“Let it be noted that I am in Billings, Montana at the Roadway Inn,” Tim Cohen adds dryly towards the end of our conversation a week ago. “There is not much doing here.”
The Roadway Inn of Billings lays claim to a number of attractions in its proximity – two institutions of higher learning, Pictograph Cave State Park, the MetraPark event center, where Tim McGraw will soon visit – but on an early Monday morning in July, Cohen is less than impressed with its “prime location.” Point being: He seems more than happy to kill some time discussing the Fresh & Onlys’ latest record, House of Spirits, even if in doing so, he’s digging into some less than pleasant memories and he’s only just woken up. For what’s it worth, he’s used to operating in a half-awake state anyway.
The Fresh & Onlys are passing through Montana on the way from Seattle to Minneapolis. When I initially connected with Cohen the day before, the band was in Spokane, Washington, not long into a thirteen-hour journey to the Roadway Inn. Piled into a van, it would rely on comedian Bill Hicks (“pretty funny for a while”), the German krautrock of Popol Vuh (“entrancing, psychedelic stuff”), and Tommy Smyth’s call of the World Cup final (“killed a good two hours”) for entertainment. “It’s really weird here,” Cohen said of his surroundings at the time. “I had no idea Spokane was this dismal. We pulled over to get some fast food and there are weird ghost-face figures everywhere.”
House of Spirits originated from a similarly barren environment. Cohen has called San Francisco home since the turn of the century, but following the birth of a daughter – his first child – the Syracuse native decamped to his parent’s horse ranch in Sedona, Arizona. There, amidst “the maddening silence on the ranch,” Cohen would write and demo the songs that would become the Fresh & Onlys’ macabre fifth LP. Meanwhile, back in California, his band of seven years was starting to “veer off the tracks.”
What led you to the Arizona desert? It sounds like it had a real impact on your songwriting for the record.
Life circumstance had me move to the dessert. I was raising a newborn baby out there. But the impact was also about moving away from living in the heart of San Francisco.
I’m pretty lucky to live in a great apartment in a great location in San Francisco. My life there isn’t colored by a lot of danger or sirens or harshness. It’s pretty idealistic as far as city environments go. I have a view of the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. I’m living in a place where I pay a fraction of what my apartments demands on the open market, because there is a lot of young money in San Francisco. I moved into this place 14 years ago.
But my experience in San Francisco is pretty insular, so my writing process became something where I could kind of partition myself off. I have this restless, creative mind that keeps writing and making stuff up, even where there’s nothing to write about – it’s just my friends and the bus I hear going by. It’s not like I’m living in some WWII shelter, but after a while, the creative process starts to stagnate, and you have to start creating you own environment, because you’ve been living with the same sorts of senses.
When I moved to Arizona, it wasn’t dissimilar, because it was still insular, but at the same time, I became exposed to this immense space that I had never experienced before. Where before I’d be like “Oh, I need some inspiration – I should go to the corner store and get a beer”. Now I looked outside and there was no corner store. There was no beer. There was nothing. There was just space. And I started to come to terms with the eternity of space and the possibilities. I think my brain actually started to take hold of it, and I’d be like, “Create this scenario whereby, yes, you are alone in the universe.” They were cheesily existential ideas, but I didn’t mind. If you listen to any of my music, you know I embrace really cheesy sentiments and overtly emotional ideas. It’s fun to wear your heart on your sleeve without being embarrassed.
Working in this new milieu, I opened up and recognized, “Yes, I am fucking sitting here in a desert. There is nothing around. There is no one around. Now I really do have something to inspire me, and it’s this solitude and this depth of isolation.” I was also dealing with new parenthood. Having birthed a newborn just prior to moving to the desert, I had that to reckon with.
I wasn’t writing about cacti, per se. I was writing about severed limbs and disembodied bodies and piles of souls. I think the nightmarish imagery was due to the fact that I didn’t have the beer store to distract me. I didn’t have this perfect location. I had this fear. I had the fear of being a father, and what’s to come in my life, and losing this so-to-speak freedom and the selfness that I had come to know. I had the fear of not having my insular surroundings and not having that corner store that I could always go to. Maybe now my car breaks down and I’m stuck in the middle of nowhere with miles and miles to walk.
