Narc. Interview: Coheed and Cambria

July 12, 2010

by Mark Hammond

Coheed and Cambria promotional photograph 2010

The music press is saturated with commentators who are too keen to compartmentalise and label music. Chris Pennie, drummer of Coheed and Cambria, outdid these critics himself, coining the term ‘mathcore’ in an attempt to describe his former group Dillinger Escape Plan. Perhaps this was a pre-emptive strike. “Everybody needs a label for music, people are wrapped up in it,” the sticksman opines, before casually giving me his take on the nature of defining his art. “I hear what bands are supposed to sound like or who they’re compared to before I hear the band. I like to make up my own mind. A lot of people like to be told what to like and I don’t begrudge them that.”

Pennie’s current band are seemingly bedeviled by continual (mis)labelling. Termed prog, post-rock and emo all at once, they’re something of an anomaly. Is this reflective of the band’s eclectic tastes and influences or merely a case of being misrepresented in the music press? “With Dillinger there were a lot of members coming and going so there were a lot of influences – a lot of listening going on. Growing up with Ben (Weinman, Dillinger Escape Plan guitarist and songwriter) we always wanted to try something different. It wasn’t about getting into one style. Yeah, we do like heavy music but we want to incorporate jazz, fusion and electronics. It was an anything goes approach and that was the great thing about the band, having such a huge palette to draw from. That defined the sound.” Pennie is quick to throw in his two cents about music elitists and the emphasis some place on proficiency; “No matter how many techniques you use, they should all be geared to getting the vibe across. I feel a lot of pop music can get wrapped up in the technicalities at the expense of emotion. That’s why I love Coheed; we talk about how they’re labelled, I just think they’re a great rock band. They’re proficient but they play with feeling.”

At 33 Pennie speaks like a wiley veteran, because he is. When he turned 13 Pennie decided to take up drums and by 16 he was wholeheartedly committed to the persuit of music as a career. What of the provenance of such intense assertion from a teenager?  Pennie puts it down to “Not half-assing anything I take up.” That and a supportive father. Pennie quickly joined a local New Jersey band called Prozak but wasn’t even old enough to gig with them. “I remember the bartenders would look up to serve everybody then clasp eyes on me. They’d just say ‘I can’t serve you. Because I can’t serve you, I can’t allow you to play music unless you’re accompanied by a parent or guardian.” Far from cramping the pubescent drummer’s style, Penniewould gladly be escorted to his shows. “He still comes to the gigs. He’d come to local bars when the whole ‘DIY’ scene with Dillinger was going on and now to the bigger shows with Coheed.”

Pennie joined Coheed and Cambria when no rapprochement was forthcoming between himself and Ben Weinman of Dillinger Escape Plan. The two had grown up together, Pennie stating that him and Weinman were “musical soulmates.” Weinman left Dillinger and Pennie was left in a musical moratorium trying to follow suit and join up with Coheed whom Dillinger were supporting on tour in 2006. “It’s weird because at the time Dillinger were supporting Coheed. We were having difficulties andCoheed were having problems with Josh (Eppard, former drummer.) We all seemed to be in the same boat and so we got together and played. We connected instantly.”

Pennie was contractually bound to Dillinger Escape Plan and could not leave as his childhood friend Weinman had. Taylor Hawkins of Foo Fighters fame stepped in to take up drumming duties on Coheed’s 2007 album No World For Tomorrow. “I wasn’t there but Taylor took my demos and did his thing with them. It’s great to hear him work on that stuff. Taylor and Dave (Grohl) – Dave is fucking amazing! Something raw; the way he hits the drums – the feeling! It’s there, it’s a one-in-a-million thing, like Bonham. The way they groove and push and pull around the beats, it’s just the way it is. It’s a beautiful thing! Taylor is great in his own right. What he did with that record was he took it and made it his own thing.”

Coming into Coheed and Cambria has given Pennie the opportunity to imbue some of his wide influences into the sound that forms their most recent album Year of the Black Rainbow. Pennie is an unabashed Trent Reznor fan and so relished the opportunity to work with Nine Inch Nails collaborator Atticus Ross; “Getting into Atticus’ mindset, getting his take on things – I mean he challenged me. I don’t mean technically but he challenged how I thought about things. He would break down my grooves and just take it down to snare and hi-hat. There were times we could have finished up a take and looped it, but we didn’t do that. We made all of our own sounds.”

“What, like Tom Waits smacking a shoe off the wall?” I ask, intrigued.


Pennie has been around long enough to have worked with many more musical luminaries, perhaps most notably Mike Patton of Faith No More/Mr Bungle/Tomahawk/Fantomas/the list goes on fame. “He’s the best to work with. There are certain people you work with and you have a good time, then there’s a small percentage that bring things out of you. Mike came in and dropped a vocal (on Dillinger Escape Plan’s Irony is a Dead Scene album) and it was great to watch and listen. We played shows with him and he’s just the type of guy – nothing has to be said – he just demands that your game is at top level. The other guy who I enjoyed playing with is a guy called Mark Guiliana. He has tremendous working knowledge, plays all styles of music and is great at them all. Those two, for me are my biggest influences.”

For someone as seasoned as Chris Pennie, I find his enthusiasm bracing. Sat in a tiny room somewhere within the labyrinthine arteries of the O2 Academy his summary in closing proves infectiously optimistic. “Everything has been a great experience. There is always something to take away and I think everyone has something to offer.”

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