San Francisco rock band The Fresh and Onlys have been churning out moody, psychedelic crunchy, garage-band, new-wave music since 2008, when Tim Cohen united with Shayde Sartin, Wymond Miles, and Kyle Gibson. As with any band that has survived the years and managed to put out, at minimum, an EP a year, things change. The band gets older, their life situation changes, the sound matures, the lyrics are about new topics. The Fresh and Only’s latest album, House of Spirits reflects a series of life changes undergone by lead singer Tim Cohen — in particular fatherhood and a move to the solitude of Arizona’s desert.
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Rachel Levine (RL): What was the inspiration behind this album? I read that House of Spirits developed while you were living on a horse ranch. Can you expand on this?
Tim Cohen (TC): We went out to the desert. I didn’t move out there on some vision quest. I moved out there with my daughter and my daughter’s mom to get a rest from the city, and to raise my daughter in an environment without distraction. I guess the distraction took on another form, this looming quietude that we experienced there. The isolation. I had no friends, no peers, and the baby. My first year of being a parent was learning that it’s really hard to be a parent with someone else. We had to be partners in this huge undertaking. That being the case, I sought this isolation for myself to work on things. I isolated myself in this isolated place and I was deep in this cocoon and I began to unearth all these crazy dark thoughts. I started to dig a little bit deeper. I’d like to stress that the important thing about making music is melodies and rhythm. But, when it comes to writing lyrics, I don’t think there’s any rules. To have this sweet baby girl and this idyllic landscape, I turned away from them and started to think these crazy thoughts, so I figured I might as well expunge myself of these thoughts in music. I didn’t want to be telling these scary stories to my baby.
RL: Can you give some examples of this?
TC: The imagery in the first song is very nightmarish even though it doesn’t sound that way. But that’s what I like about it. The music and the mood tempers the violence of the imagery. I created this juxtaposition of violence with melody. In a few of songs there is that kind of violence or druggy imagery, tempered by sweeter songs. Even Ballerina, which is for my daughter and the sweetest, mellowest song in there. It’s sentiment is that everyone will fuck you over in life.
I felt like I kind of did this more than other releases in the past, that it was okay okay to talk about darker things, and still have overall melodicism. It’s not harsh music. It’s not unlistenable. It’s very melodic and has very typical song structures. It’s not offensive, but I thought I would dirty it up with these darker lyrics. I drew from my darkest dreams for these songs. When I was with my baby I wasn’t having these thoughts. I would set myself apart and try to dig them up.
RL: It sounds like a very psychological process.
TC: Yeah indeed, it was a physical and psychological process. My circumstances changed entirely. I went from living to the heart of San Fran and partying all the time and playing shows and having people over at my house and collaborating and constantly doing something, to being set down in this tiny house in the desert with just one other adult. My parents lived 15 minutes away, and we went out there so they could be around the baby. We thought, let’s just do it and took the jump and after a few weeks, were like “We’re in the middle of nowhere.” It was tough. It made us stronger as people and as a unit. There were times when there was a chink in the armor. I had crazy feelings, like I can’t escape, I can never escape now. Of course I love my baby more than anything and she’s amazing. The first few months, she’ s kind of a blob and you have a life long commitment to her and you have only yourself to console yourself with. You have to find a way to deal with it. Some of my thoughts went into the record and some went into this ambient music I made at the same time. I had only a few toys out there, keyboard and guitar. It wasn’t like I had a drum I could go bang on. I went for a lot of walks and hung out at the Safeway in town.
RL: The Safeway?
TC: There’s not a lot of choice. It had nice lighting and had a nice ambiance.
RL: How did you work on the album living apart from the bandmates?
TC: We’ve used the same process for the past 2-3 albums. I’ll demo the songs at home. I went out to Arizona with a digital 8-track recorder, and brought my keyboard and acoustic guitar as well. I got a drum machine from same guy off Craig’s List. I put together demos and sing lyrics and send the demos via email to my bandmates. Then I flew out three or four times from Arizona to San Francisco and we started recording, and paired down songs from the 25 recorded. Some songs are on the EP we put out last fall. Others are on the album. Some will never seem the light of day.
RL: Have you been able to play the new material in front of a live audience yet?
TC: We played four of the new ones. It’s great. It’s good for a band to have new material to play live. You tour so much, you get tired of playing the same songs. It keeps your psyche at a good place. I get bored of playing the same songs over and over again for months. This next tour, we’ll have a few more under our belt.
RL: Are you excited to tour?
TC: Yeah. I’m excited to go on tour. Always. I love touring. The last few years, we haven’t toured as much because of our kids. We were touring 5-6 months out of the year. Wymond has two kids. We’ll do this tour, go to Europe, do some one offs, and go back on road again. It’s bittersweet, because it’s hard to be away from my daughter for so long. I feel a physical pull towards her. I never had a reason to stay home before.
The Fresh and Onlys play with the Shilohs at La Vitrola (4602 St. Laurent) on July 19. 9 p.m. $12.