Photo: Jimmy Fontaine
Coheed and Cambria
Coheed And Cambria Teased A Key Character In Their Last Album, 'Vaxis: Act I.' But Who Is Vaxis, Really?
As the leader of the rock band Coheed and Cambria, Claudio Sanchez has been steadily building a science-fiction world that has fascinated scores of fans. Now, he reveals more about their upcoming album, where we get to meet the mysterious character Vaxis.
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.
Coheed and Cambria
Photo: Michael Stewart/Getty Images
Coheed And Cambria Ink Deal With Roadrunner, Tease New Album
The acclaimed progressive rock band sign a new record deal and hint at a return to their sci-fi concept album roots
High-concept progressive rock band Coheed and Cambria announced on April 4 that they have officially signed with Roadrunner Records in advance of their upcoming headlining U.S. summer tour alongside pop-punk giants Taking Back Sunday, with Story So Far in tow in support.
Along with an inscrutable video titled "Call Your Mother" released thought Roadrunner's official YouTube channel, Coheed and Cambria have also confirmed via Alternative Press that they will have a new, as-yet untitled album out before the end of 2018. The new release will be their ninth studio LP.
The band's most recent album, 2015's The Color Before The Sun, was also the first in their catalogue not to conceptually center on the sci-fi/fantasy realm of the eponymous characters Coheed and Cambria Kilgannon, protagonists of an extended storyline detailed in The Amory Wars, a graphic novel written and published by vocalist/lead singer Claudio Sanchez. All of Coheed and Cambria's first seven releases were concept albums set in the Amory Wars universe, while The Color Before The Sun took a more autobiographical approach to recent events in Sanchez's personal life.
The video tease Coheed and Cambria released along with today's announcement features a quiet monologue read over a smoky montage of an armored mask being forged and decorated, apparently for battle. "Know there is no time/ Space, between the Well and Unknowing/ our story starts there/ well within our future, yet far beyond our past/ In a romance between a pair of unheavenly creatures," the wizened voice growls over spacey, crackling static, as the camera pans to reveal the words "Call Your Mother" painted across the face of the war mask.
Now, later chapters of Sanchez's Amory Wars comic book cycle shift their narrative focus from Coheed and Cambria Kilgannon to their son, the messianic prince Claudio Kilgannon – might this mean that the band's forthcoming album will take listeners back into the galactic realms of Heaven's Fence, the Keywork, and the roots of Claudio's battle against Wilhelm Ryan, the evil Archmage? Time will tell.
Coheed and Cambria's U.S. summer tour with Taking Back Sunday and Story So Far will kick off on July 7 at Miami's Bayfront Park Amphitheater, and run through Aug. 8, where it will wrap up in Phoenix, Ariz., at Comerica Theater. Tickets to some shows are still available.
My Chemical Romance in 2012
Photo: Chris Hyde/Getty Images
My Chemical Romance, Run The Jewels, Pixies & Smashing Pumpkins To Headline Riot Fest 2021
The Chicago alt, punk, rock, rap and more festival returns to Douglas Park Sept. 17-19, 2021, with Coheed and Cambria, Taking Back Sunday, Lupe Fiasco, FEVER 333, K.Flay and more joining the first wave lineup
Yesterday, June 16, Riot Fest revealed the explosive first wave lineup for the next edition of their festival, now scheduled for 2021. My Chemical Romance, Run The Jewels, the Pixies and the Smashing Pumpkins will headline, with Sublime with Rome, Big Freedia, FEVER 333, K.Flay and many more also joining the initial billing.
The Chicago alt, rock, emo, punk, rap and more fest will return to Douglas Park on Sept. 17-19, 2021. The lineup announcement comes with the news the 2020 edition has been officially canceled due to COVID-19—ticket holders can request a refund or use their ticket in 2021.
Riot Fest 2021 is dedicated to making emo kids' dreams come true—in addition to the My Chemical Romance reunion set, Taking Back Sunday, Coheed and Cambria, New Found Glory, All-American Rejects, Simple Plan and Saves The Day will also play.
