Interview: The Fresh & Onlys

freshnonlys_2blog Tim Cohen has dabbled in garage rock, neo-psych, post-punk, folk and even black metal in his decade-plus spanning career, most notably as the frontman of The Fresh & Onlys. So, I wasn’t too surprised that they re-invented the wheel again on their latest offering, “House of Spirits” which was released earlier this year on Mexican Summer. The record takes on a darker, more emotionally charged tone in comparison to past releases. It’s wrought with images of lucid desolation that, as Cohen told us when we sat down with him the other day, sound all the more dynamic live.

I know I’m psyched to find out what he means by that. So psyched that we’ve teamed up with PopGun Presents to bring The Fresh & Onlys to Glasslands for a special performance of “House of Spirits” next Wednesday, July 23. The Shilohs and Christines will open, and I’ll be behind the decks, before, after and in between sets. Tickets are still on sale, but they’re going fast.

As I alluded to, Tim was nice enough to take a few minutes out of his hectic touring schedule the other day to speak with us about the record, what we can expect from the show, and an unfortunate run-in he had with the NYPD the last time he was at Glasslands.

I’ve heard you say that you “make albums to be heard as albums.” What do you think the “album’s” place is going forward with streaming services like Spotify and the like?

In the general cultural landscape today, it’s not too significant because  of what you said; it’s just not a format that’s as viable anymore. As time goes on I’d like to see it stand its ground from a broader cultural or artistic perspective. If you pursue making albums to BE albums; complete works to be heard singularly, then I think you get a more timeless album. It’s hard to contextualize this in today’s world because I’m still behind the times compared to others with Spotify and Rdio and the way a lot of younger people listen to music. It’s the only format they’ve known their entire lives. I can’t really speak to that. I’m a bit confused by it… I mean, I totally understand what’s going on, but as the type of musician and artist that I am, I’ll continue to abide by the same artistic ambitions. I won’t just make a hit single. I like to be ensconced in the work. I’m comparing it to other things, making cross references. I’m just destined to be like that forever, that’s just the way I came up and it’s how I like to do things.

You’re not going to let a streaming service change that.

Absolutely not. I’m realistic enough to know what we are. We’ve been in this band for five, six years now and we have our fans, but we haven’t seen that much of an upswing in our awareness or demand for our music. So I think in a way I’m not “resigned,” but I accept our place in the grand scheme of things. We’re not doing this to get famous or rich at this point. We like to make music, we like to play together.

Your new record, House of Spirits seems to come from a much darker place than what we’re used to hearing from Fresh & Onlys. What inspired this change in sound?

I think it’s become formulaic. What I said before about accepting my place… I’m still a very creative person. We all are, and at a certain point you have to change it up. We used the drum machine on this record, we hadn’t really done that before. It sorta stands in stark contrast to the last record, Long Slow Dance, which was a lot more saccharine and poppy. It was a little more upbeat, you might say. As we’ve evolved as people and our relationships have changed and evolved, so did the music. I think that’s just to be expected. It wasn’t such a conscious decision. It was going to be different, I don’t think I need to explain it to someone… it’s just the next album. It is what it is.There’s one song on the album, “Ballerina”  which is more of a finger-picking ballad. We hadn’t really done much of that at all before.

Likewise, there’s two songs on this album where we use drum machine. There was drum machine on our third album, Play It Strange, and then there was no drum machine on our fourth album. Now we came back to it. It’s because we’re restless people. We like to experiment. We recorded twenty-five songs for this album and pared it down to ten. There’s a lot of songs that weren’t released, and probably won’t be released. There’s some pretty weird stuff that came out.

How do you decide what to include, and what didn’t make the cut?

It just happens over the course of recording. You figure out what songs work well together and which ones don’t. When you’re sort of piecing it together, you change it up. You have to take all the pieces and make it fit like a puzzle. Then we’re all kind of like “I think these work.”

We did a song called “Somebody’s About to get Shot” which was really weird… almost industrial-like; like a post=gangster industrial UK garage-like song. I think we felt it wouldn’t have a context on the album, so that one is floating in the ether.

Really, it’s on a song by song basis. You figure out  what will flow together as a whole.

So when you were putting this together, did you feel like it was a more personal record compared to previous works?

Once a record is complete, when it’s done and its in the stores, all dressed up, there’s nothing more you can really do to it. You have to let it go on a personal level. You can still appreciate it as a listener, but as songwriters, we tend to let go of it. We don’t get too attached, and then it takes on a different life on tour. On this tour, we’re playing the whole record, front to back, with no pauses. We’re just playing the album and giving people the chance to hear it as it should sound.

But actually, it doesn’t sound that much like the record; it’s more alive. Obviously it’s a live band playing it, so I think our relationship with the record now is with playing the songs live. Making that who we are for forty-five minutes, giving our all to that. As far as the record goes, our friends, colleagues and associates have seen it played; one guy in particular was really touched by the record. When he saw it played live, he was really emotional, almost near tears. He said, “this is a really heavy record man, seeing it live made me feel much closer to it.” He knows the story of our band, he’s been following us really closely.

The same thing happened last night in Minneapolis, a friend of ours who’s known of our band for a while said the same thing, “this is a really heavy record,” and they finally got it when they saw it performed live. It’s a lot more dynamic performed live. It’s not like we’re up there screaming and ripping our clothes off, crying but we’re playing. That is our passion. You can’t really get that playing in a studio.

It’s probably really cool to hear that too.

Absolutely, it’s reaching them and succeeding in that way.

Some folks have described the record as “The Cure meets desert rock.” Do you agree with that? Were The Cure an influence on the album?

