Up and Down with Sam Cohen

// Image courtesy of Sam Benjamin Cohen.

Born in Houston, Texas, Sam Cohen is a singer, songwriter, and producer. After graduating Berklee College of Music, Cohen formed Apollo Sunshine with other friends he met at Berklee. Following the band’s breakup, Cohen released music under Yellowbirds. Most recently, Cohen has been releasing music under his own name, Sam Cohen, and has collaborated with several other artists including Danger Mouse, Kevin Morby, and Andrew Combs.

Interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.

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On Monday you were travelling from a recording session. How did that session go?

Sam Cohen: Oh, yeah, it was good. I do a lot of work with Danger Mouse – Brian Burton. We've worked on a lot of things together and have become friends, and he's working on a record. I went to play some things. I went and played a bunch of instruments on a thing that I'm really excited to be on. The artist he's working with on this one is someone I admire a lot. I went to play some bass and ended up playing bass and some drums and some guitar. It's more of a hip hop thing, so we looped some of those elements. It was really fun. I stayed for a couple of days last week and then went back this past Monday.

That's great! It definitely gives us something to look forward to. You've worked with Danger Mouse before in the past right?

SC: Quite a bit. My first solo record under my own name, Sam Cohen, was a record called Cool It. It didn't do a lot in the world commercially, but Danger Mouse heard it – somehow – and got in touch. That was the beginning of a long string of stuff we did. He ended up re-releasing that record on his label and put out my next one after that. We co-produced this double LP called Man in the High Castle which was early 60’s covers that we recorded and produced together. I sang a couple of songs on that. He also co-produced my most recent solo record. We've worked together on some Curtis Harding stuff and a bunch of other things. Yeah, he's great.

Circling back more towards the beginning of your career: You grew up in Houston, Texas, where you got guitar lessons from Clayton Dyess, who toured with Dizzy Gillepsie. Did jazz have a strong influence on your music career early on? What genres of music did you listen to growing up?

SC: I mean, jazz was sort of an aspirational interest, I would say. It was never where I was deeply in my heart of hearts, you know? I started listening to the stuff that Clayton recommended, like Oscar Pettiford, Dizzy Gillepsie, and all these wonderful players. One record I had listened to a lot that I came back to recently was Dizzy Gillespie and Machito, which are just these really sick polyrhythmic grooves. It's like a little more modal but very composed and beautiful. But he could also just play bebop, just shred on complex changes – I always thought oh, if I could do that, I could do anything. Clayton was a real relic kind of guy. I mean, he was cool. He had a tight little ‘fro and pack of cools in his breast pocket. He played like a big hollow body, and his tone was gorgeous. And he played with all these real guys like Dizzy and Joe Pass. In my mind, in my imagination, jazz was alive and, like, really cool. There was Clayton who came every week, and it was right there where I could touch it. He was also just a great mentor and really super super encouraging, and he would come to my local gigs and stuff. We were good friends and he was super supportive. He helped me put together my audition tape for Berklee, which was the two of us playing guitar duets.

So I went to Berklee where I was in the jazz department for the guitar performance major which I was fully intending to study there. This isn't a knock at Berklee, but when I got there, the environment felt different to me. I didn’t feel the vitality of studying jazz at Berklee. My experience studying jazz departed immediately from studying it with Clayton and applying it to my interests, and I had a slingshot reaction. I went the opposite direction and started writing three minutes songs and omitting guitar solos for the most part for a while. The guitar solos crept back in, but in the interim a lot of different influences came in, like the Beatles. I was late coming to The Beatles, actually. I went to Berklee with all these heavy jazz influences, and then when I got there I got super into the Beatles.

I just got really into sounds and why records made me feel a certain way from their sonic quality and their texture. I got into that and ended up majoring in the Production and Engineering Department. I wasn’t planning really on becoming an engineer or even a producer, but it was to learn how to create that stuff. I've had a few studio experiences that were frustrating: I didn't know how to communicate the sound and texture I was after, and I didn't know why we weren't achieving it. It was a chance to learn how to communicate in the studio or just get what I wanted myself. It was also a chance to record Apollo Sunshine because students got a bit of studio time, so we could record what we were working on. My roommate was Jeremy Black, who was the drummer of Apollo Sunshine. We've been making music together since we were seventeen.

Other than meeting your future Apollo Sunshine bandmates, what would you say was the most valuable part of your experience at Berklee?

SC: I would say that meeting my bandmates would be the number one thing.The number two thing was certainly gaining some understanding of how the studio works which turned out to be super valuable to me. That's up there with the relationships.

I really liked the more general music classes. I didn't love my guitar lessons and things just because I didn't find a teacher whose style or approach I really wanted to emulate. There was certainly some value in the things that I did learn in the lessons during the first couple of years. I really liked ear training, the harmony classes, and the theory. I didn't have much background in theory. Filling in those basics was super valuable for learning songs quickly, which is something that is super helpful as a producer. In the studio, people have a new song, and maybe they've been playing it a certain way and it's a little flat and you need to learn it to create, recreate it, and make up new parts. The understanding of how chords work together and how keys work together is incredibly valuable. If you're you have to change the key at the last minute, you still know how the song goes. If you understand the relationship between the notes, that's huge.

