After years of playing supporting roles on the cover-band circuit, Jonathan Cohen forms the Erftones and steps into the spotlight
By John Rodat
Jonathan Cohen really doesn’t seem scared.
Sitting on the flagstone patio behind his Center Square apartment in shorts, a T-shirt and weathered hiking boots, watching a couple of cats lazing in the sun that streams over the stockade fence onto the healthy, if unruly, garden, the bassist- composer seems very much at ease. He talks comfortably and enthusiastically of his newest band, the Erftones, whose album, Record, will be released on Sunday. He offers up casually philosophical observations of his own life and progress as a musician. He speaks like a person who’s erred often, but reconciled himself to those errors, learned from them. He appears pretty relaxed. Glancing over his shoulder back into the apartment at the baby grand piano covered in charts, and at the nearby bass in its stand, it’s tempting to think of the life of the composer as peaceful and fulfilling, almost idyllic. But to hear Cohen tell it, he’s shaking in those hiking boots.
“Everything I need, to do what I need to do is here; the last four or five years prove that,” Cohen says. “Who’s getting in my way? Nobody’s getting in my way. Everybody’s supporting me. I don’t know why—and I’m not going to stop and ask—but if I want to do something, the biggest problem for me succeeding in anything I’m doing is me. Nothing is in my way as much as I am myself, which is terrifying.”
Admittedly, Cohen’s is what they call a high-quality problem.
Area music fans are almost certain to be familiar with the Berklee-trained bassist (one of three Berklee-trained siblings, as it happens), but most will know him as an accomplished sideman: From a surprisingly early age, the Bethlehem-raised Cohen worked as a professional session and support player. Cohen’s father, a bassist himself, was a member of Chuck Mangione’s original band, and through industry connections of his, Jonathan and his brothers got gigs at major studios in New York City: “I was 15, and my youngest brother, Jordy, would have been, Christ, 11, and we were in rehearsals 12 hours a day, working out albums, doing recording sessions. It was cool, we got a good start.”
Though Cohen continued to play through high school, upon graduation he was uncertain what to do. He pursued a “philosophical study washing dishes for a while,” then—almost haphazardly—followed his brother, Adrian, to Berklee. “Yeah, Adrian was going to Berklee, and my parents were asking me, ‘What do you think? Do you feel like going?’ And I was like, ‘What the hell, let’s go.’ ”
Of the training he received at Berklee, Cohen says, “It made all the difference in the world: It’s a weird school and it’s expensive, and there’s a lot of clowns like there are at any school, but that’s what set me up. I feel like you get out of it what you put into it, and I just ate it up.”
After finishing in Boston, Cohen spent time in New York City, but eventually he wound his way back home and began working the local club circuit with numerous party bands. “Going back only to the middle ’90s, there was a band called Jericho, a band called Mickey T. Guild and the Storm—that was country, commercial country; I wore a hat, too, godamnit—and Box of Rain, which was formerly Slipknot, and Out of Control [Rhythm and Blues Band] . . .” Cohen trails off as he recalls the many professional cover bands he’s worked for, summing up with a smirk, “I’ve never done a full-time reggae band. I know there’s one out there for me, though, and I’m not dead yet.”
That variety of experience is not unusual among full-time musicians: To pay the bills, you do your thing in a Stetson one night and a tri-color tam the next—if you’re lucky, only metaphorically. But the specifics of Cohen’s résumé begin to seem odd when he details his own personal musical passions.
“I was really influenced by Stravinsky when I was in school,” he says. “A friend turned me on to that and I flipped out. And my brother Jordy had turned me on to a lot of late-’80s rap, and I got into that right away, too. I don’t know if people will agree with me about this, but Stravinsky did all this bitonal, polytonal music where you’re functioning within a key, but you’ve got a couple of them going at once and you’re vague about it. And in rap, you’re taking the guitar from one tune, keyboard from another tune, bass and drums from another, and they’re not in the same key. They’re not really thinking of it like that, but it’s all this awesome polytonal stuff.”
