I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that music simply exists as an intangible translation of the human soul. It has no scent, no colour, no tactile characteristic. It simply can, be, and does‘ – Siobhán Kane talks with Tim Cohen of The Fresh & Onlys who play Vicar St. this Friday with The Breeders.

San Francisco’s The Fresh & Onlys began life around 2008 and since then, they have produced brilliant, eerie garage-rock-pop, with finely-wrought lyrics and an earthy sensibility. Their first, self-titled record, was released on Castle Face Records, which is run by John Dwyer of Thee Oh Sees, (along with Brian Lee Hughes, and Matt Jones) and there is a definite kinship at work between both bands, since they create interesting, visceral work, crafted with a real musicianship.

Their subsequent records; Green-Eyed Girls (2009), August in my Mind (2010), Play it Strange (2010), Secret Walls (2011) and last year’s Long Slow Dance, have all been released on different labels, illustrating their restless creativity, and sense of movement that enlivens their work. Tim Cohen talks to Siobhán Kane about romanticism, Magic Trick, visual art and Mission burritos.

So much of your work is drenched in a sense of yearning, and times past. Have you always been attracted to that sensibility within music?
It begins with the sheer “undefinability” of music, the idea that academics and philosophers describe it as “organised noise”, and that throughout history, music has simply fulfilled a spiritual purpose for so many folks. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that music simply exists as an intangible translation of the human soul. It has no scent, no colour, no tactile characteristic. It simply can, be, and does. A lot of the music I’ve attempted to create, or channel, is inspired by its own unanswerability. The sense of yearning is rooted not in the desire to define a particular experience, but rather to ask more and more questions about it. I suppose this will always be an incomplete answer, but the idea that there are more unanswered questions than answered questions is what keeps life interesting.

One of your earlier songs “What’s his Shadow Still Doing Here?” had a beautiful atmosphere, filtering fifties guitar-pop among other things – how influential that period has been for you?
When The Fresh & Onlys began, in 2008, I was in the process of redefining my approach to music, particularly the electric guitar. In the past – early to mid 2000’s – I was writing esoteric, pointless, math-rock operas and pseudo electro r&b jams, when I received an old broken up tube amp for Christmas from my ex, Heidi. I became fascinated by the sound of my guitar through the amp and it made me start seeking out sympathetic sounds – 13 floor elevators, the seeds, etc, and I became a sponge for 60’s psychedelic rock. It was this approach to listening – just grabbing up and playing every record I could find in fast succession in order to satisfy my curiosity, that would come to replace the more contemplative, studied approach to listening that had lead me to writing such over thought and cliched music in the past. So now I was processing ideas very quickly, turning around and spitting them back out on my guitar. Then it was girl groups, Phil Spector, Joe Meek, Everly Brothers….all of this became fodder for our first, overly prolific days as a band.

You grew up mainly listening to hip-hop, how did that harness your imagination?
My love for hip-hop is rooted in my fascination with lyrics. This was the first music I heard where anger, violence, love….were effortlessly intertwined with humour and irony to staggering effect. It has been and probably will always will be my favourite type of music. I often go back to the greats, particularly the period of 1991-1994 – Black Sheep, Organised Konfusion, Saafir, Freestyle Fellowship, the list could go on..

With Play it Strange you left your home studio and started working with Tim Green, how did you find that experience? Was it a strange feeling, letting go, in some ways? It seemed to set you up on another kind of journey.
That was probably the best decision we could have made at that time. Allowing someone else to record us was essentially admitting our shortcomings as engineers, or at least succumbing to the reality that our gear was shitty. That experience was really a boon for me, not being responsible for having to uphold the excuse that we were “lo-fi” because we were poorly equipped. That marked the beginning of a departure from that mentality. I don’t remember how I met Tim, but I remember being awestruck at his ability to transform the room into a physical manifestation of the sound quality Inside his head.

Long Slow Dance was such a beautiful expression of romanticism, unafraid to explore ideas of love, it is unashamedly romantic – what went into the recording of that record, and was it cathartic?
We set out to make a bold, big-sounding record and wanted to go full tilt with regard to the emotional capacity of the record – the brightest highs and the darkest lows we could muster, that we could better represent the wide spectrum of feeling inherent in romance, death, other generally “song-y” matters. It was more cathartic in its
scope – with Long Slow Dance, we had an overall vision of the songs, but as we got deeper and more connected to them, the process started pulling ideas out of us uncontrollably. I began to feel so deeply connected to the songs in a way that prior recording experiences hadn’t allowed, due to their rushed or spontaneous nature. So in that sense it was a bit cathartic.

