“I’ve always thought of us as underdogs”: the oral history of Coheed And Cambria
In 2016, Claudio Sanchez was asked to write a musical. Impressed by his ability to build worlds through song, a Broadway producer tasked him with tackling The Picture Of Dorian Gray. With its relationship between beauty and morality, and how a life of excess leads to damnation, Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel certainly provided rich thematic seams upon which to draw. And Sanchez had experienced the intersection between rock and musical theater early in life, having been taken to the Who’s rock opera Tommy while at school — an experience he only now realizes may have been an important influence upon the trajectory of his life, even if it lacked the more immediate thrill of seeing Pink Floyd live on The Division Bell Tour in 1994.
Six years on, despite writing some 10 songs for the Dorian Gray project — pretty much the entire first act — it remains incomplete. It’s been of use in other parts of Sanchez’s creative life, however, with several of the songs performed via his Twitch channel to rapturous reactions, as well as informing some of Coheed And Cambria’s forthcoming 10th studio album, Vaxis II: A Window Of The Waking Mind. The 44-year-old suggests the unfinished work may ultimately provide “an intermission in the Vaxis World” untethered from its original commission, though it’s unclear whether he means within that story arc or as a palate cleanser between big conceptual albums.
Sanchez was actually doing some tinkering just before this interview with Alternative Press, an hour-long trawl through the history of some of rock’s most ambitious operators. He’s chatting from his home in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in a room full of microphones, keyboards and Freddy Krueger memorabilia, where he often records his vocals, to the bemusement of the neighbors. Coheed And Cambria celebrate the start of their third decade this year, so it feels like a fitting time to revisit the highs and lows of a band that operate both in this world and the conceptual one they’ve created, The Amory Wars.
Sanchez hasn’t always been keen on being interviewed, which is surprising coming from such a friendly, insightful and self-deprecating subject; a man who’ll frequently apologize at the end of fascinating answers, fearing they’re not interesting enough. It’s taken him two decades to be sufficiently comfortable with discussions of this kind, largely because songwriting, which he’s dedicated himself to since he was 12, will always be his preferred method of communication. “I love what I do for a living, and for my mental state, so I’m going to continue.”
Your new record, Vaxis II: A Window Of The Waking Mind, was completed more than a year ago. Presumably, your desire to share it with the world has reached fever pitch by now?
It’s high! I was so excited about the material when I was demoing it, before I started passing it around to the other members of the band [guitarist Travis Stever, bassist Zach Cooper and drummer Josh Eppard]. Some of this material is as old as Vaxis I . “Ladders Of Supremacy” and “Beautiful Losers” were songs that I didn’t complete, but the framework was there, and in listening to the context and concept behind those songs, they didn’t make a whole lot of sense for Vaxis I.
“The Liars Club” was written shortly after that record was released, so a lot of this material has been alive a while. It’s tough, especially now 20 years into the band. I want the conceptual component to come out with the record, but that takes time as well. The music informs what’s going to be on the paper. As much as I just want to release a record, that’s not the experience I want with this Vaxis story arc. I want everything available at once.
Presumably, you’re the only person who knows how much the narrative changes to the songs held over from the previous record has been? How drastic was the repurposing?
Not a ton, maybe a few lyric tweaks here and there, but for the most part they’re pretty much intact. A song like “Beautiful Losers” felt more appropriate for the 20 years of Coheed And Cambria. It’s a very ambiguous song, so I think of that song and when Coheed was coming up, for all the scenes that we’ve been placed in, I’ve always thought of us as underdogs. I feel the same way for the characters of this arc, Creature and Sister Spider. So, for me, I could have put [“Beautiful Losers”] out earlier, but these two characters weren’t together yet. Timing-wise, the song made more sense for the 20-year Coheed And Cambria anniversary as well as where we are in the story.
Given the overarching narratives and storytelling component of your work, what success looks like for a new Coheed record must be more complicated than for a more traditional rock band?
Ultimately, it’s music first — that’s the format we’re trying to reach people with. There is an ambiguity to our lyrics. At the end of the day, they’re songs about my life and the things I’ve experienced, and I’m sure that echoes into other peoples’ lives. I would love the record to be a success and reach as many people as possible, but as far as the story goes, it’s really for those who participate in that dimension of Coheed. Because of the twists and turns and reveals that happen, I feel like that part is going to be taken care of. How the music translates out into the world is the thing I’m more concerned about.
There’s going to be a hardcover novel accompanying the new album, written by your wife, Chondra Echert. How does your working relationship function? Do you ever get territorial about the world you’re building?
