Winter has begun in Toledo, and the temperature drops as the first particles of snow begin to fall. I sit in an attic room of a Victorian in the Old West End, listening as a song emerges from a Fender Rhodes keyboard, a computer, and the beat of a red and green drum kit. I am reminded of the paintings of Rothko, grades of color splashed on canvas to create layers of mood. I am surrounded by the warm sound of the local band Heavy Color. It is immediately clear to me that this music goes beyond merely sonic. This is an overall experience.
Heavy Color was founded by Ben Cohen and Sam Woldenberg. They list their main influences as Cornelius, Four Tet, Weather Report, 60s/70s-era Miles Davis, Sun Ra, and Madlib.
According to Woldenberg, “A lot of what we’re doing now came from a phase when we had all of our gear set up and the things that would just happen when we weren’t doing what we set out to . . . the things that were more spontaneous.”
Cohen described Heavy Color’s sound as “experimental beatmaking,” its own brand of “off-kilter, electronic music.” To which Woldenberg added, “Hard hitting, but ethereal.”
They want their music to find its way into the listener’s subconscious. “I want our sound to be vivid and serious. It’s a spiritual project,” Cohen stated.
While Cohen and Woldenberg make up the core of the group, it is a musical project that is constantly evolving, incorporating guest vocalists and outside musicians. Local artist Yusuf Lateef provides the cover art for the band and concert visuals. Along with his brother Imani, Yusuf is also an occasional guest MC. Sarah Cohen (Ben’s sister), an accomplished local musician, also provides guest vocals.
Cohen has a deep interest in ethnomusicology and is always on the look out for rare vinyl recordings, incorporating many of the samples in Heavy Color’s music.
Bridging the gap
The main challenge of making electronic music is playing live.
“It’s always been a struggle finding a way to bridge the gap between electronic music and live performance with instruments . . . being able to improvise and be kind of free while still using the elements of production,” Cohen stated.
Heavy Color has accomplished this by recreating on stage what they record, and streamlining the technology paired with their instruments to create a unique sound.
Woldenberg summarizes the band’s live performance challenge as “using technology while staying as live as possible and keeping the element of transparency, all while being able to see what a band is doing and not hiding behind a bunch of equipment.”
Heavy Color’s live show also incorporates visuals. During their performances, Cohen likes using expansive scenic landscapes as backdrops, giving the audience a feeling of being outside.
Heavy Color has a new project forthcoming in the spring of 2015. Cohen describes their current sound as a kind of “weird garden.” As winter descends, I am looking forward to the renewal of spring, and to Heavy Color’s cultivation of new sounds.