[Photo credit: Ruben Navarro Martin, Ted Daroski]
Silver Snakes singer Alex Estrada says he first listened to Coheed And Cambria while in the car with a past girlfriend, and he immediately became obsessed with the band’s vibe. Fast forward to now, when Silver Snakes just wrapped up a tour with Coheed, opening for them at venues across the U.S.
We got Estrada and Coheed And Cambria vocalist Claudio Sanchez on the phone together to talk about the emo and post-hardcore scenes, Wu-Tang Clan and concept albums.
[Photo credit: Silver Snakes]
Claudio Sanchez: I’ve read that normally you like to leave the city of Los Angeles to get inspired and to write. What I’ve seen is that with this record, you decided to stay in the city. How did you come up with that decision?
Alex Estrada: Something I’ve done in the past is that I’ve run away to this family cabin up in California, and I kinda just hang out up there for a week and write and gather ideas. More than anything, I’m usually really inspired by landscapes. Landscapes and history I think have always been huge inspirations for me when it comes to writing music, just those drives—desert drives, mountain drives—spur all these ideas and get the wheels really moving when it’s time to write a record. And I feel that this time around, staying in the city and not running away [and] having to deal with the stress of day-to-day life, having to sit in traffic, having to see the poverty in downtown LA, having to witness the pollution—all of that really contributed to what we were writing this time around, and spawned what I think would be our heaviest record yet. It’s not as open, and I would almost say it’s not as dynamic physically as our last two records; it’s just a punch to the face in my opinion. And I feel like that’s because that’s what LA is to me. Sometimes you leave your front door and it’s just a big cluster, it’s a punch to the face as soon as you hit the big cities. I feel like New York would be the same way, those hectic places spur an entirely different sort of idea than a calm, serene landscape would.
CS: I used to live in upstate rural New York. For me, I could wake up at 5 a.m. and do whatever it is I need to do to satisfy myself and my voice creatively. But now in the city, it’s tough. You wake up at 5 a.m., start singing at the top of your lungs and the cops are coming. I can see how that colony aspect of everyone’s sort of in it together can certainly have a very inspiring trigger to creativity. And I enjoy it, I can see why you would do that, and that’s kind of why I want to stay here in Brooklyn.
AE: I know the newest album isn’t a concept album. Did you write the rest of the album in upstate New York? Is this the first record you wrote mostly in there?
CS: The first couple of records I wrote while still living with my parents. Second Stage Turbine Blade [and] In Keeping, I wrote those in my childhood bedroom. Even Good Apollo One. So after that, all those records from No World to The Afterman albums, I wrote those in the country home that my wife Chondra and I had purchased, and there was so much freedom there to do whatever. I like to wake up super early in the morning, and nobody’s there. I can play drums at 5 a.m., it’s desolate. It’s my piece of earth. When we came to the city, I had a hard time finding my center, and pretty much everything on The Color Before The Sun is about living here, having a hard time moving here, the birth of Atlas and that metamorphosis from man to father and how much that had an effect on the record. It really helped push me out of that rut, where I didn’t even know if I’m creating anything substantial here. And finding myself now at 37 years old as a dad, it’s like, I created the concept those years ago because I had a hard time expressing myself as an individual. I created basically this mask with the concept that allowed me to express myself without having backlash of the negativity that might come with that.
For Saboteur, with the synthesis, that sort of approach, is that something that is new to the band? That sort of element of this sort of industrial kind of vibes, those elements of the synthesizers and the drum machine—is that new to Silver Snakes?
“I feel like we’re still trying to find our voice with it, but we’re super happy with what we’ve locked in so far.”-Alex Estrada
AE: That is 100 percent new. It’s something we had talked about for years. Before we did our last record, the record before this, and it came time to talk about what direction we wanted to go in, if we wanted to stay on the same path, I knew we had exhausted the ideas musically that we were rolling with when we first started the band. We had sought out to do this whole ’90s throwback alternative post-hardcore rock thing, and I feel like we went out and did that, and that was it. I was satisfied with it, and I was like, “Alright, time for something new.” I’d always wanted to do a record that was a tribute to what I grew up on more so, which was a lot of stuff like the Smashing Pumpkins’ Adore, Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral, Bauhaus, Ministry, like a lot of this really aggressive stuff that wasn’t the most mainstream. It wasn’t the stuff you’d see on TV all the time. It was a little under the covers, it was the stuff your parents were still upset you listened to, so I wanted to do something like that, but I had no idea where to start. I had never played piano in my life, so hopping on a synthesizer was terrifying, I’d never done any kind of electronic music. Messing with sampling was terrifying. We ended up doing the second record and pretty much just writing another dark rock record, and going a little heavier with it. Then when it came time to do this one, I already had one idea in the back for it, it’s a song called “Charmer,” and that set the pace for everything. I went in there, and without knowing how to do programming, I started recording live drums, manipulating them and using that as a jumping off point. And then our new drummer, Garrett Harney, who joined right before we did this record, has some experience with electronics, he helped a lot with the programming aspect. I feel like we’re still trying to find our voice with it, but we’re super happy with what we’ve locked in so far.
