08 THE MAGNITUDE OF CLAUDIO SANCHEZ

“Larger than life” isn’t just a way to describe Claudio Sanchez’s signature hairstyle, but also his career as a whole. The Coheed and Cambria front man has been making music and crafting stories since he was 12 years old, and shows no signs of slowing. With characters that transcend galaxies and an impetus for trying new things, this fearless creator is the epitome of creativity. “I’ve based my entire career off of being a dreamer,” he tells Jonah Bayer.


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Claudio Sanchez’s body of creative work literally spans universes. Since forming the progressive rock band Coheed and Cambria in Nyack, New York in 2005, the group has released eight full-length albums, most of which have all cracked the top ten on the Billboard 200 charts. In the process, Sanchez has created a vast galaxy of characters, planets and solar systems through his lyrics, imagery and his successful series of comic books called The Amory Wars. Oh, and he recently found time to create his first children’s book, Kid Crazy and the Kilowatt King, which was released in October.

We caught up with Sanchez at an unassuming coffee shop in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where he currently lives after spending much of his life in upstate New York. Over the course of two hours and aided by a copious amount of caffeine, we discussed what’s inspired his massive body of work, where fantasy meets reality when it comes to his art, and why your imagination is your greatest asset whether you want to write science-fiction or learn how to rip an impressive guitar solo (both skills at which Sanchez became adept without any formal training). If you’re in a creative rut, hopefully you’ll find something here to grasp onto.

We know we did.

You have such an impressive work ethic. Who are some of the artists who inspire you?
There are certain things that become the mainstay for me through life: for example, l always come around to Star Wars or [Kurt] Vonnegut; there are these things that seem to steadily stay on loop. But then there are things where, like a parasite, I will consume it as much as I possibly can and then I’ll just forget about it. It’ll never resurface, you know? As a kid, for the most part, I was always sort of jumping around between music or creating fantasy, but I didn’t write a lot when I was young; it was always just in my imagination where this stuff would come to life. I never thought my own life was interesting to talk about, so I would create fiction around it. I think that’s how I got into storytelling the way I have with the comic books and the children’s story—just kind of by proxy as opposed to “this is what I want to do.” It was an accident, really.

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Cover art for the comic: “The Second Stage Turbine Blade.”

That voracious consumption is a really key part of creation that doesn’t get mentioned enough sometimes.
Yeah, my wife is a writer and at one point she was like, “in order to be a great writer, you need to read and write.” She always has a book with her and is always writing. I do that to some degree, but I can’t just sit down first thing and start writing. I’ll wake up in the morning and start walking around just to get out of the apartment, because I can’t do anything in the apartment that’s noise-related. While I’m outside, something will happen, like a bus will drive by and the way it sounds will make me think of something story-related. Then I’ll open my iPhone and I just have notes upon notes that I’ll start molding like clay into whatever the story is going to be. It just happens. My wife is always like, “you’ve got to sit down and write,” but I can’t put time aside and go to work, it happens when it happens, and most of the time it’s in the morning when there are very few distractions.

How do you prioritize all of your different projects as far as what deserves your focus on any given day?
It gets confusing. I’m lucky in that my wife is my collaborator, certainly on the comic book side of things, because she can definitely alleviate some of that heavy lifting. She collaborates with [manager] Blaze [James] because that’s become sort of its own separate entity. So I need to feed that beast but I also need to focus on these other things in order to help create the foundation for that or help give that thing its food supply… I don’t know what I’m saying. [Laughs.]

For example, I’ve been working on a musical for a couple of years now and I finished the first act and we’ve just started talking about the second act and how we’re going to approach that. I know I need to work on it but I’m finding it difficult to get into that headspace and I don’t want to force it. So the other day, [Coheed drummer] Josh [Eppard] wrote me because a few months ago we came up with the idea to cover another band’s album from front-to-back, just to kind of keep ourselves busy. He said, “I’m going to go into the studio to cut the drums to this thing, is there anything I should know?” And so much time had gone by that I wasn’t as invested as I was when we brought up the idea, so I was like, “hold on, let me see if there is some stuff I can salvage that’s original material and maybe we can start thinking about what the next Coheed record is going to be.”

