I am high off this surprise Solange release but I’m doubling down and giving you the next installment of the Love Lion Interview Series! In anticipation of his album due out this month on Captured Tracks, I chatted with Chris Cohen about the themes and influences for his self-titled album. He also talks about about 80s music, engineering/producing music for Rodrigo Amarante and Weyes Blood, and his Gibson SG.
These questions came together pretty quickly. The singles I heard sounded simple and refreshing and I was keen to know more about how it was made. Chris agreed to chat and sent the record over along with a portrait with a wide grin.
Songs on the album are airy and spacious and are allowed to stand embellished but not overplayed. “House Carpenter” is decidedly slower paced and spaced in a Beach Boys-find-eastern-religion kind of way which slips seamlessly into the burnt’ guitar musings and tack piano of “Twice In A Lifetime.” “What Can I Do,” whether intentional or not, has a hint of “Choice of Colors” by The Impressions. With a bright and 70s am radio quality, I have been humming it for days.
There is an understated complexity on Chris Cohen, and as we discuss below, an equally complex relationship that was the inspiration for the record.
Want more? Read other interviews in this series here. *
Q People may know you from your work with Deerhoof, Ariel Pink, or producing for Weyes Blood. What did you contribute to those recordings?
On Weyes Blood’s Front Row Seat to Earth I was co-producer with Natalie. I played drums and worked with her on basic arrangements and vocals.
With Ariel Pink I filled on in guitar between Cole and Joe’s times. We rehearsed for like a month and then played one show right when Before Today came out. Also my voice is somewhere in the backup vocals of “Round and Round” from that album.
Deerhoof I’m on the albums Apple’O, Milkman, Green Cosmos, and Runners Four playing guitar, bass and singing. I wrote some of the material and we all had a hand in the recording and production side of it. It was very collaborative but some songs I wrote for are “Panda Panda Panda,” “Rrrright,” “Scream Team,” and “Odyssey."
Q You have a studio in L.A. In addition to recording your own music, are their any recent projects or sessions you are excited about?
Yeah, I’m very excited about the work I did with Rodrigo Amarante, also with Charlie Hilton, Sam Evian, Camila Webb, Itasca, and Gun Outift. There’s another artist I’ve been working with recently, his project doesn’t have a name but its kind of a mix of Johnny Cash, Raw Power-era Stooges and Suicide. That's been cool to work on.
Q Seeing you perform live recently, you play guitar and sing. Do you miss playing drums in a live setting?
I really do. I want to play every instrument but drums is my favorite. I just gave up singing and drumming for now because my voice isn’t good enough that way. But drums is my first instrument and probably what I’m most interested in.
Q You’re committed to the Gibson SG. Is there a story behind that preference and your guitar?
That’s funny, yeah I guess I’m committed. I always wanted one because of Leigh Stephens from Blue Cheer. I had a knock-off as a kid which I loved and then Satomi [Matsuzaki] in Deerhoof had a real one that I’d play sometimes and I just felt very connected. I love being able to go way up high and they’re so light and they look so cool. They don’t hum and they’re easy to play. I look at it and just want to play it.
Reading this back it sounds like a commercial. Actually, I’d play whatever. But I love my guitar.
Q Have you worked with your recording band of Katy Davidson (Dear Nora), Luke Csehak (Happy Jawbone Family Band), Zach Phillips, and saxophonist Kasey Knudsen in the past?
Wow, that would be an amazing band. They’ve never played together that I know of - Katy, Luke and Zach wrote lyrics but didn’t play on the album. They’re all excellent players though - I wish!
Kasey Knudsen and I had never done anything together but my old touring bandmate Michael Coleman introduced us and I love her sound so I asked her to overdub on a couple songs. Jay Israelson (current keyboardist in my band) and her collaborated on the arrangements. Kasey has a beautiful classic kind of vibrato and she’s an incredible improviser.
Q Chris Cohen, your self-titled 3rd full-length, is noted as being a “conclusion of an unofficial cycle.” Was this intentional or something you realized with hindsight?
Something in hindsight. They’re made in a similar way, I built up the arrangements myself and played drums. But with each of them I grew increasingly tired of being an OCD, pro tools loner so they became a little more collaborative and I think less fussy. They’re related lyrically as well. They’re songs about people and their connections to each other, a lot about my family.