CS: Just to jump off that, Saboteur, just in terms of the title of the record, why “Saboteur,” and is there a theme that goes through the record? Are these songs linked up? And I don’t mean in terms of conceptually, but just, like you said, your experience—you stayed in LA, and you wanted that to have an effect on the creativity. What is the meaning of Saboteur?
AE: Mostly, it was a contrast to what I’ve written in the past. I’ve always written from a harsh point of view; I’ve always been the one who talks down to themselves or talks down to others almost in lecture mode. I write in that fashion because it’s easier for me to get my point across if I’m being aggressive. So for Saboteur, I wanted to just actually write off of negative themes. I wanted to write about someone who used deception, someone who plotted against others, someone who wholeheartedly just believed in whatever it is that they believed in, and ran with it, and all the emotions it took to go through that. The first track, “Electricity,” is kind of like the spark in your head that lets you know you want to head down this path, and it fills with every stage from there on. The song “Devotion” is this fictional character telling their family what they plan on doing. It almost makes it seem like it’s like a life of crime or political sabotage or something like that. I’ve been involved with things like animal rights for a long time, and I feel like that’s a huge inspiration in terms of an outline, just these people I’ve looked up to that have been thrown in prison for doing things they strongly believe in, political prisoners being thrown in prison for standing up for their rights, women and the LGBT community being thrown in prison at sit-ins for just standing up for themselves. It’s about these people and those around them, that are telling them, like “No, no, no, don’t argue with those above you,” and stepping out of that and going full force until it culminates with the last track “The Loss” which is basically that person having to stand before a crowd, you could even think about standing in front of a jury, and having to confess to what they did, be completely unapologetic about it, and letting everyone know, “My mission here is done, and I did what I did because it’s what I truly wanted.” It was hard to write a record keeping that theme in line, but I’m pretty happy with how the story turned out.
CS: Hell yeah. Do you think there’s an ambiguity to the title? Seeing as you decided to write the record in LA, there’s a little bit of a change in the creativity with the synthesis and that sort of world. Do you think maybe you’re the saboteur of the band’s history? Maybe this is a metamorphosis, if you will?
“I was like, “Hey, I know we just wrote a dark rock record that people liked, but now we’re going to completely switch gears and do this…”-Estrada
AE: [Laughs.] One hundred percent. That was another layer to it as well, when it came time to write this record. For the most part, music is my full time, I have a recording studio that I work with for a living, I work with other bands, but in my time there, I’m just sitting writing music, coming up with what we’re going to do next. I was raised to do that, my dad’s the same way. The guys in the band really stand by the ideas I’ve always brought to the table, so when it was me coming to them like “Yo, this is what I want to do: I want a record that’s basically all these sludgy, heavy, doomy metal aspects we were developing on the last record which we thought we were going to delve further into, but I want to combine them with all these electronics, all this really harsh, mechanical sounding drums, really buzzsaw guitars, not these huge classic rock guitar sounds. I want these crazy buzzsaw guitars, I want them tuned down to G.” Just do all this unheard of stuff. They were nervous about it and in a way, yeah, it felt like self-sabotage. I had to go to our team, like any band would have to and I was like, “Hey, I know we just wrote a dark rock record that people liked, but now we’re going to completely switch gears and do this, so.” A few people were like, “I don’t know what you’re doing, but…” [Laughs.] The title, I thought, really sums that up. It could have ended up sabotaging our career as a band and as a young band, that’s really dangerous to do.
CS: I hear that. It’s [hard to] turn around and go against the audience you’ve cultivated by putting out this perplexing oddity, or something like that, but I get that.
