Sam Cohen: Yellowbirds, Levon and Weir
“I would be down to be one of those split personalities,” declares Sam Cohen. He is referring to his love of playing with both his electric rock band Yellowbirds and in a more stripped down setting, but Cohen has already left split personality in the dust, leaning closer to something resembling hyperactive musical ADD. Just off the road from touring in an acoustic duo, Cohen was out and about in Brooklyn over the past week, performing a psychedelic rock show with Yellowbirds at Glasslands and appearing at dive bar Goodbye Blue Monday to back indie folksinger Hannah Cohen and later lead a group improvisation inspired by a film. Since his first band Apollo Sunshine broke up, Sam has not lived on the road incessantly touring like he used to, but he’s stayed equally busy with a myriad of different projects, establishing himself as a lynchpin of Brooklyn’s collaborative music scene.
Cohen had a prolific 2012, highlighted by his leadership role in The Complete Last Waltz and joining The National and Bob Weir to play Grateful Dead songs at Weir’s TRI Studios. And with a Yellowbirds album due to arrive in May and a more active touring schedule planned, he looks to stay just as busy in 2013. He sat down with jambands.com to talk some of his favorite moments from the past year and 2013 plans.
I wanted to start off by talking about your 2012. You had a packed year with Yellowbirds and a bunch of other projects, including a couple of tributes to Levon Helm. The first one was at Brooklyn Bowl, and was one of my personal favorite shows of the year. It was so soon after Levon’s death that it seemed like everyone in the crowd was still shocked but excited to celebrate his life and share joy in his music. What was the feeling onstage?
Yeah there was so much raw emotion about his passing – it was just a few weeks before. It was an incredible, incredible vibe, incredible night. I’ve never done any kind of tribute to anything before that concert and it seemed like an amazing reason to go do one. I’m a huge fan of The Band and Levon Helm specifically, so it was an honor to be a part of and I feel like everyone brought a lot of genuine emotion and their positive baggage to that concert, so it was really special.
It’s great to hear you guys had as much fun as we did in the crowd. And then in the fall, you did another one – The Complete Last Waltz on the West Coast. This time you were the musical director, the man in charge of dividing up those four historic hours of music among 25-30 different musicians. How did you approach that and deciding who would sing what and play together?
That was one of the biggest administrative challenges I’ve ever had to deal with. I think I got asked to do the concert in August… August or September. It took place in November, and the only thing that was really set up was that Ramie Egan, who was the producer and the guy who had the whole idea for the show and is friends with a lot of the guys who are the core band – Scott Metzger, Joe Russo… had talked to them, you know, “Would y’all wanna do something like this? I’ve got a hold on this space.” But by the time I got involved, everything else was spinning around that one constant – the date was set. That’s not really a lot of time for a concert like that.
For the next 2-3 months, anyone’s got their schedule of gigs or work or whatever they’re doing planned out… if they’re not gonna be on tour that week they’ve probably got Thanksgiving plans because it was Thanksgiving weekend. So we knew finding the people we wanted was gonna be a challenge. And then who was there was constantly growing… Some people, I wanted them involved but didn’t know what I wanted them to do. Other people, I knew exactly what I wanted them to sing… so it was a lot of juggling.
As the pool kept growing of who was involved, we sort of shifted around who should do what. But luckily we had an amazing core band, like totally amazing core band, all great guys who live in Brooklyn. So we were able to rehearse a ton, with just the band, so we knew that could be solid. And then as we worked in the singers closer to the show, building up to it, and it all really came together in the final hours. Which it had to, because everyone wasn’t in the same location until the day before the show.
Right. Well that’s how the best ones sometimes work. Was the groundwork laid for that during the Brooklyn Bowl tribute? It seemed like a lot of the same group of friends playing with you.
Yeah it was a lot of the same guys in the band – like Scott Metzger, Marco Benevento, Joe Russo, Dave Dreiwitz. All those guys were part of that first one. And it was great because I just sang a couple of songs. I was not part of the core group for that thing, I was like a guest, I did two songs. I felt really confident going in that they had already played a ton of this stuff. But actually so much of The Last Waltz is covers that there was still a ton of shit they’d never played before.
Did you have a specific moment from those shows that stood out as a favorite part?
I was only onstage for two songs for that first one, but The Complete Last Waltz… it was completely thrilling. I’ve never taken on something that big, and to see it come off… One of my favorite moments was after the intro with the horns up in the balcony and we had the little combo come in on the other balcony – it was mandolin, auto harp and acoustic guitar – and then the lights came up on the stage and we went into “Up On Cripple Creek.” And that was something we never got the chance to rehearse. It was just like “Put these guys up there, those guys up there, they’ll play the thing, let the lighting guy know.” And then, hopefully it comes off. And then like the lights came up, we went into “Up On Cripple Creek,” and I saw all these smiling people, from the ground to the ceiling, with the widest eyes and their hands in the air and this roar. And it was just unbelievable. Like ok, here we go, I’m going to play this concert for the next four hours and it’s totally working. I knew at that moment that it had the potential to exceed all expectations, and it did.
You mentioned earlier that you’ve always been a huge fan of The Band and Levon. Can you talk a little bit about the influence he’s had on your career?
I had a band before Yellowbirds, it’s called Apollo Sunshine. We did an album called Katonah, and that was our first album and it was really skitzo-pop psychedelic stuff. And as we were finishing that record, though we had already recorded most of it, we started getting into more raw, minimal stuff, and music more about dynamics and players working together, like The Band. Our friend came over with the DVD of The Last Waltz, and was like “Oh my god, you guys have never seen this? You’ve gotta come over and get high, you gotta watch this now.” And it totally smoked us. I just loved it.
I read Levon’s book and got deeper and deeper into that stuff. It’s always been a source of inspiration, that’s like a band at the ultimate level of what that concept of a band is supposed to be, this communal thing on wheels with a band house and everything. At one point Apollo Sunshine lived in a farmhouse in western Mass. Our MO of what the model of a functioning group of musicians was; was very inspired by The Band.
I wanted to ask you about a couple of other little tributes and side-projects that you participated in with Bob Weir at TRI Studios. How did you enjoy those?
I loved that! Honestly, I’m also a really big Dead fan. I never got to go see them in the 90’s… I grew up in Houston and maybe they were there once or twice. But I was always a fan of their early records, like tremendously. I got my first few cassettes at pawnshops and got into them from there. So that was awesome, since then I’ve gotten deeper into that band, read a lot about them. It was amazing to spend that much time with Bob Weir.
I especially loved the one we did with The National, where we actually had a ton of rehearsal in New York, really internalizing their music, figuring out how we wanted to play it, and then getting to go play with Bob Weir. We had a couple of twelve hour rehearsals and then we rehearsed maybe 4-5 hours the day of the concert, and the concert itself was close to three hours long. So it was… it was incredible. The only time he stopped to practice was to work on the form of the jam, which was so cool. He would stop and say “Oh when we would play this, there’s actually more of a form to it, it’s not all in E, it’s in E and then it’s in C-sharp minor, then we go back to E, then someone starts playing this riff and then we all start playing that riff in different permutations and then we go back into verse. So it was basically an enormously dorky musical experience and spiritually fulfilling.