After years on the road, Sam Cohen finds his voice at home
Sam Cohen of Yellowbirds
There’s a moment of confusion after Sam Cohen answers his phone. The words “seven days” don’t register. Neither does “Vermont.” Pause.
“Oh, shit. I totally forgot,” Cohen says. “Wow. Ah…”
He muffles the mouthpiece of his phone, asks someone a question, and then reappears. He’s good. He’s ready.
Cohen’s momentary lapse is all for the sake of art: He’s been awake for 35 hours working on a music video. Though primarily a guitarist, singer, songwriter and bandleader, Cohen is also “addicted” to making stop-motion music videos with collages he makes from the pages of old National Geographic magazines and World Book Encyclopedias.
He made his first video in 2008 for a song called “Singing to the Earth.” It was written by one of his bandmates in Apollo Sunshine, the band he played with for almost a decade. The song is a dreamy celebration of planet Earth — with pop hooks. The band had wanted to make a video, and Cohen’s wife suggested that he buy a bunch of old nature books, cut out the photos of animals, make collages and use them to tell a story.
“I was like, ‘Huh. That sounds totally awesome,’” he recalls with a laugh.
Cohen ran with the idea. He then took more than 100 hours to craft 2984 unique stills, photograph them, and create a narrative using stop-motion animation.
Not long after Apollo Sunshine’s 2008 LP, Shall Noise Upon, was released, Cohen and his bandmates — Jesse Gallagher and Jeremy Black — decided to take a break. According to Cohen, making decisions as a group had become “unnecessarily difficult” and drained energy away from the joy of making music together.
“It just felt like the right time to move into my own creative headspace,” Cohen says.
Since then, he’s settled in Brooklyn with his wife and started his own project, Yellowbirds. His first LP, The Color, was released in early 2011.
The Color expands on the blissful, throwback pop vibe that Cohen mined on his favorite tracks from Shall Noise Upon. Only this time around, he got to make all the decisions himself and spend months in what he refers to as his “science lab,” adding overdubs and layers in his home studio. In a way, the album is not so different from his videos. It’s the product of Cohen’s romantic sense of style and laudable attention to detail.
Seven Days spoke with Cohen last week in anticipation of the Yellowbirds’ first Vermont gig, at the Monkey House on Thursday, February 16.
SEVEN DAYS: The Color has been out for about a year. Instead of touring to promote the album, you decided to let the record find an audience and then do some dates. How’s that working out for you?
SAM COHEN: I love playing live, but it is hard sometimes to get a bunch of people to another state in a car. [Laughs] ... We’ve been playing pretty regularly in [New York City] and some Boston shows. And we went to South by [Southwest in 2011] and we did a little tour with Josh Ritter. You know, I don’t have a van. [Laughs] I’m just a dude who makes albums and loves to play shows, but I don’t really have the whole band “machine” working right now.
SD: You had that with Apollo Sunshine, didn’t you?
SC: Oh, big time. It was a lifestyle. It was a different thing. We were touring constantly in a big converted schoolbus with a trailer. For a couple years with that band, back in 2003-2004, we just lived on the road. We didn’t even have apartments.
And now I just kind of like being in a single place. I feel like I’m more productive. I make videos, I work on other people’s records, I have a studio. I feel like my output has increased. I miss playing shows a little more often, but I do feel like I’m making more art more regularly.
SD: What did you learn in the process of making a record more or less by yourself?
SC: I guess a lot of it was just learning to be confident and alone, a lesson in self-sufficiency. It felt really liberating to just be like, “If I like this, then it’s gonna come out.” [Laughs] You know? There’s not going to be a board meeting about whether this is cool sounding or not.
SD: Was that ever challenging, the fact that you had to make all those decisions by yourself?
SC: Yeah, in a way. It took a long time to figure out what was my own voice inside my head and what was other people’s voices. Any criticism that I would give myself it was like, “Now, do I think that sucks or do I think that Jesse or Jeremy would think that sucks? Are they right? Or is it something I have a chance to experiment with now — and should?” Things like that. Basically, I get to be the neurotic Jewish guy that I am.
SD: So how does it feel to try to promote it and get it out there?
SC: It feels good, because we haven’t been really heavy handed about it. When I was in Apollo Sunshine, we were depending on that for a living, and that was really stressful. Just being able to take time in New York to branch out in different directions, I’m really lucky that I still have a full-time career as a musician, but Yellowbirds is not the sustaining factor. It’s not my livelihood. So we put it out, and if I get a nice review and someone likes it, that makes me feel good, and it’s not like, “Argh! This isn’t good enough. This isn’t paying my bills.” It’s actually really cool, because I don’t have to really stress about it. If it’s positive stuff, it’s great. And I don’t need to think that much about anything else.
Yellowbirds play the Monkey House in Winooski this Thursday, February 16, at 8:30 p.m. $8.