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.