Coheed and Cambria Talk About Breaking Their Concept Album Streak and Aging Well
For the past 20 years, Claudio Sanchez, lead singer and songwriter of Coheed and Cambria, has been building an epic.
The group, known for its leader's explosive falsetto and ability to translate early Aughts teenage nerd experiences into rich sci-fi epics, has set each of its past seven albums in the fictional galaxy of Heaven's Fence. Each of those records came with an accompanying comic book and added another chapter to an ongoing series called The Amory Wars. That fluid synthesis between the art forms won the band a dedicated fanbase and a regular spot at New York Comic-Con.
Now, after two decades, the band is about to put all that aside.
Coheed and Cambria's upcoming eighth album, The Color Before the Sun, is set primarily in the very real universe of New York City and deals with a whole new set of issues.
"It's very much a time capsule of my last two years," Sanchez told Mic. "I created The Amory Wars in 1998 because at the time, I didn't understand what a frontman or a singer entailed. And I was sort of afraid to share my stories, and I didn't want my stories to be judged. So I created these fictitious ones to essentially hide behind." Now, he feels it's important he share his experiences as they are.
Their sound has that same nostalgic prog-punk feel, but it now adds a new wisdom to the angst. "When the rug gets pulled out from underneath/ Just embrace the fall," Sanchez sings on the album's first single, "You Got Spirit, Kid." "'Cause no one gives a fuck who you are." It acts simultaneously as throwback and reinvention.
Mic talked to Sanchez about what motivated this new direction and how his creative approach has changed over his 20 years helming Coheed and Cambria.
Mic: I'd love to dive right in talking about the decision to leave behind The Amory Wars. What motivated you to change direction like this?
Claudio Sanchez: The decision wasn't made until the record was finished. When I started writing the record, I had no idea I was actually writing this.
I had actually moved from upstate New York to an apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn. As I started creating in this new environment, I got this sense of exposure. I tend to wake up pretty early; that's when I feel my most creative. But living in the apartment, that's not something I could do. I found myself writing these songs midday, and I could hear my neighbors and I know my neighbors could hear me. This exposure sort of leaked into the theme and consciousness of the music I started writing at that time.
When I was finished with the record, I sort of looked at them at a crossroads: "This is the most personal record I think I've ever written," though Coheed sort of had that even with the concept albums — but this time there was this exposure, there were these things I had endured in the moment. I thought, "This looks more like a solo album to me." So I kind of toyed around with that idea for a little bit.
I looked at Coheed and thought that means that Coheed has to sit aside for a while. I've always tried to keep Coheed as limitless as possible when it came to creativity, when it came to the band we were touring with. Why should the concept really be any different? That's when I decided that it would be the first Coheed record without The Amory Wars.
It seems there's a lot more going on with the album than just adapting to city life. What are some of the other themes you made a point to talk about on the record?
CS: The first third of the album is basically about the city struggles, trying to create. I started to feel this sense of identity crisis where I was kind of in this power struggle between myself and this bigger identity, Coheed. I started questioning what life would have been like had I made different choices, if I had never started The Amory Wars, if there had never been a Coheed and I could start fresh.
Then my wife and I found out we were pregnant.
My wife and I collaborate on a lot of things together, a lot of comic books, a lot of music, art, and here we are now collaborating on a life together. It made me see her in a new way, and it made me appreciate everything we do together. I created "Here to Mars" for her. And "Atlas" is very much about the inevitability of having to leave [our son]. It's what I do for a living.
The last few are really all about coming to grips with this record as what it is. It's the punctuation of the album. It's the realization that my identity crisis isn't that big a deal. It's no bigger than the next man's problems. That's where "Spirit" came from.
The way you're narrating it, it seems that this is a concept album, but just a very different concept.
CS: Yeah, I know. It's strange. It's very much a time capsule of my last two years. It is in a way. To me, I like it like, Coheed and Cambria are fictitious characters that I created, but at the end of the day, it is about a man and his wife and the things they had endured pre- and post-childhood. In a way, it's an autobiographical concept.
It makes me wonder about the stories you came up with for your concept album and your comic books. Did you take those from your own life and just translate them through this lens of fantasy? How was that creative process different?
CS: All the stories in The Amory Wars have these very real starting points and characters that are based on people and events that are hyperrealized in a science fiction setting. For this one, I just thought I'm at this very important point in my life with my son being born that I thought, "Why not share this personal change with the creative and artistic side of me — with Coheed?"
You've been working on The Amory Wars for close to 20 years. What's it like to have something like this that's such a constant in your life, while everything else in your life is so vulnerable to change?
CS: It's kind of a love/hate sort of the thing. You know, I'll find that I go back and listen to those records and wish that things were done differently. Because now they'll dictate what's going to happen conceptually in future stories. But at the end of the day, I think I have that with everything I do. Sometimes I'm like, "Why the hell did I do that?" Other times, I feel very fortunate that I was able to go down that path.
Do you have a specific example of something you're thinking of when you say, "Damn, why did I do that?"
CS: Actually in Second Stage, the second part of the story of the first record, I have the Coheed Kilgannon character, sort of in a biblical way, execute his children [laughs]. That has been a tad problematic in terms of trying to adapt into certain things. But it also makes the story kind of unique. He doesn't do it in a sort of spiteful, vindictive way. He's sort of backed into a corner. I sort of look at the moment and think, had I let the family be a family of heroes, like the Fantastic Four, it would have made it an easier pill for people to swallow.
But I think about Coheed, and it is this sort of oddity that some people can't wrap their heads around. I think of moments like this as truly a dividing line between people who are truly involved and who that aren't.
Music has changed so much since you all had your MTV heyday. There were a lot of bands sounding like you. A lot of them haven't made it to the 20-year mark the same way you have. I wonder if the changing musical landscape has influenced anything about the directions of the band, or whether you've felt like, "This is the sound I built; I'm gonna own it."
CS: It's a little bit of both. I try to be as open-minded as possible. I don't really explore music as much as I used to. But it's certainly in my periphery. More than anything, the tools for creating music keep getting better and better. We can churn things out so much quicker.
I think about the band when we started in 1995 and the kind of band we were. This is before we even released [Coheed and Cambria's first album The] Second Stage [Turbine Blade]. It's so wild. We've come so far, and we've changed so much. That's why Coheed has embraced the term "progressive," because we're not necessarily a progressive rock band in the sense that most people think of when you think of that term. We always made it a point to change. We don't want to put out the same record twice. I know that's kind of hard, because that's who you are. We just want to age well.
Coheed and Cambria's eighth album, The Color Before the Sun, drops Oct. 16. Check out the making of "You Got Spirit, Kid" below.