Claudio Sanchez is a rock star. His band, Coheed and Cambria, has millions of fans across the world. His cascading mane of heavy metal hair is the envy of other musicians and prides of lions alike. The secret to Sanchez’s success: being a giant nerd.
Some bands tell stories with their music. Then there’s Coheed and Cambria, who’ve used eight of their nine studio albums to stitch together a gargantuan, interconnected sci-fi universe. The latest, Vaxis—Act I: The Unheavenly Creatures, releases on Friday; like the rest, it’s inspired and fueled in many ways by comics, movies, and even video games.
“That stuff is just as great as cinema,” Sanchez told Kotaku via phone when asked about video game inspirations. “They act as a release. When I’m exhausted trying to create something, I want to play in someone else’s universe, and I think that’s what the games allow me to do. They allow my perspective to open and just refuel my creative energy.”
The Coheed and Cambria saga, which has expanded beyond albums into books and comics, centers on an interlocking series of planets known as “The Keywork” and characters hoping to prevent (or bring about) its destruction. The band’s name comes from two characters who die pretty early on, but the universe goes on without them, and the story comes to focus on their son, whose name is also Claudio.
While most rock bands write about unrequited love, break-ups, and cars, Coheed writes about those things set against a backdrop of intergalactic intrigue, messianic superheroes, and meta-twists involving talking bicycles. Years before the mainstream wholeheartedly embraced things like the Marvel cinematic universe or Game of Thrones’ labyrinthine narrative, Coheed turned their seemingly oddball saga into a massive success, built on both casual fans of songs like their 2003 emo banger “A Favor House Atlantic” or the 2005 metal anthem “Welcome Home” as well as the cult-like following that could tell you each album’s entire story front to back—if you’ve got a few hours to spare, anyway.
For the most part, Sanchez is the universe’s engineer. He was inspired to write the initial story during a trip to Paris he took in the early aughts. It began both on Coheed’s first album Second Stage Turbine Blade and a comic series called The Bag On Line Adventures. Always a bit awkward and self-conscious, Sanchez said he felt more comfortable wrapping up his personal trials and tribulations in a winding mythology. Over the years, he’s spoken at length about how comics ranging from Batman to weird stuff by Alejandro Jodorowsky and movies ranging from Star Wars to weird stuff by Alejandro Jodorowsky have influenced his writing. But, he told Kotaku, his bread and butter isn’t just books, movies, and comics. He’s been playing games his whole life, too, and just like everything else he surrounds himself with, those influences have a way of seeping into his stories.
Sanchez first started playing games on an Atari 5200 he bought with his brother when they were kids. They just wanted a video game system—any video game system—so they took the first thing they could get. Then a friend from school got the more sophisticated Nintendo Entertainment System, and Sanchez and his brother were instantly filled with regret. “We were like, ‘Man, did we make a bad move,’” he said, laughing.
These days, Sanchez said he plays games like Middle-Earth: Shadow of War, Wolfenstein, and Star Wars Battlefront II between writing and touring. He cited Halo as a game that’s directly influenced him creatively. Not the combat or Master Chief’s own increasingly complicated saga, but the structure of it. “When you’re looking up at the Halo from the ground when you turn your perspective around, and you see it travel up,” he said. “I just remember that moment of being in that game and looking at that, and just being like, ‘Wow, what an interesting idea to create something like that.’”
Back in 2013, Coheed and Cambria collaborated with a studio called Man Vs. Games to create an Amory Wars mobile game called Fall Of The Keywork. It was a fighting game in which you could play as characters from Sanchez’s universe, which was cool, but it was also a fighting game. On mobile. You can probably do the math here. It was not well-received.
“Oh god,” said Sanchez when I brought it up. “It was our first approach at trying to do a casual game... but when you’re playing an iOS game and you’re trying to do Street Fighter moves with no tangible tactile controller, it’s difficult.”
He said, however, that he’d like to take another crack at making a video game someday. A first-person shooter, third-person action game, or a role-playing game are all possibilities. His most left-field idea, though, is a beat-‘em-up inspired by Double Dragon—one of his favorite games of all time—that would be released on an actual 16-bit cartridge. “I would love to do that,” he said.
On the upcoming album, Vaxis—Act I: The Unheavenly Creatures, chiptune-style sounds form the pulsing synth dance floor beneath the sturdy metal footing of the title track. “Unheavenly Creatures” is a song in which one of the album’s main characters, Creature, recounts the crime-gone-wrong that landed him and his partner in a giant space prison called The Dark Sentencer.
Sanchez told me that while the games he played growing up didn’t directly influence that song’s melody, he was influenced by chiptune music, and there’s some of the nostalgic, wistful feelings people associate with classic video game soundtracks in there.
