There was once a time when you could walk down a cobblestone street, horses clomping as they drew carriages of noblemen from one baron’s mansion to the next, and pass by the members of Hour of the Shipwreck without batting an eyelash. But times have changed, and in a Los Angeles music scene obsessed with rehashing the sounds and fashion of the seventies, a quintet of musicians festooned in the garb of the nineteenth-century upper crust and swarthy pirates is bound to stick out. But this two-year-old ensemble has never played by the rules: with its long-form art songs winding their way through decaying forests of gothic folk, jazz harmonies and sublimely textured post-rock, Hour of the Shipwreck sounds like nobody else. Guitarist/singer and primary songwriter Richie Kohan (far right in the above picture) sat down in a local vegan restaurant to discuss the genesis of the band’s sound, the importance of Disneyland, and the future of a band that reaches into the past for inspiration.
What’s your musical background?
Richie Kohan: I started playing guitar when I was eight years old. I took some classical guitar lessons for a few years and then started playing rock. In middle school I was playing lots of rock and getting into metal, and then in ninth grade our school started a jazz band. I started playing jazz, not very seriously, but by senior year in high school I had planned to go to music school, so I was really studying at that point. And then I ended up going to UCLA for two years and studied jazz guitar there, then transferred to the New School University and got my bachelor’s in jazz guitar performance.
How did you happen on the Hour of the Shipwreck sound, which seems wholly removed from a lot of your training?
When I had nearly finished college, I began to realize that I didn’t like jazz, and in fact I had never liked jazz. I gained a lot of tools from it: facility on my instrument, an understanding of harmony, learning how to read, playing chord charts, learning unusual chord voicings, and having the opportunity to spend a lot of time practicing and being surrounded by musicians who were compelling me to continue working very hard. But as soon as I finished college I began writing music that wasn’t jazz. And even when I was in college, I was writing stuff that ended up being very long form, both composition- and improvisation-based, and I’d call them jazz tunes. When I stopped playing jazz, I had the opportunity to actually write the music that I’d always wanted to write. But I was writing music like the stuff I’m writing now long before I started playing jazz seriously.
Was there a conscious effort to excise your music of all the improv elements?
Yeah! Actually there was a band that I had started with the drummer Chris Bear of Grizzly Bear, and the music we played in that band didn’t involve improvisation, at least not in the sense of taking solos. At first I had planned on starting a jazz band that also played this other stuff, and then eventually I was like, “Man, forget it.” I wanted to make music more in the direction of Jim Black and his group Alasnoaxis, which is more or less rock music played by a jazz ensemble. When I was really pursuing jazz, I was never satisfied.
With all the long-form songs and composed bits that you write, would you say that there’s also a classical element to Hour of the Shipwreck’s music?
Absolutely. It’s funny because lately it’s been dissipating a bit, going less classical and more rock. But certainly when the band started out it was very classical-through composed, long-form, unusual harmonies that really don’t exist-in the way that twentieth-century composers started using them. We’ll have chords with extra notes in them that really don’t belong there, but they’re notes that I really want. They create these clashes that I like the sound of. That’s pretty essential to the sound of Hour of the Shipwreck, at least our earlier material.
A lot of these songs sound like dark fever dreams to me. Did they come to you fully formed, like a vivid dream, or is there more of a deliberate compositional ethic at work?
Usually when I write, I’ll get some idea of it. I’ll mess around, and eventually I get some tiny bit of an idea. Usually when that idea comes, I’ll see the entire piece very vaguely, but I’ll see it from beginning to end. Usually I lose it, and the whole issue is trying to capture that image. And it’s this difficult process. About a year ago I saw the movie Amadeus (a biopic on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart). When Mozart was seven, he went to see some classical piece and then went home and wrote the whole thing down. And when he composed, he wrote his first drafts and never corrected anything, because he saw exactly how the music was supposed to be completed. And that’s what I was hoping to do. So far it’s been a difficult process of trial and error, trying to get it as close as I can to my vision.
Where do the rest of the musicians in Hour of the Shipwreck fit in when you’re trying to fill that in, changing or contributing to the sound?
I come with a completed composition-the melody and the harmony are complete, and I’ll have some version of a guitar part-and then the band plays a huge part in creating the arrangements and the parts. Our drummer Barbara [Gruska] will get together without the rest of the band and spend days and days working on one tune. We’re really composing a drum part together, and she’s always coming up with all sorts of amazing melodies, ultimately, on the drum. Sometimes I’ll throw her an idea, and she gives me a few options. Other times I’ll play this, and she’ll say, “I really hear that.” And I’ll say, “I like it, but change this.” It’s sort of like that with everyone in the band, especially with Marcel [Camargo, guitarist]. Certainly the music would not be what it is without the band that we have. We’re very fortunate to have found each other.
What bands and musicians inspired the sound you’re working with now?
