The Fresh & Onlys
Crystal Days
by Stephen Slaybaugh

For fans of The Fresh & Onlys, two years is a long time to go without a new record from the San Francisco quartet. Since singer and guitarist Tim Cohen and bassist Shayde Sartin began making music together four years ago when the two were working at Amoeba Records, the band has been releasing records at a steady clip. Between 2008 and 2010, the group, which is rounded out by guitarist Wymond Miles and drummer Kyle Gibson, released three full-lengths and a bevy of EPs and singles on respectable labels like Woodsist, Sacred Bones, In the Red, Captured Tracks, and John Dwyer’s Castle Face imprint. So while a couple of years is an acceptable amount of time for most bands to go between records, for this prolific psych-tinged outfit, it seems an eternity.

Of course, it’s not like they were sitting around doing nothing. Cohen released four albums under his birth name and the Magic Trick moniker, and Miles also released a solo album. The Fresh & Onlys also toured for six months of each of the last two years. And they made Long Slow Dance, their new album released on Mexican Summer last week. Recorded with Phil Manley at Lucky Cat Studio, the album finds the band blending their psychedelic predilections with various forms of lustrous pop. With Cohen’s bittersweet take on love mingling with a sparkling blend of sounds that recall Echo and the Bunnymen as much as Love, it is perhaps the finest feather in the band’s multi-plumed hat.

I caught up with Cohen on the phone to chat about the new record and how he can’t seem to stop to the flow of songs pouring from him.

It’s been a couple years since the last Fresh & Onlys record and obviously you did some other things in the interim, but did the band really take a good amount of time off?

Tim Cohen: Quite the contrary, we toured for a good six months out of last year and six months of the year before. We recorded this record when we returned from Europe last year, from October to December. This year has been taken up by the solo projects, but we didn’t take a break at all. We’re out there working. With that came the idea that we wanted to get a label behind us and stop doing one-off handshake deals because it wasn’t serving us well with all the touring we were doing. We didn’t have tour posters sent out or any press.

We did take a break from recording, but I was still writing and we culled together 50 to 60 demos and then paired them down before we went into the studio.

So is the deal with Mexican Summer something a bit more formal? Are you committed to several records with them?

TC: It’s two records, but I have a feeling that it will go until one of us decides that it’s not working anymore. They’ve shown that they are committed to us and stand 100% behind the record we made. It’s been great so far. They have a dedicated team. You go to their office, and everyone is working and not sitting around bullshitting, which was good to see.

Does doing the other projects help you bring new ideas to The Fresh & Onlys or do you draw distinct lines between Magic Trick and what you do with The Fresh & Onlys?

TC: I don’t draw lines at all. The song “Presence of Mind” on the new record was originally a Magic Trick song. It’s sort of up to me to make that decision. With Magic Trick, I don’t have to scratch for creative control. It’s my thing and everyone that I play with is onboard with that. But I played “Presence of Mind” for Shayde and he immediately took to the song and we decided to make it a Fresh & Onlys song. Because we tour so much and have a reliable record label, the Fresh & Onlys songs take a priority for me. Those are the songs that are going to have a life on the road and be more widely heard, so if I feel a song deserves that, that’s where it will wind up. But I don’t draw a distinct line during the writing process. Songs usually just come to me and I don’t earmark them. There’s definitely a filter process, though. If I play a song for The Fresh & Onlys and they’re not feeling it, then I’ll just do something else with it and give it a little life of its own. It may not be as exciting in the long run, but I don’t think the song really cares. It’s just there to bleed away into the aether anyway. It’s not meant to do anything. It’s there and then it’s gone.

The filter process benefits The Fresh & Onlys because it’s not like I’m throwing everything at them and saying we have to record it. That was the mindset at the beginning, then I decided that I had such a surplus of music that it behooved me to have another outlet so I’m not thinking every song is so important that I have to live or die by it. It’s more that the good ones have wings and end up where they’re supposed to. It helps the creative output of the band in the long run to have the other members be able to say that they don’t think something works. It’s not a discouraging process because I can just do something with it later. All these songs are accidents, and I don’t feel I can explain how I write a song. It it works, it works. Anybody can do it. It’s not like it’s rocket science. The ones that sound good right off the bat are usually keepers, but I’ve never shied away from letting an idea live. If I have an idea that’s kind of bad, I’ll still execute it and record it even if it’s a horrible song. I think that’s an important part of my process. It’s cleansing because it’s no longer inside me and no longer tickling my nerves or worming its way through my brain in an annoying way.

In that sense, have you ever had any regrets about anything you’ve put out there?

