Amy Fort

Affirming the Ineffable: A conversation with Cola

The post-punk trio talks to Beats Per Minute about their recently released new album The Gloss, how they work with visual artists and peculiarly enough, Sugar Ray comes up as well. “The songs are more simple, although simple is in this case quite a loaded word.”

It’s certainly a recurring beat in pop music: bands that are umbilically linked through history by virtue of their personnel. Joy Division and New Order might be the most famous example. But you can also namedrop At The Drive-In and The Mars Volta. The Breeders and The Pixies. Slowdive and Mojave 3. The Smashing Pumpkins and Zwan. Wait, wait, wait, maybe scrap the last one.

Likewise, Cola – the trio of Tim Darcy, Ben Stidworthy and Evan Cartwright – , now two albums in, haven’t quite escaped the wake of Ought, the critically-acclaimed art-punk harbingers Darcy and Stidworthy performed in previously. The Gloss, Cola’s second LP from New York scene-stirrers Fire Talk, creates a deft separation from what made Ought tick. That band pitted illuminated lyrical spells against each other with the whim of a kid playing with action figures, searching for glints of reprieve beneath the diluted sands.

Cola’s songwriting, though sonically still in tow with the lineage of post-punk, draws inspiration from a horizon-chasing Delphic folk mysticism, transmuting affirmations into – in Darcy’s own words – “something ineffable”. The Gloss offers a candid glimpse of the trio’s mutual chemistry: dynamic and sweeping, but steady-handed in form and function. With the curio of an alchemist, they summon novelty with familiar building blocks at their disposal. We speak with Stidworthy and Darcy over Zoom to get down to the brass tacks. The pulse of the band, Cartwright, is somewhere adrift in the Canadian tundra.

On “Nice Try”, you sing “Quips don’t come out right/But the meaning’s true”. That kind of alludes to surrender, whether it’s in a creative pact or a relationship. You don’t really have to turn on the charm anymore to make sure it’s riding on strong foundations. Becoming cool with being clumsy.

Tim Darcy: Yeah, absolutely, that’s what I was trying to evoke. Yeah, clumsy is a nice word. There’s a great book of poetry by Bob Hicok that I’ve talked about in interviews before, called This Clumsy Living. He touches on some similar themes of love and friendship and family and stuff.

Not to sound super crass, but the guitar melody around the two-and-a-half-minute mark reminded me a little bit of Sugar Ray.

Tim: That’s so awesome. Thank you, Jasper. That beautiful, beautiful guitar line is by Evan Cartwright. I think why Ben and I are laughing, is because the idea of Evan even being remotely familiar with Sugar Ray, is really funny.

Ben Stidworthy: (laughs) He’s a hundred percent unfamiliar with who Sugar Ray are, I promise you.

Tim: That’s it. It will forever be the Sugar Ray song now.

I’m sorry I planted that in your brains. I truly am. But to defend that, a lot of these ubiquitous pop songs have some really rad elements that aren’t as noticeable as the big hooks. There’s a reason why those song hit the way they do.

Ben: Yeah, I mean, as a child of the 90s on the West Coast of the United States, Sugar Ray was hitting pretty hard, and it continues to hit. For me, the Sugar Ray singles are amazing. They’re so evocative, and they’re like, ridiculous. But they’re really nice, super melodic. So without any shame, I say that I’m a fan of Sugar Ray.

Tim: I actually feel like the production on those records ages extremely well too. Like what I’m pondering in my mind’s eye of Sugar Ray. No Doubt too, you know, like those records are just, yeah…

I was in the car with my dad recently, and “Don’t Speak” came on the radio. And my ears really homed in on the atmospherics. It’s sometimes picking up those intricacies that make you go ‘woah, this totally rocks!’, especially as you grow older.

Ben: “Don’t Speak” is so epic. Maybe it’s like the LA-version of “Bittersweet Symphony”?No wait! Maybe not, because “Under the Bridge” is a pretty strong contender for that title. “No Doubt” reps Anaheim, which is not quite LA. But yeah, “Don’t Speak”…what a song.

What was the concept of the video behind “Keys Down If You Stay”? It reminded me a bit of those older Devo videos. The Dutch miniature city park of Madurodam also makes a cameo.

Ben: Okay, so that video – it’s all kind of coming back to me a little bit – was done by a friend, Christina, who makes art under the name OK Pedersen, from Chicago. It kind of exists in three parts, one being like weird, found footage visuals: real estate listings and this idea of cost of living, rent, looking for a place you live. Along with our friend doing magic tricks, like sleight of hand magic tricks with the key, which is kind of on the nose. And I don’t really know what her vision with that was, although it’s nice visual material. Then there’s me in my apartment; she wanted that to be a bit melodramatic I’m crying in one of the shots with fake tears I don’t really know what more there’s to say about it in terms of my interpretation of the lyrics. Tim told me once about a phrase you heard. Actually, I don’t know, Tim, do you want me to reveal this or not? Do you want to say it?

