I first met Pharaohs during a moment of complete madness. I had booked a rather elaborate in-studio session for the now defunct MOX TV in a cramped Hollywood studio that could barely fit 3 employees and a fridge, let alone a DJ setup, multiple Casio keyboards, a saxophone and throngs of eager fans. As Pharaohs schlepped threw our narrow corridor – each carrying a different analog advice – I started giggling uncontrollably. “Now this is the future of electronic music,” I heavily sighed.
How does one summarize Pharaohs? A 4-piece, L.A. bred electronic band with jam influences seems too simple. Whereas a dystopic marriage of futuristic melodies and borderline-retro instrumentations sounds far too pretentious. In a way, Pharaohs are just dudes who like making music…music that transforms into dreamscapes orchestrated from vast cultures and alternate dimensions. No big deal.
Since that cathartic in-studio session, members Sam Cooper and Ale Cohen (of DubLab fame) have become my signifiers of a quality Los Angeles get together. Whether performing or attending, looking to them to curate your L.A. experience is rarely disappointing.
With photographer Paisley Bruise on call, I sat down with the boys of Pharaohs to talk about the things they love most: ambient sounds, onstage improvisation and waves.
How did this collaboration begin?
Ale Cohen: We lived near by each other at the time and we were fans of similar music so we began this project as a way to hang out and pass time and try and write songs together – as a tribute to artists that we like. It wasn’t with a specific goal. We met in a casual way and it grew from there.
When did you decide to stop having it just be hang time and start playing for the public?
Sam Cooper: We recorded for a while and then, what was the first show we did?
Ale Cohen: Maybe it was the Arthur Russell tribute? There was a presentation of Arthur Russell’s Wild Combinations. It was the premiere of the screening and there were a couple of bands that did covers of his songs and we covered a Russell track. That was our first live performance. From there it was fairly easy to develop. We did a live performance on KPFK, as well. I believe that was in 2008.
Sam Cooper: We just jammed in my living room for a long time and started developing songs from there. That was all mostly ambient music and synth-based with a little guitar stuff. As we became more of a live performance it became more beat oriented and upbeat.
Ale Cohen: It all developed without a calculated effort. We all let it happen very –
Sam Cooper: Organically.
Ale Cohen: Yes, organically. We used our instincts on what were the best [traits] of each other and whomever we collaborated with. We created our current life setup just out of trying. How can I say it? It’s not that we made songs and then did a live representation of the songs. Instead, each went hand in hand and helped the other with our variety of sound.
Would you consider yourself a DJ collective, a band, an art piece?
Sam Cooper: We are a band.
Ale Cohen: When I look at the interaction and dynamic of the group it’s not a band in the sense of a rock and pop band with a locked contract and the drama. I identify more with a jazz quartet where we all come together. It has more of that sort of energy.
Sam Cooper: Most of the time it’s just us producing our own music. That’s 90% of the time. We will rehearse a week or so before a live show and then perform. We try and figure out how to play our songs in a live setting using everyone live, which is a conga player, a saxophone player, and three keyboards.
Ale Cohen: But again, it’s funny because when we are practicing for live performances we come up with new ideas and those ideas become the songs. That’s what I really like. I’ve been part of past projects where there is a struggle to make songs work for live because it’s all studio pieces. With this, if it doesn’t feel natural or doesn’t feel live, we simply leave it on the side.
With such heavy live instrumentation there must be a greater risk for technical failures. Have you ever had a performance where it just didn’t come together correctly?
Sam Cooper: I’m admittedly really bad at technology. There have been times when I have to switch something – say between a drum machine and a sequencer. Sometimes I don’t have the midi cables. But it’s not that big of a deal. We laugh about it.
Ale Cohen: The public would never know. I think we are solid live. We rely on each other’s strengths. What one doesn’t have, the other does. We are all happy with that.
Pharaohs has performed at such a variety of venues – whether opening for Escort, or on Boiler Room, or at a more warehouse style gig. Do you have a preferred style of show?
Sam Cooper: We just like playing.
Ale Cohen: I do like playing when people are standing right next to you. It’s always different. We have played on bigger stages where we are on a larger platform.
