Travis Stever of Coheed and Cambria

by Greg Prato

Few metal bands are as ambitious as Coheed and Cambria. Case in point, their seventh studio effort, The Afterman: Descension, which is a follow-up to last year's The Afterman: Ascension, and continues the ongoing Amory Wars tale - created/penned by the group's singer/guitarist Claudio Sanchez. Quite a few people have become intrigued by the whole Amory Wars/sci-fi concept, as it has been adapted into a series of comic books and is currently being converted into a movie by none other than Mark Wahlberg (who just two decades ago was mostly shirtless and backed by The Funky Bunch).

As usual, musically, the album contains oodles of off-the-wall prog, of which guitarist Travis Stever plays a part in penning.

Joining Sanchez and Stever in Coheed are bassist Zach Cooper and drummer Josh Eppard - Cooper joined the band in 2012, while Eppard rejoined the same year after serving from 2000 to 2007.

Stever took some time out to discuss the storyline behind The Afterman: Descension, as well as songwriting, how the Rock Band video game introduced Coheed to a new audience, and our mutual admiration for Shannon Hoon/Blind Melon.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): Hey, Travis. How's it going?

Travis Stever: Doing okay.

Songfacts: We actually met once before. I met you a few years ago backstage when Coheed was opening up for Soundgarden. We had talked a little bit about Blind Melon and Shannon Hoon, and the book I wrote about them, A Devil on One Shoulder and an Angel on the Other: The Story of Shannon Hoon and Blind Melon.

Stever: I read it, I really loved it. I read it in the studio while recording Afterman.

Songfacts: Thank you!

Stever: I really enjoyed the book quite a bit. It was a cool perspective to see all the different quotes from people that you gathered from different interviews, as well as your own interviews, right?

Songfacts: Yeah. Basically, it was all new interviews I did, but the quotes from Shannon were from old magazine articles.

Stever: I actually read it while I was in the studio. I was able to get it on iTunes and I read it on my phone. Juggling your book and the Ace Frehley book [No Regrets].

Songfacts: Let's start by talking about the latest album, The Afterman: Descension.

Stever: Where we left off with the first part of the record was with Ascension, which was the namesake of this whole mythos that Claudio created, this universe, which is the Amory Wars, which basically is the story that the lyrics tell through all of our records. This is like an intro to how that universe was created. It's a story about the namesake, Sirius Amory. And so this is the concept side of it. The concept side of it is that on Ascension he went out into the unknown and universes beyond to try and search for the answers, find out what's out there. Like scientists or spacemen or voyagers. And he went out there and he discovered a lot more than he expected. Basically, he discovered the afterlife.

And in the afterlife, it was more like limbo, so there were a lot of entities and spirits that started invading - almost a possession kind of thing. They would jump into his body and he would have to relive what they went through in their lives, being unsettled spirits, and what they were trying to do by invading him and possessing him, trying to live down what they did wrong in their lives that has them in this state of purgatory. But it's not really Purgatory, it's this altered universe where these spirits are stuck and they can't move on and be at peace.

So they keep invading his body. There are numerous songs on the first record, the first part of this, "Key Entity I," "II," and "III." There's "Vic the Butcher," "Evagria," so that's all those battles he goes through. Eventually he gets through that, and he gets these entities out of his body, his ship. The All Mother says, "Do you want to go home? Get back to earth?" And of course he wants to go home, he has a wife at home.

Then he realizes how much time has passed before he goes home, but he still wants to go home. This album, Descension, is him coming home and being praised for the things that he found, but his whole life is upside down. His wife has moved on, found somebody else. His world, it comes to a crashing halt, literally, because his wife passes away right after. She's pregnant, too. All this crazy stuff happens in this second part.

It also deals with him being praised for what he discovered, with the jealousy and how he's able to handle that he discovered the unknown.

All these things that are part of the concept can be relatable in regular terms. As humans we're always questioning the afterlife. We're always questioning what we would do if we knew what the unknown is, if we knew what the afterlife is. If we knew for sure that it's nothing but black - maybe that's the pagan view - it doesn't matter if you're buried or burned, you're going to become part of the earth no matter what.