Q This album is rooted in personal subjects such as your parents marriage and recent divorce. (You’ve said, “for me it was like being relieved of a great burden, like my life could finally begin.”) Is this a joyful record? If there was a theme, what would it be?
Joyful, maybe at times but I think its mostly like a feeling of relief. Its not care-free or celebrating kind of music.
For a theme I’d say ‘acceptance’ - just looking at myself and what’s around me without too much judgement.
In the past, I was very caught up in the burden of my father’s addictions and secrecy. It was hard to talk about and super taxing to deal with. I had to separate myself from him in order to really function properly. It’s still a struggle to be able to discuss that situation in a way that doesn’t seem trivializing or unfair. But my parents’ divorce has helped me disengage from that and I’m able to do more now. I hope to be more available to the people and things I care about.
Q You've referenced Pat Metheny’s ‘Falcon and the Snowman’ soundtrack and Thomas Dolby’s ‘Golden Age of Wireless’ as influences on the record. Are you generally inspired by not just 80s music but the (music) technology and environment of art at the time?
I like all eras but I’ve been thinking about that one a lot lately. As far as mainstream music I think of the mid-80’s as like the beginning of the end. To try and explain :
I imagine that time as a sort of peak of music technology and the music economy. Like all the best gear was still around and people knew how to use it from decades of experience, lots of hit-type music had interesting chord changes, and what I think of as classic melodies, musicianship and feel. Prog rockers were simplifying their songs to have more reach like Genesis Abacab or Yes or the Police. I like that crossing over. And I like the beginnings of sequencers and digital technology but also still dealing with real playing, top of the line recording gear and timeless material. Great music was popular.
I’m interested in that time on a personal level, too because I hadn’t really been socialized yet. I would just turn on the clock radio by my bed and I loved every song. When they talked about the singers and the bands I believed they were cool and I wanted to be part of it all. I hadn’t learned yet about choices and expressing your identify through what you consumed. It’s like something very special died. I know that was just me growing up but I also think music changed a lot, too.
When I think of the later 80’s and the 90’s and on, I have no love for the top 40 music. I’ll take Purple Rain, Madonna’s debut, Duran Duran, Billy Idol, Thriller any day over Nirvana, Metallica, Mariah Carey or Boyz II Men. I really checked out from modern pop music when I was 13 (1988) until about the early 2000’s (my late 20’s). During that time I was only interested in either the past or what I perceived as underground or punk or weird music - which was me searching and trying to think of myself as different. I think commercial music turned to crap but I know lots of people will disagree and I’m just showing my age and my biases.
The other part of this is that my dad worked in the music industry as a talent scout and A&R person and music was something I tried to engage him with. Until my pre-teens, my dad was a much less conflicted, less troubling figure in my life. He had a big impact on my feelings about music. Like I said music later took on this abstract side, about expressing yourself and being different. I think that's a substitute for real engagement with music but anyway… In my world there weren't necessarily good avenues of communication. Music and taste was like this language for things you couldn’t speak about.
As my dad's presence in the house became increasingly difficult to understand, music and its appreciation was how I tried to get his attention. Basically, I wanted to be part of whatever I thought would make him mad or ask me questions. For example when I learned that my dad had refused to sign Devo to A&M in the 70s, they became my favorite band. I also loved (and still love) their music but I remember him saying they were too weird or not catchy enough or something and that made them so cool to me. Similarly he said something about hating the hard rock bands he saw working at the Fillmore East in the 60s so I was obsessed with Black Sabbath, Grand Funk Railroad, and Sir Lord Baltimore. The conversations which these started were needless to say not very satisfying, but I kept trying, and music continues to be my key to the outside world for better or worse.
Just real quick about the Pat Metheny soundtrack and Golden Age of Wireless - these were records I discovered during the year or so I was recording my new record.. They’re both very beautiful and dark and mysterious and subtle. I thought maybe somebody can take this kind of thing further so I tried in my own way.
Other music I listened to:
Eduardo Mateo “Cuerpo Y Alma”
John Martyn “Dancing”
Milton Nascimiento - "Milagre dos Peixes"
The Police “Synchronicity”
Jon Appleton “Four Fantasies for Synclavier”
Q Do you feel your “voice” is best heard singing, playing an instrument, or in engineering?
