Sam Cohen Discusses Playing With Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Win Butler And More at Jam The Vote; Contributing To ’30 Days, 50 Songs;’ Working With Bob Weir

From playing in the house band of this year’s massive Grateful Dead tribute Day of the Dead, to the re-release of his 2015 album Cool It on Danger Mouse’s 30th Century Records, touring with White Denim, producing and playing multiple instruments on Kevin Morby’s critically acclaimed Singing Saw, and guest appearances on the latest albums by The Walkmen’s Walter Martin, Carter Tanton, Trixie Whitley, and yep, Bob Weir, Sam Cohen has had a busy 2016. This past weekend Cohen joined the Preservation Hall Jazz Band at Headcount’s Jam The Vote concert to back a rotating cast of talent ranging from New Orleans legends (The Meter’s George Porter Jr., Ivan Neville, Irma Thomas), to gospel and soul greats (The Blind Boys of Alabama, Lee Fields), and indie stars (Arcade Fire’s Win Butler, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros frontman Alex Ebert, The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn), among many others. The all-star concert – which took place November 6th at Port Chester, New York’s iconic Capitol Theatre – can be watched online in exchange for a pledge to vote (and a few short excerpts for context can be watched below). Later this month he’ll return to the same venue for The Complete Last Waltz, an event he was musical director of the past three years, that in 2016 coincides with the fortieth anniversary of the classic concert film by The Band. Cohen is also one of the 50 acts that contributed a song to Dave Eggers’ “Artists for a Trump-free America” music series 30 Days, 30 50 Songs (other contributors include R.E.M., Moby, Death Cab For Cutie, Aimee Mann, Franz Ferdinand, EL VY, Josh Ritter, Jesu/ Sun Kil Moon, Ani DiFranco, Andrew Bird, Cold War Kids, Bob Mould, Local Natives and My Morning Jacket’ Jim James). Additionally Sam is busy collaborating with several artists on upcoming albums, working with Danger Mouse on various 30th Century projects, and somehow finding time for his own music. The Future Heart caught up with Cohen on election day to get a whiff of what he’s been cooking…

How did Jam The Vote come together and how did you get involved? Was your experience as musical director for The Complete Last Waltz called upon?

Preservation Hall Jazz Band got together with the promoter Pete Shapiro and Headcount to try to do something to help get people voting in this election. They needed to augment the band with an auxiliary member to help flesh out arrangements and assist with some of the musical planning. We share the same manager, Mike Martinovich, so Mike suggested me and put Ben Jaffe and I in touch. I’m so glad he did.

Ben Jaffe was really the musical director for Jam The Vote but he had a lot on his plate coming up to the event so I helped out where I could as kind of a soundboard for setlist ideas and things like that. I’m not musical director of Complete Last Waltz this year, as I have been for the last three times. I’ve been really busy producing several albums and working on new music of my own, so I felt like I needed to waive some of that responsibility this year. I will be performing at it, as always, though!

With Alex Ebert and Craig Finn

I think it was Benjamin Jaffe who said during the concert that you came together and rehearsed for three days before the show. 

It was actually less time than that. We rehearsed from noon til seven on Saturday and then from about one til showtime the day of the show. Ben and I were in touch for about ten days beforehand, narrowing down a possible eighty song setlist to twenty-five and ultimately about nineteen. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band guys are quick studies and I’ve had a lot of experience learning large amounts of material in a short span of time, and we purposefully chose tunes that weren’t too heavy lifting in terms of arrangements and forms. Some music comes out great loose and free with just a basic awareness of the chord changes and melodies and other music has to be just so. We narrowed it down to the former, mostly, which kept it free and fun for everybody. It was a total blast working with so many great artists and such a diverse list. I got to kind of be a member of Preservation Hall Jazz Band for a night and I can’t overstate how great that felt. Each of them is really exceptional and they have such a complimentary assortment of talents and personalities – each one is a heavy-weight for a different reason. I hope I’ll get to do a lot more with them.

