'The New Universe': Frontman Claudio Sanchez Details Coheed and Cambria's Monster New LP 'Unheavenly Creatures'

Jimmy Fontaine
Coheed and Cambria

Following 15 years of prog-rock shredding, towering choruses and a dizzying amount of fantastical narrative, Coheed and Cambria has set a course for so much more.

The New York four-piece, led by the lushly locked world-creator Claudio Sanchez, is set to release its latest LP, Vaxis – Act I: The Unheavenly Creatures, this Friday (Oct. 5). The set is not only the band’s first Amory Wars comic-inclusive concept album in five years, but the first in an ongoing five-album series surrounding a new character, Vaxis, who Sanchez describes as “father of the new universe.”

Perhaps there is some correlation to Sanchez’s real-world existence; the group’s last record (and lone album devoid of larger narrative concept), The Color Before the Sun (2015), was anchored by the emotions Sanchez felt after the birth of his first child, Atlas, in 2014. But now it's back to the realm of celestial love and evil for the Coheed cohort, as the band begins to define this monster new project.

Billboard chatted with Sanchez in early September about the highly anticipated Heavenly Creatures record, its digital and pop flourishes, and why even as a new dad, Sanchez still believes he’s “just a glorified kid, playing with his action figures.”

So, this album begins a sprawling new pentalogy of albums and stories. How does the Unheavenly Creatures narrative fit in with the rest of the Amory Wars lore?

At the moment, we’re not entirely sure. It certainly feels like a continuation of Good Apollo, I'm Burning Star IV, Volume Two: No World For Tomorrow, which was the fourth part of the overall Amory Wars, but we’re not entirely sure where this story falls into the timeline. At the moment, Unheavenly Creatures feels like a stand-alone kind of situation, but as the records come out, we’ll reveal where we actually are and how these characters affect the ones we already know about, Coheed and Cambria and their families.

As far as a synopsis of this story, this is about a man and a woman trying to rediscover each other, both in love and in tangible existence. And they’re kind of being guided by the hand of their unborn son. The idea is that they need to help him secure his position as the father of the new universe in which all of these new stories will take place.

How important is it to you that your fans understand the narrative and universe in which all this music is built to live? Surely there are droves of listeners who just enjoy the music and assign their own meaning to the lyrics.

It’s really not that important. Of course, we love the fact that there is a good portion of our fans who have embraced The Amory Wars and the facets of that universe. But a lot of these songs are coming from someplace very personal and I do get to hide that a little bit with the idea of the concept. But at the end of the day, the themes are universal and if it touches you and speaks to you in that sort of way, then I think you’ve been rewarded and you don’t really need the other materials to understand what the story is about. It’s not a necessity.

And if you look at the band name, Coheed and Cambria, I think the most important part of the name is the “and” -- it basically is about two people coming together and that could be anyone. They are basically blank spots for anyone to write their names in. And that’s what the songs are: songs about unity and love and trying to overcome obstacles. At the bare bones of it, that’s what it’s about. The concept stuff is really just icing.

How involved was the rest of the band in writing this album?

This time around, I really wanted them to be involved, certainly with the story and have an understanding. I wrote a lot of this record alone. A lot of these songs were constructed in a bedroom. But I wanted everyone to feel involved, so I gave everyone as much information as I could on the concept, so when it came time to actually record the stuff, we could all sort of situate ourselves in the actual scenes of the music and find instrumentation to emphasize that. And it helped; there were moments where members would suggest something based on the synopsis I had put together.

Now that you’re back writing from these fictional perspectives, do you find it emotionally liberating to be able to mask your own feelings within these characters?

For me, doing the last record that didn’t have the concept behind it, that was an important moment in my life. It was the first time I was becoming a father so I wanted to tribute that record. So, that’s a version of Coheed that’s autobiographical. But [Unheavenly Creatures] is definitely a product of my own feelings, just telling it in science fiction so I’m allowed to manipulate it a bit and hide things under the cover of some characters. For me, it’s so much fun to create that stuff. It’s become part of my DNA; I like constructing stories out of music that are far more fantastic than what I feel in my everyday life.

What does your creative workshop look like? Where does this all get made?

“It’s a very small room, actually. My wife and I were fortunate enough to have left Park Slope [Brooklyn] and found a bigger apartment in Crown Heights [also Brooklyn] with three bedrooms, and the third bedroom is really dedicated to my office space. It’s very tight. It’s a healthy room for a city apartment, I think, but once you put all the equipment in there, there’s very little floor space. There’s a computer, there’s two monitors, there’s a mixer that connects to a polyphonic synthesizer, and to the left is basically all the hardware for the DAW, all the interfaces for Pro Tools and what have you, four tracks. So it’s a small room with a lot of knobs and gadgets.

