Interview: Ambling the Overgrown Path, Chris Cohen.

Interview: Ambling the Overgrown Path, Chris Cohen.

On a nondescript side street behind the highly describable, if exorbitant whisky bar known only as The Lexington sits a van enshrouded in December shadow. In said van sits a man – a bright spark; an ebullient luminary. His name is Chris Cohen, and if you’re not yet aware of him then you should strongly consider a rethink. His début solo record, Overgrown Path, is a refined understatement of subtly grand intent, and if you’ve not yet heard of that one either then that’s another one to chalk up on the to-do. To contextualise a touch and with that verify its ineffable soft rock excellence, it was released just last autumn via the undeviatingly dependable Captured Tracks and if you’ve yet to wrap your ears around that one, well, we give up.

Cohen’s path through to this particular part of N1 was not without its winding detours and prickly incidents however, not least having to take a break for a “wicked piss” somewhere or other around Piccadilly Circus. Figuratively too, he’s been around the mulberry bushes and indeed Melbourne with various bands including Rosenberg’s ‘Haunted Graffiti, that of Cass McCombs, and last but by no means least Deerhoof, with whom he played at ATP honcho Barry Hogan’s wedding in the latter Victorian capital. Though we convene ahead of what transpires to be yet another trivialisation of greatness manifested in his live unspectacular: his is all about the music, man, and when the music consistently hits such nonpareil psych heights, the result is a direct and concise smash to the lobes. His is that most special of reserves which is portrayed according to an utmost restraint. Perhaps suitably, therefore, he’s particularly personable even entrenched within this funereal ambience I here find him.

“My… perception… of… London” he begins, his words slowly churning into focus like a lens infested with granular muck and neglected across decades, “is that it’s just another cultural centre. What it has to offer me is probably the same it does to you: it feels kinda hard, but I mean it’s cool too.” Love or loathe, it is what it is. And as these past twelve months within the thing draw to a close, it’s a place that’s tricky to even like. It’s irrefutably exhausting, and that in itself inseminates indifference. That has now fully hatched, so thank fuck Cohen came by to alleviate the ennui. Though his live modus operandi is itself different to most, in that he sticks the drums whilst singing for the most part. That shit cray, and so forth. It’s a restrictive manoeuvre, purely in the sense that numerically, it’s something that not many contemporary artists have taken to doing. “Well, there was Karen Carpenter. I esteem her! But yeah, there aren’t that many. Robert Wyatt… Phil Collins, but then I don’t really hold him in very high esteem..! I like Abacab, but that’s about it.”

It seems somehow apposite for a black cab to hurtle past the window as another siren begins to blare. An angered man barks an inarticulate incomprehension. To draw a squiggly parallel which will later become a little more apparent, London I love you, but you’re bringing me down. Cohen smirks. “Honestly, though? It’s not as hard as people think. For my music at least, it’s not that hard but what is hard is hearing yourself when you’re trying to sing. The drums are obviously an inherently LOUD instrument so that can be tricky, but it’s mostly OK.”

As previously alluded to, Cohen is no newcomer to the realms of live reinterpretation having toured with what has now become a darn comprehensive indie encyclopaedia of sorts. Though now flying his own flag and flaunting his wares exposed and under his own name, you’d be forgiven for thinking that, having played every last note on every single instrument heard on record, his electing to drum live could be said to function as a shielding of the self from the penetrative gaze of his every audience; a distancing of artist from artistic output. Chris counters: “Well I mean I conscientiously took the decision to put the drums at the front of the stage, and actually that shielding is something I’d really rather not do. I mean I just really wanted to play the drums ’cause I feel like that’s the most important instrument in music, but I don’t really feel as though they protect me or anything. I don’t really think about that at all, I guess is my answer” he eventually avows, momentarily choking on bits of um and ah. “I played drums in other bands, and I always just feel that they’re the main thing.”

“It was just the one that I wanted to play the most. I mean I thought about doing other bits too, and sometimes I get frustrated and just play guitar. I still might at some point, though at the moment it just makes sense for me to be behind there. I’m probably most picky about how the drums sound so I felt that it was probably the right call for me, in order to get the right feel, so yeah!”

Keeping with the contemporary, I’m always intrigued to learn whether the miscellany of musicians into which our fingers are constantly plugged almost like a kid’s wayward digits which continually wander into unearthed sockets actually read what’s written of them and their records. Personally, I’ve read several critiquing Overgrown Path, and there’s a certain term which so often seems to crop up. How profoundly does Cohen’s search engine trawl stoop, and what would that one word be?