When you wrote Magic Trick [his other project/band], I believe that you were also writing some Fresh & Only’s work. Both records seem to explore similar themes, but with subtle differences. What did you want to get across with Magic Trick? For me, there was a more subtle, soft aspect, perhaps, even more of an “interior” sense, and a vulnerability.
I suppose Magic Trick songs differ from Onlys songs in that they either don’t sit well with the Fresh & Onlys repertoire, seem too “folky”, or benefit greatly from the presence of female voices. Other than that, the process is the same. I don’t write music with a band in mind. I just demo everything and then try to give every song a home where I feel it belongs.

So many interesting bands are emerging from the Bay Area – there is a really thriving independent garage and psychedelic rock music scene in San Francisco- what are your thoughts?
San Francisco is a great city, regardless of the music scene, but the city’s been fortunate to have caught a bit of attention for some of its great bands, this has served to keep younger musicians hungry, bands pop up every day and there’s a real sense of mutual admiration and respect amongst everyone, not as much of a competition. This I attribute to the prevalence of independent labels and such- its not so dog-eat-dog, now that everyone can find a label to release their music. And there are plenty of ways to book your own tours. So I think the DIY element that comes with living in a relatively small, artistically viable city like SF, plays a big part in its continued relevance as a cultural hub.

Where are some of your favourite places to eat, tipple, see music and walk there?
Eat: pretty much anything, it’s one of the great culinary cities of the world. If you’re on a budget, eat a Mission burrito. Music: The Chapel is a new venue, it’s awesome. Great American Music Hall is the best. Walking: walk to Bernal Hill and then North Beach. It will take you a long time but worth it.

You once said that your friend Joe Roberts is the biggest inspiration for you artistically – could you expand a little as to why?
Joe has a pure and true connection to his art, as one would have to a disease or a child. The connection is inescapable, unforced, and without regard to others. Most of my favourite artists are peers of mine; Richard Colman, Kevin Earl Taylor, Claire Rojas, Joe Roberts, Kyle Ranson, to name a few. Visual art has become a pretty important part of my sanity; it’s another way to shape your world without actually doing much.

You used to work at Amoeba Music – did much of your sense of community and collaboration spring from that?
I learned most of what I know of music from working there, and yes in a literal sense, most of my collaborations have been with former employees of that store.

Something like “The Glad Birth of Love” relays a belief in love, and falling in love – it is quite a true and unfettered rendering, which is what the best kind of love feels like, it was nice to hear it portrayed in this way.
I think everyone believes in love. As for a pure and unfettered connection, I wouldn’t claim to have that – but I do have a pure unfettered connection to each of my own contradictory desires – desire for solitude, lust, monogamy, etc. Hence the confused soul within the storm. Each of these desires is so pure and so real, and yet none can be achieved while the others linger.

How has your relationship to making music changed over the years?
I guess I’ve been pretty lucky along this course. One opportunity kind of leads to another, if you “play your cards right.” Hard work speaks volumes , as does good manners.

Your music seems to contain an inherent duality, that along with something pure there is shame, along with grief there is euphoria – that true love for example, comes with an innocence, but an intensity that can create a kind of fire. How far do you think that your work contains a duality?
That’s a good observation. It’s no different in me than it is in any other artist. I’m just not shy about espousing cheesy or cliched sentiments in juxtaposition with each other, so it seems more extreme. Between the dull ache of “life is hard” and the candy coated sheen of “I love you baby”, there is a multitude of subtleties that more self-conscious artists avail themselves of.

Who have you always admired in terms of writing?
Short list: Randy Newman, Ice Cube, Joseph Brodsky, Dostoyevsky, Michael Hurley, Flannery O Connor, Anna Akhmatova, Kurt Vonnegut, Stevie Nicks.

Who are you listening to at the moment, watching, and reading?
I currently live in the desert of Arizona without television or Internet. I pretty much listen exclusively to the Grateful Dead – not being sarcastic – and read non-fiction books about American Indians.

What are your plans for the coming year, in terms of collaborations, recordings, and other projects?
We have finished a new record to be released in the spring 2014. Magic Trick has a record coming in September called River of Souls. Then I have some secret projects in my bedroom, maybe they will see the light of day.

Over the last few years creating music, what have some of your personal highlights been?
There are too many to count. Mostly the opportunity to travel and do what I love. I’ve never been to Ireland. I’m ecstatic.

The Fresh & Onlys play Vicar Street with The Breeders this Friday, June 14th.

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