The Fresh & Onlys' Tim Cohen on How Love Can't Fill All the Cracks in Your Soul
Tim Cohen, frontman of prolific and amorphous S.F. rock group The Fresh & Onlys, is not hesitant to wax poetic on the intricacies of writing love songs or his group's ascension. So as a companion to this week's print feature on The Fresh & Onlys, we've shared a bit more of the enlightening conversation we had with Cohen about the travails of love and the writing of Long Slow Dance, the band's excellent new album, which is out this week on Mexican Summer. The Fresh & Onlys perform with Terry Malts this Saturday, Sept. 8, at The Independent. Check out our print feature on the band, too.
The Fresh & Onlys
It's been two years since the Fresh & Onlys' last album. How do you explain the uncharacteristic gap?
It's two-fold, the answer. The first fold being that after Play It Strange came out through In the Red, we toured for about six months in 2011. We were writing a record in the meantime, [and] we had an EP that came out in April 2011. In the Red was the biggest deal for us so far, because they actually paid for the record and put us in the studio, but after the record came out, we noticed that there wasn't a lot of promotion for the album. We toured our asses off. We went to Europe twice and toured the U.S. a bunch, but we noticed there were no posters anywhere and no write-ups. It was the latest in a long series of one-off releases that we've done; with the exception of Woodsist, whom we've done a 7-inch and a full-length record with. There were no contracts, there were just handshakes.
After that, we got together and decided that the next thing we do needed an infrastructure behind it. We decided to settle down and find a label that wanted to grow with us and maybe offer us a multiple record deal. I was talking to Keith from Mexican Summer as a friend and I was explaining our conundrum. We wanted to try out a bigger label. Not a big label, but a label that can put us in the studio, promote us on the road, set up interviews, and things like that. In talks with Keith, he said, "What about us?"
You've worked with a long list of desirable labels, so that's given you an understanding of what you want.
Exactly. The thing is, we've never expected anything up to this point. With an exception of a couple releases, we've never actually asked for money. We knew there wasn't money to be made, we didn't ask for tour support, [and] we didn't ask for promotion. We worked with labels made up of our friends throwing us a bone. That goes in line with how this culture works, at least for underground, independent rock. The labels help out the bands and the bands help out the label. Right now with Mexican Summer it's more of a traditional deal. It's more than just help, they've spent more money on us than anyone.
What can you tell me about the album cover photo of a white carnation?
That is a photograph by David Black. He took all of the press photos. When you get the record, pull out the sleeve and there is a really cool photo of us. Mexican Summer uses [him] for a lot of projects. Looking through his portfolio, we saw these flower photographs that were really compelling and singular. The name of the album is Long Slow Dance. I'm sure you've come up with the fact that the initials spell LSD. If you haven't, someone will burst your bubble soon. That wasn't wholly intentional, but it was a cool coincidence. With Long Slow Dance, the idea of a single carnation is an invitation. In a clichÃ© sense, it's inviting the listener by offering them a carnation. The carnation pertains to prom, homecoming, or a teenage dance ritual, but it's so singular and plaintive that it's open to interpretation, and that's what I like about it.
It seems like this album has more love songs, or songs dealing with relationships, than earlier albums. Is that accurate?
I wouldn't say it has more. Something that we like to do as a band is obscure love songs. A way we obscure love songs is by folding these themes of love, desire, and loss into joyous melodies. It's an undecipherable musical equation where a happy song might be folded into a sad melody or sad lyrics folded into a joyous melody. The love songs that are on there are actually sad love songs. "20 Days and 20 Nights" [is a] very sad idea, but without the necessary minor key or self-indulgent, sorrowful melody it's sort of a trap. It's all about crying for 20 days and 20 nights because your life sucks. It has a tongue-in-cheek attitude to it, where it's a really upbeat major key opening with a descending synth line and then it draws back and goes to a minor key progression. "For 20 days and 20 nights / Thinking of the better times / Something so heavy in my mind / I think I want to let it out so I cry, I cry, I cry..." Then, during the "I Cry" part, it goes back to that major key.
It's like the duality I'm talking about. Someone [can] listen to that and not be able to tell if it's a joke or if it's real or happy or sad. That's what makes music compelling to listen to or makes it bear repeated listening. It's a whole range of emotions. Actually, now that you mention it, there aren't that many love songs on the album. There are a lot of existential musings and dark, dream-derived sequences. The love songs on there are like "20 Days and 20 Nights" or "Long Slow Dance," which is about true love dragging you out into the road and setting fire to your soul.
"Foolish Person" seems like the logical album closer, considering it's so long, dense and heavy, but then you return with "Wanna Do Right By You," a short and soft song.
Exactly, that was pretty calculated. Any other time, we would have made "Foolish Person" the closer. Mark Needham treated it with an AM radio sensibility when mixing it, where you tune out and then tune back in for this final sentiment that sums up the whole record: The self-doubt and self-loathing that goes into making songs about not being able to feel euphoria unless you feel shame. In a way, they're the opposite of love songs. There is a lot of talk about love and about fools, but somehow it all ties into the idea about reeling from a loss of love that I could never understand or never wrap my head around.
Part of what inspires all of the music I make is that I've lost something and I don't know why I've lost it. I'm trying to get it back or explain it away or put it behind me. Whatever the impetus is for writing music, a lot of it is based in lost love. Songs that are for love and falling in love, feeling that exhilaration and titillation, a lot of me thinks those aren't fir for public consumption. They're more for your lover. You write those things for one person and they don't always translate to "look how happy we are." For our band, we're more rooted in the dark aspects of love. There are so many more aspects to it than feeling your heart skip a beat and candy and little Eskimo kisses.
So you're more interested in the fall-out and perhaps the healing or grappling.
That and also just being in love and having there be a dark side. Love is a huge, all-encompassing concept. It's not just linear. There's jealously, pain, and distance. I feel inspired to make music from that stuff. Or at least at its basest core, that's where I feel like my music comes from. Love can't just fill all of those cracks in your psyche or soul.
* Love Like Fire: The Fresh & Onlys Find the Thorny Side of Romance on "Long Slow Dance"
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