Chicago's own alt hip-hop hero Lupe Fiasco will perform his 2007 GRAMMY-nominated album, The Cool, in its entirety. Vic Mensa, Meg Myers, Toots and the Maytals, Best Coast and Alex G also bring sonic diversity to the stacked lineup.
The festival organizers also announced the addition of the first-ever Thursday Preview Party, featuring "mystery bands (including one who will only play Thursday), early access to merch, and an assortment of carnival rides and food to enjoy," according to the press release.
The Thursday party is a special benefit for fans who commit to the fest in the next 30 days, either with the purchase of 2021 tickets or 2020 ticketholders who hold the passes for 2021. Alternatively, 2020 ticketholders who want a refund or want to transfer their pass to a friend have 30 days to do; more info here.
Weekend passes for Riot Fest 2021 are currently on sale for $150. Ticketing info and the complete wave one lineup can be found on their website.
Today, My Chemical Romance, who was the only act previously announced to headline the 2020 fest, announced new 2021 dates for the North American leg of their reunion tour, which was set to take place this year. The emo vets played together for the first time in seven years in Los Angeles in December 2019, for a four-night run of sold-out shows.
Photo: Michael Buckner/Getty Images
GRAMMYs On The Road With Coheed And Cambria
Backstage with Coheed And Cambria at the Beale Street Music Festival in Memphis
The Recording Academy Memphis Chapter played host for GRAMMYs On The Road At The Beale Street Music Festival, held May 4–6 as part of the Memphis in May International Festival. The Chapter conducted exclusive backstage interviews with artists performing at the festival, including rock band Coheed And Cambria.
Coheed And Cambria drummer Joshua Eppard and guitarist Travis Stever discussed their favorite GRAMMY moments, most memorable career moments, music education, and advice for aspiring artists, among other topics.
"Right now [is] kind of a new time for Coheed [And Cambria]," said Stever. "There [are] new memories being built right now."
Fronted by vocalist/guitarist Claudio Sanchez, Coheed And Cambria were originally formed in New York in 1995 under the name Shabutie. The band officially emerged as Coheed And Cambria in 2001 and the following year released their full-length debut, The Second Stage Turbine Blade, recorded as the second installment of a five-part fictional saga surrounding two characters, Coheed and Cambria. In 2003 the band released In Keeping Secrets Of Silent Earth: 3, which peaked at No. 52 on the Billboard 200, followed by 2005's Good Apollo I'm Burning Star IV, Volume One: From Fear Through The Eyes Of Madness, which climbed to No. 7. Coheed And Cambria experienced several shifts in lineup the following year, including the temporary departure of bassist Michael Todd and the temporary departure of Eppard. With former Dillinger Escape Plan drummer Chris Pennie, in 2007 the band released Good Apollo I'm Burning Star IV, Volume 2: No World For Tomorrow, the second part of the saga's two-tiered conclusion, which peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard 200. The band returned in 2011 with Year Of The Black Rainbow, which peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard 200, the band's highest-charting album to date.
Eppard has since rejoined Coheed And Cambria. "At least once a day I go, 'Wow, I can't believe that I'm back in Coheed And Cambria," Eppard said. "It just couldn't be more amazing and more special."
Musicians expand their horizons into the limitless possibilities within the realm of comics
The relationship between music and comic books stretches back to the '70s when Marvel Comics released first issues devoted to Alice Cooper and Kiss. Within the last few years an increasing number of comic-loving music artists have actually written comics for major companies such as DC Comics and Dark Horse Comics, becoming auteurs in a different medium that has been gaining increasing attention in light of recent comic-related blockbuster movie franchises such as Iron Man, X-Men and Batman. Some artists are expanding their creative horizons even further into the world of visual animation, evidenced by GRAMMY-winning R&B artist Ne-Yo finalizing a deal this past week with Cartoon Network to produce his own cartoon show, "I Heart Tuesdays."
The list of musicians who have delved into writing comics include Rob Zombie, Kiss' Gene Simmons, Canadian rock artist Melissa Auf der Maur, and dark cabaret artist Voltaire. Newer artists have also been getting into the act recently, tying in their titles with albums. One example is the Kill Corps, who released an expanded 48-page comic bearing the title of the band on March 16. Along with the issue, fans also receive a download code for the group's four-track self-titled EP, prior to their Virgin Records debut this summer.
