Line & Circle
Interview by Joseph Arthur
Images by Teal Thomsen
Video by Rafiki Tree Productions
“When you grow up in Ohio,
you don’t really have much to do except dream about getting out of there.
—Brian J. CohenAnd your inspiration tends to come from everywhere else.” — Brian J. Cohen
Line & Circle
Formed by Ohio-born Brian J. Cohen (vocals/guitar) and Brian Egan (keyboards) while both at the University of Michigan, Line & Circle has since moved to LA and picked up Eric Neujahr (guitar), Jon Engelhard (bass), and Nick Cisik (drums). Working with producer Louis Pesacov of White Iris, the band has released their 2012 debut album Roman Ruins / Carelessness, a 7”, and 2014’s Line & Circle EP. They are currently at work on an upcoming full-length album.
Born in Akron, Ohio, Joseph Arthur is a rock musician known for his solo work and as a member of Fistful of Mercy and RNDM. He was discovered by Peter Gabriel in the mid-1990s, released his first album Big City Secrets in 1997, and has been recording since. Also a visual artist, Arthur owns a gallery in Brooklyn – the Museum of Modern Arthur, or MOMAR.
Brian J. Cohen and Joseph Arthur were born across the street from one another in Akron, Ohio – a place so steeped in the conventional it drove them to just the opposite. Both got out and set their sights on music, Arthur since the mid 1990s when he was discovered by Peter Gabriel, and (a decade or so later) Cohen post-college when he moved to LA with his band Line & Circle.
Still close friends, Joseph Arthur and Brian Cohen chat about the progress of Line & Circle, how Ohio still shapes them, and the power of minimalism. And, in an Issue exclusive House Arrest, Line & Circle plays a live version of “Wounded Desire” for us at their Echo Park home.
Joseph Arthur: My first question is why did you choose me to interview you? Is it like an admiration thing? You don’t have to go on too long, but I thought it’d be a good place to start. (laughs)
Brian J. Cohen: Definitely an admiration thing.
JA: We talk so much, it’s hard to know what to discuss. I think your approach with what you’re doing is pretty interesting. You’re also coming from a very different time, in a way, so it’s interesting watching you sort of maneuver through the music industry. What’s been happening over the past couple years is your stuff has gotten stronger and stronger and it looks like you knew what you were doing the whole time. I feel inspired and like I can actually learn from you. Like the student is now the teacher!
So I guess my first question is, did you know what you were doing the whole time or are you baffled at how well it’s turning out?
BJC: The short answer is yes. I knew I was getting better and I was starting to like what I was making more. I didn’t want to be in a hurry to put stuff out that I wasn’t in love with. When we made our first single “Roman Ruins,” for the first time I was really happy with something and excited to get it out, and after that things have sort of started to fall into place creatively.
JA: It’s better if you actually like what you release! Does any part of you still listen to “Roman Ruins”? I know it’s going to be on your first album, which isn’t out yet, but it’s already out as a single. Are you still totally in love with it? Are you self-critical?
BJC: I’m very self-critical but I’m 100% comfortable with that song being out there the way it is. There are always little sonic things or production things, but I’m okay with it. Proud of it.
JA: Are you going to remix it for the record? I think it’s great.
BJC: We have remixed it already actually. It’s ready to go. Subtle changes.
JA: See, your process is super fluid – you’re releasing parts of your first record and at the same time still working on it, and that’s really great, because you can bring all your inspiration and current mojo to the process. I feel like it’s more seamless.
BJC: It’s true, we’re fortunate in that way – that we have that chance. It’s not lost on me. I’m excited to still be able to affect the outcome of the record creatively.
JA: The other part of your story that I like, and that I like to vicariously live through, is your sort of LA-ness – there’s part of me in an alternate universe that’s totally LA-based. But you’re LA-based pretty strongly I’d say. How do you think that affects what you do?
BJC: It’s been a process. When I first arrived, I felt really far away from what was happening here.
“There was a lot of learning
what not to do.”
— Brian J. Cohen
JA: You were an alien.
BJC: Super alien. There were only two bands I liked in town. The bands have since broken up but I’ve remained friends with the people. There was a lot of learning what not to do.
JA: Give me an example of what not to do.
BJC: Well you’d see these ultra stylish bands that were in a real hurry to ‘make it’ and would play like two shows, or do a residency, then get a booking agent and go on tour without really having any songs. And none of them are around anymore.
JA: So part of your approach, of taking time and allowing yourself a chance to evolve, came from observation from living in LA. And another part of it is the relationships that manifested out there?
BJC: Yeah, that’s true. We’d write and demo songs, play them for people, and that would sort of lead us to new people, and then the next opportunity to record something would come out of that. It was sort of slow and organic.
Composer, musician, producer, Lewis Pesacov is a founding member of the LA afro-pop band Fool’s Gold, and a former member of Los Angeles-based Foreign Born (now on hiatus). As a producer, Pesacov made Best Coast’s debut album Crazy for You, and has worked with a range of other White Iris label artists.
JA: Let’s talk about some of those people. Who is Lewis?
