Coheed and Cambria
Photo: Jimmy Fontaine
Coheed And Cambria Teased A Key Character In Their Last Album, 'Vaxis: Act I.' But Who Is Vaxis, Really?
At its core, science fiction is about engendering magic, anticipation and connection — the notion of reality being deeper and wilder than the naked eye can perceive. Coheed and Cambria know this all too well: Despite its knottiness, the sci-fi mythology surrounding the prog rock band has been unfolding over two decades, attracting scores of devotees in the process.
Now, they're offering a clue as to what makes it all click — and it may change fans' perception of their futuristic fiction forever.
“This time around, we get introduced to the character of Vaxis,” bandleader Claudio Sanchez tells GRAMMY.com of the group’s forthcoming album. Wait, wasn't that the name of their last album, 2018's Vaxis — Act I: The Unheavenly Creatures? Correct, but Vaxis was only then alluded to as a mysterious child.
Now, in Coheed and Cambria's as-of-yet untitled new album, which drops next year, dedicated fans are going to see this key character for who he truly is. And, as it turns out, he's the skeleton key to everything in The Amory Wars, the band’s long-running series of sci-fi comic books and novels, which conceptually intertwines with their lyrics.
The album’s themes — of hidden fortitude, of family bonds, of overcoming adversity — are part and parcel with Sanchez’s feelings as a husband and parent. These stories may deal with fantastical beings, but they're really for the humans who make up their community.
“I think being a parent — or anything — is going to have its hand in my creation,” he says over the phone from his Crown Heights, Brooklyn, home. “Most of The Amory Wars is that. It's sort of me taking my life and putting it into fiction.”
Back in July, Coheed and Cambria dropped the first taste of their new album, the hyper-melodic “Shoulders.” The song deals with themes of not judging a book by its cover: “Maybe all things have their misconceptions / That's the life you chose / Everyone is laughing at you, out to get you / But change is the exception,” Sanchez sings.
Today, fans can check out the premiere of an acoustic performance of “Shoulders” below. After that, read on for a revelatory interview with Sanchez about Coheed and Cambria’s upcoming album — and how it relates to the mysteries and origin of Vaxis and his larger narrative.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How's your day going?
It's good! I'm back in New York, redesigning my office space. That's pretty much it. I've been doing this for a couple of days now. Today's the last day. I think it's done! I think I'm all together!
I'm into interior design. I actually used to write for an interior-design site. What's your vision for the new space?
However I can cram all my stuff in here is the vision! [Laughs.] But also, freeing up a bunch of floor space — primarily modular synthesizers and full synthesizers. They're enormous and they've been taking up all of the space!
My wife and I, before the pandemic, moved into this house, and one of the big reasons was that my workspace was tiny in the apartment we were in. I'm like, “Why does this room all of a sudden feel so small?” I just wasn't using the space properly. So, a lot of storage for things to get them off the floor, a lot of table space for the things that need to stand. Racks. A place for monitors and computers. It's “Star Trek” meets a 100-year-old house.
So, what can fans expect from this upcoming record? How does it continue the story of The Amory Wars?
This time around, we get introduced to the character of Vaxis. In the last story, we alluded to him. This couple of Nostrand and Nia were going to have a child — it was told to them by this fortune-teller, basically. So, we're getting to see him finally, in this stage of the story.
To try to explain him at this stage, you'd have to understand planning — or the desire to be a parent. For Nostrand and Nia, parenthood doesn't come the way they envisioned it. There's a series of hurdles they have to navigate.
They want to help their son, Vaxis, who, to them, seems to be in this catatonic state. But the reality is that he's quite the opposite. They're unaware of who he really is, that he's present in everything. He can access wavelengths that they can't even comprehend.
One of the things that I guess I can reveal at this point is his name, and the mystery of it. If you break “Vaxis” into two parts, the “V” refers to the Roman numeral for five, as the fifth story of The Amory Wars. And then the second part of his name, “axis,” is the axis in which all of the Amory Wars revolves.
That's the mystery of this pentalogy: Well, how? That's the answer we're looking for: How is he this thing?
If you were to describe this character like you would a friend of yours, how would you do so?
I don't know if I know anyone like Vaxis. At this stage, Vaxis is in a completely catatonic state. His parents almost fear that — he's dead, I almost want to say. He doesn't show much of his personality at all. He's frozen, and their wish is to try to find a solution: “Why is our son this way?” And in actuality, they realize that he's quite the opposite.
So there's infinite power or potential, but with an exterior that's static, or frozen?
Has there been a lot of interest in this character from hardcore fans who follow The Amory Wars story?
I think so. In the first story, we just sort of alluded to the character. He was just brought up as this future for the two characters, Nostrand and Nia. But at no point was it expressed that he's this powerful being or how he's going to be presented to you. It's just, “You're going to have a son.”
So, I think they had this idea of what parenthood would look like. And then it came this way, and they immediately thought, “Well, something's wrong.” But there's nothing wrong, you know? Just because you perceive it this one way doesn't mean that's got to be the right way. That gets unlocked as we come to the conclusion of the story.
How did this story materialize in your mind? As a parent yourself, I'm sure there are autobiographical elements, as far as the feelings of impending fatherhood go.
I think being a parent — or anything — is going to have its hand in my creation. Most of The Amory Wars is that. It's sort of me taking my life and putting it into fiction. So, there's a little bit. But this is so much more, I think, than anything I've experienced. Clearly, as it's science fiction!