The Cure have always been a touchstone for our band. I never really listened to them all that much. Wymond, Shayde and Kyle, the three other guys that made the record are huge Cure fans. I don’t know that we’ve ever really gone out of our way to sound like any other band particularly. Obviously, a band will come out in your music. You absorb them in your youth in your listening experiences.

At this point, whatever people describe us as, I’m fine with, as long as it’s not lazy and they have some reference that they can point to. “I think that your vocals sound like Robert Smith here,” or “this guitar line sounds like it came from the desert.” It’s really completely speculative and their perspective, and I can’t do anything but allow people to have their own interpretations.

In the first few years of our existence, we were constantly compared to garage rock, because someone wrote that we came up in this scene that was kind of garage-y or whatever, without listening to our music or examining it any closer. Then people would get on the phone and be like “so you’re in a garage band from San Francisco.” That would get a little annoying because we’re clearly not a garage band. If someone’s a lazy journalist, I can tell right away. Otherwise, I leave the words and the interpretations up to the journalist as long as they’re valid. [Laughs] I’m not really sure what desert rock is.

Some other outlets have said the album was inspired by your dreams. What significance do you think dreams hold for people, and how does that influence your writing?

Dreams have always been a primary inspiration for me and I’m sure millions of other songwriters. They’re basically your imagination at work, as far as I can tell. I don’t really know what dreams are. It occurs inside your head and you know about it when you wake up. Some people choose to forget their dreams and some people try to remember them. In trying to remember them, you get to know yourself a bit better. At least, I’d say I have. I think if you do, you begin to question things. I don’t read books about dreams, but I’m curious as to why certain things happen and if they have any significance in my life. I’m one of those people who keeps a notebook by my bed and if i have a dream and remember it, I write it down when I wake up. It definitely informs my writing and my music.

You bring those notes directly into the writing process?

Absolutely. When you’re trying to create, you’re elaborating on an idea or an image. That’s kind of what music is, you’re expressing an idea or an image through a melody, or rhythm, or what have you. I think dreams are pertinent to that… it came from inside your head, from your being in some way. It’s more ephermal than that, If you can snag just a piece of it and keep it with you and turn it into something else, it’s totally fair. There aren’t any rules to writing.

Last year, you took some time off from touring. How does it feel to be back on the road again?

It feels great. It’s only six shows in, but this is the first time we’ve played a new record from beginning to end. In the past, I’ve shied away from that and we hadn’t really put the work in to be able to do it. We would just go on tour and rely on our back catalog which is extensive. This time, it was important for us to go out and own the record. “This is what you’re getting, this is it, this is every note on the record being played that way.”

It sounds like it’s being well-received.

So far so good. We really enjoy it because it’s new songs, and we do really like to go on tour with new songs. You get bored playing the same songs. Any band that tours will tell you that. Even the performer wants to spice it up a bit. Playing the new record accomplishes both, it’s songs that no one in the crowd have heard before and we’re introducing it as our new album. It’s been a lot of fun. It’s gotten us more energized.

I think it’s great to play a whole album, not many bands are willing to do it.

I think definitely some of the songs are a bit slower to take on a life on stage, but by the time we get to Glasslands, we’ll be pretty dialed in as far as having our parts played properly and having the right vibe. It’s getting better every night.

Your last tour was all acoustic, correct?

We did do a west coast tour where our bass player and drummer, for unspecified reasons, couldn’t make it. On a lark, we did it. We were sharing gear with this band Woods from Brooklyn. We had to drive the gear up to Vancouver from San Francisco anyway. So James Barone, our sound guy, ended up sitting on snare drum. I played acoustic guitar and Wymond played electric and we just kind of did a stripped down old school rockabilly kind of thing. When I say rockabilly, don’t get the wrong idea, not Gene Vincent, Buddy Holly-type of stuff; just really striped down. It worked out really well in the end. For people who had seen us, it was kind of a pleasant surprise, and for people who hadn’t seen us, they didn’t really know the difference. They just liked hearing the songs, they were just striped down and laid bare.

Has that influenced anything for this tour? Will you be doing anything in that style?

Nope, we’re right back to being an electric rock band.

I kind of look at Williamsburg and San Francisco as being kind of similar; lots of changes over the past couple of decades. Do you find it harder to find inspiration in San Francisco these days?

For the majority of the writing, I was living in Arizona, so I just drew from my surroundings. I wasn’t living there for the new tech influx. I just moved back there in February and have had a bit of culture shock. San francisco has become one of the wealthier cities. There’s a lot of young new money and a lot of older residents have been forced out. Suffice to say, its not the most ideal situation for the artist in San Francisco right now. I think any kind of movement or shift in socioeconomics can be countered. It can be fought. I’m not sure how much of a fight people are going to put up though. People are a bit more apathetic these days. A lot of people are in their own little digital zone. I don’t feel like there’s as much of an interest in a cultural or social movement to counter this new money. I think a lot of people are just giving up.

When you noticed that, did it encourage you to find a new place to do your writing or to find a new place to draw your inspiration from?

Yeah – I mean, my life in San Francisco hasn’t changed much. I have the same apartment and the same friends, the same sorts of routines and habits, so it hasn’t really changed the way I look at life or art or anything like that. I still love San Francisco and what it has to offer.

So what can we expect from the show at Glasslands? Anything crazy?

I don’t know about crazy, but it’s a good rock and roll show. We’re going to play stuff from the album, front to back, and it’s gonna be a good time. No fireworks. We’ll be playing songs from our first record onward. You can expect a cross-section of our whole catalog but the new record is the centerpiece of our show.

Have you played Glasslands before?

We have not. I played there solo before.

I love that venue, pretty great sound. Well thanks for taking the time out to talk to us. Do you have any questions for us or want anything from me?

Yeah, I do have something. This is to the Chinese cop that put me in his van outside of Glasslands and gave me an open container ticket. Please do not come to the show.

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