Chris Cohen describes himself as a member of the Portastudio generation. It’s a classification he’s coined to describe musicians, now in their late thirties and early forties, who cut their teeth in production with Tascam’s legendary Porta One tape machine. Largely used to overdub oneself before the advent of DAWs, the machines didn’t just help to foster a class of musicians self-sufficient on the instruments listeners would find on a rock record, they created a homespun aesthetic and a can-do work ethic in those who used them.
Cohen mentioned the Porta One while discussing his origins in creating music, but formative experiences with the cassette machine are evident in his output even today. Over the last fifteen years, he’s worked on a number of projects that straddle mainstream and experimental borders, moving around the bandstand from instrument to instrument in the process. Whether it’s his guitar work on Deerhoof’s early records, his production and playing on albums from his collaborative projects the Curtains and Cryptacize, or his songwriting on his two namesake records, Overgrown Path and As If Apart, you’re likely to notice a considered and wide-ranging palette of sonic textures. Much of this music features shifting harmonic landscapes whose chord changes cascade across a solid but nimble percussive bedrock. Cohen’s latest work, as coproducer and drummer on Front Row Seat to Earth, the most recent album from singer/songwriter Natalie Mering’s band, Weyes Blood, is another vehicle for his idiosyncratic, ’70s-inspired textures and efficient, floral musicianship.
MD: You have so many credits, fulfilling different roles with different projects: guitar with Deerhoof, drummer and songwriter for your own material, coproducer and drummer with Weyes Blood…. Which role do you identify most with?
Chris: Drums is my first instrument. I’m always happiest if someone asks me to play drums. Not that many people think of me as a drummer. Honestly, I think of myself mostly as a songwriter, and then I’m only as good as I need to be to get the song across. I’ve never excelled past a certain point on any instrument. I only get better as it suits me practically; my drumming has maybe sort of plateaued, but I can pretty much do what I need to. It’s not as if I’m composing my parts on paper—it’s more like my body is writing rather than my brain.
MD: The percussive textures on As If Apart and Front Row Seat to Earth sound beefy, and inspired by the ’70s. How would you describe your ideal drum sound? And where do you think those aesthetic preferences originated?
Chris: I don’t know where it comes from, but my taste formed mostly from the records I grew up listening to. I have real specific taste as far as drum sounds. I like them to sound thick. I pretty much tuned out of music production in the early ’90s. I was really into collecting records and only listening to jazz, experimental, and older rock music.
It comes down to the way you tune the drums, muffle them, touch them…. It’s not about gear. I have a certain sound in mind often that I’m going for, and I guess it’s kind of from this era in my life that I’m still grappling with for whatever reason. It’s something pre-’90s. I don’t know what happened to me in the ’90s. [laughs]
Thinking about the sound while you’re playing, and trying to make every stroke sound good, not just playing your part…. I put more focus into the sound itself than having consistent technique. When I’m playing I’m really listening, and I can hear the differences that result from how I hit.
MD: What’s your process for tuning and muffling/preparing a drumkit?
Chris: That’s the most fun part for me. Tuning is so esoteric—there isn’t one way to do it.
I always get them really resonant first. It’s a lot easier to just muffle a setup that’s not really tuned, and that sounds okay, but it sounds so much better when the drums are actually resonating and then you muffle them. I always like to use duct tape and then little bits of napkin, paper towels. I never, ever use Moongel or O-rings. Different muffling sounds so different. I always use coated Remo Ambassador heads. And I like to leave them on as long as possible.
I like to use light, nylon-tip sticks for the way that they sound on the cymbals. I really believe in changing your snares when they start to lose their snap. For me, it has to be tight. The best snare drum sounds are from the late ’60s, early ’70s. Tony Williams on Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch!—that’s a snare sound. The kick and snare drum sounds are the things I care most about.
MD: Your music often involves fairly complicated harmonic rhythms, yet you use straightforward, almost old-school drum parts to frame that shifting harmony. For example, you often lay down a Motown-style quarter-notes-on-the-snare groove, while the keys play a more complex dotted-quarter-note figure that unfolds over barlines. How do you go about writing and recording the drum parts on your records? And how does your role as songwriter influence your drum compositions?
Chris: The drum parts are written around the vocal melody. Their job is to support and accent the melody in the right places. The way I write a song, generally, is that I’ll come up with a little riff on the keyboard or guitar and a vocal melody, and then the drums come next. The drum parts come in pretty quickly. I want them to be simple enough that I can play them well. I do a lot of takes and a lot of editing in Pro Tools, so it’s kind of like fishing. I’ll write a fairly simple part, and I’ll try to have some fun while I’m playing it and then just look for the takes that have that fun stuff or some life in them.
