Aoife Barry talks to Canada’s Jon (“no relation to Leonard“) Cohen who brings the Jon Cohen Experimental‘s Passenger tour to the Grand Social on Friday 20th January.
Jon Cohen has been a part of the Montreal music scene for many years, playing with bands like The Dears and The Social Register. But having spent most of that time playing in other people’s bands, he has recently decided to take the leap and go out on his own, as The Jon Cohen Experimental. And though initially a trio, the JCEX is now – in a move Cohen described as “shifting gears” – a solo pursuit.
Speaking to Thumped, he described it as a case of all or nothing, of going for the “dream life” of being a full-time musician. He decided to trust in fate, to just go for it, and now he has pretty much single-handedly booked an entire European tour in support of his debut solo album, Behold.
The decision to shift gears turned out to be a great one. “All of a sudden the gates of heaven opened up and I was able to tour, to do these big long tours that I’ve always dreamed of and make some money off it,” said a delighted Cohen.
Jon Cohen makes indie pop with a deep side, sweet summer songs that hint at a darker edge – think a happier Brendan Benson, a more mindful Broken Social Scene, or a less anglicised The AM. To play the tracks from Behold live, he has had to reinvent his set, using loop pedals and other instruments to enable him to become “this kind of caricature orchestra”. His forthcoming The Passenger Tour, which will bring him around Europe and Scandinavia, was fuelled, he said, by the desire to play in places like Dublin: “Places I’ve never played before. Like Finland – I never dreamed I’d be going there.” Now he has thrown off the ties that bind, Cohen is relishing this new freedom.
“I think this band is a constant reminder that I always have to keep changing; I always have to keep evolving,” said Cohen, adding that otherwise he wouldn’t be able to do one of the most important things when playing music – “letting go and feeling something raw and real”.
As a politically-aware Canadian, Cohen recently took part in the Occupy Montreal movement, volunteering as a stage technician. “You could feel this excitement in the air, some mobilisation happening,” he recalled. He spent so much time in Victoria Square in downtown Montreal that friends and workmates wondered what had happened to him. “I kind of got carried away with it and I started putting everything aside. I was spending entire days and nights working on this. My family were worried, and my job was wondering what was going on. I was still living my other life, my working life and then going there after work and this thing felt like living a dual lifestyle.”
Occupy Montreal meant a huge amount to him. “For me it was a really unique experience; something that hadn’t happened before. Whether it was successful or not, whether it got the point across or not, just to be part of that, it was definitely an enriching experience.”
Thanks to Arcade Fire, the spotlight has been on Montreal indie bands since the early 2000s. The Dears, for example, were described by the NME as the “best new band in the world” upon the release of No Cities Left in 2003. “There is great music everywhere and it is a very easy sport for music to focus on one city and say this is the hot spot because so much good music is coming out of there,” cautioned Cohen. “People are getting way ahead of themselves with Montreal. For me, since I’ve started doing this I’ve almost adopted every other city but my own musically now. It’s like for me this place is same old, same old. I’ve had my time here in Montreal. I feel now that music for me, the real meat and potatoes of it is outside of the city. That’s why I love the touring”
He feels the press attention “changed the dynamic” of the scene, but doesn’t want to be too critical. “I’m not dissing the city,” he stated. “It’s so deserving of everything the city gets.” He sees Montreal as a fantastic city for music: “not just indie music – all kinds of music”.
Cohen has many inspirations, but lately he has been paring them down. Listening to nothing but Talking Heads these days suits him just fine. He recognises the links that bands have to each other, and the musical threads strung between songs. “I’m a firm believer that nothing is new in music. You’re taking something someone else has done and giving it your voice and filtering it though your experience.”
He mentions Dirty Beaches, the Taiwanese-Canadian musician whose music takes from the Beach Boys, Suicide and Francoise Hardy, but still remains original. Seeing Dirty Beaches play set Cohen off on a run of watching other one-man bands; men who, like him, make music alone. It inspired him to set up his own festival dedicated to these lone males, which it is hoped will take place later this year.
“It’s a funny thing. A lot of people are turning to [being a solo musician] because it is just so much more feasible and much more logistically possible now,” he noted. If you’re a band, it’s expensive: “Get ready to put your first mortgage on that tour.”
So Cohen, as a one-man band, can tour for much less money, and stop along wherever he likes on the way. He’s excited about going back to Dublin, to see friends and play music. He is particularly excited to meet the audience, to see “what chemistry we are going to have together”. “I have only the best hopes,” he said, in his typical positive style. Looks like that leap of faith is paying off.
Jon Cohen brings The Passenger Tour to the Grand Social, Dublin, on Friday 20 January.