This happened to be the weekend my wife and her mother left town, and so I was listening to some stuff I had for another project that I thought sounded Coheed-esque. Then when they were away for three days, I wrote three songs and now all of the sudden I’m in the headspace of “now it’s time for a Coheed record.” I did not anticipate that, I didn’t want to write another Coheed record at this moment in my life, but something about that situation put me in that headspace. One of the songs I wrote over that weekend—it’s not the greatest song I’ve ever written—but something about it is what, to me, sounds like it will define the identity of the record. Like I said, Vonnegut is one of those influences that always comes around, and when I listen to this one song in particular, it reminds me of a sonic Vonnegut: it’s very perplexing. Are you familiar with his work?

 

I read Breakfast Of Champions but admittedly it’s been a while.
In a lot of his work—and certainly Breakfast Of Champions-—there’s always some minuscule thing that doesn’t seem relevant yet somehow that becomes the most relevant thing. I don’t know if that makes sense, but a sneeze to one person is the destruction of a galaxy somewhere else. So this song in particular just kind of reminded me of that because it was so jarring and reckless, yet it ends in this almost grandiose, apocalyptic Vaudeville kind of thing and I thought, “I don’t think anyone is going to like this.” [Laughs.] But I could see visually what the record should sound like; this song spoke volumes and some of the other stuff that I had sent to him was good but it wasn’t as inspiring as this one piece. So it was a complete accident: I had no ambition or desire to write the Coheed record at this moment in time, but these small things fueled the inspiration and excitement to do that.

 When you’re writing a Coheed record it almost seems like you’re writing a season of Games Of Thrones because there’s so much iconography behind it. You can’t just write an album about a break-up like a lot of other bands can.
Well, that’s the thing, most of Coheed’s stuff is all the foundation of love songs and that’s usually what inspires the story and the enduring nature of the characters. It always starts with something personal. For example, for The Afterman records, the double record before this last one, I didn’t know what that story was going to be like. The Coheed and Cambria world was over at that time and so I was like, “well, what’s the next thing going to be?” I remember my wife was sitting there and she had just found out via Facebook that a good friend of hers had passed away in a motorcycle accident. She started telling me about it and the way she was experiencing it was sort of disconnected, through this online timeline, which was so odd to me, you know?

So that inspired what became the concept of The Afterman and then I was like, “okay, well, ‘who is the Afterman?’” And that’s when I started to reverse-engineer the story. I’ve always made mention of this character, Sirius Amory, who is the guy who figured out the value of the Keywork, which is basically the solar system that all of the characters sort of live in, but we never really know his story. What was the catalyst of him figuring that out? Maybe he ventures up there, there’s an accident, the world thinks he’s dead and his wife Mary finds out through the news, sort of like how my wife found out about her friend through Facebook. That was the nucleus of the record.

How do you think those elements play into the narrative of the record you’re writing now?
Right now, I don’t think it’s going to be a continuation of the Sirius arc because that kind of ends in a romantic way. You don’t know what happens to him.


What’s the dynamic like between you and your wife when you’re working together? It seems like bringing someone else into this world must be scary after doing it for so long on your own. Do you feel like you share a mind or is there a lot of artistic compromise?
A little bit of both. I mean there are moments where we definitely butt heads and maybe we’ll meet in the middle, but for the most part we’re on the same page. I’m the kind of person who will walk around the neighborhood and start jotting all these notes down and I’ll have a tremendous document that you now need to make sense of and she helps do that. She helps ground the story; whereas I would probably make it more Saturday morning cartoons, she’s like, “let’s try to make it a Criterion Collection.” [Laughs.] It’s a lot of fun. She definitely brings a lot to the table and really helps in the creative process. The Amory Wars is such a tremendous beast and would have taken up so much of my time if I was doing it alone. You know, when I started doing The Amory Wars I was so bad.

You must have been so young when you started this project.
I mean the band started in 2000 and I started the idea in ‘98; I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I liked comic books and they made sense to use as a platform for this, but I didn’t know the first thing about writing anything. I read those books [The Amory Wars] now and I find myself reverse-engineering some of the plot holes in the first book with some of the later stories. It’s kind of fun in the sense that I can go, “I made all these mistakes, let’s try to find a way to make them feel like they were on purpose.”

