Coheed and Cambria’s Claudio Sanchez on Channeling The Weeknd, Getting His ‘Broadway On’

“Life’s too short — why pose any limitation to the overall piece of art?” songwriter says
Coheed and Cambria
Photo: Alexandra Gavillet

At one point during my Zoom call with Coheed and Cambria’s Claudio Sanchez, I fumble my words so heavily that our conversation grinds to a halt.

Not because of awkwardness. The Coheed and Cambria mastermind remains one of the world’s most reliably affable rock stars: smiling widely, entertaining my nerdy questions about his synth-stacked home studio, punctuating every other sentence with a stoner-friendly laugh. The real reason I’m flummoxed: Even after listening to this band’s music for two decades, I have literally no idea what sub-genre shorthand to use during a question. (“Prog-metal-emo-power-pop” doesn’t exactly leap off the tongue.)

Even crazier, the band’s upcoming 10th LP, Vaxis — Act II: A Window of the Waking Mind, expands beyond even that broad description, flirting more overtly with dance beats, R&B, and symphonic music. (For the nearly nine-minute title track, he worked with string orchestrator Christopher Jahnke, recommended by Hamilton‘s Alex Lacamoire.)

I spoke to Sanchez about channeling The Weeknd, getting his “Broadway on,” collaborating with his son, recording vocals while “high as fuck,” and expanding his ambitions for the ongoing Amory Wars concept series.

SPIN: You’ve obviously done some pretty wild things within Coheed. But when you finished this album, did you think, “This is the wildest thing I’ve ever done”? 
Claudio Sanchez: Yes and no. Some of the material had kind of been around for a while. Some of the songs were actually for the first Vaxis record, Unheavenly Creatures, but I kind of put them on hold. But with the pandemic… Sometimes there are songs where I’ll compartmentalize them and say, “Is this appropriate for Coheed or more in line with the other projects I do?” This time around, I was like, “Let me just allow the music to live together if it makes sense. Life’s too short — why pose any limitation to the overall piece of art?” I think that’s where that cohesiveness comes from, that it does jump around. It doesn’t feel like vibes repeat.

 

“Bad Man” is one of those new Coheed songs that may surprise longtime fans. There are the dark, shadowy electronics, and your vocals have a more overt R&B vibe.
I wrote that song, and at first glance, I thought I could give it to someone else to perform. I think of Michael Jackson; I think of The Weeknd. I find that it’s difficult for me to find an avenue to write for other people. Any time someone suggests that, for whatever reason it never works. I was tweaking and tweaking it — some of the synthesizers in this room, drum machines, things like that. When I handed it off to Josh [Eppard] and he put his drums to it, I was like, “OK, I’m starting to get a perception of this as a Coheed song.”

One of the great parts of making this record was the isolation. I got to do a lot of it here in this room, which I think is important because, for 20-some-odd years of my life, I’ve been demoing material. And I’ve always found that trying to recreate it and capture a vibe in a studio environment can be challenging. We did take this record out to L.A., and I did recut some of the vocals; the drums were cut live. But with “Bad Man,” I said, “I’m gonna try something different,” so I got high as fuck when I cut those lyrics. [Laughs very hard.] That’s something I’d never do in the studio — I get super paranoid if it’s not, like, my wife with me. I actually cut the vocal with this microphone [that he’s speaking into], and I delivered the song in a way that I probably wouldn’t have if I’d been in the studio. We kept a lot of that delivery because I knew I’d never be able to recreate it. I love it because it’s so intimate and airy-sounding, and it reminds me of stuff I used to cut as a kid with cassette four-tracks, whispering in my parents’ house…high as fuck. [Laughs very hard.] 

It’s funny you mentioned The Weeknd because he immediately jumped to mind. You clearly have the ability to write for other people. Why hasn’t it worked out? 
Sometimes someone will bring up and idea, like, “Such and such is looking for a song,” but something always happens. But this song in particular, I brought it up to management, like, “What about The Weeknd?” But that just feels so bizarre to me — The Weeknd doesn’t need me writing songs for him. I’m sure when I [mentioned it], they were like, “You’re high,” which I was! [Laughs.] I grew up a Michael Jackson fan — one of my first contemporary pop memories was watching “Beat It” on MTV, and I couldn’t get enough of that song. So that was certainly my approach with some of the [vocal deliveries] on this record. When first looking at it, I was like, “Maybe this is a song for someone else.” But I got the courage up to say, “This is my song. I’m gonna keep in the world of Coheed.” 