I can be very territorial, but I also love my wife’s writing. Being as preoccupied with constructing the music, going back and forth with illustrators and all of the other facets of what this band does can be overwhelming to have all of the responsibility for, so I think [my wife’s] voice is perfect for it. These concepts have lived in [my] head for as long as I’ve been alive, and so I can become territorial [about them], but [my wife] has been immersed in The Amory Wars world for so long that she understands the mechanics of the relationships and the energy of the story. So, for the most part, those moments of butting heads are few and far between. It’s a committee; it’s not a dictatorship.
How much is the track “The Liars Club” reflective of real-world events?
When I constructed the song, however long ago, it didn’t make as much sense then as it did going through the pandemic — wanting to live a lie and some imaginary version of yourself when things are happening around you that you have no control over. It made perfect sense to put a song like that out there now. As far as what “The Liars Club” is in the story, that’s a whole other facet: a secret organization that works underneath the shroud of the Five Houses Of The Star Supremacy. You see, we can get really heady with it, and suddenly it’s like, “What the fuck is this guy talking about?!”
You grew up in Rockland County, New York; how culturally nourishing was it as a place to grow up?
It’s a bit of everything. Nyack is kind of an art town. It was a commuter town, too, just outside of the city, so if you wanted New York, it wasn’t too far away. I grew up in Haverstraw, New York, for the first few years of my life, which at that time was primarily more of a Hispanic community. Then my grandmother passed away, and my parents decided to move in with my grandfather in a town they thought might have a better school district. That’s where I met a friend of mine who inspired me with the idea of being in a band. If you mean artistically, it was a very inspiring place to grow up. If I had to say culturally in terms of who I am, being a Puerto Rican/Italian mixed breed, being in a rock band I was always immediately thought of as the drummer.
[Photo by Manual Casanova]
Coheed started out as Shabütie, which you’ve since described as “confusing” in terms of its musical identity. Looking back now, what do you think the band got right?
When I think of Coheed, I don’t think of it as being received any differently to Shabütie, though maybe the music is slightly different. When I started playing music, I never wanted to be defined by a genre. Shabütie would always get ridiculed by all the local zines because we just never fit in, whether it was with punk or metal, and I feel like that spilled into Coheed’s existence. And 20 years ago, there was me changing the band’s name and rounding out some of the edges, thinking we were going to fit in — and I feel like we never have!
You’ve said there are a lot of demos from the Shabütie period, but would you ever consider letting the world hear them? If not, what do you get from having them?
You know what, I don’t get anything from them. There was one song in particular that I loved from that time that I thought could be appropriate for Coheed, that we actually performed on the cruise we did last year [S.S. Neverender 2021], a song called “Strung Short.” But other than that, I was exploring — I was a guitar player learning to be a frontman learning to be a singer. Some of the songs don’t even have lyrics. They were just me in the studio, trying to riff on something quickly. And when I say it was me in the studio, it was a four-track. I never focused wholeheartedly and put the effort into the messages, as I do with Coheed.
Tell us about the many songwriting personalities you had when you were younger, which allowed you to jump between so many different styles and, presumably, helped with the many characters and narratives you’d later develop with Coheed…
It had a lot to do with the type of music I was writing, and emotion really dictated who the character was writing. So the aggressive stuff would be under the guise of Papa Porpoise, the more straight ahead rock stuff would be Mr. M; Professor Plum would be creating the more progressive stuff, Camille would write the softer, ballady stuff. It was really just emotions, and I tried to categorize them with these personas. Sometimes there would be a collaboration between the two. I’m sounding like a real crazy…
Coheed’s first full-length album, 2002’s The Second Stage Turbine Blade, features Bad Brains guitarist Dr. Know on the track “Time Consumer.” What role does punk play in the fabric of Coheed?
When I was in a band in high school, the father of a friend of ours worked at a plant that distributed, I believe, for [U.K. record label] Caroline Records. In the basement where we rehearsed, there was a series of all these cassette tapes, and I’d pick a few out, take them home and listen to them. One of them happened to be Misfits’ [1985 compilation album] Legacy Of Brutality, as well as stuff by Naked Raygun, Gaye Bykers On Acid and a few others. At a time when I was first picking up a guitar and learning songs out of a book, the Misfits’ songs were like pop songs, which taught me a lot about song structure. So in that way, punk was pretty important because I believe it had a lot to do with how I write songs.
You mentioned earlier the diverse bands you’ve toured with over the years, and the scenes you were erroneously thrown in with. Were there any associations that you resented? What band did you always keep an eye on, inspiration-wise?
There were no scenes that I wanted to be excluded from because I felt like Coheed could find a way into all of the worlds. We’ve played with Slipknot. We’ve played with Cursive. We’re a pretty flexible band, while others might not be. As far as a band we’d always keep an eye on… Deftones was one. If there was a band whose success we could mimic, they’d be one. They came up in a particular scene and found a way out of it. I feel like we’re the same way. It was really easy at the beginning to put us in a particular scene, but when you started to peel back the layers, there was more complexity and depth.
