In July I played a show in the extremely sweaty upstairs of the Kung Fu Necktie in Philadelphia with a young man from Lowell, Massachusetts named Jon Kohen. He’s a fantastic musician who blends his acoustic guitar with his world percussion and electronic samples. I had the chance to chat with him about his EP, The Heart of the Machine, and more!
MEB: Thanks for doing this interview! The Heart of the Machine is a really fantastic EP. Could you tell a bit about how you made it?
Jon Kohen: Of course! I really appreciate the kind words, and I’d love to explain how I made the EP. I am primarily an acoustic singer-songwriter, so I wrote all the songs on guitar and vocals first. Then I recorded the guitar and vocals in my room, downloaded a lot of royalty-free dance and world beats, adjusted the tone/timbre, and turned them down about twenty decibels. In some cases I spliced them up and remade them. I also added my own drones and melodies, mainly using a synthesizer. On the third and fourth tracks I used a Tibetan singing bowl, which is a hell of a thing. The whole process of recording and arranging took about two months.
I’ve seen you play before, and I really enjoyed the combination of your acoustic playing and sampling. How does working with samples and such translate live? Do you ever play live with other musicians backing you?
The live tracks that I play along to live are practically identical to my recorded music. The only difference is that I add more four-on-the-floor percussion in order to keep time with the track.
Recently, my friend Ben Raymond has been joining me on stage to sing harmony and perform witchcraft. Honestly, half the time I have no idea what he’s doing, but it sounds amazing. He adds a lot of vocal and trumpet loops, which will be featured on my next album. He’s in a band called Warped Forest which he himself describes as “loop-based folk”. It’s definitely worth checking out.
How’d you first get starting making music? Have there been any particularly impactful changes in your journey as a songwriter?
Nirvana was the first band to inspire me to write songs. Kurt made it look easy, and relating to him was the first time that I understood that playing passionately was astronomically more important than learning to play technically well- that understanding the “why?” behind the question of songwriting, rather than the “how?” was the key to success and becoming your own as a writer. That being said, the Unplugged in NYC show quite literally changed my life. Especially his Leadbelly cover at the end.
As for my sound, I also draw a lot of inspiration from Elliott Smith. The first time I heard the drone at the beginning of “Angeles”, I fell in love almost immediately. I try to emulate that sound by using the drones in my music that I was referring to earlier.
Who or what do you think influences you the most as an artist?
I really take my time writing words. Writing music is a lot easier for me. The album I just finished tracking would have been done a long time ago had I not added words. What I’m trying to say is that it’s the hardest part of what I do, and I constantly seek out inspiration. I draw a lot of that inspiration from poetry, particularly T.S. Eliot- my favorite poem is “The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock”.
Also, I’m a huge Paul Simon fan. I aspire to someday write songs like very short, well-written books- kind of like he does. John Darnielle from The Mountain Goats does that really well too.
Last time I saw you, I played at your house for the first day of my summer tour. Could you shed some light on your perception of the DIY community?
Sure! Nowadays the DIY community is arguably even more important than it ever has been. The music industry is not as strong as it used to be, and record labels and venues are paying the price. As a result, major (and most indie) labels are waiting until later in the game to sign bands, and venues are charging more.
Therefore, musicians have taken matters in their own hands, even more than they’ve ever had to. It’s simultaneously a great and awful thing. On the down-side, beginning musicians are forced to work much harder than they already had to in order to achieve their goals. However, the DIY community is a beautiful, beautiful collection of friendly musicians and music-lovers who help each other constantly by providing donation-based underground venues to play, food to eat, places to sleep, and friends to hang out with. We’re all in the same boat, and there is a general understanding and caring atmosphere in the DIY community. To me, going on tour completely DIY has been a fantastic experience interacting with some of the most hospitable people I’ve ever met.
I also love being a part of setting up shows in my current hometown of Lowell, MA. My roommates and I have been putting on shows in the area for a while, and just recently got our hands on a large basement. It’s called Spill City. It was originally going to be called Cloud City, after the Star Wars metropolis, but then someone spilled something.
I picked up a copy of The Heart of the Machine when we met in Philadelphia and keep it my car all the time. The black spray paint actually blends in with my CD case, so I always accidentally put another CD over it without thinking. What made you want to make all the packaging yourself? I love the simplicity of it.
I did it so that it could be camouflaged. I didn’t want anyone to find it and listen to it!
My budget was a big factor in my decision-making regarding packaging. Getting CDs done professionally is expensive. I didn’t want to spend too much money, but I still really wanted the CD to be presented well. So, I searched the internet for DIY CD case ideas. I tried all sorts of crazy stuff, like using printer paper to package them, but that turned out to be way too hard and inefficient.
Eventually, I found a great site called Stumptown Printers. They’re based out of Portland and their cases are perfect. It’s something around $20 for 50 of them. You have to fold them yourself, but that’s no big deal. Custom stamps are also surprisingly cheap. Like, $10 a stamp online. Ink is also inexpensive and available at any arts and crafts store. Also, if you want a lot of cheap blank CDs, head over to Radioshack. I think they’re going out of business or something. Either way, they almost always have blank CDs on sale in bulk. After that, I use the cheapest spray paint I can find. Nothing too fancy. The ones I’ve used don’t chip or interfere with the playing of the CD, so it’s a frugal and easy way to decorate them.
What’s it like being a musician using lots of electronics within that DIY community? That’s something you don’t see every day.
It’s pretty easy, actually! I just use an interface with my computer. I only need two more ¼ inch inputs than usually necessary to get stereo sound. Only one cable, if need be. I’m always looking to improve my setup, though- I just need a lot more money for that. Someday I hope I can afford my own PA with really nice speakers. My friend Kevin Dwyer (who mixed The Heart of the Machine), said that he might start looking into an Ableton Live controller to mix/interact with me live. That would be unreal.
Also, sometimes, by request, some DIY venues want a strictly acoustic show. Like I mentioned earlier, I’m an acoustic guitar player/singer at heart, so that’s no problem at all. I like to play fully acoustic shows every once and a while.
Who made the digital artwork? The heart illustration fits the music perfectly.
My friend Eric Mack made the digital artwork for The Heart of the Machine. He’s a very talented guy. We met at a house show on Cape Cod when I was still playing solo-acoustic sets under the name “Kismet”, a few months before I started experimenting with the computer stuff. I ended up giving him a tape after the show, and he offered to do artwork for my music someday. The rest is history!
What’s in the works? I’m anxiously awaiting some new music!
I’m working on my first album right now, and I’m really excited about it. It’s still in post-production. This one is a lot more accessible, I think. For the first few songs of the album, I focused on writing songs that were catchier and pop-y-er than any I’d ever written, but to keep the same intimate vocal and lyrical style. It’s going to be called Dead Reckoning.
“Dead reckoning” is a navigation technique used by pilots and sailors to find their location based on where they came from and how fast they’re going. It also requires a lot of calculation. In WWII, gunners used the technique to calculate where a plane was supposed to end up so that they could shoot it down.
There’s a life-metaphor in there somewhere, right? Let’s go with that.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Wow, reader, you look great today! Tune-in to Mind Equals Blown regularly, eat healthily, exercise, and check out No Stranger when you get the chance! Jonathan is a treat/breath-of-fresh-air as a musician, as well as a writer.
Thanks a lot for having me do this interview.