“I think it sounded lonely,” he said. “When I heard that stuff just isolated without the guitars playing those open whole note chords, I thought, ‘Okay, well, the vocal is a confessional of somebody re-telling their story.’ That synthesizer alone sounds like a good partner for something like that, because it sounds lonesome. I think that’s why I liked it.”
Sanchez is a father now, and he plays games with his four-year-old son, Atlas, primarily on the Nintendo Switch. For a while, he wouldn’t play games much on the road because other members of Coheed aren’t as into them, and because he didn’t want to monopolize the tour bus TV. In that respect, the Switch has been a godsend, he said. He and Atlas worked together to beat Mario Odyssey during a tour, and now they’ve moved onto Octopath Traveler.
Sanchez’s latest tour-related pastime is tabletop gaming. He’s taken to playing Dungeons & Dragons on the road with his tour manager and his wife. He’d been wanting to play more of the game, which he said he briefly got really into as kid, but the circumstances were never ideal. “I’m pretty socially awkward,” he said. “It’s not the easiest for me to go and try to be social with some random strangers. When my tour manager opened up the idea of him DMing a game for my wife and me, and maybe some of the band members, I jumped on it.”
The other band members never ended up joining the game, but it’s been a useful exercise for Sanchez and his wife Chondra, who is also a writer and frequently collaborates with her husband. Sanchez said that he and Chondra are very comfortable as a creative team, but that can lead to formulas and patterns, which DnD allows them to break free of through improvisation.
Sanchez likes to experiment with his character, a mountain dwarf barbarian named Thoragast. “One moment he’s totally talking out of the one side of this mouth like Popeye, and then the next minute, he’s this cowboy westerner about to shoot up a saloon,” he said. “I’m like, ‘I’ve got to get a handle on this character!’ My wife loves it. She laughs hysterically at my Thoragast. That sounded sexual, actually.”
Sanchez said he would jump at the opportunity to make an Amory Wars tabletop or pen-and-paper game. “That’s something I’d love to do, is create a game like that that will allow the fans to connect with each other, even without the band as that bridge,” he said. “Most of time, it’s under the umbrella of a show. If there was a way to get them to interact outside of that, I think it would be incredible. I think that’s one of the things I like about DnD.”
For Sanchez, it’s been rewarding to see everything from Marvel movies to DnD have a sort of cultural renaissance. Where once he could hardly find anybody to enjoy these things with, he’s now the frontman of a band that—among many other things—contributed a song to the soundtrack of Batman: Arkham City. He still feels like Coheed is more of a cult band than a mainstream one, but he’s happy with what he’s made. “I still feel like people treat Coheed like the outcast,” he said. “But I’m glad to see these kinds of things so socially acceptable.”
Back in the day, he couldn’t even bond with his own bandmates over his nerdier proclivities. Now, though, it’s a different story.
“When you start hearing the guys talk about the Infinity Gauntlet or Iron Man’s suit, or the interest in Batman and the Joker and the fact that the band was very into the idea of us doing that song for Arkham City, it’s cool,” Sanchez said. “It’s like, ‘All right, now my friends have metamorphosed into these other beings that I can now have these other conversations with.’”
With a new, story-heavy album just around the corner, Sanchez is excited to bring the Amory Wars back to the forefront after a brief detour from it in the 2015 album The Color Before The Sun. While the story might have some over-the-top trappings, it is deeply personal for Sanchez, who recently told Rolling Stone that he considered leaving the band prior to creating Unheavenly Creatures, only to realize that the Coheed saga is “in my blood.” For Sanchez, that moment was a reckoning. In traveling the world and telling this gargantuan, geeky, comic-and-game-inspired story, he gets to be a big kid forever. Now that he has a family, though, is that really what’s best for them?
“I questioned myself as a dad,” he told Kotaku. “I was like, ‘Here I am in this rock ‘n’ roll band that’s pretending to never grow up, as I leave my son in the care of my wife alone in the middle of the country.’”
So he did what any good musician does with their problems: he wrote a song about it. That ended up turning into “The Pavilion,” a standout track on Unheavenly Creatures. “I think it took writing that song to really get those emotions and feelings out there,” he said. “Of course I came back and reverse-engineered it to work inside of the concept, but I think now that I’m away from those feelings and I’ve created Unheavenly Creatures, my son has inspired it in a way that I don’t think I could have ever anticipated.”
Growing up, he said, his own dad worked all day and came home exhausted. By contrast, Sanchez gets to spend time with his family all day long when he’s not on tour, and he gets to write songs and stories inspired by his favorite things and people for a living.
“I’m realizing, with a fresh head and a new perspective, that I have it pretty good.”