by Daniel Colussi | Tim Cohen’s a busy man. With The Fresh And Onlys he tours the globe and releases a steady stream of jangled rock and roll that fuses Buddy Holly with the Blue Orchids. When the Onlys aren’t doing their thing he self records the kind of perfect, fractured pop that so much home-recorded music promises but too often fails to deliver. Simply put, he’s got a way with words and knows how to use simple things like an old drum machine and an acoustic guitar to build up songs into mini epics of bejewelled pop. He lives high above San Francisco in a home studio that looks out in all directions over the city and in this way resembles a kind of Nietzschean mountain sage of outsider pop. Between finishing off a new Onlys album and preparing for this West Coast tour, Tim told me about his hip hop faves, touring the world, and more…
I read that you were or big hip hop fan in your high school days. What are your favourite albums? Were you more of a West Coast guy or a NY guy?
I’m so stoked you asked me this, and I’m glad none of my friends are around to dispute my list of the top ten Hip Hop Albums ever (In My Opinion!)
10. Nas, “Illmatic”
9. Dr. Dre “The Chronic”
8. Freestyle Fellowship “Innercity Griots”
7. A Tribe Called Quest “Midnight Marauders”
6. Ghostface Killer “Supreme Clientele”
5. De La Soul Is Dead
4. Wu-Tang Clan “Enter the 36 Chambers”
3. Genius/GZA “Liquid Swords”
2. Organized Konfusion “Stress:The Extinction Agenda”
1 (tie) Black Sheep “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing” and Ice Cube “Amerikkka’s Most Wanted”
Jeez, that’s hard. I left off so many records. Where’s Biggie? Where’s Big L, Pete Rock & CL Smooth, Showbiz and AG? Also, from that list it looks like I’m partial to East Coast Hip-Hop but I’m also a huge fan of DJ Quik, Comptons’ Most Wanted, NWA, CPO, Above the Law, Pharcyde, Saafir, Heiro. I basically love it all between the years of 1990-1994.
Did you ever record any hip hop stuff?
Yes, I recorded quite a few rap songs, lyrics and beats. Nothing really available online, but we put out a few CD-R’s and two official CDS and 12″ EPs. I wonder if I should bring those on the road. Ha!
You’ve released a steady stream of solo stuff alongside the many Fresh And Onlys albums and eps. Has your solo work evolved into a stable line up at this point or is it just a grab bag of friends and acquaintances?
It’s stable, but unable to tour as is. Hence my decision to do this tour solo. My bandmates, James, Noelle and Alicia, I’ve been collaborating with for a couple years, they are willing to see my ideas through thoroughly and they are wonderful people. Couldn’t ask for more in a collaborator. James used to be drummer in my other band The Fresh & Onlys, but his career prevented him form keeping up our tour schedule. He plays percussion in all our local shows though. Noelle is an amazing singer. I guess I’ve known her for about five years. Alicia is a supremely talented musician. She’s sang vocals on a couple F&O’s 7″s, too.
What stuff are you going to play for us at the Waldorf?
Probably mostly the last two, Tim Cohen’s Magic Trick, and Magic Trick’s “The Glad Birth of Love” Theres only so many songs I feel comfortable playing solo, and I don’t want to make anyone feel awkward with my bumblings and fumblings onstage. So I’ll keep it simple….
You’ve done a whole lot of touring over the last several years with The Fresh And Onlys. Do you like touring?
I love to tour. New York, Chicago, Vancouver are some of my favorite destinations. I especially love touring in Europe. But For me, a good show starts with whats happening on-stage. If we are in the zone, vibe, whatever. That should translate to an audience. If it falls flat before it leaves the stage, its not gonna be good. If It flies off the stage and falls on deaf ears, it’s not so bad. If it binds you to an audience from first note to last, then its a great show. Everyone goes home happy.
There’s a lot of baseball imagery in the artwork you yourself designed for the first couple of solo albums. So you’re a big baseball guy? Were you psyched when the Giants won the series in 2010?
Definitely a baseball guy, and sports in general. Grew up playing baseball, was raised a Cubs fan by two parents who weren’t even from Chicago. But feeling beholden to a perpetual loser like the Cubs, and having no hometown or even home-state team to root for growing up in Virginia has enabled me to just root for the underdogs in most situations. But the Giants win was thrilling, because San Francisco is such a small, excitable city. We were on tour, actually in Texas, for a couple of the World Series games, and we were in Baltimore when they won. It was crazy to see that no one really cared about that series anywhere outside San Francisco! But we were going nuts. Us and all the other zero people in the club!
You’ve put out a lot of music over the last several years. Is there a particular release that you’re most proud of?
Proud is a strong word. I like the most recent Magic Trick “Glad Birth of Love” mostly because I feel that I did what I’d always wanted to do, and just say “Here’s the songs, they’re kind of out there, hope ya like em. By the way, they will never be on the radio,” and Arvel Hernandez, who runs Empty Cellar, just stood behind me the whole time. Also, I’m in love with the artwork that Kevin Earl Taylor did for that. So I’m more proud of those guys than myself. I’m proud to have been involved in Castleface Group Flex, because it’s the most unique and radical packaging idea I’ve seen in many years. I’m proud of Castleface. And I think I’ll be very proud of the next Fresh & Onlys record. It’s been a real joy recording that one.
What makes a song right for the Fresh And Onlys, and what makes a song appropriate for you to do solo?
I mostly leave that up to Fresh & Onlys by committee. Because we are a working, touring band, it’s important that we all are into the songs we are playing, for our job. If I write a song, those dudes will usually tell me that its going to be an Onlys song. But sometimes, I just know they’re not gonna go for it, and I’ll record it for Magic Trick. It’s all conditional.
The Glad Birth Of Love seems to represent a bit of a turning point in terms of your solo stuff. It’s a semi-proggy album with a lot of acoustic guitars and some oboe on it. What were your ideas going into making this album? What were they albums or bands that were reference points for you while you were making it?
I wouldn’t pinpoint one or even a group of albums that informed “The Glad Birth of Love” but I would say that it definitely took on a school-assignment type of process. In other words, I would force myself to find something further in each part or melody, that would open doors to another. Like a research paper, I was referencing all types of other artists, and I wanted to Frankenstein together four compositions that could each have been broken up into several songs. But I wanted it to be cohesive, and I feel that I came close to that. But I was very self-directed, something that comes easy to me in music that I never quite achieved academically. It’s fun when I feel that things have to be “turned in” i.e. to a label, it makes you really get inside something and work on it. In earlier times of my life, I would have been much less patient. “The Glad Birth of Love” is also a direct response to the somewhat Spartan approach that The Fresh & Onlys employs, i.e. meat and potatoes, ABAB song structures, catchy melody, the whole nine. Not that meat and potatoes is a bad thing. I could eat that stuff for days.
Tim Cohen supports The Papercuts at The Waldorf on Friday December 9th.
UPDATE: The bad new, Tim just informed me that Friday’s Papercuts/Tim Cohen show is cancelled due to border issues. The good news, The Fresh And Onlys play the Bitlmore Cabaret February 18th with Chicago psychers Disappears. There’s always a silver lining!
Zulu Records veteran and tunage aficionado Daniel Colussi is the Music Editor of Scout Magazine.