Interview:Exclusive Interview with Adam Cohen
Exclusive Interview with Adam Cohen
Singer-songwriter Adam Cohen has been making music for years in many areas of the industry. The son of poet Leonard Cohen, Adam honed his writing and playing chops in LA, where he often encountered the guys who would become his bandmates in Low Millions. With two critically acclaimed solo albums under his belt--1998's Adam Cohen and 2004's French-language Melancolista --Adam is now putting his energy into taking Low Millions to the mainstream. Musician's Friend caught up with him on a break from touring for the debut Low Millions album, Ex-Girlfriends. He shared with us a number of insights into the music industry from the perspective of an up-and-coming artist.
Musician's Friend: Adam, I was wondering first of all if we could talk a little bit about your songwriting process. Do you tend to write music first and then words, or vice versa?
Adam Cohen: Typically, a song idea will be in my head--a few words, a sentence, an anecdote, an attitude--and music quickly accompanies it as I'm humming and strumming the idea to myself.
MF: Is the guitar your preferred instrument when writing songs?
AC: These days guitar is mostly the instrument I use. I used to be a much better piano player than a guitar player but that table has been turned. It's just so hard to travel with a keyboard, and so easy to travel with a guitar.
MF: Right. And hanging around with other guitar players, you're probably picking up some good chops too.
AC: That's a good point. It's true. I'm actually becoming somewhat of an accomplished guitar player.
MF: I saw that you played in Vegas at the MGM Grand Arena with Maroon 5. Were you comfortable there or do you prefer smaller venues?
AC: I think my favorite venues now are the bigger ones because we don't do them as often, and there is excitement and intrigue and challenge built into the gig. We're also at that phase of our career where we're just so interested in playing for large groups of people. Ideally, I think the 3,000-seat gigs are the best of both worlds. They provide the intimacy and at the same time the large stage.
MF: How do you think the size of the venue affects the band's sound?
AC: Well, you know, the bigger the stage and stadium the worse the sound because you get so much slap back. But the remedy to that these days is in-ear monitors, which most bands of any stature are using. And of course we're not one of them! (Laughs)
MF: Why not?
AC: We literally have not had a single day off in months and months and months, and it would require days of rehearsal, it would require people to get outfitted with the gear, the gear to be purchased, new personnel to come on the road . . . But it's gonna happen, it just hasn't happened yet.
MF: They make a big difference in a large space, where the sound can be beyond your control.
AC: Yeah. It's crazy because there are so many parameters, you know? If you're inside, there's what they call slap back, and it'll f**k with you, bouncing off the walls and sides and coming back to different people, depending on where you're on the stage at different times. I saw Coldplay in Paris a couple nights ago, and the audience was clapping so loud that they lost their own tempo. The audience was clapping so loud at a tempo different to theirs that they literally had to stop playing. (Laughs)
MF: Sometimes opening for a popular band in a big venue can be intimidating. How has the crowd response been to Low Millions in that situation?
AC: We've been opening for a lot of bands and the very worst we've ever gotten was a timid reaction; we've never gotten a bad reaction. The Maroon 5 shows that we've done have been the most exceptional reactions yet--music fans who were there to have a good time. They were very receptive and warm, and that really makes a big difference to the quality of the show.
MF: I notice a lot of opening acts get a fraction of the PA and a fraction of the lighting. Has that been the case with some of the bands you've opened for?
AC: Yeah, well, you know, such is to be expected and we don't concentrate on that. We concentrate on putting the best show we can put on and reaching the most people we can reach.
MF: That's a good attitude to have. Your guitar player, Michael Chaves, has a lot of cool gear. Are the guys in the band generally gearheads?
AC: I'm not a gearhead at all. I think the only gearhead in the band is Michael. We're lucky to have him because we're using more and more technology. The average band is required to tour with more and more sophisticated gear. He's so technically proficient and savvy that he is the de facto leader of the technological domain of the Low Millions. [laughs]
MF: Has he turned you on to some cool stuff?
AC: Sure. We use a sampler in our shows, and we trigger a lot of keyboards because our keyboard player is partly me and partly this other guy who is on the road with Alanis Morissette. We just found this incredible, simple, and economical way of triggering his parts.
MF: You have a couple of albums out as a solo artist. Is that something you want to continue developing, or is your focus purely on Low Millions now?
AC: My solo career has been recently dedicated to the French language, but it's all one big effort. It's all one big campaign to get music out of me and into the world, and get me doing what I love and have always wanted to do with my life--make music and make a living from it. So I can't even envision a time when I'm not going to be doing it, because that would mean the end of my career. And I think they're gonna have to beat me down and probably to death for me to stop. (Laughs)
MF: When you write a song do you immediately know if it will be a Low Millions tune or better suited for the solo stuff?
AC: Definitely. If a song has a kind of immediacy, hookiness, freshness, if it has a potential to explode and be commercial, I'd like to give that to Low Millions, because that's the way I see the band. If the song has a cinematic value, is really sexy, sentimentally correct, or sensuous and dark, I think it's more apt to find itself a home in my solo career.
MF: Michael Chaves also plays in other projects, including a stint with John Mayer. Do those obligations affect his work with Low Millions?
AC: We have to literally fly guitar parts off to him in his hotel room. He had to finish a lot of the record in hotel rooms while he was on the road with John Mayer, and send us the files. He's an incredibly accommodating chap, so it was never a problem. But there was definitely some balancing to do. Hopefully the project takes on a momentum, the likes of which will not allow him to take other work. He'll be too busy.
