Coughy, the brainchild of Speedy Ortiz guitarist Andy Molholt and Ava Luna drummer Julian Fader, came about when the two when teaching at a performing arts summer camp. Their first full-length album, Ocean Hug is a groovy and playful collection of short songs with single-letter titles. We talked to Molholt about the formation of his latest project, his musical history, and his one-of-a-kind day job.

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How did Coughy come to be?

I met Julian Fader from a show that we played together in Philadelphia with my group Laser Background and Ava Luna, his other band, and that was in, like, 2014. We started to collaborate on recording Laser Background albums together. And it sort of ended up leading to me playing with Speedy Ortiz actually as well, indirectly. Basically, it started a kind of chain of events in my life playing music that led me to join a couple other bands and kind of start going to New York all the time and record, that kind of thing. So Coughy came to be specifically, Julian asked me if I wanted to teach at a summer camp that he had taught at before and I think he had gone to when he was younger. It’s a performing arts summer camp. I was teaching songwriting to kids, which is a really fun process in and of itself. Downtime, we spent two and a half months up there or so, over the course of an entire summer. So, we had a lot of downtime, especially at night. So, we started to return, just kind of for fun, with the idea of starting a new project and not really knowing what it was yet, and that’s sort of how it started.

How did you get involved with Joyful Noise?

I have been talking to Joyful Noise for quite a while. I met Karl [Hofstetter] at South by Southwest one year, and I’d been sending him my material, so we’ve been in touch that way. They had put on a show for me in the past as well. And then Ava Luna had put out a couple of 7-inches with Joyful Noise already. So we were both sort of in communication with Karl, and Julian sent the album to Joyful Noise. We obviously were interested in working with them, but they’re the only label we send it to. When we put out the tapes in early 2018 we weren’t really trying too hard to push it, really. We were kind of just thinking “Okay, we’ll send it to Joyful Noise, see what they say. We’re not gonna send it to anybody else. Let’s not worry about it too much.” And it was the kind of thing where I would say at first, they were thinking, “Oh this is nice, but we’re not gonna put it out” and I think then Karl ended up really liking it and listening to it a lot. So then, Speedy Ortiz played a show in Indianapolis that I invited Karl to. Again, not really anticipating really trying to talk to him about the project at all. But this is very serendipitous. Julian’s roommate, who’s also a great musician, Alejando, plays in a bunch of other bands, like Operator Music Band. He was playing a gig in Indianapolis the same night, and I asked him if he wanted to come to the show too. And that is really the thing that really led me to talking to Karl about Coughy. I wasn’t really planning on bringing it up, because he had already had the record for a long time, probably eight months, and I figured the ship had sailed on that. But then, we started talking about it, and kind of abruptly he was like, “Oh, I can just put out some tapes for you guys” and that conversation turned from just tapes to a full release. So, it’s very serendipitous, I would say.

I notice the album has a very vintage sound. Was that something you had in mind?

We recorded to cassette tapes, and then, when we would run out of tracks, we would bounce it digital and record additionally on there. So, I don’t know so much that we were really going for a vintage atmosphere, per se, as much as I would say, we were trying to work with the confines of this specific, cassette tape, 8-track machine, because we like the way it sounds and we thought it would be fun.

What do you like about working with Julian?

Working with Julian is great. He’s a very outside-the-box thinker, and I think that the reason I keep working on him on my own projects is he and Carlos Hernandez are both really great at allowing the person’s work to come to full fruition and adding ideas and even getting in arguments about the material sometimes which ends up ultimately benefiting the material, but at least, I can say for myself, without taking anything away from what makes the project special. So, I would say that about Julian, and working on this project with this band was great because I think we both approached it with kind of an egoless mentality, just trying to really serve the songs and make the songs the best they could be and that’s all we were focused on. So, it was a real collaboration.

There is a theme in the tracklisting where all the songs are named after a single letter. How did that come to be?

