Sweet Cobra

Photo by Katie Hovland

Photo by Katie Hovland

In the summer of 2015, Chicago’s Sweet Cobra released their latest album, Earth. We recently met up with the band, (singer/bassist Tim Remis, guitarist Robert “Grumpy” Lanham and drummer Jason Gagovski) at Lost Lake, just before they played next door at Bric-a-Brac Records. We talked in detail about Earth, including its style and recording process. By all accounts, the record explores the boundaries of heavy music and defies genre classifications, encompassing everything from ‘90s alternative to post-punk and beyond. Additionally, we conversed about the new songs they’ve been working on, their plans for the remainder of the year and more.

Bill – Tell me about the new songs that you guys recently recorded.

Tim – Grumpy and I have come up with this tactic that we’re recording a record, but Jason thinks it’s demos for a record. It basically makes him less stressed out about the whole process and he’s a more moldable, jelly kind of thing, instead of this really rigid thing that isn’t made of any moisture. When we’re recording, Grumpy and I have realized that if we just kind of record under the guise of it being a less important, kind of fun thing for referencing a future thing, we tend to move a little quicker. Now the cat’s out of the bag and Jason knows that we’ve been lying to him for the last few months.

Jason – Oh, I know…

Tim – So, we’ve been working on these new tunes with Al and Eric from The Life and Times. They’re kind of our weird mentor wizards through the whole process and kind of suggest production references, more or less. They’re running the faders and the knobs and setting up the mics and bossing us around a little bit.

Jason – One of the songs we did is by Songs: Ohia for a split with Cloakroom. I filled in on drums for Cloakroom and we decided to learn a song called “Farewell Transmission” when I was touring with them. I just love Jason Molina from Songs: Ohia, his songwriting and his bands. I also played in some bands with some of the folks that played in Magnolia Electric Co. with him. Years later, we were playing a show with Cloakroom at Beat Kitchen. I heard Doyle, (Cloakroom singer/guitarist Doyle Martin) playing one of their riffs during soundcheck, so we decided to cover the song when I toured with them. It was just one less song to learn and it’s a fun thing to do. They recorded “Steve Albini Blues,” Cloakroom did, and then we recorded “I’ve Been Riding with the Ghost,” (both by Songs: Ohia). And then I think there will be some kind of collaboration song maybe on “Farewell Transmission.” And that split will be on my label, Hawthorne Street Records.

Grumpy – That’s the first time I’ve ever heard that entire back story. That’s more interesting than I thought. I’m just trying to record as many songs as possible.

Jason – When we record, a lot of times it’s funny because Remis will think that they’re convincing me that we’re working on this demo, but then we’ll show up and Grumpy won’t even know really what Remis is planning to work on. So then he and I become this rhythm section, this happened on at least two of the songs, and then on the other ones Grumpy has these fleshed out songs already. And then we basically learn them all together and track them that way. So there’s something really interesting about how the four or five songs we have done sound. The way we’re approaching it, at least one of us knows the song in a very solid way and then we’re teaching it to the other two. And not thinking too much about it, being like “This sounds good, let’s just move on to the next idea and see where we’re at later.”

Bill – Tell me about the video for the song “Repo” and what inspired its concept.

Tim – That was Katie Kapuza’s brainchild. Katie worked with us with on the first video that we did for the Earth record. That was kind of her and I collaborating idea-wise and all that stuff, but I think “Repo” was really because she rented some slow-motion camera and the idea was just an excuse to use this crazy camera. The concept of the kids, one of which is my actual spawn, being our replicants or something like that and just being idiotic on a beach and fighting and stuff. I guess that came natural.

Jason – For this video, we kind of left the concept up to Katie and she mentioned that she was going to have this camera for a few days. She found that location at the beach too and really came up with the whole idea. We had lots of different ideas for it, but in the end basically told her just to do whatever she wanted.

Tim – We really like her work and she’s almost like the visual side of the band.

Bill – If there’s one constant about your band, I feel that it’s you guys consistently push your sound forward with each release. With that said, what were some of the things that influenced the style of your latest full-length?

Tim – For me, one of the main factors in that record was just a departure from the idea of presenting the songs in a live way and eliminating that from the process completely. Not to sound cliché, but using the studio as another instrument. I know it’s a hilarious thing that people say jokingly, but it was just an exercise in indulgence in a way. Like future be damned, I’m just going to make the song the best possible version that it can be right now and deal with it later. Whether we never play it live or we play this totally Cro-Magnon version live or we do an elaborate version, whatever. That was kind of freeing for me personally, to do things vocally that maybe I can’t pull off onstage, but that translate well to something you want to listen to in your living room or car or something.

