“What we’re doing is weird,” Claudio Sanchez admits with a belly laugh. He’s referring to “The Amory Wars,” the gargantuan sci-fi saga that his band, prog-rock quartet Coheed and Cambria, have unfurled over the last 16 years. “Concept records in themselves are not weird, but for a band to continue a concept over their discography can be a little intimidating to somebody on the outside. It’s like a monthly issue comic book, like, ‘I don’t want to get invested into this 10 issues in. I need to know where to start. If I can’t get issue one, I’m just not going to read it.'”
The band paused that knotty narrative with 2015’s The Color Before the Sun, a more compact song cycle born from Sanchez’s excitement and fears of fatherhood. (His son, Atlas, is now four.) “That was the first and only record I could write from an autobiographical standpoint,” he says. “No science fiction.” But they’ve resumed genre storytelling with their latest project (and to the uninitiated, please bear with us): a five-part album series, Vaxis, that continues the plot from 2007’s No World for Tomorrow.
The irony is that, despite Coheed and Cambria’s reputation as a nerdy comic-book band, their songs are deeply personal, as Sanchez embellishes his own relationships and anxieties into grandiose fantasy tales. In 2012, he told Rolling Stone that the band’s two-part Afterman project was inspired largely by the idea of losing his wife, author Chondra Echert (who has helped develop “The Amory Wars” comic-book series) and his feelings of “being lost, should that ultimately ever happen.”
The Unheavenly Creatures (out October 5th) is the first installment of the Vaxis series, following two new characters who attempt to flee an eerie prison planet named the Dark Sentencer. But as Sanchez tells Rolling Stone, his science fiction is still deeply intertwined with the truth. In a wide-ranging interview, the Coheed and Cambria mastermind discussed his deep personal connection to “The Amory Wars,” the creative influence of his young son and how there’s “no way” he’d ever “abandon” the concept that drives his art.
The Unheavenly Creatures is the first part of a “pentalogy.” What made you arrive at that structure? Have you written it all, story-wise?
I started writing the record, and I think the only song I had was “The Pavilion” — I remember the file was, like, February 16th, 2016. And at that moment in time, I didn’t really know [where I was going]. I knew I wanted to get back into “The Amory Wars” with the Coheed records, but I just didn’t know how. As time progressed, I started to create more and more material, and a few songs started to suggest the idea of what it would be. Writing a song like “Old Flames” or “Unheavenly Creatures,” which are really tied into the concept, really started to speak to me in a way some of the other songs hadn’t. They were coming from a more personal place, whereas songs like this certainly had a character arc intertwined in the lyrics and presentation. As far as getting back into “The Amory Wars,” I knew this next story would act as a continuation of [No World for Tomorrow] in that it would act as a part five [of “The Amory Wars” narrative]. I thought, “What’s a cool way to do that?” Every Coheed record has some sort of numeric value in the name, whether it’s The Second Stage Turbine Blade or In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth 3. Even The Color Before the Sun and Afterman have a certain value as to where they sit in the mythology of Coheed. So with this one, I thought it would be interesting if the number of stories could be the numeric value. That’s kind of where I came up with the idea of doing the pentalogy. Those songs, “Old Flames” and “Unheavenly Creatures,” were like establishing songs, getting the listener to understand who these characters are, what their histories are, and what they’re meant to overcome in the records that will follow The Unheavenly Creatures.
You talked about having to establish the plot early on. Are there early versions of these songs with placeholder lyrics outside of the concept?
For example, there was no concept with “Pavilion.” The bare-bones meaning behind that song was basically leaving the band. It wasn’t until I started structuring the actual beats of the story that I found a place for it within the concept. I took those bones and fleshed it out with the backstory of Creature and Sister Spider and how they worked in theater productions. In that second verse, if you listen, it talks about “dressing room carpets” and “broken TVs” — it’s basically the loop of being a band on the road, all the things you sort of endure. For me, it was like, ‘That’s obviously about [leaving the band], but how do I take this real-life situation and feed it to these fictitious characters to give them more legs to stand on, using this song that feels so outside of the concept?”
How close were you to leaving the band? What was giving you those frustrations?
I wrote that right out of The Color Before the Sun. And that album was really about me becoming a dad. It was this moment in time where I could attribute these real-life feelings. I had some questions about where I was as an adult, with a son, leaving [to go on tour]. Is this life as fulfilling as I’d hoped? I started having these questions about my station in life. It was this idea about stretching my wings and going out on my own. I loved “Pavilion” so much. I put those feelings of frustration aside: Coheed and Cambria is in my blood. There are going to be those moments where I have those questions about what I do. That’s what we do as human beings. It’s just part of our nature. But now I’m far beyond that. When I finally got to the point where I got the concept mapped out and acquired Chase Stone, who did the final art, and started outlining it with my wife, I was like, “This is my home. There’s no other place I want to be at 40 years old.” But at one point, I was uncertain about what I should be doing. I just thought it was such a great song that it had a place in the concept.