Sam’s guitar break during Lee Fields “Make The World”

What was that process like, and how was it working with such diverse talents as Irma Thomas, Alex Ebert and Win Butler?

This was my first time working with everyone. I was really busy playing and preparing so I didn’t get much of an opportunity to get to know the guests on a personal level. There was a quick pass of some amazing Haitian rum backstage with Win Butler and some kind words exchanged with Lee Fields. I spent more time with Alex Ebert onstage than off. I was too intimidated to talk to Irma Thomas or Ivan Neville, not only because of their musical histories, but more because there was an element of New Orleans based familiarity that this was my first foray into. A lot of these folks know each other well, and though everyone was extremely nice and chill about everything, there were times I felt a little out of place. Kind of a fly on the wall who happened to have a really really good seat for the show.

You’re too modest!

Not modest, just socially awkward and I drink far too little to overcome it.

The ‘New Orleans in New York’ came through very strong – which I think was the key to it being such a joyful event. No matter how much of a cesspool this election has been you couldn’t come away from those performances not fired up!

Totally! Regarding the cesspool, one of the highlights for me were Ben’s words during “Home” about the formation of Preservation Hall in New Orleans by his parents in the early sixties and what a Trump presidency would mean in terms of progress on civil rights. He brought it home in a meaningful way, which is hard to do on such an oversaturated issue as this election.

Swingin’ solos in Irma Thomas’ “You Can Have My Husband”

Who was the trombone player? He was awesome! I loved his solos, big blaring sound and especially his unbridled glee!

The trombonist is Ronell Johnson and you picked up on what is impossible to miss about him. That man is pure joy to be around. You feel it up close and from the back of the room. Powerful Positivity.

How did you get involved with 30 Days, 50 Songs and what was your personal motivation for contributing?

I had written the song “Clockwork” out of frustration and disgust back during the primaries. I was really upset by the media’s role in propping up a candidacy that was and is completely un-credible. By doing so, they level the playing field and make people believe it’s a legitimate thing to have this man [Donald Trump] running for president. In my view, it’s not. This is gonna go off the rails for a minute, but bear with me. Everyone likes to point to the fact that the founding fathers were slaveholders. For most modern thinkers including me, that makes them hypocrites. For some extreme liberals, it de-legitimizes the whole premise of our nation, and for a lot of uneducated conservatives, I think it corroborates their racist views. All that says a lot about education and narrative. I view the founding fathers as deeply hypocritical but I still value the constitution because it wasn’t written of the top of their heads. It was based on a lot of social and political thought that preceded them and it aspires to be better and truer than the men who wrote it. Democracy, in other words, was built on high-minded ideals by highly educated individuals. The media and social media are designed for readers, ratings, clicks and likes, so everyone gets to choose their own narrative and affect the mainstream narrative regardless of their level of expertise in assessing information and news. The story that is told the most becomes the truth, or at least legitimate on some level. It’s increasingly difficult to separate fact from fiction. We could just as easily elect a train-wreck for president. If people can’t look away, that’s what rules. It’s a simple popularity contest, so we’ve got this candidate who’s like a prototypical popular kid in an 80’s movie: bullying, materialistic and irredeemable.

I want to discuss some of the other music you’ve worked on this year, like Bob Weir’s new album, and you said before you’re producing several albums. Whose? 

Just finishing up an album with Benjamin Booker which I’m really excited about. I also did a new single with Kevin Morby called “Beautiful Strangers.” All proceeds to go Every Town For Gun Safety. We’re starting to plan another record next year. I finished up a track with Trixie Whitley who is a good friend of mine and have also been working on a full length with Curtis Harding.

Regarding Bob Weir: I had a chance to sit in with him at Kings Theatre for his encore of “I Know You Rider” and that was, of course, a lot of fun! My good buddy Josh Kaufman, produced his new album, Blue Mountain, so I played some guitar and pedal steel on it. Also, of course, a wonderful experience.

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