Claudio Sanchez pigeonholed himself right out of the gate. The singer-guitarist designed – and even christened – his band, prog-pop-metal outfit Coheed and Cambria, as a vehicle for "The Amory Wars," an interplanetary sci-fi storyline he's extended across a decade of knotty, intricate LPs. But as he began compiling material for the group's eighth album, "The Color Before the Sun," the 37-year-old focused his sights on planet Earth. Namely: his devotion to wife and graphic novel writing partner Chondra Echert ("Here to Mars"), their search for a new home, and the fears of expected parenthood as a touring musician ("Atlas").
Before learning of Echert's pregnancy (a boy, Atlas, now over a year old), the couple traveled through California, Florida, and Paris, attempting to discover "their place in the world." Renting out their longtime house in upstate New York, the home base for numerous Coheed recording sessions, they landed in a small apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Sanchez was inspired by the hustle of urban life, the instant gratification of stepping out his door into the swirl. But he also found himself grasping to carve out his next musical path, battling writer's block and the awkward realization that his neighbors could hear him singing. That sense of "exposure" bled into the lyrics – with the curtain drawn, it suddenly felt more natural belting about romance and self-discovery than, say, psychics and evil viruses.
With Atlas in tow, Sanchez and Echert debated returning to their country home. But one day before their annual inspection, they were told the house had been vandalized and abandoned, with local police suspecting from odor and residue it had been transformed into a cannabis farm.
Oscillating between the exhilarating emotion of new fatherhood and the anxiety of an uncertain future, Sanchez' new songs naturally deviated from the "Amory Wars" plot. The frontman considered pursuing a solo LP – but instead, he seized an opportunity to redefine the moniker that made him famous. Working with producer Jay Joyce (Cage the Elephant, Carrie Underwood) at his Nashville studio, Coheed – Sanchez, guitarist Travis Stever, drummer Josh Eppard, bassist Zach Cooper – recorded live as a quartet, mirroring the lyrics' raw immediacy.
Sanchez spoke with Salon about the whirlwind drama that inspired "Color," the album's arresting sonic detours, and how a non-concept is itself a concept.
You contemplated framing "The Color Before the Sun" as a solo album. If you had gone that route, do you think you would have chose different arrangements? Would these songs still have turned out to be epic, anthemic Coheed songs even if the name were different?
I think I would have approached it somewhat in the same way, but it's tough to say. Who knows? I may have decided to keep them very stripped-down. Maybe some of the songs wouldn't have been on the record. For the most part, they wouldn't be what they are without the contributions of Travis, Zach, and Josh — that's what really made it special. I looked at the stuff as like, it didn't fall into a formula that I was used to without Coheed. But that's the thing about Coheed — it's kind of limitless in my opinion. We try to be as exploratory as possible. Allowing us to take away the concept and let it be what it is, it's part of the metamorphosis of the band. It makes sense for the band.
I know when you got to Brooklyn and started putting ideas together, you hit some writer's block— were you not able to write at all, or were you writing material that just didn't feel good enough? Was it changing the way you wrote?
I was writing. My wife and I have this country house in upstate New York that we left for awhile so we could travel around. And Brooklyn was one of the places we found ourselves for about a year-and-a-half. I wake up pretty early in the morning, and that's when I'm most inspired and start to create. But living in Brooklyn didn't really allow that. Here I am in this apartment situation, and signing at four or five o'clock in the morning just isn't going to fly with the neighbors. So I started to create, but there was this idea of exposure. I could hear my neighbors beneath me and above me, and I know they can hear me, and they're not going to have the context of the songs — they're only going to hear my voice because everything's in my headphones.
So I think that idea of exposure sort of leaked into some of the themes of the record. Ultimately, when I looked at everything, I thought, "This isn't really part of the Coheed formula." So that's why I started to learn toward the idea of a solo record because it didn't feel like I was constructing stuff for the band. It felt different. It's funny – I felt like there was a sense of writer's block because I wasn't falling within the formula of Coheed. But I was actually creating way more than I'd ever created — it was just different, that's all.
