Alice Cohen’s house of mirrors

Liz Pelly

alice-cohen-interview

Photo by Frank Carroll.

Alice Cohen is obsessed with mirrors. “I think mirrors have to do with identity, and a way of connecting with yourself,” she tells me, sipping on kava-infused coffee in the kitchen of her Greenpoint apartment, listening to minimal techno float out of her desktop computer speakers. “When you look in the mirror, it’s sort of an attempt to connect with yourself in this visual way.” Cohen’s new album, Into The Grey Salons, released in September on Olde English Spelling Bee, plays with these sorts of ideas, contemplating image, consumption, escapism, and performance along the way. It was directly inspired by an extravagant, historic department store in Philadelphia, where she grew up, but also seems to riff on ideas that would become engrained within someone after decades of wandering in and out of various corners of the music industry.

Since her teenage years, Cohen has charted a unique creative path. She grew up in Philadelphia, the daughter of two professional jazz pianists. In the ’80s, Cohen played first with a funk group called Fun City, and eventually the major-label disco act The Vels. In ’87, she moved to New York, where she would play with a countless number of projects, dabbling in math rock, synth pop, and improv, venturing through the big-label system once again with her grunge band Die Monster Die before ultimately settling into a rhythm of home-recording and DIY releases. Cohen is also a compelling visual artists, collagist, and animator, and has been an art teacher at a children’s museum for over a decade.

There are hints of all these past lives within her current solo work, where alienpop melodies mesh with mathy dissonance; sparkly, retrofuturist synths and deadpan self-harmonizing are tied together with funk grooves. Cohen’s music has a distinctly multi-layered quality, made of elements that come into clearer view through hours of conversation about her life and work.

When and how did you start making music?

I picked up music around the house. I took some piano lessons, but I’m pretty much self-taught. When I was 12 or 13 I got an acoustic guitar and started writing songs. When I was 14 or 15, I started getting into David Bowie and glam and glitter rock. I started writing songs on the piano, playing coffeehouses. It was the 70s. I was pretty young. Then in the 80s, Philly was very vibrant musically. I was in a funk band, and disco cover bands to get experience. Then I was in the Vels, this electronic synth-pop band. We got signed to Mercury Records. That was a big deal for us.

Those were the early days of MTV. That went on for a while. Then I was in a band called the Moroccos. Lots of bands. In the 90s I was in a grunge band called Die Monster Die.

Have you always been a songwriter, through all of it?

I started writing songs when I was really young. It was just a natural thing. I liked to make up pretty melodies when I was a little kid. And sing to myself. That’s my earliest memory.

My first band, the funk band, was called Fun City. We made one recording with this producer. It was on this compilation. It was a cool tune. Then Karen Young recorded a song of mine, “Detour.” That was the first song of mine that was ever recorded by someone else. Actually maybe the only one. I came really close to writing a song for the Bangles. It didn’t quit happen. The song came out on the second Vels album. It was this song called “Souveneirs”.

When did you move to New York?

87. I would always come up here to hang out, but that’s when I moved.

And then you played in a grunge band?

Die Monster Die. We were on Roadrunner Records. We did a lot of touring. We booked our own tours, piled in the van. We did a European tour too. I played bass in a band called Spoiler for a while. Then I played in this math rock band called La Machine, we didn’t really put anything out. Then I had this little electronic project on a casio, called Instaband. Then I played in this all-girl group called the Long Lost. That was really cool. Actually the drummer in that band was Sara Marcus. It was guitar-bass-drums and we all sang. I was also in this band called Espadrille, which was also mathy. I liked to play guitar in mathy bands before I got back to the keyboard. I have a rock side, and a funk side, and an improv side. I was in an improv band called Castles.

It was a lot of bands. Then I started animating, and that took some of my energy, so I couldn’t be in as many bands. Animating takes a lot of time. I have different projects, little side bands. I’ve been trying to do more guitar music sometimes. It’s hard to do it all. It’s impossible actually.

I feel like it’s pretty rare for one person play in so many styles and in so many different scenes – disco, funk, grunge, improv, synth pop. What do you make of it?

What’s that called, a dichotomy? Yeah, it’s a weird dichotomy. I think that’s been a problem for me in terms of packaging. Now, they talk about ‘branding’. I hate that word. Everyone’s like, you have to have a brand. You have to brand. The word is distasteful to me. I feel like a freak. I still have a flip phone, I don’t like the word branding. I feel like an outcast. But I’m just at the point where I don’t care. It’s liberating.