I think my voice is best heard singing or playing instruments. It’s there when I’m engineering my records but when I’m working for someone else there’s a lot that is already given. You’re really trying to give the artist what they want. Every relationship is different, of course. There are those gigs when the ideas are mostly coming from me but it's rare. I try to intuit what the artist wants. When the record is done, I really want them to be happy most of all. I’ll be happy too but its their dream not mine. I give my 2 cents when asked and I can be very opinionated if thats helpful but I'd never force my vision or make an artist compromise theirs. It’s a nice exercise for me to get inside of someone else’s head for a while and I always learn something.
Laneway Festival 2019 wrapped up last week and it has me thinking about the festival in 2015. Playing Laneway was an incredible introduction to New Zealand and Australia but also to new artists. This interview may not have been possible with out 2015s festival because that is precisely where I met Benjamin Booker. Although we were both living in New Orleans at the time we met half way around the world in Australia. Also by chance, whimsy, or happenstance, we again live in the same city where I had the opportunity to ask him to participate in this series.
Ben is working on and writing a new record and some of the songs are about Los Angeles. We also talked about his shows opening for Neil Young and our shared respect for Amiri Baraka (author of Blues People and Black Music) and Kim Deal of The Breeders. It is my pleasure to see Ben grow as a song-writer, singer, and performer. I look forward to the record and hearing his distinctive raspy voice from here to Oz and back again.
Read other interviews in this series here. *
Q Tracks like “Believe” on Witness feature string arrangements. You also play keys and guitar. What is your musical background?
I played piano and cello for a bit in middle school. It wasn’t long enough to get good at either but looking back it definitely help to give me a good music foundation. I left both of those instruments for guitar which I picked up learning all the Nirvana songs. At one point I could literally play all of them.
I’m still pushing and trying to learn stuff all the time. I’m not at the point of being able to do string arrangements. My friend Oliver Hill [of Pavo Pavo] jumped on to help with Witness strings. He’s way past me musically.
Q You've spoken about your time in Mexico City sparking your creativity for Witness. Have you been back?
No, I haven’t actually. I tried to make plans a couple times but things have come up. Hoping to get down this year for sure though.
Q How did you end up working with (one of my personal favorites) Mavis Staples? I imagine she lives up to and exceeds her legend. What was recording and touring with Ms. Staples like?
Mavis is one of my favorites, too. The more I learn about her, the more I realize the massive impact she has had on so many artists. Even Michael Jackson’s famous “shamone” was taken from Mavis. We met writing a song together for an album she did with M. Ward. It was called “Take Us Back” and incredibly has become a regular part of her set.
Sadly, I have never actually been in the studio with her. When she helped me by singing on my record, the producer flew to Chicago to record her vocals and I think I stayed home to save money. HUGE REGRET.
I was lucky enough to open for her in England last year. It was incredible! We sang a song together and I was in tears by the end. I love that woman. Truly. I’m doing something special with her this year but I don’t know if they’ve announced it yet.
Q What is inspiring your new album/songs?
Drum machines, poets like Amiri Baraka and Morgan Parker and Leonard Cohen, love, death, Los Angeles, Alice Coltrane, Ethiopian jazz, R & B, youth, traveling, friends. I love the time in between records. I see it as my job to soak in all I can. What do I need to do today? Live!
Q What can we expect from you in 2019?
I’m planning on hopping in to the studio at some point this summer. People will most likely hear something before the year is over.
Q How did those shows in Milwaukee, Madison and Minneapolis go with Neil Young?
Oh boy! I really am one of the luckiest people on the planet. The shows were incredible. My dream is to be able to play only beautiful, old theaters which is what I got to do on that run. Sitting on a gorgeous stage, with an acoustic in front of thousands of dead silent people ready to listen... what else could you want as a song writer? I’m very thankful to everyone involved for having me out.
Q It would be remiss of me to not mention our collective love for Old Style Guitar Shop in L.A.
Old Style is the best! Shout out to the crew over there. Everything in the store is there for a reason. It’s the kind of place where they won’t just try to sell you the most expensive thing. They had other fancier basses when I was looking but the owner said the Aria Pro II Cardinal Bass was one of his personal favorites. $300 and it rules! Kim Deal used one. God I love her.
Q As a musician, and even before, you’ve moved around. How did New Orleans shape you/your music? How is Los Angeles treating you?
I think traveling is in my blood. My dad was in the Navy and my parents would take us on impromptu trips out of town for the weekend. Life is too short to stay in a little corner.
