Dreams are often cited as a vital muse for artists when creating pieces of work, and they were a vital source of inspiration for Tim Cohen, front man of The Fresh & Onlys, when it came to work on their latest album, House of Spirits. We sat down with Tim recently to talk about those dreams, the unique process of writing in isolation, and what his relatively new outlook on life as a father of a two year old.
ChunkyGlasses: With the new album, House of Spirits, you went out to an isolated ranch is Colorado to write a batch of new songs. What made you decide to change the writing process up and what was the experience like out there?
Tim Cohen: Basically, I had a daughter in October of 2012. As a family, we moved from San Francisco to Boulder, CO for a few months and then up to Arizona where my folks live to rear her and get out of the city for a bit. We moved out to a ranch in Sedona, right outside Red Rocks State Park. I went out there to look after my daughter and have family time. Any time I had not involved with my family, I spent holed up in isolation, honing my craft, I suppose. I did a lot of writing and painting. The bulk of the new album was written in the desert and in the quietude it held. I had no external stimuli and no peers around me while I wrote.
CG: Are you used to writing in isolation as the sole songwriter?
TC: I wouldn’t say I’m the sole songwriter in the group. I’m more of the chief songwriter. With Magic Trick, the process has become more of a democratic process as well.
CG: As the chief songwriter, are you used to writing on your own. Is the process of writing different now that you are responsible for your daughter?
TC: A lot of issues going on inside the band coincided with my family moving out to the desert for a couple months. We had substance abuse and psychological issues with some of the guys and people losing interest in the band. It was a very lonely process writing since my isolation coincided with a lot of the band isolating as well. Our previous albums were very much collaborative albums. I’m not sure if the casual listener would notice the difference on how singular the albums sounds but the way the songs were written was in total isolation. I only had a guitar, a Korg synth, and a drum machine that I found in this nice bookstore that sold used musical equipment. I would record them via 4-track and send them off to my band-mates via very spotty Internet connection.
CG: What was the recording process like?
TC: The recording process wasn’t as smooth and collective as previous recordings were but I took it upon myself to make sure this album came to be. I found that it was just me plugging away at the album in the early hours of the process. Wymond (the band’s guitarist) jumped on and started to really take control of the process, which really helped me out.
CG: Going into the studio, how close did you want the tracks to be to your original demos that you made out in the desert? Did you have a certain idea in mind when you wanted to record House of Spirits?
TC: I leave that stuff to the experts. Wymond and Kyle take charge of the production of the songs and flesh out the demos I create. Most everything sounds good to me. If I can hear each part, I can get into the recording. They are married to a certain aesthetic. I’m not partial to any part of my demos unless there is a part that I really want to keep. Sometimes, I’ll hear a flub or a mistake in my demo and someone in the band wants to keep it on the record. Some parts of the demos are parts that I don’t even remember. Wymond pointed out that he wanted to keep the background vocals on “Ballerina” and I was like, “What vocals?” I didn’t even remember that I did those background vocals and during the mixing, I was told that we needed to keep them on there. I would always call my work done but it really takes collaborators like Wymond and Ryan to really see what needs to be done with each track.
CG: Speaking of the songwriting process, did most of the material come from dreams you had?
TC: Definitely written with dreams. It’s hard to put into words what the dreams I had were like as opposed to writing normally. When you wake up from dreams in the desert, it is almost always a terrifying experience. You have either been woken up by thunder and lightning or a pack of howling coyotes. Those are the two primary sounds at night in Arizona. If I did make it through the night, a rooster crowing would wake me up literally with the stereotypical cock-a-doodle-doo. Waking up seemed much more profound than the dreams. If you hear a pack of coyotes, it sounds like they are right outside your door. They are carnivores and travel in packs so this is not something I’ve ever had to deal with before. I wouldn’t trade the experience in for the world but you become more awake than ever after hearing them. It was that waking process that led me to these dark images and to grab my notebook and write. My thoughts are most lucid right when waking up or right before bed.
CG: Were you writing down each dream that you could remember as soon as you woke up?
TC: A lot of times, the imagery you have in your dreams will lead you to create stories and writing them down as quickly as possibly helps. A lot of the hallucinogenic-like imagery from my dreams is what I used for my songs. The songs would come from a singular theme in my dreams and I would build upon that theme as a storyteller. “The Bells of Panola” is completely based on one image I had of a woman wearing a black leather curtain. It was like a cliché horror image from one of my dreams that I built upon. This is just me taking the dream a step further and imagining where the dream could go or what parts I may have not remembered.
CG: Would you say that your dreams are usually bizarre? Do you remember most of your dreams?
TC: I do remember most of my dreams but I wouldn’t say that are more bizarre than anyone else’s. I made a practice to write them down so I think that writing them down hones into the collective conscious of the multiple selves that one person can be composed of. As soon as I wake up, my dream is just floating there in the wind for 20 to 30 seconds and I need to snatch it out of the air and write it down or it leaves me completely. I don’t read up on dream meanings and so the great thing about dreams is that I chalk it up to the imagination for dream inspiration. I think that, as an adult or child, it is important to allow your imagination to flourish and not do anything to squander imagination.
CG: With the new album, how would you sum up the tone of the new album versus that of the previous EP (Soothsayer) or The Long Slow Dance?
TC: Soothsayer would be the closest since they were recorded at the same time as the tracks for the new album. There are still more tracks but I don’t know what will happen with them yet. Not unlike our other albums, there is a certain aesthetic to the songs. “April Fools” doesn’t sound like “Ballerina” and that track doesn’t sound like “Bells of Paonia”. The overall tone, I’d say, is a little bit colder and less romantic then Long Slow Dance. We hit some lows in ideal on this record. That’s how it felt recording it at least. It’s almost like the new album is warmer but with a cold tone at the same time. It’s hard for me to explain that.
CG: You said that there were issues going on with the band. Was this in part to touring the last album?
TC: The Soothsayer tour was a disaster, actually. That’s when our personal issues hit an all time low. We had to tour as a two-piece with our soundman playing snare drum. We had to do it as an acoustic tour, which we never thought we would ever have to do. We made it work but it came out as a huge challenge to ourselves as musicians. People came out, who had seen us before, and this new acoustic tour seemed like a breath of fresh air to them. Touring has been our downfall. We toured heavily in our first five years of existence and finally took a break last year. Touring takes a lot out of you and we aren’t spring chickens anymore. I love touring so don’t get me wrong. It’s not the touring that takes it out of you. You just have to know how to do it correctly. When I ask myself, in existentialist form, why I keep touring, all I can tell myself is that I have to tour. I don’t know how to not tour and make music. It’s not that I don’t know how to do anything else; I just don’t know how to stop making music.
CG: Is touring different now that you have a child or is scheduling more of a challenge now?
TC: For me, it’s definitely different. For her, she’s too young to know I’m gone on tour. She’s a year and half now and she’s the one that I think about when I’m on tour. My heart hurts when I’m away from here since she is the love of my life. With music, I’m not going to put that over my family. I’m not going to die for my music like I would for my child.