‘Don’t call me kook’
Outsider folk musician Dan Cohen gets a major indie label deal
When he’s not selling old records or cruising thrift stores shopping for strange toys and other knickknacks nobody else wants, Dan Cohen makes music. Quirky, eccentric, ghoulish, at times beautiful music.
A 52-year-old Los Angeles native, Cohen has been playing guitar and organ while home-recording his own surreal folk originals for some 40 years now. He currently resides with his elderly mother in a retirement community in Paradise, their home filled with oil paintings done by his mom, a lifelong commercial artist, as well as Cohen’s sprawling collection of keyboard instruments, cartoonish figurines and old records.
I’ve known Dan for years. Like a true auteur, he has always had a controlling and extremely driven vision concerning his music. No matter how small the audience or how many influential personalities he has known (his brother, Greg Cohen, is considered one of the best bassists in the world by Downbeat magazine and has played with everyone from Tom Waits and Bob Dylan to current collaborator Ornette Coleman), Cohen always maintains his own style. Odd, yelping vocals shift to deep growls or a Lennonesque falsetto. Rimbaud-like poet-as-God lyrics accompany mutilated chords that stumble and knock around before falling into a lovely melody, as if by chance.
After releasing a couple of albums for prolific New York producer/musician John Zorn on his Tzadik label, Cohen recently got a record deal with a major-label subsidiary, Anti (Los Angeles), which counts Merle Haggard, hot comedian Eddie Izzard and Tom Waits on its roster. He was also featured recently in two LA Weekly articles about outsider music, a genre meant to describe eccentric, often self-taught musicians too strange for commercial success.
The CN&R recently spoke with Cohen, who’s also a freelance writer, to talk about his long, self-styled career in music.
Your music is pretty eccentric. How do you describe it to people?
It’s eclectic pop music. Most of it’s very mellow. The new stuff’s not blues, albeit the brunt of the material is based in blues. It usually draws heavily from folk music, the Baroque period of classical music, and to a lesser extent some modern jazz and avant-garde contemporary orchestral [music].
I know you’ve been influenced by visual arts. Could you discuss how movies and paintings have affected you?
I minored in filmmaking at Berkeley and CSU, Northridge. The way I write songs is kind of like film editing. … You wanna excise the chaff and superimpose other elements on top of what you have for a transparent layering effect—I do that with my arranging. I can equate it to cinematic special effects, because you’ve got a raw image but you’re embellishing it. As far as painting, surrealism juxtaposed symbolic elements that are dreamlike. I saw Rene Magritte’s painting “The Liberator” once at a museum when I was on four-way acid. … Now I try to superimpose dreamlike elements onto natural [pop] progressions.
How influential was your family?
My dad had an interior-decorating business in LA and acted bit parts in noir films, but he never took too big a risk with acting, opting instead to be responsible. My mom was an artist, a Rosicrucian who was into meditation—her art was pretty much commercial. She did continuity sketches for the Irwin Allen sci-fi TV shows, and she did the Planetarium dome art, taking over for a famous astronomy artist. As a musician, my brother was slapped by the leader of our first band for every mistake, so he became a perfectionist. But what he does is totally different from my music.
What was the LA scene like in the early ’60s?
My brother and I started a band called Charleston Grotto around 1959, which went through three stages: The first was surf and early garage punk—we shared a practice space with the band Love before their first record came out; then we were a Rolling Stones-type copy band that was totally negligible; then we were an early-funk rock/comedy band.
It was a common thing in those days to play the Teenage Fair because there weren’t a lot of venues to play where one could get discovered. We played the same year as Neil Young, I learned from his biography. … All musicians were paid the same thing: a Gillette razor, because they were sponsors. Most of the local bands around LA were somewhat famous but still regarded as just “the local boys.” Around Topanga Canyon, you could go the Moonfire Inn on any Sunday and catch Spirit, CSN&Y, Jimi Hendrix, Taj Mahal, Canned Heat, Joni Mitchell—jamming together for free.
Eventually, our band got heavily into R&B and played with some great players like Lou Rawls’ drummer. We were doing very early funk.
You’ve been credited in the media with recording one of the first punk songs ever.
It’s been somewhat documented. The guy who opened the Masque, the first punk club on the West Coast, Brendan Mullin [currently seen on the E! Channel], came from Scotland and heard the original Sony reel-to-reel tapes of the early-'60s material, particularly a song called “Kill Your Teacher” from 1961. The only element of punk that I put into it was the lyrics, which were defiant and used bad language. The guitar player actually was one of the first to play those violent three-chord songs. A producer in LA has the tapes, and I hope to release those early Grotto recordings someday.
You were also a notorious live band back then, correct?
In the early-'70s, we played the Starwood [Whisky A-Go Go competitor] on the Sunset Strip during the comedy-rock phase of our band. There was some buzz about our band because we had all these theatrical accompaniments to our songs, pre-Kiss. One of our songs, “Audio-Rheagash,” was about a girl who called people up when she had diarrhea and put the phone by the toilet bowl. We had this gay guy onstage dancing around smearing himself with chocolate pudding. A week later, I found out some fans had smeared real shit all over the bathroom mirrors. We kind of got blacklisted for this type of behavior. Soon after, my brother left the band to play full-time with Tom Waits.
You’ve said you were heavily influenced by a nearby neighbor, Don Van Vliet (aka Captain Beefheart), in Woodland Hills.
He lived about a block away in an old country club house [featured on the legendary Trout Mask Replica album]. My younger sister sold Girl Scout cookies to him. That’s how I came to know him originally. I was good friends with his Magic Band. Nobody knew at the time how structured his music was—people thought it was improvised. … For me, his whole approach to life was more intriguing than his music. He rebelled against any social or cultural norms of Western society, I think mainly because he was a loner and grew up in the desert. He would speak in cryptic aphorisms, kind of had a Zen approach to everything he did. Once he asked me if I ever heard weird noises in the night. I said, “Yeah.” He gave me this strange look and said, “It’s just the house settling.”
How did your solo career come about?
As soon as I graduated college, I went off on a hobo odyssey that lasted about 20 years. I lived in many places—Portland, Seattle, Oakland, all over LA, Santa Barbara, Tucson—and should’ve been killed about a dozen times over. That influenced my music in intangible ways. Anywhere I would live I would record songs about the place I was living. Slice-of-life songs.
How did the new record deal with Anti come about?
Last summer, they saw a performance of mine in LA at the Schindler House—close to where one of the A&R people lived. Currently I have a one-record deal with options, and the first album [tentatively titled False Spring] should be out early next year.
In light of your struggles finding an audience, what keeps you going?
Any artist makes art because he has to express something from inside. … [As far as playing live] Chico has changed since I moved here. It used to be cheap and not very crowded, one of the last California meccas. Since that time, most of the hipsters have left, the ones without family or business commitments. I think it’s boring to play the same songs every week like a lot of Chico bands. But they get paid, so they do it. I don’t get paid because I don’t appeal to that many people.
I play nowadays just to "keep greased," as Tom [Waits] puts it, so I’m ready when I play the cities—where they tend to appreciate the weirder stuff. Over the years, I had a few chances to go more commercial but rebelled against doing what I should have done because I didn’t give a damn. I’ve lived in squalor most my life and am used to it. … That’s partly why it took me 43 years to "make it."