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How Coheed and Cambria Broke Concept-Album Streak on New LP

Bandleader Claudio Sanchez on stripped-down ‘The Color Before the Sun,’ romantic single “Here to Mars” and Freddy Krueger.

At the time I was writing the record, I didn’t realize that I was writing an album,” Claudio Sanchez says of the process that led, slowly and uncertainly, to The Color Before the Sun, the new album by prog-pop-metal quartet Coheed and Cambria, out October 16th. In a dramatic departure for the band, which turns 20 this year, the new album dispenses with something that previously had seemed essential: “The Amory Wars,” the ongoing science-fiction storyline that not only has formed the basis of all previous Coheed albums, but also has sprawled outward into Sanchez’s work in comic books and literary fiction.

Confronted with the prospect of making a new home in Park Slope, Brooklyn, with his wife, writer Chondra Echert, Sanchez faced what he terms an identity crisis. But with the discovery that they were expecting their first child, Sanchez says, came a sense of direction, the feeling that he could channel everything he was feeling into his work without recourse to fiction and fantasy.

What resulted is in some ways Coheed’s most direct statement, one that the band chose to record live in the studio in order to emphasize its personal nature. In a telephone conversation from Brooklyn, Sanchez addressed the changes he’d been through. First, though, he revealed why he had paid homage to the late film director Wes Craven, whose death two days earlier Sanchez had noted on Twitter: “You were a huge inspiration to us, Wes Craven. I could only dream of creating a character as iconic as you have.”

Wes Craven was the auteur of some notoriously violent slasher films. How did his work inspire you?
It’s really about the creation of Freddy Krueger, honestly. Not too long ago, I put out a song on a seven-inch with a solo project of mine, called “Elm Street Lover Boy,” which was about: Had Freddy Krueger truly loved Nancy? Maybe she was misreading him. For so long, I had always put Freddy Krueger up there with Darth Vader — someone that was huge, coming up. Whether it was Wes’ writing of the script or Robert [Englund]’s delivery of the character, I don’t know, but something about that creation, I think, for me, stands the test of time. Very few people can accomplish that in life. George Lucas has that with Star Wars, and Wes and Robert have that with Freddy Kreuger: They’re just these characters that will always resonate for the rest of my life. Being a creator of characters myself, I can only wish to attain that thing that they just have.

Even when you go to see the not-so-great Star Wars prequel films, there’s something about sitting in that dark room, hearing the 2oth Century Fox fanfare… You’re shivering with anticipation, and you’re 11 years old again.
I’m not going to lie to you: I saw that first Star Wars [prequel] like seven times. I’m not necessarily saying that I loved the movie, but that sort of experience that you get from knowing that you’re in a Star Wars feature is really special.

Coheed and Cambria recently premiered the video for “You’ve Got Spirit, Kid” on Nerdist, a pop-culture website. What made you pick that spot?
When we approached the video, we wanted to approach it in sort of this homage to the movies that we loved from the Eighties, à la John Hughes or Steven Spielberg, those films that echo the idea of youth and camaraderie. Just the other day I was watching E.T. again, and it just felt like some of those things echoed into “…Spirit, Kid.” Maybe not as much as a Fast Times at Ridgemont High or a Pretty in Pink, or even My Science Project… I was looking for something like that, and Nerdist seemed to be kind of the perfect place.

The video has got that Fast Times and Porky’s edge to it, but the theme is sort of a Revenge of the Nerds scenario: You’ve got the smart, capable kids getting even with the cool, popular guys. How did you execute the concept?
We sort of threw the idea out there, and DJay Brawner sort of put the storyboard together. It’s funny you say Revenge of the Nerds — I can’t believe I hadn’t even thought of that as being one of them [laughs]. One of the songs that we would come offstage on was “Are You Ready for the Sex Girls,” from Revenge of the Nerds, so that’s obviously got some DNA in there. 

The Color Before the Sun is your first venture away from conceptual albums and “The Amory Wars.” Why was this the time to unmask, so to speak?
I think I just started to make these changes in my life that just called for that, you know? My wife and I had just moved into Park Slope, Brooklyn, our first apartment, and I had trouble writing songs. I’m normally used to working at four, five o’clock in the morning in a country house that’s completely secluded. Well, that doesn’t fly in a city neighborhood; I can’t wake up at four, five o’clock in the morning and start screaming at the top of my lungs. Someone’s going to call the cops [laughs]!

So when I actually did get down to writing, I felt this sense of exposure; I could hear my neighbors below me and above me, and I know they’re going to hear me doing this stuff and they’re going to have no sense of context. They’re just going to hear a voice; they’re not going to hear the stuff I have in my headphones and the music that’s happening. I think that somewhere, subconsciously, that exposure leaked into the execution of the lyrics.