Grumpy – It definitely occurred to us while we were doing it that it was different enough that people that like us might not like us anymore. People have an idea of what you’re supposed to be, but when you change that…we get asked about it all the time. I mean, we definitely were just trying to do what made us happy. Another thing that’s funny about it is as expansive as it was in a lot of ways, like the things that we got into in terms of recording and different sounds and stuff, it was really involved in that way. But the songs themselves are way more concise. Our older stuff, every song would have like eight parts. This time, things are more to the point. A lot of that is because this is the first record that we made without Mat, (guitarist Mat Arluck, who passed away in 2009 after battling cancer). The thing that he kind of brought to the table, being a guy who was more into classic metal bands, was a lot of big concepts. Moving on without him, it was almost a conscious thing to make a timestamp of this is now without Mat. Not in a negative way at all. I don’t know if that makes sense…

Jason – I guess for me, once we first got down there, the guys from The Life and Times had talked about that space for a really long time, the studio itself. They had half their members in Chicago and half in Kansas City for a period of time, so they would meet there to practice. We knew that they tracked there, so we booked time and talked to Matt Talbot, (Hum) and he was really cool. We decided it was time and we kind of dealt with continuing as a trio. We had a bunch of songs and we knew we wanted to involve Kurt, (Kurt Ballou of Converge). He’d worked with one of my previous bands and we’ve been collaborating since the late ‘90s. We wanted to be free to do whatever we wanted and wanted to make a record that we would want to listen to. We don’t all listen to really that much metal. I mean, we do sometimes. We grew up on a lot of that stuff, but we felt it was important to make a purely creative thing that would be classic to us. It might be like a mixtape too though. It might be a super heavy song right next to a weird pop song that we kind of wrote right there. I think because we’ve been playing together so long we were trying to get rid of having a ton of rules, and just having each song be a concept in its purest form. And just trusting Matt and Kurt with that room, it was really special. And to have those guys play on the record was super special to us. We just wanted to keep going down there. We recorded for like a year; we’d go down for four days, come home for a couple months, go down for four or five days. We just went back and forth. We tried not to have the pressure of a label waiting for us to finish. We didn’t have a label at the time and we wanted to make exactly the record we wanted to make. And then if someone wanted to put it out, cool.

Tim – Having Matt and Kurt involved, it’s another thing where you have these great musical minds that are influencing the thing, so to go in fully committed to any idea that you might have is a totally stupid thing to do. They might suggest bending something this way or that way, and if you don’t go in with an open frame of mind you’re going to miss a lot of that value to get out of those dudes.

Jason – It was funny, because there with times with Kurt where he’d be like, “Oh, what are you guys doing?” There were maybe three or four songs that we wrote there in the studio. “Repo” we wrote and built there. Tim had that bass line forever and we just didn’t know how to put it together. One day he and I just tracked it drums and bass, then we just started building on it. It turned out to be one of my favorite things that we’ve ever recorded. As far as the tones and things, Matt really got the bass and drums dialed in. Most of that stuff is live to two-inch tape, the rhythm section performances are. But it was funny to see Kurt be like, “So, this is a Sweet Cobra thing, right? We’re working on a Sweet Cobra thing?” We were like, “Yeah, we totally are.” He was like, “No, it’s great. It’s cool.” He came in about halfway through the process to do guitars and mixing and things like that. The initial tracking was mostly done through Matt and Kurt helped with guitars, vocals and the vibe.

Tim – You’re writing a book, right?

Bill – Yeah, (laughs). I was going to ask about Matt and Kurt anyway, so that’s perfect…

Jason – Matt is very much a documentarian. He’s all about keeping things analog if possible and he’s all about getting an overall vibe. Things don’t have to be perfect.

Grumpy – There were weeks on end where I don’t think there was a computer present.

Bill – That’s awesome. Would you say there’s a central theme on Earth or that the songs kind of work together to tell an overall story?

Tim – If it did, it’s pretty accidental. For me, on the lyrical end, there’s an ultra self-deprecation and self-loathing theme to the whole thing. I don’t know that we really talked about a theme…

Jason – I do think that one somehow came out of it though. I think there’s an absolute vibe to it. That’s why we decided to call it Earth, because we totally created this weird little world. Tim actually made a painting for the studio of this castle with this moat around it and everything. It was like we created this little world at the studio and when I listen to the record I feel it. We didn’t think about it, but a magic thing happened there. We don’t know how. We’ve all been playing together for so long and we’ve known Kurt for so long, and having Matt’s personality fit in with us pretty immediately. He would blast Rush at each session and get super weird. We grew up listening to Hum, so that was really special to us too. He treated us like we were his old buddies.

Grumpy – To me there’s a lot of stuff that’s hinted at in certain parts of certain songs. I feel like the first song, “Far Too Temp,” is almost like a mission statement for what the record’s going to be about. We were trying to figure out where our heads were at then. The thing about it though, we didn’t want to beat you over the head with it. We just tried to make each song as good as it possibly could be. It’s funny, the last song, “Walls,” a lot of that song is about the recording process. So the first song is like, “Here’s where we’re at, here’s what we’re trying to do” and the last song is more of a reflection on everything.

Bill – Were you guys hoping to finish a new album this year or how far along are you in that process?

Tim – I would really love to have a record out by this year and be out on the road a lot next year and the tail end of this year. We have enough material, it’s all a matter of carving out the time to do it and getting it out into a physical version that someone can listen to.

Grumpy – I keep track of it and we literally have about 30 songs right now.

Tim – 27 of which are total garbage, (laughs).

Bill – Other than working on the songs, do you guys have any set plans for the rest of the year?

Jason – Yeah, we’re going to try and finish recording an album before the year is out. We’ve got some shows coming up. We’re going to do a week of shows with Hum, heading down to The Fest in Gainesville in October. We’ve also been talking with The Life and Times about doing two to three weeks on the East Coast. We’re trying to work that out for November now. We’re going to do some one-off’s here and there. We’re going to Nashville to play with Big Business on July 4th.

Tim – And we’re playing in an hour or so next door and that’s about it.