Sam Cohen: Yellowbirds, Levon and Weir
As a Deadhead growing up, how did you approach playing those Garcia solos?
I mean, I just did. Learning to play guitar, I was always more into figuring out how to improvise like my heroes rather than learning a ton of their lines. I’ve never been big on licks, I don’t have a big bag of licks, solos I know… He was one of the guys who I just heard things – even at 13-14 years old – that were different about him and unique to him. His tone and the way he likes to bend the major 7’s up to the root instead of the flat 7’s up the root, just little things, idiosyncrasies about his playing and signatures of his playing… I wanted to honor that and also not try to go so deep that I wasn’t also communicating (my own) music. I didn’t want to just communicate a tribute, I wanted to play music, you gotta be yourself to do that.
Well I thought it all turned out great. And one of the things that struck me was that it seemed to be less about big guitar solos and more about group interplay, and so that’s interesting you mentioned you rehearsed heavily. What was that rehearsal process like? How did you become involved with The National and this project?
Well I agree with a lot of what you were just saying, and we were really happy about being able to make it less solo-y and more like a band playing. A lot of that is due to Josh Kaufman, who was the bandleader for that. I came in through him. He’s old friends with The National guys and they asked him to lead the rehearsals and be the bandleader for that event and he brought me in. Josh is the other guitar player in Yellowbirds and knew I loved the Dead and said, “Hey, you should do this with me.” I obviously jumped at the chance and that was that. A lot of the rehearsal was – this is how it’s been done for years, let’s actually make it more of a band section than a solo. Keep the solos short was a constant conversation.
Let’s shift gears towards Yellowbirds. You’ve already wrapped up your first tour of the year. 2013 is a month old and you’ve already been up and down and East coast. How did touring with Guster go?
It was awesome! I owe them a huge thanks for this tour because I was able to do it all by myself as far as logistics go. Luke Reynolds from Guster was accompanying me for the tour, which enabled me to fly down to New Orleans, where the tour began and we did 11 shows together. It was nice, it was Luke and I playing and then the string players Charlene Huang and April Guthrie who play cello and violin learned a couple of my songs, or one of my songs and one cover, and it changed it into kinda a chamber thing.
I was riding on their tour bus. I had a bed, I had a ride, and we were hanging out all the time. It was a ton of fun to be with those guys, and the easiest tour I’ve ever gotten to do, the cushiest. And the shows were great, the crowds were really receptive and felt like it was really connecting.
And how did you like playing those songs in the more stripped down context?
I’ve always enjoyed that. We’ve done a good amount of that with just Josh and I. Last April we actually did some shows that way opening for Guster with Josh and I. And then there was one at State College that Josh couldn’t do and I went out solo and Luke was cool enough to learn half my set on short notice and play it with me.
So that opened our eyes to the possibility that I could go out by myself and open for Guster and play with Luke. I get a big kick out of playing the stuff in a stripped down way. I feel like there are a lot of dynamics that are possible, the guitar becomes a bigger thing, it becomes the whole thing. And having strings is super cool, I never get to play live with strings, few people do. So that was a total treat.
Is that something you’re interested in pursuing more or is Yellowbirds going to stay first and foremost an electric band?
I would be down to be one of those split personalities. I’ve got the wild psychedelic rock band and I’ve got my more like sensitive guy stripped down thing. I don’t really like playing solo. I just don’t get a kick out of that. I think because of the way I play guitar, it needs some kind of accompanist, like another guitar player.
But I really do enjoy playing that way. It’s really fun. It’s a great way to connect to a new audience because the music is distilled down to just the bare essentials. This tour I was opening for people who mostly had no idea who I was, and it’s really awesome that it would be impossible to not get what someone is doing when you’re that stripped down. If they like it, that feels like a lasting connection. Not to say I don’t love playing with the full band too. I’m really excited to get back to that.
What do you guys have on the table this year?
Mostly New York shows coming up in the immediate future. We’re playing Mercury Lounge on the 15th of March, and we’re releasing the second record in May. So we’ll definitely be doing some touring this summer. So far we’ve booked Pickathon in August and I’m sure we’ll fill in some dates around then with West Coast touring.
So the new album has been recorded? Can you tell me a little about that?
Yeah, it’s the first album that I got to make in my studio, which is a place I’ve been renting for a little over a year… Josh and I and Brian, they’re both from Yellowbirds, and a few other guys from The Hold Steady and The Dap-Kings share this place. It’s got some great gear, great instruments. It’s a really small, modest little room. It’s like a musical clubhouse and we can get all this stuff done in there. So it was pretty amazing to have my own familiar place to work that was also a fully functioning recording studio. The last record was like some basics in a studio and I did the rest in my apartment. And I liked the result, but it’s pretty cool to have that same familiarity that I had in my apartment, but it’s like a real studio.
So did that open you up to including new sounds or musical approaches on the new album?
Definitely. I feel like on the whole the record has a more open sound, less congested and dense sound because I had more options. Plus I worked with an engineer who shares the room with us, Jim Smith, and he co-produced the record with me. I really admire his approach to recording and sound and together we were able to get singular sounds that we found really interesting, so I didn’t feel compelled to add a lot more. I loved the drums sound, I loved the bass sound, it was almost a question of what’s the least I can add and have this be done? And not from a perspective of speed or laziness cause it still took a long time. But from a perspective of I don’t wanna clutter these sounds. If you listen to the two records, you can see the space around everything, and it feels bigger.
One last question for you – one of the things that I love about The Color is the layers and layers of sound – with acoustic guitars and harmonies and the autoharp and everything – and it reminds me of the video that you put together for “The Rest of My Life” with all the collage images. Do you see a connection between making music and layering all those pictures together to make that video?
Absolutely. That was completely my wavelength at the time that I made that record and that video. I was really into combining fidelities, those scratchy old classical records, and then the hi-fi of studio recordings and the lo-fi of bedroom recordings and it’s all kinda mashed together on the record to what I really wanted it to sound like. Like things from different worlds and times and spaces and cutting in and out and playing all together. So yeah, I think the visual manifestation of that maybe informed the music as vice versa.
Are those videos a hobby that you have a sustained interest in?
Yeah definitely. I did the first one for an Apollo Sunshine song just on a whim. We were like “Hey we should make a video for the new record!” At the time it was new, it was called Shall Noise Upon. I was talking to my wife Sarah about it, like “What can we do? We gotta do something cool…” and she was said “Oh we should cut up nature books and make a collage video.” We started doing that and I just got super into it, like obsessed and had days when I wouldn’t even leave the apartment or even put pants on, working on the ground with it. And over the course of a few videos – I’ve done two Yellowbirds videos and I did one for Chad Stokes that’s animated that’s called “Rainsong” and I did one for Josh Ritter that’s called “Love’s Making It’s Way Back Home” and kept advancing the techniques and refining it, so yes it’s definitely something I have a sustained interest in and something I want to do more of.