With their new album Long Slow Dance, the fourth studio album in just as many years, The Fresh and Onlys embark on a lo-fi love experience of forlorn and unrequited love. The sound is stripped of the deep resonance of overproduction but still complex through the incorporation of strong guitar work, and melodic instrumentation.
Timothy Cohen, the lead singer of the band, delves into the quirks of what makes The Fresh and Onlys uniquely accessible. At the same time, being a lo-fi band, both accidentally and purposefully, has become a conscious effort, in the face of digital revolution and production practices that can only become cheaper, lo-fi handles itself by referencing the history of music that it builds on.
The best bands are aware of their own production, but also the facets of music that are happening around them. While their music is unique and original, something that the band itself likes to listen to, the sonic elements are all final choices that contribute to the compositions. Lo-fi itself feels like a raw revival, an element of music that is too pure to fade away. When it’s done right it emulates being at a live show, or in a garage and straining ear buds. It is where music comes from, Metallica in the garage was lo-fi, the Mountain Goats have preserved that sound. Here, I talk with Timothy Cohen about the band’s new album and the lo-fi experience.
With four albums in four years, how does the band remain so productive without just rehashing old sounds?
I more often ask myself “why?” And that is also difficult to answer. The “how” can be attributed to a great store of creative energy inside of us, as artists. We have all been listening to records for years, we recognize the spectrum of sound and style that exists, raw and unscrubbed, behind the glossy new world of digital ephemera. We are still trying to tap into the spectrum of history, and mine it for our own, it is still fruitful. Any artist who is negligent of his place in history, and inspired by the idea of a quick fix, will become addicted to comparing his own image to those who “succeed” around him, and will fail at obtaining a connection to the real world, and will fail to identify himself as his own person. There are a lot of secrets to unlock in your mind if you want to make music. You have to let it flow through these doors, in and out, in and out. It has to flow like a river. I don’t feel I can fix on an idea and make it come to life; its more like the ideas come and you pick them out of this constantly flowing river, and then they are kind of yours. But everything is in the river, your experiences, the things you’ve seen, and heard, and if you’ve dug deep enough into the history that precedes you, your river can become vaster, faster, more powerful. I feel that we as a band have a somewhat powerful river, hence, many ideas.
Is lo-fi a conscious decision or accidental?
It’s both. Someone who makes “lo-fi” music on accident doesn’t have a name for it. They work with what they have, and it sounds urgent, because it had to get done that way, before the ideas and the energy behind it dissipates. Someone who makes a consciously “lo-fi” music has a name for it. They call it “lo-fi” because they are comparing it to something else. They are overtly conscious of its place in the canon. That doesnt mean its not good, but it may not be as sincere. Of course, once you enter that realm of judging or critiquing music, questioning something’s sincerity can lead you down a rabbit-hole. I personally prefer music that I can hear, like Steely Dan, or Yes.
On the new album Long Slow Dance,”Dream Girls” is both pining and resigned to the abstract dream girl who keeps breaking hearts and is never attainable. Is this inspired by some lovely woman who was always just an idealized crush, or is it a general warning to listeners?
Of course. Every song about a woman is about a real woman. When I put on the mask, so to speak, and put myself and her inside a song, it can be any woman to the listener. Thats one of the amazing things about music, and I feel its my responsibility in a way to make it easier for listeners to imagine their own dream girls. Thats why a lot of my songs deal in generalities, not specific names or places. Part of what makes being able to do this enjoyable is imagining what someone else is imagining when they hear a song. Part of the craft, or practice, of writing songs, is making them timeless, without location, non-gender-specific, whatever have you, so that they can exist in any milieu. As for the instrument choice, chalk that up to a thirst for sonic experimentation, and studio know-how.
Is it easier to write love songs with just a little bit of bitterness? “Wanna Do Right By You” even acknowledges that with “You might find a better man at the zoo/Or a man climbing.”
Love is a manifold “thing.” It can bring you the highest of highs, the lowest of lows. It is responsible for the whole spectrum of emotions. To me, there is no perfection in love, how could there be? Not in my experience. Therefore, every pure, gushing, expression of true love must be followed by a tainted trail, a somewhat darker time. It’s not pessimistic, its realistic. My parents brought me up understanding that feeling sad, angry, confused, are all right. You have to work through these imperfect feelings to find your perfect place in the world. I work through them by making songs. Its therapy more than anything.
Do you envision particular sides to the lyrics? Do you generally hear the other side of the story when writing?
I generally portray my speaker in more self-loathing terms. (ha ha) That’s my guilty conscience shining through to steal the spotlight. I guess its easier to admit feelings of withdrawal, guilt, and cowardice in a singing voice. I don’t often feel like a victim. I don’t feel sorry for myself. But I often feel responsible for someone elses emotional well-being; that is one of the pitfalls of being in love. But its also an effective vantage point in song-writing. In some vaguely intentional way, it gives the singer power over his intended subject. It’s almost like, I know I hurt you, I know I done wrong, but I have the microphone now, you’re gonna listen to me tell you about it. Its weird, now that I think about it in those terms.
Each track on Long Slow Dance is around 3 minutes, a little less sometimes, a little over. Do you feel you’ve found the perfect length for a F&O song?
Yes, three minutes is the perfect length.
The Fresh and Onlys released Long Slow Dance on September 6th, and just finished up a lengthy tour.