Chris Cohen: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

“People want a lot,” Chris Cohen sings on “Edit Out,” the second song from his forthcoming self-titled album. It’s a small phrase, economical in its concision. But like all the songs on Chris Cohen, available March 29, those four words contain multitudes.

Built over the course of two years in Cohen’s Lincoln Heights studio and at Tropico Beauties in Glendale, California, the record is a work of radical transparency, inspired by the dissolution of Cohen’s parents’ marriage and his father’s addiction. Working with lyricists Katy Davidson (Dear Nora), Luke Csehak (Happy Jawbone Family Band) and Zach Phillips, Cohen imbues his achingly gorgeous pop songs with a dozen more lines that unfold more with each listen: “Weigh the world on a scale/tell any story to suit you/like Jonah swallowed the whale,” he sings on “Heavy Weather Sailing,” inverting the Bible story so that it’s the human protagonist swallowing down an enormous truth.

Like his work with Deerhoof, Cass McCombs, Ariel Pink, and Weyes Blood, Cohen’s gentle psych-pop has always rewarded paying close attention. But Chris Cohen finds the songwriter addressing his world with more candor than ever before. “I hoped that by writing about what was closest to me at the time, I might share something of myself and where I came from,” Cohen says in the album’s official announcement.

Great songwriters have always been able to twist pain and confusion into beautiful shapes, but what Cohen accomplishes on his third record goes even beyond that. Empathetic, unflinching, and filled with hooky melodies, the album communicates feelings verbally and non-verbally. Chris Cohen presents its creator unobscured.

Aquarium Drunkard: Your parents divorced while you were making this record, and subsequently, your father came out of the closet and opened up about his struggles with addiction In “Green Eyes,” you sing: “A fool lies, only a fool lies.” Was emotional honesty an aim making this record?

Chris Cohen: Actually, things didn’t happen exactly that way.  I’m still trying to figure out how to tell the story myself and how to be fair to my family. Talking about it in an interview, there’s the risk of glossing over the contradictions and complexity of it, which I think is the part most about sharing.

Essentially, my dad’s addictions got to the point where he and my mom were in real financial trouble and he was draining my mom’s retirement, so she had to save herself. Their separation started during the making of As If Apart and they finally divorced in 2018. They were married when they were 18 and as I understand it, my mom knew from the beginning he would keep sleeping with men. They taught my sister and me that there was nothing wrong with being gay, but still, it was a secret from us and most other people. Anyway, their marriage ended more because of the addiction I think, which we all became aware in 2006, when my dad went to rehab for crystal meth and later heroin.

Towards the end of their marriage my dad was leading a double life, like with multiple residences, shuffling mysterious debts around, etc, but in the beginning, before my sister and I came along, things were more out in the open. My parents were theater people in New York in the 1960s—my mom was an actress and my dad a stage manager—they didn’t have anything to hide from anyone. But once my dad started working in music, they were part of a different world and I imagine my dad was scared to be out (they moved to Los Angeles in 1973 where he worked at A&M Records). I think that really took its toll on him and ultimately all of us. And now after all the insanity with my dad’s addictions, there isn’t much left of our relationship (we haven’t spoken in three years). So I’m dealing with some grief over that.

To get back to your question: I don’t know if “emotional honesty” was an aim in making this record—but I did want to sing about specific events and memories and where I come from. I’ve felt disappointed at times that my songs weren’t more clear, so I’m experimenting with what I think is a more direct approach. It’s a fine line to walk. I don’t want these songs to be flat or like just “bitter” or [centered around] one emotion; it’s a lot of different things at once. To me “honesty” has a connotation of “accuracy” or “completeness” or something, which doesn’t feel quite right so I’m resisting your phrase.

AD: Do you feel like there’s a kind of honesty to these songs that runs deeper than an accurate reporting of autobiographical events? Do you feel more comfortable categorizing these songs as honest in a different way?

Chris Cohen: I don’t know how much it’s my place to say what my songs are. My goal in making this record was just to stimulate my imagination and see what came out.

AD: I can’t imagine it’s easy speaking about your family’s struggles or your familial pain. But the press release shares that info. Did revealing that feel essential to this record for you? 

Chris Cohen: I just imagined I’d get asked about it.  My songs have dealt with similar themes before, but maybe listeners didn’t know what they were about.  I go back and forth about feeling the need to explain them—I’d rather not have to—but in the past maybe I was covering for my family. I remember an interviewer once asking me about “Drink from a Silver Cup.”  It’s a song about my dad but I felt like I couldn’t give a really truthful answer or I’d be letting his secret out, which was a terrible feeling. Also, it was just really complicated to explain.

AD: This record opens with “Song They Play.” It’s an impressionistic set of words, but it seems to be about music meeting an unmet need for you.

Chris Cohen: Yeah sure, that’s part of it. I was trying to paint a picture of my childhood environment…We were privileged and I was shielded from reality in many ways. There was pretty limited communication. My guess is that music was my way to connect to people, particularly my dad, even though with him it never made us friends or gave us something we shared [but] since he was in the music business, I must have thought it’d be an inroad.