TC: Yeah, absolutely, but not too many. I stand behind my process. As a band, I think our filter is much more in place than it ever has been. At first, we were excited that we had a band. Shayde and I were full of ideas recording in my bedroom on a crappy reel-to-reel tape machine. We didn’t have the wherewithal and experience to know we shouldn’t be putting everything out. It was exciting that our friends and peers in the music community wanted to put our stuff out on vinyl. But as we developed into, I hesitate to say, “a real band,” our filter fell into place and we decided not to put out every song that we record.

But there are a few songs that are cringeworthy for me. I’m not a fan of the Grey-Eyed Girls album. I love the songs, but it sounds like shit, and sometimes that was our intention. There was a point where we thought it would sound cool if we played through a crappy amp and destroyed the vocals and destroyed the whole recording when we mixed it. That thought actually went into the process. Now, three years later, here we are and we’ve made a pretty listenable album. Whether we’ve matured or have more resources... I don’t plan to have any more regrets. There is more contemplation that goes into ourselves because once you put it on wax and people are able to commodify what you are then it is out of our hands. You can only hope to represent yourself as well as you can, and I think we are a lot closer to that. But it’s going to follow us around like a bad habit, that tag that we are a garage rock band from the San Francisco garage rock scene. It’s always going to be an annoying thing that follows us around as a direct result of those early recordings we made, the associations that we had, and the fact that John Dwyer put out our first record. I wouldn’t take anything back about how we developed as a band—I really don’t have any regrets in that sense—but there are songs I regret, like “What Goes in Circles” on Grey Eyed Girls. We really rushed that record out because we were so excited. I didn’t have the sense to know that it really doesn’t sound that good. For me, it was the coolest thing I’d made in my bedroom. But that record doesn’t sound good at all. It sounds like it was made in a tin box. Shayde still likes that record and other people tell me that it’s their favorite. Otherwise, though, I stand behind everything we’ve done.

Do you feel like the songs on Grey-Eyed Girls are on par with what you are doing now or do you feel like your songwriting has developed as much as the quality of your recordings?

TC: What I said before about all songs being mistakes, that is about the origin. But as far as songwriting, everything now is done with a little more intention. It is more of a craft for me now, whereas before I was just grabbing things out of nowhere and trying to turn them into something tangible. The reason I know I am a better songwriter is because I feel it. Someone might decide otherwise or like it better when it was unrefined and perhaps more immediate and visceral, but I think this is much more in line with what I want to be doing and a more accurate representation of myself. I’ve worked so hard doing this, I should be getting better. If I feel like I’m not getting better, I should call it quits. That’s something, as you know, that a lot of artists fail to see. But I don’t think I’ve reached that point yet. With the new Fresh & Onlys songs I just demoed and the new Magic Trick album I just finished recording, I think they’re heads and shoulders above everything I’ve done. But I really hope that someone checks me if I wrong. I hope I can trust my friends enough to tell me if it’s not good.

I interviewed Shayde when Play It Strange came out, and he was talking about you guys trying to challenge yourselves sonically. I assume you were trying to challenge yourselves once again. Is it like trying to up the ante with each record?

TC: Absolutely, that’s the challenge you have to rise to. I feel like we have unlimited potential as a band. As far as recording, there are no rules to follow. The great thing about a band like Liars or Animal Collective is that they’ve gotten to the point where they can make any record they want. That’s the point I hope we reach. We set the bar very high for ourselves with this album. We wanted to make a record that was timeless and could be heard by anyone at anytime.

I noticed there was some new instrumentation, some horns and xylophone...

TC: It’s not xylophone, it’s marimba. We pretty much avail ourselves of everything that’s in whatever studio we’re in. There are always neat toys around that we’ve never messed with before, and in the spirit of newness and experimentation, there’s always a place for it.

And you guys used Lionel Richie’s microphone and the tape machine that “Werewolves of London” was recorded on, right?

TC: It was the mixing board for “Werewolves,” and yeah, Lionel Richie’s vocal mic. It’s a cool studio that’s been there for years and years, and the guy who owns it, Kurt (Schlegel), hunts for equipment and tracks down crazy stuff. We were lucky enough to sign on to record there and be able to use this stuff. I guess it’s nothing more than a cool anecdote.

You don’t hear any Lionel Richie on the record?

TC: Maybe a little bit, maybe a little soft soul crooning.

You were talking about how the band used to be your and Shayde’s project. Is Wymond more involved in the songwriting now?

