Claudio Sanchez is in his happy place this morning. Outside, it's just another miserable January day in Brooklyn, New York, but inside, Coheed and Cambria's leader is comfortably ensconced at his home studio, warmed by the glow of his digital audio workstation and the mad swirl of ideas in his head. "My son's off to school and I'm sitting in front of a bunch of monitors, trying to get inspired," he laughs.
Inspiration isn't something that typically eludes Sanchez for long. Over the last two decades, Coheed and Cambria have released nine studio records, eight of which have been devoted to specific chapters in The Amory Wars saga, a sprawling (and extremely popular) series of sci-fi graphic novels penned by Sanchez and published by Evil Ink Comics, a company he co-owns with his wife and creative collaborator Chondra Echert Sanchez. And this May will see the release of the band's 10th studio full-length, Vaxis II: A Window of the Waking Mind, which constitutes the second installment of the "Vaxis pentalogy" Amory Wars story arc that began with 2018's Vaxis — Act I: The Unheavenly Creatures.
Sound complex? It is — but don't let that keep you from hitching a ride on the Coheed spaceship. As with their previous records, Vaxis II can be appreciated on multiple levels. Sure, there are characters, story lines and metaphors galore in songs like "Shoulders," "The Liars Club" and "Rise, Naianasha (Cut the Cord)." But even if you can't name a single planet in Heaven's Fence, the planetary system where the bulk of the Amory Wars saga takes place, it's still very possible to get completely caught up in the soaring choruses, roller-coaster arrangements, Sanchez's achingly emotional vocals, and the intense, skillful and accessible prog-metal interplay of Sanchez, guitarist Travis Stever, bassist Zach Cooper and drummer Josh Eppard.
In fact, Vaxis II is kind of a perfect record for the pandemic age: an ambitious and truly epic song cycle that you can get thoroughly lost in, and which is loaded with enough killer riffs, melodic hooks and jaw-dropping orchestrations (courtesy of Tony-nominated Broadway orchestrator and arranger Christopher Jahnke) to keep you coming back for more. "I am so stoked about this record," Sanchez enthuses. "I really feel like this is the right record for us to have made 20 years into our career."
Practically every album made over the past two years has been influenced or affected in some way by COVID-19. But Sanchez says that the pandemic's impact on Vaxis II was profound, both in how it was created and the story it tells about the characters Nostrand (a.k.a. Creature), Nia (a.k.a. Sister Spider) and their young son Vaxis. "Vaxis II is certainly a product of the pandemic," he explains. "It was constructed in an interesting way, because some of the material was actually written pre-pandemic. 'Beautiful Losers,' 'The Liars Club,' 'Blood' and 'Ladders of Supremacy,' these were songs that were sort of gestating in the period of Vaxis I. But as I was fiddling with them, I realized either they weren't right for that story, or they just weren't ready and needed finishing. And then we get into songs on the record that are sort of inspired by some of the events that happened during lockdown. And so it travels that way …
"When I think of Vaxis II, it's very much about family," he continues. "It's very much about a man and his wife, stuck in a situation with their son. They're new to parenthood and they're trying to figure out how to overcome some obstacles that they didn't foresee or anticipate. So that's where I kind of see this connection to my wife and I becoming parents in the pre-pandemic times, and then being parents together in this global situation we've all experienced. But that's what I love about this record, because it catalogs the feelings of a few years before [the pandemic], and then the feelings that kind of traverse that change."
Sanchez describes the production of Vaxis II as "kind of scattered all over the place. A lot of this record I wrote in my office. I sent files around and the other members put their parts on it, and then I brought it out to L.A. and worked with Zakk Cervini, my producer partner on the record. Josh flew out and hit the drums, we did some vocal and guitar overdubs, cleaned some stuff up, things like that. And then most of the orchestrations were done after the record was complete.
"It was definitely pieced together due to the restrictions that we had. But what's funny about it is, it's very much how I've always wanted to make a record," Sanchez laughs. "I'm pretty reclusive and shy, and I like to work by myself, in my own time. I like to be in my room. I like the lights off. That's just the nature of who I am. Sometimes I think my best vocal deliveries are in my space, without viewership. On Vaxis I, I asked for the code to the studio, so I could go in there and cut my vocals at five in the morning, instead of waiting all day and then cutting them when I'm uninspired. And I've noted in the past that a feeling or an emotion can get kind of lost when you rehash something over and over again in a traditional studio environment. I mean, I've been writing songs in this kind of environment since I was 13 years old, whether it was with a tape 4-track or with Pro Tools, so this was an opportunity to sort of capture it in a way that I've always wanted."
Zakk Cervini, who co-produced Vaxis II, is best known for his work with blink-182, Limp Bizkit and Machine Gun Kelly — not exactly the sort of artists who immediately come to mind when you think of Coheed and Cambria — but Sanchez says Cervini's presence on the album's sessions had nothing to do with his resume. "I don't really listen to a whole lot of music," he says with a laugh. "Blaze James, our manager, got Zakk's name from Johnny Minardi, an A&R guy over at Elektra. Johnny wasn't our A&R guy, but Blaze and I both liked his ideas of how he saw Coheed from a 2021 perspective. Johnny suggested we talk to Zakk, and I was open to suggestions. I think Coheed definitely stretches the limits with its records, but there are sometimes things that I hold back because I think, 'Maybe that's just too far.' So I was open to hearing Zakk's perception of the band and his perspective on how to approach this material."
