Once upon a time, in a galaxy of 78 planets called The Keywork, Coheed and Cambria Kilgannon fight a battle that ultimately leads to deaths of themselves and their children. This past Spring, Coheed and Cambria released Year of the Black Rainbow, the latest, but first chapter in the Armory Wars saga – a four-part science fiction concept that has guided all of the band's albums since its debut with Second Stage Turbine Blade back in 2002. Geeky? Yes. Pretentious? Maybe. Unique? Absolutely. Drummer Chris Pennie wasted some holiday time from his home in north-west New Jersey to chat with Punknews contributor Gen Handley about life in Coheed and Cambria, his past in the Dillinger Escape Plan and how playing drums for Coheed songs on Rock Band isn't exactly comparable to the real thing.
So how has it been playing the Under the Black Rainbow songs live? Especially since you were much more involved with this album?
Yeah, this is actually the first time I was able to record on an album with the band. So with No World (for Tomorrow), I was involved with the demoing process, but due to contractual obligations I wasnât able to record. So yeah, this album holds a little more of a special feeling because Iâm actually able to sit on the other side, after being involved with it, and hold something that I participated in 100 per cent - itâs cool.
Yeah, itâs a great album…
Thank you, thank you. So yeah, it feels great to play the tunes, but great to play everything else and the other tunes are fun to play as well - 360 degrees around, itâs good.
Whatâs the most challenging Coheed song to play?
I donât know…probably the ones that I didnât record originally because there are different things on them that give me insight into Joshâs (Eppard, now in Terrible Things) playing and then because Taylor (Hawkins, Foo Fighters) played on No World, itâs a bit of a window into his style and the way he plays and phrases things. So those are definitely a challenge because I didnât completely come from the ground-up on those things. With the Black Rainbow tunes, there are definitely songs like "Guns of Summer" that are a challenge because thereâs a lot going on - thatâs a lot of fun to play. Every song holds its own challenge.
How about the songs you like to play when youâre feeling angry?
(laughs). Oh boy, thatâs an interesting question. Like, the tunes that are slower in tempo, and I donât mean the ballad ones, but ones like "Welcome Home" where I have a lot of time to get to the drums, I can tend to hit a little bit harder and take some frustrations out - itâs that type of tempo tune. But I donât know, I usually try not to take that attitude when I take the stage - I get more into having fun and the fire and the urgency to play my best every night instead of letting my emotions take it over. I mean, I definitely play emotional when Iâm up there, but I donât want to ruin it for the band (laughs).
Youâve been in Coheed for just over three years now and itâs obviously been a pretty good experience for you…
Was that the same in the Dillinger Escape Plan?
At first, it was great, but it became strained over the years. The important thing for me is that when youâre touring in a band eight or nine months out of the year and you go on these two-month stretches back-to-back, you have time to chill and you get along with the guys, the family that youâre with. Like, you take time catch up, learn about each other and give space when itâs needed. Ultimately itâs communication and those things werenât happening with Dillinger - especially towards the end of my 10 years with the band. It doesnât really have to do with being on stage and enjoying the music, it was all of the other stuff getting in the way personally off stage. It wasnât fun, it wasnât fun at all.
So joining Coheed has definitely been a good thing…
Itâs been really great man - really great. Itâs done wonders for my mental well-being in terms of feeling very clear and focused on all cylinders. Everyone in this band is working toward the same thing and weâre like a well-oiled machine, a family, on and off the stage.
Having talked about this close relationship with the band, how about the music? Do you understand the Armory Wars? Like, the storyline behind the lyrics and albums? Be honest…
(laughs) To be completely honest, it is a little tricky for me. I understand little bits and pieces, but it is something I need to make more time for. When I got into the band, when I first listened to the band, I got into them purely for the music. That doesnât take away how much I admire and appreciate what Claudio (Sanchez) is doing - heâs created an entire world. What goes along with the music is a complete experience and I think that really helps make the band an entity unto itself. Itâs very special man.
