Joshua Cook is a hard man to describe, but only because his energy is so tangible. He’s an artist to the core, a creator and conveyer of passion, grace, humility. An animated and authentic storyteller. A wanderer with an eye for California and an ear for rock and roll. His vitality simmers in conversation as it is when he’s on stage, owning a sound he calls “rock ‘n’ roll, deep soul, hard R&B.”
I met up with Josh with the intention of discussing his debut album of his new band The Key of Now, which is ready to be unleashed at a record release party this Thursday, November 7, at Cafe du Nord. While we definitely accomplished what I set out to do, what struck me most about our conversation was his colorful history, the stories that shaped the songwriter and the narratives that power his LP, Misadventures Part 1.
They quickly began pouring out after my first, seemingly simple question: Where are you from? Born in Kansas, he moved to Florida, Germany, back to Florida and settled in Oklahoma, all before the age of three. After finishing elementary school, he went back to Florida before his parents split up, leading him and his mother to relocate to Alabama, where he attended high school and decided he belonged in California.
“It was my Junior year of high school,” he recalls,”and I was failing a chemistry class, so I asked the principal to please pull me out and make me a teacher’s aid. I was delivering some computer equipment to the counselor’s room–room 602–and Mr. Jones pulls me aside and says, ‘Hey boss man, know anything about computers?’.” A natural storyteller, he reenacted the conversation with no breaks between dialogue that would indicate who was saying what, though it was entirely clear as he switched his inflection and demeanor between Mr. Jones and his high school self.
It was Mr. Jones who told him about Sonoma State University, a place he describes, again in his counselor’s voice, as “the kind of place a character like you needs to be.” Josh laughs and concludes, “So he helped me get into Sonoma State. I was kind of a weirdo in the South. He wanted to help get me out of there, get me to California, which is where I wanted to be anyways. San Francisco is where I wanted to be.”
After he found his way to the Bay Area, he dove into making music on his own and with various outfits, including a band called Strange Feather. “We took a two month magic bus tour across the country in a 1964 International Harvester school bus,” he smiles. “But when we got back the band broke up and my whole life situation kind of crumbled rather instantly, so I went at it alone for about half a year and just kind of traveled the West Coast recording stuff on this mobile recording rig that I started to assemble, writing these songs and road testing them. Took a trip to Europe after that, did the same over there, just traveled.”
At the dawn of a new decade, on January 1, 2010, Josh got a call from Aaron Eisenberg, guitarist and keyboardist of The Soft White Sixties, who asked him to join his band for a one-off show down at The Viper Room in Los Angeles. After two rehearsals and a trip down south, he recalls, “I felt, suddenly, that I had joined the band before I was officially in it. I was a little tentative, like ‘Oh God what did I get myself into? Am I really going to do this whole thing again?’ and I did, and it was fun.”
For his own project, The Key of Now, he illustrates the formation process as more organic, a fluid transition from being in someone else’s band to fronting his own group. “I’m always writing songs,” be begins, “Or feeling inspired with ideas for songs. Even when I was working on someone else’s music I was still working on my own stuff as well.”
He met drummer Nick Fishmen in the spring of 2012, when they worked on a play together, a production of The Odyssey on Angel Island, with the We Players. “I saw instantly how great of a drummer he was and just a wonderful person, a joy to be around,” he describes. “He asked me if I had any songs that I’d written, so I showed him some of my stuff.” With Nick’s encouragement, they began fleshing out Josh’s material and brought in bassist Tommy Folen.
“Meanwhile I was recording the album still”–the basics of what is now Misadventures Part 1--“on my own because I had started it on my own and I wanted to see that project through to its natural conclusion. I didn’t want to start the whole recording process over with a new group, all suddenly. It felt counterproductive. So the album and the band kind of grew together, sort of mutually independent of one another but also influencing each other to some degree. It’s been this synergetic process the whole time.”
With each story, the man behind Joshua Cook & the Key of Now sheds light on another layer of himself: the young nomad, the chemistry drop-out, the odd-ball, the artist, the musician, the actor. The stories give life to his work, so much so that under each song on his Bandcamp page, he posts a narrative explaining or exploring what went on before or during the songwriting process and the incentive behind it.
