I first tried to interview The Fresh & Onlys’ Tim Cohen a few years ago at SXSW. At the time, tired of being misquoted, he said he wasn’t doing interviews, so I waited. Finally, the proper moment arrived, Psych Fest 2014 be thy name. With new record House of Spirits in the can (out today on Mexican Summer), Cohen apparently decided interviews ain’t so unfresh after all. When I found him, he was sitting in a teepee by the river, wearing a colorfully tie-dye’d “Austin Psych Fest” t-shirt and jeans — every other nail was painted neon orange. His demeanor is kind, calm, and approachable. We found a quiet spot by the Colorado River. Planes flew overhead every few minutes, giving me a few extra seconds to suss out my next question.
Nowadays, do you feel that you have to dig deeper to write songs or is it just as easy as it was in the beginning?
Do you mean now vs. then?
Yes; now vs. then.
No, for me it’s been just as easy. I’ve never really been too precious about ideas. As soon as I hear a melody in my head, I write it down, record it, write it down, record it, [and] sing it over and over again. I think that being so open to being a conduit to ideas enables me to just come up with it… Usually it’s pretty formulaic. Most of my songs are sort of A/B, A/B/C kinds of song structures, which is fine, it’s the usual pop-song structure, but then [I’ll] let a single idea come and I’ll squirrel it away for a later time, and it resurfaces later, then blends in with another part. That’s kind of as careless as you could be about it; I’ll just put it aside and have faith that it’s going to come back to life. With regard to like, writing an entire song, if I just give myself enough time, it will… I’ve done it so much that it’s a process. I don’t have to work for it really, it just goes into place there. But it’s gotten formulaic now, you know. I might be over my pop songwriting phase; it hasn’t waned as of yet, but I’ve written so many of the same songs, I just feel it’s time to start revisiting the motive or… the impetus.
Over the years, as the group has gained recognition, has fronting Fresh & Onlys felt more like work or a hobby?
I don’t think of it as like we’ve gotten that much bigger. We still play the same places that we’ve played, and it actually, I’m sort of blessed in a way that it never became like a buzz band, where it was a thing that everybody liked. With buzz bands, all of a sudden it’s in your ear and everyone’s talking about it. I think the way that our process works is that, I wouldn’t say that we were bigger but I would say that we have a lot more fans that are devoted to us and are confident that we’re going to make a record that they like, so they’re more likely to go buy our record, or come to our shows or whatever the case may be. Day-to-day life, it hasn’t affected us at all. Like, on the money level, we are still having to work and do other stuff, which is why we’ve had to take a couple of long breaks from touring. So I feel like we fell of the radar a bit. But it hasn’t changed any level of bigness that you were talking about, it hasn’t changed anything about how we approach what we do.
Do you have something that you do when you go back home as far as making ends meet?
I do odd jobs here and there. I’m still dedicated to being a new artist, and I just became a dad, so I do have to start thinking about how those pieces are going to come together. I’ve started doing some carpentry wood-working stuff and painting, visual art. I have a show coming up in the summertime that I’m hoping overall leads to another one. But I’m still dedicated at heart to being an artist and I still feel like I have a lot of creative energy that I wouldn’t want to siphon away. So I’m biding my time, but I’m also very cognizant of the fact that time could be running out for that, as far as making ends meet for my daughter and everything, but I’m working hard and I’m creating and producing. As long as that stays fertile, I’m not really to worried about the future.
You mentioned your a new parent, I had read in a previous interview your family was living in Sedona, Arizona, where your parents live…
We all live together in San Francisco. That got misconstrued; we all moved together to Sedona, Arizona, then we all moved back to San Francisco, so we’re very much a family. But yeah, we did live with my parents for a year. It was tough, but that’s where the last wave of music and paintings that I did came from, living in relative isolation in the middle of the Arizona desert, on a horse ranch. Was there a question that you…
Yes, would you encourage your daughter to become an artist, or a musician as you’ve done, or would you rather she choose a more conventional route?
I’m just going answer this question like my parents would have answered it, which is that I would want her to do whatever she wants to do. She sees me play music, and she loves participating in it and banging on the drums, hitting the keyboard, playing the guitar, singing, dancing. We do all that stuff all the time and she, that’s just my nature when I’m around her is to do that, you know, but she’s also gonna be a good student and athletic and everything that’s why you know, it’s like, I don’t have any ideas. She’s only one-and-a-half so I couldn’t possibly project that on her at this point, and I hope that I won’t in years to come. My parents were always like… I think they’re kicking themselves now because here I am, 37 years old and still riding around in a van playing shows, you know. ‘Austin Psych Fest,’ you know! So they’re probably kicking themselves saying, “Dammit, I wish I had stressed the importance of like getting a real job, that could have mattered.” But, if she decided to become an Evangelical Christian, or even a cheerleader, I would be OK with it.
