"I was this kid, Cosmos Sunshine, living in a little cottage on the Connecticut River, with no electricity, and at the end of a long dirt road. Sometimes when it would flood, I would have to take a canoe to the bus stop. It was a hard scrabble sort of existence, so I for sure knew, and I for sure always felt on the outside."
It's a bright day. Trees line the street, and the sun is warm, when it manages to peek through the Fall stained leaves. There is a chill in the air, a warning that winter will be settling in soon.
I just emerged from the G train, and the remnants of Halloween are everywhere. A partially wrapped candy bar on the sidewalk, slipped from tiny cold fingers and crushed under the heels of tricker-treaters. Pumpkin shards, evidence of a teenage dare, litter the street as I walk. I'm on the border of Clinton Hill and Bed Stuy, and it’s clear the neighborhood is in flux. Empty lots are being built on, and there seems to be a renovation on every block. I'm on my way to the home of Cosmos Sunshine.
I met Cosmos shortly after moving to New York. It was immediately clear to me that he was driven by a passion for music. It seems to me that dedication is better measured by someone's actions than their words, and I was struck by the amount of hustle he put into the pursuit of his craft.
I know I've reached his home by the array of intricately carved pumpkins staggered up the steps of his stoop. I am greeted by Cosmos and Sadie, he and his partner's infectiously happy border collie. Music is everywhere. Guitars are propped on stands against the wall and hanging above the piano in the corner. The soft crackle of tunes, lifted from vinyl grooves, fills the living room. It's a perfect place to sit and talk. I came here to speak with him about his music, his life, and an exciting new project he's working on. Here's our conversation...
Filter & Funnel (F&F): I'm sure you get this one all the time, so let's get it out of the way first. Your full name is Cosmos Sunshine Heidtmann. I’m sure there is a story in there somewhere. Can you talk a little about how you came by that name?
Cosmos: As I understand it, I was going to be John IV because my dad was John III, and back and back it goes. My mother sort of put her foot down, and you know, I’m a child of the Seventies. My background is very much a back to the earth hippie kind of a thing. It was my mom’s invention, and she was brave enough to name her kid Cosmos Sunshine. So that’s that.
F&F: The second question is kind of a followup to the first. Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson?
Cosmos: Carl Sagan. I was definitely aware of the book as a kid and then the tv series. We had a tv that we ran off a car battery, so my television watching times were very limited. It was Bugs Bunny cartoons on Saturday morning, The Muppets, and a few other things. Then, of course, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos was fully sanctioned. So yeah, I’m going Carl Sagan. I still admire him.
F&F: How long was it before you guys had electricity?
Cosmos: We never did. Even when my mother sold the place seven or eight years ago, still there was no conventional electricity. At some point in the Eighties, we got solar panels and marine deep cell batteries, so that brought some electric lights into the house. We had a hand pump on a well outside, and then, eventually, a hand pump to the same well inside. Then, we got a marine pump to bring cold water into the house, which we heated on stoves to bathe. This was in rural Connecticut. We lived like we were in the tundra in Alaska, but we were a stone’s throw from other people.
F&F: I’m sure you had exposure to mass culture because you were around other people. You had to know your lifestyle was different from those around you.
Cosmos: Oh yeah, I definitely knew. It was challenging going to a public school in a fairly conservative community in Connecticut. I was this kid, Cosmos Sunshine, living in a little cottage on the Connecticut River, with no electricity, and at the end of a long dirt road. Sometimes when it would flood, I would have to take a canoe to the bus stop. It was a hard scrabble sort of existence, so I for sure knew, and I for sure always felt on the outside. I had some friends, but I knew I was definitely the subject of conversation. To my mom’s credit, I look back on it and admire her greatly for sticking with it as long as she did. She walked it like she talked it, which is pretty rare.
F&F: Yeah, it seems like there's a lot of interest in that lifestyle these days. It almost feels like a little resurgence of the Seventies.
Cosmos: I hope so. I see it in my town and around there. I was telling you about this organic farm of a friend of mine, and I have other friends who have a yurt and a land trust. They’re doing all manner of musical, artistic, and spiritual endeavors, and holding workshops. That stuff was never ever there as a kid. There were farmers, old money, and blue blood puritan types. So, it’s really nice to see. I love the area, and I’ve always gone back. My mom’s still there, but in a different house with electricity.
"I’d always hung out with my mom and dad’s social set. I’d always hung out with fringe characters and older people. You would have to see where and how I grew up. There were lots of characters, you know, swamp yankee weirdos."