The beauty of songwriting is that you can express those feelings in a healthy, productive way instead of keeping them buried.
That’s exactly it. I totally agree with you. It has a lot to do with me being a horrible communicator. I couldn’t communicate that to these guys, like, “Hey, I feel a little uncertain about [this].” And not that they wouldn’t be receptive to my feelings — it’s just I have a hard time expressing them. The only way I could look at it objectively is through song, like, “Let’s reevaluate.” It’s not the kind of thing I could look at and say, “Things are good now.” It took writing it and putting aside those emotions, and then as I started constructing this record, it was like, “That song has its place and time, but it’s not who I am or how I feel.”
There are Coheed fans who get invested in the concept and others who listen solely for the music. The reason these songs work outside the story is because you write from real experiences and emotions. Would you say you worked that way throughout this album?
It’s a little bit of everything, but most of the time it’s 100 percent. Most of these songs come from a really personal place. It’s like a writer: “What genre do you write for?” Most songwriters that we’re familiar with are telling their stories from an autobiographical situation. I’m telling my story in a different genre, and that just happens to be science-fiction/fantasy. That’s what really works for me. But “Pavilion” is one of those songs that’s coming from a very personal experience. “Lucky Stars” is also coming from that place. But when I hear that song, I see the end of the story — I see [the characters] Creature and Sister Spider donning their masks with their armor and weapons, posed as they ascend out of the Dark Sentencer, in this sort of beautiful, slow-motion dance as all this chaos surrounds them.
When I wrote “Black Sunday,” there was no concept. But I have this Kurt Vonnegut print — it’s a gravestone that says, “Life is no way to treat an animal.” I thought, “What would a Kurt Vonnegut song sound like? If he was a songwriter, what would that sound like?” I was like, “I’m gonna try to write a Kurt Vonnegut-esque song.” I took that and fed that into the subservers of the Dark Sentencer.
The whole line “We’re here to catch the bomb” — it’s the idea of accepting [that] this catastrophic situation just feels beautiful to me in a horrible sort of way. It kind of reminds me of the illustrations you’d find in Breakfast of Champions or Slaughterhouse Five.
You wrote a lot of the last album in Brooklyn. You had that big incident a few years ago with the vandalism of your country home, but that all got straightened out, right? Did you end up writing a lot of this album there?
We ended up actually selling that house because it became too much of an investment. My wife and I really found ourselves wanting to stay in Brooklyn, so we did. We moved out of Park Slope and into an apartment in Crown Heights. That’s where I ended up writing most of the record. It’s a little tight, but for the most part I’m really adjusting to that. Coming from this huge — or not huge, but huge to me, because I didn’t grow up in something like that — but to have all this space in this country home, it just felt limitless. I could pack everything I wanted in this room and have everything at my disposal, whereas now, being in this smaller apartment, you have to choose wisely the instruments you want to use. I wrote most of it there and had a good time with it. Some of the vocals from the demo process actually made it onto the record. There’s just a spirit behind them that I just couldn’t create in a more structured environment like a studio.
How detailed are your demos?
Sometimes the demos are pretty fleshed-out with, like, finger drumming. Sometimes I wont do that and I’ll send them off to [drummer] Josh [Eppard], who will construct an idea behind the song. For me, it’s a lot of guitar playing, singing and synthesizers — especially on this record. I was definitely trying my hand at a lot of sequencing, which you hear on songs like “Unheavenly Creatures” and “It Walks Among Us” and “The Dark Sentencer” with that whole prologue. Coheed has always played around with the idea of synthesis, but it’s made more of a feature on this record than it has in the past. It’s a huge hobby of mine: I buy more synthesizers than guitars. It’s something I picked up from working with Atticus Ross and Joe Barresi on Year of The Black Rainbow. It’s the idea of “chance music.” I have this formula with playing guitar that’s hard for me to break. But when I work with these modular synthesizers or creating these strange sequences, they sort of open up my perspective to view things a little differently, and it allows me to play guitar in a way I might not because I’m so structured and formulaic about what I do. And being in a band with a science-fiction/fantasy concept, [the synthesizers] work quite well!
The new album’s story involves these two characters trying to preserve their future son’s position as father of the new universe. You’re a fairly recent father, and your son is old enough to where he’s an actual human now. I’m sure you’re starting to think about what kind of world your son’s going to inhabit some day. Was that part of your thinking as you crafted this story?
