NIEDZIALKOWSKI: I have a vision as far as I write the lyrics and have, “This is the verse, and this is the chorus.” I don’t really have as good of a vision of what a complete band song sounds like, and Lance and Leah really help bring that to the table. I never wanted to be a singer-songwriter; I was just doing that out of necessity because I hadn’t found people to play with yet. So I was writing these songs and playing them by myself, but I really wanted to be in a rock band. I feel really fortunate that I found a group of people who can bring out these parts of my songs that I didn’t even know were possible. That’s what a band helps do.

BROWN: Did you not want to be a singer-songwriter because of the sound or because there is a negative image attached to that label?

NIEDZIALKOWSKI: I guess I’ve always had a difficult relationship with it. I really like a lot of singer-songwriters, and I listen to a lot of that, but especially being a female musician, I just didn’t want to be seen as just making “pretty” music. It’s something that sucks that I even have to think about it. I wanted to be louder and weirder than what my own technical abilities were allowing me to do with just a guitar. I’ve always wanted to be in a band. I was just waiting for the right combination and it happened.

BROWN: Were you in bands in high school?

NIEDZIALKOWSKI:  I just did booking, I didn’t start playing music actively until I was 18 or 19.

UMBLE: I saw Alex play a talent show in Oak Harbor once.

NIEDZIALKOWSKI: Yeah, that was my senior year of high school. I went to a rock camp at the Vera Project in Seattle, and I went to go and play the drums because that was my passion at the time. I took a singing class, and the person teaching it was like “You can sing—you should do that.” I was like, “What? Nobody has ever told me that.” [laughs]. I wrote my own song and then I played it at my high school talent show and Lance was there and John van Deusen of The Lonely Forest was there.

BROWN: Can you tell me a little bit about your song “Hey Love”?

NIEDZIALKOWSKI: It’s about me having a crush on a best friend and then not knowing what to do about it—a confession that I would never actually tell the person because it can never go into that territory. But [then song is also] about the feelings just sneaking up when you least expect it and being young and finding yourself in new cities and feeling kind of lonely. The lyrics are quite literal. I guess the song is just a shy, roundabout way of saying, “We should hang out more often, because every time I’m around you I am happy.”

BROWN: Are you worried your friend will realize that the song is about them?

NIEDZIALKOWSKI: I don’t think they’ll ever know, and that’s okay with me. [laughs] That’s one of those songs, too, where the verse came to me a year before I even finished the song from a completely separate situation. I was thinking I want to write a call-and-response song, with a guy and a girl singer and somebody will be like, [sings] “Hey, you said you were so lonely” and then somebody else going, [sings] “I’ll make you less lonely.” [laughs] It was totally this different idea than what it ended up becoming. A year later, I found myself in a situation where I was falling head over heels for a friend of mine.

UMBLE: It sounds like it could be a Les Paul and Mary Ford song.

I NEVER MEANT IT TO BE LIKE THIS IS OUT NOW. CUMULUS ARE CURRENTLY TOURING THE U.S., FOR MORE INFORMATION, VISIT THE BAND’S WEBSITE.