Tim Cohen of The Fresh & Onlys
» Talking with the Bay Area darlings' front-dude Tim Cohen.
photo by Jenz
The Fresh & Onlys deserve to be Bay Area darlings. After making waves at San Francisco's Noise Pop Festival and Austin's epic SXSW - look no further than our Imposition - it won't be long until the rest of the country adores the F&Os. Last year the band defined prolific with two full lengths, a double disc solo from Tim Cohen and various 7"s. With an upcoming studio album and a national tour with King Khan & the Shrines, the psychedelic freak-outs and gritty melodies of this garage-rocking quintet are proving its tireless schedule is not a one-off explosion, but an extended takeover.
Impose sat down with front-man, Tim Cohen, in a San Francisco coffee shop to talk about the theories behind his music, his passion for hip hop and the upcoming studio album that no one's had the privilege of hearing.
Let’s start from the beginning. How did the Fresh and Onlys get started?
The dude I started the band with had been doing similar stuff to me for years and years. We kind of grew up in a parallel existence. Somehow we met up here, working at [Amoeba Records] together. I passed him songs that I recorded every so often and one time the songs actually clicked with him and he took an active interest in learning to play them.
We started recording together and that’s it. March of 2008 we started making songs together and never really stopped.
You have a very raw, gritty sound to your music. What's nurturing that?
I think popular music on the radio and on TV has gotten so awful. For example, auto-tune coming back into vogue with T-Pain and Lil Wayne. That’s something that came into vogue in the 70s or maybe the early 80s. The fact that auto-tune came back means that popular music has moved through a necessary cycle to where it's just totally self-referential. It's defeating itself. It isn’t songs for the sake of songs anymore. It's how do we make songs that’ll make us a billion bucks and get us on a commercial.
So do you consider yourself reactionary to that?
It’s not my reaction, but it's something independent labels take an interest in. I’ve been recording songs by the same means for 12 years. It’s not me trying to be lo-fi. It’s me trying to make the best sound I can out of my equipment.
You listen to the songs on the radio and on commercials now and if it’s melody-drive and it’s good, then I like it. But if it’s a cheap melody that’s clearly made to be on the radio or for people to buy ringtones of – it’s not the same as the days of yore when people were writing songs for a purpose. Songs were better because not everyone got a record deal.
You’ve turned out an incredible amount of songs in a very short amount of time. How are you staying so prolific?
I can't really answer how. It’s just something that I do. It’s how my mind and body work. It’s all I know how to do – record songs. I guess it’s a quantity over quality approach. If you can record it, do it. I’m not saying put it out, but a writer doesn’t erase what he or she wrote and write it over. A real writer writes everything out and keeps going until it’s almost like a stream of consciousness approach. If you have the means to do it, you should do it.
I started playing guitar when I was 18 and I’m 33 now. I’ve been writing songs ever since I picked up that guitar and fortunately I’ve had a means to record it. A 4-track or the 8-track I invested in six years ago gave me the chance to put it all down. I can’t explain how ideas come to me – they just do. I don’t try to force them, they just course through me and because I'm a vessel for that expression, I never question it.
That being said, I have songs sitting at home that no one's ever going to hear. Hundreds of rap songs. You know, going on the bus and writing lyrics. Going home and making the beat and recording a rap song.
Why do you think you are so drawn to rap and hip hop?
Growing up I was on the East Coast in Virginia and there was no music coming out of there. Someone played me Run DMC’s first album, 1983. That was the first rap album I ever heard. Something about the rhythm drew me in – as I’m sure it did with so many other people. And so every week I would go to Sam Goody’s and buy whatever rap tapes came out and I amassed a huge collection.
I’d memorize every lyric. The amount of lyrics they have in rap songs was a challenge for me. It was almost like a brainteaser for myself. And when you start learning so many rap lyrics, you start to try to rap. I figured out that I could write rhymes and put this many words in a line and make the next line have the exact same cadence or rhythm to it.
Do you infuse any of those elements into the Fresh & Onlys?
