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A Quietus Interview

They're Just Like Star Wars: Coheed & Cambria Interviewed
Toby Cook , July 12th, 2010 10:02

Toby Cook talks to Coheed & Cambria bassist Michael Todd about The Amory Wars, musical dictatorships and his suicide run. Photos by Davey Wilson

I fucking hate it when people tell me that they don’t like Battlestar Galactica, especially when they whinge that it’s because they “don’t like sci-fi”. Because it’s not bloody sci-fi really, is it? If anything it’s religious and political allegory. Yes it’s set in space, yes there are clones and robots and space ships and all sorts of invented space age contraptions like F.T.L (Faster Than Light) drives, but really, under the surface it’s little more than a story of man’s basic instinct for survival; in the show’s entire run, the most important thing is the characters, and their ability to cope.

Coheed & Cambria, then, could arguably be termed the Battlestar Galactica of metal – although, I probably wouldn’t; it does sound a bit stupid, but try and stay with me here. It’s all to do with delivery, you see; most people whom you’d care to meet will like Star Wars, yet detest Star Trek. Star Wars is a western in space, so it’s ok to like it, it’s cool, and there are chases, explosions and a simplistic narrative. Star Trek on the other hand (with the exception of Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan which is also essentially a western in space) is strictly for nerds; detailed analysis’ of engine functions, futuristic modes of transport and lengthy contemplations on the existence of god tend to turn most audiences off.

People think Battlestar Galactica is Star Trek. It’s not, it’s Star Wars. People think Coheed & Cambria are Star Trek, with their infinitely knotted concept concerting inter-planetary wars, interconnecting beams of energy and the ‘Supreme Tri-mage’, Wilhelm Ryan. But they’re not, they’re Star Wars. Really, under the veneer of astro-nonsense, the story of Coheed & Cambria, The Amory Wars, it’s all about the protagonists, and their ability to cope.

And get this, as it turns out, there’s more to the band themselves than sitting around reading comics and playing Halo too, as I found out when I caught up with bassist Michael Todd...

Coheed & Cambria have been pretty busy of late. When you get time off, what do you do with it these days?

Michael Todd: Well I read a lot, but apart from that more than anything else I write music. When I’m not doing the whole Coheed thing I work with a song writing partner, Sarah Green, in L.A. – we kind of live together now and we’ve been writing music for a while. So when I’m not on tour, I’m sitting in the lab with her, putting things together; that’s pretty much it. I also write a bit too – just like a journal, not really prose or anything – I just kind of write things down and maybe one day I’ll throw in some lies and it’ll make for an interesting story!

So the music you write with Sarah Green, presumably it’s of a different vein to Coheed?

MT: Yeah, it’s more on the folk-y indie/pop side; it’s got some acoustic guitars and tambourines, there’s definitely some of that. But then there’s other parts to it – I’m trying to get an old Coheed drummer involved for that actually – that’s more groove oriented, but definitely mellower than Coheed.

Obviously Coheed & Cambria have a pretty lofty concept, it’s very sci-fi and comic book orientated. Now, I hear that you’re not necessarily much of a fan of sci-fi and fantasy, does it ever get a bit irritating? Don’t you just want to turn up to 11 and rock out to songs about beer and tits sometimes?

MT: Well, no, not really. Musically it [the concept] doesn’t really affect anything - the songs beget the concept rather than the other way around, so musically and artistically it doesn’t really affect me too much. Sometimes I don’t have all the answers for people – when I’m doing interviews and such – although that’s probably my fault for not brushing up on it! But I have enough of a grasp of it, and I support my man [Claudio]and his interests and shit like that, and I’m really proud of everything he’s done in relation to the band. But, yeah, at the end of the day I’m a rocker, sometimes you do just want to rock out!

So you haven’t found that you’ve become more of a fan over the years purely by osmosis?

MT: Well I actually have a comic book collection that I’ve had since I was a teenager, and now and then I’ll watch sci-fi and fantasy movies as well as reading the occasional novel that’s along those lines. So it’s not like I’m totally out of the scene, I totally enjoy it – I play role playing games and shit...

Who doesn’t!

MT: But my understanding – and involvement – with the concept, for example, is that at the end of the day when we’re just hanging out, we’ll discuss it, like “Oh yeah, this is what’s going on here by the way”, “Oh yeah, that’s cool. Maybe we should try this?” And that’s kind of how it gets done, y’know.

It’s interesting that you say that; looking from the outside Coheed & Cambria can appear to be somewhat of a dictatorship when it comes to song writing. What’s the extent of the other guys’ involvement at that level?

MT: Well we all have an involvement in the songs at some level, it’s just that sometimes Claudio will come to the table with a guitar and vocal piece that’s ready to go, and we’ll just play around it. Other times though, we’ll just sit around and jam on riffs and that’s how the songs are built, from the opposite end of the spectrum. Everybody’s input is taken, as long as it serves the music first; we’ve all contributed a bunch.

So the last album, Year Of The Black Rainbow, is, as I understand it, a prequel to the previous albums, and draws the story of Coheed & Cambria to a close. Where does the band go from here then?

MT: Well, we’ve discussed it a little bit; we don’t really know what we’re going to do yet. We’re kind of waiting for that path to illuminate its self somewhere down the line. We’re going to be making records one way or another, but we haven’t decided on much – I don’t know if Claudio wants to incorporate some side stories, some completely different story... No story! We’re definitely going to push on and keep making records though.