F&F: Do you feel that growing up without constant electricity influenced the kind of music that you gravitated towards?
Cosmos: Interesting that you say that. Yes, for sure. When my Dad was still alive, we had a functioning stereo and a turntable. There was Led Zeppelin, Allman Brothers, Rolling Stones, and Grateful Dead. All that stuff was on regular rotation. My parents had a really great combined record collection. My recollection of the music that I’d hear at night on the river, when there was no light pollution, are songs like Doobie Brothers’ “Black Water”. I have all these remembrances of really vibey, acoustic, singer/songwriter, Seventies kinds of things. Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay” is one that I always remember. It definitely colored my sensibilities as a musician and a songwriter later on, and I still feel it.
F&F: Was the guitar the first instrument you picked up? When did you know that was your instrument?
Cosmos: Yes, the first instrument I picked up for real. I had a toy drum kit my grandmother got me. I became obsessed with the Beatles, who were always present amongst tons of other music in the house. I had no musicians in my family, so there weren’t instruments lying around. I found myself trying not to do my homework and playing Ringo’s drum fills on my books. So my grandmother got me the toy drum kit, which I beat to shit and never learned how to play. When I was little, and my dad was still around, I used to get to go see The Grateful Dead, The Band, Dylan, and all that kind of stuff. Once he died, things got a little difficult, and there was not a lot of frivolity, shall we say. By the time I picked up a guitar, I was kind of a little heavy metal kid. I was into Randy Rhoads, Eddie Van Halen, and that kind of stuff. My next door neighbor got a little electric guitar and started taking lessons. I just kind of picked it up, and it really made sense. It worked for me, and I progressed very fast. I took a few lessons, and from that point on, it was my abiding passion. I couldn’t really focus on too many other things. Then, my mom was like, “You love this Eddie Van Halen guy, you gotta check out this guy, Jimmy Page”. She had a cassette of Led Zeppelin II that she’d gotten from Columbia House. You know, pay two dollars and get one hundred cassettes or whatever. Then you’re hooked, and you gotta pay. She signed up for a bunch of those things. Then, I was totally into everything Jimmy Page and Led Zeppelin. That formed my early thing, which was good because he was very versatile and had a lot of influences. So I learned about the blues, folk music, and jazz came a little bit later. It was an excellent window into a range of all different types of music that I discovered afterwards.
F&F: I know you started gigging when you were pretty young. How old were you, and what was it like playing with an older group in front of an older audience?
Cosmos: Such as it was. I mean there weren’t oceans of people out there. Yeah, I started when I was 14. I played my first gig at a high school talent show. I remember somebody had videotaped it on a big clunky video camera, and I looked at myself realizing I had my back turned to the audience the whole time. I was totally paralyzed with fear. Then, the next year the same thing happened again. That time, I realized I needed to make a show, so I had some moves. Right after that, I started to play at bars. My mom used to have to write me permission slips to go, which was pretty funny. I was 15. I don’t know. It wasn’t that weird. I’d always hung out with my mom and dad’s social set. I’d always hung out with fringe characters and older people. You would have to see where and how I grew up. There were lots of characters, you know, swamp yankee weirdos. So I knew everybody that was in that bar already. That was a place I hit a couple times when I was 15. Then, I spread out to the local surrounding towns and areas. That was that for a few years.
"It had this magical sense about it. In times of my worst despair, I’m like, “what the fuck was that message that was given to me?”. It wasn’t a word or the hand of God reaching down and saying, “You must play music”, but it was such an abiding sense of rightness and connectedness that I only ever experience through the expression of music."
F&F: You spent some time at Berklee College of Music. What was your experience there? Where do you feel like you got most of your musical education?
Cosmos: I went there for a summer program right out of high school. They wouldn’t enroll me without that because, aside from a few lessons and a lot of playing time for the age that I was, I didn’t have any ear training. I didn’t know how to read music. I don’t even know why they eventually accepted me because I really didn’t know what the hell I was doing at all, and compared to many people, I still don’t. I took the summer program and came back to East Haddam, my hometown, and knocked around for the autumn after. It was 1990. Then, I went to the Spring 1991 semester at Berklee. I learned a fair amount about basic fundamental music harmony. I learned the way chords are structured and the way you can construct patterns called modes across chord progressions if they’re all in the same key. A few tricks to broaden my horizons, but a lot of what I learned came from playing gigs. I started to book myself bigger shows in Boston and brought my band up to do that. Psychedelics were a pretty big feature in my life at that time, so there was a lot of brain expansion and musical activity going on. I would come to class half asleep, but I realize I learned a tremendous amount in a short period of time. Still, it took years to assimilate it all. I got most of my understanding of music theory through that, but the biggest educator for anybody playing a sort of improvised music form, like blues, jazz, or rock ‘n roll, is playing with other people. Invariably, somebody you’re playing with knows something about something that you’ll pick up and benefit from greatly. Music is organic in that way.