Tim: The lyric had nothing to do with housing. It’s evoking this like common practice in American house parties: you have to put your keys in the bowl if you want drink to, like, incentivise people to not drink and drive. So this kind of like, this very concrete visual representing a kind of commitment. Like, you’re like, buying in. You’re committing to stay for the night. But yeah, our friend Christina, she took that lyric, or just the idea of keys, and made this great commentary on the housing crisis and cost of living.

That’s very cool though, when someone kind of interprets a song in a different way, and it extends visually in a way that maybe you don’t really expect. Has that been the case with all the collaborations visually with Cola that you’re like, all right: ‘I’m giving you the keys to the song’ – speaking of keys – and you can just go drive it someplace else you have in mind. It’s an awesome way to extend your own little universe as a band.

Tim: For Ben and I, this carries all the way back into Ought: we’ve always collaborated with a pretty wide array of visual artists on videos and also album art, posters and that sort of thing. And it almost exclusively works in the same pattern where we identify somebody whose work inspires us, and then we try to give them a small starting point, usually from own catalog of work. Like for example, with our first record Deep In View, Katrijn Oelbrandt, a friend of ours who lives in Ghent, she had such a varied array of types of work that she can do. So think when asking somebody that you trust and like, it is always a good starting point give them something to focus on within their own body of work.

And generally, that’s been really successful. I feel like most artists love prompts. I’ve been thinking about that more recently, and it’s kind of a lot to ask somebody to collaborate with you with a totally blank slate. I think sometimes that can understandably be anxiety-inducing. It’s not like rocket science, but I feel like we’ve built up enough confidence with that too. We’ve reached out to people that even we don’t really know. The connection is based purely on being fans of their art. And that seems to work out for the most part.

Which brings me to the zine companion project of your single “Bitter Melon”. Did you also curate that with other artists, or was this an in-house endeavor?

Tim: That one was all in house, actually. So it’s like a really nice collab between the three of us. So Ben did a bunch of the drawings that you find inside, and Evan made a visual score of his drum part from the song. I found some medieval imagery on and lifted them from eliminated manuscripts, trying to evoke ‘The Gloss’. The layout is just dead simple; it has a piece of flash fiction that I wrote. The zine was the idea of Trevor (Peterson) who runs Fire Talk. And we were all immediately really jazzed on it. He pitched the whole thing. We’ll do a direct-to-stores, where it will be offline for the first two weeks. It’s just a really great collaboration in that way. Like he offered an alternative merch-slash-marketing plan that would like really suit our band. And obviously he nailed it, because we all got really into it.

Ben, what can you tell me about the drawings you did for the zine?

Ben: I was trying to find them because I was trying to remember what they look like. That’s why I was going through my folder. I’m trying to kind of remember what they look like. Obviously, I was kind of trying to pull from medieval imagery that Tim had sent to me, because we had sort of decided on using that illuminated manuscript kind of medieval monk style. I definitely incorporated some of my own kind of like visual language: architectural motifs, some graffiti, hand style stuff. I went super hard on this really big thing that I thought might be on the cover, only to realize that I had written The Gloss and not actually the name of the song. And Tim was like, ‘Love what you did here, man. But like, but that’s not what this is’, when the album was not even announced.

And I I tried to do something based on some art I had seen. I can’t remember who did it first, and I kind of regret that there’s this whole you actually might know, actually, both of you might know there’s like that art movement where people tried to play music [graphic notation, ed.] where they would use written musical vocabulary: whole notes, halftones, as pieces of visual art. Then they would get people to play the score, and it would be differently interpreted each time by the players.

Tim: Kind of like John Cage’s visual scores?

Ben: I think so, yeah. But didn’t other people do it as well? But anyway, I tried to do a bit of that, because I’ve been talking with a friend about this very thing right before. But honestly, I just sat down and went as hard as I could over like a three hour period. Because I kind of work in bursts like that. I use snails, because of the Blindboy podcast. There’s a podcast where Blindboy – who’s an Irish musician, author, short storyteller, and folklore historian – talks about the use of snails and medieval manuscripts, basically in the gloss of these manuscripts that they would just draw because they were bored. And I can’t really remember more details than that, but I thought I found it was really funny and quite cute. I don’t even know if any snails made it in the zine.

Tim: Yeah, they’re a couple.

Speaking of boredom: when I hear this record, I hear just everything sounds so – I wouldn’t say mundane – but kind of adrift in the margins. It’s customary to assume people write about maybe a historical event, or heartbreak – or all these quote unquote important moments. I feel Cola’s songwriting, and especially The Gloss, derives from these unscripted fleeting moments. Like everyday moments that happen when you’re not thinking existentially, just as individuals going through the motions naturally.