It’s almost sort of an ennui that takes place in your mind, like those long bus rides where nothing happens because there’s nothing interrupting your dreams…
I noticed House of Spirits had a different feel from your past records. With songs like, “I’m Awake,” it seems you feel estranged. Can you tell us about that song?
That’s one of the songs on the record that originates from a dream state. Waking/sleeping/dreaming, you know the crossover, almost lucidity but… I think I explained this to someone else, it’s kind of hard to explain but I think I got it now: The maddening silence on the ranch… The only sound that could wake you up at night was the howling and the braying of the coyotes, a pack of them, all of a sudden cackling and just maniacally screaming, and that would wake you up at like 3 in the morning and you would be like, “Holy shit, there’s like fucking 50 coyotes outside my window right now,” and… There’s that, and then in the morning the rooster crows because we’re in front of a farm, you know. So, versus San Francisco, where I’ve lived years before and all that, where there’s just traffic, and buses going by in the middle of the night, people screaming, gunshots; you know, noises… You become accustomed to living with a certain amount of noise that’s always happening, so when you go out and you’re living in complete silence, your thoughts start to take on a different timbre, you know? You’re not being fed information, you’re having to kind of come up with it all on your own because every sound you hear is influencing what you say, what you think about. So when you’re sleeping in a desert and it’s completely black outside and there’s no sound, dream states are really intense because your brain is now formulating all this stuff. It’s almost sort of an ennui that takes place in your mind, like those long bus rides where nothing happens because there’s nothing interrupting your dreams… Your dreams take the form of, until something wakes me up, like, I’m going to still be on this bus, ‘cause nothing happens, you know? But, in the event that a crazy pack of coyotes wakes you up in the middle of the night, your dreams could do really crazy things, you know, like taking you to terrifying places. That dream in particular was about just being at a tower, looking out a tower at a loosely populated forest, like an English forest.
On track 8, the lyric “Don’t be cruel to a heart that’s true,” that’s obviously a play on the Elvis song…
That’s “Ballerina” yeah, that’s taken from an old adage, but that’s not the lyric. It’s, “Don’t be cruel to a heart that’s good.” It’s a slight variation on the Elvis thing, but that song is written for my daughter, it’s a ‘fatherly advice’ type of thing.
Can you tell me about the song “Candy”?
That’s one I won’t really talk that much about because it involves people in my life that I wish to remain with like, the puppet’s mask on them. They’re kind of recurring characters in my songs. Long story-short, it’s a straightforward narrative about men have tried to double her pleasure, and she’s kind of standing in and deflecting all commerce. My bitterness is in that situation I found myself in, being the suitor, where there’s this other person who’s fending off these other advances but still paying you no mind, but paying you enough mind to where you think that they’re inviting you somewhere with them. But it never happens. And that’s kind of hard, because it goes back to an old, old experience I had, which always stayed with me, that experience of spurned love and my first crushes. You know, romanticism. I still feel like [it] is a part of my daily life, thinking about, ‘How did this experience make you the way you are, why am I thinking these thoughts?’ But it manifests itself more often than not in song lyrics. That song lyric pertains to an experience like I described, but, regarding the specifics of it, I won’t, I can’t really go into it. I don’t even know if I could. I mean, I could try, but it would take me down a deep rabbit hole.
We were all dealing with different hardships, each of us individually, and it was like, this really difficult experience putting all our hardships aside and just focusing on making the music. And when we finally did pick up steam it finally came together, but for a while it felt very fragmented and remote and isolated.
There’s something about House of Spirits that seems more introspective. Do you feel it’s a reflection of your internal or external environment?