It was good. It really woke me up to lots of things. The idea of waking up is also pertinent, because a lot of times sleeping in that silence and isolation, you’re not hearing the bus go by. You’re not hearing sirens. You’re not hearing cars or people yelling on the street. When you wake up in the desert, it’s either to a monsoon – the crack of thunder – or the howling of a pack of coyotes that seem to be right outside your door. It’s a different way to wake up. A lot of the imagery and ideas and melodies in my songs occur to me in dreams or a sleep state.
Did the physical environment have any effect on the music itself?
No, I don’t think so. I write within a certain set of parameters. I think most music writers do. At times, I’ve gone out on a limb: I’ve written rap songs and black metal songs and more psychedelic excursions. But that’s pretty much unforced and undecided. When you work as a band, you let the alchemy and your past experiences with your bandmates define what the music will actually sounds like.
As a writer, I can’t think too hard about it. The first thing I come up with is a melodic line. It’s been that for pretty much every song that I’ve written, other than possibly rap lyrics. Back in the day, I would play a guitar or a piano or whatever instrument, and sing a melody to myself. Or I would do it in my head through the power of deduction. The melody just comes into my head – it’s not something I’m really working on. It’s an eight-note line or it’s one line of a song. It’s just the melody. Then I run to an instrument, or if I didn’t have an instrument, I write down on a piece of paper the relationship between the notes. I try to understand the interval and the notes of the melody, so that the next time I have a guitar, I can figure it out.
That’s how a song always starts, and it was the same for every single one on this album. With “Who Let The Devil”, I just woke up and there was this lilting melody in my head. It was [hums melody] “Durnana nana na nana naa nanana naa na…” That’s exactly what was in my head. And I had a keyboard, so I figured out the keyboard line and wrote it down. I have notebooks full of these melodic lines and the chords that go underneath the melodies.
When it comes time to demo the songs, the first thing I do is make a rhythm track. I don’t always get it right the first time, but seldom do I redo it. Pretty much the first rhythm that I assign to a melody is the way that’s it’s going to be. When the song actually gets recorded and the drummer comes in and interprets my rhythm track, the song slowly takes form, but it doesn’t change that much from its original inception. I feel like I have to be committed. As soon as a melody comes into my head, it’s important to assign it a rhythm and a tempo, and that melody is pretty much resigned to living with that tempo for the rest of its life. I establish that relationship very early on, instead of having a melody and being like, “Well, maybe it would work better if it is more baroque instrumentation.” I don’t really think about that. I just like find a rhythm and a tempo, and then I basically have the template for a song.
The lyrics are the last thing. And that takes a while, because it’s like, “What kind of cadence and feel do I want to give this song? Is it a sad song? Is it a happy song?” Most of the time I don’t know, so most of my songs are either happy music with sad lyrics or vice versa. I like that juxtaposition. That’s what makes writing music interesting. That’s what makes listening to music compelling. It doesn’t have to be, “Oh, here’s this happy melody, how about I write some sweet sing-songy lyrics?”
In your article for Impose, you mentioned having a nagging feeling that the band had lost some of its alchemy. What you mean by that?
On a personal level, I started this band with a really close friend of mine, Shayde [Sartin], the bass player. We spent a lot of time together over the past five years or so. We spent many, many months touring, and in cramped quarters, and just getting to know each other on a very familial level. And as in any family, once you start having issues and arguments you have to figure out how to deal with them. That was particularly true in my family. My parents were big on: “This is all you have – this brother and sister of yours.” My parents grew up growing apart from their siblings and their parents, and they didn’t want that to happen to us, so they were committed to keeping this nuclear family. It was really important for them to facilitate this closeness. But you can’t choose your brother and sister. You can’t choose your parents. You’re kind of stuck with your real family.
