An Exclusive Interview With Jason Cohen of Tractorbear
Zachary Franck interviewing Jason Cohen
The music scene has had it's fair share of tribute acts and artists. Some end up being big hits, and others fall by the wayside. Tractorbear is a Disco Biscuits tribute act that initially made big waves in the northeast music scene. After playing memorable shows for Biscuits fans in multiple cities, they decided to hang it up for a while. After further deliberation, they agreed that it's time to return to the circuit, and deliver their take on trance-fusion for anyone that's willing to hear it.
And that's exactly what they're going to do. Tractorbear is back.
ZF: Jay, when and where did Tractorbear form and how did it come to be?
JC: So, it was Fourth of July weekend in 2013, Julian and I were at a party and after a long night made a decision about playing music. Since the Biscuits weren't playing as much anymore, we felt that we should try to fill the gap for fans that wanted more shows. We had a long talk about music theory and such, and decided we knew what they were doing and could apply that to our own playing. Fast forward a year, we started to bring it to life when I asked my childhood friends Paul and Steve to join us at our friends barbecue. What we thought would just be a silly one-off turned into over a year of traveling the northeast, playing packed rooms for friends and fans alike.
The time we spent touring all over the northeast has so many memories I’ll never forget, including a few interactions with members of the Disco Biscuits. Never in my life did I think at a Warehouse Party in Boston that I would be giving my seat behind the kit to Allen Aucoin. Having him sit in for a song was a surreal moment for all of us.
ZF: What were the first songs you guys learned together?
JC: To be honest, the four of us didn't really prepare for that first show that much. We sat in a studio in Brooklyn for two hours one day and two hours the following week and that was it. We made sure we chose some of the "easier" material so we could focus on the improvisational aspect. Paulie and I have been playing The Great Abyss for about 6 years, just for fun, every time we jammed. We knew that song would be easy to get ready for the barbecue set, for example. Our priority was mastering the ability to Jam the way they did. Man, is it tough to get that down between four different people on different wavelengths. Perfecting that part of their sound was a priority for us, so learning easier songs such as Helicopters, Digital Buddha, Cyclone, etc. allowed us to do that in the tight window we were given.
Seeing a Biscuits show is about listening to them create magic on the spot. We wanted to offer the same thing. Not to insult any other bands out there, but I feel like a lot of tribute acts, for jam bands specifically, tend to lose that element at times and just focus on playing the hits. Our goal was always to generate the same discussion about Tbear jams as our favorite Biscuits jams. I can safely say we've achieved that. When I have people asking me about the 3/7/15 Helix > Humu (><) > Helix sandwich, I know it's because it's some of the tightest Type 2 improv we've ever created. It's not because we spent days perfecting the vocal harmonies on the Humu chorus.
ZF: In terms of instrumentation, how much of an effect has Allen Aucoin had on you?
JC: Allen Aucoin is definitely my number one influence and I hope it shows through my playing. That being said, there are things that the man can do that are just impossible to replicate. Fortunately for me, there have been two drummers in the Biscuits. So I can look toward both of them when playing in Tractorbear. I'd like to think that I've crafted my own style that is a balanced hybrid of the two. I do my best to replicate Allen's double stroke hi-hat rolls, and try to “push” and “pull” like Sammy.
And I think something that Tbear specifically pushed me to get good at was layering E drums into jams. That is another element that I think is easier said than done. I think what sets me apart from Allen and Sammy is that, to me, my instrument comes second to giving my bandmates space to move in a jam. Now it goes without saying they're both selfless players, but if you've ever watched me on stage I'm not just playing my instrument but I’m also trying to move the jam forward based on what I hear. I love playing point guard so to speak. For example, if I hear Lasker has laid out two awesome licks, I'm the first to get his attention and rotate those themes back and forth. At points this is totally unnecessary as he is capable of doing these things on his own, but quarterbacking these plays is why I do what I do. I'm playing the drums, but my ears are in the front row listening to this show. And with Tractorbear, I can move the jams in ways I would like it to move in the audience, and that gets me out of bed in the morning.
You see it all the time with the Biscuits. They have backline off-stage mics, so they can verbally communicate where they want to go with their jams. We're obviously not as high budget as they are; so for me to sacrifice a hand, get one of my bandmates’ attention and move the jam in ways I think is best is just another facet of this music I love so much. The beauty of it is, I could move to shooting guard and Paul could be calling the plays, or Steve, and etc. I'm really looking forward to the moment that James does it next. The dude has serious chops and I can't wait to see where he leads us on stage.
ZF: Where can fans see TRACTORBEAR this summer? What shows are announced as of now and when will others be announced?
JC: It's really strange how paralleled our journey has been to the Biscuits. Brownstein made a joke about this last March when we announced we were going to be hanging our boots up. I think he said something like, "Oh you guys even break up as much as us too?". We now have added a new member to the band, very similarly to how they did a decade ago, and it has come with similar skepticism. And now, we've all realized we need to be mindful of our priorities in life. While on the surface it may seem like we didn't play a lot of dates, the reality is we got really burnt out with the packed schedule. You have to remember, we all have day jobs here and this is just a hobby for us. We aren't looking to sell out MSG as a Biscuits tribute band, that's just nuts. It's hard to play two shows every weekend or bi-weekly, manage our full time jobs/our career aspirations, and keep healthy social lives. I'm the only one in the band right now without a serious girlfriend (sup ladies? haha), and I know they want to spend time with their boyfriends on weekends, and not just sit in a green room with us at shows. I know my roommate who is one of my best friends (who is a saint for putting up with my shit the first time around with the late hours, constant fatigue, and constant conversation related to the band) doesn't want to see me go nuts over this again, and I know our friends/families outside of the scene want to see us stay balanced. That is the goal this time around. Balance.