It’s an extremely isolated record, isolated insofar as I wrote it in, as I was describing, this very lonely, plain life in the desert. Also, it was contrived as me, demoing the song, sending it to the band, getting it all together in San Francisco. During the time that we were together, we were all dealing with different hardships, each of us individually, and it was like, this really difficult experience putting all our hardships aside and just focusing on making the music. And when we finally did pick up steam it finally came together, but for a while it felt very fragmented and remote and isolated… We all got together and begun to understand that we had to sublimate all our energies into this focus and finish this one singular thing. Before that, if we hadn’t gotten to that point, the record would’ve never been made; it was just bits and pieces, skeletons, fragments, ideas, and really no cohesion. So when we finally did pull it together and finish the record, it began to make sense that yes, this is a record which we all really like, but I can also feel the sense of isolation and desperation that went into it, and also the songs primarily being written where they were, at the time that they were: a new father, having my fears about life take the fore, and also this extreme love that I have focused on this child. I began to feel like, the music’s going to be gone — I don’t really care — but she’s always going to be there, so that’s where I’m at, you know. But that, coupled with these dark dreams and isolated states that I had; isolated fits, I should say, all came together in this.
“April Fools” seems kind of bleak, could you elaborate on that track?
KInd of bleak?
I don’t think it is… It’s just sort of tongue-in-cheek, like poking at my own lyric.
“She says she loves you but everybody lies, it’s April Fools.”
Yeah, but that’s not supposed to be like, directly followed, it’s just tongue in cheek: “I went to bed with a smile on my face knowing these words have been spoken,” then:
“Darlin, it’s April fools.”
It’s just supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, like, ‘Oh, that happened, it’s so sincere,’ and then, ‘Oh, don’t you know it’s April fools, no one tells the truth?’ But that’s not concluding that the truth could be being told, despite the fact that I do say, nobody tells the truth.
I’m going to go back in time now, to your “Play it Strange” record. There seemed to be a lot of love songs, like “Summer of Love,” “Until the End of Time,” which makes me wonder if this was a time when you were perhaps falling in love? Then you also have songs like “I’m a Thief”…
Actually, I don’t hear… “Until the End of Time,” that one I could see, but, “Summer of Love” is not really a love song, it’s like: “Clarissa come with me, it’s the summer of love.”
Then the next verse is like: “Melissa come with me, It’s the summer of love.”
And then: “Nothing could trouble me, it’s the summer of love.”
Then: “Bathe our black bodies in the governor’s blood”… I wouldn’t call that a love song. “Until the End of Time” is very dark and like minor key; it deals with the idea of like, “Until you die too,” suggesting that the protagonist is already dead. I think I have the kind of relationship I have with love songs, I don’t just want to spit it out there, like onto a Hallmark card, or like a pretty napkin and have it be what it is. I would like to have people hear it and say, “That’s a love song or that’s a really dark fucking song,” and have it not be mutually exclusive, you know, so… I feel like I’ve fallen in love a few times in my life, and… I feel like it’s possible to fall in love every day with something, you know, as long as your heart is open to it. So I think, from the beginning of my songwriting career, I’ve dealt primarily with those universal issues: love, death, loss, friendship.
The only sound that could wake you up at night was the howling and the braying of the coyotes, a pack of them, all of a sudden cackling and just maniacally screaming, and that would wake you up at like 3 in the morning and you would be like, “Holy shit, there’s like fucking 50 coyotes outside my window right now.
What about “Imaginary Friends”?
That was one of the first songs we ever wrote. I don’t even know, I don’t even know how to play that one anymore.
I always hope you’ll play it.
We’ve kind of run through all the songs, the older songs. It’s like, you get sick of playing them, then you don’t want to play them anymore.
So, how do you decide on your set list?
We all sit down and, whatever we’re excited about playing, which, right now is our newest stuff you know.
Has any author or book in particular influenced you creatively?
More than anything, I’d say Crime and Punishment because there’s such a conflicted personality in that… There’s never a straight answer, people are always torn between good and evil… Every decision you make matters to yourself or someone else you know. I’ve tried to play it close to the vest, honestly.
Do you ever watch TV shows?
Funny story: The last TV show I watched was Breaking Bad, watched the entire thing, and last night, flying in from L.A., Gustavo was on our plane. You know, the guy who played Gus Frey? The owner of the chicken joint?
Yeah, he was on our airplane, and it’s like, I usually don’t get that stoked about celebrities. I’m just like, “Ah, that’s cool,” but you know that was a really cool celebrity sighting. Especially [because] I had just watched to show a couple months ago, and I went down there saying that’s the best TV slow that’s ever been on TV, better than a lot of movies. So for me to see him sitting there being all friendly with all the passengers, I was just like, that’s like the coldest dude ever, you know? It’s like, you know his job is being super-nice to people and being polite out in front, but secretly he was just cold, so yeah, that was cool.