That was sort of incidental in that when we were first making the songs at the summer camp, we were naming the files either a letter or a number and it was kind of just a throwaway idea at first. And then, after the summer camp ended, when we decided to continue pursuing the recording project and finish it, we had 10-15 songs that were letters and kind of thought “That’d be kind of fun. Why don’t we just finish off the alphabet?” Because when you’re starting something new, it’s a new project that didn’t really have an end goal in mind. We didn’t have a label that we were talking to. We didn’t have a release schedule. So, one year of working with no confines like that, it can be kind of daunting. How are we ever gonna finish this? So then, we decided, “Okay, we’ll make it just the alphabet. So, we’ll make it 26 songs.” And then, we originally put those 26 songs as two 13-minute 10-inches was our original idea. We self-released it on the tape, and then, when we decided to work with Joyful Noise, we thought “Okay, why don’t we slim it down a little bit, make it 20 songs. It seems like a more concise piece that way.

How did your experience at the camp influence these songs?

When you’re working in your everyday life, or working your day job, even when you’re just in the place that you live, you’re constantly going about your daily grind and it becomes a routine. The life of a touring musician is pretty manic, I would say. You’re gone a lot of the time. So, life really isn’t routine in that way. But when you are in the same place and doing the same thing all the time, it can become a routine, and you get kind of ingrained in your own circle in that way, and I think, being at the summer camp, for me, was a new place that I’d never been to before. I found myself with tons of free time and tons of time to reflect on my life and what was happening in my life. That period of my life was very interesting for me in a lot of ways, because my father passed away while I was on tour. I’d been on tour for Laser Background’s second album right before this summer camp and he died. It was all very sudden, and then, I went to this camp. So, I was definitely in a very intense headspace, and I think that when you enter a new environment where your only goal is to do a job that lasts a portion of a day and you’ve got a lot of extra time, then, for me at least, that was an impetus to kind of stretch myself and think outside the box and work on a new project.

There’s a lot of songs. They’re not terribly long. When you play them live, do you expand them at all? Do you change things up? Do you improvise?

Sometimes. It’s interesting that you mention that because we’ve done that for a few songs. The entire idea of this project was brevity. We thought that would be a cool experiment to make as much happen in as short a confine as possible. But live, we’ve extended a few of them, and I think it actually helps with the set. We’ve only done four shows as this band so far. This upcoming tour that we’re doing will be the most shows we’ve done in a row. And the first shows that we’ve done since we announced the album and announced we’re working with Joyful Noise and the name change and everything like that. But in the past four shows we did, we took a couple of the songs that had an intro or an outro and we would extend it a little bit. But I feel guarded against that because it’s not that it’s the only thing that makes this project special or that it’s a gimmick we have to stick to. When we make another album, who knows. We might not do that or we might do it, but it’s fun. I think that, as a songwriter, or maybe even as a writer, you tend to want to over-express yourself. I’m rambling as we have this interview (laughs). I feel it’s easy to want to talk a ton or say a lot of things, and I think it’s also an exercise in minimalism to try to say as much as we could in as short amount of time as possible.

Do you have a specific audience in mind in terms of who you want to reach with your music?

I’ve always kind of felt that if I can excite myself with the work that I make, then I hopefully will excite other people who have similar tastes to me. That’s always been my mentality of it. I’m a music nerd. I like a lot of very specific, sometimes under the radar bands from a long time ago, and I’m thinking, “Okay, well if this the music that I like, then hopefully my influences are not too apparent but apparent enough to where it’ll be interesting to also enjoy that same type of music.”

How has your time in Speedy Ortiz impacted your songwriting?

I would say that playing in Speedy Ortiz hasn’t impacted my songwriting too much. I’m 32 now. I would say my formative years, when I was learning how to write songs or teaching myself how to write songs or deciding what songs I wanna make was probably in my early twenties. But I do have a great respect for the songwriting in that band for a lot of the things I try to do with my songs, I feel like Sadie [Dupuis] does with her songs in that there’s a lot of times where something will happen only once in the song. Which kind of hearkens to the same idea of what we’re trying to do with the short songs in general, in that, if there’s something that happens only once or it happens less times than you want it to, or if, for instance, if a chorus comes back and let’s say, going into the chorus there’s a different part than there was the first time or it goes half as long the second time or something like that, when there’s variation in the song like that, to me, it makes it a more interesting listen, because if you want to hear that moment again, you got to listen to the song again. I think the Speedy Ortiz songs do that sometimes, and I have a lot of respect for that, because it’s fun for me as a musician to play and to memorize and to go through those parts of the songs when we’re performing it, but as a listener, I think it’s interesting because there’s these unique moments you can’t get, whereas a lot of other songs throughout popular music, I see the idea is to hit you with the chorus over and over and over again, which can be fun too, but that’s something I specifically like about Speedy Ortiz.

