"Can you scratch that?" Sam Cohen asks me with a laugh. "Sometimes I read back what I say in interviews and realize how abstract I'm being."
We were just getting into it about the creative process with his new band Yellowbirds and what it was like recording his album The Color. I read him something he said from the last interview we did together in 2008 -- right after his band Apollo Sunshine released Shall Noise Upon. He said when they would play together it was like invisible people would show up. They had that one-of-a-kind chemistry.
With the members of Apollo Sunshine spread out in three different cities, something creatively had to give. During the last few years Sam has immersed himself in what his Brooklyn home has to offer, both in collaborating with local musicians and creating within the vibe of the city. He spent a lot of time writing and searching for sound. After a few spins of The Color, you hear the adventure and sweet spot of each tune, and naturally, you hear the healthy evolution in his musicianship since Shall Noise Upon. This record is less erratic than an Apollo Sunshine record, but the music is just as deep and conceptual. And sonically, it's just as warm and experimental.
When we start talking about the process, that's when he sounds the most impassioned. He hit an inspired point making The Color where he felt like "art was just flying out of me." He gets excited when he tells me about all the different sounds he found -- often mistaken as synths -- using all string instruments: acoustic and electric guitars, autoharp and pedal steel, and hours and hour of experimentation. And he draws the parallels between his stop motion animation projects (check out his video for the first track "Rest of My Life") and all of the different influences in his music. You take something old and beautiful, and you add yourself to it. You hear that all over The Color.
The last time we spoke was a little over two years ago. You just released Shall Noise Upon with Apollo Sunshine. A lot has happened to get to this record…
Yeah, since we last spoke all sorts of things are different. I got married last year, I put together a great band and made this record, and in general, doing my work in a really different way. It's a real departure from working as a collective like Apollo Sunshine was. We did that for so long that it actually has been really refreshing to have no real filter between what ideas I have and what comes out, other than my own second guessing of ideas [laughs]. It's a lot of freedom. And it's been a lot of fun to work this way.
You've described this experience as "art flying out of you."
Yeah, it's probably better if we don't compare every aspect of this to Apollo, because it's just different. Needless to say, I reached a point where there were parts of the creative process that I thought might be more fulfilling working in a new way or in a more streamlined way. Working with local musicians, you know? Working with musicians that live in my city. I took the plunge. I really wanted to do this: I had these songs and I wanted to approach them in a different way. And I'm really happy with what came out.
It feels like you were hinting at some of the sounds on this record with your last record [Shall Noise Upon]...
Yeah, I think so. I feel like there's a sound in my head that's evolved, but it's always been there since I've been a teenager. It's this magical sound that I'm chasing [laughs]. As I get older, I get closer to it. It starts to sound more and more familiar -- the sound I'm trying to achieve. It's been years in the making and sometimes I get off track. But there's definitely a consistent line, at least in my head, that I know I'm following. Some of that is audible.
That's great. When you say you get off track does that mean you start following something you're unsure about or think that maybe it might be interesting?
I'm sure every artist feels this way, you get really into something and you try to pursue this other thing. And then years later you're like, "what am I trying to do there?" It didn't come off, you know? [laughter] That's just the risk of releasing shit -- you make some things that you're really proud of and some things, not so much. But I won't say what any those things are; it might be someone's favorite song.
Yeah, it's bad when you find out that your favorite stuff from an artist is what they consider shit.
Yeah, and when fans tell you what they're favorite song is and you think it's shit, you just have to smile and say, "thank you."
Right. I felt strange the day I read Bob Dylan say that Planet Waves was garbage, a throwaway record. I think it is genius.
Yeah, New Morning too, which is one of my favorite Dylan albums, and he thinks it was an attempt to ruin his own career [laughs]. Dylan aside, I think for most people it's an attempt at being modest.
Let's talk about your guitar playing. For instance, I found "In Our World" really interesting -- it sounds like you're playing a classical style.
It's all nylon string -- there's no steel string acoustic guitar on the record. I really, really love it. I got that guitar at a pawn shop in San Francisco, and it's so great to play and write songs on. I love the feel of the nylon strings on my fingers, and I love the harp-like quality of it. It's almost like a ukulele -- it's got the same timbre, but a lower register. It's a beautiful instrument. The voicing of chords sound nicer. And that's the one song on the record that has some lead lines on the nylon string. That was a new thing for me that I really had a good time exploring.
What are you running in through?
That whole track was done at home except for the tom-tom drums, which was done at my friend John Hill's studio. Other than that, everything was recorded through a Tascam 4-track and totally blew out the preamps. And then I mixed it with this guy Dan Goodwin, and we just compressed the shit out of those lead lines and made a tape echo out of 24-track tape machine... yeah, I'm real happy with the sound it made.
Yeah, I think that's what makes the record so inviting -- there's so many interesting sounds and washes of sound. How's this material translating live?
It's awesome. We had a show last night and it was really killer. I'm really lucky to be playing music with a bunch of great musicians in this band. None of the guys on the record are in the live group anymore. George Lewis, who played bass on the record, plays in a band Twin Shadow. I actually played in an early incarnation of that band. Well, he's been doing very well -- selling out shows and stuff. I met the organ player Wynne Bennet through him. They're on tour all the time with Twin Shadows, and that's going really well. So unfortunately, they're not playing with me anymore. I have some new people. I don't have an organ player, but I have another guitar player, Josh Kaufman, who is just a monster -- he's so good. He's improvising a lot of his parts, just playing the appropriate, perfect lines. It's amazing to have the songs evolving all the time and to have that other melodic mind to play off of. Neil Berenholz is playing bass now, and I love playing with him. He also builds pedals and amps, and I've been using some of the gear he's made. So, it's been sort of this rotating cast, but that's actually been a lot of fun. Part of the whole idea of the project was to streamline things creatively where I can just book a show and know a lot of people who I can ask to do it. Everyone is busy doing their own thing or doing someone else's thing, so it doesn't always have to be the same people. It keeps it exciting, and it keeps it evolving.