That’s inspiring because from the outside, it seems as if you had everything planned out from the beginning. Which seems incredibly daunting from an artistic standpoint.
Yeah, you want to have that type of flexibility. If you want to go the way of  [J.R.R.] Tolkien who created languages for his creatures, that’s a whole other level, but I was just a kid having fun. I didn’t really take it all that seriously. At the time it was just a disguise, it was a way for me to express myself without having whatever repercussions came with it being so personal. It was a facade in the sense I made this piece of fiction so it would take the beating and I’d be left unbruised. Now it’s become this thing I can’t see myself ever not doing. I just love it. I have a children’s book coming out…

Right. How did that happen?
I’m sitting in a hotel room in L.A. maybe a year-and-a-half or two years ago and I started scribbling these little sketches and writing an idea for what I had envisioned at the time as a Ziggy Stardust-inspired rock opera. It was really silly, so I start creating these four-line rhythmic Dr. Seuss-y rhymes, and as I was doing it, the idea of it being a rock opera started to diminish and it just kind of presented itself as more of a children’s story. It came out in October—Kid Crazy and the Kilowatt King. It’s all just because it’s fun for me; it didn’t feel like work, nobody asked me to do it, it just came up.

You have all these things going on. Do you ever put time into an idea and at some point you’re like, “this isn’t working”?
Songs, sometimes. If I’m beating a dead horse then what fun is it going to be when I have to perform this thing that isn’t coming naturally?

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Alternately, do you ever get confused with your own iconography? Are you ever like, “what happened in that story I wrote again?”
Oh yeah, absolutely. Just the other day, I bought two volumes of The Amory Wars for the house so I could always reference them; I just knew it would be faster to get from Amazon than asking our manager. I was like, “we need these in the house, we’re writing this book right now.”

 You don’t seem as active on social media as a lot of your contemporaries. Do you think it’s a distraction in the sense that you talk more about your projects as opposed to actually creating anything?
It can for sure. I’m pretty actively involved on Twitter and Instagram, maybe not nearly as much as some of my peers, and not so much right now. Maybe some retweets here and there, but for the most part it can be a huge distraction. You have to separate yourself because there’s that excitement and immediate attention from social media when you throw yourself out there, even though what you’re working on isn’t even finished. You get instant validation when you write something and you’re like, “someone cares.”

You get that dopamine rush.
Yes, someone cares but then you’re like, “wait, nothing got done.” [Laughs.]

A lot of the characters in the world you’ve created are based in your life. I think people might assume that because it’s a fantasy world, all of it is made up.
Absolutely. All of the characters aren’t fully connected, but Coheed and Cambria are based off the likeness of my parents. As far as the title The Amory Wars goes… when I was younger, the road I lived on was called Amory Drive, so in a way it was like a fabricated version of a suburban household. The dragonfly [logo] symbolized syringes because of the chemical abuse that happened to hover around the house. I chose 78 planets for the Keywork because I was born in 1978. I worked at a pet store when I was trying to develop this band and the last name of the guys that owned it was Keywork, and one of the things that I did there was clean fish tanks and the fish tanks were blue. So I chose to color the Keywork blue and name it after them because it was the only job that would allow me the time to go up to Woodstock and play in the band when I needed it.

After over 20 years of making music and touring, how have you been able to keep the band together and what’s been your driving force to keep creating new music?
What’s kept us together? I think we all like what we do. It’s not hard. I mean I’m sure there have been moments where we’ve all wanted to stop, and some of us have, but some guys came back and I love it. I’ve been doing this since I was 12 years old and it’s a big part of the person I am today. It allows me to express and fulfill myself, so as much as I’ll feel like it’s probably time to move on every once in a while, I’m just going to do this again on another stage.

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Early photo of Claudio and bandmate Josh Eppard.

