Cop Shoot Cop’s Jim Coleman and singer/performance artist Robert O. Leaver talk about their new electro-punk project This Wilderness

This Wilderness is a new electro-punk duo comprised of Cop Shoot Cop’s Jim Coleman and singer/performance artist Robert O. Leaver. Coleman creates minimalistic experimental electronic arrangements that leave plenty of breathing room for Leaver’s dark, emotionally-charged vocals. Their debut album, “Sorry About Tomorrow,” exhibits a sense of gloom and room, but also a strong dose of humor. Coleman and Leaver bring their talents together flawlessly to create a catchy but utterly twisted sound.

How did you meet and start working together?

Robert: We met at a New Year’s Eve party. A mutual friend of ours, Paul Wallfish, has a party where you eat dinner at midnight. I’d been sort of dreading it because it’s kind of late for dinner. But then I saw Jim standing there in these really cool pants, and I said, “cool pants.” He said thanks and we just were friends. It was really that simple. Within 10 minutes of talking, we got talking about music and decided we should do something. It just happens that way sometimes, I guess.
Jim: That was the first time I’d met Robbie or knew of Robbie. I feel like we’re kind of brothers separated at birth; we have a very similar perspective on life and creativity. Robbie has done not just music but also a bunch of performance stuff. I’d done a bunch of performance stuff in my earlier days, very much connected to what Robbie does.
Robert: I think I’d just finished crawling on my hands and knees the length of Manhattan. I think that might have given Jim pause in a good way and caused him to take me seriously.

Did you have a sense as to what your collaboration would be like?

Jim: Robbie had been doing, and is still doing, more singer/songwriter stuff. Not traditional, but in that realm of vocal and acoustic guitar and bass, under the name Birdthrower.
Robert: Not Bird Catcher, as someone called me the other day. Birdthrower!
Jim: So, he gave me a couple of elements of tracks and I kind of damaged them. I hurt them with love and turned them into something very different. From there, we did a few shows with Phil Puleo the drummer who I’ve worked with for years, and with Paul Wallfish, our common friend.
Robert: Then, you gave me that Kaos Pad for my birthday.
Jim: Yeah, so we did some live stuff with the four of us, which was interesting. And then I gave Robbie a Kaossilator for his birthday, and we just found that the heart of this thing is really just the two of us. So, the album is mostly the 2 of us. Phil plays some additional instrumentation. We kind of went through a couple of different incarnations of this thing before landing where we are.

How do you tend to work together in terms of songwriting?

Robert: I think one of the more common ways to do a song is I’ll send Jim a little sketch of something. It might be some vocal melody with a beat or something, sometimes with the Kaos Pad. Jim will take it to the next level, and we’ll come together and finish it. We both work individually for part of the process initially and then really finish it together. When playing live, it’s often the case that we change it again. But as far as recording goes, that’s kind of the process.

Are your live shows always as a duo?

Jim: Typically. We may do some shows where we bring Phil back in, but typically, it’s just the two of us. It’s weird; you talk about it and it’s like, “Oh, one guy is doing electronics and one guy is singing,” and it doesn’t sound that interesting or engaging. But somehow when we play live, pretty much without exception, every show we’ve done has been extremely energizing and engaging. We’re consistently having people come to us after shows who say they are blown away.
Robert: It really is exciting for people, and I don’t know exactly why. I don’t really need to. It’s something to do with my behaving as if I haven’t heard what Jim’s playing before. And that causes me to kind of bug out in this sort of animated way. So, it’s not like 2 guys who have already heard the music they are playing for you. It’s like Jim inflicting this music on me and my singing the songs almost as if they are just coming to me.
Jim: There’s some level of spontaneity. The songs feel really fresh and new every time we play them, even what we do between songs; I might mess with Robbie’s vocals. Even though sometimes the music itself has this kind of seriousness and darkness to it, it’s also got a real humor to it. That really comes to life.

When writing and recording, were you thinking about how the music would come across live?

Jim: Not really. It’s definitely a good question. I was seeing what was right for each track as it was getting developed. It’s funny because historically, I’ve used electronics and samples for years in different bands and stuff. Typically, I stay away from any backing tracks. But that being said, between the two of us, I can play live, it’s not like karaoke where I’m playing on top of backing tracks. I’m doing a lot of triggering, but it’s very different than playing with a full band where I’m part of a whole mix of instrumentation. I’m providing all the instrumentation, basically. It’s a very different thing.
Robert: At one point, I was trying to incorporate an electric guitar into this duo, and it just felt confining until Jim suggested bass, and I said, “How about just nothing?”
Jim: I’ve played some bass, I’ve played hurdy-gurdy, French horn. It kind of moves around a bit.
Robert: If I’m doing my job, I have my hands full just flailing around and trying to engage. It definitely freed me up, letting Jim take care of all the music. He’s more than capable.

As you had initially been performing with a larger lineup, was the material on the album written with performing as a duo in mind?

Jim: Yeah, I think we were pretty well entrenched in this being a duo when we made the album. Most of the material we did prior to that has kind of been left behind. There’s one thing that will be coming out, I think on a cassette, that we did as part of Martin Bisi’s [BC Studio] 35th anniversary. That was done with Phil and Paul. But this album has been conceived from the ground up as a duo.

Did you have a strong sense as to where you wanted to go with the album?

Robert: There were a couple of thematic directions we wanted to make sure we were honoring. There were some tracks we left off that were more dancey and funny. I think it was an organic process in figuring out what it was going to be and what it wanted to be. I don’t think there was a huge pre-conceived notion, except we wanted to honor how we were feeling at the time, which was sort of anxious and freaked out.
Jim: There’s one song that was almost a toss-away, that was kind of a joke dancey song that became the last song on the record, “Down on God.” And then one of the tracks, “The Only Woman,” was one we did early on and never really found its center. We came back to it and totally reinvented it. So, some of those things that we thought we were discarding came back in different ways, stronger.

As you are both involved with other projects, how big of a focus do you see This Wilderness going forward?

Jim: I feel very committed and dedicated to it. This has been a project that’s been really central to life, not just in terms of time but in terms of where my heart is. I see that continuing. There’s been a lull after pushing this record out; it’s an intense process to get to that point, and there’s been a lull in the wake of that. We’re both doing other projects as well. Now we’re looking into some shows and the possibility of touring. So, I look forward to getting in the middle of that again, as well as continuing to work on our next batch of material. There’s always an ebb and flow, especially when you’re doing a bunch of projects. But this project is central.
Robert: I agree. I also think that it’s sustainable, and it’s doable. That’s why a lot of people like duos, I guess. There’s only one person to reckon with in terms of scheduling and opinions and all that, so in that sense, it’s really doable and enriching because we do get along and can do a show quickly, without too much static or logistical problems. When you’re playing around in New York, you end up playing for people you know and trying to get people to come out, and I want to play for strangers and see what happens. It really is about the camaraderie as much as it is about the reaction we may or may not get. We could stop playing live and go up to Jim’s attic and make music every once and a while and that would be really satisfying. But it’s even more satisfying to keep sharing it and getting this great reaction.
Jim: And we’re finding different ways of doing that, too. We want to do more of these guerilla performances, which could be for an audience of zero or an audience of unknown numbers, doing portable live shows and doing videos of them. It could be in the woods; it could be on the Lower East Side. We want to explore that a bit.

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