BJC: Lewis Pesacov is a friend who was in a band called Foreign Born out here that I really liked. They were on Startime and eventually on Secretly Canadian. He wound up producing Roman Ruins and then put the 7” out on the label he co-owned called White Iris. He also produced the new EP that we just put out at the end of October, and he has produced another 8 or so tracks for the full length as well.
JA: Was he the guy that said you should use tape?
BJC: Yeah, he had been working on tape for a while and I had been watching him and my then-roommate Ariel use it to great effect, and I began to develop a preference for it.
JA: I remember you saying about a year ago “I’m never gonna make a record on digital again, I’m just gonna use tape.” Do you still have the same strong feeling or have you lightened up on that a little bit?
BJC: No, I still feel that way!
JA: Alright, I’m gonna remember that. Next time I see you making a record on Pro Tools, I’m gonna be like remember when you said…
BJC: That’s right! I mean, I’d like to take it even further and be in a situation where we could do it with as much solely analog processing as possible, but I think we’re a ways off from that. It would be fun to do.
JA: What are some other bands Lewis produces?
BJC: The thing that first got him attention as a producer was the first Best Coast record.
Critically acclaimed record producer and musician, formerly of LA indie rock group Foreign Born. Rechtshaid was nominated for a 2014 Grammy for Producer of the Year, and won another for his production of Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City.
JA: And then Ariel, what’s his full name? He’s a big producer too right?
BJC: Ariel Rechtshaid, yeah he does all kinds of stuff like the last Vampire Weekend record, Haim, Cass McCombs, Charli XCX, Sky Ferreira, Usher, Madonna. He was nominated for Producer of the Year last year at the Grammys.
JA: Have you asked him to produce anything for you?
BJC: No, we can’t afford him! But he’s given us some good advice on stuff, and it’s always fun to bounce ideas off each other, which was easy to do when we lived together.
JA: That’s pretty interesting. I’m not trying to be name-droppy, but I think your scene there is part of what’s helped you grow in the way that you have. Also, sort of your love of – for lack of better word – I don’t know if you call it hipster culture or what, but adventurous people making adventurous music that they believe in.
BJC: When we got to LA, we were living in a part of town that was very much not like that. And every night I was driving to Echo Park and Silverlake to see bands, and quickly realized that’s where the interesting stuff seemed to be happening and where the people I seemed to enjoy spending time with all lived. I was spending all my time over here anyway, so it made sense to be here. And when I finally moved, I felt like I got to LA for the first time.
JA: I remember visiting you when you lived in the not cool part of town. So what about Akron, Ohio. Has that influenced you at all? You’re born and raised there and we grew up across the street from each other there, which is bananas.
BJC: I think it’s been extremely influential, probably the most influential thing of all.
BJC: Well, as we’ve discussed many times, and as you’ve written many great songs about, when you grow up in that part of the country, you don’t really have much to do except dream about getting out of there. And your inspiration tends to come from everywhere else.
JA: Conventional life used to drive me insane. I couldn’t stand the idea of doing mundane things and it seemed like that was the energy there. I feel like Akron for me was fertile ground to build a rebellious spirit in that way. Because there weren’t a lot of examples of people living off of art or in unconventional ways. The ironic part is that so many freaks come from Akron. It is interesting.
Rock band from Ohio, formed in 1972 and known for their 1980 single “Whip It.” One of the first pioneers of the music video, and a tastemaker in new wave and alternative rock, Devo still maintains a cult following.
Born in Akron, Ohio, Chrissie Hynde is lead singer of rock band The Pretenders and its only permanent member from their debut album in 1980 to their most recent in 2008.
BJC: Yeah, and you know, we know of some of those people, like the DEVOs and the Chrissie Hyndes of the world, but my experience growing up seemed so far away from them. I’m sure there were people there doing creative things and making things, but for whatever reason I was just not surrounded by them growing up and certainly felt no inspiration from the city in that vein, like you’re saying.
JA: So you went to college. Did you graduate? Where’d you go to college?
BJC: Yeah I went to school in Ann Arbor, Michigan. And I did graduate.
JA: In what?
BJC: I was pre-med but I studied politics.
“Conventional life used to drive me insane.
I couldn’t stand the idea of doing mundane things.
I feel like Akron for me was fertile ground
to build a rebellious spirit in that way.”
— Joseph Arthur
JA. That’s interesting. Did you know that you wanted to do this then, what you’re doing now? Did you have an inkling?
BJC: Yeah, I remember thinking when I got to Ann Arbor that I really wanted to find some people and do it, but I didn’t know how and I didn’t know who. At that time, I didn’t even know how to play guitar. I just had a desire. I didn’t know what it could be. But I wanted to do something about it, and eventually the last couple years there, I met people and started playing.
JA: And when did you discover your voice, which is a really great and interesting singing voice. Did you have that as a kid or what?
BJC: I don’t know. It was never something I considered. I was in choirs in high school and things like that, but it was never something that I thought about.
JA: That’s funny, cause me neither, and I’m also considered one of the greatest singers in the world – I don’t know if you’re aware of that? (laughs)
BJC: I am very aware! There must be something in the water on Wiltshire Rd.
