Features Interviews Taking Flight With Yellowbirds

Taking Flight With Yellowbirds

Interview by: Lucas Samuels

The name Yellowbirds may not sound all that familiar to you. The name Sam Cohen may not ring a bell either. But what about Apollo Sunshine? I bet that one stirred something up.

Sam Cohen is one of the founding members of the psych-rock act Apollo Sunshine. The band has been inactive for some time now, having released their last album Shall Noise Upon in 2008 (it's noteworthy to add that Pitchfork gave the album a stellar 8.0). In the past three years however, Sam has kept himself busy, making Brooklyn his home, perfecting his craft and branching out musically under a new moniker, Yellowbirds. I had the pleasure of talking with Sam about the inspiration behind Yellowbirds' debut album The Color, hand-crafting art collages, and an unforgettable road trip he took with his dad.

Sticky: Where did the inspiration come from to create the Yellowbirds moniker?

SC: Actually I was playing in a band with George Lewis. He's got a band called Twin Shadow. He had a song called "Yellowbirds" and I sort of liked the ring of it. We stopped playing that song and I was like "Can I use that for my band name?" and he was like "yah". I had almost called this band Bright Shadow and he was like "so if you're not going to use that do you mind if I call my band Twin Shadow?" (laughter). So that's how the name came about, we kind of traded ideas.

Sticky: I've heard you're a big fan of world music. Did the unique sounds and styles of different world music genres play a role in creating The Color?

SC: Yah definitely. I listen to a lot of different stuff, especially a lot of music from Africa. Some of those types of sounds are my primary influence in a lot of stuff. So yah, definitely.

Sticky: The album as a whole flows together really nicely. Was it a conscious decision to write a batch of songs with similar musical and stylistic themes or did it just happen naturally?

SC: I think that's more of a natural thing. In the past my albums have been more an attempt to go as far out and in as many directions as possible and this one, I guess I was more just down with letting things happen. It was a conscious decision to let it happen, and let things happen naturally.

Sticky: The most apparent thing instrumentally on the album is this appearance of the auto-harp in many of the songs. Is it an instrument you've always wanted to use on an album and never got the chance to?

SC: I started using that a bit on the last Apollo Sunshine record we did, Shall Noise Upon, in a song called "Breeze" where I was mic-ing the auto-harp and playing it through Leslie speakers and I fell in love with that sound. So after that I bought an electric auto-harp and started running it through effects and things. That definitely became a sound I was totally in love with and wanted to use a lot more. That's why it's on the album so much.

Sticky: The album art is really striking and reflective of the title. Did you have a hand in designing it?

SC: Yah I did the cover. That's a collage I made. I did it by hand. The cover is a scan of the actual paper collage. I do a lot of paper collage stuff. I actually have a video coming out soon that's a stop motion animation where everything that's happening is photos of all paper collage stuff moving.

Sticky: I noticed your only selling the album on vinyl and as a digital download. Why are you neglecting the CD format?

SC: There will actually be a limited edition CD that will only be available at shows. That will be screen-printed by myself, and my wife Sarah designed it. It's a cropped version of the normal cover of The Color. I'm sort of over CDs… I feel like a lot of people are. It doesn't seem to hold any weight or merit. When someone gives you their CD it sometimes just sits there in the shrink-wrap. A record is like a tangible album you can hold and you want that experience of being close to the music. Something more than you would just want on mp3, if you want a nice object. Vinyl seems more an expression of that. If you just want it on your iPod that's easy enough to get. Hopefully people will pay to download it but you generally don't even have to get that. It was basically to avoid the waste and trash of making CDs, which is why the limited edition CD is screen-printed and letter-pressed on the back. Hopefully that will make it an object that people will care about. I just didn't want to create a bunch of garbage.

Sticky: Are there plans to take Yellowbirds on the road in 2011? And if so, would you consider playing Toronto or other Canadian cities?

SC: Yah definitely. I'm going to SXSW in March and doing some regional shows this winter. I'm going to play in Boston in February. Up until now we've mostly been playing in New York because it's a new project. The record is coming out next month and there hasn't been a lot of reason to travel. I hope that as the record gets out there and people start to become aware of it hopefully I'll get some good invitations. I like to go where people are interested. Touring can be a drag if there's not a good reason to go somewhere.

Sticky: I heard Pitchfork is planning on reviewing your album, which can be a make or break deal these days. Are you excited or nervous for the review?

SC: I'm excited. Stuff I've done in the past with Apollo Sunshine has always gotten good reviews. I'm very proud of the record as well so I feel optimistic that it will be favourable and help make a lot of people aware of it.

Sticky: Speaking of Apollo Sunshine, the last album you released was in 2008. Are their any plans to record or tour again in the near future?

SC: Nah, that's the short answer (laughter). It's just not something we're doing right now. Yellowbirds is what I'm focusing on these days.

Sticky: I read that your most memorable moment of 2010 was driving from Houston to Brooklyn with your dad. What was the purpose of that trip and why was it so special?

SC: He was lending me his car which I'm still borrowing. So I flew down to get it and he and I drove up. It was just so memorable because when do you get the time as a grown man to spend a complete week hanging out with your dad not doing anything or working you know? It was more time than I've ever spent with my dad like in my whole life (laughter). It seemed like a rare opportunity to do such a thing. Plus, we went to Memphis and saw lots of great places like Stax Records and Sun Studios so it was just really cool.