But then, I started to have this trouble: I didn’t see myself creating anything; I was just having problems with it. Then my wife got pregnant, and that sort of pulled me out of that. I started to see the beauty in her and the anticipation of fatherhood, what kind of father I was going to become to this new person, and the inevitability of having to leave that person when touring came.

So all this stuff sort of leaked into the album linearly; I just didn’t see it. Then my wife and I were going to move back to our country house — and we found out that our home had been transformed into a grow house. This idea of going back, and anticipating this child: all this stuff sort of made its way onto the record.

When I looked at it at first, I thought, “This doesn’t have the formula of a Coheed record. This is probably more of a solo record.” But then I realized, well, Coheed, for years, I always tried not to put any limitation on it. I always wanted us to be as limitless as possible when it came to the music, when it came to the bands that we toured with. So I thought, why should the concept be any different? This is a new phase in my life. I’m about to become a father; it’s so exciting to me. Why not allow that excitement into the artistic side of what I do, and let the songs speak for themselves? Let the concept have a break.

How did your bandmates respond when you presented them with this new kind of material? How does the music reflect the change of emphasis?
I think they all were very into it. For years the concept has been… I don’t want to say a source of negativity, but not everybody understood it at the ground floor, so it took years to sort of swallow the idea of the concept. Everybody sort of embraces it now; certainly it’s ingrained in the DNA of Coheed and Cambria. It has allowed us the life this band has had. But here we are now, with this idea of letting it kind of be and letting the songs speak for themselves; everybody was open to that idea, and I think it shows in the music. I think the execution of the band sounds tremendous, in my opinion. I mean, I don’t want to talk about what I think the record sounds like, but everybody seemed behind the idea of letting the concept take a rest.

The band sounds really tight and energized on the record. Obviously Coheed has gone through some changes, with people coming and going and coming again, but you sound like you’re in a really strong place now.
Thank you — I appreciate that. One of my things with this record is that I thought, if we’re going to have this sense of exposure, if the concept is not going to be a part of the chemistry right now, then we should be exposed — we should perform this live. And that was something we’d always heard in the past: The record sounds different; I like your band live. So this time around, it was like, let’s let the blemishes give character to the songs. We gave it a shot, and I think it worked for the better. And we had a blast. We recorded the record in two weeks, which is really unheard of for us. It used to be two, three months, because everything is under the microscope, you know? So it was a lot of fun, and we felt a real sense of accomplishment.

Speaking of accomplishments, how old is your son Atlas now? I’ve seen your photos on Twitter, but I’m not a good guesser.
In five days he’ll be 15 months.

That’s such a great age. How has that impacted your life and your attitude toward work?
Everything is for him. I love him. I’ll turn on the piano — in our apartment, we’re afforded the idea of a small digital piano, and I’ll turn it on. Or not even I’ll turn it on — he’ll know where the power button is. The thing that he gravitates towards is not so much the keys, but the metronome. He just wants time, and he’ll just walk around to this metronome. And when I pull out a guitar, I’ll play, and he’ll grab the pick from my hand — and he won’t put it in his mouth. He’ll look at it, and he’ll make sure that he puts it upright, so that the logo is in the right position. So we have this little strange collaboration going on; I was working on a song earlier in the living room, and we were doing that, back and forth. I almost feel sometimes like I gauge whether a song is important by the way he reacts to it [laughs].

The new single, “Here to Mars,” is a classic, straight-up love song. Was there something specific that brought that one out of you? Or just a general sense of what you and your wife have created together?
We collaborate on so many things, my wife and I: music, comics, but here we are now, collaborating on a life together. It was huge. Especially for the time — like I said, I had this sense of identity crisis. Songs like “Eraser” and “Island” and “Colors” certainly echo those ideas of, like, “Who am I? Do I want to be someone else?” When we found out that we were pregnant, all of that didn’t really matter anymore. And here this person was that is so important to me, and we’re about to do this together. And it was just my way of expressing my gratitude to her. And I know some people would say, “Well, Mars is a limitation. You only love her to Mars? We have an ever-expanding universe out there, and we’re only a part of this small galaxy.” Well, for me it’s like, I’ll never know what that distance is. To me, that might as well be infinity. My love for her is ever-expanding.

When you’ve grown up in science fiction and fantasy, Mars used to be about as far as mankind could imagine. You’re talking about something that’s as big as it can be.
Absolutely. So it’s really just to express how much she really means to me, and how important she is to who I am. Without her, I don’t know what I would be.

Last question: If you were the producer of the film version of your life, who would you choose to direct — and what’s the MPAA rating?
I would probably choose Quentin Tarantino, because maybe he would make my life a bit more interesting than it actually is [laughs].

Okay, so a hard R rating, then.
It’s going to be a hard R. But yeah, I would choose him. It would just make it a bit more edgy, cooler, I guess.

More samurai swords, bigger guns.
Hopefully, yes. He’ll trade in the guitars for those.