Interview: Coheed and Cambria on Their Ambitious New Companion Albums, 'The Afterman'

“I’m not a great communicator,” says Coheed and Cambria singer and guitarist Claudio Sanchez. It’s a surprising admission from someone who has not only spent much of his musical life behind a microphone but also masterminded one of rock’s longest-running concept stories.

Over the course of 10 years and five studio albums with Coheed and Cambria, Sanchez has narrated the tale of the Amory Wars, an epic and intergalactic battle between the forces of good and evil.

In that time he has also issued a series of comic books and graphic novels based on the story, and, more recently, partnered with Mark Wahlberg and Leverage Entertainment to turn the Amory Wars saga into a feature-length film. Clearly, his words have struck a chord with many fans. But, he says, “the whole concept really stems from my insecurity. I have poor communication skills, so it helps for me to put my feelings across in this way. It gives me that release.”

Sanchez continues to pursue that release on The Afterman: Ascension, which introduces another arc in the Amory Wars mythos by focusing on the life of its namesake character, Sirius Amory. The new effort will also be paired with a companion album, titled The Afterman: Descension, which is slated for release in February 2013 [It was released February 5].

The two albums represent Coheed and Cambria’s first recordings since parting ways with longtime label Columbia. “It came to that point where the relationship just wasn’t working out for both parties,” Sanchez says of the split. As a result, the band — which includes guitarist Travis Stever, drummer Joshua Eppard and new bassist Zach Cooper — financed the recordings itself and created its own imprint, Everything Evil, as a conduit to release the new music.

The process, Sanchez says, was liberating. “It gave us the opportunity to create just for the sake of creating. I was able to rediscover those emotions I had as a young artist when there wasn’t anything else there to guide me.”

The result is a wildly diverse record. It’s full of the band’s trademark proggy riff-metal (“Key Entity Extraction I: Domino the Destitute,” “Mothers of Men”) but also delves into keyboard-laced spoken word (“The Hollow”) orchestral pop-rock (“The Afterman”) and gentle electro-acoustic ballads (“Subtraction”). For Sanchez, his desire to try out various music styles goes hand in hand with his telling of the Amory Wars saga. “The story and the songs are really just my way of communicating my emotions at different points in time,” he says. “And I want to explore as much as I can.”

There appears to be a strong theme of life and death running through much of the storyline on The Afterman: Ascension.

That’s true, though when I started writing the material for The Afterman I didn’t really know what the concept was going to be. I just let myself be inspired by events in my life. A big moment came about two years ago, when I wrote the title song. It was very much influenced by something that happened to my wife. She discovered that a really good friend of hers had passed away — only she found out through Facebook.

I’m into the whole social media thing but I’m not on Facebook; that’s not part of my universe. But to see her go through that grieving process, and to think that the starting point of the whole thing had been this impersonal blue glare of the computer screen against her face, it was a very profound moment and it really spoke to me. That’s when I started to come up with many of the concepts and themes for The Afterman.

From a musical standpoint, you tackle many different styles throughout the album’s nine tracks. There are plenty of heavy riffs, but also pop melodies, acoustic ballads and progressive elements.

I’ve always incorporated a lot of different music into my writing. I don’t know why I’m even bringing this up, because it’s kind of weird, but when I was younger I actually created different personalities that I would write from. I even had names for each one, which was bizarro. [laughs]

There was Papa Porpoise, who was my aggressive side. Then I had Camille, who represented the softer side — the ballads and that kind of thing. Mr. M was more concise and to the point — that’s where the pop stuff came from. And then there was Professor Plum, like the guy from Clue. He was the source of the intricate, proggy material. So even from the beginning, I had all these different styles I would write in. And for some reason these four personas helped me compartmentalize my ideas and the different musical approaches.

Where do your varied tastes come from?

My parents listened to all different types of music, and they created a large spectrum for me to draw from. So I learned to be very open minded from a young age. That’s why with Coheed and Cambria I never want us to be pigeonholed into just one thing. The pop side is just as important as the progressive side, which is just as important as the ballads, which is just as important as the heavy stuff.

Early on in the band’s career you were very much lumped in with the emo and screamo scenes. Did you feel a part of that?

When we were coming up in the early 2000s that was the sound of a lot of indie rock. Independent music was a part of my life for sure, so there was a connection. I also think being on [the record label] Equal Vision helped guide us into that world. But to me, we were much more than just that, and it was a little discouraging when people would assume we were just an emo band. But I didn’t think about it much. I was just happy to be out on tour and doing something I loved, working toward this thing. So the tags and categorizations didn’t bother me.

You’ve certainly broadened your reach over the years. This past summer you went out as the support act for Iron Maiden.

That was a truly great experience. I’m a huge Maiden fan, and I felt that the audience was really welcoming toward us. It was a proud moment for me.

Did you get to hang with them?

We did. Adrian Smith would come by our dressing room, and so would Janick [Gers], Nicko [McBrain]...a bunch of them. Actually, one night right before we went on, Steve Harris came in and just started expressing how much he loved the band and that he was disappointed the audience the night before hadn’t been more into us. And we were just sitting there with these big question marks over our heads, thinking, The crowd wasn’t that bad… But he didn’t understand why it wasn’t just chaos in the audience. [laughs] So to have guys like that, who are legends, be so into what we’re doing—holy shit, what an honor.

To that end, in 2009 you toured as the opening act for Heaven and Hell. That must have been a similarly proud moment for you.

Oh, yeah. I mean, that’s basically Black Sabbath. And the guys were great. I remember the last night of that tour, Tony Iommi came to our dressing room and gave us a bottle of wine, and we all just hung out. I said to him, “Tony, every time you come by, you smell fantastic.” And it was true! He really did.

So what, exactly, does Tony Iommi smell like?

[laughs] Beautiful. Beautiful is what Tony Iommi smells like.

Photo: Daniel Shea

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Richard Bienstock

Rich is the co-author of the best-selling Nöthin' But a Good Time: The Uncensored History of the '80s Hard Rock Explosion. He is also a recording and performing musician, and a former editor of Guitar World magazine and executive editor of Guitar Aficionado magazine. He has authored several additional books, among them Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, the companion to the documentary of the same name.