And then there's the Christian view that you're going to go to heaven, or the many different religions that believe in reincarnation. But what if you really knew? You're the one person who really knew exactly what happened, and you get to tell the rest of the world. That's a big thing to have to handle. Beyond that, being the one person who's discovered the most important thing in the world, that's also a lot. Discovering these other worlds.

So that's the kind of questioning involved in a lot of the songs, and it feeds into a lot of things that Claudio was going through in his life, and also with the band. But Afterman started when his wife Chondra found out that a good friend of hers had died. She found out from the Internet. And that's basically the longing to be able to talk to that person and find out what happened to them after this.

What happens at the end of Descension is when his wife passes away, he makes the decision - probably the wrong decision - to go back out there and try and track her down in this world that he discovered, which is purely just danger for a human to go into.

So it deals with love, loss. I just explained to you this whole grandiose concept, but the songs come from a real place. When Claudio writes lyrics they're coming from a real place. And it starts as music. When we write music for a song, whether it be the smallest guitar part to the drums, it's not dictated by the concept, it's dictated by the song being the best it can be. Kind of letting the song be our muse.

Songfacts: How would you describe the songwriting process in the band?

Stever: The majority of the time, Claudio has the skeleton to a song if we're going to write around that. But sometimes I have a riff and it really excites him. He'll write a song to that riff and we'll work on it together. There are a couple of songs on this Descension record where that was the case: "Iron Fist" and "Dark Side of Me" and "Away We Go" are songs that I had riffs for and then we worked on it together as a band, and he wrote the lyrics and vocal melodies and arranged it. That's what happens with a majority of the songs that Claudio has. He'll have this skeleton of a song, and sometimes it's even fully arranged, like "Gravity's Union" is an example. He had that song for a year before he had the demo version. Some of the vocals, the original vocals, were recorded at his house from demo mode, and it turned out to be one of my favorite vocal performances by him on the record.

That's kind of the way it goes: you capture something, you don't want to lose it. And that was the way that song went. He had it and then everybody kind of built around it. The song was around for two years. I had guitar parts that I had put to it and then I changed them by the time the rest of the band played on it, because when Josh got in there, it was a completely different feel. We worked on that song with Chris Pennie two years prior, and it just changed. It changed for the better. That's nothing against Chris, it's just the way that that song turned out. It was very fit for what Josh does.

And then Zach came along. So sometimes that's also the way it goes, is like we're in the studio and this skeleton of the song's there and it's all built up, and then everybody adds their stuff and it might be like, "Hey, that part might need to change a little bit."

And we're that kind of band that has the communication where we can say to each other, "I don't know if that works anymore." It gets frustrating. There were fly-on-the-wall cameras for this studio excursion, and I'm sure that cameras caught numerous moments where it was just disappointment. Like, "Really? Fuck, man, I love that part." And then everybody else is just, "It just doesn't work there," or two or three people, "That works, but..."

It's an interesting way to go about it, but I wouldn't change anything about it because it makes the music better when people have to connect in that way and collaborate. If it was just completely dictated by one person in every way all the time, something would get sucked out of that.

Songfacts: Is it easy or difficult coming up with guitar parts with Claudio, as far as lines that are cohesive and also fit together?

Stever: We're only normal, so of course we butted heads on things. Sometimes he just has an idea. I'm creative in the same sense. So that's the thing, if he has a set idea for a song and that's just what he wants, of course I'm going to feel a "vacancy" if you will, and be like, "Oh, man, what's going to be my creative input?" An example of that, which has turned into one of my favorite songs live, is "Vic the Butcher." He had the guitar parts through and through for that tune. I recorded the guitar parts for "Vic the Butcher" on the record, and of course the way it turned out I was able to add a solo that was mine, and that made me be a little bit more close to it.

It's tough with music: you want to feel close to what you're doing. There are session people that show up and they're told exactly what to do. That's still a great job, but I would never like doing that. That's just not what I ever was, but sometimes that can be uncomfortable. That's what you get used to when you're in a band, is finally saying, "This person wrote this song and they have this idea for this guitar part, and it really does work." You've got to separate yourself. So what I need to do is try and just let it happen and not get too protective of my own feelings.