In fact, the incongruity of Cohen’s adventurous tastes and the conventions of cover-band life began to wear on him. He was making good money working with the popular Out of Control Rhythm and Blues Band, but more and more he found it unfulfilling. So much so that even the gigs that he had with bands playing originals, bands whose material Cohen enjoyed, like the “unashamed pop” of Tollbooth and Mitch Elrod’s Hick Engine Ears, began to suffer.
“I was going through a weird period with music, and I almost quit [the Engine Ears]. And though Mitch’ll never say it, I think I almost got thrown out because I was really sour on music,” Cohen recalls. “I was still doing cover stuff, and just not wanting to come out the door. And Tollbooth was also happening at the time and I was getting all cranky and anal at rehearsal. I’m like, ‘If I’m going to these bands and having problems, something’s wrong—because there’s no reason to have a problem with these bands.’ ”
In response, Cohen took almost a year off: “I quit Out of Control. I wasn’t enjoying it. The money just wasn’t worth it anymore, not compared to the hassle,” he says. Tollbooth broke up, and he gigged with Elrod only occasionally. Supporting himself as a piano tuner and rebuilder, Cohen used the downtime to reappraise his life as a musician.
“I didn’t become a good bass player so that I could play in cover bands and do that all my life,” he says. “I wanted to make some artistic statement.”
It was a chance pick-up gig that offered Cohen the insight on how to make that statement explicit.
“I had a lot of stuff written, but I can’t say I had a really specific idea of what was going to happen,” Cohen says. “There’s a guy, Rand Reeves, who’s actually the piano rebuilder I apprenticed under, and he was the choir director at this church in Schenectady, and they put on this big production of a piece called The Apostle. And he was like, ‘Jonny, I need a rhythm section.’ So, I got hired for the gig with . . . Chad Ploss on percussion, and Matt Pirog on guitar. And it was like Godspell or Jesus Christ Superstar, all these great ’70s grooves. It was a score, it was theater, it was hard, but I’m trying to think about who I want in a band and these two guys are both so good, and they’re doing it and liking it, you know? They’re doing it well and having fun. I was like, ‘All right.’ ”
Impressed by the abilities of Ploss (with whom Cohen had played in Tollbooth) and Pirog to “freak out but also do pop, or whatever,” Cohen signed them on, christened the trio the Erftones, and attempted to settle into the novel and daunting role of bandleader.
“It’s scary, it’s very scary,” Cohen admits. “I think this is the first time I’ve ever really, honestly, fully accepted that I was in charge of something, and really gave myself the authority to be the authority. With that said, just trying to keep it together and be patient and not make too many demands on people, but kick ’em in the ass to get what you want out of them, was difficult.”
In describing the process of helming the recording of Record, Cohen is unstinting in his praise of his bandmates and of longtime collaborator and album engineer, Chris Graf: “They really helped out a lot. I mean, if I was a jackass, they wouldn’t have, but I can’t give myself all the credit. They showed up, man. They showed up and they got it done.”
The album, which will be debuted at a listening party at Changing Spaces Art Gallery on Sunday from 7 to 10 PM, fuses Cohen’s disparate influences, from new jazz and fusion to 20th-century classical to hiphop, into an upbeat, thick-grooved, primarily instrumental mix that Cohen is hesitant to pigeonhole: “Kindly, people have said, ‘Oh, it sorta sounds like Steely Dan,’ or ‘It kinda sounds like Zappa,’ because they don’t know what else to call it. But what kind of music is Steely Dan? It’s just Steely Dan. It’s hard to put in a genre.”
That roundabout description would, no doubt, make marketers cringe, and Cohen is quick to admit to some anxiety in the face of uncertainty. But after his long time in the trenches, amassing the experience and building the confidence to make his statement, he is by and large optimistic.
“I feel like this is really kooky stuff and it’s not exactly mainstream, but, you know, Christ, if it’s a good thing and you believe in it, nobody’s gonna stop you,” he says. “You can have what you want. We can have whatever success we want, I’m sure. F***, anybody can. You just have a good attitude toward it, you can get what you want out of life. That’s the scary part. What do you do when you actually get the job?”
As Cohen bends in his chair to pet the cat curling against his leg, he apes a high-pitched, gently panicked voice: “Oh, my God! What do I do now?”