In an attempt to lighten the weighty mood on Magic Tricks' forthcoming Ruler of the Night, the avant-folk crew's frontman, Tim Cohen, turned to a pun. "There's a guy on the cover — I guess it's me — getting tortured in a town square," he deadpans. "It was like, 'Why don't we make people think we're talking about an actual ruler?' "
He's referring to the grade-school measurement tool, which Cohen and his group's Hardly Art label decided to include with preordered albums. "I thought it was hilarious," the 35-year-old adds. "I think having something silly puts people at ease. We're not just out there trying to make people uncomfortable."
Initially conceived as a solo side project into which Cohen (who also fronts San Francisco psych-rock act the Fresh & Onlys) could pour his unending stream of songs, Magic Trick expanded to a full band to craft the ramshackle country-tinged sophomore release. But with his bedroom recording studio packed with an eclectic array of instruments — the pile includes a marimba and a brand new autoharp — Cohen admits he remained "heavy-handed" during the process. "We don't really write songs together," he says. "I pretty much write all the songs, then start recording them, and bring them in to have [the band] play their parts and interpret them in their own way."
The depressive lyrics, though, are exclusively his. "I'm barely alive today," he moans in a plaintive tone on "Melodies," by far the gloomiest cut off the record. "It almost hurts to breathe."
"That was a really bad day. I woke up and I was really hung over. I forced myself to write it," he says. "But I don't get really bummed out. I don't really turn inwards. I've trained myself to respond to every situation by turning it into a melody. There is darkness, but I think the darkness goes into the music."
That emotional channeling paired with his policy of never squandering a song idea is part of the reason Cohen has managed to remain so prolific. On the cusp of a summer tour for the new release, he's also readying a fall album with the Fresh & Onlys and contemplating another spin-off LP. "If I have an idea — if I have five ideas — I just record them all down then sit on them," he says. "I'm not stuck on one singular idea of what a good song should be. You just have to try, you know?"
Hear the similarly heavy album cut "Invisible at Midnight":