The inspiration began far before I started playing jazz. It started with Metallica, with their long-form songs especially on ï¿½And Justice for All, which now I’m not as in to. Getting into early Phish also helped, and then via Phish I got into jazzier stuff like the Pat Metheny Group, which for the most part I can’t listen to anymore. And then I was influenced a lot by Steely Dan, though I don’t hear a direct musical connection with Hour of the Shipwreck. One of the things I do hear, and this might be surprising, is ’80s pop music. Even though our music is so strange, sometimes we’ll have identical melodies. Like on “Soft Napalm Pillow Dreams,” there’s a melody from the A-ha song “Take on Me.” And then there’s a song on our new song “Mt. Davidson” that’s similar to a Police song and a Cyndi Lauper song. But the Police are amazing, a huge influence. And Cyndi Lauper infiltrated me while I was growing up, became a part of me without my realizing it. Tears for Fears, too. [Jazz guitarist] Kurt Rosenwinkel got me into a lot of the sounds I use, and [saxophonist] Mark Turner was a big influence on my compositional style.
Prokofiev was my biggest classical influence, and Shostakovich. Danny Elfman was a big inspiration too, but again it was in that Cyndi Lauper way where I never listened to a Danny Elfman or Oingo Boingo record but I absorbed all his soundtrack work when I was young. The whole grunge scene-Nirvana, Pearl Jam, especially Stone Temple Pilots-there was also a huge drum ‘n’ bass/electronica phase too, with DJ Shadow, Goldie, Esthero. That was all I listened to between fifteen and seventeen. Then I bought my first Radiohead record-I think Kid A-and it changed my life. Bjork is also a big one, and there are days when I have to listen to Peter Gabriel all night long. Then when I finished college or later, I started listening to Sleepytime Gorilla Museum and Faun Fables. When Hour of the Shipwreck started, those two were definitely the biggest inspirations. When it comes to creating a whole world, they are the masters in my eyes as far as rock bands go. It has as much to do with their stage production as who they are. It’s not just that they’re wearing makeup, but more how they present themselves onstage. They’re very theatrical human beings.
Is there anyone that amazes you in the current music world?
There’s not much music that’s recently come out that I’m that into. I like Joanna Newsom but don’t own any of her albums. I listen to a lot of radio, searching for stuff.
Are there ideas or non-musical inspirations that affect Hour of the Shipwreck’s music?
My biggest inspirations are not music. I go through phases. When the band started, my biggest inspiration was Disneyland. I ended up getting a year pass to Disneyland, and every time I would go I’d come back with all these ideas to start working on stuff. Walt Disney created a complete world beyond what anyone had done before, beyond what anyone has come close to doing today. You walk into Disneyland and everything is accounted for-sight, taste, touch, smell-everything is there. That’s what I want to create: I want to make a world where you can experience our music. My latest inspiration has been the Lord of the Rings. I watched the trilogy again a couple weeks ago, and I couldn’t’ get enough. Now I’m reading all the books. That’s a huge, huge influence.
It’s also been a huge influence on a lot of crappy power-metal bands. So how do you see the Lord of the Rings influence filtering through Hour of the Shipwreck in a serious way, without bringing Dungeons and Dragons into it?
It’s an influence in the sense that it’s an inspiration. What Tolkien created and what Peter Jackson created was really amazing; they genuinely captured a world. And the world they captured is the kind of world that excites me. So in that sense it’s really just inspiration. We’re not going to bring orcs on stage or anything. Although that might be kinda sweet.
Do you have ambitions for Hour of the Shipwreck outside of the musical realm?
I want the music to be its own world, but the ultimate goal of the band is to have a theme park with a venue at the center. We’d perform there and have other performers also. We’d show films that related to our music, with dark movies and such, and potentially have rides that went along to our songs, the same way that the rides in Fantasyland take you along the plot of the film as you travel through it. I want to have that experience for the listeners, to be able to go through this ride, inside willow trees and forests and mountains and castles, so they can genuinely experience our songs. I think you absorb the music in a different way when you hear it under the right circumstances. Lately we’ve been trying to get slightly closer to that idea in performance, just by bringing our own lights, and I plan on getting fans to blow on the audience during the exciting sections.
There’s a gothic or Victorian appeal to the costumes you wear on stage and the art design of your posters. Even your press releases are written in turn-of-the-sixteenth-century parlance. How does that aesthetic work with your music?
The music is very dark, and we dress in a way that lends itself to that. Sending e-mails with that Gothic language is all part of creating our own world. It’s more fun for me to pretend like I’m Tolkien writing this stuff, but it’s also cool for our audience to experience it in that way. When we’re on stage, I want to get as close as I can to creating an environment where the listener can experience the music how it was meant to be experienced. We have this dark haunted house, Pirates of the Caribbean-esque music, and we want to create a world where you can absorb the music from that perspective.
Is there any humor in Hour of the Shipwreck?
Sort of. We were at rehearsal a couple weeks ago and we had just come up with this one section, and we were making jokes like, “This section is totally like the third Lord of the Rings when the eagles come down and save Frodo.” It was funny, but at the same time I take this music very seriously. I’ve been trying to give the e-mails this dark vibe, while still being silly, and subtly pointing out that this isn’t actually the Middle Ages. But I don’t add humor in the music: compositionally it’s not humorous, and the lyrics are absolutely not humorous.
