Q&A: Chris Cohen On His New Album As If Apart
Chris Cohen is not a household name, but he’s been around. Back in 2000, he formed the Curtains with Trevor Shimizu, and amidst releasing several albums under that moniker, he also put in stints playing with Deerhoof, Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, and Cass McCombs. He’s one of those characters in the indie world who’s had a hand in more things than you realize, but seems to flit in and out of a more removed life rather than always being on the scene. In recent years, Cohen has started releasing quietly beautiful records under his own name via Captured Tracks. The first was Overgrown Path in 2012, and now he’s following it up with As If Apart. Like its predecessor, As If Apart has a hushed, bleary quality through much of its running time. Though it’s not a term Cohen himself associates strongly with his music, there’s a gentle psychedelic lilt to what he does here. It’s the kind of stuff that reminds me of meandering, insular walks on hazily summer days in Cohen’s hometown of Los Angeles. With As If Apart coming out later this week, I called Cohen to talk about what he’s up to these days and the process of making the album. Read the Q&A, and stream the album in full below.
STEREOGUM: One of the things people were talking about with the last record was that you had moved to Vermont and made this very pastoral-sounding record. Did returning home to LA factor into this one at all?
COHEN: A lot of things factored into it. First of all, with Overgrown Path, some of it was actually recorded in Los Angeles. It was all written here. I moved to Vermont for two years because my girlfriend was teaching at a college there. Anything you say about it is probably going to feel weird to me because I don’t necessarily think that Vermont had a huge effect on my music. But that was where I was living. Where I’m living now, it’s actually not super different. I have a little studio. It’s kind of similar to the space where I did the stuff in Vermont. My life’s not super different. There’s just more people around in Los Angeles.
STEREOGUM: How long ago did you start working on As If Apart?
COHEN: I started writing it about three years ago and spent the last two years recording it.
STEREOGUM: What did you want to be different about it compared to Overgrown Path?
COHEN: It’s not really the kind of question I concern myself with — it’s too much like trying to sell a consumer on some new product, and music isn’t even a job for me. It’s just something I do when I have the time for it. I think that the idea of artists always having to reinvent themselves…I think it’s a little simplistic. People are always changing, all the time. To me, everything is different about it, but not in a way where it was like, “Oh, this is going to be my ‘personal’ album.” Or, “This is going to be my commercial album.” I make the kind of music that I make. It changes all the time. I was listening to different stuff, I have a different job here. When I was living in Vermont, I worked on a farm.
STEREOGUM: What do you do in LA?
COHEN: I do a lot of different odd jobs. I work as a gallery assistant sometimes at this art gallery. I give guitar lessons, record people in my studio sometimes. I spent a lot of time unemployed while I was working on my music and my girlfriend supported me. I don’t have a great job situation. Things like that that will probably tell you what’s different about this album, if there is anything different — a different economic situation, for sure.
STEREOGUM: How does the writing process work for you? Is it time spent in front of an instrument finding your way to stuff, or do you sort of come up with melodies all the time and have to figure out how to bring them to life?
COHEN: Every song was different. Usually, I’m sketching things out on piano for a long time. I come up with little changes, maybe a little melodic fragment or rhythmic idea. I’ll come up with a form of the song after that. Once I feel like I have the form and the changes and the rough melody, then I’ll start trying to come up with an arrangement. I’ll try out different beats and tempos, start pushing a bass line. Once I’m there, I’ll start recording, and from there it’s adding a bunch of stuff on top of that and writing lyrics.
STEREOGUM: Are you still doing everything yourself?
COHEN: Yeah, Overgrown Path and As If Apart are all me. I recorded everything by myself.
STEREOGUM: You used lyrical contributions for two songs, right?
COHEN: Zach Phillips, somebody I met in Vermont. He wrote two songs on this one.
STEREOGUM: What was it about those lyrics that resonated with you?
COHEN: I wanted Zach’s voice. I didn’t want to do it myself, I wanted him to do it. I gave him the titles of the songs. As If Apart is a title I actually lifted from a poet named Andrew Maxwell. I gave Zach this title, and we didn’t even really talk about what the song would be about. I thought it was the kind of title he might have some good ideas for. I gave him the music, the recordings were done. Those lyrics were written pretty close to when I sang them and finished the track.
STEREOGUM: I had been curious about the origins of the title actually.
COHEN: It was something I came across and it just struck a chord. Andrew Maxwell is an old friend of mine, he’s someone I played music with off and on for, like, 20 years.
STEREOGUM: A lot of people know you from playing as the Curtains, or with Deerhoof or Ariel Pink or Cass McCombs. Do you get something different out of making these solo records under your own name, as opposed to working in collaboration with other musicians?