Tim: I think that’s pretty spot on. Cola is I think less aligned with like a persona, maybe, than some of the other records I’ve sung on. And I think that’s also true speaking from a lyrical perspective: I was drawing from a slightly more modern American wellspring of lyrical content. The kind of like ‘redemption of the banal; as a sort of pseudo-ironic reclamation of power. The kind of like slacker poet youth [chuckles], that we grew up in, if that makes sense, I think that’s where my head was at when I was writing a lot of these lyrics. And again, from a lyrical perspective, like I wanted to approach this record with a slightly looser grip. There’s definitely a lot less narrative clarity than on the first record. Like it’s more about [long pause] poetic license.

I am by no means a musician so forgive me if this is a hundred percent off-base. But with Ought, I felt that music was a lot harder to play, which may or may not have contributed to the restless, strained energy in that band. When I saw Cola play at V11 last month, I saw a much more relaxed, introverted band, sort of locking into music leisurely. It’s less angular, much softer in sound and execution. Again I don’t know, Cola’s music might actually be deceptively hard to play, but certainly appears a lot easier to play from a technical standpoint. That simplicity maybe allows an emotional shift both in the songwriting and performance?

Ben: No, I totally know you what mean. Tim and I have talked about it in the past, about
having a more labored songwriting process. Speaking for myself, I wanted at times – because I was comfortable with my role as a bassist – for my musical voice to be heard more. And would make musical decisions to reflect that. And I think maybe all of us did that to certain degrees. With Cola – because we were writing songs individually and then bringing them to the table and collaborating. I think it took a lot of stress off. If Tim played a song for me, and I would really like it, and just want to roll with it and be like, ‘Oh, it’s great. Like, what about this?’

Specifically with this record, I tried hard to make the bass more interesting, which I know sounds like a big statement. For people who care to listen, obviously, I’m a drop in the bucket of even bassists in general, let alone musicians and songwriters. But for this record, I was like, ‘Okay, what if I actually tried to just kind of calm things down a bit and not actually play that many notes and see what I can do with that? On a more technical level, been like, I have this musical trick, where I always play a sixth interval: that’s my thing! And I was like, man, I’ve been I’m rinsing this, I need to stop doing this. Sooner or later .

So I decided to do something even more simple. And I think it helped because, for some of the songs that started off as my own demos, I was also writing the guitar parts. I was like, ‘Okay, well, the guitar is really doing the talking here, and then I’ll just let the bass just chill and see if that can create a similar feeling’. Because it’s undeniably true: the songs are more simple, although simple is in this case quite a loaded word.

I often jokingly use ‘rustic’ as an alternative to ‘simple’. Especially because we all like varying folk tradition. That’s sort of why I like the word rustic, like pentatonic scales appearing in various folk traditions around the world. There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s a good thing. The human ear likes it, and that’s also a good thing. So that was I was thinking about on this record. Just like trying to take even more of a breath, although I will add that in discussions about where to take the next record, we were kind of like, ‘This is working’. We must just continue down our songwriting path. We don’t need to change anything right now.

Anything to add to that Tim? In Cola, it seems to be less of a soapbox-y passion play than Ought. You look a lot more relaxed playing in Cola. Does that simplicity in the melody allow you to be more present lyrically in a way? And do you feel yourself shifting into a different kind of performer as a result?

Tim: I think that’s spot on. In Ought I felt that my role was first and foremost to be the front man of the band. That was what my role in the project was, given the type of music that we were playing. Which was also hard at times, given that I was also the only guitarist. There was also more possible because we were a four piece of a certain nature, so just having more sound behind me.

In Cola, I guess I view myself much more as like a musician, instead of a front man . I definitely approach the performance completely differently. It’s much more about kind of leaving it on the page. The song is has been written, and we’re going to play the song; it’s not about theatrics or anything, so yeah, that’s absolutely correct. As far as the different approach here, even the bands that we sort of like to throw around as a mood board or whatever. Like, not that we actually do that very much, but like, there are definitely bands and songwriters we draw inspiration from. It was less like that in Ought, which was much more about the intensity and the performative aspect of the live show.

There’s a song on The Gloss called “Pallor Tricks”, which seems to zoom in on this very duality: where does your performative self end and your authentic self begin? Like when you’re being photographed without your knowledge vs. with your knowledge. Do you believe those two sides of the spectrum are merging in Cola?

Tim: I mean, first of all, I want to say that there’s nothing wrong with performativity. That’s a cornerstone of all art. And I think it’s worth considering to what extent I want to like throw back to the kind of wellspring of like… I mean ‘slacker’ is such a weird word. That kind of epoch of slacker, American experimental, poetic music that I was talking about before. I think that is a cornerstone of like that aesthetic, the whole anti-rock star thing, right? Just to bring the point all the way home, I think that too is a kind of performativity. It’s just a little less overt, because in the end, there’s no way to not be performative.

