Chris Cohen may be as well-known at this point for his distinctively self-produced solo records as for playing in bands like Deerhoof [Tape Op #55], Cryptacize, and The Curtains, and for recent production work for artists like Weyes Blood. He is a singer, songwriter, engineer, producer, and multi-instrumentalist, and inhabits all of those roles on his 2019 album, Chris Cohen.
When did you first get interested in recording as a process?
I probably started recording when I was 6 or 7 – I remember I had a little tape recorder. I started playing drums when I was three years old. My parents would give me music; I would listen to albums and compare the sound of recorded instruments to the sounds that I was able to make myself in real life. Then I got a 4-track when I was maybe 12 – a Tascam Porta One. Actually, before I even got the 4-track, I was recording on two boomboxes. I would record a drum track on one boombox, then play that over a different boombox, and rerecord myself playing guitar. I played drums, and my sister played electric guitar. When she went away to summer camp, I started playing her guitar when she wasn't around. I played music with people sporadically, but it was hard to find people that I really connected with on that level. Recording became a substitute for that. It felt like a natural idea, to be like, "Well, if I can make a song, I can make a whole album; the cover, and everything."
What were some inspiring records or pieces of music for you early on?
When I was five or six my mom got me The Beatles' compilation, 1967–1970, and then Revolver was the next one. I was obsessed with those. I remember thinking, "Why do those cymbals ring for so long? It doesn't sound like that in real life. I need to get those kind of cymbals." I thought it was a certain type of cymbal. That must have led to me wanting to record – what I was hearing that I wanted to be able to do. Jimi Hendrix records really got me into recording as well. Back then, in the mid '80s, it was really hard to find out what effects he was using. I had a flanger, but his flanger sounded different from mine. I wanted to be able to do all the crazy panning that happens on those records and I naively thought that I could do anything! I realize that my records don't sound like mainstream, professional records. I feel they're getting closer, but there's a little bit of a fantasy element where I think I can make it sound like anything. Who knows if it really sounds like that, but that's what it makes me want to do it. By the time I got the 4-track, my favorite bands were the Stones and SST punk, like Black Flag and the Meat Puppets. I got out a bunch of my own cassettes recently, and, listening to them, every song is like a different genre. I wanted to try everything! Eventually I got a better 4-track cassette recorder. But before I got into Pro Tools – which was around 2000 – my dad [Kip Cohen] used to work for Herb Alpert [interviewed this issue], and Herb gave me his 1/2-inch, 8-track, a Tascam 80-8 – the one that doesn't have pitch control. At that point I wanted gear that made things sound crazy – I wasn't into the finer points of recording. I had the EQ knob on my mixer, and I had some different spring reverb units that I used. I also had tape delays. But I was never like, "Oh, I'm going to get a really good preamp or a compressor." I didn't care about compressors or anything like that until I had Pro Tools. It wasn't until I was in Deerhoof that I was like, "Oh yeah, compressors are interesting." The thing with the cymbal; I probably knew that it was compressed, but at the time I thought, in my mind, what I was doing was pretty close.
How do you get settled into a new space for recording? Is that something that's crucial?
When I was younger, I used to think that spaces didn't matter; like I could do this in a closet. But I'm starting to realize that I do better work in better environments. Overgrown Path was recorded in four different places between L.A. and Bennington, Vermont. I recorded part of it in an old Dodge dealership in Hoosick Falls, New York, that I rented out – it was like the boss's office. It had laminated wood paneling and this little secret door that opened to what was the secretary's desk. It was super dead in there. For As If Apart, I moved back to L.A. and I recorded it in the same spot that I recorded the new one in. I rent out a friend's garage; they helped me build it out. It's a little bit soundproofed, but it's basically a concrete floor with a rug on it and there are no windows. There's very little fresh air. It's not the best for your health, but it's affordable and it's worked well. I feel like I can't make another record in there though, and I've started sharing it with other people. Now I'm using itas apractice space. But that was where we made the Weyes Blood record [Front Row Seat to Earth, 2016], and lots of other recordings.
When you split your time between multiple spaces, some super dead and some more lively, does that dictate what you record in there?
I don't recommend moving around [from space to space], but I will experiment for a long time before I start recording. Hanging up blankets and rugs – I find that really helps. In Bennington, I remember corners in the rooms sometimes being problematic. I like getting pallets and putting a big piece of carpet over a pallet, and then putting it in the corner. That seemed to help. Not to make it completely dead – you could still hear some resonance – but with the drums I wanted them to sound pretty close mic'd. I don't like the roomy drum sound. When I hear certain types of roomy drum sounds, I think late '90s and early 2000s post rock. My ideal is that I want it to sound like a professional studio from the '70s, where it's pretty dead. I treat the rooms and then I also do a ton of corrective EQ. I try to make things sound consistent, from song to song. You can hear some differences on Overgrown Pathmore than the other records.
Do you have anything specific for corrective EQ'ing that you like to use?
