Coheed and Cambria: Burning IV You
Originally printed in Guitar World, November 2005
Claudio Sanchez and Travis Stever talk about Coheed and Cambria's new, incendiary creation, Good Apollo, I'm Burning Star IV: Volume 1.
I: Through the Eyes of Madness
The lobby of the Ramada New Yorker is not the most desirable of places to experience a life crisis. Situated less than a block from the always bustling Penn Station in midtown Manhattan, the space is well worn and inundated with people who shuffle in a constant stream through its revolving doors, giving it an air that is more truck-stop practical than luxury-hotel chic. But if it is here that Claudio
Sanchez chooses to undergo some major soul searching, then so be it.
“It doesn’t feel very good to be told that you’re nothing,” says the ordinarily animated Coheed and Cambria singer and guitarist. His demeanor is uncharacteristically somber as he sits at a small corner table that is only slightly removed from the general chaos. “To have someone look you in the eye and inform you that you have no control over your own life—that you’re essentially a puppet—is tough to hear. Particularly when you know that it’s true.”
Could it be that Sanchez, surrounded by throngs of cellphone-abusing businessmen, map-wielding travelers and vacationing families, has decided in this unlikely spot to reveal a dark and troubling secret? Will he curse his new major-label employer, Columbia Records, and claim it’s exploiting his band’s music in an effort to make a quick buck? Out a vengeful blackmailer in possession of a potentially damaging explicit videotape? Cop to an ill-advised deal with the devil that has now gone sour?
The answer proves far less scandalous, if just as bizarre. The puppet to whom Sanchez refers is not himself but Claudio Kilgannon, the young, much-put-upon hero of the fictitious tale that has served as lyric fodder for Coheed and Cambria’s two albums, 2002’s The Second Stage Turbine Blade and 2003’s breakthrough In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3.
As for the puppet master, his identity is revealed to Claudio on Coheed and Cambria’s much anticipated new release, Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV: Volume 1. From Fear Through the Eyes of Madness (Columbia). “The guy pulling his strings,” says Sanchez, “is the guy who’s writing the story.”
In more direct terms, then, Sanchez himself.
“Well, sort of,” he replies sheepishly. “See, I am the writer, but on the new album the writer is also a participant in the story, and his reality affects what happens to the people he is writing about. When Claudio, the character, comes face to face with this other guy who has been directing his path all along, he finds it tough to accept.”
So which of his two alter egos—the one being manipulated or the one in control— does Sanchez feel more of an affinity to?
“It kinda feels like I should be laying down in a psychiatrist’s office to answer that.” He laughs. “I’ve never been to one before, but maybe I should think about going!”
It may, however, be a bit hard for Sanchez to find the time to schedule an appointment. Coheed and Cambria, which also includes guitarist Travis Stever, bassist Michael Todd and drummer Joshua Eppard, look to be pretty busy for the foreseeable future, as Good Apollo is poised to be the record that elevates the band from indie-level curiosity to full-blown rock phenomenon. The fact that their music is now being distributed by Columbia, who signed the band last year, may play a role in this transformation, but it’s more likely that the major label merely had the good fortune to land what was already shaping up to be an inevitable success story. In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3, which employed visceral hard rock riffs, sugary power pop hooks and proggy instrumental excursions as a backdrop for a truly mindtwisting sci-fi lyrical narrative, sold upward of 200,000 copies and spawned two hit singles during its initial release (Columbia reissued the disc in late 2004) on the New York–based indie Equal Vision. Those impressive numbers were aided in no small part by Coheed and Cambria’s incendiary live shows. Support slots for a slew of emo and punk acts like Thursday, the Used and AFI saw the band unleash torrents of Technicolor guitar bombast (along with the occasional Iron Maiden cover) upon a new generation of rock fans unschooled in the majestic pomp and circumstance of Coheed’s musical touchstones—Led Zeppelin, Queen and Pink Floyd, to name a few—but clearly ready to learn.