When problems started to happen in the band – as they will with any group of marginally dysfunctional people who spend a lot of time together – you get this feeling of, “Well, this isn’t really my family. I don’t really need to be doing this.” When issues started to arise, they were never dealt with properly. And by “properly,” I mean the way my parents kind of taught us, which was: “Work it out. It’s not that you’re stuck with these people – this is your family. It’s really important. These are the people that will have your back when it matters the most. Take care of them.” But in the band, you don’t have that, because bands are so ephemeral – they’re just constantly changing and rotating. We never did that, though. We just kept same line up.
The breaking point was when I moved away. A few of my buddies in San Francisco didn’t take well to me having a kid and moving away. It was lashing out and, in a way, it was exposing them to their own problems and their own issues. People started to veer off the tracks a little bit, and the band was no longer a familiar unit.
But there was an idea that the band was always going to be there. When I started writing these songs and sending demos back, I was expecting excitement – a feeling of “When we get back together, it’s going to be magical. We’re going to make this great album.” But it didn’t happen like that. Of course, I had to make my schedule to come back to San Francisco to record the album, and that schedule didn’t match up with anyone else in the band, really.
And we weren’t sitting there writing songs together. Shayde and I used to always sit in my kitchen with two guitars and come up with these songs, and then we’d spend all day recording them. That was how the Fresh & Onlys started. That’s how our albums got recorded. It wasn’t like that anymore. Now he wasn’t in my kitchen. I was in Arizona taking care of my daughter, and he is was in San Francisco kind of veering of the tracks in his own way. When I went back to San Francisco, the connection had frayed.
The recording process was very trying. Shayde was dealing with his issues, which are largely based on substance abuse. [Guitarist] Wymond [Miles] was kind of busy doing is own thing. He’s like me – he’s a compulsive songwriter, so he was doing his own stuff. [Drummer] Kyle [Gibson] had just kind of lost interest, it seemed. Suffice to say, we were all going in different directions and when we came back together to record this magical album, it was like, “Wow, this really doesn’t feel right.”
By and large, it was just me in the studio, with Phil [Manley] recording. We got the drum parts, but they seemed like they might have been phoned in a little bit. I started playing all the parts on the songs, and then Shayde would come in and attempt a bass line, and he’d just punch-in every line. It was a sad thing to watch. We used to be able to go in and knock these out, and it felt right, and it felt immediate, and it felt true. This time, it was piecemealed together. But, finally, Wymond came in at the end and pulled everything together with this rush of creative luck that he had.
The process was very trying, and listening to the album, I can hear a little bit of that. I don’t know if anyone else can. I can hear the difficulty and the sadness that was happening between us. But I like the album a lot. I think it actually benefits as a result of having been the result of this hardship. I know that sounds very contrived – like, “Well, yeah, we went through our own hardship, so it’s real and true.” It’s not like that. I just like how it came together as a counter to what happened in the past.
The touring band now is sans Shayde and Kyle. There are two new guys who we have touring with us, and it’s been great. The vibe is all there. It feels new again. It feels great to perform.
There have been a number of articles recently about the state of San Francisco’s arts scene – that higher housing prices have had a negative effect on musicians ability to live in the city and the availability of recording studios and rehearsal spaces.
Honestly, it hasn’t affected me at all. I have rent control on my apartment. I’ve seen friends fall off the radar and lose hope about San Francisco, and I’ve had several of my friends and other bands move away – mostly to LA. But I’ve been focused on raising on my daughter. I’ve heard a lot of whining and complaining about prices going up, but these are people that haven’t been forced to move yet. They’re just talking about other people moving. So I’m like, “While we’re here, why don’t we keep this fire burning?”
I don’t give a shit about having a scene, honestly. That was maybe more important to me when we were starting off and needed that. We needed to be on tour The Oh Sees all the time. We need to be on Sonny and the Sunset’s album. But, looking back, it never really was that important to be part of a scene. It got San Francisco noticed by the national press and it began to be described as “the scene,” so to speak, but we didn’t identify with it. We were always going to be on tour. We were always going to be recording. And so were these other bands. We were kind of just doing it, because that was what we were here to do. It wasn’t like we were talking about, “Well, let’s make our scene do this now and make them talk about this.” It was like, whatever, once the press gets a hold of something, they are going to turn it into the “garage rock” thing anyways. It doesn’t really matter – you just have to keep doing it.