Can you tell me how this story is weaved into the music? What can fans expect musically in the next album?
Musically, it's a little different, just because of the circumstances we were all presented with over the past couple of years. I just approached it in a way where I tried to keep all limitations out. The ones that live in your subconscious as a creator: “Oh, we can't do this certain thing because we're known for doing that.” I tried to embrace every avenue of what came. I didn't throw things away because I felt they didn't necessarily fit.
I think at this point in my life, Coheed has afforded itself the luxury to explore some of these different avenues. I think that kind of plays into the idea that Vaxis is everywhere and everything. We can maybe reach a bit and try to do everything we feel is right, creatively, for us.
Coheed and Cambria. Photo: Jimmy Fontaine
Can you talk about the business of Coheed? The universe of comic books and weighty physical media you guys have nurtured on your own terms — and apart from the mainstream — is kind of staggering.
It has a lot to do with my desire and the team that I have around me. Blaze [James], our manager. My wife, Chondra. Everybody feels very strongly and loves this project in every facet of what we do. It's taking that initiative. In 2004, I'd never done a Comic-Con before. I'd always been interested in the medium, but I never knew it was a place [where] people gathered.
And that's what we did. We got ourselves a booth and started to promote this story with our own imprint. I think a lot of that has to do with my upbringing, both in comics and music — being on that independent level.
It always interested me, the idea of somebody owning their property. Whether it be Todd McFarlane creating Image Comics back in the day or Texas is the Reason on Revelation Records or whatever have you, it was always interesting to me that not everything had to be done under this major facade.
I know, that being said, that we are on a major label [Roadrunner, a division of Warner Music Group]. But I guess that DIY attitude has always been in my blood.
What was the vibe of the music industry like when you broke out in the early 2000s? Was it more conducive to affording you guys that freedom?
When I think of who we were then, we were just as perplexing as a band. But there was something interesting to, say, Equal Vision, who had signed the band. The only thing I think they asked us to change was, at the time, the name of the band [Shabütie] was ridiculous. That was about it;that was the only limitation that we were met with.
But I think it happened the way it was supposed to happen. By adopting the name Coheed and Cambria, we brought this science-fiction epic with it. That's why it is what it is now: Because of this one choice that was made by the people who were willing to invest in us.
Creatively, when I threw that idea out there — this is this science-fiction mythology that will play off my life — I'm sure everyone was like, “That's nuts.” But over time, I met with counterpart believers — not only the band, but, again, management and my wife. Together, we built this thing.
Despite the byzantine nature of this project, you manage to pick up new fans year after year. Is there something about Coheed and Cambria that's very inviting, perhaps in a Star Wars or Tolkien way?
I think it has a lot to do with that family is one of the recurring themes. Sometimes, the idea of Coheed and Cambria — the ampersand, or the word “and,” the togetherness of two beings trying to overcome obstacles — I think those are themes that everyone can get behind.
When I think of the lyrics, that was always my intention. When it came time to write lyrics, it was like, I understand this plays out in this world that needs to be described to the listener, but I also don't want to overburden them. I want people to listen to the words and find something they relate to.
Because that's what music was to me. I wanted to find the thing that resonated. That's why it's so funny: We always get compared to Rush, but Rush was never a band I liked. I just felt like I was pushed by these conceptual songs, and I want to see myself in the song. I think most people are like that.
The band has been teasing this record incrementally. Is there anything else about its essence readers should know about?
I mean, it's so funny. It's the beginning of me talking about it, so I get so apprehensive and so nervous. Because this is the first time I'm actually bringing up the character of Vaxis. Me telling you the meaning of his name — splitting it into two — I don't think anyone really knows that. And now they will.
I think that part, to me, is very cool. Because nobody truly knows where this story falls. I think that's the big mystery. That's the thing: I know where this story's going up to part five, so I feel so [Sputters into nervous laughter]. It's so wild that I'm here now: “OK, here's who Vaxis is!” Not so much in a detailed way, but when people find out who he truly is in the overarching story, I think it's going to be so rewarding.
As characters come out of the woodwork, especially for fans of Coheed who have embraced the concept — they're going to be so thrilled to see these things. A lot of things get left up to interpretation in the original five stories, and a lot of answers are coming to questions that a lot of fans have.
I'm honored to receive this little-known information about this key character. That's really special.
Thanks, man. Like I said, he is the axis on which all these stories revolve. How is that possible? It'll all get revealed as the stories and records come out.
There's a lot of heft to Vaxis, I can tell. There's a lot of importance there.
I guess the idea is: Never judge something by its physical stature. Strength isn't just physical, if that makes any sense. This character is everything within this mythology.
I'm reading NeuroTribes by Steve Silberman, a wonderful book about autism. It contains that very message: Don't consider it a disability, but something beautiful waiting to be understood.
Absolutely. Funny you say this, Morgan! I read that book! I loved the [Henry] Cavendish part — the scientist who would walk through the night. The beginning of it. It was a very, very interesting book, and very inspiring.
When I came up with the concept of Vaxis I and the potential of this pentalogy, that was a book I was reading. I think it had a lot to do with the influence in these stories.
I don't know if you have people in your life who are on the spectrum, but this story must have come from a place of compassion, or concern, for the misunderstood.
Absolutely. I mean, I feel that way.