Do you think that because you felt naked and bit exposed, you started writing lyrics that were a bit more literal and accessible so that you didn't sound like a crazy person when you were singing?
I made it more to the point — at least I thought I did. On "Island," in the chorus, that's me communicating how small the apartment is and how steep the fee is to live in such a small situation. An "island" being a more romantic, poetic way of describing the city block that we lived on. It just ended up making me sing tunes that were a little more exposed. They were more literal in the execution in that it might have made things a little hard to construct a concept around.
Was there anything in particular about Brooklyn – not so much the apartment but the city itself – that seeped into the writing?
I don't think it seeped its way into the writing, but it definitely seeped its way into my lifestyle. I love walking, and living in the city environment caters to that. Where we live, in terms of our country house, it's a rural area, very secluded. There aren't a whole lot of places to go — if you want to go somewhere, you have to really commit, get in the car, and drive there. Here, you step outside your front stoop and you're walking. So I found myself exploring the city a lot. And I just tend to do that naturally. Any time I'm in New York, whether it's Manhattan or Brooklyn, I just find myself walking for miles. It's just what I do, and I found myself doing it more and more. If anything, it took me away from the apartment and the frustrations of writing and allowed me to be introspective and think about myself and who I was in this situation.
Maybe a little bit of that spilled into "Colors." With that song, I found myself at four or five o'clock in the morning, wandering the neighborhood up into Prospect Park. I remember when I came home in the early morning around eight o'clock, I had this conversation with my wife, and I wrote "Colors."
I'm always intrigued by any creative person and how they deal with happiness. For a lot of artists, struggle and sadness and fear is what inspires their best art. And some of that is true with your new album, but it was also inspired in part by the love of your family, your new son, your wife. Do you worry at all that if you're too happy, you won't be inspired?
I understand what you're saying – this record is definitely much fueled by the sense of identity, the anticipation of fatherhood, and the inevitability of leaving that person because of occupation, the vandalism of my home. So sometimes great art is inspired out of a situation like that. I just allow life to tell me what I need to write. I don't necessarily need a mood to do it, but this record just happens to be fueled by a particular mood – but more so really a moment in time. When I listen to "Color Before the Sun," it's definitely a time capsule for the last year-and-a-half of my life. It's almost like this linear story – I can see myself traveling through the songs from start to finish, in terms of where I was when I wrote them.
I'm very intrigued by the fact that your house upstate had been abandoned and kind of demolished. Just to make sure I'm clear, were you already living in Brooklyn by this point and just learned about it after it happened?
My wife and I, around the time we were about to release the "Afterman" record, we went to Paris, and we started to construct what was the accompanying story for the deluxe edition of that record. We were anticipating trying to become parents, so we wanted to travel around to see what place in the world made sense for us. We went to L.A., where our business is structured, and Florida, where her family and support group is. And we tried Brooklyn. I'm a suburban kid in New York City, and I've always wanted to live in the city proper. So we did that, and we put our country home on the market for rent. All of these things happened. Turns out we were pregnant, and we were procrastinating as to whether or not we were going to re-sign our lease on our apartment or return to the country. So our yearly walk-through inspection was going to happen at our country rental, and it turns out that the day before, my wife got this text message from the tenants saying the house was broken into and they're not going to come back.
We were like, "Holy shit." So we called the police, who arrived to the scene, and they said, "Nobody's living here, but the floors have been jigsawed apart, and it smells like marijuana." There was actually no substantial evidence for the police to deem it a crime scene, but there was speculation that, due to the residue in the basement and the smell, that it was a huge operation. This is us, we're about to become parents, it didn't allow us to procrastinate our decision any longer. We had to return to our house to fix it. But it was scary! We were about to become first-time parents; our future was a little uncertain. This home really means a lot to me. Coheed wrote several records in it. The song "Young Love" is actually an apology to the house – that we allowed it to be put into the wrong hands, for this devastation to happen. But everything's fine now. Insurance took care of it, although at first they did suspect us. My wife and I had to be questioned and sequestered, so that was a little nerve-racking.
