Claudio Sanchez: “Sometimes I look at us and think of King Kong… We’re these savages from the jungle put out there as a spectacle”

In conversation with Coheed And Cambria’s head honcho Claudio Sanchez, discussing drugs, the heyday of ’70s music and being a weird band.

Claudio Sanchez: “Sometimes I look at us and think of King Kong… We’re these savages from the jungle put out there as a spectacle”
Ian Winwood
Originally published:

When Claudio Sanchez was interviewed some years ago for a Kerrang! cover feature, he gave the appearance of being the world’s most unlikely rock star.

Despite being at the height of the band’s popularity then, the Coheed And Cambria frontman sat at a kitchen table in Upstate New York fidgeting like a schoolboy waiting to be seen by a headmaster. With his leonine hair tied back, and wearing glasses, when the conversation turned to stickier subjects – namely, drugs – his voice would reduce to a stammered whisper, while his left hand removed a ring from his right, only to replace it over and over again.

Claudio describes himself as an “insecure frontman”, a state of mind that surely explains the modus operandi of his reassuringly esoteric band. Their 2018 album, the snappily titled Vaxis – Act I: The Unheavenly Creatures, saw Cohhed create a fantastical world of characters and intrigue; a place where creations such as The Dark Sentencer and the Queen Of The Dark roam with questionable intent. To a musical score that is progressive and often odd, Claudio – himself an accomplished comic book artist and author – wears his stories like a cloak from within, through which he can express himself with a fluency that would otherwise not come so easily.

If this makes Coheed And Cambria sound like a band out of time, it’s because they are – though they can lay claim to a sizeable and devoted audience that is deeply partial to their otherworldly charms. We caught up with Claudio in his home in Brooklyn, New York City, to find out why…

What is your earliest rock’n’roll memory?
“I have a bunch of them. I remember being in the car with my father and listening to a compilation of Jimi Hendrix hits. It was probably All Along The Watchtower or something like that which first piqued my interest. It was how the guitar was making a certain sound that did it for me. I also remember going fishing with a friend and his brother was listening to Look What The Cat Dragged In by Poison, and I recall feeling like that felt foreign and wildly interesting. And then I saw Black Sabbath live on their Dehumanizer tour [in 1992] at the Beacon Theatre in New York. That was a hugely important moment for me.”

Did you grow up in a musical household?
“Yeah, pretty much. My father played a little bit of music. He wasn’t trained or anything, but he played in bands. And we listened to a lot of music. My parents had really different tastes. My dad was very much into jazz and blues and rock music – he was always listening to something; the stereo was always on in our house – and my mother would listen to pop music in the car. She liked Madonna and Michael Jackson and stuff like that. But music was always a constant feature of my youth.”

At what point did you think, ‘I’d like to dedicate my life to music’?
“The two shows that really confirmed that this is what I wanted to do with my life were actually my first two experiences. When I was about 13 years old I started to play in rock bands, but I didn’t understand the live component of it. That was something I never thought about because I’d never been to any live shows. I’d listened to records and watched videos on TV and I really thought that that was it. But in ’92 I saw Black Sabbath with Ronnie James Dio, with a friend I’d started a band with; his mom drove us there because we were so young. And my mind was blown… it was something I’d never experienced before. Then in ’94 I got to see Pink Floyd on The Division Bell Tour. I think that was at Giants Stadium, and to see video incorporated into the live setting inspired me to investigate the idea of the concept, of putting other things into the music. It was a really influential moment. Both experiences were crucial in informing what Coheed would later become.”

