Local 101: Interview with Tomlinson Fort of Cobalt & the Hired Guns

Independent Arts and Music Festival, otherwise known as I AM Fest recently took over the House the Blues to bring a full night of Chicago’s finest. Among the impressive lineup, which included The Studs, The Giving Moon, The Underlined, The Alaya Conscious, A Friend Called Fire, Board of Governors, Leah Druzinsky, Workout Music, and The Energy Commission, were hometown favorites Cobalt & the Hired Guns performing their contagious blend of Americana and punk rock.

I recently had a chance to talk to Cobalt & the Hired Guns guitarist, vocalist, and harmonica player, Tomlinson Fort, about the group, making music, and sweet home Chicago. Check out the full interview and all of the show details you’ll need, below.

Your latest album, Everybody Wins!, was released just over two months ago, how has the response to the new record been in Chicago and on the road?

Playing the songs live, the response has been overwhelmingly positive, which is great. Everything that we’ve heard people say, and all of the press that we’ve gotten has been really positive. I haven’t heard anyone review it and say, “Oh, I wish that they’d done this”, or “this seems like a miss-step”. That’s really encouraging because we tried a lot of new things.

It was very much a growth record for us. We’d never incorporated horns to the extent that we did on this record. There’s a four piece horn section on almost every song on the record. We incorporated a string section and there are way more keyboards then there were before. Having all those options, having all that flexibility, that’s kind of what the idea was with Cobalt & the Hired Guns. It feels like we’re coming into our own in terms of sound and development and possibilities of where to take that.

Can you talk a little bit about how Everybody Wins! came to be and how the writing and recording process goes for you guys?

Jesse, Mike, and myself are all songwriters, and so one of the things that we’ve always tried to do is encourage each other and our growth and support other members of the band when they’re writing new material. A lot of thought and energy went into the making of that record, and it’s a piece of recording that feels as though it recreates the energy and enthusiasm of our live shows. That’s a really important thing for us. I really feel honest delivery of emotional content is at the core of what we do and it’s the most important thing to me as a songwriter.

Originally, we started making the record in our basement and doing it ourselves, and that was a great process and a huge learning process for us. It really helped us learn to make decisions and dream about, “What sounds do I want here, and how do I get that?” Learning to think creatively in the studio was a really important process. Then we started working with Sean O’Keefe, who is really a master of his craft. He’s really terrific and helped push us in a lot of really great ways. He helped with a number of difficult decisions like, “Which way are we going to go with this?” or running into roadblocks like, “How do we get around that?” Sometimes it’s like, “Why don’t you just come back and take another run at it tomorrow?”

Each of us writes songs, and we’ll bring in a song that basically consists of lyrics, chords, and a melody. As we rehearse that song and arrange it, it changes drastically. Often, I come in with songs that are kind of slow and Jessie, who comes from a punk background with his drumming, will just speed that thing right up and it’s better. “You Left Your Sweater…” is maybe the biggest example of that. When I came in it was about as slow as it is at the end of the song. I was playing it like that and Jessie was like, “Dude, this is a happy song that you’re singing like it’s a depressing song. We can’t have that”. That’s true because there’s a lot of love and a lot of happiness and a lot of joy in what we do. There’s a lot of hope. Even in the songs that deal with difficult things or hard things, there’s still hope that’s worth clinging to.

You seem to have a fairly free-form lineup on the stage. Is it just a trio on the record or do musicians sit in and play those additional parts?

There are three core members of Cobalt & the Hired Guns, but part of the reason that we called it Cobalt & the Hired Guns was that we knew we’d be working with a lot of other people and we like having the artistic input of those people. It’s not like they just show up and we give them a chart and say, here’s what you’re going to be playing. We choose those people very selectively because we’re saying to each other, “I think that you, as a player, have not just the skill-set, but the decision-making skills. Your decisions about what to play, where, are right for what we’re doing”.

Brian Neibuhr plays trumpet, and he helped write a lot of the horn parts and was very helpful at coming up with stuff. Before we played our Metro show in June, I turned to him and I was like, “Hey, you’ve got to write a horn part for the end of this song because I think we’re going to play it last and we can’t play a song last that doesn’t have the horns – it will be underwhelming. I know that on the record there isn’t a horn part, but you need to write one now”. It’s through process of elimination and there’s a really big process of trying things out and experimenting with things. It’s really when collectively, we all can feel it gel, like when it starts to feel like a Cobalt & the Hired Guns song. That’s the thing that everybody feels, and when they don’t, we’re always revisiting stuff. I think that really helps to keep it interesting and to keep it fresh for us. Even old songs get reworked and it helps keep us enthusiastic.

That was pretty much the recording process, and the preparation for the recording process was just as important. We made our first batch of songs and we did three songs with Sean O’Keefe, and we just realized that it was on a whole nother level. It was another ballpark.  It was going from high school baseball or college baseball to the major leagues. The degree of polish that was on there, and the extent to which it was produced but not over produced. He let us stay true to who we were and maintain our sound, but he really did a good job of pushing that to its maximum potential.

Is there anything happening right now in the Chicago music scene that you’re particularly excited about?

We’re playing at the I AM Fest at the House of Blues this Saturday. That’s going to be really cool. There’s A Friend Called Fire, and Board of Governors, and the lineup is really strong. The people that we’ve been working with are really friendly. Right now, we’ve still got a few discount $17 tickets left, which is great because it’s going to be $22 at the door. It’s ten bands, and it’s a lot of really good bands that were put together very selectively, which is nice. They’re not all the same genre, but I don’t think that that’s really important in a music festival anymore. You look at something like Lollapalooza, Coachella, Pitchfork, any of the big music festivals, and there’s always four or five or more genres that are happening at the same time.

I think that there are very few people who are like, “I only listen to punk/hardcore”. They listen to punk/hardcore, but they’re also into dance/indie/pop. They love the new Lady Gaga record but they also love Sufjan Stevens and Steely Dan is their favorite band of all time. (laughs) I think that that’s cool, that diverse taste, and it’s something that works in favor of Cobalt & the Hired Guns. We’re a band that is diverse, not every song sounds like the last song before it.

What’s up next for Cobalt & the Hired Guns?

Well, it looks likely that we’re going to be playing a show at Hard Rock Cafe this fall, probably in October, and I’m really excited for that. I don’t know if that’s totally confirmed yet, but it should be October 27th, if it comes through. I think that we’re going to be looking to go back out on the road again soon. Try to book some college dates and keep touring. We’ve got this new record that we’re really proud of and I think that the thing for us is to just find people to hear it. Find people to listen and come out to the shows.

I really want to ride this as far as it can go. I really want to build as much momentum as we can and then use it. I really have high hopes and a lot of ambition for where I think we can go with this record and with this thing that we’re trying to do. I want to do it until I’m completely out of energy for it. We just came back from tour and a little piece of my soul dies every time we come off the road. I’m one of those of people that was built for this. I love being on tour. I love sitting in a van for eight hours a day – it’s a weird kind of love. That’s what I want to do. Now that we’re done with the road, I want to focus on more shows and get back on the road.

You can grab a copy of Everybody Wins! online from CDBaby, Bandcamp, and the iTunes music store.

Be sure to get over to the House of Blues (329 N Dearborn) by 3:00 PM on Saturday for the start of the fest. I AM Fest is all ages, and you can save yourself five bucks by picking up tickets online for just $17.00.

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