I was blown away by the warmth of your low voice on "Ghost." You rarely explore that on Coheed albums — did you feel more uninhibited this time around to try those new things? That song is also very stripped down and acoustic, which is a new look for Coheed. Did you feel, now that you've taken the plunge into a more personal and vulnerable path, that this more delicate quality was inspired by that?
It's definitely a song about my anticipating becoming a dad. Am I going to echo the ghosts of my parents onto my son, or am I going to start fresh? It felt like this very personal, introspective idea that only I am having, and I think that's probably why I made it that solo effort where it was just the acoustic and vocal, and the way the vocal is delivered the way it is. And maybe a little bit of the fact that I'm in the apartment made it so that I delivered it in such a quiet fashion. But it's just an important moment in my life – thinking about the fears and hopes that come with it. It just spilled into the way I delivered it.
What made you decide to work with Jay Joyce? His resume is obviously excellent, but was there a specific reason you sought him out for these songs?
I wasn't familiar with Jay's work. It was actually Pete Giberga, our A&R over at 300 who suggested Jay. In the past, we've always made our own decisions as to who we're going to work with – we've never allowed the A&R their input. But this time around, we were like, "We're going to allow the A&R to sort of made that decision." Pete is someone we've wanted to work with for awhile now. And here he was going to help us construct this album. So I said, "We value your opinion – let me talk to Jay."
When I spoke to Jay, I told him, "We're going to abandon the idea of the concept for this more personal approach to a Coheed record. And one of the things I want to try to do is have the band be as honest as possible and record the record live." And Jay was a huge champion of that idea. Just talking to him on the phone stirred up confidence in myself that we could do it. We're a live band – that's what we do. But when it comes time to recording in the studio, there's this apprehension when the word "live" comes about, which is silly. It's ridiculous. But Jay was super confident that we could do it, so we thought, "Let's give it a shot!" His studio seemed really perfect for that idea, and we did it. We recorded the record in two weeks, mixed it in two weeks. And Jay was a huge part of that.
"You Got Spirit, Kid" reads like a "fuck you" to the anonymous bloggers or people who hide behind the Internet attacking people's art. Is that accurate? Where did that song come from?
I think it's a collection of everything. For me, coming to that point in the record from all the things that we endured – with the idea of identity crisis, the scares of parenthood, the destruction of the house. Ultimately, I thought, "There's somebody out there with bigger problems." But with that being said, it's a collection of all sort of things. The human nature at the moment, with technology, patient is a thing that's sort dwindling in the consciousness of the human. Ultimately, it's really about myself crying over this situation I'm in when nobody really cares. It doesn't matter.
One of the key themes is that there is no concept behind the album – but in a way, that's a concept in itself. And you've talked about how you intentionally structured the tracks so that they flow and achieve this kind of personal arc. Is it fair to say that you saw a narrative arise after all?
Absolutely. If you were to look at Coheed's discography as a library, all these other records would be put into the Science Fiction/Fantasy portion. Whereas this record, it's very much about the endurance of my wife and I – it's in the Non-Fiction section. I think as I was turning the corners, I could see the narrative and the songs. It made sense for me – it was just the hurdle of, "Is this a Coheed record or a Claudio Sanchez solo record?" For me, it was like, "I've never wanted to put any limitation on Coheed in terms of the music we explored or the bands we toured with, so why should the concept be any different?" And plus, becoming a father in this new phase of my life, I thought, "Why not share that with the artistic side of me and allow the concept to break?"
Closer "Peace to the Mountain" is such a vivid departure — musically, with the orchestrations and simple structures, it has a whimsical, "Sgt. Peppers" kind of feel. In contrast, the lyrics seem to be venting a lot of self-doubt.
That's one of the last songs I wrote, if not the last, for the album. I agree – it was our chance to play The Beatles. We're all fans of the Beatles, and I wanted the song to end in that situation. "Peace to the Mountain" has two ideas in it. One is my obsession with death and the absence that it brings – when love ones pass away and the void that you have to face. It's something we all have to deal with, and it's just difficult. But it's also an idea to return home, to return to my comfort zone of the country. And eventually we did. It was a confessional and a good way to climax the record for all the things that I endured on the album. It's a moment of clarity.