The making of 2007’s Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV, Volume Two: No World For Tomorrow was a challenging time, with bassist Michael Todd and drummer Josh Eppard leaving (the latter would return in 2011). What did that time teach you?
That was a pretty tough time. When I think of that first five-record stint of The Amory Wars, I think of myself in there as this adolescent, coming of age and becoming the head of something. That was the hidden theme of The Amory Wars. There were moments of confusion when I just wanted to self-destruct, and I just wanted to take the whole thing down. No World For Tomorrow allowed me to do that, conceptually, though not here in reality. I didn’t destroy things, but the things around me and Travis [Stever, guitarist] were coming down.
But at the end of the day, we had a great company of friends around us, people who helped with that record — and we persevered. I learned from that time that this is very much what I want to do. As much as I have this internal struggle and want to just stop, I need to write songs to live.
[Photo by LeAnn Mueller]
On 2010’s Year Of The Black Rainbow, you worked with Atticus Ross, future member of Nine Inch Nails and Academy Award winner. There is something very cinematic about Coheed’s music, so presumably it was a fruitful creative partnership?
It was one of my favorite artist-producer relationships, with him and his collaborator [engineer and producer] Joe Barresi. I was starting to really adopt synthesis into the fold of Coheed. It’s always had its place, but more so then. They taught me how to embrace chance again. Being young and with a four-track, you have these moments when you weren’t thinking about playing a role in the foundation of some big statement. I relearned that working with Joe and Atticus, as well as exploring sound in a way we hadn’t in the past. I’ll always treasure that process. That was a record we needed to make at that time—and those were the collaborators we needed to make it with.
The world is reeling from the loss of Taylor Hawkins, who played on No World For Tomorrow after Chris Pennie was unable to due to contractual issues. He worked from some of Chris’ ideas, which suggests a lack of ego and an affection for Coheed…
Taylor’s energy was something we needed at that moment. We’d just lost two guys from the band, and while one had returned [bassist Michael Todd], things were rocky. Taylor’s excitement made that trying time feel right, if that makes any sense. One of my treasured moments was when [Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer] Chad Smith came into the studio while Taylor was cutting the drums for [the track] “No World For Tomorrow.” We were debating the chorus, whether we should keep a steady pace with the kick [drum] or interchange it with the tom.
I was very much into the idea that we should stay on the kick drum. Then Chad Smith intervenes and sides with that idea. It was so weird: Taylor Hawkins was playing on our record, and Chad Smith was chiming in, while Dave Grohl was next door mixing a Foo Fighters record. That was a special time and something we needed for our morale. Taylor really helped pull us out of that rut.
Speaking of the Chili Peppers, I know you’re a fan of documentaries that explore the making of albums, particularly Funky Monks, on the making of 1991’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik. How much do you enjoy watching the many you’ve been the subject of?
Of ourselves?! No, I can’t watch them! I can’t watch myself! Travis was saying he was watching the No World… one the other day, but I couldn’t make it more than a few seconds in. I love watching other artists work, seeing their process and the energy in collaborative efforts between band members and how they communicate. I think it’s important that we do documentaries like the ones we have to be part of that tradition and allow fans to get what I’d got from the ones I grew up watching.
You’ve produced your own records since 2012’s The Afterman: Ascension. Was this down to self-sufficiency or having greater control over your vision?
With Afterman, we wanted to return home. We went back to Woodstock and to the studio where we’d made [2003’s] In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3 and mixed Second Stage… Now that Josh had returned, we wanted to do something with more freedom and try to capture the demo phase of me on my own, working in a room like this, but in the studio environment.
Would you consider doing another album without a concept, as you did on 2015’s The Color Before The Sun?
The Color Before The Sun was really just a metaphor for the feelings before my son was born. I named it that because of the morning strolls I’d take through the park, the way the sun would come up, and the feelings of what it would be like with him in the world. I did it as this document for him. I didn’t want to stop the concept — I just thought it was important for me to tell this story without one, so I did.
Would I like to do something similar again? Potentially. A lot of my personal life does get thrown into all of these records, and I’ve become so comfortable with the concept that it would have to be a really moving moment, like another child, or [me] dying. I’m not sure. At this moment, I get the best of both worlds with the concept — I get to tell my story and get to make it fantastic and otherworldly.
Have you ever received any kind of negativity from fans because of their level of investment in what you’re creating, because they have a sense of ownership over it?
I’ve never experienced anything like that, though I have experienced fan fiction — ideas that get posed to me and I’ll jest that they’ll have to sign something so I can take the idea. I love that people are participating at that kind of level — finding a character that resonates with them and trying to figure out an arc for that character. That’s the dream!
This interview appeared in issue #406, available below.