“What i’m wearing is completely inappropriate,” says Thomas Cohen, with a shy, knowing smile. The musician, a young Nick Cave lookalike with brows like hedgerows, is cloistered in the corner of the ornately decorated cafe of the V&A. He’s wearing a double-breasted shearling coat with black flares that hug his slim hips. So far, so Beyond Retro.
But then comes the reveal. In a flash, the 29-year-old whips off his jacket, like a Drag Race contestant mid-lip-sync, to display his audacious, backless, leather halterneck, from which his arms dangle like a pair of elegant parentheses. He “thinks” it’s 1970s Yves Saint Laurent. And he fixes me with the best accessory to any outfit: a take-no-prisoners gaze. “I should feel uncomfortable,” he says with a smile. “But I feel much calmer than I would do otherwise.”
Cohen’s ability to thrive professionally in hard-to-bear circumstances has become his defining artistic trait. He was married to Peaches Geldof for a year and a half before her tragic death in 2014, and was left to raise their two sons, Phaedra and Astala. Cohen’s first solo album, Bloom Forever (2016), was an endeavor to reckon with the unimaginable loss of his wife in an autobiographical record that chronologised his response to her death in visceral lyrics paired with the loveliest pastoral folk textures. In the record’s heartbreaking centrepiece, Country Home, he describes seeing her lifeless body for the first time. “My lover gone / She turned so cold / Why weren’t her eyes covered and closed?” he sings.
Great art can be created from grief: think of Joan Didion’s clear-eyed The Year of Magical Thinking, written after the passing of her husband, or Félix González-Torres’s Untitled (Perfect Lovers), with its two clocks representing how one half of a couple will inevitably outlive the other, a work that took on powerful urgency in the AIDS era. Bloom Forever’s poetic mien made for a worthy addition to the lineage of artists creating striking – if not always easy to take in – work from unfathomable loss. Previous to his solo album, Cohen had embraced being the flamboyant frontman in the sharp-edged east-London rock outfit SCUM. Yet his move into softer textures was reminiscent of how Yoko Ono turned away from her more abrasive music to create, in the wake of John Lennon’s murder, her most reflective album, 1981’s Season of Glass.
Despite his autobiographically minded work, Cohen isn’t keen to talk about his personal life today. That is clear from the moment we settle down to talk in the V&A’s sprawling courtyard with a couple of coffees (he takes it black, one sugar). When I ask – just to chat, really – how his kids are, he makes a throat-slashing gesture, and tells me that he doesn’t want to talk about his family, because his new, electronic-inspired album isn’t personal in that way. I wonder if he’s been burned by revealing so much in his painfully honest last album. “No,” he says shortly. “Every record that comes out is personal.” Sure, but the record was explicitly about the death of his wife. “Well, that was the purpose,” he says. “It wasn’t a choice. I feel like there isn’t [such] a thing as bad work. But there is dishonest work. And dishonest work isn’t something that I’m capable of doing.”
After the release of Bloom Forever, Cohen went on a media detox – an understandable reaction to the flurry of tabloid interest that surrounded him after his wife’s death. He stopped watching television and reading newspapers, and these days, when he fancies watching a movie he will plump for an old favourite such as Andrzej Zulawski’s deranged 1981 horror, Possession. His listening habits, too, reflected a yearning for escapism. At first, he was drawn to gospel music. “I got really lost in this idea of a lot of people singing, and something with a true sense of transcendence,” he says. “Watching a lot of mass gospel choirs, they were just gone within that – 150 singers completely becoming this one force. And I had always really wanted to do something that would be the same experience for everybody in a space, or in a music venue, where they felt the same level of freedom that I did.”
Cohen’s ears were also turning to electronic music, and he recognised the innate potential of clubland to offer a kind of out-of-body experience. “Techno’s fascinating to me,” he says. “It has within it the kind of energy that mass gospel did. Not in terms of sound, but in terms of transcendence – communication via movement – and a kind of sense of belonging and a sense of loss.” They do say that nightclubs are secular churches, after all. Cohen’s interest in dance music as a communal force is also a rejection of the power dynamic that characterises traditional rock performance, in which the artist is there to be venerated by an audience in their thrall. It feels safe to speculate that Cohen, whose wedding day was plastered across the pages of Hello! magazine, is tired of being looked at. At least, being looked at quite so much.
