Music

In Keeping No Secrets: A Conversation with Josh Eppard of Coheed and Cambria

Photo credit: Victoria Hionis

Drummer Josh Eppard offers a jovial yet highly earnest examination of how his career, personal demons, and pop culture interests relate to Coheed and Cambria's newest disc, The Color Before the Sun.


Over the past 15 years or so, New York progressive rock/post-hardcore quartet Coheed and Cambria has become somewhat of a phenomenon. Aside from being among the most successful bands to come out of New York, the group has helped define an entire generation with its consistently unique and incredibly accessible records. Fusing eccentric sci-fi storylines, catchy pop hooks, and invigoratingly intricate musicianship, the band has been offering something truly special ever since its debut LP, The Second Stage Turbine Blade, arrived in 2002.

On the foursome’s newest outing, The Color Before the Sun, band leader Claudio Sanchez decided to abandon his trademark Amory Wars narrative for something new: a collection of deeply personal songs without any gimmicks. For drummer Josh Eppard, this decision has resulted in a bold new experience that reaffirms how much the band has achieved thus far, as well as how much he’s grown as a person and musician in the process.

So The Color Before the Sun is the band’s first non-conceptual album, right? What is gained and/or lost in going that route?

Well, that decision really came down from Claudio [Sanchez]. I mean, when we describe it that way, I don’t want it to water down any past work because I know there is always an emotional connection with every album we do. For all of us. Claudio had such a deep, personal connection to these tunes that he decided to kind of let his guard down. I think it’s public knowledge amongst Coheed fans that the concepts kind of served as a shield for him at times. They were fantastic and cool, but they were shields, too. I could always pick out deeply personal things in his songs, even in the most sci-fi songs.

With this record, he wrote songs about his life and his first child, so he chose to not channel those things into a fictional concept. For us, it didn’t change anything; when we’re making a record, that’s the sole focus. The music. Sometimes the concepts don’t come into play so much for the rest of us, but I’m sure the lyrics are a huge part for Claudio. Really, tracking this record was no different than tracking the other ones; we just try to make the best one we can every time.

Absolutely, but you have to admit that the choice was surprising.

Oh, absolutely. Imagine my surprise, but I think it’s cool. If I’m being totally honest, I think it’s a bold and brave move, and I’m proud of Claudio for doing that. You always hope that the fans will be receptive to it, but what can you do? We’re a band that’s so all over the map, so we’ve always had a very eclectic mix of music. You always hope that people will respond to it, but—and I don’t want to sound like a jerk—that’s never the primary purpose. It’s got to be about the art and about creating something that you believe in first and foremost.

Anyway, it’s different enough to appeal to our fans, I think. They’re unlike any other fans; they’ve gone on this journey with us for about 15 years and I think they’ll fall in love with it like I did.

It’s good that you’re able to focus on what you get out of it. You’ll always find people who dislike what you make, so you have to be your own biggest fan.

Definitely.

How does the title and the cover art enhance what the album is going for?

Well, Nick Steinhardt did the artwork for us. He’s the guitarist of a band called Touché Amore, which is also managed by Blaze James at Roc Nation. I love that band. My friends from New York don’t even care about Coheed; that just want to know what Touché is up to.

Anyway, he’s a really talented artist and Claudio reached out to him to see how he could tie in some of these personal elements. Even some things that happened to uproot him out of his life, like with his house and his wife. All of these enormous life moments to bring together in a somewhat surrealist way. For us, the record cover has to be an extension of the music. It needs to be a significant connection.

When we saw what Nick came up with, we knew it was right. To me, it looks like the record. I don’t know if we’ve ever had a cover that looks so much like the music. It’s really powerful. That’s pretty much how it came about.

It’s very attractive and cryptic. I kind of want to blow up a print and frame it.

Right on. As for the name, I’m sure Claudio could tell you more, but he had a couple different names and there was -- not to sound corny -- just something simple but beautiful about this one. It wasn’t this longwinded, sci-fi, epic name, like we’ve done a bunch of times. It’s totally poetic and it sums up the album. It sounds like the album. It’s expansive. It’s the perfect name for it.

Let’s move on to the video for “You Got Spirit, Kid”. Obviously, it made me laugh, so I wonder where the concept for it came from and what the process was for getting it made.