I’ve continued to work and work through this entire dot come tech boom. And I’ve seen Thee Oh Sees move, but John [Dwyer] had other reasons of moving, which coincided with changes that were happening in his band and his life. And Ty Segall is from L.A., so he was going to go back there anyways. We’ve all gotten older, and we’re maybe not touring as much, and none of us are particularly famous. Thee Oh Sees are very well known and incredible, but it’s not like our whole scene lives and dies with them. I’ve heard a lot of people act like that, like, “Well, Thee Oh Thee Oh Sees are gone!”
And the press has been like, “The Fresh & Onlys are our San Francisco darlings now. They’re the band that hasn’t left yet.” And we’re like, “Well, we still play shows in San Francisco and they’re half attended, so what the fuck is that?” People want to take ownership of something, but not go out to shows and buy records. That’s how the scene dies. It’s not because a band moved to LA. It’s because you got caught up thinking that you had to start saving all of your money and all your time, because somehow someone was going to force you out.
And, yes, San Francisco has changed. I live back in San Francisco now, and in the fifteen months that I was gone, a lot has changed from a restaurant perspective. That’s really all I can say. There are a lot more nice restaurants. But I don’t see a difference in any other ways, because I haven’t had to wrestle with that. I’m just in my place and I’m still there.
What brought you to San Francisco initially?
Well, that would be a Honda Civic hatchback.
And what about more broadly?
I think it was a youthful yearning. I was living with my parents and working at the concession stand at a driving range / par-3 golf course / batting cages. There is no more dead-end job than that. My buddy called me up, and it was that old American dream. It was like, “Hey man, I’m driving to the West Coast. Let’s do On The Road. Let’s do it.” Of course, he didn’t say “Let’s do the Kerouac thing,” but at the time, it was probably a book I was reading. It was like, “Fuck yeah, let’s hop in and go.” It was nothing more than that. I had no destination in mind. I didn’t know I was going up to San Francisco. I actually lived in Oakland for a little bit.
I’m glad I did. I love San Francisco. I fell in love with it as soon as I moved there.
“Bells of Paonia” was an interesting choice of a lead single. Were you trying to send a message?
Maybe a little bit, and that might have been on the cheekier side, because nothing that we’ve done has sounded like that song. We knew that the label was going to say “Animal of One” – that was the song that they were all about, and it’s clearly the best song on the record. Choosing “Bells of Paonia” wasn’t to go against our label in any way. It was more like, “Let’s expand. Let’s try something else and see how you guys work with this.”
Of course, it wasn’t an actual single – it was released on the internet, which is a totally different idea. The first actual 7” is “Animal of One”. But we had never done anything like “Bells of Paonia”, and we wanted to give people a new side of the Fresh & Onlys. No song has particularly elevated people being aware of us. We’ve ridden a remarkably straight curve for the brunt of our careers. Nothing has pushed us up or down, particularly. We’ve been riding a straight line curve. So, we were like, “Let’s change it up and maybe people will have a new perspective on what we do. It’ll either help our career or it won’t. At this point, it probably doesn’t matter what we do, so let’s do something different.”
How did that song sound when you initially envisioned it?
It sounds pretty close to the demo, actually. But, to be totally honest with you, I originally had the same chord progression and the same melody, but totally different lyrics. It was a folk song, and that’s why it has a campfire folk song vibe to it. When you listen to the lyrics, that’s what it sounds like. So, I took that song, which no one had ever heard – I recorded it years ago and it was very similar – and I was like, “What if I put this driving beat underneath it?” So the demo I made sounds very close to the final result, not sonically, but arrangement-wise and instrument-wise.
Additional contributions by Sarah Guan.