Photo: Alexandra Gavillet
Coheed And Cambria's Claudio Sanchez On The Reaction To 'Vaxis: Act II — A Window of the Waking Mind' & The Future Of The Band
In this wide-ranging interview, Coheed And Cambria's Claudio Sanchez marvels at how his cult fanbase has received 'Vaxis: Act II' and illuminates the progressive rock band's path forward.
In the fall of last year, Claudio Sanchez was on the verge of revealing something big to his expansive fanbase. His progressive rock band, Coheed and Cambria, was teasing the existence of their new album, Vaxis: Act II — A Window of the Waking Mind — and how it illuminated the then-shrouded character Vaxis.
"Vaxis, who, to them, seems to be in this catatonic state. But the reality is that he's quite the opposite," Sanchez told GRAMMY.com. "They're unaware of who he really is, that he's present in everything. He can access wavelengths that they can't even comprehend."
Now, we're on the other side of the long build-up to — and release of — Vaxis: Act II, and Coheed is currently on the road promoting it. How does Sanchez feel about his cult fanbase's response — not only to the music, but some major reveals in the narrative?
"I don't think we could have asked for anything more 20 years into our career," Sanchez tells GRAMMY.com over Zoom from his hotel room. "It's actually incredible how quickly this record has been… embraced by our audience."
Even better, he feels it marks a period of renewed energy around the veteran band — even as this segment of their ongoing Amory Wars narrative — told through books, graphic novels and albums — is drawing to something of a close.
"Twenty years ago, The Second Stage Turbine Blade was the second story in the Amory Wars — the Coheed and Cambria portion of it. And now, 20 years into our career, Vaxis II is the second part of the Vaxis arc," Sanchez remarks. "It's kind of funny when I think of it like that: Wow, this is ground zero again."
In this follow-up interview with GRAMMY.com, Sanchez marvels at the response to Vaxis II and lays breadcrumbs for what might happen down the road — all while wondering what his 16-year-old self would think of the intricate creative machine he's assembled.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
I'm sure you've done scores of interviews about Vaxis — Act II in all its musical and world-building dimensions. How has the reaction from your fanbase been thus far?
It's far beyond what we anticipated. A lot of the material and approach is very different. It's something we'd done in the past in terms of stretching our limitations, but not as much on a record. Before releasing it, I had said something to the fanbase that this might be the most divisive record, I guess, in terms of whether they'll receive it or not.
But it feels like the reception has been unanimously positive from my position — both from our audience and whatever media outlets have picked it up. I don't think we could have asked for anything more 20 years into our career. It's actually incredible how quickly this record has been received and embraced by our audience.
To you, is it the strongest Coheed and Cambria release to date?
I think it is! Even on the last one, The Unheavenly Creatures, we were so excited to fall into the production role of that record that everything we made for that record was part of the output.
And then, with this one — there was more material than what made it on the record. I wanted this experience to be digested in a way that our fans would want more — or it feels like a complete piece. I don't want to find myself fatigued by the music. I don't want to find myself 50 percent of the way through the record, wondering [mimes checking watch] "Oh, wow, I still have 50 percent more to go!"
I wanted it to feel complete, and it really does feel that way, to my surprise. For example, a song like "Love Murder One" — I'd been sitting on that song for a while. And in the scope of the record, I thought, "Is that the moment we sort of dip? How will our fans receive this song?"
I thought it would be the one that maybe people like the least, but it's actually become a favorite! How many people tell me they love "Love Murder One"? I don't know; I'm really jazzed about how the record was received.
The music aside, how do you feel about the response to this segment of the storyline — the audience getting to know the Vaxis character?
They seem to love the big reveals within the story. For those who have participated in the conceptual portion of it, there's a big reveal at the end that I'm seeing a lot of excitement for. I think overall, the whole package — the story, the music, even the relic that came with the deluxe vinyl — I feel like everybody is totally satisfied and excited.
And it makes the band excited! Again, we've been around for a while. And to have this feeling, this thing that's surrounding that record — you start to realize this hasn't been around every record we've released.
We inhabit a media landscape of endlessly expanding universes — Star Wars chief among them. To you, is the story of the Amory Wars finite, or could it conceivably continue in untold directions?
I think I could potentially keep this story going forever. But honestly, when I look at Vaxis and I see the end of this series, I kind of feel like this could complete it all. I think it would be perfect. If we were to choose to tell other stories, they would probably be parallel stories.
But as far as the arc — when I look at Year of the Black Rainbow to the Vaxis story, the complete Amory Wars — I feel like that is it. That is the saga, if you will.
Can you share any tidbits about where you might go next with the story?
Um… no! [Laughs] But I'm so excited, because the reveal at the end of Vaxis II wasn't the only one. There are a few others that come up. Vaxis II was full of reveals. One I can share is the character of Naianasha and who she really is in the greater scheme of it all.
That was just to put runners on base — not to get all sports-corny! But the finale of Vaxis II is really the thing that drives in the runs. Man, I'm really driving that home — the sports thing! But as far as future stories, there isn't much I can tell at the moment because I'm afraid I'll spoil something.
