Q&A: Travis Stever of Coheed and Cambria
It’s near impossible to pin a genre on Coheed and Cambria. It depends on who you ask, and, likely, what era of the band’s discography first captured them.
The perennial icons of alternative-progressive-post-pop-hardcore-punk are back with Album #9, Vaxis – Act I: The Unheavenly Creatures; a complex title to usher in a new era in the similarly complex Amory Wars saga that Coheed have chronicled in records and comics across their 20 year career.
But don’t be intimidated by the deep lore behind the music. Underneath the grandeur of the cyber-punk space opera lies a straight-up, hard-hitting band that value powerful riffs and energetic live performance as much as any other.
We sat with guitarist and founding member Travis Stever in the leadup to Unheavenly Creatures‘ release to talk about the record and the influences that formed such an eclectic sound.
Congratulations on the release of Vaxis – Act I: The Unheavenly Creatures – your first record with Roadrunner. How was it different to release with such a huge label?
Let me put it this way; we’re not strangers to releasing through labels that have a good push. But Roadrunner is definitely a monster label, and they’ve got this whole world built that is so comforting for us to walk into. It’s tried and true, and it’s been able to sustain an amount of success for a long time. So going into Roadrunner was an honour for us.
Unheavenly Creatures takes us back to the world of The Amory Wars, albeit with new characters and settings. Was Roadrunner in support of your return to a concept record?
Oh absolutely. They signed on to doing this with us knowing full well that we were bringing The Amory Wars back. I would like to say also that every label we’ve ever worked with has been supportive of what we do with the story, and the nature of our content.
There’s no doubt that it can be overwhelming for people who don’t know it or understand it. But when they find out what it is and get involved, usually people get on board with it. So Roadrunner were absolutely on board when we started speaking to them, and they’ve been a big help to us.
Most people would perceive the story of The Amory Wars as being Claudio’s baby, but is that something that you’re personally invested in?
It’s part of our whole existence as a band, so of course I’m invested. Still, Claudio and his wife write the actual stories and concepts, and the comic books.
How is the writing process changed when you have this grand, pre-conceived story to write the album around?
With this record it was more conceptually driven than ever before. He had a grand idea of what the overall story was, and where he would fit certain songs in as we went forward. And does that change the creative process? Absolutely. Claudio would be the first one to say that.
He came in with an exact idea for the record, and he gave us illustrations and explained exactly how each song would fit into the plot, and that’s a little further than he’d ever went.
‘Old Flames’, for example, I think was a really important song conceptually. So making sure that ‘Old Flames’ and others, like ‘The Gutter’, were very clear in the story they were telling was important.
Sonically and stylistically, this record is definitely distinct from all other Coheed records. For example, there’s a huge amount of synthesizer where there hasn’t been before. Was that a conscious decision you made, to change it up a bit?
I think we try to innovate on every record, because getting stagnant ruins everything. So we’re always trying to be fresh.
Put it this way, our sound is like a house we’ve always been building. You start with a foundation, and we’ve built all these other parts of the structure on earlier records. So now to be fresh and to do something new, we have to add something else to the structure of the house, whether it’s a new room or a new layer of decoration.
This is a concept record as well, so we’re using new sounds to tell a new story in a new place, with new characters and themes.
Moving on to you personally, are you still playing Les Pauls? Are you signed with Gibson? How does it work?
I wish man, but no, they haven’t signed me.
I’m still playing all my Les Pauls, but lately I’ve been using this semi-hollow 350, and I love it. I didn’t use that on the record; I used my Gold Top traditional Les Paul on the whole record. I use that live as well, but I’m bringing this semi-hollow out recently.
People are going to ask what I used on the record, so I may as well tell you that I used my traditional Gold Top for pretty much every note on the record. We tried other guitars but ultimately just stuck with the Gold Top. I think Claudio stuck with a pretty small selection of guitars as well, though I can’t speak for him.
Do I wish Gibson just gave them to me, or I got a sweet deal? For sure. But no, I don’t have an exclusive deal with them. But I would. Print that! Gibson, I would love a deal.
The Les Paul is a classic guitar, and I find that reflected in your soloing as well. I hear a lot of Tony Iommi and Jimmy Page in your playing. Who were your influences coming up?
You just nailed it, pretty much. Those guys are in the Bible of Riffs. Sabbath and Zeppelin were huge for most kids, and that was the case for me.
I spent a lot of time on metal and classic rock, but also lots of alternative as well. I looked at how Billy Corgan and James Iha played on Gish and Siamese, or Mellon Collie. Those were albums that meant so much and set a tone for me. Or J Mascis on any of the Dinosaur Jr albums. Those were guitarists that, for me, were more present. They were still around while I was listening to them.
Or the Tool records. I took a lot from those really experimental records. Pink Floyd as well.
So many hardcore bands too. A lot of bands that are way less known, but just the way that they would riff was big for me. Straight out of New York. Bands like Indecision, who played riffs that were really just strong and energetic.
Half those dudes I mentioned use Les Pauls as well, which is cool.
You guys have been going for 20 years now. Are you starting to hear bands coming up now that show signs of Coheed influence?
There have been a few times, and it’s an honour when it does happen. I feel like I’m in a chain with all of those guys I just mentioned, and I’ve passed something on to the next link in the way they passed on to me.
I know you’re about to head to the UK and then back to the States. Any plans to join us in Australia?
Hopefully. It’s all about demand. If people like the album we’ll head down. We’ll go anywhere that people are excited to hear it. Every time we come to Australia we have a great time, we always love it. So I certainly hope so.