Chants' Jordan Cohen on embracing happy accidents in electronic music

The Madison producer celebrates his third album, We Are All Underwater, on November 4 at the Cardinal Bar.

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For the past five years, Madisonian jazz drummer and producer Jordan Cohen has used his project Chants to explore worldly, soulful, and warped meltdown of downtempo R’n’B, dubby progressions, and meticulously crafted and bass-heavy rhythms that slither around the markers of standard timing. Chants’ new full-length, We Are All Underwater, which he’ll celebrate with a Wednesday, November 4 show at the Cardinal Bar’s Proper Method night, spelunks deeper into the cavernous and emotive sonic territories that Cohen forged on 2013’s I Feel Like I Feel It. Cohen’s previous work has always been collaborative, but the new album, out today on Seattlle's Hush Hush Records, features even more guests than previous releases, with angelic vocal cameos from the likes of Los Angeles’ Mereki (“All Underwater,” “Gossamer”) and Madison’s own Jentri Colello (“Blue Holes”), a production collaboration from LA-based producer Riley Lake (“Halogen”), and gorgeously sprawling and abstract album opener “We Are,” featuring Madison-based woodwinds player Tony Barba on bass clarinet. Cohen talked with us this week about the process of recording his first full-length in two years, how to find the hidden grooves, and recording drums in a parking garage for the reverb.

Tone Madison: What were you trying to do differently with We Are All Underwater? It sounds like you really expanded your palette of sounds and textures, while still maintaining the moody, melodic, and dubby feel of previous Chants releases.

Jordan Cohen: Originally the idea was to combine the emotional and melodic things I was pursuing on the last album with the more club-oriented rhythms that I had been playing with in my remixes. But I think it ended up as more of an introspective headphone vibe than I expected. Still, I think it kind of draws a line as far as the sound that I'd been angling towards for awhile. I had certain unwritten rules about having certain elements (like hooks or a particular feeling), and after this album I'm ready to throw out the rule book.

Tone Madison: When listening to where the hi-hats and percussion land on “Halogen,” I still hear a concrete rhythm, but the placement of the hits gives it more of a floaty feel that makes me forget that I’m listening to beat music. How do you navigate constructing un-quantized rhythms like this?

Jordan Cohen: Yeah, you can always feel the grid but I like to push things out of place when I can. Those are my favorite drums on the album. There's obviously still a grid happening, but I like to take field recordings that have no relation to the tempo and try to fit them in little areas of the beat where they work. As a drummer, I love playing with the time feel, or your perception of it. Lots of drummers (Chris Dave, for one) are amazing at this, and I feel like the challenge with electronic music is to make it feel human.

Tone Madison: Oh God, Chris Dave, that rhythm in "Prayer" on the new D'Angelo record. There's that one, I guess it's like a pick-up note? I can't even explain it, but he keeps changing his swing, and then there's this one hat note he hits and listening to it is like looking at an impossible shape.

Jordan Cohen: Yeah, I know what you're talking about. It comes out of that J Dilla school, rap beats where it's not quantized, hi-hats all in the cracks, but when they're looped end up way funkier than anything on the grid. Then all the drummers had learn how to play that for real, like they had to cop drum & bass in the ’90s.

Tone Madison: So to program the rhythms, you basically have to shut the quantization off?

Jordan Cohen: More or less. I don't end up playing the rhythms on pads or anything, but I know where I want everything to go so I turn off the quantization and slide everything around manually. Just moving waveforms off the grid how I want it. I hear it in my head, although it probably took some experimenting with random, unquantized note lengths in the middle there. But in the tracks I'm working on now, I'm trying to build in more opportunity for happy accidents.

Tone Madison: So the foundation is electronic and the drum kit is brought in for coloring?

Jordan Cohen: Ha, right. I didn't play any drum kit on this album, I just do that at my shows. Most of the kicks and snares are electronic, and then everything in between is random found sound percussion (claps, water, kitchen gear, things in my desk, random YouTube videos that I record at work, etc).

Tone Madison: There's also this fuzzy, melodic steel drum sound in "All Underwater," where it just kind of flies around the meter, but still hitting all of these unusual rhythmic sweet spots. Do you hear this in your head? Or is it more a process of reaching around in the dark until it sounds good? Also, where were you collecting field recordings this time around?

Jordan Cohen: So it started when Mereki sent me the vocal for “All Underwater.” It was just an a capella, I hadn't sent her a beat or anything first, which is pretty crazy. She has killer time and phrasing. Anyway, I went down to the Yahara River and recorded some water sounds, and that was the first song I started working on for the album.

Tone Madison: So you just chopped up the vocals and wrote around them?

Jordan Cohen: Yeah, exactly. She sent me so much gold that I really tried not to add too much and just make a cool arrangement out of the vocals.

Tone Madison:Yeah, you usually do keep the melodic content stripped down. Do you usually start with a chord progression?