No less a factor in the band’s success has been “the story.” Sanchez’s account of the doomed lovers Coheed and Cambria, the fictional couple for whom the band is named, has spawned a cult-like following that pores over every detail of his lyrics as the narrative unfolds from song to song. Though largely abstract and nonlinear in its construction, it is in essence a timeless telling of good-against-evil that is part Star Wars space drama, part Who-style rock opera, with Claudio Kilgannon, the sole surviving offspring of Coheed and Cambria, as the messianic, Tommy-like figure. That the tale has generated numerous internet chat room and message board discussions doesn’t appear to surprise Sanchez in the least.
“If I were a fan of the band, that’s what I’d talk to my friends about,” he says. “I’d want to know what other people thought about a certain character or their interpretation of a particular event. That’s kind of the idea—to get people thinking, open up their imaginations and let them have fun with it.”
Good Apollo is the next installment in the ongoing saga. But it is also the Coheed and Cambria album that puts the greatest focus on the band itself. “Apollo is by far our most personal record,” says Sanchez. “There was a different point of inspiration for these songs. They’re mostly told from the perspective of the writer, rather than that of the characters, so I was able to put more of myself into the lyrics. And musically, it’s slicker and more focused than anything we’ve done in the past.”
Slicker, perhaps; more focused, without a doubt. Tightly wound tracks like “The Suffering” and “Crossing the Frame” sharpen the propulsive riffing and infectious hooks of the previous album’s hit singles, “A Favor House Atlantic” and “Blood Red Summer.” When the band chooses to indulge its prog-rock tendencies, as on the album-closing quadrilogy “The Willing Well,” it does so with wild abandon and stunning proficiency. Over the course of just under a half hour, the four-part song cycle veers through a variety of musical moods and styles and features some impressive instrumental interplay between the band members. “I listen to some of the stuff that’s going on in that, and I just have to laugh,” says Sanchez. “It’s awesome.”
The album’s first single, “Welcome Home,” is a mammoth, six-minute-plus epic built around a towering minor-key riff that gives a nod toward Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,” piles on orchestral strings and ethereal background chants and climaxes in a guitar duel between Sanchez and Stever. “Claudio and I both share a big love for bands like Thin Lizzy and Iron Maiden—bands that just rip solos,” says Stever. “I think in the past we’ve subscribed to a ‘solos don’t fit here’ mentality. But this time we just said, ‘Well, they may not fit here, but let’s fit ’em in anyway,’ you know?”
If the guitarist appears nonchalant about tampering with his band’s sound, perhaps it’s due to the fact that, for better or worse, it is a sound that has never been easy to define in the first place. “We just play what we like,” says Stever, “and as a result I don’t know if we really fit in with what’s going on around us. But in this day and age you can either be accepted as part of the gang or you can get pissed on and made fun of by everybody for doing your own thing. I think we’re at the point where we really don’t care which one happens.”
II: Apollo’s Creed
Good Apollo came together in much the same way as has every Coheed and Cambria album: Sanchez composed the majority of the material, including the basic structure of the songs, the melodies and the lyrics, at home using just an acoustic guitar and an eight-track machine. He recorded rough demos, burned them onto CDs and made copies for each band member to listen to and come up with their own parts. “I pretty much wrote all the stuff around the end of 2003 and beginning of 2004, before we even signed to Columbia,” says Sanchez. “So we were still doing a lot of touring for Silent Earth, and there were times where we’d all sit together on the bus and just listen to the acoustic demos. A lot of ideas came out of that. Our drummer Josh, for example, would just start playing along by slapping on his knees, and work up some beats right there. That experience functioned as somewhat of a ‘runway,’ so that when we started rehearsing about two weeks before recording began, we were able to take off pretty quickly.”
When Coheed and Cambria entered Applehead Studios in upstate New York—the same spot in which they recorded In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3—they did it with the same production team, Chris Bittner and Michael Birnbaum, as well. “Columbia threw the names of a bunch of different producers at us, some of which were pretty interesting,” says Sanchez. “But we figured, this is our first album for a major label, let’s not add any extra stress to the equation; let’s just be comfortable. So we brought in guys who we were familiar with and that we knew would do a good job.”
