|Sam Cohen’s Favorite Gear:
After lending his creative juices to (great) bands Apollo Sunshine and Yellowbirds, Brooklyn songwriter, musician and producer Sam Cohen decided it was time to go solo. The Deli has always been a fan of his bands’ records, (Yellowbirds’ “The Color” was The Deli NYC’s Record of the Month back in 2011), with their influences ranging from vintage pop to ’60s psychedelia. What we hear from his solo debut “Cool It” doesn’t disappoint, so we decided to ask Sam a few questions about his creative process, the making of records, and his relationship with the Muses.
What comes first: music or lyrics?
I have a much higher success rate with music first. When I start with words or a song title, it tends to be too literal for me. Plus, I find it harder to impose an interesting melody on a bunch of words than to infuse an already interesting melody with lyrics.
What’s been inspiring your music lately?
I spend a lot of my time and energy, in fact, more than I get to spend on my own music, producing other artists and working in the studio as a player. I feel like I’m always learning new approaches. Seeing what’s more or less important to an artist can be really eye opening. I’ve been doing more engineering lately, so I’m always watching the engineers approach as well, noting what I like more or less, hoping to find something new. I’d say that lately I’m drawing more from the people around me everyday than from records or books. I like that I get to work in every role from time to time. It really helps me look at the whole picture, even while working out the details.
Is inspiration some kind of random blessing, or is it possible to set it in motion?
A good idea definitely seems to be a gift and should be accepted graciously. My writing has a long ebb and flow. I won’t write any songs for maybe a year, and then write an album over the course of about 6-8 months. Every time, something just shows up – so that’s the random blessing. Whenever that happens, I have to get more disciplined and take that starting point for a couple of songs and build it into a record – so that’s setting it in motion. Great question. Both, it would seem.
Where do you look for lyrical inspiration?
I think it finds me. The lyrics come when they’re good and ready, and I have to be really patient with it. That’s the main reason I’m not more prolific as a songwriter, but that’s why I have production and stuff like that to keep me busy.
Is there something you look for when writing lyrics, like, say, catharsis, personal expression, topicality, or positivity?
I guess I try to avoid trivial stuff. I’ve never loved a song of mine that was particularly topical, and I don’t like to time-stamp it by singing about Spotify royalties or whatever. I’m more comfortable in the existential realm. I think my songs generally come from the feeling that I’m just a visitor in this culture on this planet. The feeling that normal things are weird.
? MUSICAL TOYS AND RECORDINGI was really deep into controlling analog synths with guitar on this record. I used an old Electro Harmonix Micro Synth (pictured) and a Korg Volca Keysfor most of it, experimenting with different ways of saturating, modulating, and filtering the signal. That was fun and I’d spend whole days not recording, just working on those sounds.
Have you ever looked into Brian Eno’s “Oblique Strategies” when in a situation of impasse?
No, I just power through or take a break. It’s never occurred to me to actually use them.
How much of your recording is done at home versus in the studio?
Mostly non studio environments. A lot of the record was recorded in a 130 sq ft rehearsal space in Greenpoint. Super crammed, so I’d just do one mic on the drums, lots of DI, working really fast. “The Garden,” “Unconditional Love”, “El Dorado”, and “Kepler 62” (streaming below) were all tracked there. The songs with live basics, “Last Dream”, “Farewell To Arms”, and “Let The Mountain Come To You” were recorded at a friends studio in Dumbo called the 5 and Dime. Jesse Lauter engineered. The rest of the record I did up in Woodstock. I rented a house I knew from some friends staying there last Thanksgiving. I rented a Uhaul and moved all my gear up there for a week. That’s where I did “Don’t Shoot The Messenger”, “Pretty Lights”, and “Midnight Conqueror”, and did final overdubs on the rest.
If you use a studio, what do you record there and what do you record by yourself and why?