You don't have to reveal anything. But are thoughts of your next artistic moves percolating while you're on tour at the moment? Is that conversation happening?
A little bit. My wife and I have been talking. This record has been done — recorded, mixed and mastered — for about a year. And a lot of what takes up the time between then and the release is the creation of the story, the illustrating of the story, the manufacturing of the relic — all those things take the most time.
So, we were just communicating this morning on the bus about finishing up the graphic novel we're working on — the 12-issue maxiseries for No World for Tomorrow, but also starting to get a handle on Vaxis III. The music kind of happens quickly in relation to the story, so we're trying to get ahead of it. We've been talking gently about it.
What are your favorite moments on Vaxis II?
I think my son singing on "The Embers of Fire" is definitely a big one, because we get to sing together on a song. I think that's beautiful, just because Vaxis is this omnipresent character that lives in all dimensions of reality, from young to old. There was a nice little connection there — father to son, and also just characters that they're supposed to embody.
But outside of that, I'd probably say "Window of the Waking Mind" is another one. Just because, for years, I've been sitting on this musical that I worked on in 2016. It was a musical rendition of The Picture of Dorian Gray, and the opening number was this 13-minute epic that basically tells the origin of where Dorian came from, his parents — things like that.
I wanted to do something with Vaxis — to try and tell his story, but not utilizing what I had already done. I wanted to try a new approach. This is a different story, so I didn't want to take from this other thing I had sitting on the shelf and change some words.
I really wanted to test myself and see if I could do it again, because I'm very proud of this piece — "The Son of Love and Death, 1-7." It was the first time I had attempted anything like that. I wanted to see if I could do it again, and I feel like I did it with "Window of the Waking Mind." Like, this is something I feel I could do in the future.
I'm proud of the entire record, but [I love] that song in particular because it has the DNA of that other piece in the closet.
How's everything around your art and music and business? How's your family? How's life?
Everything's great! Yesterday was only the second day of the tour, and [my family] met up with me in Tampa. They're on the bus. They're in it for the long haul. My son loves tour life, so he and my wife will be out for hopefully the entire run.
My life's great. I'm very fortunate. I wish I could tell 16-year-old me that this is what it was all going to turn into, because I didn't have the confidence then that I might now because of the history of all that we've accomplished as a band. I feel great, and I'm so happy that I get to share that with my son and my wife.
Like I said, this morning, I woke up and my wife and I were talking about stories. We're working, but I'm also kind of lucky, because I feel like when they're with me, I'm home. I don't feel like I'm on tour. I'm really lucky in that respect.
What were you up to as a 16-year-old?
Probably the same thing, just in my parents' house. And they're telling me to stop because I'm screaming at the top of my lungs while they're trying to watch some sort of program upstairs after a hard day of work.
I used to share this area with my grandfather, who lived across the hall. I've been writing music since I was four years old, with cassette four-tracks — just trying to figure out how to do it, you know? I would sing, and my singing was a little less controlled than it is now, but it was in the same register — kind of high. My grandfather would say, "Is this kid going to do anything with this stuff?"
My mom always tells this story: a "Get a job!" sort of situation. And you get older, and you start to feel defeated, but persevere. We got picked up, and — I don't know! I wasn't doing much, but I was doing this.
Are there more mind-blowers on the horizon, narratively speaking? Even if this particular story is drawing to a close? It must feel like you're just getting started.
Yeah! You know, that's what's so crazy. It does. It feels like there's this renewed energy. It feels like starting again.
When I think of 20 years ago, The Second Stage Turbine Blade was the second story in the Amory Wars — the Coheed and Cambria portion of it. And now, 20 years into our career, Vaxis II is the second part of the Vaxis arc. It's kind of funny when I think of it like that: Wow, this is ground zero again.
Before we jump off, what are you listening to lately?
At the moment, I'm not listening to a whole lot. I'm listening to Vaxis II! [Laughs.]
I know it sounds nuts, but I am, because there's a lot of new material and new ways I sang the record that I never really approached live. So, I'm just trying to be mindful of that and listening to those approaches and figuring out how I can translate them live so I don't blow my voice and cancel shows.
It's funny: I think of who I was 20 years ago, and that was never a concern. It was just like: Go out there, reckless abandon, beat it up, and hope for the best. But now, there's so much behind the machine that care needs to be taken with these things. So, that's where I'm at — listening to that.
But the last record that I really got down with was that Phoebe Bridgers record. I don't remember the name of it, but there's a ghost drawn on it, in a field…
Stranger in the Alps.
Yes! Somebody hipped me to that, or had been speaking about it, pre-pandemic.
When the lockdown happened, we had just closed on a house in Brooklyn. And we moved in, and a couple of weeks later, everything went silent. That was the record I was listening to in the mornings while testing the coffee we ended up putting out. Just doing these profiles for that stuff.
It was just a record that resonated with me. It's one of those records that, when I hear it, is going to teleport me like a time machine — moving into that house and the feeling of the thing we all experienced. I love that about music — finding something that's always going to take you back somewhere.
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.)