Yeah. When you recorded your first solo album under your name, Cool It, you took more of a DIY approach, adopting the mantra “shitty is pretty”. As you worked on later parts of the album, you went up to Woodstock and even collaborated with other former members of Apollo Sunshine. Could you explain your creative process and how that’s evolved over time?

SC: My solo process has evolved to be more and more completely solo. I've always gotten satisfaction working alone, but I also love collaborating. I've got a new project I'm starting called Slow Fawn, that I'm going to be releasing next year. That's all collaborative. Slow Fawn is also the name of the studio. The idea of it is this: Outside of making a solo project, or anyone doing their band or their project or anything, come over to Slow Fawn, and we're going to make something and later reshape it. That's why the studio name is also the name of the project. I'm really excited about what I've got so far.

Back to your original question – the opposite of that. I've always really enjoyed being alone in my room with a four track or whatever. During the Apollo Sunshine days and really even before that, one of the most rewarding parts of the process for me was when we took a few weeks off of touring and went our separate ways to write for a little while and like get into a new headspace. I always loved that part where I'd have some shitty drum set and just make a demo. Back then it was never quite good enough to release, but there was also always a spirit of spontaneity that then became really hard to capture. Most of the time, we’d return and collaborate with the band where it would get better and we do the studio version. There were quite a few that never got better. Even though they were good songs, they didn't make the record because as a band, it didn't get finished enough to share.

That was something I identified as a problem. Over the years, I've gone from being a real sort of guitar specialist to trying to fill in the gaps in my skill set. I spend a lot more time practicing the drums and piano now than I do guitar. For the last few years, I've been playing drums on a lot of the records I work on, and I play keys on everything I work on. There is a sense of satisfaction in being a solo artist. As a producer, sometimes the best recipe is the least number of people in the room.

The stuff I'm getting ready to release is truly just me. I played everything on it. That's how most of my last few records have been as well. But it was an evolution. I played quite a bit of solo stuff in Yellowbirds, but there was always a band element to it too. For the most part, my skills weren't quite there to play everything and have it be as good as it would be with other people. Now it's different if I involve other people. I really feel comfortable with the sound and the feel of everything I play now. It's one more mode I have for self expression.

What was your experience working at Saltmines? Did that creative space influence your own creative process too?

SC: It was just such a great community. It was a pretty scrappy facility but also in a really cool neighborhood. Originally it was underground, but by the end of it, it was all tech startups and stuff. When I first started going to DUMBO, it was where Spin Art Records, which was Apollo Sunshine’s label, was located. It changed a lot in the 15 years that I was going there regularly.

I met so many amazing, amazing people there. One of the first people I met when I moved to New York was Dawn Landes, a singer songwriter. She's down in Nashville now, but she kind of put my life on the course that it’s still going. She introduced me to Saltmines where I could affordably rent a space to work and to so many of my close friends like Josh Kaufman and Annie Niro, Lauren Balthrop. And later I met so many more folks tangentially through them – Ray Rizzo. The people I've worked with quite a bit were all through Dawn sort of pulling me into that Saltmines community. Steve Solet, who was our landlord, is also my dear friend and the guy who made it possible for me and dozens of other musicians.

So sort of with all this collaboration that you do, how do you maintain your identity as an indie artist with today's predominant culture of co-writing?

SC: I just can't keep pace with that approach. This pop approach of top lines here and chord changes there and lyrics over here. Nothing against it. I've done some writing sessions that my publisher arranged, and it never felt like it was as good as when I write a song because there's something meaningful inside of me that needs to be exercised. It doesn't make me feel good to turn a song into a factory like that.

Part of being a producer is to increase the efficiency of the song production process. Frankly, getting to being a middle aged guy with kids and stuff, part of being able to maintain a voice as an artist is an exercise in efficiency as well. I don't have the kind of time to like, dream away all day. I have to create something in the time that I have free.

I do co write on stuff, but it happens more organically. If I'm producing, and the musicians have six amazing songs, it feels like the temperature was right to start the record. But with just those six done, what are we going to do? Lets take out a demo show, I love this part. Let's rewrite this verse since it's not as good as the chorus or whatever. It just happens organically like that. I like more idiosyncratic songs than the ones that tend to come out of those situations. Creativity can be great when it's not too precious to anyone. Even if you just start shooting wild shots and see what hits.

My hat's off to anyone who can just walk in a room with anybody and write a song, but something about a song to me needs to have a deeper intent and something a little more personal to be interesting. I don't like a lot of pop music, a lot of the top 40 stuff. I can appreciate this or that about it, but I don't like when it's designed to just like, connect at all cost, as opposed to connecting representing something so specific and so vulnerable that you yourself recognize it. Right? There's a discrepancy there for me.

Yeah, speaking of which: You have – I'd say – quite the tendency to write about darker themes, such as life, death, and extinction. Could you expand on your perspective on cycles of growth and decay and how it's reflected in your music?