For example, I think grunge is still a performative ethos, even though it’s like anti-capitalist and anti-rock star or whatever. And one isn’t better than the other. But I do think, speaking personally from where my own head was at – especially writing this record. It’s less about, the performativity and like theatrics of that kind of ‘rock star thing’. And more about, a kind of charming humility of something a maybe little bit more down to earth.

Ben: I have something I would like to add to this, if you were done, Tim.

Tim: Yeah, I’m definitely done.

Ben: Because the question is very interesting. And I feel like a lot of the answers have to do with defining your terms in some ways. Which obviously, we can’t get into right now. But I feel like, oh man, there probably 20 or 30 people on Earth who know, their authentic self, you know? And so when I think about the band, especially in like relation to the changes that we’re talking about regard to Tim’s performance. But considering my own performance, I’m not really doing anything I wasn’t doing in terms of what I’m giving on stage, now versus when I was playing in Ought. And for me, I would much rather be a really strong performer who’s really engaging with the audience. Because I sort of want to share the burden of the live show with Tim in some ways. Sometimes I feel like I’m not doing enough of the heavy lifting.

But when I’m on stage, I get in my head and shut down, despite the fact that I’m not nervous. It feels incredibly unnatural for me to make eye contact with people, even though there’s times when I’m like, ‘Oh, I really wish I could help Tim and I know Evan’s back there really doing his thing, yeah. And so I’m like: is my authentic self just really shy on stage? Or more repressed, like I’m just an animal waiting to be released from his cage. But the context of the band has changed, but nothing’s really different. Even doing the two Brooch-shows that we did in Denmark I was just as shy, even though I was singing.

Tim: And there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s great. It’s a chemical reaction, you know? Someone could be shy on stage, and it’s painful to watch; but someone could be shy on stage, and it’s magnetic and incredible. I just wanna quickly say – because it’s really good that you brought that up – because I definitely don’t view us as a slacker band. I’m evoking maybe more so from a lyrical tradition when thinking about this record. But if you see us live, we’re definitely not a slacker rock band: everybody really still brings it.

I guess, what I mean is, I’m very connected to the guitar in a way; even though in Ought I was playing the guitar, my primary focus was fronting the band, if that makes sense. And so I think in this project, I feel very connected to the guitar and then from like a persona perspective. And I totally agree with Ben, and I guess I said this too: there’s no true self, and there’s no like ultimate persona, and there’s no anti persona. It’s just a less performative, more – laconic isn’t quite the right word – maybe more grounded?

The way you write lyrics reminds me of a sculptor, Tim, where you gradually chisel away at something lurking beneath. With Ought, there were a lot of these hard edges to the words; defining statements that immediately evoke, or maybe demarcate something. With Cola it seems a little more oblique, a continued distillation of words not necessarily intended for a fixed destination. How much time and energy do you put into your lyrics?

Tim: I don’t know if it’s any different. But I do get your point. I think you got to stay tuned in. Firstly for the for the pleasure of the three people present in this chat. I wanted to throw out to you Ben, about you talking about always going to the sixth. And it reminded me of this Bonnie “Prince” Billy interview I watched when I had a flu couple days ago. And he said, like, at a certain point, if you start beating yourself up because you’re writing another song about a three legged dog, you just have to get over that. It’s like, if you’re the guy who’s good at writing songs about three legged dogs ‘if you need a song about a three legged dog. I’m your guy!’ And I really appreciated that on multiple levels.

Going back to your question, I guess what you said is true: there are certain things that I feel like I quite often come back to. I either have to challenge or accept that. But I do think that going into this record in particular, I was reading a lot of John Ashbery, thinking about poets that I was getting inspired by. He’s kind of like the quintessential anti-meaning, meaning guy; what he does is so evocative, but it’s not totally clear what it is. And I think that there’s something about that that I like. It’s just like another way to get really switched on.

Being hyper direct and clear has an undeniable power to it. But there’s like, this real magic in a poet like Ashbery where, like, he’s writing about going to a party with somebody, and it kind of blitzes into psychedelia that’s bordering on being nonsensical. It evokes something so broad and ineffable, zooming in and out of mundanity, and then into the sublime, at such a breakneck rate until it evokes something kind of huge. Not to suggest that I’m coming anywhere close to that, but that was definitely more the lyrical inspiration going to this record. Grounding things in the mundane, but then allowing myself to go with a very wide, fuzzy lens as well, and like trying to evoke something ineffable in the songs, like this mystery of spirit.

The Gloss is out now via Fire Talk Records. Order a copy here, and find a copy of the accompanying “Bitter Melon” zine here.

Follow Cola on Instagram, Bandcamp and their official site.