F&F: You eventually moved to NYC, and you’ve been here for a while now. Do you ever miss the more rural life?
Cosmos: Yeah, I do. I almost feel like I’m caught between the two realities, because I can’t live without New York, and I can’t live without the rural Connecticut setting either. I’m attached to both. I’ve been spending most of my life trying to find a happy medium between the two. I’ve thought about other cities, but I think once New York gets in your blood, it’s hard to think about some other place, at least in the United States, that’s gonna compare. Although, I feel like, sadly, New York is losing a lot of what made it a beautiful monster.
F&F: Do you write different music in the city than when you are in Connecticut? Do you feel like your surroundings influence you?
Cosmos: I usually find, for the most part, that I don’t write as much in the city at all. I think I can do good work on music, hone it, sculpt it, and trim the fat, but usually I’m most inspired when I’m out in a more natural setting. That’s not one hundred percent of the time. The song I wrote, “Modern Times”, when I was in Dan Patch was in the city. I woke up from a dream with a melody in my head, and I was like, “This is a thing. Take heed”. I’ve definitely had that happen many times, but that’s the only time I actually had the wherewithal to get it. So I’m trying to find the discipline to do it. There’s definitely a widely held belief that the in-between state of waking and dreaming is a field of pure potentiality, and that’s really the most fertile ground.
F&F: You moved to New York in the early Nineties, right? You must have seen some changes in that time. Is there anything that stands out, good or bad?
Cosmos: I moved here in 1991. It’s not exclusively one or the other. On paper, New York has changed for the better. Also I’m a little older now, so I am content not to be confronted with all manner of insanity at all times. It’s still there, but it definitely got pushed to the fringes. When I first came here, I ended up walking almost right into the middle of the riot in Tompkins Square when the cops came and kicked everybody out. Tompkins Square was a tent city. Basically it was all homeless people, drug addicts, and mentally ill people living in makeshift tents and burning fires in garbage cans. It was like that on Delancey Street. In the middle of the boulevard, people would just be huddled around fires burning in oil drums. New York, in the Lower East Side at least, was pretty much an open air drug market. It was old, bombed out lots, vacant buildings, bodegas selling crack and heroine with lines around the block. People just queued up to buy their drugs. People had taken over abandoned buildings to run their drug retail operations. You could buy weed on the street just about anywhere. We basically managed to get by on almost nothing, live in big lofts, rehearse, and be totally in a creative environment with a bunch of other bands. You could easily play three nights a week or more, in venues ranging from tiny little shithole dives to big clubs like The Wetlands, CBGB, or even Irving Plaza. There were big dinosaur promoters like Ron Delsener, who would allow my band to play at Irving Plaza, opening for who knows what. Gov’t Mule made it easy for us too because Warren Haynes’ wife was my manager, and Warren had produced my band’s first album. So a career in rock ‘n roll was more easily facilitated than now. Plus, there were still labels. You could still get a record deal. There was still the old structure, pre-internet kind of sensibility where people still hadn’t completely devalued music and would still go out and buy a cd, even though cd’s suck. I’m glad that vinyl’s back in the way that it is. Yeah, New York was a very different place.
F&F: Is New York, now in 2014, a supportive place for working musicians?
Cosmos: No. I don’t think so. I don’t see it. I think it’s too hard, too expensive, and I think people’s priorities really shifted quite a lot. New York’s always been about making money, but now it seems like the hedge fund Wall Street money expansion has completely absorbed all of Manhattan, taken over most of Brooklyn, and Queens waterfront. There’s too many high-rises, too much imaginary money going around, and imaginary money doesn’t make it to a musician’s billfold. So yeah, it’s not a good environment.
F&F: How did you find your musical community?