Absolutely. I wrote The Color Before the Sun before he was born, but those feelings, that anticipation of him, certainly influenced that record a lot. But now that we’re back into the story, it’s like, “How could he not influence the concept?” Vaxis is very much a reflection of my feelings as a father. Vaxis the character has a big part in The Unheavenly Creatures, but he really comes into his own in the later stories. So right now it’s really a story about a man and woman reforging their love for one another and the idea that they in the future have this son who is super relevant to everything going on within the concept. A lot of the things relate to the Dark Sentencer and some of the subdivisions of the Dark Sentencer are influenced by what you’re saying — the world our children will inherit and the one we’re living in right now. That song in particular echoes those ideas but conceptually it also welcomes the fan base back to the Coheed concept. It’s very ambiguous that the words “welcome home” are uttered — in the original “Welcome Home” song, we never actually say that. But in this song, it’s just so relevant. The Dark Sentencer is a prison planet, just a way horrible place to be. The song is about accepting that: “Welcome to your new life that’s basically a horror show.” But it’s also a statement to the Coheed fans who’ve been tried and true with us this whole time. It’s basically a calling back to the concept: “We didn’t abandon it.”
Creature and Sister Spider are trying to escape this prison planet, which seems extremely relevant in a time and country where people might feel like they’re trapped in a prison nation. Did those sort of thoughts enter your mind?
Absolutely. I don’t really put my political place out there. I try not to. But if you wanna look, you might find some things that might be very relevant, especially in a song like “The Dark Sentencer.” If you get into the lyrics and put the pieces together, it’s more than just a song about that. There’s no agenda. I don’t really want to put my … anything out there. It’s just not who I am. But I can’t not be influenced by my surroundings. Those things do make a feature. When you hear a line from “The Dark Sentencer” like, “As evil now gropes/It’s caught us off-guard with its hand reaching for our throats” … there’s something there [laughs]!
This time around, the band was more involved in the creative process, like devising instrumentation in a way that complements the songs.
Absolutely. In the past, I’ve always put together concept behind closed doors … This time around, before we got into the studio and started fleshing out the material, I had the songs written, and I started contacting these concept artists to start putting together these visuals so I could show the band as we were working on it in the studio. I also put together a synopsis of the story with character descriptions and pulled some images from the Internet just to have a ton of resources to keep everyone in the loop as to what the story is about. On “Queen of the Dark,” we introduce the characters to this overlord who lives in the lower levels of the Dark Sentencer. I remember Josh was like, “If we’re getting into the sub-levels and it feels like a more Mad Max environment as opposed to the upper levels that have this Blade Runner aesthetic, maybe there’s a more rhythmic situation in the sub-levels. Maybe the toms are more prevalent.” I was like, “That’s a great idea. Of course. That sounds great to me.” So on that song, it’s Travis, myself and Josh sitting at three sets of toms just pummeling away at them, emulating the idea of these subserved creatures waiting for their judgment from the Queen of the Dark, this Glass Widow individual.
I just wanted them to be involved, and especially on this record. Normally I’ll take the albums and adapt them into the comic book format. This time around, I wanted to do something that felt more cinematic, like a movie. I think with the artist we found, we definitely got that. I felt like this was a different experience. Being that it’s part one of a pentalogy, I wanted the band to be involved from the get-go, to have an understanding of the story that they didn’t in the past.
It seems like a lot some fans were bummed out by the more straightforward, less conceptual songwriting on The Color. Did you get that sense at all? And did that have anything to do with you returning to the narrative style?
Not really. I always knew I’d come back to that concept. I think at that time, anticipating the birth of my son, it was important for me. I knew there’d be backlash. That’s part of the territory when you break the mold. It’s gonna be met with some resistance. For me, I’d never had these feelings before, and this was probably the only time I’d ever get to catalog that stuff as honestly as possible. That’s why I did it. I wanted to [pay tribute to] those first feelings of becoming a father on a record. I didn’t want to clutter it with the concept. I knew my son would inspire me to do something back in “The Amory Wars.” I just thought, “There’s gonna be enough time for that. This is the only shot I have to do this as Claudio the Father and not Claudio the Creator of ‘The Amory Wars.'”
Do you feel like your life mirrors “The Amory Wars” in some way?