When asked if those stories were real, he responds, “More or less,” laughing as he adds, “Imaginatively rendered I suppose. These trips I’ve been on and all these places I’ve been all have shared sort of this surreal quality about them, and it’s that sur-reality that kind of inspires me to do creative stuff, to lend expression to that otherness that’s around us all the time wherever we are. Things that we don’t always see that are right in our peripheral vision, so to speak.”
Songwriting, for him, is one way to share his stories. “With the songs, I feel like the songs tell their version of the story,” he explains. “There are other forms that could also paint versions of the same story. All of which are equally valid. Could be a visual, movement… So beyond just doing music I want to really explore other avenues of expression.”
Unsurprising, he names literature as one of his most active creative outlets. “I fancied myself a writer at the age of six, before I got into music as a teenager, and that has dominated my life,” he admits, “but the writing has always been a part of the music as well.”
More often than not, songwriting and literature go hand-in-hand, as both are a means of expression, a way of capturing a story, a message, a moment, a feeling or just something beautiful. For Josh, the two ventures are interconnected more seamlessly, two hands working congruently rather than laced side-by-side. “All along the way I’ve sort of maintained logs and journals and kept writing ideas in notebooks. I have piles and piles of notebooks, thousands of pages of shit i’ve written down.”
His natural affinity for writing and documenting has led him to pursue something beyond a collection of songs when it comes to his own music. Though familiar themes of love and loss are woven throughout his debut LP, he asserts, “I want for the album to be something more than just the album…I want it to have an extra quality that maybe makes people go HUH?, or somebody might read it and intimate something new from it, something different. Everybody has their own point of view and I just want to offer something more for people to chew on, people to read, people to listen to, people to hopefully enjoy.”
With plans for create a series of music videos for each song, he’s placing no boundaries on what his debut album can be.
I want as much to go into it as possible. I want to combine as many mediums as possible throughout this project. The music is the core, the album is the core, but I want to use that as sort of a hinge where other things can cross through it. Sort of a lever to get some other things off of the ground too.
Built with layers of recordings that date back to he played with Soft White Sixties, Misadventures Part 1 is quite literally the sum of hundreds of moments in time that led up to the album’s completion. After recording demos of his songs for the sole purpose of demonstrating for himself how to properly play them, he ended up using the demos, “As a foundation for the recordings because I wanted to experiment with building upon different moments. There are scratch guitar tracks on some of these songs that were the very first time I ever played the song on a recording in any form.”
His explains, “I wanted those moments to live and exist, even if they’re not heard directly, but to be there, to be felt, to be present. So the recording process was a process of superimposing, juxtaposing a lot of, dozens maybe even hundreds of individual moments in time.”
The picture he paints of the recording process gets even more intricate as he recalls the process of playing drums and bass while still working as a one-man show. “I would get into character of what drummer I thought would play best on this song,” he describes, “and I would listen to my favorite song of their playing and figure out little nuances that they did. Ringo, Charlie Watts.”
Why the drummer and not the guitarist? Without missing a beat, his friend and BAMM.tv audio engineer Jared Paul Fox interjects for the first time during our conversation, saying with confidence, “Because you already developed your Josh Cook guitar style.”
“He nailed it,” Josh laughs before conceding, “I’m least proficient at drums, that’s how I would say it. It’s like driving a stick shift in San Francisco–you have to have all four limbs working at once.”
He names McCartney and Wyman as two of his favorite bassists, as well as the Stax/Volt House Band, who backed Otis Redding, as one of his greatest inspirations. “They’re one of my favorite bands,” he emphasizes, “Period. Hands down. Bar none. Because of how tight they play, and how tasteful the playing is. And soulful! And I wanted that, I wanted to channel that into how I interpreted these songs that I’d written. I wanted to do the music justice.”
The soul he describes radiates from his every word, and it will, without a doubt, be heard and felt throughout Misadventures Part 1.
Joshua Cook & the Key of Now, The Goldenhearts, An Intimate Evening with Michael Shaw
Cafe du Nord
November 7, 2013
8:30pm, $10-12 (21+)