It’s all just transitory. I can’t imagine just doing one style of music. I think it’s more fun to develop this way. Why not go where your inspiration is? An artist will paint different styles so why can’t a musician do that too? It’s all an evolution. You are all these different selves as your life goes on. And your different selves are going to have different expressions.

If you have a certain style, the style will always come out in whatever you’re doing. In the end, if you’re making it for yourself, and you’re not making it to fit in, or to please someone… Your personality will come through, because its taking your essence and vision. What you do is happening now. Though there is no now. It’s always shifting and changing. “Now” is only “now” right now – tomorrow it’s gone.

When you think about the different music you’ve made over the years – do you see common threads? Has there been a recurring thing you feel like you’ve used songwriting for, like, “these are the sorts of ideas I put into music.”

I do write from emotion. Some people do, some people don’t, but for me, it’s usually an emotional thing. I feel like certain chord changes, certain harmonies, certain melodies, have an emotional resonance with me.

It’s always a journey into self. And a way of kind of communicating something, of trying to express something that’s not expressable in another way. Something that couldn’t be expressed just by having a conversation, or using words. It’s more about a feeling or a moment in time.

I still have a flip phone, I don’t like the word branding. I feel like an outcast. But I’m just at the point where I don’t care. It’s liberating.

I saw an article you wrote for Impose about some of your favorite old disco bands. When you think about that period of your life, what influence do you still take from it?

Funk and soul and beats and grooves are really engrained thing in me. I grew up with that stuff. There was also the whole fashionable aspect, of dressing up and going out to nightclubs. I’ve always been fascinated by that aspect of it too, the nightlife and the glamour. The record I just made was really influenced by it. For me, music is very visual. The style that goes with it. There’s a part of me that likes noise and anger and Pharmakon and screaming and an industrial show. There’s other times you need this elegance, this more elegant side of dressing up and disco lights.

I wanted to ask you about the experience of going through the major label system, coming out of that, and then eventually moving on to home-recording and self-releasing.

The Vels and Die Monster Die were my two ‘signings’. Everything else has been on small labels, like Todd’s label, Olde English Spelling Bee. Or self-releases. The 80s was a different time. I had a conversation like this one night with this friend of mine who is a producer and was also in a band in the 80s; we talked horror stories. You would get a lot of money to do a record, not personally in your pocket, but you could spend a lot of money. We recorded it at Compass Point with Steve Stanley, who had done the Tom Tom Club. But there’s a lot of machinery in the music business. It’s not like I’ve ever experienced being a super star. I’ve always had a job, working in restaurants, things like that. Even when you’re signed to a major label it doesn’t really mean you’re rolling in the dough or anything. In fact, there are many times we had to say to them, “Hey, umm, we’re just living on rice and beans here.”

The whole label thing – I don’t know what i think of it any more. I’ve kind of made peace with it. I never had the best experiences with the major labels. But I think it’s great to have support from a label if there’s a label that’s willing to pay for things that you don’t have to pay for yourself. I’ve just come to the point where I’m not looking at music as my way to make a living. If I can make some money from it, great. But if I can’t, I’m still going to do it.

Even when you’re signed to a major label it doesn’t really mean you’re rolling in the dough or anything. In fact, there are many times we had to say to them, “Hey, umm, we’re just living on rice and beans here.”

When did you start making solo music? What was the first record?

After this band Castles I was in. That was a very collaborative band. And that was great. But all of a sudden I just wanted to work on my own songs. So I got back into recording, I put out a CD. I started more seriously home recording. I got ProTools.

It was called Sky Flowers. I had been working at it, I had a four track, and this digital 8 track. An engineer friend taught me protools basically. Then I realized, I can do a lot of recording at home. So I made a bunch of solo recordings. That was around 2006.

Did you ever release any of those recordings?

Some cassettes. As Instaband, that other project, I ran off some CD-Rs. Really low budget cassettes to have at shows. And then all of a sudden I was like, I want to mix this. Back in the day I was always in these fancy recording studios. It’s not like you need that anymore, but part of me was missing that. So I started combining. I’m still really crude with my methods. I have my own primitive way of doing things. I don’t program anything. Everything is played live. With drums, I do everything, one kick drum beat at a time. I wish I knew more. When I hear some of these things all these producers kids are doing, it’s pretty amazing.

What was the process of making your new record like?

It was a really long process. There were all of these stops and starts with it. I had some songs and ideas, some recordings. And then somehow I got this idea of department stores, and department store music. I was thinking of this department store in Philadelphia when I was growing up – this old historical place called Wanamakers. It’s now a Macy’s. It was from the 1800s. Somehow all of these memories were mixed up for me there. I used that location as an idea for this record.