At this point, and this applies to production as well, I’ll only rent a studio if I need to record several musicians including full drum set live. It helps to have the space, the mics, the freedom to not engineer, a solid headphone setup, etc. But it’s expensive and can be less comfortable and familiar for some things. I love working in the same space where I always make music if it’s pleasant enough. I also like the limitations, working faster and being less precious about the technical stuff, focusing on the sound and idea in a musical comfort zone, just going off the cuff and treating Pro Tools like a Tascam 4 track. It makes me feel like a kid just fucking around, and that’s a great place to be for creativity.What one piece of hardware/software would you most like to add to your recording setup?
I’m pretty attracted to the Burl B2 Bomber (pictured). It would be very nice to add that level of creative gain staging at the converter that you don’t get with digital. But I could also use a nicer steel string acoustic, would love another bass or two, a cool polysynth. I’m not gonna say what sleeper models I look at because that’ll mean a few more people might be looking for them! Anyway, I just had a kid and it’s tax time. I’m not buying shit.Do you like stompboxes?
I like pedals a lot. My current setup uses two pedal boards, one for the synth sounds and one for my more conventional guitar sounds. The main pedal board, which is the same I’ll use for gigs and sessions (not my own) consists of:
– Electro Harmonix passive AB box (to switch between pedal boards),
– ZVex fuzz factory (best I’ve found for broken, pinched, kazoo like fuzz – I wanted the closest thing to a DI guitar overdriving 2 preamps),– Bearfoot FX Candy Apple Fuzz(great range from Valco-ish thickness to raging – very smooth and I keep the fuzz real low so it sounds more like a small amp breaking up), – Bogner Wessex OD (I just got this – my favorite overdrive pedal ever. it’s on all the time. Has 2 transformers inside, and they really make a difference. Has a low thickness I can’t find anywhere else.)
– Vintage Ibanez AD-9 (for short slap and it’s modified so I can control repeats with a foot pedal)
– Boss Tuner
– Strymon El Capistan (models an echoplex. I use the sound on sound mode for super long, warbly atmospheric delay)
– Strymon Flint (has 3 types of trem/vibrato, all useful. I shy away from the reverb, though.)
– Analogman Chorus (So great! Really warm, Leslie type sounds. Can do 80’s too, but it’s fatter than the usual chilly 80’s thing. For that i have a Roland JC60).
The other pedal board has:
– Vintage Electro Harmonix Micro Synth (it’s modified so I can control the cutoff freq with an exp pedal, and also so the sub octave has an on/off switch)
– Boss PS-6 Harmonist (live I just use the Detune setting.)
– Moog Analog Delay (the delay is great, but it’s more there for the overdrive circuit.)The synth chain goes to the Normal channel of my 66 Fender bandmaster. The other board goes to the Vibrato channel.
Do you have a particular recording style that you aim for?
There’s a common thread sonically, but very difficult to put into words. I have tastes and aversions that come with me everywhere, and I guess those form themes, but I think I’m also pretty open.
What do you find to be the most challenging aspects of the recording process? On the flip side, what aspects are the most rewarding?
The most challenging is when you think you have it all mapped out in your head, but when you lay it down, it’s not working. You need to break the mold of your concept and then see if the song works another way. The most rewarding is when you just start playing stuff, and it all responds to what went down before or after or simultaneously. When you feel like you’re actually making sweet music, and it just happens to be into a recording device.
Is there a person that’s been important in perfecting your recorded and/or live sound?
I feel like I’ve learned from everyone I’ve worked with along the way. Brian McTear, John Hill, D. James Goodwin, Tommy Brenneck, Thom Monahan, Josh Kaufman… those are a few people who did things on sessions that I admired and try to embody. Seeing Daniel Lanois live gave me ideas about stage setup, dynamics, and band leadership. Playing with Nels Cline and Ira Kaplan have also been incredibly inspiring and informative as a guitarist. Both of them connect with the instrument in a way that I aim to. I played last night at Rough Trade and the new material has a lot of improvising in the show – I felt like those guys were with me for some of it.
? BEING IN A BAND
What’s the songwriting/arranging process in the band? To what extent is each band member’s role defined?