But as he tells it, Cohen has been a natural peacock from early on. He grew up in south London, where his dad is a social worker for Lewisham Council and his mum is an artist. He inherited a taste for The Velvet Underground, Patti Smith and The Stooges from his father, and emulated the shrunken-fit clothes of his music idols as a teen. That called for a rejection of the “boring” menswear he saw, and stepping beyond the gender binaries of clothing stores. “Womenswear was more elaborate, and looked wrong [on me] in terms of the fit,” he says with a smile. “I liked that – how something dictates how you move, and dictates how you sit, and dictates, I suppose, your role when you’re on the street.”
With his school friend Bradley and a few other rotating musicians, he formed the art-rock band SCUM at the age of 17 and began gigging around London. The five-piece were associated with their era’s wave of London art-rockers, like The Horrors and Toy, but were more preoccupied with, say, Valerie Solanas (the band’s name came from her radical feminist text Society for Cutting Up Men, or SCUM), and Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, a surrealist Czech film involving vampires and incest.
Cohen’s latest project takes a wildly different sonic approach to that of his former band, yet the esoteric influences remain. For his as-yet-untitled new album, due out later this year, he’s going by the name Sylph (you may have noticed this already if you follow him on Instagram). And a sylph is also a colourful hummingbird found in tropical climes, as well as a term for a mythological wind spirit – the creation of a 16th- century occultist named Paracelsus. It’s a neat fit for Cohen’s intentions for his music, which he hopes will breathe through club environments like dry ice. “I don’t want there to be some kind of dynamic where you’re watching a performance,” he says. “I don’t want people to kind of stop dancing or stop being immersed and focus on me.”
He debuted his new material at Berlin’s legendary techno institution Berghain this April, and is in the process of scoping out unlikely London spaces to provide a home for the inclusive Sylph live experience. If he was going to make an electronic record, Cohen wanted to do it right. He has worked closely on this one with Karl O’Connor, aka the blistering beatmaker Regis, who was central to the 1990s techno scene in New York. One new song, Braid, is a pummelling onslaught of club beats paired with Cohen’s low-register, vaguely goth singing voice. “It’s a solid snapshot of something. Its physicality is what will be most surprising,” he says.
Given the painfully intimate themes of Bloom Forever, it’s a surprise to hear Cohen say that his new project is his most personal to date. “But it’s not storytelling,” he clarifies. “It’s more fragile. To allow yourself to be fragile and to allow yourself to be seen past the narrative is really interesting.” He has finished about eight songs for the album and plans to intersperse them with tracks from other artists in his newfound, wider creative community. “It will be either the people I work with’s music, or who they work with,” he says. “I’ve never worked with nicer musicians. Men with guitars are always looking over each other’s shoulders and are kind of pissed off about something. And it’s so tiresome, just the ego of it all. With all of the musicians I’ve [recently] met, it feels very ego-less.”
He says that being an artist was never something he planned, as such. “It’s an instinct. Quite early on, I learnt that when I was trying is when I shouldn’t be doing it. People talk about it as a ‘musical subconscious’ or ‘creative subconscious’, and I think realising that early on led me to see that it wasn’t really a choice.” Pausing to light a cigarette, he says serenely, “I don’t think I’ve ever felt a sense of contentment with anything that I’ve done, which gives me a bit of freedom not to look back so much. And even those steps you make creatively, where you’re like, ‘I really wanted that,’ you do it and you realise like, ‘Oh no, this doesn’t stop.’” Long may it continue.
by Owen Myers
10+ UK Issue 2 , EVERYONE, VOCAL, TOGETHER, is available to order HERE.
Photographer Victor Gutierrez
Fashion Editor Klaus Stockhausen
Text Owen Myers
Hair and Make-up Patrick Glatthaar at Total using MAC
Talent Thomas Cohen
Taken from 10+ Issue 2 UK