AE: In that same way that I was saying that we were this ’90s rock band doing this thing and how we wanted to keep changing it up, I feel like we’ve never really felt in place with a lot of the tours we’ve done in the past. It’s just now that we’re starting to really settle in, and I think it’s mostly because we’ve found our sound. I know that Coheed was a band for a long time, and as a project you had, but when the whole emo explosion thing happened in the early 2000s and all that, did you have any sort of kinship to that? Was that something you were interested in or because of the record label was that something that was just thrusted on you? Did you feel out of place in all those early tours?
“Part of the reason why in my mind the idea of creating a label made sense is because it allowed me to create a scene to be a part of, because no one ever really knew where to put us.”-Claudio Sanchez
CS: It was a little bit of both. We were definitely fixed in the scene that was coming up. Sunny Day Real Estate was a big influence on the band, At The Drive In, the Get Up Kids, so we were conscious of that movement, and fans of that stuff. But again, I think Coheed at the time didn’t really have an identity and still to this day toys with it. There were things within our DNA that linked us to that, and then sure, Equal Vision solidified that, those were the bands that they could put us out with to get whatever traction we needed. But still, we felt a tad out of place, and still do to this day. I don’t know if that’ll ever change for us. Part of the reason why in my mind the idea of creating a label made sense is because it allowed me to create a scene to be a part of, because no one ever really knew where to put us. So, this is going to sound ridiculous, but in my mind, all I thought of was Wu-Tang Clan and these chambers. Every time I ever thought about that outfit, there were so many parts to it. Just that idea, maybe we can do something like that—create a scene or a family around what we do as Coheed And Cambria, with a label as sort of a seed to that. I bring up Wu-Tang Clan. [Laughs.]
AE: Do you think that’s a spawn of coming up in the hardcore and emo scene? I know that scene really likes to put labels on everything. Any new band I work with automatically gets lumped into, “They’re post-this or post-that, they’re emo, they’re punk,” whatever, but when you hear more mainstream bands, when you think of bands like Radiohead, when you think of bands like the Smashing Pumpkins, do you think those bands ever stood around wondering what niche they fit into?
CS: I don’t think so. Again, for me, as an artist, as a creative person, I never thought of that, where to sort of fit in, I always felt like just in terms of my personality an oddball. So it was never my intention to try to figure out a place to fit, to find what puzzle piece I was in the puzzle that was a scene. For me, I wanted to create whatever I possibly could. Musicianship and creativity shouldn’t have a limitation. Once you pose a limitation on yourself, you become a victim. It’s no longer art to me, I don’t know what it is. You want to be part of a scene, well, that’s not why I did this. But I don’t think so. I feel like they’re always sort of classified as that basic rock band. I feel like once you can obtain that sort of title, there’s no limit to who you are and what your identity is.
One of the things I think, when we had met, and we toured, and I found very fascinating about you is your family history. Your father being a mariachi singer and your mother was a dancer. How much of that influence comes into the music, culturally, spiritually? I think about my heritage, I think about my dad, who’s a guitar player, in terms of the music he brought me up on, salsa music, Latin jazz. I’m just curious how that experience for you, through your life, has sort of influenced your delivery and execution in your art.
AE: It played a huge role in it, and I think a lot of that, especially with my mom being a dancer, even though she’s not playing an instrument. She did flamenco dancing, she played the castanets, a lot of that is what really made me fall in love with rhythm as a kid. Mariachi music has a lot of misconceptions about it, a lot of people think it’s this really slow, almost polka type thing, kind of lazy, like a drunk bar sort of vibe. At least what my dad’s always been doing isn’t. He’s a classically trained musician, he went to music school for arranging. He’s produced records for Linda Ronstadt, he’s done stuff with Beck and Green Day, he’s worked with all sorts of people. The caliber of musicians I grew up around has always been so high that it’s pushed me. Following his footsteps was something I was expected to do at a young age; I was expected to take on the family business. I broke away from that when I was 10, 11 years old, I started playing electric guitar. For a long time, [mariachi] didn’t play a role in what I was doing. But more than anything, in the last five or six years, it has. I’ve fallen in love again with the culture. I started going to see my dad play, I tour with my dad sometimes, just to hang out—I’ll do merch, I’ll do sound. I’ve really absorbed the traditional aspects of the music, and try to incorporate it into what we’re doing which is kind of hard behind a wall of distortion, but I’ve been doing my best to do it, because it’s pushing me out of my comfort zone. I feel like I’m too far into life to become a shredder guitar player at this point. It blows my mind when I can see dudes that shred. Watching you on the last tour every night, you and Travis, doing these guitar solos, literally blows my mind because I’m more of like four or five notes with some vibrato, and I’m like “Alright, that’s all I got.” [Laughs.] But when it comes to rhythm, that’s where I always put my focus. My focus has always been on being a really rhythmic guitar player, because I felt like I was born with those mariachi rhythmic tendencies as well as my mom’s dancing, and that’s where I always put the focus. Yeah, it’s played a big role in it, and as far as spiritually, the heritage definitely does. I grew up hearing stories about all these white witches and dark witches and Mexican folklore and healing, and that’s something I’ve really taken an interest in the past few years especially. There’s a lot of those metaphors that I’ve thrown into the music, and I use those as a guise to get our viewpoints across. When I can’t think of what to say on a literal sense, I’ll try to go the route of mysticism and try to do my best with elaborating in that way. You were saying that your dad had salsa music playing and stuff like that in your childhood?