Assuming that you do continue as Coheed, and further expand on the main concept, isn’t there are fear that, for the fans, the novelty will begin to wear off?

MT: Sometimes, although I don’t think that we could possibly alienate our fans any more that we already have! The thing is, although the whole concept is pretty important, we keep trying to push the point that it’s not necessary to understand it to get into the band. We understand that it’s a little bit of baggage, some people might hear about this band and then they hear about this big concept and all this other shit, and that might turn them off, even though the music certainly exists on its own. But yeah, sometimes we worry about it, but it really was a long time ago that we just said “fuck it”, and just threw our worries out of the window and went for it anyway. We figure that for the people who are into it we can’t really do wrong, and other people can take it or leave it.

Around the time of ...No World For Tomorrow you actually left the band. Can you clear up exactly why that was?

MT: Well, it’s complicated; I was pretty burned out from being on the road, I was doing way too many drugs and had a bad habit that I couldn’t kick and pretty much prevented me from touring... well, I wouldn’t say completely prevented me from touring, but there was a choice between getting sick and going on tour, and not going on tour. At this point, Josh didn’t want to go [out on tour] anymore, and he didn’t come to Europe. I came to Europe though and very quickly was like “fuck this!” and I went home, I need to regroup man, I went further down for another six months before I started to get back up. Really, I just had to change my perspective, get a grip of my shit and clean up my act, so I left altogether.

You say that you went even further down once you left the group, what changed? What got you back on the up?

MT: I was actually married at the time but my wife had left me a couple of months prior so I was living alone – I wasn’t seeing anybody, the only person I was seeing was my dealer a couple of times a week. Then one time when I returned from seeing him my father was in my house and was like “There’re burnt spoons all over your house! Can you stop!? Do you have a problem? Tell me that you’re alright.” And I was like, “no, I’m not. I’m really not”. So he told me that if I wanted help that he’d help me get help, but I was like, “ok, but can we do it next week?”

Then I when on the suicide run, and that failed; I had tried and failed to end my life, I was going to go broke and eventually I was at the stage where I couldn’t imagine not being on drugs and not getting high 24 hours a day, I was in a place where if I was awake, I had to have something in me. So eventually, I think it was Christmas day, I went into the hospital – because my arms were all cut up and shit – and spent a couple of weeks there, then I put myself in to rehab and from there into sober living; the whole process took like four months and since then I’ve been doing better and better. I’ve had my moments since then where I haven’t been the cleanest person in the world, but I’m certainly not strung out. And I’m clean right now.

So after I’d gotten clean I went to the guys, more to apologies for fucking up a tour and fucking with their shit and their careers... I’d left them high and dry y’know: Claudio was about to get married, Travis had just got married and bought a house... I mean, what was he supposed to do? Sell it? So we worked it out and became buddies again, and like the next day they were like “ok, let’s try this again”. Three years later and here I am!

How was it coming back into the fold? Especially not having so much as picked up a bass in nine months?

MT: It felt very natural, I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t done it for so long. But then, I don’t really enjoy playing bass too much, per se, without this outfit. It was also the first time that I’d met [Former Dillinger Escape Plan drummer] Chris Pennie – who’d been playing with the band for like six months – so I was kind of like “Hey, I’m the guy that was here before”, and that was a little weird at first. I kind of had to re-wire my brain for how to play too, where to sit in the groove and everything, so I learned a lot. The first year that I came back I learned more than I had in the five previous I think!

You say that even now you’re not the cleanest, but presumably things are a little more settled and more professional now?

MT: Well, yeah, dudes play around, y’know what I mean? I don’t want to use the word forbidden, but when they drink or go out on their day off, I don’t. So yeah, it’s certainly taken on a more professional ‘this is our life’ thing, where as six years ago when we’d go out on tour I’d be drunk in the afternoon! And this was in the days before drugs were even about! We’d drink before sets, during sets... now, no one drinks before we play, so it’s definitely different.

Now, it seems with every new Coheed & Cambria release someone comes up with new genre to put you guys in. After about five minutes with Google I found you described as: ‘Neo-prog’, ‘prog-core’, ‘post-prog’. What’s the most ridiculous you’ve come across?

MT: [laughing] Post-post-hardcore; That’s the one! All this genre labelling shit though, it just seems to come from whatever’s the happening word of the moment – we were an emo band, apparently, for the first three years of our existence because that was the time, y’know? It was us, Thursday and Thrice. Fortunately we out lived that, and then people started coming out with the prog and neo-prog thing – we started hearing that around 2003, 2004. And now there are bands that are being called prog and neo-prog, right out of the gate. It felt as though right after Coheed made another record – right after emo died – all of a sudden there was this whole prog movement, with us and the Mars Volta.

It’s a broad spectrum of rock that we dwell in and we kind of cover all of it, I mean, we have our prog-y moments but more often than that we have our pop-rock songs, and then our metal songs, and then our fucking ballads. The way I’d describe us would just be simply ‘progressive rock’. It’s music that grows, every album’s a little different; we’re not trying to make the same record we did five years ago. I’ve heard some ridiculous labels but that ‘post-post-hardcore’ was just like, I mean, fuck, did that take any thought at all!? Maybe neo-post-hardcore will be the next one... there we go, put that in, you heard it here first!

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