Coheed and Cambria sets a soundtrack to comic mythology | Pittsburgh City Paper

Coheed and Cambria sets a soundtrack to comic mythology

"The one thing I could do was create a fiction or front to hide behind."

Living the myth: Coheed and Cambria (Claudio Sanchez, foreground)
Living the myth: Coheed and Cambria (Claudio Sanchez, foreground)

Every hero needs an adversary — and in this story, it's Ryan. Or rather, Supreme Tri-Mage Wilhelm Ryan.

Supreme Tri-Mage?

Well, yes — ever since he enslaved all the others in the Mage Wars.

Er, Mage Wars?

Look, if you find Dune perplexing, Yes albums tedious, and Geddy Lee's voice too ... something, good luck with Coheed and Cambria. And yet, this band has managed to chart, at least briefly, above the likes of Paul McCartney, Green Day, Kelly Clarkson and Mariah Carey. And that's with proggy ComiCon album titles like Good Apollo I'm Burning Star IV, Volume One: From Fear Through the Eyes of Madness. 

A beginning is a very delicate time. Know then that in the late 1990s, a New Jersey band called Shabutie sounded a little emo, a little prog. Its singer, Claudio Sanchez, had crazy hair and a crazier voice, and loved comic books. One day, the band's members embraced their destiny: They would henceforth make concept albums based on Sanchez' fantasy adventures, and renamed the band after the two main characters, Coheed and Cambria.

An unlikely gambit, but psychologically necessary for the shy, private Sanchez.

"I was the frontman in a band, but I didn't have the right personality," says Sanchez. "The one thing I could do was create a fiction or front to hide behind." At the time, "I didn't envision it would become as big and as eclectic."

Coheed's fantasy-space-opera, dubbed The Amory Wars, has earned them a uniquely epic niche. Today, it comprises six concept albums, a novel, a graphic novel and two comic series. And, of course, a rock 'n' roll band — yea, of mortal men. 

The band debuted in 2002 with The Second Stage Turbine Blade, followed by the more assured In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3. Switching from indie label Equal Vision to Columbia Records, Coheed began toughening its sound, adding a metallic sheen still evident today. 

"There are moments of complexity, certainly," Sanchez says, "but at the same time, there is the release through that. And that's sort of what I like: the contrast, the release of something so simple, and then the intensity of something so jarring."

In 2005, Coheed's major-label debut hit No. 7 on the Billboard 200. The market for Coheed's multi-part epics has remained strong, and shows no signs of slowing for the band's February release, The Afterman: Ascension. 

As the band grew, it looked for ways to add visuals to the experience. 

"For Floyd, it was The Wall," says Sanchez. For him, it was comics; as a child, he'd wanted to illustrate comics, but lacked the skill. "I thought, why not try my hand at writing them?"

In comics and novels, The Amory Wars has become a labyrinth of mythic themes and messianic plots, popcorn sci-fi/horror action and sprawling casts of characters with names like "Evagria the Faithful." 

 "I've always liked stories like that," says Sanchez. "I just like when things branch off and you can see things from other people's perspectives," he says. 

Lots of people apparently agree. Whether we're watching Lost, reading A Game of Thrones or listening to Coheed, we take pleasure in unraveling, perhaps more than in discovering whatever substance (or lack thereof) lies beneath. Now the Coheed saga may hit the big screen: Mark Wahlberg and Steve Levinson have announced they'll produce a live-action film.

"It just grows," says Sanchez, "and it's become my own sort of mythology."

While he's indebted to Star Wars and Stan Lee's Marvel mythology, classical sources come second-hand to Sanchez. "I know George Lucas had this fixation with Joseph Campbell and The Power of Myth, so all of those archetypes spill into these pop-culture myths, and then I consume them."

While few can match Coheed's single-mindedness, the band wasn't the first to pair music and comic books. 

"I've always seen a real connection between rock 'n' roll and comics," says aficionado Wayne Wise, taking a break from his work at Oakland's Phantom of the Attic Comics. "At their best, they have a subversive quality." 

Emerging in the 1940s and '50s, rock and comics were products for a newly discovered demographic: teens. Glam's rise in the '70s blurred the lines between comic-book superheroes and rock stars like David Bowie and Alice Cooper. 

Wise's first concert? Seeing KISS in 1978, at the Civic Arena. "I was drawn to that kind of music because of the costumes," he says. KISS began its ongoing comics in 1977 (the first issue's cover proclaims, "Printed in real KISS blood").

The crossover continues today, notes Wise, pulling out an issue of Orchid, written by Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello. The Amory Wars seems to sell primarily to fans of the band, Wise says. He's found more appeal for the Umbrella Academy series, by My Chemical Romance's Gerard Way. "But they're not about My Chemical Romance songs."

Several Pittsburgh-based illustrators have also dipped a toe into music. Jim Rugg, for example, illustrated One Model Nation, a graphic novel about a fictitious band set in 1970s Berlin, written by Courtney Taylor-Taylor of The Dandy Warhols. Just last week, Pittsburgh musician Caleb Pogyor (who recently relocated to Denver) released an EP that combines music with illustrations. (See sidebar here.)

Getting into the comics is "not necessary" to enjoy Coheed, says Sanchez. "You might find it rewarding," but "without the music, there would be none of the other stuff, so I would say that is the gateway."

But with each new album or book, Coheed's universe grows richer — and perhaps more like the myths Joseph Campbell popularized in his lectures and broadcasts. The Amory Wars suggests that behind our tidy suburbs and domestic routines lies a mystical universe of monstrous deeds and complexity. And for Sanchez at least, The Amory Wars offers psychological tools for navigating life's stages. The saga serves as "some parallel or extension" for his life, "and it's allowed me to overcome some of those trials, maybe see myself in a different light," Sanchez says. "In a way, it helps power me."