MF: What is your idea of success?
AC: There are a few gauges of success. One is the altruistic sense. Are you satisfied? Are your personal goals being reached? Are you comfortable? Are you safe? Then there's the other, more industry-standard terms. Are you selling records? Are you putting butts in seats? Are you creating? Are you confounding expectations? Are you occupying the highest ranks of your scene?
MF: How do you balance the two?
AC: Any kind of balance of the two would be an incredible luxury, really. Right now, you know, we're mounting both. The good news is we're strapped in, we're locked and loaded, and we're on the actual kick-off strip. The bad news is we're not in full flight yet. I feel like we've got the ingredients, we have good material, a good band, good management, a good record company, and a shot at radio. You know, so many things need to go well for you to climb out of obscurity.
MF: What's the hardest part about the music business?
AC: One of the hardest things for me is trying to not take personally so many of the arbitrary obstacles in your way. You know, if someone doesn't add your record to their playlist, it's not personal, but it has incredible personal consequences. Or if someone comes to your fan site and has unpleasant things to say, you're supposed to not take that personally. However, it's designed to be personal. That whole idea of energy begetting other energy is something that is quite remarkable and proves to be true time and time again. If you've got a bad attitude, you get a domino effect, especially when in close quarters. Imagine yourself touring--16 hours a day you're in the presence of the same people, in the closest of quarters, experiencing and witnessing their ups and downs, and generally being on the same emotional roller coaster. If one person's suffering from an emotional malaise, it's just lethal.
MF: How has your career evolved over the years?
AC: Well, I've always made music and it's something I was probably genetically encoded to do, conditioned to do, and encouraged to do. What essentially happened was, I started making demos, and I was offered a record deal when I was about 16 by the people who made Milli Vanilli in Germany . My brain trust-- i.e. my parents--told me it was a bad idea. I was mad at them but now I'm very grateful for that. It took me until my early 20s to put out a record with Columbia , which I subsequently toured for a couple of years. It took me a long time to make the record and it took me a long time to get over the fact that it hadn't been a huge commercial success, even though it was, critically, very well received. Then there was just a tremendous amount of songwriting, as I was under contract with Universal Publishing, writing songs for every young little girl with stars in their eyes that came into Los Angeles. So I stayed incredibly busy as a songwriter. The idea behind it was staying active, lacking patience, creating sound where there wasn't any, perfecting my craft, and getting to the point where I could feel comfortable and confident next to what I refer to as the best of them.
MF: During those early years, were you playing in local bands or were you just staying home playing and writing?
AC: All of the above. Writing seriously, demoing with people, picking songs for movies, for porno flicks, for new artists, for established artists. I played in people's bands as a piano player, a background vocalist, a guitar player, a drummer. I played in my own bands, from jazz quartets to beat-rock bands to what would eventually turn into Low Millions.
MF: What are your goals for Low Millions?
AC: We'd like to be for music what the great bands were for us. I mean that's the ultimate goal. We want to occupy the highest ranks of music the way we feel the great bands occupied the highest ranks of music. Keep the torch being passed. I read the other day that Coldplay had their sights fixed on U2 and their explanation seemed perfectly logical to me. It was that there is no reason to chase the ninth best band in the world. Why don't you chase one in the top five? And definitely one of our motivations is to make the kind of music the best bands in the world made.
MF: I was wondering how you feel about making videos. Do you put a lot of stock into their value as a promotional tool?
AC: You know, less and less. The bottom line is budgets are being slashed and the networks--the outlets for videos--are incredibly saturated. What you end up having is--just like in radio--a few titles being played ad nauseam. But there's no doubt about it--if you're one of those few titles, there's no more powerful promotional instrument than a video.
MF: Is the video for "Statue" getting played much?
AC: So far it's just at the very beginning of its campaign. Our goal is for it to be as powerful an instrument as we think it can be. We actually think it's a very good video.
MF: Did you come up with the video's concept?
AC: No, this was not my concept. It was the video director's.
MF: Getting back to gear, are you particular about the mic you use?
AC: No. Just gimme a simple mic that's not too expensive. It won't pick up the cymbals of the drum kit and that's all I care about.
MF: How about effects and stuff on your voice?
AC: No, don't need any. A little bit of reverb here and there.
MF: Have you heard from any of the ex-girlfriends that you sing about on the album?
AC: Of course, man! These are people who are in our lives. These are people who are friends of ours that were inspirations, and we have a great pretext now to call them and say, "Hey, the song's really working, climbing up the charts. Have you heard it yet?" And they call us when they hear it on the radio or hear it at Quizno's, Jiffy Lube, 24 Hour Fitness, or VH-1 or wherever they see it or hear it.
MF: You mentioned your parents earlier and how they've helped you with career advice. How has your father's position helped or hindered you, artistically and commercially?
AC: Well, there's been no effect commercially from my father, but I will say I have such a tremendous respect and admiration and love for my father. I see him as having contributed so beautifully, nobly, and elegantly to his field that I take inspiration from him and share as many sensibilities as I'm capable of sharing with him.
MF: Does he offer you advice about the industry and the business side of things?
AC: Continuously, sure. I have a running, rich dialog with my father about the music business and all things connected to it, and it's proven to be invaluable because he's got such good advice, wisdom, and humor.
MF: Adam, thanks for talking with us today. We wish you and the band continued success.
AC: Well, I appreciate it. Thank you for your time and your interest.
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