Coheed and Cambria: Black Rainbows

By: Dennis Cook

New Album
The companion novel that accompanies the latest release from progressive hard rockers Coheed and Cambria begins, "In the beginning, the universe held nothing but cold, obscure darkness and a longing for something greater than itself." Not exactly pop culture drivel, nor the sort of sentiments that get a band's music into TV commercials and other avenues of distribution so common today. But there's not much common about Coheed and Cambria, whose curious name instantly announces one is in different territory than the norm. Since 2002 the band has explored The Amory Wars high concept of singer-guitarist-lyricist Claudio Sanchez over four thickly constructed albums – and "high concept" is meant in both the lofty sense and a distinct bong hit, analyze-it-till-dawn quality. Joined by Travis Stever (guitar), Michael Robert Todd (bass) and Chris Pennie (drums), Sanchez and company have carved a unique niche where metalheads, jam kids, indie rockers and old prog lovers have plenty to enjoy and explore in their intense, colorful and quite powerful music.

Year of the Black Rainbow (released April 13 on Columbia) offers a prequel to the previous Amory Wars chapters, but also opens up the band's sound in fascinating ways, unearthing a hitherto unknown pretty pop streak and generally layering their highly emotional soundscapes with even more details and interesting twists. The album also has a 349-page companion book written by Sanchez and Peter David that adds even more layers to their self- created mythology, starship filled opus. But beyond all the big ideas, Coheed and Cambria make some pretty kick ass rock that can be enjoyed on its palpably intense virtues without doing the homework to understand the larger concepts and intrigues of The Amory Wars.

JamBase: Having completed the big storyline and going back to a prequel opens up possibilities for recombining the material I would think.

Coheed by Chapman Baehler
Travis Stever: The concept doesn't dictate anything we do live. Basically, we mix our songs up in a way we think will make a great set that will appeal to our fans and some people who've never heard the band. So, on this run we're playing some older tunes we haven't played in a long time and even a couple new ones we've never tackled before. Pretty exciting.

Did you have the concept of these large, overarching themes right from the beginning of the band?

Travis Stever: I think that we've always liked having no boundaries in how we can experiment, whether that comes down to lyrically for Claudio or musically for each individual. We're pretty crazy when it comes to expressing ourselves. Well, maybe crazy isn't the best way to say it but very experimental. I think everybody has a really great imagination and way of expressing themselves musically. And I think that works to our advantage for people who enjoy our music.

The first time I saw you guys play I really didn't have any idea about the storyline of The Amory Wars. I just experienced Coheed as this very powerful, very engaged hard rock act that really brought it to the stage.

Oh yeah, that's really our intention to show we're a rock band that can be appreciated just from the normal standpoint of someone who goes to a rock show to enjoy themselves. Usually people who get into the band pretty heavily want to explore the concept, but it's not a necessity. A great deal of the lyrics and concepts come from real life experiences. So, you can relate to the music and lyrics from the perspective of your own life. Sometimes it can seem a bit fragmented because of the storyline, but I find that great deals of the songs, especially on [Year of the Black Rainbow], are pretty understandable, to a degree, by anyone up against turmoil. And that's just one way to look at it. I know that Claudio writes from a realistic perspective and then works songs into the storyline afterwards. Or it could work that the concept comes first, but either way it comes from real life experience.

I was struck by the new album's romantic tinge. There's a sweep to this music that's expressly romantic and a little forlorn like "Far." You've had this element before but it's more forthright on this album.

Claudio Sanchez by Scott Dudelson
I agree. From every angle, we were definitely more experimental on this album than ever before and kind of anxious, even musically, to wear our hearts on our sleeves, where we felt we should try anything we thought might work. And if it did that's what ended up on the record. Our heads were in the space to just see where the music takes us. We'd plug in and play to the song and just see if anything sticks. I have some guitar parts on there that just happened that way that I'm really proud of, and I know Claudio does, too. It's a different form of expression in a way.

Even your own press materials push Coheed as this serious progressive rock unit but there's a real pop edge to some tracks on Year of the Black Rainbow. You guys clearly understand that part of rock 'n' roll, too.

Oh, we love that part! Right now we're in the midst of really heavy touring so that's going to be our focus for quite some time, but it's always in the back of our minds to see where everything takes us. There's nothing set in stone. What's important right now is the tour we're about to do, and it's what we're excited about. We get the question, "What will we do next?" a lot. Even the ideas we have, we're not going to say right now. It's kind of interesting that people are SO quick to ask for what's next when [Year of the Black Rainbow] just came out three months ago. But the majority of our fans have been doing this like crazy! Well, what's going to happen now is we're going to go out and play. That's just what bands do. And that's what I'm most excited about at this moment.

Now that you have a prequel, do you think you'll ever attempt an expanded version of Neverender complete album concert series?

Coheed w/Warren Haynes by Robert Chapman
I could definitely see us doing that again. It's been discussed. It's something the band accomplished already, so just throwing one more album on there is nothing. It's funny because we haven't played in a while and this new setlist incorporates some older songs. And a lot of muscle memory came into play, where some of the parts became second nature because I already did this. Even though it's been almost two years, I did this and knew these songs – all of them – and it's pretty easy to come back to them.

The way that music lives in your body, waiting for you to tap into it, is one of the coolest things about being a serious musician.

I agree!

Do you think sometimes your band is taken too seriously? I picked up on your sense of humor immediately seeing you live, but I think the big concepts and science fiction elements of Coheed occasionally obscure that aspect.

We have fun and definitely have a good sense of humor. It's funny how some people take what we do SO seriously. We take our craft seriously, and obviously with the music we play and the concepts we explore there is a serious edge. But I'm a goof [laughs]. Everyone in this band has a great sense of humor and constantly says outlandish things. I think people would be surprised because they imagine we're constantly sitting around reading sci-fi books or something, which is absolutely not the case.

One of the things that sets you apart as a guitarist is your growing interest in lap steel. That's not an instrument you see a lot of in rock, especially hard rock.

Often it's really tricked out and sounds completely different than a normal lap steel. There's a lap steel part right at the beginning of "When Skeletons Live" on the new album, and also in numerous other parts. I started playing it a while ago because I love a lot of the music that contains lap steel. I'm huge Neil Young fan and even some country stuff, though not newer country but old school bluegrass and country music. I could be listening to New Riders of the Purple Sage and then slip right over to Slayer. I have a project I work on at home where I mess with a lot of banjo and mandolin and stuff like that. So, when I started to experiment with [lap steel] I immediately thought of how I could combine it with what I do in Coheed. And there's parts where I was able to use that really favored what's going on, whether it be what Claudio is singing or playing on guitar. That's kind of what I'm here to do, and if lap steel works – and it does – we keep it. One of my favorite lap steel parts I ever did for Coheed is on "Once Upon Your Dead Body" off Good Apollo Vol. One. It works perfect because I played the lap steel part and an acoustic right along the same line and it sounded really pretty. And that was the first experience really playing it on a song with this band, and it's my favorite. That's how things work out in this band.

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