Tell me a little bit about the lyrics. Where do they come from?
Usually my lyrics are whatever I’m feeling at this moment. I tend to write lyrics when I’m in a very emotional, intense place, so that’s what ends up coming out. That’s when I’m most inspired to write words. So usually they reflect whatever is going on in my life, personally.
Any girls in particular? Or guys? Or orcs?
On occasion, yes. But in general, it’s not about a particular person.
Does Hour of the Shipwreck have a purpose beyond just entertainment for you?
Absolutely, yes. I’m not thinking of it in terms of writing a song. I’m trying to get as deep as I can musically . . . . Man, it’s hard to even explain. It’s something I’ve experienced since I started writing music when I was fifteen, where there’s something just beyond your reach that you’re trying to create, and I’m trying to grasp that in the compositions for this band. I guess just when I compose, period. So in that sense, yes, it’s an artistic endeavor, more so than it is a rock band.
That reminds me a bit of bands like the Residents or Lansing-Dreiden, where they’ll deliberately obscure their own identities and pretend like the music itself isn’t important: The greatness of the band is in what people make of them.
That’s not the vision that I have for Hour of the Shipwreck, but in some ways it relates. I think it’d be great if you didn’t actually see the band as a group of musicians. When you watch a movie, you’re not thinking about the guy who directed the movie. But when you’re watching a band, you can’t help but see each member of the band create his part. And ideally I’d like to transcend that, have the audience not think about who’s making music and just sort of hear the music. But it’s been weird lately after having a band together for a year and a half. I’m realizing that there are certain things that need to happen to get the band off the ground. We need to have a certain stage presence as a rock band, which is something I’ve come to accept, but ideally when the band first began, I didn’t want to go that route.
You mean you didn’t want to make it in to a Rock-with-a-capital-R band?
Right. Like in my next few shows I’ll be playing a guitar solo, which definitely never happened with Hour of the Shipwreck before, and wasn’t in my original plans for the band. And part of the reason is musical, but part of it is giving something to the audience to grab on to. And I think that they’ll like it, I suppose.
How else has the sound of Hour of the Shipwreck evolved?
I brought our most recent song “Save the World” (watch a live performance of this song) to Marcel, and he suggested that we take out some of the dissonant notes, make it more straightforward, in part because people would be more into it, but also because it would sound better. There’s a musical clarity that’s difficult to achieve when you’re making complex music, where you have all these really extravagant ideas, but being able to get them out and still have it come across as music is difficult. After Marcel and I went through “Save the World,” the song changed a lot, and I think it’s much clearer now than it was before when it had all these strange notes in it.
So it may have sounded cool but now it seems more like a holistic piece?
I think so. I really liked how it was before, and I really like how it is now. At a certain point it’s just a tossup of which one you like better. It’s a very strange thing to have to choose between, because when you’re writing music the possibilities are infinite. But I’m happy in the way that it’s been completed.
Who would play with you in a fantastical dream lineup?
Even though she wouldn’t be a perfect match for us, one of my dreams in life would be playing with or opening for Bjork; Radiohead, certainly; Sleepytime Gorilla Museum would be very cool. Faun Fables too, though I had the amazing opportunity to play solo with them already. As of six months ago, if Danny Elfman ever did a performance of his film music, that would have been amazing, but lately we don’t fit as well. A few months ago I had the idea of doing a performance with a marionette performer-that’d be cool.
We have plans to do acoustic sets, and in that setting that’s a whole other genre of performers to draw from. Hopefully we’re going to play with the Section Quartet, which will be a really awesome bill.
What about the future? Do you have plans to record a full-length?
We’re starting to record. Friends of ours are building a studio that’s supposed to be finished about now. Recording is going to take a really long time, but I’m excited about it. Once the album is released, we’ll shop it around and hopefully something will come of it. And then it’ll be easier for us to go on tour when we have a real record we can sell.
Do you feel like L.A. is a good place for this kind of music?
I really don’t know. I’ve never tried it anywhere else. The cons of being in L.A. are that there’re so many bands, and so much industry crap getting in the way, and the whole post-fraternity scene. But at the same time there’re so many people around, so many venues, that at least we have an audience. There are a lot of opportunities, just more competition.
Are you currently writing or playing with any other bands?
No. Our new keyboardist Aaron Artz has another group called Troika, and it’s possible that I’ll do some stuff with hem. But at the moment, all of my effort is going into Hour of the Shipwreck. Marcel and Barbara have a band called Fairmona, and they’re totally awesome. Barbara is actually in seven bands: Benji Hughes’s band, Colorforms, Berko, a bunch of others. Aaron is in Zappa Plays Zappa and gets to play with Steve Vai and Terry Bozzio. Gabe [Noel, bassist] does a lot of jazz and classical work. He plays with all kinds of heavy jazz people.
Seems like you’ve developed an amazing community of people.
Yeah. We’ve certainly got a group of friends, and we all have our bands very incestuous-we all go to each other’s shows, and hang out. When I take a step outside and look at the community I’m in right now, it’s so beautiful.