I don’t like drum parts that are overly complicated, though. One thing I really try to avoid are hi-hat or cymbal parts that are overly complicated. I want them to be super-functional and durable, something you can settle into and play with feeling.
MD: How does that process differ with projects that you produce? With Weyes Blood, for example, you functioned as both drummer and coproducer.
Chris: Every situation is different. Working with Natalie Mering, her guitar or piano playing was the bedrock of the song, because we knew that was going to be there. She’d been playing most of the songs live solo for a while.
If it’s someone else’s song, I always go from them. I believe they know best; they had the original intent, and I think getting as close to that as possible is best. I never second-guess if someone says, “This is the feel of the song.” They’ve been playing the song for so many hours, and I’ve only heard it a couple of times. I don’t trust myself enough—the cumulative hours that you spend working with the song, that’s what you can trust.
For my music it’s totally different, because I’m doing everything. A lot of times my best ideas are the ones I have first. The mood of the song is usually right from the beginning, and then if I start using my logical brain to try and figure things out, it usually gets worse.
MD: You perform all of the instruments on your recordings. Why not work with a band?
Chris: It’s mostly logistics. I don’t have the money to pay people to spend the time that I need to spend working on these songs to get them good. I don’t like sketchy situations where you say, “Oh man, just help me out with this and there’s gonna be some points.” And there’s usually no points. Well, at least in my music there’s usually not a lot of money [laughs], and offering somebody points is kind of bullshit.
Captured Tracks [Cohen’s record label] gives me an advance that I use to pay my rent and eat while I’m doing these albums, and there isn’t enough to bring someone else in. A lot of what I do is inefficient when I work by myself. I tend to work in circles: This drum part isn’t working, so I go back and redo the drums, but now this guitar part isn’t working…. Those are things a band does without even talking, just by each person tending to their own part and listening. Maybe they talk about it, but maybe not. If I were just playing with the right people and had the budget for that and had a little bit of time, who knows, maybe that would be more efficient? I’m interested in trying that in the future.
MD: You do have to hire a band for your live shows, though. Who do you get to play drums?
Chris: I used to play drums with the band live. I stopped with the newer songs, because they’re a bit too hard. The current drummer is Josh Da Costa. He’s also not only known as a drummer, but as a songwriter and singer.
MD: That means on previous record cycles you played drums and sang lead vocals?
Chris: Yeah, I would. But I realized I wasn’t singing as well as I could. I felt like I could be a better singer if I’m playing guitar.
MD: What are the biggest differences between leading a band from behind the drumkit and from downstage, where you’re playing guitar?
Chris: It’s just a matter of standing up or sitting down. Though with drums I feel like you have more control over the music. That’s what I like about it best. When I’m playing guitar I’m following more.
MD: People talk a lot about how difficult it can be for a contemporary musician, especially in indie rock, to make a living. How do you go about supporting yourself?
Chris: Ever since Weyes Blood came out I’ve been making a living from doing producing. One or two projects a year that pay really well and are things I believe in artistically, and then to have the rest of the time for my music, would be ideal.
Before that I was doing all kinds of stuff—most of it not very glamorous, like picking up trash outside of an art gallery where I worked that would have big events. I worked on a farm…. Right now it’s nice because I’m doing my music and then I’m also taking some time away from it and working on other people’s music. My ideal would be to make a living from my own music, or make a living doing something outside of music that doesn’t take any mental space whatsoever.
I guess the future that I’m seeing for music, I’m sad to say, it’s sort of like where music is pay-to-play, where musicians pay for the illusion of being artists. They pay for this virtual-reality scenario where they get to think that they’re artists but actually they’re just paying for it. That’s how I see the music business evolving, sadly.
I’d be really sad if it came across like I was complaining or bitter about that, though. I’m very fortunate to be where I’m at. I’m still doing it. I’m able to be doing what I want to do. I’m basically living the dream that I dreamt as a kid. And what good is money, if not for that. I don’t have any regrets.
Tools of the Trade
Cohen plays a 1967 Ludwig kit and Supraphonic snare, a Pearl Rhythm Traveler kit, and old Zildjian cymbals. He uses Regal Tip 7A nylon-tip sticks, Remo Coated Ambassador or Vintage Ambassador heads, an old Yamaha bass drum pedal, a Pearl hi-hat stand, and a Tama saddle drum seat.