COHEN: The difference isn’t so cut and dried. I think of myself as more of a player who writes songs than as a songwriter or something. It wasn’t like I was always dying to become my own singer-songwriter. Those bands you’re talking about, some of those I was contributing to as a writer, some was just helping friends out. The Curtains was a band that I started with my friend Trevor [Shimizu] before I joined Deerhoof. The Curtains was sort of a moniker for what I was writing. When I was recording Overgrown Path, to me that was going to be a Curtains record. I was sending it around, and Mike Sniper from Captured Tracks wanted to put it out, but they don’t put out records, generally, by bands who already have records out. So it was his idea to use my name as a solo artist. That was why that wasn’t called the Curtains. In that case, what I’m doing now isn’t that different from the Curtains record I did on Asthmatic Kitty. Helping people with their music or making mine, it’s all part of the same thing. I’m learning as I go, from friends, and figuring things out for myself. I don’t necessarily make that distinction. But I do enjoy writing, and this is my format for song ideas I have right now.
STEREOGUM: So the solo records are more a part of a continuum with your other work than a separate chapter.
COHEN: I’m not sure I can tell anyone how to classify this project. It’s not super different from the Curtains, I’m just kind of doing what I always do.
STEREOGUM: When you’re writing lyrics or thinking about the structures of songs, what attracts you thematically?
COHEN: I’m just writing about what’s on my mind. Lyrics start as the sounds that fit, the melody might need particular vowel sounds: “What vowel sound do I hear on this particular note?” From there, I go to wherever it is that’s interesting to me. Whatever’s on my mind comes out as a sound.
STEREOGUM: I haven’t spoken to a lot of musicians who described it that way. That’s a very granular, almost technical way of approaching lyrics.
COHEN: I think of voice as an instrument, it’s almost like you’re playing this synthesizer, where you have to choose what kind of sound you want to make, what fits the musical part. I’m more of an abstract person. Music is what comes first. Words are…I just want to add just enough meaning to add another dimension to the music, but my music-making doesn’t come from having a verbal idea I want to say and then finding musical accompaniment to it. It’s a musical idea and then [I add] just enough text to give you a little something to think about.
STEREOGUM: It sounds like a more aesthetic relationship to the process than, say, a confessional one.
COHEN: I do want to tell stories. I think of my songs as like a report on what’s going on with me. But I would never use the word “confessional.” It’s what falls out in a sound context. The sound is a vehicle for me to report on the state of my mind.
STEREOGUM: Some people have drawn the comparison between your stuff and a history of California music, specifically something like the Laurel Canyon scene. Is that something you feel any kinship with, having grown up in LA?
COHEN: No, I don’t. I was born in the mid-’70s, so early-’80s Top 40 radio was when I first remember getting obsessed with music, and then there was a lot of post-punk stuff that was still happening in LA through the mid- and late-’80s. My father was in the music business, and I guess I was developing myself in contradiction to him, finding music that I thought he didn’t like. He hated the Grateful Dead, so I was a big Deadhead in high school. That lead me to improvisational music, and international music. Laurel Canyon songwriters are not something I know a lot about. I’m trying to think if there’s anything like that that I like. I live near Laurel Canyon [laughs].
STEREOGUM: You’ve also spoken about people labeling your music “psychedelic.”
COHEN: I don’t think of my music as psychedelic music, per se. I might be wrong about this; I don’t really know the exact definition of it. But it seems psychedelia would depend on what you think is normal. I think that term has a relationship to specific historical moments, and I don’t think I’m part of that.
STEREOGUM: Maybe your music is a little more human than some of the “altered spaces” baggage that comes with that term. There’s a dreamlike aesthetic to it, but it’s sort of grounded and intimate.
COHEN: There’s a lot of bizarre sounds out there that you can use in your music. Most of what we’d call psychedelic actually seems very traditional to me.
STEREOGUM: You’re going to tour behind this right?
COHEN: Yeah, we tour as a quartet. I’m really excited about playing live for other people.
STEREOGUM: What do you get out of that versus sitting in your apartment recording?
COHEN: One thing I’m doing when I record is that I play along to a click track. It’s sort of like having somebody tell you every time you step out of line. It’s pretty harsh. I do that because it’s practical as far as adding layers and keeping things sounding together. But it takes a lot of life out of the music. Playing with other people is completely different. They both have good and bad qualities. I like to play all the instruments, and part of me just wants to have the fun of playing all of them, so that part is gone when you play with other people. The other side of that is they have their own ideas that are often really good, and more than anything it’s that sense of being together, and having a sense of time flow naturally from being together rather than being dictated by this machine. That’s really fun. I really love that.