Then there are a few shelves with some memorabilia and nostalgia, toys from when I was a kid, movie posters on the wall, right behind me is a poster from the 1983 movie Krull, next to posters of True Romance and Blade Runner. When the room lights up it looks pretty cool, lots of cool bleeps and bloops coming out of there.

Fans will notice, when listening to Unheavenly Creatures, a large amount of digital sounds when compared to past albums. Can you talk about your growing synthesizer obsession, and how that was fleshed out on this album?

For me, it’s always kind of started with the Casio keyboards. Just exploring the preset sounds as a kid. Guitar is certainly my instrument, but when I first started writing music, the way I wrote music was with a four track. It helped me build these ideas. I’m not a professionally trained musician and sometimes the theory escapes me, so it's good to catalog stuff as you go, and build from that place. Synthesizers were always a way to embellish and make things that sounded traditional sound other-worldly, so that’s probably where it started.

I’ve always messed with synthesizers, in all the Coheed records; in The Second Stage Turbine Blade (2002), there’s a lot of synth that sits in the background and arpeggiates and helps the songs evolve. But when I really put the seed in the ground was probably when were doing [Good Apollo, I'm Burning Star IV, Volume Two:] No World For Tomorrow (2007), and I purchased my first Moog Voyager.

It’s always been a thing I’ve messed with. Even before Coheed was Coheed, I always had a project where there would be acoustic guitar and some sort of synthesizer or drum machine accompaniment. But as I’ve gotten older, it’s definitely become more of an obsession, which I enjoy.

Despite Coheed being labeled “prog-rock” or even “comic-book-rock,” you guys still manage to write these mammoth, often pop-driven choruses, which is again evident on Creatures. How does pop music still inform your songwriting, particularly on the new track “Old Flames,” which feeds very traditional?

To put ‘Old Flames’ under a microscope, I wrote that song from a piano. I sat down at this digital piano in our apartment and constructed that song, the beginning melody, and thought, "okay, I’m going to stay in this chord progression and start creating this melody," and from there I moved to guitar, and I noticed that I hadn’t even finished the chorus -- I’d run it maybe three times -- and I noticed my son was already singing along. To me, that was informative that this song was powerful, because if it’s moving him, who has no opinion to what he thinks is good or not and is not clouded by outside opinion, that was what made me continue to finish that song. And that tune, to me, informed the album cover -- that’s the moment.

Pop music has always been in my periphery; with my mother, sitting in the car listening to Michael Jackson, or Whitney Houston or Madonna. It was always a relevant staple in our household while my dad was more a rock and jazz edge. But I think that’s where those kind of songs come from.

At 82 minutes, Unheavenly Creatures becomes the longest Coheed album to date, correct?

Yes, I think it beats [Good Apollo, I'm Burning Star IV, Volume One: From Fear Through the Eyes of Madness] (2005).

How does the album format still work for Coheed and Cambria in an age of rapid-fire singles and playlists?

This might sound pompous and I don’t mean to be, but I don’t think we’re affected by the climate that some of the other bands are experiencing now with the limited attention spans from listeners and things like that. For us, we have this story and component that our audience has embraced, and have invested in and truly appreciate, and I think that gives us a sort of advantage.

I know if we are trying to reach for a new audience that might affect us because that is the world we’d be going into. But for the most part, it’s not really what dictates how I create art because even when I first starting doing this stuff, I never really took those things into consideration. Singles and stuff like that. I think that was a product of chance, writing songs that seemed more concise and easily digestible, it felt like a happy accident.

Who are your favorite storytellers and world-creators?

Growing up a kid of the ‘80s, a lot of it stems from Saturday morning cartoons, Star Wars, and that innocent mind being molded by media. So for me, George Lucas is a huge one. My son watches [Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope] a lot. And me too, it’s my favorite of all of them. And that’s kind of what I want to obtain. Wes Craven is another one, with creating as iconic a villain as Freddy Krueger, I can only wish to create that sort of creature or personality that has that staying power. And as far as an author, I think Kurt Vonnegut is one, I think you see some of him in a story like Good Apollo 1, where we cross realities between a writer and his creator and the idea of fighting for free will.

Can you foresee The Amory Wars ever being moved into another medium, be it TV or film or some totally epic stage play?

Absolutely! For all the things that are being adapted, why not? I think Amory Wars has just as good a shot as any, the themes are very universal and it takes place in a really fantastic world. Sometimes some of us just need that release, to come outside of our realities.

Do you ever think you’ll reach a place where either the music or the story outlasts the other?

I think ultimately Coheed and Cambria and The Amory Wars are hand-in-hand. I don’t think one continues and the other goes.

And it’s fair to say that, considering this new album is just the first in a five-part series, Coheed isn’t going anywhere?  
No. [Laughs.] Unless something catastrophic happens. There will be four more records to complete the Vaxis story and there are a lot of big reveals in it that lead us to understand where this story takes place, and who these characters are in the big makeup of The Amory Wars.