SC: It's definitely true. I think I'm a songwriter who if I'm feeling great about everything, then I'm probably just gonna go out in the sun. I'm not gonna stop and write a song. I don't have a ton of happy songs. And I think there's a big place for happy songs in the world, and they're awesome. But I don't provide them.

I think part of it too is my process of writing songs, which is not efficient. Words will just sort of appear out of the sounds, and it's whatever's been deep in my subconscious. A lot of these themes tend to be things that certainly come up in conversation, but I think there's a thick layer covering them that's always there. With COVID, climate change, inequality, and the income gap, basic functions of society seem to be collapsing, and that's the subtext of everything. My work is born out of when stuff starts creeping out from a subconscious place as opposed to attempting to shape a happy song, or a hit song.

How has the course of the pandemic reshaped your pessimism and suspicion of the future?

SC: Well, it's funny. When I started singing songs about these topics, I always tried to give people some amount of entertainment in it like: That's dark, but I loved the melody. I really liked that guitar sound and then there’s Trump. I'm not trying to depress people. It's just where the words came from. I often felt like a crazy old man screaming on the street corner, while everyone was on their way to a party or whatever.

Then COVID came, and it was all just right there and in everyone’s face. I couldn't really write a song at all for a long time. That’s where this collaborative stuff, the slow fun stuff, which is all instrumental, came from because I had nothing to say. I wasn't doing it consciously, but looking back, I could see that what I tended to write about was stuff that I wasn't hearing a lot of people say in songs. Especially because a lot of hits were about, how much money this rapper has, how much fun they have because they're so famous now. I wasn't qualified to talk about these things, and I also didn't want to. With this, I was just like, okay, everyone is writing about the exact same bummer right now. There's nothing new to say about it. So it changed it in that way.

The few lyrical songs I've written are just about the bitter sweetness of our chance to live. Trying to focus on the beautiful snippets, somehow. Already looking back on life is just like all these snapshots and this montage, and it's bittersweet. Especially with having kids now, I’m trying to picture what their adulthood is going to look like, and how different that might be from ours. Their childhood is already so different from mine. I have a four year old who has been wearing a mask for half her life, and has no real memories from before then that she can actually put a finger on. So that's different. For sure. But still beautiful. I mean, they're happy kids. Life is great, but it can also be quite sad and tragic. And that and this is just my very privileged, great, nothing to complain about experience with life.

Has starting a family also reshaped your perspective?

SC: I think I felt more like a spectator before, in a way like. I almost had this sense of man, humans are so weird, but now having been born from humans and having co-created a couple, I'm sort of fully in the continuum. I think the feeling of the fluidity of humanity flowing through me is more poignant.

It's also a responsibility. I can't sort of think “whatever about climate change.” Not that that was ever my feeling. But resignation with a chuckle is harder to do now.

What do you think your next steps will be in terms of self exploration, music, and sound?

SC: I have some stuff getting ready to release, and I'm still sort of playing with how to format it. I think it's gonna be this: It's gonna come out as a single, but it's about 12 minutes long. It's really three discrete ideas that went really well together. It's so hard to get something to be heard in a sequence if it's shorter than a record, so I am going to put it out as one to impose the sequence. It's kind of combining the stuff that I have discovered and really enjoyed doing, instrumental stuff, with what I was doing before, and some new lyrical perspectives.

The main gap between releases for me in terms of songs like having a new thing to say. Finding new things to say is always the bottleneck in the creative process as opposed to finding a new sound or a new take on a sound I'm enjoying. I've got a lot of stuff that it's just about ready to be released next year.

On the whole, I would say it's a little more meditative. It’s certainly still dynamic, but it works its way into a quieter setting. I've been really influenced by Eno in the last year, and a lot of the 70’s German experimental stuff, Cluster and Harmonia and stuff that just kind of creates a mood and stays there, as opposed to like the sort of frenetic changes or like, giant shift and in range of a song. This stuff is a little more like an atmosphere that I'm trying to create in a longer form.

Okay, last question! It's a little bit different. What's your favorite TV show or movie?

SC: Oh, ah. Let's see. There's been a lot of stuff that's just been blowing my mind lately. I just watched two movies that I thought were really great. But the one was a Force Majeure. It's a Swiss movie – I think. Or is it Swedish? I think they're in Switzerland. But I think it's a Swedish movie. Yeah. Well, they're skiing, which is why they're in the Swiss Alps. There’s this family on this trip, and then an avalanche comes. It's a controlled avalanche, but it seems big. They all think they're going to die for a minute, and the dad grabs this phone and runs off, while the mom puddles under the table with the two kids. And then the rest of the movie is the fallout of that scene. So that's been the most striking movie I've seen lately.

And then TV shows, I gotta say, I really like I Think You Should Leave. It's a lot. Especially, after the fact. I would sort of cringe while watching it the first time and it felt like a guilty pleasure. But then I would just be doing something later and just start laughing like for days about my recollection of it. When I started talking to people about it, it really seemed like recounting comedy is just as fun as watching it. I think there's something very, very special in that.

// Katia Soares dos Santos ‘25 is a guest writer for The Record Hospital.