“I read all the reviews, but I don’t know what the one word would be to describe the record…”

“Psych, or psychedelia” I propose.

“Well, that can mean a lot of different things. I don’t have a problem with it, and I mean I can’t even really remember what the definition of the word psychedelic is but I guess when I think of something that could be defined as such I think of something that’s, like, interesting or weird to think about, or something which elicits a new response from your brain. Like taking drugs, or at least when I did take them, it was always to provoke some form of new experience so to me, psychedelic just means good, probably! I don’t know, but I definitely don’t have any problem with that. I mean I find a lot of different things to be psychedelic, and essentially all of these words are just relative to other words which kinda makes them meaningless anyway. So it only concerns what your state of mind is. But I like to explore music via new experiences, and I think that’s what the term means. I’m sure Oxford will have an alternative definition…”

It’s a word which, to revert to a musical, as opposed to a more academic context, was first spawned of California stateside. And though its polychromatic, and most probably fungal roots trace back to San Francisco to be a little more precise, historically the genre has also played a significant part in the sonic scaping of Cohen’s native Los Angeles. From Love, to Spirit, before fluttering on to Iron Butterfly, The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band and even Captain Beefheart the most disparate of cities may be united in an enduring appreciation of American psychedelia. Cohen, however, swapped the hallucinogenic drugs and glistering, muscular hunks of this, his hometown, for the rather more bucolic East Coast retreat that is Vermont now years ago, crossing the untied States of America to further his intensely self-aware artistic vibe. And Overgrown Path is an exact articulation of this.

Cohen recorded it in solitude. Alone, and out in the midst of nowhere.

Its key themes, both lyrically as well as musically, may consequently be deemed those of dislocation and disassociation, though how does he perceive the move to have impacted upon his songwriting mode? “I don’t know how the word psychedelic relates to either L.A. or Vermont but, you know, I guess Vermont is known to some as a kinda hippy sanctuary. It’s New England, so things are pretty. And pretty old-fashioned, too! But yeah, I live in Vermont now. That’s where the band Phish comes from, and I don’t find them to be particularly psychedelic. Nor inspiring! I tried to get into Phish when I was in high school ’cause I’m still a big Deadhead and so when Phish came around as the new thing, I tried it but couldn’t get into it. That humour level… And it didn’t have that same chaos that I really liked about the Grateful Dead.” So that’s 1-0 to California then in Cohen’s lasting musical affections. And indeed as he dispels the notion of ever having grown disenchanted with L.A., the West Coast wins out emotionally, too. “I love L.A.! It’s where I’m from, so it’s heavy with associations and stuff. I just felt like I needed to leave for a little while. I’ll probably go back, and I feel like the L.A. point of view is the one I look at everything from but when I think of what that point of view is, it’s really spread out, and hypermodern, and is meant to be experienced at high speed with cars, and there’s kind of no history. Well, there is history, but it’s kinda been erased so it’s all really different to every other place I’ve ever been. I have a real deep connection there but, you know, I’ve lived a few different places and it’s primarily just my childhood.”

From L.A., we traverse the continent as Cohen once did and wind up in NYC – home to the hip, or rather hipster young gunslingers of Captured Tracks. At “only, like, three hours away” Vermont ain’t exactly far-flung: geographically speaking, it’s close though ultimately, it’s a fully detached world away from the maddening crowds of Manhattan and so forth, with dislocation again appearing to be Cohen’s default location. “I go down there pretty frequently, and two of my band are from Brooklyn. But yeah, I mean it’s definitely incomparable to where I live. And I’m older than a lot of the other bands on Captured Tracks but me and Mike [Sniper, “the guy who runs it”] are about the same age…”