“There was really no pressure anyway,” says Stever. “I think someone from Columbia came up to the studio once the whole time we were there. I don’t think I ever once felt like, ‘Oh shit, we’re signed to a major label now—I’d better step it up!’ ”
That said, both Stever and Sanchez give performances that in many spots far surpass their prior work. Coheed and Cambria have always been a guitar-driven band, but Good Apollo is without a doubt the album on which the two players most strut their six-string stuff.
“Instead of writing eight-minute songs that have a million different parts to them, we tried to play creative and interesting lines in a more concentrated space,” says Sanchez. “And there are so many cool little things all over the album. One of my favorites is this short three-part harmony solo that Travis does toward the end of ‘The Suffering.’ It sounds like he went up to [Queen guitarist] Brian May and was just like, ‘Um, could you write this part for me?’ It’s really amazing.”
Sanchez himself offers up some impressive playing of his own, branching out into styles he has not previously incorporated into a Coheed and Cambria record. On the song “Always and Never,” a hushed ballad that features nothing more than acoustic guitar and vocals, Sanchez proves himself to be quite an accomplished fingerpicker. “I always write on acoustic, but with the intent that whatever I come up with will eventually be performed on electric,” he says. “But I knew right off the bat that ‘Always and Never’ would remain an acoustic song.
“I think that my desire to try something like that comes from my childhood,” Sanchez continues. “My father played a little bit of guitar, but he was more into the classical side of it. I remember when I was young and we’d be driving in the car he’d always put on a cassette of these guys called Strunz & Farah [instrumental world fusion duo Jorge Strunz and Ardeshir Farah]. They were these two cats who would just sort of duel with each other on acoustic guitars, and they were absolutely sick. So at some point I must have said to myself, ‘Okay, I’ve heard all this stuff, let me try to do it.’ Although compared to those guys, I definitely see what I do as sort of the ‘Fingerpicking for Dummies’ version!”
Stever introduced some new sounds into the mix as well. He contributed lap steel to the song “Once Upon Your Dead Body,” and played both lap steel and mandolin on a hidden track, knowingly titled “Bron Y Aur,” that appears at the end of Good Apollo. “It sort of reminded us of Zeppelin’s ‘Bron-Y-Aur Stomp,’ ” says Sanchez, “so we went with it.”
For the majority of his guitar work on Good Apollo Sanchez relied on his trusted Gibson Explorers, as well as a Les Paul Studio and his newest acquisition, a white Gibson six- and 12- string double-neck. Stever favored Les Paul Standards and on occasion used an SG and a Fender Stratocaster. Both guitarists’ primary rig consisted of a Bogner Uberschall head fitted with Mesa/Boogie cabinets. Other amps used on the album included a Marshall JCM800, a Fender Dual Showman Reverb and an Ampeg Jet. Despite the fact that both Stever and Sanchez depended heavily on the Uberschall, they took great care in crafting distinct sounds. “You can always tell whether it’s me or Travis playing lead,” says Sanchez. “He goes more for a cutting, Jimmy Page–type tone, while I have a rounder, thicker sound that’s closer to someone like David Gilmour.”
While both guitarists take their share of solo turns onstage, neither had done much lead work in the studio. As a result, they opted to work out their solos prior to laying them down on tape. “One thing that was important to me was the idea of ‘vocalizing leads,’ ” says Sanchez. “I usually convey my message through my voice, but here I had to do it through my guitar. Instead of just being flashy, both Travis and I wanted to do something that the listener could sing along to.”
“That was particularly important on stuff like the solo tradeoffs in ‘Welcome Home,’ ” says Stever. “We knew we wanted to have this sort of ‘guitar duel,’ but it would have been boring if we were both just shredding. It had to be melodic, and it had to have structure. It couldn’t be clumsy and ridiculous.”