I think New Orleans was the perfect place to start making music because there isn’t a music business there. I’m not sure what it’s like now but no one was trying to “make it.” Any success seemed lightyears away. I think that really helped to leave room for creativity.
I think I’m going to be in Los Angeles for a bit, or at least until it gets to expensive I guess. It’s been life changing for me. It’s a big city which has given me access to more music, museums, food, different people. I love the options and feel very inspired.
Q I have to ask, when are we djing together?
Anytime! I would love it if we could have regular house parties and DJ. Monty could be cool too. We’ll talk when I’m back from Australia.
The easy-going and infectious personality that is Mac MeMarco has been on our collective radars since 2012 (perhaps even before with Makeout Videotape). After hearing Rock And Roll Night Club and subsequently stocking it at Reckless Records in Chicago, I approached his manager (Hi Michelle) and label Captured Tracks in hopes of hosting an in-store performance at the shop. The album was just hitting shelves but I was interested in seeing them live almost immediately. The in-store didn’t pan out but I did see the band’s show at The Empty Bottle and Mac and the band.
Since then, between 2014 and 2017 we have toured closely (Angel Olsen festival sets would often be directly before or during Mac’s) and I always enjoyed traveling and talking with Mac and “the boys.” Recently, I was looking forward to hearing about their new album and the inception of Mac’s own label. He reveals a few hints as to what the record will look like (I haven’t considered Mac to be a cowboy - until now.) and a teaser about tour plans this year. Mac also affectionately calls Michael McDonald “Mike” which gives me a blissful feeling.
This and previous interviews have been a pleasure and I’m excited about the music due out this year. Though we are still waiting for Rihanna’s reggae album, Sharon Van Etten drew first and delivered a powerful punch with Remind Me Tomorrow and with records by Hand Habits, Cass McCombs, and Jessica Pratt announced - we’re in for an earful in 2019.
UPDATED Feb 13: Some folks inquired about the disappearance of Mac’s Instagram account. The tech website The Verge hosts an article that uses his page as an example of an app-wide glitch resulting in follower loss. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Q You announced a new label in August, Mac's Record Label. Have you chosen a roster, future releases, or reissues?
I keep getting hit up asking this same thing from all kinds of people and bands. I don't really have any plans to put anyones music out other than my own right now but maybe I will once I get some of my crap out there. It's kind of just a really fancy way of saying "self-released,” although it is all through a great distro label that's essentially doing all the heavy lifting for me. We'll see what happens - no plans right now.
Q How much can you share about your next album?
I'm not sure how much I can say right now. I just finished making it and it's getting mastered right now. It's my "cowboy" album but it's not really "cowboy" in a lot of ways hahaha. It's probably the weirdest album I've made - very jarring. I went a little crazy making it, feeling groovy about it now, it should be very strange playing it live.
Q Was touring solo (with out "your boys") a welcomed change of pace or a necessity for songs on This Old Dog?
I've done shows on my own periodically for a bunch of years now. It would usually be in more of a unconventional setting than with the band. It's definitely a very different thing than how we normally do things, I talk a lot, it's very relaxed, very quiet. I really enjoyed doing a whole tour of it. It was just Kiera and me in a Dodge Caravan so it was definitely pretty different than how things usually roll out for us these days. Took me a little while to get back into the swing of driving all the time and actually working and settling everything at first hahahaha.
Q When/why did you make the shift from strictly guitars and drums to incorporating keys and synths on tour and your albums?
Salad Days was the first time I had actual keyboard driven songs on any of my records. I had been interested previously but I really have no clue what I'm doing on a piano or keyboard and had very little understanding of synthesizers or anything like that at the time. I'm also not exactly a shredder on guitar either so it's nice to have a couple more colours to paint with. To be honest, I don't listen to very much guitar music nowadays, maybe for a long time actually. I wish I could play the keys better but there's also something in not really knowing where to go on an instrument, lots of pleasing mistakes.
I was talking about the intro to synths in our live sets the other day. I remember not wanting keyboard stands on stage for some dumb reason, I thought they were whack or something. we just used stools from whatever club we were in hahahahaha.
Q What is your relationship with Japan and Japanese music (ie Haruomi Hosono, YMO, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Tomita)?
