Mat Cothran wasn’t answering his phone, and I immediately assumed the worst. We’d exchanged emails a few days prior and arranged this time to talk about the depressive-though-prolific singer-songwriter’s new project, Gremlins. Combining members of Toro Y Moi, Braids, Ricky Eat Acid, and Cothran's own Coma Cinema, Gremlins’ self-released debut EP puts garbled synths over heavy funk bass lines that package Cothran’s visceral discomfort into sprawling earworms.
There’s a troublesome disconnect in allowing yourself to take pleasure from the brutal themes couched within the EP's five songs, and Cothran can have a hard time easing that guilt. Since he’d last contacted me, he'd Tweeted, “Death is a blessing an escape from rejection, from the unrequested burden of life. Reject the servitude of existence.” And only 17 hours before our phones were scheduled to connect, he Tweeted, “My phone is dying i am wasted my friends want me dead my band is fucked my life is a joke whatever man Fuck it.” You can imagine my unease when I kept getting his voicemail.
But it wasn’t too long before Cothran emailed an apology, and the back-and-forth we eventually had was nothing like what the terrorized monologues suggested. Cothran was thoughtful, engaging, and surprisingly amiable while fleshing out his band’s life-and-death paradoxes. At one point during our interview, he conceded, “I guess it is kind of weird to have something that has so many friends and is so fun to make and have it be so bleak.” I’m in no position to argue, though I was relieved to hear him say it.
How did Gremlins come together?
I’ve known Patrick [Jeffords] for a long time. He plays bass in Toro Y Moi, and he was in Chaz [Bundick]’s band before that. I played shows with Coma Cinema with them back when I was in high school. We always hung out and stuff.
I got some beats from Sam [Ray], who is in Ricky Eat Acid. So I was like, “Hey [Patrick], want to come hang out with these beats for a while?” His girlfriend, Katie [Lee], who plays in Braids, came over the next couple of times we got together and laid down some keyboards and stuff. So I don’t know, we always wanted to lay down some songs together and just never had the chance. This was just the right time.
What sort of vision did you go into this project with? And will there be more material in the future?
[Jeffords is] actually moving out to L.A., but before that he’s coming in to town and we’re going to record some more. Initially, we just wanted to make something kind of dark, but also very robotic, where all the instruments would enter the song at the beginning and there wouldn’t really be any changes. It would just be kind of drone-y—just like Blonde on Blonde, how all the instruments come in and it doesn’t really change. But we wanted to do it with electronic music and make it really dark and true to reality.
You’re making these distinctions between real and fake as if it’s black and white, but to me it’s more of a perspective thing.
Yeah, I think it’s all dependent on where it’s coming from. I think me and [Jeffords] have a different understanding than most people, but all we’re really doing is putting our perspective down. There are a lot of sexual themes on that record, but I think it’s just violence and rage in general—where it comes from and where it goes.
I wanted to ask you about the sexual violence, especially in “Maim My Bitch.” Thematically, I see a lot of parallels with the Weeknd, and people can get pretty bent out of shape about that. But you’re very nonchalant.
I feel like the Weeknd is more sexual nihilism than sexual violence. I haven’t heard their last one, but the first two were more nihilistic. And that’s what we were going for. We wanted the reality to that. I guess it’s about getting in the perspective of someone who is abused or abuses, and that people who are abused tend to find themselves later in life abusing others. So we wanted to analyze that process where abuse becomes abusing later on.
So in that song there are a lot of samples of simulated, staged rape porn from Russia. It’s a real thing, and people pay money and get off on this staged rape. And I guess it’s all there to be deceptive. You’ve got this funk song and it’s got this groove, and these seemingly orgasmic sounds, but really it’s more violent—like you said—or destructive, nihilistic. There’s a lot of sexual music being made right now that explores these sort of nihilistic sex tapes, but doesn’t really talk about the consequences of it. I don’t know, it just seems really immature. And I think we were just trying to be real about things, while also making songs that people can groove to if they don’t want to pay attention to what’s being said or what’s underlying.
Do you have an audience in mind when you’re writing these songs?
Around the time of the third [Coma Cinema] record, Blue Suicide, I noticed I wasn’t really writing songs for myself anymore. I was writing songs to get people to listen to them. Which is kind of unproductive, I realized. You’re not being honest, and it’s like you’re selling out or something. So lately I’ve just kind of turned that off and I’ve been letting things just kind of happen. There are a lot of lines on the Gremlins record that a few years ago I would’ve been, like, “You can’t say something like that, you’re going to weird people out;” or, “you’re too open, it’s not going to help you find new listeners.” But I’ve just kind of stopped worrying about it, and I’ve found that generally the more honest you are the more people are going to listen to you.
You said you’re going to do a few more songs with Gremlins, do you have something with Coma Cinema lined up, too?
There’s a record called School Shootings that is supposed to come out this year, but I have to finish it. The first thing I’m going to do is Gremlins. It’s going to be pretty cool. Everybody’s still on board. We might have more friends on it, more people from Columbia [, S.C.]. We want to make it inclusive. I guess it is kind of weird to have something that has so many friends and is so fun to make and have it be so bleak. I mean, we recorded the whole thing in a laundry room, and it was a real happy scene. We weren’t in there looking all morose and thinking about the planet of abuse or anything. We were being happy. So I just want to get back there.
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