CS: Oh yeah, my dad listens to like everything. Our car rides, back when we were kids, it’s almost like [they were] schizophrenic. [Laughs.] One moment you’re listening to Rubén Blades, Iglesias, you’re listening to all these dudes, and then all of the sudden he flips it and he puts on Sting… although, there definitely is later, Sting stuff outside of the Police, definitely has some of that jazz, kind of Latin thing happening in it. But you go from Allman Brothers to Sting to this stuff, and all of the sudden Bela Fleck And The Flecktones comes up. My dad listened to all sorts of stuff, man. It had a profound impact on me, because I just found that I loved it all.
AE: My first time hearing you guys was when The Second Stage Turbine Blade came out, I remember all my friends having the record, that was my first introduction to the band, and I didn’t really dive into it back then, because I was so into this grimy punk stuff at the time, that was just my scene that I didn’t break out of. But a few years later, this girl I was dating loved you guys, and I remember vividly the first time she put on “Faint Of Heart” in the car, and I was sitting in the passenger seat and during the opening guitar riff, I freaked out, and I was just like, “Yo, is this Santana or something?” Which was like, my favorite guitar player of all time, and she was like, “No, this is Coheed And Cambria,” and I freaked out, I’m just like, “Dude, this guy plays like Carlos Santana, what the hell?” That’s always been my thing with guitar players, I always gravitate way more toward feel than I ever have toward shredding. When I heard that, I was just like, these guys have an amazing feel, such a good vibe, and then I became obsessed with that record. I just wanted to ask, who are some guitar players that shaped your playing?
“I’m not a very technically proficient guitar player, I really don’t know theory that well. That’s one of the big misconceptions of Coheed. My hands are garbage.”-Sanchez
CS: Santana’s definitely up there for sure. My dad listened to Santana like there was no tomorrow, so you can definitely hear it spilling all over a song like “Faint Of Heart,” for sure. For me, Hendrix is a big one. Not so much that I play like Hendrix, but in terms of all the sort of gimmicks, the teeth playing, the behind the head, that’s all just because I had such a love for him, and watching him perform on video clips and things like that, I wanted to be that. There was something about it; everything, from him being who he was in a scene of rock music, and how flamboyant he dressed. At one point I would mimic that as a kid, and now that I’m older, I guess I’m just dulled, my knife is not as sharp. But in terms of all of those sorts of gimmicks, I just thought that was fire, and it just excited me. Because I’ve taken all of those little tricks just for fun and for the audience, my son’s middle name happens to be Hendrix. Just because, yeah, I feel like I took all of this stuff that I gave my son his name, in return. He’s definitely one. Definitely Andy Summers of the Police, in terms of his rhythms and that sort of world. Earlier you said that you liked how Travis and I shred, I mean, I’m not a very technically proficient guitar player, I really don’t know theory that well. That’s one of the big misconceptions of Coheed. My hands are garbage. But, you know, I figure out a way that’s comfortable and I can do certain things. But Andy Summers, I love the way he plays and the single note structures he puts together, to me almost sounds like a synthesizer in a way. There’s a lot of stuff I do that definitely mimics Andy Summers. When it comes time for bluesy stuff in that pentatonic world, definitely Dave Gilmour of Pink Floyd. So all of my guitar player things come from that world, from that classic rock world. When I was coming up, that’s what I emulated at 13, or tried to, or was what I was listening to at the time. Around when I got out of high school, that’s when I became a singer for the band. That’s when I started to think about songs, and think about more contemporary music and how that affected me as a writer and as an artist. But before that I focused on guitar since that’s what I did in band.