“I don’t know how much it’s my place to say what my songs are. My goal in making this record was just to stimulate my imagination and see what came out.”

AD: Did that kind of upbringing allow you to sort of shape your own reality in your head?

Chris Cohen: Sure —the advantages I had as a kid determined a lot…I was born in 1975 and grew up in the world of L.A. private schools with lots of entertainment people and their kids. I was shy and I loved playing drums and recording on my four-track. Things were pretty easy until my sister and I started to leave home, but of course, there were weird little things happening all the time that didn’t make sense until years later. There were lots of drastic emotions and inexplicable relationships and events. During the height of the AIDS epidemic, most of my parents’ friends died…There were people around whose relationship to us was unclear—for instance, my dad had a relationship with the artist Paul Thek going back to before I was born and my mom was close to him too. He stayed with us for a while when I was young and I remember feeling very threatened by him and like, “Who is this guy?” He actually left some work behind which I apparently made my mom throw away after he left. He painted these glass light fixtures from our ceilings blue, sort of like globes. Seeing his work again as an adult I was so sad and felt I had missed a great opportunity, not to mention my dad, who I think was truly in love with him.

AD: What kinds of things does music allow you to communicate that you have trouble doing without it?

Chris Cohen: Music lets people see something of who you are—I don’t necessarily mean like autobiographical lyrics—but just from the way you make and put sounds together. It can say things that can’t be articulated any other way. So it’s hard to say what that is in words. But I think we’ve all had that experience of someone’s presence or of a certain moment just being transmitted to us.

AD: Melody is a core virtue in your songs—do the melodies come before the lyrics?

Chris Cohen: Yeah, generally it’s the melody and chords first, or some kind of riff. I might have a few words or just vowel sounds, then I write the lyrics at the very end. Most of my time writing is probably spent fine-tuning the melody and fitting the different sections together. I keep the melody in my head and just sing it over and over again over the course of many days until eventually it’s right. So the phrasing’s purely music at first, separate from words and meaning.

AD: In addition to the lyrics you wrote for this record, you collaborated with a number of songwriters—Dear Nora’s Katy Davidson, Luke Csehak of Happy Jawbone Family Band, and Zach Phillips. You co-wrote some songs with Zach on As If Apart, but was the process of incorporating other people’s lyrics a new one?

Chris Cohen: Not necessarily. With Katy and Luke, it was similar to how I’ve worked with Zach. I gave them a pretty finished recording with me singing the exact melody without words, or maybe a few words, or a song title. For this record, I wanted to work with a bunch of different people (there’s also “House Carpenter” which is a traditional song). It was very liberating to sing other people’s words. For instance, I probably would never have written a phrase like “pain and skill” (in “Sweet William”) but I love singing it.

AD: Did you have discussions with these lyricists about the themes of the record or did you leave them to their own devices?

Chris Cohen: Katy asked me for a prompt. Zach, I just gave song titles and a chorus lyric. Luke was on his own for themes but he tied the words for “Sweet William” into “House Carpenter.” (“Sweet William” refers to a different traditional English ballad, of the same name.)

AD: The music of Pat Metheney and Thomas Dolby influenced this record, but it doesn’t necessarily sound like those artists’ work. How did their work shade the songs you were writing?

Chris Cohen: Golden Age of Wireless was a big influence on me in terms of harmonic movement and song structure. Like Bacharach or Brian Wilson, I love songwriters who can work really unusual kinds of chord changes and dissonant melodies into pop music. And I love the textures and sounds of this record—when I was little, “Europa and the Pirate Twins” was on the radio and I knew there was such a thing as synthesizers but had no idea what they did. When you hear it now the production still sounds sorich and original. 

The Pat Metheny Group soundtrack [for The Falcon and the Snowman] influenced me in terms of its dark mood, also the sonic palette evokes a time period I was interested in. I love all of Lyle Mays’ pads and synth textures. It’s a great synthesis of styles (especially “This Is Not America” featuring David Bowie). I haven’t gone super deep with all of Metheny’s work but I’m a big fan of “Song X” by Ornette Coleman and do enjoy his sound a lot.  I like the way he bridges different worlds of pop and jazz, like playing with Joni Mitchell.

AD: You heard “House Carpenter” via the Watson Family. What made you feel like it worked in the context of this record?

Chris Cohen: I wanted something hypnotic with lots of verses, to take a break from all the chord changes and meter changes. Also, I really love the story. A sailor knocks on the door of his old true love and asks her to come away with him even though she has a family now, he says, “I could’ve married the king’s daughter but I gave it up for you.” When she obliges, it ends in tragedy and misunderstanding, which I interpret as a warning, not to look at love like it’s a transaction. words/j woodbury

Aquarium Drunkard has launched a Patreon page, which will allow readers and listeners to directly support our online magazine as it expands its scope while receiving access to our secret stash, including bonus audio, exclusive podcasts, printed ephemera, and vinyl records. Your support will help keep an independent cultural resource alive and healthy in 2019 and beyond. Pledge today, and find us on FacebookTwitterInstagramSpotify, and Mixcloud, and sign up to receive our weekly (Sidecar) newsletter