I haven’t thought about that. I know I love writing in the conceptual format. I like being in a band that has this overarching fantasy element that goes with it. I just enjoy it. I see myself in all the characters. Obviously in the previous Coheed saga, when I accidentally wrote my name in the song “Everything Evil,” I didn’t realize the repercussions of having to enter the story of the character. Clearly I’m in there [laughs]. Even seeing myself in a character like Creature or the darker sides of Colossus or the cold sides of the Warden and his watchtower. I see a lot of myself. I see a lot of my wife. This is a lot of fun for me. I remember reading some articles on The Color Before the Sun, and it was like, “Coheed abandons the concept,” and there was never this idea that we’d abandoned it. This is me. There’s no way. I love it. I know right know we have The Unheavenly Creatures and the remaining four parts of Vaxis to complete, and I can’t wait for the audience to see what the outcome is of this. It’s all pretty much mapped out; it’s just about writing the music and fleshing out the stories. The beats are there for where we’re going. It’s like, “When that’s done, what do I do?” But that’s four records, and a lot of time will go by between then and now. But when it’s done, I’m sure I’ll try to figure out a way to continue it. As long as I live, I think “The Amory Wars” will, too.
“As long as I live, I think ‘The Amory Wars’ will, too.”
In a recent interview, you were talking about how the other Coheed members haven’t always been super excited about being a “comic-book band.” Has it taken them a long time to come around and just accept the project for what it is? Are they self-conscious about that stuff?
From my perspective, it feels like there was a hair of resistance. We were a band! We were young. I think we ultimately wanted people to recognize us for being that. But the uniqueness of being this concept-driven thing really posed these premature ideas of what we were. I think a lot of the guys didn’t like that. Not everybody in Coheed is comic-reading, Dungeons & Dragons-playing guys. Everybody enjoys their certain thing: Josh is really into horror movies; Travis is into movies of all kinds. After a while, when every interview is “D&D-wielding Coheed and Cambria” or “four-color panel-page Coheed and Cambria” — not everybody was into that in the early stages.
I can imagine it’s frustrating when people pigeonhole you and ignore the music.
Yeah! And I get it [laughs]. Concept records in themselves are not, but for a band to have a continual concept over their discography can be a little intimidating to somebody on the outside. … But that’s the beauty of Coheed and Cambria — you don’t necessarily need to understand the concept to enjoy the themes of the concept, like you were saying. At the nucleus of what we do, we’re a band that’s telling honest stories. I just take those honest stories and put them in a genre that feels a little more fantastic. Should you choose to exercise that, it’s there for you. If you don’t want to, you don’t have to [laughs].
I have to ask about “Unheavenly Creatures,” the title track. I can’t think of another band that mixes prog, metal, hard-rock, power-pop and post-hardcore in that way. Do you recall how you put that one together?
I wrote two songs together, “Old Flames” and “Unheavenly Creatures.” I think a little bit of “Old Flames” inspired “Unheavenly Creatures.” I was inspired by this Brian De Palma movie Phantom of the Paradise. It’s basically a Seventies version of Phantom of the Opera, a movie musical.
That makes sense. Several of these songs are super theatrical, like “Old Flames” and even “The Gutter.”
With “Old Flames,” I was trying to write something that sounded a bit more Fifties. I just sat behind my digital piano in my living room and constructed the opening piano sequence. I wrote it from there on piano — it wasn’t written on guitar. To me, it had a pretty powerful chorus. After writing that song, that put me in this mindset of writing that sort of material. I’d written “True Ugly” and “Black Sunday,” so I was in this Coheed pop idea. So when I started “Unheavenly Creatures,” I took out this Roland boutique one-oscillator synthesizer, the SH-01A — it’s a very easy-to-use synth that has a very fun sequencer on it. I just punched in a bunch of notes and created this very long sequence and played it back. It was just by chance. I was just trying to create something. Every now and then, I’d hit the wrong note and have to start over. It was fun to put together. When I played it back, it was like, “Oh, this is so magical to me!” And that’s how the chords started to come together. Those were the first two songs Atlas started to gravitate toward. He’s all about the record, but especially those two — with “Old Flames,” I played the chorus like three times, and he’s already singing it as I’m constructing it. I’m like, “Maybe I should go down this path.” He’s a kid! He doesn’t care about anything but whether it sounded good to him. Then I made my way into “Unheavenly Creatures,” and the same thing started to happen. I was like, “Are you telling me you want a production credit on this, son?” In a way, it was like entertainment for him. As I was constructing these songs that were a little more melodically friendly.
How old is Atlas?
He just turned turned four years old, but I think he may have been two-and-a-half or three at that point.
He must be musically inclined.
Definitely. For a while, because he had so much interest in the piano, we started to show him scales. And for a while he was picking them up, and for being such a young age, we were blown away. But then he kinda lost interest and moved away from it, as is to be expected from a little boy or little girl. They’re growing.
He still has time.
Yeah! Absolutely [laughs].