You’ve mentioned two bands that made their mark in the ’70s. Do you think that was the golden age for rock music?
“Yes and no. I do see a lot of that era in what we do; a lot of it definitely spills into us. But I was a kid of the ’90s, and that’s where I got my musical identity. There are a lot of interesting moments in rock music, it goes through a lot of different eras: from this powerful thing in the ’70s, to this popular thing in the ’80s, to this degraded thing with grunge. But for me, going to Lollapalooza and seeing Alice In Chains was the closest I was going to get to seeing those great bands from the ’70s in their prime. But seeing Smashing Pumpkins and Dinosaur Jr. and Jane’s Addiction gave me the soundtrack to my generation. I think the transformation from the ’70s to the ’90s is a really interesting metamorphosis.”

As a younger man you took a trip to Paris. How influential was that period of your life?
“It was a huge experience. Before that, I’d never been anywhere. Travelling was not at the forefront of my mind; it wasn’t something I aspired to do. So when I was given the opportunity to do it, to me it felt alien. But going to Paris proved to be incredibly influential. It’s a beautiful city. The architecture was so different from anything that I had been used to back home, so to me it became like this exploration in space travel.

“All of a sudden my mind was conjuring up all these ideas that were not of this world. And that’s where the initial concept of Coheed And Cambria was really born. It was born on the kitchen table in a rented apartment on the third floor on the corner of two streets in Paris. The band was never supposed to become this big rock thing – initially it was just this small electronic project that I was working on myself. It had these two characters, who were loosely based on myself and the person I was with at the time. And I took the names from a bag shop that was across the street. The bag shop was called The Bag Online, so I called the project The Bag Online Adventures Of Coheed And Cambria. And that was pretty much it; the story pretty much evolved and developed from there. The characters eventually took on the characteristics of my parents, and I became a character in the story as their son, so the stories became more family and personally orientated, and more about accepting who you are and growing up. But obviously within a science fiction context.”

How long did it take for the project to become a band, and for that band to find an audience?
“It took a while. It was an odd band. Growing up is about trying to find your identity. Like, ‘What is my creative voice?’ I didn’t start as the singer of the band, for one thing, so I guess it took about six years for us to kind of develop what our sound was and what our voice was. Also, our record label had to convince us that the original name we had for the band [Shabutie] was wrong for the type of music we were playing. So us adopting the name Coheed And Cambria was when things really began to kick into life.”

Would it be fair to say that you’re quite a weird band?

Is that by accident or design?
“I think it’s a little bit of both. I don’t think we set out to be an oddity. We’re the same as anyone in that we want our music to be accepted. For me, it wasn’t a case of us wanting to be this extremely weird band, it was more a case of it being an interesting thing to do. I think I’m answering the question! I sometimes look at us, at the four of us in the band, and I think of King Kong, like we’re these savages from the jungle who are put out there as a spectacle. It feels like that. It’s not something that we gravitated toward, to be the oddest thing we could possibly be. I think it’s just a product of the way it had to be. For me, being an insecure frontman, the idea of creating a concept meant that it was easier for me to express myself through that. That, to me, felt natural. But to the general listener, it’s kind of hard to digest, I guess, having to get behind this entire mythology in order to listen to this rock’n’roll band. It can be daunting. I think that’s where the oddity comes into play.”

Would Coheed And Cambria be a stadium band had you formed in 1975?
“I don’t know. That being said, I’m sure there were bands that formed at that time who were great, who didn’t become as big as Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin. So that’s a really hard question to answer. In my imagination I’d like to think so, but that’s just my imagination.”

If you had to choose between visual art and music, which would you pick?
“I’m going to choose music. I can still tell my stories without a pad and paper. I can do it through music.”