As for the ‘duel’ nature of their leads, was there any friendly competition going on?
“Maybe Claudio was worried about that,” says Stever with a smile, “but I wasn’t.”
“We’re such different players that it’s hard to even compare us to one another,” says Sanchez. “We come from totally different areas of rock and roll, whereas Travis listens to Neil Young, I listen to Spyro Gyra.” He laughs. “But yeah, there were times where I was sitting around with Travis’ family and I’d be like, ‘Oh, I totally smoked him!’ ”
III: The No Fear Factor
Here’s a quick drinking game: Perform an online search to find any articles that have been written on Coheed and Cambria. Every time you read one in which the words “Led Zeppelin,” “Queen” or “Pink Floyd” appear, take a swig. “I see those bands mentioned so often in stories about us that it’s become programmed in my own head,” says Sanchez. “Every time I get asked the question, ‘Who are your influences?’ I just rattle ’em off: Zep, Floyd and so on. And those bands are influences. But the truth is, there’s such a broad range of stuff that we listen to that comes out in our music.”
“It doesn’t bother me too much that people focus on the Seventies hard rock and prog thing,” says Stever, “because that is a huge part of what we do. But I wouldn’t mind if they paid more attention to the other aspects, too.”
Those “other” aspects appear in abundance on Good Apollo. Take, for example, the bouncy, almost whimsical guitar line that runs through “The Willing Well II: Fear Through the Eyes of Madness”: “I was trying to write a guitar part that reminded me of something [Jethro Tull singer] Ian Anderson would play on the flute,” says Sanchez. “And what came out was this weird, carnival musicsounding thing.” Or the shimmering, heavily chorused verse riff that appears in “Mother May I”: “I’m sort of biting Andy Summers on that a little bit,” admits Stever. “I’m a huge Police fan, and I’ve always loved his tone.”
Sanchez and Stever are clearly not above acknowledging their influences. Coheed and Cambria are, after all, a band that, having been saddled with endless Zeppelin, Rush and Pink Floyd comparisons, recorded songs titled “Bron Y Aur,” “2113” and “The Final Cut”—but they make a point to stop short of aping them. “Everybody’s influenced by someone,” says Stever. “That’s nothing to be ashamed of. The trick is in taking the stuff you love and creating something new with it.”
On occasion, however, there are songs that are inspired by nothing more than life itself. Such was the case with one of Good Apollo’s standout tracks, the gently sung ballad “Wake Up.”
“I wrote that song in what felt like one minute,” says Sanchez. “I had just gotten on a plane to go back to New York after spending time with my girlfriend in California. The band was getting ready to go out on the road again and I didn’t know when I’d see her next. So I was sad, and this song came out. I sent it to her and it made her cry. As to where the influence for something like that comes from, it was really just a case of that being the song I needed to write in order to make it to the next day.”
“Wake Up,” whose lyrics begin with the lines “I’m going to ride this plane out of your life again/I wish I could’ve stayed,” is perhaps the most overtly personal song in Coheed and Cambria’s catalog. But after four years, two records and innumerable discussions centered on the plight of the fictional characters that have dominated Sanchez’s lyrics, it’s possible that he found it was time to introduce another character into the mix: himself.
“Incorporating the character of the writer into Good Apollo was sort of my way of doing that,” he says. “Things that I’ve gone though, he goes through too. Things that have troubled me trouble him. But really, when you get down to it, my life experiences have an influence over the story in general. In many ways, I see the story as a metaphor for the band itself.”
As for what lies in store for said band after the release of Good Apollo, Sanchez doesn’t appear to be too nervous. He’s willing to accept—but not be controlled by—whatever hand fate deals out.
“The album’s done and it’s like, ‘Okay, we did what we had to do,’ ” says Sanchez. “If it works, then great. If it doesn’t, we’ll just try again next time.” He pauses, and smiles. “Or maybe we’ll get dropped. Who gives a shit, you know? We’ve all worked shitty jobs before, we can all do it again.”