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The Reds at the Stereo Society
The Reds’ Bruce Cohen In Interview
Survival. That’s what Philadelphia’s the Reds have struggled with since the beginning. It hasn’t been easy for them. The band debuted on A&M in 1979 with a self-titled album. An EP followed containing a hot version of the Doors’ classic Break On Through. The tune typified The Reds’ approach: dark, moody and volatile.
Problems set in. The group was misunderstood. The Reds followed no trends, preferring to set their own. Leaving A&M, they did two independent albums, Stronger Silence and Fatal Slide. More problems. Drummer Tommy Geddes and bassist Jim Peters split, leaving guitarist Rick Shaffer and keyboardist Bruce Cohen to fend for themselves.
Cohen and Shaffer hooked up with producer Mike Thorne (Soft Cell, Nina Hagen) to record Shake Appeal, a five-song EP for Sire. The record expands on The Reds’ American roots. It oozes raw emotion. The material isn’t pretty. Bruce Cohen says it’s their best.
Cohen, a long, lanky fellow with a big pompadour and a heavy Philly accent, is dressed appropriately – in red. He says the chemistry between The Reds and Thorne couldn’t be better. Shake Appeal is the record he and Shaffer have always wanted to do.
Stereo Guide: You’ve said you’re unaffected by trends, but Shake Appeal is definitely new music.
Bruce Cohen: Yeah, I think it’s new music in the sense that we’re definitely stylists and we’re not going to the old music of the ’60s or ’70s. We’re not following what’s trendy now · the dance clubs and synth bands or whatever. We’re definitely our own kind of sound.
SG: What’s the difference between The Reds and the sound of the new British invasion?
BC: We don’t have a conscious sound, meshing together is what comes out. That’s our sound. It’s not like we’re listening to somebody and say, ‘well, we’ve gotta sound like this,’ We don’t really set out to do that.
SG: How is Shake Appeal American?
BC: I think what’s American about it · I do have to admit we get a lot of good ideas from what the British have done with modern technology – synthesizers and drum machines and things like that – but we haven’t abandoned the emotion of American music. A lot of the British bands come off sounding cold and calculated.
SG: So you mean you still embody the emotion of a Springsteen or a Seger?
BC: Yeah, sure, yeah. Or even go back to the 50s with Presley. He never abandoned that. Whatever he played, he never stopped that emotion. It just kept going.
It’s not that I feel negative about the British music. There’s a lot of it that I like, but a lot comes off sounding very robotic. Just because you use synthesizers and machines doesn’t mean you yourself have to sound like that (a machine). And they sing like they don’t really care. It’s very hard to get into it. It’s almost like disco of the 70s; they were more concerned with the beat and that was it.
SG: Your music is very lean. Are you into minimalism like Trio?
BC: I would say that, yeah. At one time, we weren’t. It was like pull out all the stops and let’s band it out – a wall of sound. But after a while, you feel ‘what’s the purpose of it?’ It was good at one time but it’s served its purpose.
For me, change is always good as long as it’s not forced. We never forced it, we just said less is more. When we use that philosophy, I think people can actually hear more of what we’re doing. When you overplay, it tends to clutter it up. Take Springsteen. Before, his wall of sound got on my nerves but now his songs are big and open. He really pulls you in more than he used to.
SG: What themes do you favour?
BC: Rick writes most of the lyrics, especially about the inner man, the inner conflict every person has. We believe there’s no such thing as a person who doesn’t have that. I think most people are doing things they don’t want to do. I don’t know who’s forcing them · society or their surroundings or what. But a lot of people are walking around saying this is the way I have to behave, this is what I have to do.’ That poses a lot of emotional pain and mental stress. It just seems we bring that out.
SG: Did you have this approach from the start?
BC: Yeah. We never got into politics. How many times can you tell everybody how bad things are around them? They all have their smiles and say ‘I’m fine, there’s nothing wrong with me’ when there actually is.
We’ve had our ups and downs but our music has always come through. I was never really disappointed with what we’ve done musically. And I don’t think we’ve let our fans down either. Maybe, business-wise, we’ve made a lot of mistakes, but so has everybody else. Musically, we haven’t made any.
SG: You titled this EP from an Iggy Pop tune. Why?
BC: Because Iggy Pop represents rock’s ups and downs. He’s a man who’s been through the mill, yet he manages to survive it all and still continues. That’s what our philosophy is – no matter what happens, we’re still gonna put out records.
SG: Does your music relate to that period somehow?
BC: It’s funny, a lot of people have said ‘this reminds me of the old Iggy stuff.’ A lot of his fans feel he mellowed out and let them down on the past few albums. I think he’s still putting out good stuff and our record is a tribute to him. We just wanted to see how many people would catch onto it.
SG: Iggy has been a big influence.
BC: Yeah. No matter who you listen to, I think you’re influenced by it, negatively or positively. Iggy’s always been a survivor. Of course, it doesn’t hurt when David Bowie records one of your songs! That really helped him. People like Lou Reed, even the Rolling Stones, continue putting things out. Everybody thinks Bach and Beethoven were the best classically but I’m sure they had their bad songs too. You couldn’t expect someone like that to have great consistency. Same thing with Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and the Stones.
SG: How has the band been understood?
BC: That depends. We might have been misunderstood maybe as far as major radio goes, but college radio and the kids on the street take us for what we are. People always need some past reference, unfortunately. They say our songs are depressing but how about Pink Floyd or Jim Morrison? They never sang happy-go-lucky pop stuff. Genesis too. They’re getting more minimal.
When you start mentioning that kind of stuff, people say ‘oh yeah.’ I don’t want to put them down, but some people just can’t think for themselves. I remember in the 60s, people were so adventurous. They’d go to the album rack and say, ‘I’ll take this home and listen to it’ but now, they have to be told. Nobody’s adventurous anymore. They’re being dictated to, programmed to what’s hip.