Sam Cooper: There is a weird separation [at those shows] between you and the crowd. Whereas if you are close to the crowd and they are on top of you or you’re right next to them, you control the room more. When you are on a bigger stage all you see are lights. You might see a couple faces but you don’t get the vibe of the room.
Ale Cohen: Sort of our ideal location is the Speakeasy in Venice –
Sam Cooper: We play downstairs at The Del Monte.
Ale Cohen: It’s crowded, there are low ceilings, and it’s sweaty. Those are my favorite setups.
Where have you taken Pharaohs?
Sam Cooper: We have taken Pharaohs to New York a few times.
Ale Cohen: In the early days we went to Portland.
Sam Cooper: That was specifically for an ambient night.
An ambient night? What was the audience like?
Sam Cooper: It was at Reed College for Ale’s Tonalism Festival. They had mattresses all over the student center and people were lying down and spacing out all night. It was just ambient music with amazing visuals all over the wall. That was amazing. It was a really free environment.
Ale Cohen: There were all these college students and someone thought it was a rave for some reason even though it was so mellow. It was almost like the audience was a beast that if you threw a single beat, everyone would explode. Some girl showed up in full rave gear and screamed, “Please don’t tell me this is the music you play!” She thought it was going to be a dance party. She was in the wrong place.
That definitely speaks to your diversity of audience…
Ale Cohen: I never thought we needed a big crowd to play. I like that with Pharaohs things happen that are supposed to happen, which means that if the music is strong and the performance is strong that translates to the public enjoying it. Therefore, if it goes in that order, there is no need to rely on the public because we are having a good time. If the room is empty and we are on stage, it is completely surreal and you have to laugh about it. And hey, this is great as well – you have the whole stage to yourself.
Although Pharaohs has established quite a reputation elsewhere, you have yet to really travel and play outside of L.A. Is there a hesitation playing to a fan base that isn’t local and might not be as loyal?
Ale Cohen: I didn’t know we had a fan base.
We don’t intentionally make dance music. We like a lot of different sounds and we arrive at our sound through the influences we have, which are very diverse.
You have a very dedicated fan base! Fans of Pharaohs go to every single show, regardless of location or time or whatnot.
Ale Cohen: That’s really cool. I had no idea!
Sam Cooper: Of course we want to go elsewhere.
Ale Cohen: If someone gives us money of course we will go!
Sam Cooper: It’s hard because we are a five-piece working in areas where it’s club based and they are paying DJs, which doesn’t translate to five people – airfare and places to stay and pay at the end of the night. It’s just hard.
Ale Cohen: Neither of us are in a situation where we want to max out our credit card just to play a show. If they will cover the costs than we will go.
Sam Cooper: If touring in a van was feasible in this day-and-age, I would be super down.
Maybe touring in a Prius? That just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
Sam Cooper: We’ve talked about going up the West Coast, which is a bit more reasonable.
Ale Cohen: I don’t know about Sam but I have been in situations where you brave it and you get in a van and you go through the ups and downs – mostly downs – and that breaks groups. We are all careful. We only take shows that we will like and that are enjoyable. Those bands that are on the road for 6 months and sleep on floors live a difficult lifestyle.
How did you get connected with your label, 100% Silk?
Ale Cohen: I knew Amanda [Brown] and Brit [Brown] because they came Dublab to DJ. This was years ago, maybe in 2008 or 2009. Starting in 2004 I got back into house and dance and I started buying all the Manchester stuff. I figured I was on my own because I was buying all this on Ebay for a dollar, which means no one else is buying it and therefore no one else is interested. Then I found Amanda and Brit and that they were playing that sound. I started talking about the music I was making and how I was playing with Sam. I gave them a couple songs and they loved them, which was essentially the A-side to our first E.P. on 100% Silk. I sent Amanda two more songs and that was the B-side. That’s how that all started. That got our name out there. Combined with the live performance – which is unusual to have a dance act be a 4-piece – got us a bit of attention. From there we developed and put out our first record with them. It was a natural step.
The label feels more like a family than most labels.
Ale Cohen: I love it because they bring that sound to people who aren’t buying that sound – people who are not necessarily looking into that world. They are able to crossover to the rock, pop, experimental and indie worlds (although indie sounds a bit weird). There are other dance labels that cater just to the dance world. We don’t intentionally make dance music. We like a lot of different sounds and we arrive at our sound through the influences we have, which are very diverse.