Anyway, to make a long answer short, we've been making some plans to hit the same locations we hit the first time around so far. We can't wait to get back to Stella Blues in New Haven for sure. I know we want to get back to Philly at some point as well. Maybe we'll even hit the 8x10 in Baltimore at some point since we've been asked to play there a bunch. I would definitely stay tuned and expect some announcements soon. But I will also say, the shows will be few and far between so come out while you can!
ZF: Are you guys writing original music? When can we expect to hear it?
JC: Well, I’m glad you asked! We have a bunch of songs written out already and we're continuing to work on more. We've finished a few, and who knows, maybe we'll throw a curve ball and work them into Tractorbear sets to give people a taste. I'm excited for people to hear some of these songs. They are incredible. I have to give another shout out to Paul, James and Steve for making awesome puzzle pieces that we have been assembling. I also look forward to working them into setlists the way our greatest influence has done it: inverting songs, splitting them up, etc.
To be honest, that's one of the biggest reasons we decided to put Tractorbear together. We want to use this as an opportunity to give fans a chance to enjoy the magic we once brought them, and hope to introduce them to some new, original magic as we go. I promise you this: you will be hearing these originals within the next couple of months.
ZF: Is TRACTORBEAR a project or a band? Where do you see TRACTORBEAR in 2 years?
JC: Hmm, this is kind of a tough one. I'll start with the first part. Tractorbear is our project, it's our vision, and it's our passion. It's four extremely close friends that have grown up together that wanted to fill a void we were missing when tDB's schedule started to slow down. Now, we're looking at it very differently. The Biscuits are playing really well, and they're playing way more shows than they have in the past few years.
The addition of James has brought different tastes to the band. We took a long hard look at the songs the Biscuits have been playing lately and have pivoted to continue to fill the void. They keep a fairly steady rotation with a few outliers, so we're trying to flip their rotation on its head. We're not going to completely stop playing the heavy hitters like Buddha, Basis, Dribble, etc, but we're digging into the catalogue. We're going to dust off some material that doesn't get played much anymore, and we're going to do things to setlists they have never done before. With Julian we did this by inverting Caterpillar, for example. That was one of my favorite moments in the band, because we were taking what we learned from the Biscuits and pushed the envelope even more. We're going to do that again.
Expect some first time inversions. Expect a song to be split in half and be dyslexic the first time. Expect us to dust off songs that haven't been played in 10+ years, or even the newer material that doesn't get played a lot anymore. We want to fill that void for the fans now, and we want to throw the best party ever! (Well, the second best)
As far as where we'll be in two years, I really don't know. Maybe our originals start to stick and we're playing at Camp Bisco in two years. Maybe we hang our boots up again and call it quits in favor of starting families and moving up in our careers. As you've seen the first time, we may burn out and just not want to talk to each other for a while (hopefully it’s not the last option), All I know is I love these guys like family, and we're going to remember to just have fun with it while it lasts.
ZF: What's the major difference between the guitar playing of Julian and James?
JC: This is another really tough one for me, because they are so similar when it comes to jamming, but they also bring so many different qualities to the table. I mentioned before, ten years ago Allen joined the band as the new drummer and fans were very skeptical. I mean, it's a tough position to have had to fill Sammy's shoes. The guy is a legend on the kit, and from what I heard an amazing person to be around. I really do wish to have the chance to chat with him one day like I did with Allen. It really put everything into perspective for me.
I will say this to everyone reading: give James the same chance you gave Allen. People who have heard him play already know, but trust me, Tractorbear is in good hands. Very similarly, he is not Julian, and that's also the best part of it right now. He understands the direction jams need to go in the same way, but his flavor of this style of music is incredible. His tone is great, he plays thematically, he can experiment and make his guitar sound like a hundred different instruments, and he can make jams soar when we peak. I seriously mean it when I say that he fits right in.
Julian is still a great friend of mine. We caught up in Colorado and we still always exchange texts. He is just as excited for James to join Tractorbear as we are. I know he'll be the first one sending me notes on the AUDs when they come out haha.
James has a bit of a "jambandier" background than Julian from a playing standpoint, which I think will be great for the band because Julian and I were (and are) such 07-09 guys. But delving into more 1.0 material may push our jams in that direction. We're just going to let the playing speak for itself. Tractorbear 2.0 has everyone really excited to say the least.
ZF: What would you say to music fans that haven't seen you guys play before? Why should people check out one of your shows?
JC: A common misconception "tribute" bands is that they are knock-off versions of the real thing. With a band that is making up the music on the spot for 90% of the show, you can't exactly fake that. For people who want to see improvisational music in its most raw form, that's why you come see us. You're coming to chase that moment of forgetting about your problems in life and letting loose on the dance floor. You're getting that feeling of complete euphoria when our jams get blissful, and you're thrashing about when we get dark and dirty. The old PT joke goes "The Untz is that feeling you get when..." I think that's what we're going for and I think most casual music fans will enjoy that.
If you're a fan of the Disco Biscuits, you're coming to see us try to push the boundaries even more. Maybe you're an older fan who wants to see a more varied setlist. Maybe you're an 09 head that really wants to see that ferocity in the jams. We're shooting to accomplish all of that, and we hope everyone is coming along for the ride. To end this with the biggest Biscuits cliche possible: Bring Your Ass to the Party!