"Vic the Butcher" is this great example of it, because it's my favorite song to play live now. It's funny how that works. When we recorded it, I was like, "Aw, man, I would have played this part different" and "I would have done that," but that's how he heard it, and it's the way he wanted the song to be. And so when I played those parts, I put my heart and soul into it and it shows.

I think that even if you're playing a part that somebody else created and you've got to record it, if you're fighting it, it still comes through your fingers. Somehow that can be heard. Even if it's a part that somebody else created and you're collaborating with them, you've got to somehow make it yours in a way and roll with it.

And Afterman, I kind of grew in that sense, to be able to say, "I could do that," and not wear my heart on my sleeve too much and be disappointed in it. I think that some people can't handle that.

Songfacts: Nowadays with commercial radio, it's almost impossible for rock bands that are doing anything cutting edge or original to get on the playlists. So I'm impressed that bands like Coheed and Cambria reached a whole new audience by things like Rock Band, the video game.

Stever: "Welcome Home" and "Ten Speed" were on Rock Band. It sucks, because that's kind of past now. I mean, tell me if I'm wrong, Greg, but I think that the Rock Band era is almost to a close. Kids loved it, but it's the way things are now. I mean, with the Internet, everything's at our fingertips. So it's an "ADD Nation." People are just onto the next thing before you know it.

But during that time period when Rock Band had our songs on there and when "Welcome Home" was used for the 9 Soundtrack, that stuff's incredible what it does for a band. It spreads the name, it made it so people that would have probably not given us the chance gave us the chance, they listened to it. They were curious and they finally got a chance to listen. We made a lot of fans that way, and we've made a lot of fans through the Internet in general, with being able to be a part of certain things. It's crazy how it can affect the band in a bad way, but at the same time be so good for a band. Records are not going to sell anymore. Think about the exposure that you've gotten through the InterWeb. So it's funny, it's definitely a Catch 22.

Songfacts: And as far as lyric writing in the band, is it totally Claudio that writes lyrics?

Stever: Yeah. Claudio is the lyricist. I know you're doing a songwriting thing and I'm trying to be as helpful as possible. I can tell you what certain lyrics mean, because I do know them.

Songfacts: This is interesting, though, because I know that you do have a major part in writing the music to the songs, so that's obviously a very important part as well.

Stever: Wherever I can get my hand in anything guitar-wise or anything, I'm always there. I mean, Claudio is very hands-on in every way, and that's why he's an amazing songwriter.

There are three of the songs on this album that I couldn't be more proud that I had to do with from the get-go. And even adding to the other songs, like adding a new flavor, I think that's very important when it comes to songs, even with side projects that I work on, I always think that collaboration is the most important thing. I could create a whole song, but know it's always better to have an outside perspective. It's always better to have somebody that may add that different twist to it. Claudio has been open to that and that's why Coheed has always had a different kind of feel.

And having Josh back, the original foundation the band was created on, that also makes a big difference for how these songs were created and how they turned out for these records.

Songfacts: What's the meaning behind "Vic the Butcher"?

Stever: "Vic the Butcher" is one of the entities. And so Vic the Butcher was, in his human life, a terrible person. He burned a bunch of people in an apartment building. He was evicting people, but they couldn't get out - just a really evil person. Started a fire to get the insurance money and did evil things. He works for evil people. But he was one of those people that once they went to this afterlife, they were unsettled and stuck there.

So Vic the Butcher invades Sirius Amory's body and therefore he has the song describing Vic the Butcher's life: "184, let's burn it down, hang your secrets, hang them up now," the main parts of the song are describing this evil guy. Even the march at the beginning of the song. It's getting inside this person's mind, because they've possessed Sirius Amory. And the song just ends abruptly with "Hang your secrets, hang them up." Then there's a little in-between section or segue, and it's showing that he's battling the entity to get it out, and the next song will be "Evagria," which is another entity.

But a majority of the songs on the first record, Ascension, are the entities, and that's one of the entities that possesses him and invades his body.

But there's also a real side to the song. Claudio had gotten into a fight with a friend of ours one night, and I was actually there. A lot of the words are an almost therapeutic way for him to get out some of his anger for what he felt for this person. And he also got into a fight with his wife when he got home, and that fight was in the apartment they lived in, which was 184.