We wanted to do something kind of fun, obviously. I think we’re considered a “serious” band, but people forget that our first video, for “A Favor House Atlantic”, was totally silly. That was from our second album (In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3), but even on our first (The Second Stage Turbine Blade), we filmed a video ourselves in which we were a jug band in a barn. We have a serious side and we take our band very seriously, but we can also be like a bunch of 15-year-old kids. “You Got Spirit, Kid” is fun, so we wanted to make a fun video.

They put together a storyline that was way different from what it was originally. I think they wanted Claudio to be the guy running around naked, but he was like, “I’m not doing that, but I bet Josh will!” The whole team was really awesome; that was probably the most fun I’ve ever had making a video. It was outside of our comfort zone. I think it’s important to challenge yourself. At this point, if we did some video where we had dark undertones, it’s like we’ve been down that road so many times.

That’s true.

It’s more rewarding for us to do something that’s not our cup of tea. That’s how we became a band, anyway. We didn’t sound like anyone else! We were outside of the norm and taking people outside of what they expected. It was weird and we got a lot of hate for it, but ultimately it spoke to people. With this one, it shows the lighter side of us, but in a way it’s just as important as the serious stuff. I don’t know if that answers your question, though [laughs].

Oh, yeah. That was a great way to put it. As you said, Coheed has received a fair amount of backlash over the years because people think that progressive rock as a whole is too pretentious. I mean, Coheed includes other styles, but there’s definitely a prog rock tinge, too.

Oh, man, you’re so right. It’s probably true, though, more often than not that progressive bands take themselves too seriously. Doing something fun, in a way, is the most progressive thing that we could do. Just like making this record. What were we going to do, put out a triple record this time and have every song be 18 minutes? We might do that one day, but this one is progressive in that it shows the overall arc of the band. I think making a record that’s so concise and straightforward, like this one, is the most daring thing we could’ve done.

We grow as a band every day because we play together and we live on a bus together a lot of the time, going all over the world, so every day we’re becoming the band we’ve always wanted to be. The Color Before the Sun really highlights that. I don’t know if the rest of the guys would agree, but I definitely think that. It’s a fine line between being too serious and being too goofy, but both are a part of us. We’re a bunch of silly bastards sometimes, so I was really happy to show that side of us. If you didn’t know this record was going to be a curve ball, that video made it really clear.

Exactly. Speaking of how Claudio typically references personal ideas, I noticed that “The Audience” seems to be a commentary on the band’s past. For example, some lyrics, like “Burning Star” and “This is the story of a boy who lost his way” seem to reference the Amory Wars.

I think you’re right. Even with the way it’s sequenced on the record, it’s sort of Claudio’s way of speaking about this thing that we’ve built. I don’t know if the song is that black and white, or cut and dry, but it’s one of my favorites on the disc. There was some internal debate about whether or not it should be on it, but I’m sure glad it is.

In the context of The Color Before the Sun, that song is kind of a curve ball, but there are moments throughout the album that hint at past Coheed stuff, and it all builds up to “The Audience”. After that, you’ve got “Peace to the Mountain”, which is unlike anything we’ve ever done. Well, if you listen to the hidden track at the end of Good Apollo (“Bron-Y-Aur”), it’s got banjo and stomping foot percussion, so it’s like a jug band tribute. “Peace to the Mountain” is closer to The Beatles. It’s really outside what we’ve done before. Then there are the interludes between the tracks that help us build to “The Audience”.

It’s very clever.

I think it’s definitely different. I couldn’t imagine the record not going from “The Audience” to “Peace to the Mountain”. I love the way you’ve got the heaviest, most progressive song so late on the album, and then the final song is the total opposite. There’s something poetic about how the record flows.

I love when songs segue into each other like they do on The Color Before the Sun.

Me too, dude, me too. That’s one of my favorite elements of our records. I’ve done a lot of the segues on previous discs, even going back to our first one. Then with the Afterman duo, Claudio and I did most of them together. With this one, we all worked it out in the studio as we went. There’s something great about that—just a band playing as they go. This LP is probably more of a live record than some band’s live records. It’s just us in a room without all the bells and whistles. I’m really proud of that.

