Coheed and Cambria (from left to right)—Chris Pennie, Travis Stever Claudio Sanchez, and Michael Robert Todd.
CHILDHOOD FRIENDS CLAUDIO SANCHEZ AND TRAVIS STEVER formed Coheed and Cambria in 2001. The band took its name from Coheed and Cambria Kilgannon, principal characters in Claudio Sanchez’s comic science fiction story The Amory Wars, upon which the band’s first four albums were based. Coheed and Cambria’s latest release, Year of the Black Rainbow [Columbia], is a prequel that completes the story (a novel co-written by Sanchez and Peter David accompanies the Special Edition CD/DVD box set).
Year of the Black Rainbow was co-produced by Atticus Ross and Joe Barresi, who encouraged the guitarists to play through a bevy of exotic amps, effects, and even modular synths, and whose aesthetic approach brought an atypically spontaneous edge to the band’s creative process. The result is a recording brimming with mainstream hooks, grooves, and melodies, yet chockablock with a variety of unusual guitar tones and layers of intriguing sounds and effects. Year of the Black Rainbow also marks the recording debut of former Dillinger Escape Plan drummer Chris Pennie, who was previously barred from appearing on the band’s albums due to a lawsuit.
Back in 2007 and 2008 several of Coheed and Cambria’s songs were featured in the Rock Band video game, a timely bit of good fortune that thrust the band into the center of pop culture and is still paying musical and financial dividends.
Do you feel that your music is evolving, and in what ways does Year of the Black Rainbow differ from your previous albums?
Sanchez: We have certainly grown as a band, especially with Chris now being able to perform on records. We also had a different perspective because the production team was unlike any we’ve worked with before. We went in with a picture of what we wanted to do, but they allowed us to detail that picture more, and to improvise and experiment. Just being open minded and allowing ourselves to flow gave the record a more live feel.
Stever: Yeah, there were numerous times when it was like, “Wow, I just came up with that on the spot!” Working with Atticus and Joe was also interesting because they were coming from two different worlds and sort of met in the middle. Atticus has worked with Nine Inch Nails quite a bit and was just coming off scoring The Book of Eli, so he had a mind for experimenting with layers of sound. And Joe has worked on a lot of rock records for bands like Queens of the Stone Age and Isis. He’s a master of the art and science of getting great guitar tones.
How much of the improvised stuff made it onto the record?
Sanchez: Most of it. Not all of the sounds were featured, but they are certainly there. There’s a lot of little accents and rhythmic parts, feedback, ambient sounds, and just noise of various types—we made them all work somehow and somewhere.
Were the guitar sounds and effects done as you were tracking or during post-production and mixing?
Sanchez: Most of them were done while tracking, though we sometimes cut them up to find the rhythmical quality in them and put them in the most effective places. And in some cases we created whole new parts from them and wrote to those. Also, Joe has a great collection of old and boutique effects and amplifiers, and we wanted to capture those types of sounds, partly because we felt it would help us stand out from other bands a little more.
What are a few examples?
Sanchez: There were a number of self-oscillating pedals made by companies like 4MS, Death By Audio, and Lastgasp Art Laboratories that were really cool, and also some old Maestro pedals. It’s hard to remember them all because there were road cases just filled with pedals. Another thing we used was a Watkins Copicat tape delay. Joe has a great relationship with Charlie Watkins, and a huge collection of his gear, including old Joker amplifiers. That stuff is all over the album.
Do you remember what was used for the guitar solo on “Guns of Summer”?
Sanchez: The first half of the solo is Travis’ guitar through the ring modulator in a Korg Kaoss pad. For the second half of the solo I took a circuit-bent toy that made lots of noises and let the sounds pass through the pickups on my guitar and into the amp. At the same time I was doing that I was standing near a Theremin, and it would groan as I moved around randomly messing with the toy. We then edited those sounds to make them a bit more rhythmic.
What amps and effects pedals do you use live to recreate those types of sounds?