So that's a good way of explaining these. It's like the story comes after he's already made this song about something that really happened, and then he creates the words to tell the story. But at the same time being something that really happened to him. Like basically you're saying, "184, let's burn it down." Like, "Fuck it, we don't have to live here anymore. I don't care about anything." He's so upset that he has this fight, so he's like, "Fuck it, I don't care, burn this building down. I don't give a shit."

So that's the one perspective. And the other perspective is this crazy maniac evil man who burnt a building with a bunch of people in it.

Songfacts: You're a big Blind Melon and Shannon Hoon fan, so I'm just curious, what is it that made them so special, and why do you think they're an underrated band?

Stever: I still wait for the day where [the 1995 Blind Melon album] Soup will get recognized for what it really is. But it's funny, where I am here in New York is Warwick, and pretty close to Bethel, New York, where the original Woodstock was. My father used to take me to all those original Woodstock things - I was brought up in a hippie world. My mother was completely the other side, though. I don't know how they were ever married. I thank God I have the two of them in my life, but they're two opposite ends of the spectrum.

So I took my dad away and funny enough we're in this little hotel kind of thing, and there's this really cool restaurant in it, almost like a resort. And the cook comes and hangs out with us. We had been hanging out all night - we're a little out there, a little "relaxed," if you will. And all of a sudden, this cook and I connect on our love for Blind Melon and our love for Soup. We start having sing-alongs, just going through the whole album, like word for word, we knew it. And it made me think, "Wow, it's almost like a cult following still for that record." And even the first record, beyond "No Rain," there's nobody who I usually connect with and they know the words the way that I do and love the song meanings. For me, personally, there was just a connection with a song like "Deserted," where we'll all battle our own certain things. And just the little line where it says, "The bottle cap flew from my fingers," that's the right song, right?

Songfacts: Yes, that is.

Stever: It's the whole, "I don't know what I've gotten into, but I'm glad that it's now instead of sooner," and I know the song, half of it is not really even about drinking. But it works for me to connect with. And a lot of his lyrics always were very easy for me to connect with. And musically the band itself, it's just underrated - there were so many bands at that time that were just half as talented, if not a quarter. And they were still kind of left to just be known for "No Rain," which is a fantastic song, but I know reading your book, they were all, "What? This is why we're so known, this one song?"

And that's just natural, that happens. That happened for Coheed numerous times, and you could only hope that it keeps happening for the band. But "A Favor House Atlantic," that's the (singing) "Good eye sniper," that's that poppy, really Police sounding song. We'll play shows and we have these songs that are completely different than that, and people will just be there waiting for that song. They'll be like, "What the fuck is this other stuff this band's playing?" And that's just natural. That's what happens when you're a band and you want to expand and explore new musical territory.

I think for Blind Melon, it's going to catch on. Or at least I'm always going to be the one flying the flag for them, trying to make it catch on.

As for the newest record [For My Friends], I never got to sit with it enough. I'm the habitual listener still of the first record [Blind Melon] and Soup and Nico, and even that new live thing they released [Live at the Palace]. I have that on my phone. I've listened to that and it was a great live record. There are certain bands that the singer is not the most important part, it's not that. It's just that their voice and their words that you connect with, it's hard to move on to connect with that other person.

Coheed and Cambria couldn't be Coheed and Cambria without Claudio. I mean, obviously, he created this concept. It'd be absurd for a band to go on and go, "All right, we're not going to do concepts, but we're going to keep the name." You can't do that. And then beyond that, he's the voice that the band was built on, and songs. So it's not possible.

And I've always felt the same way about Thin Lizzy. Thin Lizzy's one of my favorite bands.

Songfacts: Me too, if you can believe that! You and I have very similar musical tastes.

Stever: Absolutely. I would imagine so. That's the other thing. Once you get down to the brass tacks, when you find somebody who loves Blind Melon, especially Soup, the album, because there are people that love the first record, and they couldn't understand Soup. I can't understand those people. I'm just like, "Are you kidding me? You can't hear the cool things going on in that record?" But whatever. When you find the people that do, you know that a majority of the things you're going to mention after that they're going to like the same thing.