About a decade ago, some members of the band became heavily involved in drugs. What are your memories of that period?
“It was both Josh [Eppard, drummer] and Mic [Todd, former bassist], Coheed And Cambria’s own Toxic Twins. That was a difficult time. We were young. If anything, we were too young to deal with the idea of chemical dependency. The band had just signed to a major label and it was a really trying moment. We were living our dream and we were already suffering from that rock’n’roll fate. So we were trying to keep everyone okay while basically living the dream. It was so sudden that we were scrambling to pick up the pieces. And all the while there was no floor, if that makes any sense. We were going to fall apart. Travis [Stever, guitarist] and I have been friends since we were 12 or 13 years old, and we knew that we were going to have to deal with this devastation. So we just kept going as best as we could. But it was hard, man, ‘cause there were packages of opioid pills being delivered. I remember one incident when our tour manager at the time, Chuck, called me in – I think we were on tour with Avenged Sevenfold at the time – to the production office and shows me this enormous box, out of which he pulled out this bottle. I’d never seen a bottle that big before. And it was full of that stuff. Now, I’ve grown up with chemical dependency in my family, but as bad as that was, people were still handling their shit. So I didn’t know what full collapse looked like. But I looked at this bottle and told the tour manager, ‘Man, you’ve got to flush this.’ And so we did; we flushed this whole bottle of pills down the toilet. I don’t know what it cost.”

What was the chemical dependency in your family?
“Oh, it was heroin. It was my dad, but my mother and father, despite the situation – and my mother never did any drugs – they endured. My dad would work every day, nine to five, and provide for his family. His dependency was never an impediment to him, or us; it was never something we knew about. Life felt regular. My parents stayed together – they’re still together, happily married – and he’s clean now. It’s quite amazing. Some people would say, ‘Oh, drugs are bad,’ and I guess they are, but he wasn’t a bad person. Once you hear certain things [about addicts] your mind leaps to one conclusion, but he was as good as good can get.”

Did you ever dabble in drugs?
“Yes. But because I knew of the control that certain drugs exert over the user, and things like that, I stayed away from those. There was no cocaine use, and no heroin. For me, I was mostly intrigued by smoking pot, and I was really intrigued by hallucinogenics.”

We live in an age where attention spans seem to be in such short supply that the music industry places more value on single tracks over full-length releases. Do you ever wonder what the point of making music is for a resolutely ‘album band’ such as Coheed And Cambria?
“No, I don’t. For me it’s such a release, and although it might be old-fashioned to think of an album as a piece of music, that’s how I complete my stories, and so for me it still seems really fulfilling. When I’m writing material, most of the time it’s basically a treasure hunt. Some things are really personal and seem to have nothing to do with the concept, until the concept reveals itself, and then we start to colour around that, and to manipulate them. I think of music as a piece, or as pieces, and it’s important for me to do it that way. I understand that the general consciousness says that not everyone is fit to listen to an hour and 20 minutes’ worth of music, and that the wider attention span is no longer there, but although I’m doing it in the hope that the fans will enjoy it, at the beginning I’m doing it for myself. It feels like I’m doing something that’s important and relevant for me to be living.”

Are Coheed And Cambria the heir apparent to Rush’s now vacated throne as Kings Of Weird Cult Rock?
“I only hope so. Why not? If we could have a fraction of the success that Rush has had throughout their career, that would be pretty cool. I was never really a Rush fan growing up, but as I get older the more I begin to appreciate the contribution they’ve made to music. As much as it’s not ingrained in the DNA of Coheed And Cambria, were it not for them I don’t know if we’d be as widely accepted as we are.”

What does your life look like when you’re not busy in Coheed and Cambria?
“I like to walk, and now that I live in the city it’s the perfect environment. When I lived upstate there wasn’t really any opportunity to walk, apart from hiking in the woods. Living in Brooklyn, I like to step outside my front door and see where my feet take me. I spend a lot of time with my family, and specifically with my son, too. And that’s pretty much it. I take him to pre-school in the morning. When I’m not on the road or not doing the band thing onstage, I like to be as normal as it’s possible to be.”

Are you happy? And if so, why?
“Oh, I’m extremely happy. I’m getting to live out the dream that I had as a kid. I have a beautiful wife and a beautiful son that can sometimes come out on tour with us. I’m very, very fortunate. In fact, I don’t know if I could be any happier. I’m in a good spot.”

And it pays you a living?
“It certainly does.”

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