Kenny Gilmore gave me the FabFilter EQ [plug-in], which is really nice. I'm using that one a lot now, but before that I was using the free one that comes with Pro Tools. I rely on those a lot to clean sounds up. The more that I use them, the quicker it is. I'm hearing sounds I didn't hear before. I don't have any hardware. Well, I have this Sony MX-20 mixer that I like to do summing through. I believe it's discrete, and it has FET preamps. It has a certain soft dynamic response I like, and I find it does something nice with the EQ. When everything [in a mix] is completely how I want it, I'll run tracks through it rather than bouncing in Pro Tools. It's got eight inputs. If someone had told me four years ago, "Oh, you've got to try and learn analog summing," I would have been like, "Whatever. I've been totally fine with doing everything in the box." It was only recently, mixing with Kenny, that he had suggested doing this. It's about a 5 percent difference, but I could hear it doing something.
How would you describe the overall effect you hear from analog summing?
Going back to panning, and having different events happening at different times, as well as different places in the stereo field, there's more definition – everything sounds more separate in a way, and it fits together nicely. I don't want to overstate it. Like I said, I didn't do that on the first two [solo] records. We did it for Kayla's record [Spring by Kayla Cohen's Itasca], my last record, and the Rose City Band [self-titled] record. Everything else was in the box.
Your vocal tone isn't hyped or modern-sounding. It's just your voice; very natural yet contained within the mix.
I don't like that over-compressed, breathy, full-spectrum thing that seems to be a modern vocal technique. I don't think it has to have so many frequencies. I want it to be very specific; like where the notes are. I'm a quiet singer, so the ratio of note to noise is high, and I'm always trying to avoid sounding precious. There is a real tendency for my voice – if it were mixed in a modern way – to sound that way, and I don't want that. I cut tons of high [frequencies], and then I find the perfect mid-high part to boost. Kenny and I ran my vocals through a synthfilter that was totally open, which saturated and colored it a little bit. That helped make the vocals a lot easier to mix on the last solo record.
Is that a dynamic microphone that you're singing into?
I've been using a [Shure] SM7 for vocals. For the first two records, I was using one of those RØDE NT3 medium diaphragm condensers. My friend, Tim Barnes – who's a great drummer and engineer, loaned me a bunch of mics, including a [Neumann] U87 and one of those RØDE mics, and I started comparing them. This might be an example of how non-technical I am, but comparing them I thought, "They don't sound that different." I can't afford a U87, so I got the RØDE mic and that was my go-to for everything on Overgrown Path and As If Apart. The SM7 I started using, because for drums, especially, I felt like I needed something that could stand a little bit more pressure. I had trouble with having to play so softly to not blow out the RØDE. The way I mic the drums, the RØDE was picking up the kick and the snare equally, and it was really close to both of them. It doesn't work that well for drummers that play really hard. It's great for drummers who play quieter, and I'm not a super loud drummer. I got the SM7 mainly for that reason – so I could play drums a little bit louder.
You mentioned the Weyes Blood record [Front Row Seat to Earth] that you worked on. What have you learned from the production work you've done for other people?
I'd recorded a little bit for other people before, but that was the first real gig I got. Natalie [Mering] approached me – I didn't think of myself as a producer or anything, but we're friends and she asked me to do it. Natalie has a lot of production ideas herself, and a big part of what I got out of that was just learning how to make a space for people to try things. Every project is different. I try to take my cues from the artist and what they're looking for.We talk a lot before we start. I don't approach all of them the same way; but certainly for her it was about giving her space, giving input when asked, and working on the basic tracks – Iwas playing drums – and comp'ing vocals. For some projects, I do want to direct more; or a person will want me to [have more input]. I love mixing, and I enjoy doing it for other people; but what I most enjoy is the work that comes before – coming up with parts and arranging the song. If you write good parts, you have good arrangements, and the song is working. In that case, it pretty much mixes itself. Pick good sounds and they're in the right places. Mixing is so hard when the parts aren't working or there's too much in there. My least favorite part is fixing those problems. That's not my approach with my own music. If songs are too busy or not working when I'm tracking, I stop right there and rewrite the part or change the sound. For example, I love the way my drums sound in real life, so I use that as a starting point.
There's an interesting progression on your solo records. It sounds like there's almost a layer of film being peeled back, with each record sounding slightly clearer and more refined.
My ears have developed a little bit. I also wanted something clearer. I remember for Overgrown Path, I wanted it to be dark and dense. Maybe the records have gotten a little bit less dense, or I've chosen sounds that were different from each other, so they're not quite always concentrated into one frequency range. With my last record, Kenny Gilmore and I mixed it and he was able to clean it up a bit more. I was really happy to have that happen. I wanted it to sound cleaner, like the '80s. Overgrown Pathwas more late '60s, early '70s. As If Apart is more mid-to-late '70s.
You mentioned panning earlier. On your albums something distinctive is always coming out of the left channel versus the right channel, but it never feels unbalanced.
I like letting panning decide the parts that I write. Sometimes I'll do the basic tracks and it sounds good with everything panned in a particular way but there's a dead spot, so I'll think to myself, "I want to put a sound in that panning position." The panning comes in early on, as a sort of orchestration. I look for sounds that will do different things, and put them in different spots, and have them happening at different times. That's one of the really fun aspects about recording for me.