With the following interview, "Campus Bands" has morphed into "In the kitchen wth...." Arts editor Mara Nelson kicks off the series talking to Jake Cogen, aka Tryptophan, in the kitchen of Noah.
mara nelson: Okay, Jake, so would you call Tryptophan electronic music?
jake cogen: Yeah, it is electronic music, but there are a lot of different forms of electronic music. Is that a real question?
mn: Well, sure, but we can just sit around and talk, I don't even have to ask you about music, I could ask you why living in Noah sucks...
jc: Noah sucks, for the record.
mn: Are you a first-year?
mn: So you chose to live here...
jc: Yeah, I chose to live here, because I've got this phat room.
mn: Are you in the Con?
jc: No, I'm not. People get really pissed when I tell them why I'm not in the Con. Connies especially get real mad, like real mad, and my parents get pissed off.... But I think as long as I keep getting better, and I do, I keep getting better, and I keep learning, that I really don't need to be in the Conservatory. I guess that's a really arrogant thing to say, but I think it's true. And if there's something I don't know how to do, I'll just look it up.
mn: Tryptophan, what does that mean?
jc: Tryptophan, all right, there you go! Well, I put up all these flyers two months ago, and nobody knew what it was. And the posters just said: Tryptophan. And I'd always wanted to do that. I was walking around, and I actually overheard people say, "What the hell is this?" A lot of people thought it was a rave, and a lot of people thought it was some new drug invented in Harkness. But it's an album. Tryptophan is an amino acid and your body can't synthesize it. But you need it to live, so you have to eat it, but it's a drug. It's like a sedative, it knocks you out real bad, real bad! It's also found in turkey. When people eat a lot of turkey at Thanksgiving dinner they pass out. Not because they ate too much, but because of the Tryptophan that's in high quantities in turkey. So the whole meaning behind Tryptophan... (random girl turns on water faucet) Is it all right now? So you've got three things, you need it to live, it knocks your ass out like a drug and it's pretty. I was looking through a biology book and I thought: wow, what a coincidence. I thought it was neat.
mn: Is this rave music? Do you expect people to dance to it?
jc: No, no, no. It's more to be seen as an experience, and I try to take the listener through different forms of music. The first song is dancey, but a lot of the album is based on transitions. I try to make it so that you don't even notice when a song flows into the next one. If you listen to it, you'll notice that there aren't two similar styles of music next to each other. I think it works. But that's because I'm part of it.
mn: Understandable. Did you record the whole album in your room?
jc: Yeah, most of it was done in my room, I didn't do any of it in the Conservatory; I stayed out of there. I have no idea what goes on in the Con, it's a big mystery to me.
mn: Do you think being in Oberlin helps the creative process? You know, being stuck in the middle of nowhere, having to entertain yourself...
jc: Oh, yeah! I'm hoping. I like Oberlin because I look at it as my little cabin in the woods. I'm from Philadelphia, and when I go home I go to the city and I go to New York. And when I come here it's a good place to get things done. You're not really distracted. I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing.
mn: How did you get started doing this?
jc: I was a kid. (laughter) I used to be a little one, a little person. We had a piano that I screwed around on.
mn: But when did you switch to electronic music?
jc: Well, my whole life I wanted to make music. I was in a band in high school and we played shows in New York and Chicago, and we were getting to be big. And at the end of the summer, I didn't want to go to college, I wanted to stay in the band. But the other guys wanted to go to college. So the band broke up, and I got very, very depressed. It was the good life, and it was gone, I missed it. Music is such a powerful expression, and then I didn't have it. Also, I was going to be turning twenty soon, and I was like: I'm almost twenty, and I haven't done anything. It was my dream. I became obsessed with making my own music. So I went back to piano; I had been playing drums in the band.
mn: What kind of band was it?
jc: It was hard-core noise. Pure noise. So I went back to the piano and synthesizer. I knew exactly what I wanted to do, so I worked like a freak to make money for equipment. I took all my money and put it into this studio. Cause it was my dream, and now its coming true. I think the cool thing about Tryptophan is...this is so corny, but it's important, this is what it's all about: it was all a dream I had as a kid, a fantasy of making an album and having it be big. And then I came back to the keyboards and the dream became a plan, and the plan turned into reality. It was an awesome transformation to take place over a year and a half. This idea turned into reality, and now, now I can hold it in my hand. When I first got the tape and held it in my hand - it was a beautiful moment. Do you want to talk about what the music is like?
jc: I think it has a purpose. It's meant to be like a drug. You take a drug and you start tripping and it's a process of what happens during the trip. It's meant to be that sort of experience. That's one of the reasons for the name, Tryptophan. This is important, this is what the music is about right here... It's this drug-like experience, and it's meant to be heard all at once. You listen to it the first time, and it just kicks shit out right away. The first song feels like you're going to make it, and the second song is about aliens that come down and take everybody away. I like that one a lot. And then it starts getting more mellow in the third song, which is orchestral. There are supposed to be different types of experiences, it's very emotional...it's so corny...don't tell any of my guy friends. They'll beat me up. I have to go watch football now. I think it's very much a whole album, and it's all leading up to the last song which lets you go. And if you look at the song titles, "The Arrival," "Checking In," you're getting there, you're starting, and "Departure" is the last song. It ends on a sad note, I guess cause I'm a sad guy, at least that's what people tell me.
mn: Do you think you're sad?
jc: No, thank god.
mn: Everyone who came into my room while Tryptophan was playing said it sounded like a movie soundtrack...
jc: Yeah, a movie soundtrack, oh yeah! It does sound like a movie soundtrack in some parts, because the point of a soundtrack is to produce a mood; to convey an emotion and try to get you to feel the energy that is being set up. The soundtrack gets you really excited and happy. Yeah, that's good that people say that.
mn: So what's next?
jc: Well, this tape is a demo. The album was made to send to record labels, and I think I might get an agent. I'm trying to get my foot in the door. This is hopefully my ticket to starting a career as a musician. I want to mention Monique Mozee. See, I heard this beautiful voice in Barrows, and I wanted that for the vocal part of the first track. But when I tracked down Monique, we only had a half hour to record her part, but it sounds really nice. She's probably the one who has a much better chance of being famous than I have, and she doesn't even know it.
mn: Do you feel kind of lost now that it's done?
jc: This is really cool that you brought that up. For so long I've been saying: Just wait `til my album comes out, and when it comes out... For a year and a half I was just waiting. And now it's out, and it's like: Oh my God. For so long this is all I was doing, and now it's like: what do I do now? I don't know what to do. It's kind of scary.
Have a band? Have a kitchen? Want to chat?Call Mara at x8123.
Copyright © 1997, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 125, Number 14; February 14, 1997
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