I became fascinated with the history. There was a woman organist around the turn of the century who played a huge pipe organ there for 25 years. People lived there. They had quarters where people lived. It was this whole world. It’s not like the songs are directly about that, but it was a catalyst for ideas about desires and fantasies and going out, trying on identities, dressing up in different identities. It’s this idea of elevators and escalators and this department store of the mind.

Philadelphia has this really kind of haunted feeling to it anyway. To me, the way the city streets feel. A lot of times Philly and growing up there pop into my head when I’m working on music. The old streets, the buildings. It has a very ghostly feel. I think I’m very open to that, so, when I’m there, I feel a lot of the history and ghosts of the city. And I think that has a way of creeping it’s way into my music. It sort of opens a portal.

Open to ghostly things?

I’m open to other types of mystical experiences, more so than ghosts. I’ve never seen ghosts. I think when we dream and when we sleep, we percieve a lot of things during dreams that can feel like astral traveling. It sounds kind of wifty or goofy I guess, but, if there’s something called a higher self, I think sometimes that can communicate in dreams. Or sort of give advice or guidance. Or teach you something. Or show you something in a symbolic way. I don’t know if that’s really mystical so much as psychological. I’ve had feelings that felt like astral traveling — connecting with other entities on an astral level. The thought is that you have a subtle body in addition to your physical body that can exit the body and travel around, that is conscious.

Where did the name for the record come from?

It’s called Into The Grey Salons. The grey salons were this series of rooms in the department store back in the 1800s. They were these small rooms where women would go and try things on – this corridor of rooms. I’ve seen pictures. It was this whole world. You would go down into the basement and that was sort of the bargain basement, and the top floor was the Crystal Tea Room. I sort of relate that to, our internal, humans internal world, has these compartments as well. You call it your lower self and your higher self. The crystal is sort of the more astral – it’s just a way of thinking about things. Making these connections.

We live in a very consumerist society, so the idea of the deparment store as the place where you are buying these desires … It’s classic Americana. Everything is kind of commodified. I definitely associated it with my childhood. As a kid, going to department stores seemed like going to Disney Land or something.

Do you think in that sense you consider your record to be commenting on consumer culture?

I don’t know how to get that political in my songs. It’s too personal. Although, there is this line about ‘The Church of Holy Desire’ so I do sing about a connection between religion and desire and money and shopping. Some of these preachers have almost like this kind of mall side show thing to it. Even a lot of the New Age gurus are multi-millionaires. It’s all sort of connected. This search, this aspiration, for money, for enlightenment, for looking great. It’s a diversion, really. Consumerism is a distraction from things that are horrible that are going on in the world. It keeps people pacificed. For me there’s also a function to that fantasy and desire, too, though. I dont see it as completely negative to escape. I’m pretty escapist with my art and music.

Do you have a favorite moment from the record?

I really like the little electronic snippets interspersed between the songs. They’re these shorts moments, not really songs, interpersed between. I used a synthesizer of my Dad’s, an electrocomp from the 70s. It’s supposed to be the gears and machinery of the department store coming alive. The gears of the escalators and elevators and people working.That atmospheric stuff I think makes it kind of special.

Everything is kind of commodified. I definitely associated it with my childhood. As a kid, going to department stores seemed like going to Disney Land or something.

The second song, “Looking Glass,” is the one that has always stuck out to me – live and on record.

That one has a lot of department store imagery. That’s a lot about dressing up, revolving identity, these identities we try on. It sort of sets the stage for the record, of the department store as this place where fantasies and desires happen based on your own projection into the mirror.

When I heard it, I always thought it was about social media and the internet.

It’s funny. I’m old fashioned. I didn’t really grow up with computers. But I guess it is all related. For me, for that song was more about dressing up and going out and presenting yourself in a certain way. Performance. That does relate to the internet because people are presenting themselves on the internet and performing. The revolving doors of identity.

The looking glass, basically, is a mirror. I’m sort of obsessed with mirrors in my work. With my animation work, a lot of it has to door with mirrors. Mirrors are a reflection, mirrors are your identity. You transform yourself by looking in the mirror.

It’s also like in Alice in Wonderland. I’m interested in the mirror world on the other side. Which can be related to the internet. You can look at a computer screen as a mirror into this other world … If you look into an actual mirror you can look around and see around corners and things. To me an actual mirror and what you’re seeing feel real. Even though it’s not. It’s an illusion. It’s just a reflection. That’s true of the internet too. It’s a reflection of what we’re thinking. But it’s an illusion.

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