JA: I see you coming for my throne, I see you coming! I’m only doing this interview to sabotage you… (laughs) When was the time you started writing songs and when did the seriousness of this pursuit really start?
BJC: The seeds were in Ann Arbor. That was the first time I started writing songs and actually being in a band that was playing shows. Certainly, by the time we got to LA it became a little bit more real, and we were thrown into industry stuff and had to learn what was going on.
JA: Ann Arbor, what a traitor thing to say!
BJC: I know. Growing up, we were a divided home because my mom went to Michigan, so did her sister and her sister’s husband, but my dad went to Ohio State.
JA: I knew I liked your dad for some reason. So why did you move to LA?
BJC: It was sort of accidental. The industry got involved.
JA: Are you uncomfortable talking about that? What did you think we were gonna talk about, Plato? Ok, so what are your primary influences?
BJC: In terms of music?
(1866 – 1925) French composer, pianist, and part of the 20th century Parisian avant-garde whose work was a precursor to later movements such as minimalism, repetition and Theater of the Absurd.
One of the most influential and renowned modern American composers (born 1937), known for his repetitive song structures, classicism, and minimalism – a label he attempts to distance himself from.
An American composer (born 1936) and pioneer of minimal music in the mid to late 1960s, Steve Reich’s innovations include using tape loops, repetitive structures and slow harmonic rhythm – influencing much of contemporary music.
BJC: People like Erik Satie and Philip Glass and Steve Reich, learning about those guys and the power of minimalism, that’s sort of been the biggest breakthrough for me over the past several years. That has helped inform the foundational arrangements for what our band builds songwise.
My mom’s cousin was married to Steve Reich for a while in New York, very briefly, years ago. I remember his name would come up occasionally because my brother was getting into him, and I was always curious about who he was, so I investigated.
JA: So how are you applying that to a more rock n roll format?
BJC: Just by being less chord-based, less strumming chords I mean. Letting the instrumental arrangement be more about melody itself, with its own movement. Creating a pattern that you can kind of go numb to by the way it repeats, but for it to still be emotional and form the basis which everything else plays off of and is built around.
JA: That’s interesting. Does the new EP have that philosophy within it?
BJC: I think so, very much.
JA: What you do have is super strong emotional, melodic choruses and songs in general. Where are you pulling that emotion from? Where does your sensibility come from?
BJC: I have no clue… My grandmother was a vaudeville performer when she was kid. She was scouted by someone from New York who wanted her to move there and start doing it professionally, but her mom refused and wouldn’t let her go. She had a great voice.
JA: That’s wild. So what did she ultimately do?
BJC: She got married and had two kids.
JA: That’s what they did back in those days. What about your biggest rock n roll influences?
British rock band formed in Manchester in 1982 by Morrissey, Johnny Marr, Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce. One of the most influential bands of the 80s, The Smiths are known for their fusion of 60s rock and post-punk, their lyrics, and their cult status.
BJC: In high school I got exposed to The Smiths. I would be teased viciously by my friends if they ever heard it playing in my car.
JA: What is it that thrills you and inspires you about that stuff?
BJC: I remember my brother and I would just laugh out loud listening to Morrissey. We thought he was hilarious. That’s certainly what drew us to him initially. The music was also not aggressive, like grunge, it had a different emotional quality.
“Learning about the power of minimalism,
that’s sort of been the biggest breakthrough
for me over the past several years. ”
— Brian J. Cohen
JA: It was more intellectually aggressive.
BJC: Yeah, that’s a good way to put it. I couldn’t have articulated that at the time though. And melodically also, my ear goes towards song more than anything. Maybe it’s fondness for a more British sensibility as well.
New York indie rock band formed in 1998 and critically acclaimed for their debut album “Is This It.” Members include Julian Casablancas, Nick Valensi, Albert Hammond, Jr., Nikolai Fraiture and Fabrizio Moretti, all of whom have embarked on side and solo projects in recent years.
JA: One of the things I think is really interesting about what you’re doing is you’re sort of picking up a certain mantle. It reminds me of the way The Strokes picked up a certain aesthetic that no one else was really tapping into and made it their own. And sort of re-contextualized it for a new generation. I feel like that’s what could maybe happen with Line & Circle.
BJC: That’s interesting. I’ve never thought about it like that.
JA: So what about now?
BJC: We released our first EP at the end of October and went on tour, and developed a few more songs while we were out there, which we finished over the holidays. This time we’re going to Philadelphia to record them from the ground up, in a couple weeks with Brian McTear and Jon Low, the guys who have been mixing all our stuff.
JA: And then the full length comes out when?
BJC: Sometime this summer.
JA: What’s the album going to be called?
BJC: I had a title but I’m not sure I’ll use it. I’m not sure I’ll know until everything has been recorded.
JA: What is the title you had?
BJC: I won’t say. I’m still writing words, so we shall see.
JA: And you’re fitting the lyrics into melody, rather than the melody into the lyrics? Which as we’ve discussed, is more difficult to do.
BJC: Yeah, for the past several days just finishing these last three songs.
JA: Well cool man, I wish you all the best with it.
BJC: Thank you man, thanks for doing this.