I love it! I have for a long time now, too. The more I dig the more I love it. I never seem to run out of new stuff by that crew, they really went in on so many genres and styles and just pumped so many records out over the years. I'm down for all of it, too. From the James Taylor or the band sounding early Hosono stuff to the wild minimal-ambient stuff from more recently.
I've had the opportunity to meet everybody from YMO at this point, some more intimately than others. Meeting Hosono is one of those big days in my life I think, very cool. There may be a little Hosono related treat happening in June. No guarantees but keep ya eyes peeled… that's all I'm gonna say.
Q Care to share some of your current influences and collaborations, Shamir, Flea, Michael McDonald, Anderson .Paak, etc... ?
Ah, the crew. I feel like we have a really interesting group of friends and contemporaries out there right now, a lot of people whose music is varied pretty far from what I and the band do, which is really cool to me.
I was at Anderson's place a couple nights ago showing him some stuff from my new record. He's a wild one, love the guy, insane musician. I think especially with his crew, it's really intimidating but also inspiring being around a bunch of people that are so comfortable and talented on their instruments and just musically generally, it's very cool.
Flea I only really met at a dinner with Anderson and The Free Nats [Nationals] one night in South America, also very nice guy, insane shredder. Spent a night with Shamir in Philly last time we were out there. I would consider us good friends at this point, OG, great vibe, great tunes, mad love, mad respect.
Hanging with Mike McDonald is insane, he's a legend. He loves showing us pictures of his airstream trailers. Hope we get to see the dude again soon.
Q What are your feelings branching out from your contract with Captured Tracks?
Although I'm doing "my own label" now I'm still working with CT on a bunch of stuff. They're still working and producing all the stuff that I've done with them over the years and I'm sure we'll work together a lot more in the future. They essentially taught me all I know about the "indie rock biz" hahaha. they're my family, we got the whole thing rolling together, I got mad love and respect for all of them.
Q Your previous tour made donations to Girls Rock Camps (you've also auctioned your shoes), how did you decide where to make donations?
All that pretty much came from the shoes thing haha. I thought it would be funny to sell an old stinky pair of Vans on eBay one christmas, the auction got way out of hand, people were bidding thousands and thousands of dollars, I think the winning bid was finally 21k, which obviously no one was going to pay, so I wound up splitting the bill with Vans and the money got to the camp.
Initially I just thought it would make more sense to have money from something as ridiculous as selling gross shoes go to a charity than into my own pocket, and when I was looking at the available local charities partnered with eBay, the Willie Mae [Rock] Camp came up.
I'm a musician, I figure money going to organizations that help other musicians makes sense. I never had an opportunity to go to a camp like that when I was younger but I wish I had, I think what they're doing is really cool.
Q Any plans to bring Agnes (Mac’s Mom) back on tour?
haha! Maybe, you never know. It was actually Laneway Festival that sorted all of that out last time. She still makes appearances and our shows every once and a while. she's a celeb hahahhah.
Q What do you think your influence has been on music?
I'd like to think that people can look at what we do and realize they could also get out there and do it. I've always tried to keep things fairly straightforward, no bells and whistles, dare I say "DIY" haha.
I like to make songs, I like to play for people, but I'm also a fairly normal person, anyone can do this stuff if they want to and they should!
I will be guest hosting Chris Kissel’s show Contact Wave with Chuck Soo-Hoo (aka Ki Oni) on Sunday, February 3 from 10a to noon on Dublab. Tune in > here < or on the player below.
Usually hosted by Los Angeles-based DJ and journalist Chris Kissel, the monthly dublab program Contact Wave enthusiastically celebrates the best experimental, avant-garde, psychedelic, and off-the-grid music crafted in L.A. and beyond.
UPDATE: Download our set > here < if you missed it!
We’re excited to announce the debut album from Oakland's KIM featuring shredders Jessica Calvanico (Geffika), Laura Nichols, Brad Amorosino and Tim Dixon on bass . Recorded in 2018 by Ross Harris and mastered by Howie Weinberg. Out in February 2019 on Love Lion and available > here < soon.
Follow them on Instagram or Bandcamp for future shows and releases!
Officially, sold out of our Gospel collection "Shout Music" (fear not, you can still buy a digital copy via Bandcamp). Thank you to our early buyers for helping us donate proceeds to the Black Lives Matter movement.
We also have a dozen or so copies of the Chicago-centric compilation Grid City available. We look forward to bringing you new music in the new year!