“Window of the Waking Mind” is like an epic show tune, and it has so many unexpected elements. You’re even singing in a variety of styles here. I imagine that was a labor of love, hand-stitching all that together. 
A little history on that: In 2016, I was asked by a Broadway producer to construct a musical rendition of The Picture of Dorian Gray. I wrote the first act of this musical that nothing ever happened with, but the first song happened to be a 12-minute epic that tells the origin tale of Dorian. Nothing ever happened with the musical, so I was going to take the material and reshape it to work within Vaxis II. But I realized that I loved that piece as-is: The Dorian thing — “I don’t want to abandon it. Maybe in the future that’ll be a Coheed record. I want to do something like this for the Vaxis project.” So I wrote a new piece that I thought made more sense as a closer for this record, and it’s actually a bit different from the one I wrote for the Dorian one. But it took a moment. It was really just me in this room, fooling around, getting my Broadway on, I guess. [Laughs.]

As one does.
Right? [Laughs.]

Hopefully you find a way to release the Dorian Gray project. 
It’s definitely something I’ve been going back and forth with the band about. Potentially it’ll act as an intermission to the Vaxis story, but it’s definitely something that’s been there and I’ve been very proud of, but I haven’t figured out a way to put it out there. 

Thinking about the orchestrations got me wondering about the Amory Wars Film that Mark Wahlberg was originally co-producing. That was announced almost a full decade ago — is that still gonna happen at some point?
That sort of arrangement disintegrated with time. Myself, Blaze, and my wife [writer Chondra Echert] have been, in the past couple months, actively pursuing that idea, putting together pitches and things like that. I think it’s appropriate for the Vaxis story because of where it sits within The Amory Wars. But we’ll see. It’s something we’re trying to work on at the moment. It might be a little difficult in that, when you look at it with The Amory Wars, it’s gonna be a 10-story arc. It’s tough to say at the moment, but the thing with Mark Wahlberg is no longer [happening]. 

“A Disappearing Act” is another notable shift on this album: It’s all-out dance music with those massive synth lines and even some blips of heavy vocal processing.
I flew out to L.A., and we started messing around and cutting drums and stuff like that. The record was ready. But before I went, I was like, “I have another hard drive with 10 more songs on it. Maybe we can listen to it together and you can tell me what vibes are missing off the record.” Two of the songs happened to be “Shoulders” and “A Disappearing Act.” [Co-producer] Zakk [Cervini], who is an incredible creative force, made the demos sound like finished products. It was like, “Oh, my God, I can’t believe it. Maybe I can’t mix for shit!” [Laughs.]

We sat, and he picked those two songs and just kind of tinkered with them. When I showed them to everyone, I think some gravitated toward it. For Blaze, that song probably stood out initially as Prize Fighter. But listening to what Zakk would do with it, bringing out what elements of the arrangement spoke the most, it was like, “Wow, this is there. I couldn’t see it before.” I was all for it. I don’t think it’s strange for Coheed to put ourselves into the pop world. Maybe this is just a scene we haven’t explored before. It sounds too good to say no. 

 

Parenthood is obviously a crucial element of this album, so it’s only fitting that your son, Atlas, sings on “The Embers of Fire.” How did that come about?
I thought, because of the idea of the Vaxis character, who in the story is a child, this character experiences all time and space. I thought if my son could sing from that childish voice, I could sing from the adult one — as if he’s in every moment of his life or in all of life. So that’s why — I just thought, “Let’s just give this a shot.” And he sings well!

He really does. Is he interested in singing, or was he just doing dad a favor?
He does have the performance bug. He and his babysitter do these performances — we actually had tickets to one. It was 20-some songs all in Japanese. He also has pretty good pitch — maybe perfect pitch. I play notes, and he’ll call them out, which is something I can’t do. I’m like, “Holy shit! I can’t do that!”

This is random, but I learned that Rick Rubin was involved — in some way —  in No World for Tomorrow. Was he hands-on involved, or was it in a broader sense?
I think a little bit of both but a broader sense probably more so. I think at the time we’d lost a lot of the infrastructure at Sony, and I believe Rubin became a chairman at the time. At one point, [guitarist] Travis [Stever], myself, and Blaze went out to Malibu and met with him and discussed the potential of the record and who would produce it. For the most part, that was about it: deciding on who would produce the record. I guess he had a hand in that.

So you got to see his famous digs?
All I remember was that the fire was ferocious in the fireplace. I’ve never seen a fire that intense — contained. [Laughs.]

I’ve read that, at some point in your life, you’ve been interested in psychedelics. If you’re comfortable sharing, have you had any notable trips?
Years and years ago before Coheed, [my previous band] was in Woodstock, New York, and we were supposed to record a couple songs at the studio Applehead [Recording]. The night before, I took one too many hits of LSD and had a bad trip. I was sort of surrounded by people I didn’t really know, and I just remember this moment of being on a couch. All I saw were these pictures of moments in my memory going backwards, until I became this orb of energy. I think somebody ran into the room and was like, “He’s having a bad trip,” and apparently I was assed out on the couch, drooling, with Toy Story on the television or something. [Laughs.] I will always remember [it] because it was so sad seeing these moments and thinking everything was coming to an end, but it was going in reverse.

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