Having recently conversed with Zachary Cole Smith – aka DIIV – the kiddo Cole busied himself chattering away of how the label was just about the closest thing they had to that sense of belonging born of a scene as it were. Perhaps the internet, with its immediate accessibility and general flippancy put paid to any need for artists of any given style, substance, or what have you to group together for a common, and indeed more communal good? “I mean I don’t know about that whole internet effect, but as far as the label being a kinda scene in its own right, well, I don’t get down there that often but when I do, I’m really happy to be a part of it all. When I head down, I just feel as though those guys are my newfound friends. Where I’m coming from, aesthetically, I have a pretty different background but I like a lot of stuff on the label. I guess the thing that makes me feel really good about Captured Tracks is that they take a chance on bands that are unknown, and they seem to really care about music whereas conversely, I’ve never felt that they care about the business side of things. I mean they’re good at doing business, as a label, but I feel they’re real lovers of music first and foremost. And they give me a lot of encouragement so I mean I feel a good connection with them. But all these bands are new to me – I live on a rock, so when I signed up with them I suddenly learned about all these new bands, and I’m digging a lot of ‘em. We just played two shows with Mac DeMarco in France, and I really, really loved him live. It felt as though I was seeing something really great.”

Of course again, it’s not only geographically, but also musically that Chris Cohen and his Overgrown Path are nicely removed from your Oshin , or your Mac DeMarco 2, or your Nocturne. Certainly your Zeros… “I’m not a part of their social circle, and I don’t know how old these guys are. I’m thirty-seven, so I’m probably twenty years older than ‘em but I never feel any connection to any scene or anything – I’ve never felt as though I’ve really belonged to anything so this is just another thing, but it’s really cool to be surrounded by people who are so energetic, and I think they’ve all got their hearts in the right place going forward. It’s just another chapter for me, and I’m really happy.”

As one chapter leads to another, everything appears to fall gracefully into place. The unhurried shush to a track entitled Solitude is the one which most accurately expresses that sense of detachment which is primarily articulated vocally down the Overgrown Path. “No shadows in the way of me/ No shadows in the way/ But sometimes a blue/ Sometimes a blue/ Living in solitude” his voice creaks with the lilt of another certain Cohen on said toon, and this one staunchly confirms his diligently considered naming of certain songs, and of the LP itself. “My old band, Cryptacize, ceased being active in 2009 or something, and I then had a couple years where I was playing in other people’s bands but I wasn’t really active. I mean I was working on my own music simultaneously, but that all happened in private. And I guess yeah, maybe I did feel detached from the music world that I was a part of with Deerhoof and stuff. I wasn’t making any money, nor was anybody writing me asking to play shows. I didn’t take it for granted that I would do something that I would show anybody ever again, ’cause I was basically starting all over from scratch. So I thought to myself: ‘Well, if I come up with something that I think is good enough, then I’ll show it to people.’ And in the end, yeah! I was happy with the album.”

“But I think probably a lot of musicians find this where they quit their band, or their band breaks up or whatever, and suddenly you’re just like: ‘Woah!’ You’re kind of cut loose from the social world that you’re a part of and I kinda felt like I was just starting over, and trying new things, and it was exciting ’cause I felt like I had nothing to live up to, and I was working other jobs so I didn’t have to earn money. That meant I was basically just doing the whole music thing as a hobby. I pretty much still am – I mean I’m not making any money at all but then I felt pretty detached too. So I set about sending my record out to all these labels, and then when I found someone who wanted to put it out, and then found out that there was already a little scene established around it, that was nice. But I always kinda feel like I’m on my own. I have my friends, but it’s a one-to-one kinda thing.”

It’s a mentality to be aligned with the timeworn adage of if you need something doing well, well, you need to do it yourself to quite heftily paraphrase. Though for many reasons, most of which are most likely financial, the now could be perceived as a problematic time to be a newly reactivated, and we can but hope reenergised musician: “Yeah, I mean in some ways it’s easier. You can have this sudden impact – record a song on GarageBand, and put it up on the internet, and a million people can hear it. But then at the same time, there’s more music available. Everybody knows this, but compared with when I joined Deerhoof in the early 2000s, that was a different time. And to me, it seems that maybe that was the peak of that particular phase of independent music. I don’t know if it’s easier or harder – it’s just different. Things are moving faster and faster, and we’re now in a phase where something’s happening. I don’t know what to call it, but it’s probably both good and bad.”