During his initial talks with Cervini about collaborating on the record, Sanchez sent the producer a Pro Tools session file of a song he'd been working on. "He sent it back and I was like, 'Holy shit, this is incredible!' Like, he got what we were doing — and what he did to it just made it pop. So we basically did this pre-production thing where I would prepare the sessions and send them off to him, and he'd get a rough idea of a mix. And then when I went to meet him in L.A., I brought a hard drive's worth of stuff that wasn't entirely completed, just to see what he thought. I said, 'Pick a few of them, and maybe we can make them happen.' We got 'Shoulders' and 'A Disappearing Act' out of it, and it was so thrilling to me that what could have just ended up being part of a hard-disc graveyard became these two amazing songs!"
Equally thrilling for Sanchez were the orchestral contributions to the record by Christopher Jahnke, who came highly recommended by composer-arranger Alex Lacamoire, who's best known as Hamilton creator Lin Manuel-Miranda's right-hand man. "I saw an episode of Song Exploder on Netflix that talked about how Alex helped to develop some of Lin Manuel-Miranda's ideas. I'd always been looking for a collaborator like that, so I told Blaze about Alex. Blaze was like, 'I'm gonna call him,' and I was like, 'Well, I think he's probably busy, but maybe he's a resource.' And he introduced us to Chris, and we just hit it off. He came by to listen to the demos, and we talked about what we could do. It was his idea to bring the theme from 'The Dark Sentencer' [a key track on Vaxis I] in and out, and I thought that was such a clever idea. Because I'm just not, you know, of the theory mind … I'll bring stuff in and out to Coheed's rock music, but if we were to make a musical or a movie soundtrack, I wouldn't want Coheed's music in it in the traditional rock setting. I would want it transposed for orchestration, and that's what I saw in Chris. I was like, 'Oh man, this is the dude!'"
Sanchez received audible confirmation of Jahnke's brilliance when the composer-arranger delivered his stunning orchestration for "Window of the Waking Mind," the album's eight-minute closing track. "There was orchestration in my original demo," Sanchez says with a chuckle, "but there was a lot more of it happening because I don't know what I'm doing. So Chris and I cut some things out just to give it some ups and downs. But when he sent me the accompaniment for the intro, he sent me two versions and he was like, 'What do you think?' And I was like, 'Well, this other one isn't the intro — it's the outro!" Like, when that song ends and that symphony comes in, which is actually revisiting the melody from 'The Dark Sentencer,' I was just like, 'Oh my god!' Like, the hair on my arms was standing up. I felt like I was watching a Disney movie — in the best possible way!"
As gratifying as it can be for an artist to hear the ideas in their head come to vivid life on tape, or see them take shape on paper, it's another thing entirely to witness characters you created as far back as nearly 25 years ago — when Sanchez initially conceived The Amory Wars, along with its main early protagonists Coheed and Cambria — actually come to life in front of you.
Last October, Coheed and Cambria spent four days as the main attraction on the "S.S. Neverender," a musical cruise from Miami to the Bahamas and back that — along with sets by Taking Back Sunday, Spiritbox and 15 other artists — featured the band's performances of rarely played Coheed material, games and activities with each of the band members, and Amory Wars cos-play. Sanchez, though initially reluctant to participate, now describes the cruise as one of the most fun and gratifying experiences he's had in ages.
"When the idea came up, I was the one member of the band that was against it," he admits. "Maybe it was being on a boat, maybe I was apprehensive that we couldn't do the business, I don't know, but it just wasn't something I was into. But everybody else seemed gung-ho, so I didn't wanna be the one that put the brakes on the project. And it turned out to be amazing, and it's something we're considering doing again in the future …
"When I think about it, it wasn't that far from like my experiences at, say, a convention," he continues. "I wake up early, so I was walking the ship at, like, 4:30 in the morning, and I didn't realize that I was gonna probably bump into some of the night owls that were still up. But I did bump into a few and we started talking. I started hanging out, and how do I put this … It didn't feel exhausting like I thought it would. Like, I was into it. I was so into it. Everyone was just so excited, and I wound up trying to make myself as available as possible, because I felt the joy.
"We had all these cosplay characters there. We had a Wilhelm Ryan and some Red Army soldiers and then Al the Killer, and we really had a chance to kind of let the story components live. We had a Faint of Hearts bar on the ship, which if you're familiar with the story, is where Al the Killer and The Crowing hang out. And there was a moment on the boat when we're playing the song 'Al the Killer' on the boat, and this guy pops out of the audience on someone's shoulders as Al the Killer, and I'm like, 'Oh, this is so cool!' I just loved it, and I can't wait to do it again.
"I mean, to see your stuff out there living and breathing like that is amazing," he reflects. "Because when I think about it, the original Amory Wars was really about me, in my adolescence, growing into manhood, and all the confusion that sort of comes with that. Amory was the street I grew up on. The Second Stage Turbine Blade [Coheed's 2002 debut album], that's named after the part my father worked on in the factory he had a job at. And now, with the Vaxis pentalogy, here's my opportunity to fall into the role of the father. And what does that look like? And that's pretty much what the Vaxis pentalogy is about. It's about me being a dad, my wife being my partner, and the trials and confusion that come with all of that."
All in all, it's been quite the journey, both in The Amory Wars and in real life, something that was also really brought home to Sanchez during the cruise. "On the ship, we had a ton of Coheed posters on display, a ton of paraphernalia — kind of a museum-ish situation," he recalls. "And one of the posters we had there was from the Warfield in San Francisco in 2003, where we played on the tour with Thursday and Thrice, and it just kind of blew my mind that we've been here for 20 years.
"This March 5th will be the 20-year anniversary of Second Stage, so I think of that as the 20-year anniversary of the band, because that was the first time we ever released anything under the Coheed and Cambria title. And I look back at everything that's happened since then, and I'm just like, 'Man — we're so lucky!'"