Chris Cohen exudes a kind of tranquility that masks an exacting mind. On a recent Friday evening, the 44-year-old, LA-based indie songwriter and producer unassumingly strolled into Town Pizza in Highland Park, caught up with the bartender, then took a seat in a booth and ordered a pizza and a pint of Fremont Brewing Lush IPA.
Cohen, who was previously in the band Deerhoof, has produced three albums under his own name. He is something of a songwriter’s songwriter. Every inch of his material is meticulously arranged, his pieces closer to orchestral arrangements than rock tunes. His latest, Chris Cohen, released in late March through Captured Tracks, falls stylistically in line with its predecessors—hooky yet refined songs—but lyrically it advances. Across ten tracks, Cohen tackles his estranged relationship with his father, his father’s drug addiction, and his parents’ recent divorce.
Cohen, who was between tour dates, recently moved into a new place in Highland Park, a chic neighborhood in the hills above LA that’s popular with musicians–within a block of us were two record stores and a used instrument shop. “Everybody that works here is in a band, pretty much,” he said of Town Pizza, gesturing toward the young waitstaff. Over pints, Cohen–in a brown button-down with a mop of boyishly curly hair–spoke about his father, why he doesn’t use producers, and how the LA music scene differs from New York.
How do you feel about living here?
I’m from LA. I lived in the Bay Area a long time, then moved back in 2008. I also spent two years in Vermont. Highland Park has changed a lot, like everywhere. The whole world’s changing. Sometimes I feel like it’s changing for the worse. I don’t know. Depends on who you ask, I guess. I’m always thinking of moving. I kind of plan to move before the Olympics, which is in ten years. I think about migrating for climate a lot. I feel like southern California is not gonna be a great place to be in 20 years. I travel a lot too, so everywhere you go you’re always thinking about [maybe moving there]. A lot of places look nice when you’re only there for a day.
How important is a good homebase for you?
It’s really important for me to have a place to record. I don’t need to have a full crazy studio. More important than anything is time. But also just a place with a desk, a little bit of space, preferably a window.
Do you consult other people for their opinions when songwriting?
I’ve found in the past that too much input can defeat my intuition. I play music for people more when the recording is starting to be done. I look for feedback more in terms of arrangement or sound but in the songwriting I know if it’s good or not. I’m pretty hard on myself. I probably have thrown away things that others might have used. I don’t really trust anyone else to be as tough a critic as me.
What about producers?
I’ve never worked with one.
You don’t care for them?
The way that I work, it’s really inefficient time-wise. If I brought a producer in they’d have to be there for a year. I would need an enormous budget. I would love to do that if it was the right situation. I produce other people’s records and usually feel like it’s not enough time.
How is the LA indie scene in your reckoning?
I don’t feel like LA has yet to be able to support the middle class of musicians. In New York there’s more small- to medium-sized venues that are quite professional. In LA the economy developed very suddenly and chaotically–which is very typical of LA, I think. Maybe in the years to come it will be better.
Is there a lot of drinking in the indie scene here?
I can’t generalize about that. I know lots of people who don’t drink. I feel like that’s a bit more common now. In my band we usually ask for beers backstage but most of it goes undrunk. A couple nights on tour we’ll be drinking more. We played in Glasgow recently and the promoter gave us a nice bottle of Scotch. We were drinking a bit more that night. But it’s not crazy drinking in my band. We’re all pretty moderate.
Have you ever chugged a beer on stage?
Chugged an entire beer? Uh, no. I think I would be embarrassed. Drinking and drugs are such a cliche for musicians.
How do you think of the performative aspect of your music?
I think everybody should do what is appropriate for them. I just try to be as focused on music as possible but at the same time being aware of what it would be like to watch and listen to it. Wherever I put my attention is where, ideally, people will put theirs. I’m thinking about the lyrics and notes and the space we’re in, trying to get the most out of the sounds, to play with the right emphasis and my own personal touch. I’m thinking about my bandmates, trying to connect with them, to make them laugh. I try to put little things in there to keep them interested and having a good time. I try to keep them on their toes, to provoke them to make the music their own. When you play the same thing every time, it starts to die a little bit.
I just think it’s important to be who you are. You can’t fake it. People know if you’re bullshitting them.”
What about showmanship?
I do really appreciate showmanship. I just think it’s important to be who you are. You can’t fake it. People know if you’re bullshitting them. I try to not bullshit people. If I’m feeling it, I might try to make people laugh or make it look interesting. I don’t want to sound pretentious but our shows are mostly about music. In social situations, I’m not the guy who wants to be the center of attention, talking and making jokes. Where I can be the center of attention is by making sounds and music. I try to stick to that because that’s where I feel like I have something to say.
Is there a difference in sound between the NY and LA scenes?
That’s another bad part of LA: There isn’t much of a regional sound. People like to think there is but I think it’s kind of a projection. People say that about my music, for instance. I don’t feel that way. I think you can find any kind of music in LA and NY. That’s the sad thing about what’s going on now. It’s getting hard to find things that are really regional. I’m sure there are but it’s harder than it used to be.
It’s bad and good. Guess I’m not going to complain about it too much.
Chris Cohen came out in March. How does it feel when you’re done with a record?
Now I can hear it like anybody else would. While you’re making the record, all you can think of are things you want to change. Then you get to a certain point where you’ve done everything you can and let go. Now I’m thinking about how to perform the songs. There’s endless room for improvement. That part of it is really fun. It’s a totally different kind of challenge.
Lyrically, much of the record is about your dad, correct?
Well, no. I wouldn’t put it that way. It’s all about me. My experience during the last decade has been trying to pull myself out of my family’s insanity. That’s what my record is about. My dad and his addiction have been the centerpiece of my family’s whole life. I’ve been trying to pick that apart. It’s about me and my story.
How’s it different from your last two?
I’ve written a lot of songs about my family and my own psychological situations. This record is different in that I decided that I was ready to just talk about things more explicitly. In the past, my mom was still married to my dad. They were still trying to make their marriage work. I was still trying to make my relationship with my dad work. I kind of just gave up on that, though. That liberated me to be able to say exactly what a song is about. Maybe someone listening to one of these songs will get something more from it then. If nothing else it’s less of a burden on me. I don’t have to apologize for saying what I want to. During the course of making this record, my situation changed. My dad’s situation is his doing—I don’t have to take responsibility for it. This realization was over years of craziness, of going to therapy and getting advice from friends, and just gradually being like, “I’m too old for this.”
Cheers to that.