Musically, it’s also gone from being a band on an indie hardcore label to something that’s basically impossible to classify. It’s kind of it’s own beast at this point.
Yeah, we are really fortunate and I think we know it. The older we get, we realize how special this is and how much we really mean to each other. I mean, we’re a family. When we’re apart, we’re 38 years old at this stage, and we genuinely miss each other. I’m sure when we’re out on the road and we do it for two months we can’t wait to get away from each other, but there’s a longing there. It’s weird.

Creatively, what have been your biggest challenges? Out of everything you’ve created, what was the hardest thing to actually get through?
I think probably leaving home is the hardest part for me. When I was growing up, traveling was never something that I wanted to do, which is funny because when you want to be in a band, it’s a big component of it. When I saw [Black] Sabbath in ’94 or Pink Floyd on The Division Bell tour, I thought they just miraculously appeared in front of me, so the biggest hurdle is getting on a plane.  I know there are some people where that’s all they want to do, but I’m pretty much a homebody. I like to travel more inside my head than with my physical body.

Your most recent album The Color Before The Sun is your first non-concept-based album. What inspired the departure and how did the creative process differ from your past albums?
The reason I departed was because my son was born. I think he was a big reason for that shift. If I was going to put him in a song, it shouldn’t be as a character in a concept, but as my son and the experience that I had with my lifestyle, living here. My wife and I moved from the country where I was productive whenever I wanted to be, to this sort of claustrophobic lifestyle which I actually love more, but I find it a little trying to actually create in… or at that time did. So that sparked a whole identity crisis to who I was. Am I the guy who wants to live here for the rest of my life and struggle with this problem, or am I the guy who should be living in the country where it comes with its own set of problems? I thought it was just an interesting time in my life to let the songs speak for themselves without the disguise of the concept, but I am going to return to The Amory Wars because it’s just a lot of fun for me. I get to do both things.

You’re totally in control with so many of your projects, is it hard give some of that up when it comes to Coheed where you can’t always be married to your original ideas?
Absolutely. As much as I am sort of that creative force for the band, everybody else really helps make it the identity that it is. I’m definitely open and there are certain moments where if things don’t help the vocal, then I’ll sort of voice my opinion, but for the most part it’s very collaborative.

I think the hardest part of what we’ve talked about is taking an idea and making it into an actual thing, because it’s always easier to watch a movie or fall asleep. What would you recommend for people who have creative ideas or projects they want to see through?
I’d say stay with it because that’s what happened for us. I’ve been playing music since I was 12 in my sort of way. I don’t really understand theory, I’m still very bad at playing guitar in terms of the technical aspect because I learned how by writing music. The band didn’t get signed until I think I was 22 or 23, and at that moment I had moved onto plan B and thought I was going to go to school for audio engineering because I wanted to be involved in music in some form. But I still kept the band going and somebody liked it eventually.

Did you have a lot of self-doubt back then?
Hell yeah. When I was a kid my grandfather used to say, “you gotta have a gimmick, Claude,” and I was like “fuck, what the hell is a gimmick?” [Laughs.] Ironically however, many years later, I think I may be the king of gimmicks.

Imagination seems like a virtue that’s really discounted in our society, but at its core, it’s the basis for anything that’s ever been created.
I have a good story about that. When I was a kid, I had a friend and we were both really into metal bands like Cinderella and Def Leppard, so we decided to start a band, even though I couldn’t play any instrument. I just landed on drums because it seemed like the easiest. We put up fliers all over the town and we got this kid to come to [my friend’s] house and audition for our band, amazing guitar player. At one point he goes, “if I’m going to be in your band, we need to play Rush covers,” and I didn’t even know who Rush was so I was like, “no problem, Rush.” Anyway, night falls on our small little town and my friend gets a phone call from an acquaintance of this dude who tells my friend, “you guys are nothing but a bunch of dreamers, nothing is going to happen for you, he’s not going to join your band,” and basically just tried to discourage us.

It still resonates with me: “you’re nothing but a bunch of dreamers.” I’ve based my entire career off of being a dreamer. I think it just reinforces what you were saying about the imagination thing: it’s your biggest tool if you want to do something creative. Who do you want to be? You can envision that and if that’s what you set as your goal, I know that you can attain it… because I did.