That something could well have turned out to be the end of everything, if that forecast apocalypse prophesied yonks and yonks ago by Yucatán autochthons had in fact turned out to be true. Prince Rama certainly seemed ruffled enough when our wires crossed with those of Taraka Larson prior to, though Cohen is now rather more reflective than frenzied. Whatever Overgrown Path may be, it ain’t exactly the conceptualisation of a post-doomsday Top 10

“I mean I don’t think any of this matters. Honestly…”

[The lengthiest of pauses ensues]

“I don’t know how to elaborate on that, but I guess that’s just my feeling. Like, I don’t think that humans really matter more than anything else. So… I mean whatever comes along. I didn’t mean to get all dark and introspective, but if you operate from the point of view that the human race must continue, and that all this stuff is really important then you might wind up disappointed. But I think we should all just go along with whatever happens. I wanna live, but I’m not… Or I like to think I’m not all that attached to this particular way of life. Well, I don’t know. We’re not really in control.”

Petrifying existentialism aside, and to tether us back to a more terrestrial grounding conversation returns to economic tedium. “I’m not making any money!” Cohen again exclaims almost defeatedly, a tone of distress interwoven with his now wrought words. We do, as a general public I fear, harbour this precarious inability to grasp artistic worth, and with that the personal merit intrinsic to most, if not all music. Instead, we often perceive it as merely some divine right that, whether physical or digital; tangible or intangible, is essentially a commodity best consumed free of charge. Thus we’ve yet to strike up that imperative deal – whether moral, or purely mental – between music being free, and music becoming worthless. It’s a dangerous state of mind to inhabit, and one we’ve all freely installed without much thought whatsoever. When the Pixies bowed out on Trompe le Monde, it was album standout U-Mass and Black Francis’ gristly yodelling of “it’s educational” that ought to have served as their lasting legacy: we’re in dire need of educating. Though between the Massachusetts ensemble disbanding and the now, we’ve cultivated this almost pathological condition whereby we gravely neglect the value – whether artistic, or financial, or fucking whatever – of music.

We’ve no idea of how much time, and effort, and money it takes to haul these emotionally leaden, if still fundamentally abstract things about the place and though Cohen may be understated, psychologically speaking his is a mind never to be underestimated. This is mental theory scratching deeper than most: “I’m not sure about all that, but I think that if our current musical economy were to collapse, which it now seems it may, then I think everybody will be forced into something else. Everybody needs music, and everybody really likes music. If nothing else, it seems to make life easier. And so if we don’t have this current mode of music then I think people will of course find another way. That may be a case of becoming more involved, and making music for themselves which would be a reversion to how it was before the real development of recording technologies and stuff. And I can’t say I think that’d be a bad thing. I’d then only hope that people would find the time to do that, and that they wouldn’t be so busy trying to survive that they wouldn’t have that time. ‘Cause that’s what you see happening to nations where there’s a really healthy music scene but then a war breaks out. Hopefully people will have the time to make music for themselves, and that’s gonna happen regardless of whether it’s for sale in this particular way that we know right now, or not. I think people will find a way. People will always need music.”

Though to conclude where many of our zigging and zagging paths of thought have often already wound up, we return to business, and finance, and so forth – the grim inescapability of latter-day music that nobody who is anybody would ever dare disregard. Long ago, music was transmogrified into a very much palpable product I guess with the release of the first commercially available 78rpm, or what have you. Though does Cohen perceive this shift in consumption to have had a detrimental effect overall over time? “I just think that, again, it’s both good and bad. I mean in some ways, we’ve been allowed to really study music because we have recording technology. And it’s generated kinds of music that would otherwise never exist. You know, if we didn’t have the tape recorder everything we have would be completely different so I can’t sit here and say that I think that was a mistake.”

“I love what we have, but there’s a cost and now that information can be shared so freely that changes things too. But I mean I don’t pay for music any more! Sometimes I’ll buy an LP just as a kinda nice little thing to do, but I can’t afford to buy music! I download music for free just like everybody else and when that first started, it was like everything I’d ever dreamed of coming true. When I was younger, I would have some album I always wanted to hear but the hopes of me finding that would’ve been nil. But then you wait ten years, and you find that one thing, and you’re like: ‘Oh my God!’ And then when all this music file sharing stuff first started, suddenly everything I ever wanted became available and I cannot say that I was sad. I still feel like it’s Christmas time, all the time. The more information that’s available, the more I find there is that I want to hear, and that I’m interested in. I can’t say that it’s a bad thing, ’cause I’m loving all this crazy shit that I didn’t even know existed. It’s great but yeah, of course there’s a cost to it.”

Cohen paid a hefty price to reactivate his musical interests. We can but hope that, music industry malfunctions notwithstanding, he is one day repaid in the unreserved adulation he’s due.

Overgrown Path is out now on Captured Tracks.

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