When he passed away [Shannon Hoon], I sent a little demo tape of me singing, because I always loved to sing in his register. But I was only 16. It was hilarious. God, if I could track down those songs, they're probably terrible. I sent this little demo thing with those songs. And oh, yeah, I sat and wished for months. Because they put out an ad [looking for a new singer] in the Village Voice.

Songfacts: Yes, they did. I remember that.

Stever: And I was just like, "Oh, man, if only I..." and I was always so disappointed I never got to see them live with him singing. And the same with Thin Lizzy. I'll go see Thin Lizzy, it's just never going to be the same when it comes to new stuff. That's all. Maybe it'll be better in a certain way, but it's kind of like Zeppelin, too. I think they're making a right decision by not trying to go make an album. I wouldn't particularly think that that's a good idea.

Songfacts: Did you learn things you didn't know about Blind Melon from the book?

Stever: I was able to find out things that I never knew before. I really liked the perspective of having all the band's quotes basically in the timeline fashion. And also the perspective of family and friends from what happened. And from such a huge fan of the band, it also brought me back into my fandom. It made me go back to the records and I became an avid listener again of those records. It brought a whole new meaning and level to the records to read the book.

Songfacts: Cool.

Stever: It kind of showed me where certain things with certain songs were at. And since we're doing a songwriting interview right now, it really was cool to see the perspective of where certain songs came from, who wrote them, how they had to kind of discuss who was going to play what at certain points. It made me be able to connect with Blind Melon as a band in the same way that I'm in a band. And be able to understand that they work the same way.

Songfacts: Very cool. And one more question: what are the future plans for Coheed and Cambria at this point?

Stever: Right now we're gearing up to do some European festival dates. First we're doing some Florida stuff. Like little radio shows. Basically like, "Come on, play our songs, please, kind of thing." [Laughs] And then we're going over to Asia, I think we're supposed to do North Korea, which is sounding scary. So when we do that, we come home, I think that we might hit Hawaii, which will be nice. We come home, we do Uproar. That's the thing we're really excited about - my wife and I, when I was 19, the first date we went on I took her to Jane's Addiction. Actually, Flea was playing bass that day. I guess it was about seven years after they broke up and they had gotten back together for that reunion, and Eric Avery came back, I think a few years later. But within that little period of time, I took her to that. And then Alice in Chains, of course, it's just like when we did the Soundgarden tour. It's a huge thing. I would pay for it anyway. I can't wait to play and then go out and have a beer and watch these bands.

So yeah, that's the plan right now. And then after that we'll have headlining stuff that we'll be doing. And probably working on new stuff, because we just don't stop.

June 11, 2013
More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 1

  • B from Canadafeel the same about soup... fantastic album... completely unappreciated.
see more comments

Editor's Picks

Tom Johnston from The Doobie Brothers

Tom Johnston from The Doobie BrothersSongwriter Interviews

The Doobies guitarist and lead singer, Tom wrote the classics "Listen To The Music," "Long Train Runnin'" and "China Grove."

Sub Pop Founder Bruce Pavitt On How To Create A Music Scene

Sub Pop Founder Bruce Pavitt On How To Create A Music SceneSong Writing

With $50 and a glue stick, Bruce Pavitt created Sub Pop, a fanzine-turned-label that gave the world Nirvana and grunge. He explains how motivated individuals can shift culture.

Howard Jones

Howard JonesSongwriter Interviews

Howard explains his positive songwriting method and how uplifting songs can carry a deeper message.

Gilby Clarke

Gilby ClarkeSongwriter Interviews

The Guns N' Roses rhythm guitarist in the early '90s, Gilby talks about the band's implosion and the side projects it spawned.

Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull

Ian Anderson of Jethro TullSongwriter Interviews

The flautist frontman talks about touring with Led Zeppelin, his contribution to "Hotel California", and how he may have done the first MTV Unplugged.

Emilio Castillo from Tower of Power

Emilio Castillo from Tower of PowerSongwriter Interviews

Emilio talks about what it's like to write and perform with the Tower of Power horns, and why every struggling band should have a friend like Huey Lewis.