Interview: The Jon Cohen Experimental

Interviews, News - Published: 3 February 2012

The former ‘The Dears’ member talks to Kate Ross about the challenges of touring solo.

Pop In Paris, Rue AmelotJon Cohen isn’t just your average touring musician. For him, there’s no four-piece backing band, no army of roadies, no tour bus big enough to hole up in for months on end. Instead, the Montreuil born artist is travelling solo, looping through Europe, Scandinavia and the UK by coach, train and even – deep breath here – the National Express – to present his one-man band, The Jon Cohen Experimental.

The name might ring a bell to avid followers of Canadian indie: Cohen is a former member of The Dears, whose music is almost predictably likened to that of The Stills and Malajube, perhaps sometimes for more geographic than auditory reasons. After parting ways with them in 2002, Cohen wandered through a number of other bands before eventually forming his own in 2006, and developing his own, layered up version of the modern alternative genre.

Several years, three Canadian tours and two albums later – complete with guest appearances from Evan Cranley of Stars and Broken Social Scene, Angela Desveaux, former Dears band mate Murray Lighburn, and Liam O’Neil of The Stills – Cohen parted ways with the rest of his band and made a break for solo. He then embarked on a three-month coast-to-coast state side blitz known as the Pilgrim Tour. Which should mean, theoretically, that’s he’s pretty clued up on this one-man tour business.

Now leaping across the Atlantic and hurtled Paris-bound, he’s headed for a two-night line up at Pop In and Abracadabar. But while he’s still experiencing the best of the UK’s national transport, he had some time for a few words with Gigs in Paris.

 

How would you describe yourself in one phrase?

JC: I’m a simple man with big lofty dreams of beauty, peace and music.

How have you progressed since your days with The Dears and The Social Register?

JC: I don’t think progress is as important a term as evolve. Progress indicates change for the better, new ways of doing things. Yet I’m still doing things the same old way, I’m still writing in the same way. I think I’ve evolved not as a musician but more as an artist, a persona, myself.

I feel now that I actually have something concrete to offer, something tangible in my music for people to hold onto and remember. It’s not mine per se: It’s something that comes from a place deep, deep inside that can connect with anything and anyone, and it uses music as its vehicle of communication. Playing in those bands before, I was more one of the engineers for this vehicle. Now I’m the driver, the passenger, and the vehicle all at once.

How will the Passenger Tour differ from the Pilgrim Tour?

JC: In subtle ways. One is that I’m driving on the other side of the road! All kidding aside, I think it’s a different beast altogether. It has many similarities though, but here I’m playing to a wider more varied audience. I’m playing 12 countries so that’s 12 different sensibilities, cultures and musical approaches. Here, there is a lot more adaptation involved and I don’t mind that in the least bit. It challenges the boundaries of this music I’m performing and that can’t be a bad thing.

What are the highs and lows of working and touring solo?

JC: The one thing is that doing these mega tours across the world becomes a real possibility when you are travelling solo. The logistics, time, money and effort of taking x amount of musicians with me would have been impossible, or at least extremely difficult. This way I am able to achieve as an indie artist what most well established local acts never do, so why not? Next year I’ll be touring Australia and Japan for three months, coast to coast to coast. How else could I do this?

Right now, I’m in the Scottish Highlands in my own private bus – an empty National Express. It’s quiet, smooth. I just slept for four hours and it’s a beautiful day out.  I’ve got 300 quid in my pocket from the shows I just played: No gas money, no musicians to pay and no overhead.  Those are the pros.

The cons are that it does get lonely at times. Even though I meet tons of people, I still feel like something of an astronaut or a ghost, remaining unattached to the people and surroundings around me. Same thing onstage: The music takes on a whole different approach. You are up there by yourself, so making a human connection without hiding behind your band or the fourth wall becomes detrimental to a successful show.

What makes you get up in the mornings?

JC: When I’m not touring, I get up and I think of things to be grateful about. I think about how lucky I am to be alive under the circumstances I am. Then I make a warm tea and start working on tours, music, business, whatever drives me. When I’m on tour I’m like a machine. I travel, I perform, I travel, I perform. I’m on autopilot. My alarm rang at 5am this morning in Liverpool; I worked on the computer for six hours on my first day off on this tour; then fell asleep for an hour and woke up to catch a bus to Glasgow. I will never miss a show.

You chose to document first The Pilgrim Tour, and now The Passenger Tour on you blog. How did this come about?

JC: I started blogging very naturally. It wasn’t a conscious decision. I left on tour last year across North America on the Pilgrim Tour and I found myself looking out windows on long bus rides having these amazing and inspiring insights. So I naturally started writing them down. But then I felt it would be selfish to keep them to myself, locked up in a diary. That’s why the blog happened.

From the point I started writing, I started connecting with my audience. You see, to get the full scope of this band and myself as an artist, you need to read into my thoughts, because my thoughts are echoing everyone else’s. At the end of the day, there is nothing unique about how and what we think. We are all alike, non-individuals, and there’s something beautiful and comforting in that.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

Brain PollutionJC: My father is a wise man; he always imparts great bits of wisdom onto me, especially before great big trips such as this one. He said to me: ‘Son, you are the master of your mind, your thoughts and your words. When they leave your mouth, they become the master of you. Words are powerful, so be careful how you use them.’

Which song are you most proud of?

JC: I’m particularly proud of Brain Pollution, written in Laos after having a deep realisation about myself. Don’t Be The Cloud is great because it came together so spontaneously. Behold because Angela Desveaux sings on it, and she has the voice of an angel. From my first record, I Won’t Mind, because it’s so epic yet still very interesting. Finally, This Wind of Mine. I wrote it on a balcony in Casablanca, on a beautiful sunny afternoon when the entire city was shut down because everyone naps at 3pm (I wish we could do that too). So it was so quiet and except for the sound of a family of birds chirping and floating at high speed from rooftop to rooftop in complete synchronicity and unison, it was like watching one brain. That was a beautiful moment, birds, wind and the sound of one lone classical guitar.

What are your hopes for this tour, and for the future?

JC: I hope to accomplish what I set out to do, which is to bring powerful, hopeful music to a wide varied audience over a large span of territory in a compressed period of time. I hope the final product of the show will be a killer set, which will make people walk out thinking this was a unique and amazing experience that they will tell everyone about, and joy will spread. I hope to survive in the esoteric sense and come out a stronger human being, and that my music comes out stronger too. I hope to sample the best of what everyone has to offer me. It’s a two way street. I hope you will love me as I love you.

The Jon Cohen Experimental will play free shows at Pop In February 8 at andAbracadabar February 9.

You can find his blog at: www.thejcex.com