Let’s say Pharaohs is a world. What would it look like and how would it function?
Sam Cooper: There would have to be waves. Lot’s of waves.
There would have to be waves. Lot’s of waves.Sonic waves? Ocean waves?
Sam Cooper: Ocean waves. Our world would definitely have a lot of waves.
Ale Cohen: In terms of the government, everyone would have a voice but not a vote.
Sam Cooper: Nice. It would be somewhere tropical. The rest is left for the fans to decide.
Our world would definitely have a lot of waves.
Two different reviews I read of your work described your sound as “dystopic.” This is an interesting word to use for multiple reasons, foremost because L.A. is a dystopic wasteland. Has this city greatly influenced your work?
Sam Cooper: Yes. The Replicant Moods record is a tribute to L.A. When we were writing any of the songs, I would get in my truck, drive around, and listen to the tracks until they sounded right. It was heavily “Blade Runner” influenced – for me at least.
Ale Cohen: Even the gear that it was recorded with – like our preamps or the mastering process – so much were L.A. made gear.
Sam Cooper: It’s true.
Ale Cohen: All of which have a unique color to it. It’s hard for someone to tell and it kind of makes sense in my head. It does have that color. Even the cover of the album people think is an old picture but it is really an L.A. location.
Sam Cooper: It wasn’t directly made for L.A. but for some city in a future.
Ale Cohen: If you made it specifically for L.A. it would be so obvious. It has the color and influence of the city but it wasn’t a conscious effort to make an L.A. record.
Because of the cinematic influences of the album would you prefer that the album be listened to in its entirety?
Sam Cooper: Track-to-track or in its entirety, we don’t care. Either or.
Ale Cohen: It’s not a statement.
I didn’t know if there was a story arch within the album –
Ale Cohen: It flows well together the way it is.
Sam Cooper: It’s for the listener to enjoy.
Ale Cohen: I don’t want to get hung up on those things.
Describe your writing process.
Ale Cohen: Sam & I meet a few times a week and work on music. He develops ideas on his own and brings them to the table and we work on them. Many times our [ideas] come from playing together. It’s a fun process and without being clearly spelled we both have a strong sense of what we want to do. It never feels like we are lost. We are both in sync without ever talking about it. This is the same with the people we collaborate it whether it is Suzanne Kraft or Stellar Rahim. It’s always natural. We are all in tune with each other and we know what we like.
Here you are, L.A. based and L.A. influenced. Take me through your perfect L.A. day.
Sam Cooper: I know what I would do on a perfect day, but what would you do?
Ale Cohen: I can’t say on the record.
Sam Cooper: We are in Southern California so the beach is a good place to go. I would spend the day at the beach, maybe stop at one of the canyons on the way back and have a beer and some food, and then chill and watch the sunset somewhere.
Ale Cohen: Or you can spend it in a room without windows.
L.A. is a series of extremes. You’re either on the beach or in a dungeon.
Ale Cohen: You have so many options. Food is a big portion of this city. We are so spoiled.
Sam Cooper: This city is amazing. There is so much going on here.
Ale Cohen: Something ideal would be going to a cool instrument shop and getting a synth and then going record shopping.
Sam Cooper: If money isn’t an issue –
Ale Cohen: If money is an issue than you can go for a hike. But if money isn’t an issue you can buy a cool toy, buy a couple records, have some Scoops ice cream and then go to another record store.
There has been so much banter recently about L.A. being the new cultural capital of the U.S. Do you feel – as someone who has lived here for quite a while – that this is a particularly good moment for this city?
Sam Cooper: Fuck yes. When I first moved here 5 years it felt like it was at the end slump of something and people were still trying to grasp hold of it. It was really rather boring for a while. All of the sudden there was art, and galleries, and festivals, and a ton of new bands. Everyone from New York is moving here, so that’s a good sign.
Ale Cohen: And there is still a ton of space where you can move in for relatively cheap and make something. We can keep on expanding, which I guess means moving East.
Sam Cooper: L.A. is so big that you can turn a corner and you are in a different neighborhood. We love L.A. I really can’t imagine living anywhere else.
For more information on Pharaohs and upcoming tour dates please visit https://www.facebook.com/pharaohms