Stever: As of a few weeks ago I’ve been using Mesa/Boogie amps: a Mark V for distorted tones and an Electra Dyne for clean and some dirty tones. We’ve been experimenting with new stuff lately, but right now my effects include Boss PS-5 Super Shifter and PH-3 Phase Shifter pedals, a Line 6 DL4 Delay Modeler, an Ibanez AD-9 delay, a Hardwire RV-7 reverb, an Electro-Harmonix Electric Mistress flanger, a Fender Blender octave/fuzz, and Maxon and Swell overdrive pedals. I control everything with a Voodoo Lab GCX Audio Switcher and a Ground Control Pro.
Sanchez: I have Bogner Uberschall, Orange OR50H, and Fender Twin Reverb amps that I switch between. I have lots of pedals, all controlled by a Voodoo Lab switching system. A few of my favorites are an old MXR M-118 Analog Delay that sounds beautiful, The Great Destroyer fuzz by Dwarfcraft which sounds like you might expect given its name, and a Death By Audio Interstellar Overdriver Supreme, which I used on “Pearl of the Stars” on the new album.
What are your main guitars?
Sanchez: They are all Gibson Explorers, and I mostly use a 1980 Explorer E2. I also have several ’76 reissues. I’m really comfortable with the shape of Explorers and they have always been sort of my guitars. I also play a Minarik Medusa and some other Minariks, and I just bought a 1981 Ibanez Musician, which is a neck-through-body instrument.
Stevers: On the album I mostly played my goldtop Gibson Les Paul Traditional, which I put a Bigsby on, and a Gibson SG Standard that I bought four years ago. I also played one of Joe Barresi’s Fender Telecasters here and there.
How about strings and picks?
Stevers: I use DR strings and 1mm nylon Dunlop picks, which are comfortable and easy to grip.
Sanchez: My picks are .73mm Dunlops. I use a custom set of DRs with heavier bottom strings and semi-light top strings, but I don’t recall the exact gauges. We also use heavier-gauge DR DDT strings on the detuned guitars. We mostly play in standard tuning, or a half-step down overall—but we use dropped-D on a few songs, and on “Guns of Summer” I tune to D, A, D, F# , B, D [low to high].
Describe how you work together as guitarists.
Sanchez: I’m now 32, and Travis and I have been playing together since we were about 14 years old. We each had our own distinct influences and that helped us mold our individual voices, but we learned the instrument together, which provides a certain understanding and comfort. In terms of writing, I’ll usually come up with a skeletal rhythm part and then Travis will write around that. But sometimes I’ll have a suggestion for what he should play, and vice versa. Either way, the process is usually pretty seamless.
Stever: Yeah, Claudio will have a riff or a few riffs or maybe even an entire song and then I’ll work on parts that favor those and make the song more interesting or complete without overdoing it or becoming over-intricate.
What about in terms of tones?
Stever: I usually don’t think much about tones until both guitar parts and the vocals are already there, because I want the sounds to work together overall. But there have been songs where I began with a particular amp tone or delay sound or whatever that I wanted to use, and I’d get as close to that sound as I could on the demo using whatever tools I had. Claudio usually uses thicker tones, however, and I do take that into consideration.
Sanchez: I try to find the tones that sound the worst [laughs]. I’m just kidding, but when I was younger I did have an Ibanez TM5 Thrashmetal pedal, and lately I’ve wanted to revisit my youth and to bring some of those old sounds and feelings to the stage. Working with Joe and Atticus has really rekindled my love of pedals. I remember having such a fascination with them while growing up, but then kind of losing it as I got older and thinking, “Here’s the standard—let’s just do this.” Now in every city I look for a guitar shop where I can buy something really odd that will add a cool new dimension to my sound.
How do you feel about having your songs used in Rock Band?
Sanchez: I haven’t played the game a whole lot, but if it makes people happy, I’m down.
Stevers: Besides getting more kids to pay attention to our music, I’ve found that a lot of them moved on to playing actual instruments. To have been part of that is awesome. I played The Beatles Rock Band and that was a lot of fun. It’s cool to see kids that may have never listened to the Beatles other than through the video game getting into them and discovering that they were geniuses— just like the rest of us did!