I hope that some of the segues become full tracks on later albums. In a day and age where every sound is made perfect and fixed with technology, all the random flaws that make music music is kind of lost. There’s something special about a band playing without any of that. It’s sort of like what I was saying about Claudio being brave for taking down the personal veil. We’ve never needed studio trickery, but it’s something that every band uses, so this new one is like the antithesis of that. It’s just a natural sound. If you’re a musician, you’ll be proud of it. We certainly are.

You mentioned “Peace to the Mountain”, which I also think is gorgeous, especially the grandiose orchestration at the end. You guys have done that before, so I wonder who arranged this treatment and if you think that symphonic production is a key part of Coheed’s sound.

I think so. At this point, it’s always been there. Even on the early records, when we were at the studio for three days and we had to get it done quickly, we’d just do it with keyboards. It sounded a bit better on the second album, but when we got the chance to have real strings and horns, we were really excited. It’s another element to us. It’s cinematic.

As for the arrangements, Claudio can sit at a $200 keyboard and write a line and he’ll bring in players to add to it. It’s something to see how some of these players adapt what we give them. On Good Apollo, we put together the intro I wrote for In Keeping Secrets and the intro he wrote for Second Stage, and we had to hire someone to chart it. I mean, we can’t write music for violins, right? With this one, they came in almost totally blind. Claudio just played them some stuff and they took it from there. They’re such brilliant musicians. In, like, two hours they had it, and it was gorgeous.

Yeah, it’s breathtaking.

On “Peace to the Mountain”, we got the whole studio involved. Like ten or 11 people playing percussion. Claudio was playing a shaker and I’m playing a kick drum and Jay Joyce, the producer, got a tambourine. Two interns got shakers, too. It’s like a whirlwind of percussion by the end, which is something we’ve never done before. It was really classy and striking. I guess that song is a curve ball too; you talk about the orchestral elements being a part of our sound. It’s because it’s so exciting. Sure, it has some classic Coheed elements, but we’ve never had, like, Ringo-esque simplicity in the drums.

How did Jay Joyce come to produce it?

Well, I was out of Coheed when they made No World for Tomorrow and Year of the Black Rainbow, which they made with two other producers. Every Coheed album that I’ve been on, which is most of them, was produced by Michael Birnbaum and Chris Bittner. Michael is like my uncle Mike, and my father built that studio, so going to any producer, whether it was Jay Joyce or anyone else, was going to be different. I think it’s another case of us stepping outside of our comfort zone.

There were a couple names being thrown around to produce The Color Before the Sun. Every band has a list of dream producers, and someone threw out his name. He produced the last Cage the Elephant record, Melophobia, and we just thought it sounded really interesting and different. It’s usually a long process to put it together because people in suits haggle with managers over money and time, but he moved when he needed to and within two weeks we were in there.

To his credit, he didn’t try to get inside the band and tinker with everything. He recognized that we’re a great band—and I don’t mean that in any kind of a cocky way—but we’ve dedicated our entire lives to this things. He told me that we’re the best band he’s ever recorded.

Wow.

Yeah, and he just let us be. It was such a compliment. He was so overwhelmingly positive. He didn’t do what a lot of producers do, which is to make changes just to say that they made changes and had their hands on it. Jay didn’t feel the need to do that because he’s Jay Joyce; he doesn’t need to do that. He definitely brought things up here and there, but he let us be for the most part.

I’ve never made a record in less than a month, but that’s what we did. We did it in ten days, with vocals and everything. A song a day. We came in around 9:00AM and we’d have the drums and guitars done in time for lunch. Then Claudio would take the vocals and we were out by six or seven. That’s a very scary thing to do. When you make a rock record, you just pour over every detail. Every little mistake, but Jay was about keeping the mistakes. Like, “Hey, it moves a little there, but let’s keep it. That’s real, that’s music”. I’d think about how Led Zeppelin had little rhythmic mistakes, but I couldn’t imagine it any other way.

Jay was like a cheerleader for those elements, so The Color Before the Sun feels very human. It needed to feel like that, especially in a day and age of having thing so computerized, as I said before. Jay knew what he was doing. I’m sure there have been records where he’d have to get in there and fix tons of stuff, but with us he just let it fly. I think that freedom can be heard.

Yeah, especially with Claudio’s voice. There’s something so passionate about the way he sings. You can tell that he really vibes with every word and sentiment.

Yeah, it’s authenticity, man. Well said.

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