Cosmos: I fell into it. My band from Connecticut, that I was taking up to Boston, was called Visual Echoes. Yeah, very funny, but we were kind of rockin’. I had booked us in Boston, and naturally I wanted to play in New York. This was before I lived here, but I managed to get a gig at CBGB. We came down, and this girl, very pretty girl, that I grew up with was already living here with her boyfriend. She was doing some modeling, and these two guys, Jaik Miller and Jack DeSantis, had been part of this shoot. They were musicians. I mean, they were definitely not model types, but they fit the figure of the Lower East Side at the time. She invited them to CBGB. They came down, and I struck up an instant friendship with both of them. Jaik Miller, turns out, was a profoundly gifted singer/songwriter. Jack was a wild man, played the bass, and is the bass player now, all these years later, in my band, Los Lotharios. They were already hooked into the scene at this place called Nightingale, which was a tiny place that gave Blues Traveler and the Spin Doctors their first opportunities to really play. When I moved down, Jaik was the first person I called. He took me to Nightingale and introduced me to Warren Haynes. Jaik was already managed by Stefani (Scamardo), Warren’s wife. He and I became really fast friends, and for awhile, there was a possibility that I was going to join their band, Xanax 25, pretty funny also. Nineties names...my band was called Cherokee Sex Workshop. We played together all the time. We were buddy bands and both ended up touring with Gov’t Mule quite a lot. So that’s how I met all the Blues Traveler and Spin Doctors guys, and there was deeper musical heritage before those guys broke out. There was this band called Joey Miserable and The Worms, which was sort of the beginning of all that. This guy Simon Chardiet, who’s still around, is an amazing guitar player, but a total punk maniac. He can play Bach and jazz effortlessly but has the most aggressive, crazy, punk-rock, noisy style. He’s a completely dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker, uncompromising, and still just knocking around the city. Hugely influential on a lot of people. So Joey Miserable and The Worms let Blues Traveler open for them. That’s how this whole scene basically ignited, and I came on the scene right after that.
F&F: Do you feel most comfortable writing by yourself or in collaboration with other people? How does that work with Los Lotharios?
Cosmos: Both. When I started out, I didn’t sing at all, and for the most part, I didn’t write lyrics. I had a singer that I had grown up with that was great, and we wrote together. When that band broke up, I became really interested in the craft of song-writing, which before I didn’t really have much of a grasp on. After doing a bunch of studio work, I left New York to try and find myself. I was doing open mic nights in Connecticut, started a little band, and slowly found my voice and learned how to sing. All of that time, I wrote by myself and have done so until pretty recently, when I paired up with Michael Parrish and Los Lotharios. That’s been a pretty natural thing. He’s so different than I am in his approach and well-versed in musical styles: gospel, blues, and country. I always snatched a little bit from here and there and never really committed myself to learning one style. So my stuff is kind of a hodgepodge of different influences. That combination is pretty cool. I think it would be more difficult if we had similar styles. It’s kind of easy for us to put together our constituent parts.
F&F: How do you stay focused and keep growing?
Cosmos: It’s not hard, really, because if I don’t do it, I get really depressed and start to feel like I’m rudderless and there’s not a lot of purpose to my life. Once I start to get that really scary feeling, it compels me to get up and start to work with whatever I’ve got on the plate at the moment. I have to have a creative way of going about my day everyday. Whether it’s cooking or interacting with people, I need to be creative, and if I’m not, I start to feel really lost. Also, honestly this sounds crazy, but I had such a clear message when I picked up a guitar. I felt, and have felt since, that sometimes when I’m creating, especially when I’m outside, it’s like the wind picks up a little bit, and there starts to be this synchronicity of movement and sound. It’s the craziest thing. I was working on an album where my mother lives in Connecticut. It was the spring, and the barking tree frogs were out. I was recording vocals out on the patio, and rhythmically, everything lined up. It had this magical sense about it. In times of my worst despair, I’m like, “what the fuck was that message that was given to me?”. It wasn’t a word or the hand of God reaching down and saying, “You must play music”, but it was such an abiding sense of rightness and connectedness that I only ever experience through the expression of music.
F&F: How else has the natural world played an important role in your life?
Cosmos: My house, as a kid, was always filled with animals. My mother has a license to rehabilitate wild animals.You can even see it around the house here. Suvi, my lady, shares it as well. Forms that you see in the natural world, you also see in an elegant old deco lamp, a victorian piece of furniture, or patterns on a tablecloth from Sweden. It permeates everywhere. My mom’s paintings of the crow on the sign that was at the end of the dirt road from my house in Connecticut and the deer running across the swamp. Those are scenes I would see on a regular basis, so I carry that with me all the time. It was a place of magic and wonder. We get into a sort of hive mentality here, which kind of takes you out of the ebb and flow of the seasons. I notice when I’m in the city too much, I feel like I miss the autumn or the spring. It’s here if you know where to look for it, but you’re not completely immersed in it like when you’re able to roll around in a huge snowdrift not completely pissed over by dogs and covered in soot.