Do you think thereâs a good balance with the music and the concept or does one overshadow the other at times?
No, not really. I think everyone in the band kind of preaches that the music is first and if you want to get into the story, youâll get into the story after. But at the same time, I feel that the amazing allure of the band is there is this epic story and there are all of these other mediums and offshoots coming from it that are really cool. I donât think either one overshadows - they just work together and make it one big entity.
Cool. How long have you been playing drums?
I started when I was 12 and Iâm 33 now so itâs been a pretty decent amount of time.
So what got you to pick up the drum sticks for the first time?
I guess it was that my mom and dad were avid listeners of music and went to a lot of shows and listened to a lot of bands from a lot of different styles of music. So growing up, there was a lot of that in the house. They would listen to everything from Iron Maiden to Zeppelin to the Stylistics to Kool and the Gang and Billy Joel - everything across the board. So I listened to a lot of different types of music and then I got into Metallica when I was 11 years old and picked up …And Justice for All. That was when I really took notice and asked my parents if I could take lessons. Thatâs what really inspired me - hearing that record and finally saying, "I want to do this."
Is it true that your first band was the first signing at Vagrant Records?
Yeah, thatâs true. The band was called Boxer and Vagrant had just put out a compilation…I canât remember the name. But yeah, they asked us to come out to play in California and we got signed.
Looking at how much itâs grown since, what do you think of the label now?
The labelâs amazing and Iâve always loved it. It was such a crazy time in my life because I had just gotten home from Berkeley and I didnât know what to do because I had two bands at the time. Iâve always had a lot of projects going on because I just like to make music, but I didnât know at the time because I had Boxer and then I had Dillinger - I told the guys in Boxer that Dillinger was the priority. But both bands got signed at the same time and so I had to ask myself, "Do I tour with Boxer or do I tour with Dillinger?" and I decided to tour with Dillinger and Boxer found another drummer.
Howâs Return to Earth going?
Itâs great. Itâs just a bunch a friends of mine who I met about mid-way through my career. So when I was beginning the transition of leaving Dillinger for Coheed, before Claud and Travis (Stever) called me, we all started playing and thatâs kind of what Return to Earth turned into. Automata just came out a couple months ago on Metalblade and itâs getting good reviews. Iâm proud of it - itâs something fun to do when Coheed has some down-time.
Going back to Coheed, how would you describe the bandâs music? There are so many ways to describe the sound and itâs not very easy, which I donât think is necessarily a bad thing.
Itâs funny. Itâs funny, like you just said, in that itâs hard to define what it is. I think that a lot of people want to define everything these days. I just say itâs rock music. Itâs heavy rock music that encompasses a lot of influences like blues and classic rock - even 70s fusion and psychedelic music. But it all just falls under the rock-and-roll umbrella. Nobody in the band tries to define what weâre making - we just do our thing and try to enjoy it.
One more question. Have you ever played the drums for "Welcome Home" on Rock Band. If so, how did you do?
Yes and I failed miserably (laughs).
(laughs) Really? How come?
The funny thing with all of that is anything you take on has different hand-eye coordination. Itâs different because Iâm not used to visually placing things on where to put the kick drum or where to place my hand when the green bar rolls by. When Iâm playing drums, Iâm feeling it - not watching it - so itâs a totally different thing for me. I donât remember what level I played it on, but it wasnât on advanced so I had to hit every other note and it was like half of what was supposed to happen. I totally blew it - it was awful. I also did one for Spin Magazine when they were just introducing the product and we were at Arleneâs Grocery, which is a small little club in New York City. So the guy rolls up with the full set-up and says, "Try this out man." He puts on "Say It Ainât So" by Weezer and it was the same thing. I blew it - I couldnât even make it through the first 30 seconds. The guy was like, "Aw man, the calibration on the drums must be off or something." and I said, "No dude, I just suck at it." (laughs)