Not necessarily. I’ve worked at a record store for a long time and I've been fortunate to meet people who have very varied interests in music and have been kind enough to expose it to me. Because I’m a sponge I absorb everything I can and it somehow becomes a part of what I do. When you have something in your brain, its going to influence what you make.
When I started learning about punk and pop music and getting in touch with the records my parents listened to – Cat Stevens, Gordon Lightfoot - I started writing songs that would be a challenge for people to hear, like those complex rhyme schemes of Organized Konfusion or Souls of Mischief. I started making songs that had pop elements, but had eight or nine parts and I never repeated a part. I wanted someone listening to have the same effect that I had listening to someone rapping.
Now you're with the Fresh & Onlys. How is this band distinctive for you?
For me, it was starting to write pop music. After my last band, Black Fiction, I started getting in touch with a more pop-oriented sound. It’s very vocally driven. We have three singers and we try to do vocal harmonies. It’s still really difficult, because we chose an interesting set-up. There’s two broken down drum kits, one guitar, one bass and one sound effect guy. I try to write songs that are still really rhythmic and informed by hip hop. I’ll tell the sound guy he’s got to make the bass drums super thuddy.
With the Fresh and Onlys, the first songs I wrote were really simple pop songs. It was the first time in my life where I sat down and just wrote a two part song that didn’t intend to deceive anybody or challenge them in any way. Just to make it palatable and to make it easy for us to play. We don’t have to think about where we’re moving our hand or what drummer we’re gonna pick. I realized we could just write a hundred songs like this. Whichever ones are good, we’ll re-record them and play them live at the next show.
The lo-fi, psychedelic sound is blowing up in San Francisco right now. How do you see your band fitting into that scene?
We don’t really see ourselves in a “scene”. There’s definitely bands that we play with and who we love and happen to be our friends and they just so happen to be other bands that are in the scene in San Francisco that people take note of and like.
What’s most important is putting our music out through touring, playing live and being like, “this is our record.” That’s how it’s always been and I've always gotten an immense amount of joy from that from childhood on – going to shows, really taking it in live and wanting to listen to it again at home. Because of the Internet and iTunes, you don’t go into a record store to hear music. You’ve already heard it. You don’t need to buy records.
I'm trying - to some degree - to keep records going. A lot of the bands in San Francisco are very vinyl and live-performance-oriented. So we’re lucky. We’re lucky people have heard our music and are somehow focused on the San Francisco scene and taking note of what we’ve done.
And you've made a lot of records.
We just stay in our bubble and do everything in-house except for our last record, which we did in a studio. It’s gonna denote a new beginning for us, because we’re not gonna want to go back and do home recordings for our albums. I think it's important to keep putting stuff out and have it be interesting to hear. As a musician, as an artist, you need to be doing new stuff all the time. As soon as you record something, you should let people hear it, because you're not gonna be interested later.
That being said, our record will be out in a few months. We’re not playing any of the songs from the record on this next tour. We’re gonna wait. This record’s new to everybody. No one knows about this record. When we put it out, we’re just gonna play the hell out of it.
Everyone in that band - we’ve all been working hard for years and years and haven’t let up. Finally we have really good chemistry and have two years of putting every idea we have down. Both me and Shayde spend our days off work drinking beers and saying, “Let’s write four songs today.” And we're writing them on an acoustic guitar in the kitchen and coming up with melodies.
So do you consider this new album to be a culmination of what you’ve been working towards?
Its definitely a step to get there and it's by far the best thing we’ve ever recorded. It's recorded on two-inch tape. It's recorded by the genius engineer, Tim Green. He’s a fucking champ. Eight days in the studio. I could never do what he did in my home. We've demo'ed all the songs and had pretty good recordings, but there’s no way I could even come close to what he did. With his equipment, his ambiance and his knowledge I'm eternally grateful to him. It's a real record. It sounds like our band but it’s a glorified version. We went in there and did it really well. That was the important thing. We’re all really excited about it.