This is a solo project in the truest sense of the word. I write and arrange alone and played and recorded most of the record by myself. Three songs are built from a live basic tracking with Yellowbirds, but two of those songs were learned from demos that I’d made alone and had the arrangement fully fleshed out. The one exception is “Last Dream”. I wrote that long before the rest of the record, and we’d been doing it at Yellowbirds shows for about a year. I never made a demo, so that one definitely has their stamp on it.
Are bands ever true democracies? What about yours?
My solo thing has no official form of government, and Yellowbirds was far from democratic, too. The band contributed quite a lot to the recordings, and especially live, but it was always my thing. There was never a butting of heads or ego flare ups. We all saw it as my thing, we all agreed it benefitted from their brilliance, and there was complete mutual respect. Apollo Sunshine actually was democratic, and there was some bad ego business. We were also younger then, and that’s when democratic bands tend to exist.
How did you guys deal with the inevitable conflict of egos?
We like to let it eat us from within.
Tell us about the process of the one song from your repertoire that came together in the most surprising way.
The song “Pretty Lights” on my new record is one of my favorite songs I’ve ever written. It was the last song for the record and I wanted it to be an understated epic. It’s long and has several movements, and lots of free form suspended sections. It’s a blast to play live! All the sections were written as separate pieces, each intended to be shaped into songs of their own, but I only needed one more song and they were all just fragments. Some kind of weird magnetism was pulling them together. The very last lyrics are from several years ago. I’d just been waiting to use them, and had even paraphrased them in another song on this record, “Last Dream”, thinking they’d never get used. It feels cohesive to me, even with all the crazy dovetailing, and tempo changes and vast sonic shifts and years between writing pieces of it. When it was brand new, like a day old, I played it on an acoustic for my friend Steve Salett, who’s an incredible singer/songwriter, and he just went, “Jesus Christ.” That feedback really steeled my affection for the tune.
? RECORDING/PRODUCING OTHER ARTISTS
You also produce and record other artists, what are the challenges of that job?
The hardest part is that the job is always changing. That’s also the most exciting part. Producing, for me, has, at various times, meant playing almost all the instruments, or engineering, or just being there to listen and offer direction when it appears to be needed; it’s usually a combination of these. You have to gauge what the artist or band really wants from you. How you can help, and how you might hinder if you’re not paying attention to who they are, and what they hope to accomplish.
What are your most cherished pieces of recording gear?
None of them is that special, honestly. I think the instruments are what makes the sound, and those are a lot more important to me. But even those don’t do anything without the players and ideas. Cool dudes and ladies on cheap gear sound a lot better than the opposite of that (maybe a band of lawyer-dentist-guitar-collectors on 50’s strats). Reasonable preamps and mics are alI I need. I have some I like, but if i had to go work somewhere else (which I often do), there’s nothing I absolutely need on the recording end.
What are the most common mistakes you see emerging bands do in the songwriting, recording and performing departments?
Overplaying. Some stuff is just meant to be crazy, but I often hear bands who want a spacious, modern sound, but they’re strumming away and bashing the cymbals. I’m not mad at it though. Plenty of time for maturity.
What’s the single piece of advice you would give to a young musician looking to start a band with the hopes to make it become his or her full time job?
I would say to be prepared for a long road, and enjoy the trip. There’s the potential for a lot of disappoint and discouragement, but there’s also the certainty of really fulfilling life experiences. If all you want to do is tour, you can do that. Give up your apartment, buy a minivan, and go. If that’s not for you, work a job that doesn’t completely drain you, make a little money, invest in recording gear or studio time to do your thing. Just keep playing shows or cranking out records. If they’re good, you’ll find an audience. Maybe someday you’ll be a star, maybe not. The odds are not good. But you can enjoy your life in music if you choose to.
Last, pay attention to what’s going on around you, and look for skills you can develop that relate to what you do and make you more self sufficient and versatile. Maybe there are things you can be doing as a musician besides playing in your own band that can be equally rewarding. That’s been the key for me. If I were just Sam Cohen the solo artist, I’d need another job.