TC: It’s still a process where I bring most of the songs to the table or Shayde will present an idea. The songwriting process is a very simple thing and comes very easy to me. I’ll come with the song written out, but then it’s an open book. As far as sonic experimentation and sonic palette, I leave that fully in the hands of everyone else—Kyle, Wymond and Shayde. In the studio, it’s pretty democratic. It’s an easy conversation because we all have the same open-minded approach.

“Fire Alarm” stuck out to me as something different than what you’ve done before. It almost reminded me of some ’80s pop-rock. Is that what you were going for? Do you have those kinds of preconceived notions when you’re constructing a song?

TC: I’m the wrong person to ask. Shayde and Wymond have a much deeper understanding of pop music and the origins of where our sound comes from. Me, I’m kind of a lay person. I’ve heard a lot of records, and I prefer to openly absorb all my influences and let them shine. There’s no point in trying to pretend that anything you do is original. It’s all derived from something you’ve heard or experienced. It frees me up in the writing process not to be afraid to let a song I’ve heard come through in the song that I’m working on. You can’t do something that someone hasn’t already done, but you can do something that’s you. That being said, if it sounds like The Church or The Cure or Joy Division, that’s music that I really haven’t heard. I might have heard it once, and somehow in my subconscious, it goes into the writing process. With the sonic palette of the final product, it may be intentional, but it’s not necessarily my intention. Shayde, Wymond and Kyle have a much deeper understanding of pop music of the past and are ostensibly music nerds. I counterbalance that by not knowing and not really caring.

I really like the title track on the record and the kind of yin and yang quality of the lyrics. Is that representative of how you view love? Does it always have to be a mixture of good and bad? I know I’m getting kind of philosophical here.

TC: The important thing to consider is that love has a very wide spectrum that goes in a 360° circle. Love is what causes the greatest sadness and the greatest happiness. So to me, that’s what life is. Where do you fall, Stephen, on the spectrum of my love? You do fall somewhere on there, because after talking to you, you’re going to become a part of the fabric of my life. Everything I consider in my life falls on that spectrum of causing me deep abject depression and fear or causing the greatest of elation. So when you write about love, I don’t think you can simplify it, like it’s all roses and strawberries or whatever. Love is part of what makes the greatest sadness when you lose it. I write everything from this sort of emotional spectrum, so everything pertains back to that idea of love. On that song in particular, I think it works well. More often than not in these situations of love, it’s like, “This is what I’m coming to the table with and I’d like it if you to come to the table with this and in the end maybe it will work.” That’s all you can really hope for when you fall in love. The yin and the yang thing works because that’s how I feel a lot of the time. When you come into love and meet someone else, you don’t know what they’ve been through. You’re taking a chance that it turns into a blossoming romance. It might turn into a sordid, fucked-up violent affair. You never know. It’s also a hopeful kind of song, like I really hope this works, but I’ve already told you I’m a scumbag.

In general, the record has that mixture of happiness and sadness, and there’s a bittersweet quality to some of the other songs. Ultimately, though, does it feel one way or the other? Do you view it as a sad record or otherwise?

TC: Oddly enough, the Pitchfork review was by far the best review I’ve read. The guy really understood that it’s a romantic record. He really listened to the lyrics and got that romance is like a double-edged sword. Well, that’s simplifying it. Romance is that spectrum, and that falling and fumbling. It’s the awkwardness and the dizziness and confusion and fear and joy of giving yourself to someone else. He really got that it’s a romantic record, and that’s mostly joyful, but there’s also fear and confusion. There’s a romantic idea of love and then there’s this other side that I’m really intrigued by and drives my creative process.

You said that you already demoed some new Fresh & Onlys songs and recorded another Magic Trick album. You also put out several records since Play It Strange. Is it impossible for you to sit still and not make music or do you go through great spurts?

TC: It is impossible, but it’s not something I can control. I feel blessed that ideas just come to me. Knock on wood, but I’ve never had writer’s block. I’ve never struggled because I think every idea deserves a home. I’ve always written everything down since I was a kid. When I’d be upset or depressed, I’d write about it. My parents encouraged that, and they never had to pay a shrink or put me on medication. So that’s what I do. If ever I feel anything, I like to capture it somehow. I jot ideas down constantly. Melodies come to me in my sleep and I wake up and record them on my phone. Then I’m sitting around and I think, “What will become of this melody and these words?” I might as well make a song because I’ve given myself the wherewithal to do it. I’ve always had recording equipment at my house. In a way, I feel like I’m supposed to be doing this. But it’s never a forced thing. It just comes to me. I can’t stop, and I can’t see why I would. I’m just now starting to make the stuff I really want to make.