Jordan Cohen: That's probably because it's not my strong suit, even though I felt for a long time that it was really important to include some melodic element that connects emotionally. I'm a drummer first, after all. It was sort of all over the place on this album. For example, “Gossamer” started with a chord progression, and actually was a totally different track where I changed everything except the chords (the tempo, the sounds, everything). But “Halogen” was an old track that I rescued, kept the beat and the melodies, and re-harmonized. Because the original chords were super dumb.

Tone Madison: With electronic music, it's like every time you work on something or begin a new track, you either deliberately or non-deliberately learn a new technique or something, and add a new tool to your arsenal, and then you want to go back and hack away at everything. What track would you say is truest to its original state on the album? Was there anything where you spent like a few hours or one day on it and just went, “Yep, it’s done”?

Jordan Cohen: Oh yes. Like, I've been doing some producing for rappers lately that has me really upping my engineering game and working on sound design in a way that I wasn't doing when I made this album. “Night Diving” and “Submersed” were really easy. Each of those came together in one session, and they are what they are (more like the glue of the album, I guess).

Tone Madison: Hip-hop is tricky because it really forces you to stay below the threshold. Do you find that you have to tame the busy-ness in the rhythms for that?

Jordan Cohen: Definitely, you have to leave space. I actually like rap beats that are radically minimal, but I haven't found any takers yet for those. The Milwaukee rappers I've been working with (mostly WebsterX) seem to want the beat to pull its weight.

Tone Madison: So he pretty much knows what you're about and wants you to stay in your lane?

Jordan Cohen: Well, the beat for "Doomsday" was completely done beforehand, and he took it lock, stock, and barrel. But now he has a good idea of what he wants, and I'm trying to meet that while still keeping true to my thing. It's caused me a little existential angst at times but has also taught me a lot and brought out some of the best beats I've ever done.

Tone Madison: I like that you leave plenty of room for that massive worm of sub-bass that sort of wiggles around below the surface. It seems like you've been spending more time on the bass sounds too. There is still plenty of dubby sub, but then out of nowhere you'll bring in a different bass sound to punctuate a bar or something. How have you been exploring that end?

Jordan Cohen: Yeah, bass is a huge focus now. Whereas like when I made my first album, I didn't understand bass at all because I had never played out, nor did I really hear electronic music on club speakers much.

Tone Madison: The solo zone is lonely and sometimes it's good to collaborate and deal with someone else's perspective. You worked with a few different vocalists here, including Madison singer-songwriter Jentri Colello on "Blue Holes." How did that collaboration go down?

Jordan Cohen: I think she approached me about the idea of collaborating, and I sent her the track with the main melody already sketched out. Then she sent me back a gigantic session of vocal files. I don't want to call her out her anything, but for some reason it ended up containing every take she did, so I did a tone of editing to find the right ones, and I think I made some pitch-shift harmonies in addition to what she sent. But she killed it, and I made the last double-time section of the song after hearing some of her ad libs. I'm not even sure if she's saying words in the song and honestly I really don't want to know, I love not knowing.

Tone Madison: I know you perform without a computer, but this stuff is so intricate that you obviously need one in the production zone. Was just curious what else you're workin' with.

Jordan Cohen: I like tiny synths that look like toys and fit on my desk, which does not have very much room left. So I used my Korg Volca Keys, C&G Pocket Piano, and Microbrute. Also my kalimba, and then I replayed a lot of chord parts on Louka Patenaude's Rhodes.

Tone Madison: Are you still running stuff to tape like you did with the last record?

Jordan Cohen: No, but I want to do more of that in the future. I have an old Marantz one with pitch control that I've been meaning to learn how to use. I did totally overuse a particular tape saturation plugin that I'm now sick of.

Tone Madison: Are the field recordings on the album pushing the songs toward a greater theme? Well, I guess the Underwater thing....

Jordan Cohen: Ha, yeah I tried to weave that in throughout. I record on my phone and an a little Edirol that I have. Actually, “Submersed” is kind of a location-based piece. I recorded almost every sound on there at my day job...the percussion and the reverb is from the parking garage, and there's a nearby grand piano that I snuck on after hours and recorded.

Tone Madison: What would you say was the biggest obstacle or growing pain for this album?

Jordan Cohen: Man. It's been done for what feels like a long time now. Between mastering, getting the art together, and scheduling the release with the label, it feels like I've moved beyond it (both emotionally and technically). But it was the record I needed & was able to make at the time.

Tone Madison: Are you currently focusing on hip-hop collabs right now? Or have you begun working on the next album? Any plans to tour behind the new album?

Jordan Cohen: I'm planning an EP for next year. Otherwise, I've been doing production for a few rappers and singers that has been taking a lot of time. It's not something I'm actively seeking out, but it's a good challenge when the right person asks. I also have done a few more remixes. I did one for this Greek shoegaze band Ocean Hope that I'm really proud of, that should be out on Hush Hush Records later this year. No plans to tour, but I'd like to at least set up some things in Milwaukee/Chicago/Minneapolis soon. There have been talks. Honestly it's hard to find the right context for my shows, which is why I'm excited to connect with the Proper Method/Foshizzle folks on the release show. I'm more interested in playing dance venues, but feel really outside of that scene in Madison.