F&F: You’re getting ready to launch a campaign in support of your next project. Can you talk a little about that?
Cosmos: The goal is to give myself the opportunity to go into a very good recording environment with very capable people, record to tape, and press to vinyl. I’ve done several different recording projects, to greater or lesser success. I’ve found the things I’ve been most happy with have been done in recording studios with capable engineers. The sonics of tape and analog, the vibe and pacing of it, to my ears, feels more robust and palpable. I like the physical aspect of dealing with a mechanical device, like a turntable, and the tactile aspect of holding a piece of vinyl. Not to mention the big art. I’m a guy that likes books. I think that’s important stuff. I think it’s good for people to not get all of their information from some sort of binary thing. For sure there’s going to be a digital stage in this recording, where we’ll track to tape and maybe overdub. Finance is going to dictate how much we stay in the analog realm. It’s probably going to be some sort of hybrid, but the idea is rather than going and laying tracks in Pro Tools, we’re going to make music live in the studio, recorded to tape. When I started out, that’s what you did. I’m also approaching this recording differently than I ever have before. Even if a band was named after me, it was still a band, and I’ve always submerged my own identity into group dynamics. This is actually going to be a super intimate, super spare, singer/songwriter project because I think I’ve really found my voice. I’ve been a dedicated songwriter now for over ten years. You kind of get all the shitty stuff out of your system. I feel super confident, and I’m going to do something different than I’ve ever done before. I think that ties in with the whole aspect of nature. That rural, non-light polluted, woodsy, organic kind of sound that I grew up with.
F&F: Most music is listened to digitally these days, but people are also buying vinyl. Why is that?
Cosmos: I think that there is a nostalgia and a cool factor, for sure, but I always find listening to digital playback, even high res, lacks a little bit of the focus and presence. There’s a frequency band that people refer to as presence. I don’t mean that, specifically. I mean just an actual musical image is inhabiting the room. It’s a subtle, experiential kind of thing. Everybody talks about the warmth of analog. Basically all that amounts to, on a technical level, is a certain amount of pleasing distortion. When you hear the surface noise of a record, it brings a warm, nostalgic kind of feeling. I think cd’s were destined to fail. They were just a hard medium to hold what would become the digital realities of today. They were just kind of a bridge. Today you can have all the convenience of streaming digital to your heart’s content. It allows you tremendous access, which is great, but at the end of the day, it’s mostly all compressed mp3 type stuff. So between bad digital conversion and noisy boxes, the degradation is so extreme. When you take a nice, clean piece of vinyl and put it on, even a mediocre, turntable with a decent pair of speakers, it’s a whole different experience. It comes to life, and people are like, “Wow I don’t believe I’ve been missing this. I love music, and my experience has been listening to a symphony through a straw.”
F&F: What albums do you find yourself coming back to year after year?
Cosmos: Led Zeppelin IV. Jimmy Page is remastering the catalog. I just got the vinyl. I have a real great memory association of rolling around with my friends, high on weed for the first time, listening to Zeppelin IV on a boombox and just laughing our asses off. So I always come back to that. Beatles’ The White Album is one that’s indispensable. Allman Brothers’ Eat A Peach is one I always go back to, or maybe Brothers And Sisters is a tie for me. Black Sabbath Volume IV. Just some real cornerstone records that I keep coming back to.
F&F: What have you been listening to recently?
Cosmos: I love The War On Drugs. The latest album, Lost In A Dream, is superb. It’s really beautiful. Good driving music. It just kind of goes by. Kind of psychedelic, but not in an overt kind of way. Father John Misty. I love Vetiver. I like the Arctic Monkeys. Their latest album is super good. Beck is brilliant. His latest album is great. A lot of stuff.
F&F: What are your aspirations as a musician?
Cosmos: To quote the great Richard Manuel in The Last Waltz, “I just want to break even.” I definitely want to have a growing audience. I want to touch people and inspire them the way that I’m inspired. I want to provide, with this upcoming project, beautiful music that really touches people. So a lot of my aspiration is just to get it right.
F&F: Last question, what are your aspirations outside of music?
Cosmos: Yeah. I’ve never really had a long term perspective on life because I didn’t think I was going to be around that long. I’ve led such a reckless life, but now I definitely want to live long and be healthy. I have a real love for canines. So, if I don’t become a father at some point, maybe continuing to rescue border collies, or that kind of thing. That would necessitate being in the country more, which is something I’d love to do. I’m really passionate about conservation and animal rights.