"I think a lot of people are seeing comics as a new frontier for ways to tell the same kind of stories as [they] are in their songs," says Shawna Gore, editor at Dark Horse Comics. "This kind of project works best when the people who are attempting to do it take it seriously, get to know the format and the medium of comics and want to make the best comic book or graphic novel that they can."
Another musician who has made a splash is My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way. His surrealist fantasy series The Umbrella Academy won the prestigious Eisner Award for Best Limited Series, an honor recognizing the best publications and creators in comics and graphic novels, at Comic-Con 2008. Way attended the School of Visual Arts in New York, interned at DC Comics and worked in toy design prior to joining My Chemical Romance. Missing his first love, he sought out a home for his comic series, and he and artist Gabriel Bá landed at Dark Horse.
"[Being an established musician] made it easy to try to get my foot in the door, and then it made it harder to prove that I could do it," explains Way. "But I was up to the challenge, and I think Dark Horse realized really early that I've always done comics and wanted to start doing them again. A lot of people in the comic community and the readership wouldn't know that, so I had that obstacle. It was fine once the first issue came out. Everybody realized this was a real comic."
Coheed And Cambria frontman Claudio Sanchez utilized the comic medium to create the story of the characters bearing his band's name, and their saga has spanned all six of the group's albums and several graphic novels, with the latter collectively titled The Amory Wars.
"I wrote these songs but had a hard time conveying myself in the lyrics," says Sanchez. "I thought, 'What a cool way to create a piece of fiction that I can essentially hide my story behind.' That's how I created [the characters] Coheed and Cambria. [This has] allowed me to create a world that I'm going to put my life in."
Dresden Dolls frontwoman Amanda Palmer has co-authored a graphic novel inspired by her side project Evelyn Evelyn, which is titled after real-life conjoined twins. Written by Palmer with bandmate Jason Webley and featuring art from Cynthia von Buhler, Evelyn Evelyn: A Terrible Tale In Two Tomes is inspired by the songs on Evelyn Evelyn's debut album.
"I like the idea of a graphic novel because I see it as a picture book for adults with adult subject matter," says von Buhler, who is also a painter and children's book author. "This is all hand-drawn, smudgy and dirty. It's definitely along the lines of the album."
Pop/R&B artist V.V. Brown released a fantasy graphic novel called The City Of Abacus in 2010, detailing a young woman named Freeda trying to find her way in a repressed society riddled with conspiracy.
"I think that the art is a projection of life and values and the things that are in the world," says Brown. "Different forms of art are ways to express those thoughts. My comic book was a way to express my feelings on how creativity is being stifled by a monopolized culture of reality TV shows and talent contests that take away the true validity and journey of the musician. I think the comic book gives a great way to be political through illustrations and have a visual concept that can be powerful."
Taking a different approach by working with other people's material, Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian penned a two-issue Lobo series for DC Comics last year. The character was originally created by comic writers Roger Slifer and Keith Giffen in the '80s. Ian will next be writing The Demon, a classic DC character that first appeared in the '70s.
"If it wasn't for me being [in] a successful band, there was no way I was getting a call from DC," admits Ian. "I very easily could've written a crappy book that nobody would've liked, and maybe the relationship would've ended there. But DC was happy with my work, the public was happy with my work and the book actually sold. It was kind of a win-win for me. I opened the door for myself, and now I'm able to keep it open with other projects."
Dutch symphonic metal band Within Temptation is embracing the comic medium with their forthcoming concept album The Unforgiving, due out March 29. The album is based on a story written by Steven O'Connell with art drawn by Romano Molenaar and commissioned by the band.
Lifelong comic fans, the group was excited to take this new approach in creating The Unforgiving, with the songs mirroring the comic's themes of mystery, murder and guilt. "A comic is almost like a movie that you can watch at your own pace, "says Within Temptation guitarist Robert Westerholt. "I really like that. If you have a good comic artist, which is crucial, the possibilities are limitless."
(Bryan Reesman is a New York-based freelance writer.)