How did you get into music?

I started playing violin, that was my first insrument as a child and sort of incidental. I always was a musical person, I guess. But as far as actually getting into music goes, I thought I originally was going be an actor. That’s what I thought I wanted to do with my life. So, I went to school in Chicago for acting. That’s what I was pursuing, but music was just a hobby. And then, when I decided to drop out of art school - I think, in retrospect, it was one of the most mature decisions I ever made, actually, because I was just not applying myself as well as I could have or should have, and I was wasting my time and money and all that stuff - So, when I dropped out of school, I went on tour for the first time, and that was probably the summer of 2006 and that was what convinced me “Okay, this is what I wanna do.” And even though, in retrospect, it was kind of a shitty tour that we booked on MySpace, if that tells you what era it was. The tour was booked by 19-years-old that didn’t know what they were doing, but it was really a formative experience for me. Besides it being fun, it was empowering and made me feel like I could really do it. Pretty much right after that happened, I moved to Philadelphia and decided to start another band here, and I’ve lived here for 12 years and I’ve just been doin’ it the whole time.

Were you raised in Chicago?

No, I was born in Philadelphia, raised just outside of Philadelphia. And then went to Chicago for school, kind of on a whim, because there’s a really great improv comedy scene there and that’s, again, when I was 19, what I thought I might be interested in. So actually, Michael Chadwick who directed the music video that came out today [‘F’, watch above], I met him in college, and he’s the person I moved to Philadelphia and started a band with when I was 20. He’s from Chicago, so Chicago definitely is a great city, I loved living there, but it was a pretty brief time. It was really only for a year.

Laser Background is still active, correct?

It’s still active, yeah. I’m playing a show with Guerilla Toss in Philly coming up and I’m doing this Waking Windows festival in Vermont. I just finished a record with that project that I’m sitting on right now. I’m excited about it, but I’m not trying to play up as much as I was in the past, both because I’m trying to focus on this Coughy material and because of Speedy Ortiz and because I just want to wait when I have something to put out in the world again, which maybe’ll be in the fall. I’m not totally sure.

Since Laser Background is more psychedelic, Speedy Ortiz is more grungy, Coughy is kind of, sort of like folk-ish, I don’t know how you would describe it.

[Laughs] A funny thing that happened with Coughy is that we’d written two or three songs, and suddenly, there was a vibe. And then, I started thinking differently about writing the songs. And then, I thought, “Now I’m gonna write a Coughy song” because we had created a new thing. So, it sort of took on a life of its own. But I don’t really know how I’d describe the genre.

Do you like not being pigeonholed into a genre?

Sure, yeah. I guess some artists really do like to conform to a genre and just stick to it, which is cool. I guess I’ve always felt a little more eclectic about it in that kind of anything is possible in the confines of a song depending on where you choose to go with it.

Are there any types of music that you want to explore making that you haven’t?

I think that if I could succeed as an artist, I could stretch myself as far as possible and do as many things as possible. So, ostensibly, I would love to try any type of music. I have a cousin who lives in Milwaukee, who’s a hip-hop artist, and I worked on producing a hip-hop track with him, which was really fun. That was the first time I’d really done anything like that. So, I’d love to get into some more production work for some other people’s work. That’d be fun, and probably lead to some more types of music that I haven’t explored yet.

Besides music, what keeps you busy?

It’s been a lot of music lately, which I’m pretty thankful for. I have a pretty weird day job in Philadelphia. I’m what’s called a “standardized patient.” So, basically, I’m like acting sick for doctors in training. Which is a really fun job and it’s great because I can on tour anytime and not get fired (laughs). But it’s also fun, because it’s a really important job. It’s basically teaching med students, who are going to become doctors, empathy training, which is a huge thing that’s missing. I don’t know if you’ve ever had a doctor before that isn’t really listening to you or is invalidating your emotions or anything like that, but it’s a pretty common problem. I’ve experienced it before. Besides that, I’ve been working on building out a studio in Philadelphia. I have a practice space studio that I share with a bunch of other bands and we just renovated it. So, that kind of stuff keeps me busy. But my life has been pretty focused on music, and for that, I’m very thankful. I’m very thankful to have the opportunity and the privilege to be able to do that with my life.

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Ocean Hug is out now via Joyful Noise Records.