After touring the country for years as a solo act, Philip Cogley realizes he doesn't have to go it alone
When Philip Cogley first started touring in 2012, the experience suited him perfectly. Recording and performing as one-man-rock-band the Saturday Giant, Cogley enjoyed the time alone on the road. He loved meeting new people. He loved being self-reliant. The whole thing felt like a dream come true.
So he kept doing it, spending the bulk of his time driving from city to city to perform songs from a pair of EPs, 2010’s You’ve Heard of Dragons and 2012’s When Death Comes, then returning to Columbus to plan for the next tour.
But sometime around 2015, the dream began feeling more like a nightmare. What was once new and exciting now felt old and stale. “That realization happened in the car one day, where I was just like, ‘I don’t want to keep driving right now. It’s really beautiful here. I just want to stop here and explore this, and I can’t because of my boss, which is me,’” Cogley said recently over coffee. “I never wanted to be a slave to a job, and now I’m a slave to a job.”
It’s a concept Cogley explores on “Bert Parks,” a song from the new Saturday Giant album, Bytes/Blues. “You’re spending all these hours not doing what you want,” Cogley sings, transforming snippets of Bartleby-like desperation into bouncy pop-rock, complete with staccato horn blasts and a piano-driven bassline, before revealing the true culprit in the bridge: “‘Who’s calling the shots here?’ as you refill the barrel/‘Who’s driving this thing?’ says the Giant behind the wheel.”
While writing Bytes/Blues, the creative side of Cogley easily diagnosed the problem, using a heavy-hearted racehorse (“Giddyup!”) and a Soviet-era driller on a doomed mission to penetrate the earth’s crust (“Mining Song”) as metaphors for himself. Diagnosis, though, isn’t the same as change.
“I didn’t know what to do differently, and so it got worse,” he said. “I got extremely depressed. It was bad.”
Cogley’s confusion turned into a full-on existential crisis. “I became very nihilistic,” he said. “I have a buddy in North Carolina. I would come through on tour and stay with him in Asheville, and he was just like, ‘You seemed dead inside.’ He asked me, during this particular time that I came through, ‘So, have you read any good books lately?’ And I was just like, ‘I don’t read anymore.’ Which is an insane thing to say.”
It took a terrible relationship to finally shock Cogley’s system into realizing what he had already been expressing in his new songs. “When [the relationship] was over, I dusted myself off and looked around and was like, ‘How did this happen?’” he said. “I had become so far divorced from the person that I wanted to be.”
After the relationship ended, Cogley instinctively started taking hour-long walks from his North Campus apartment to Goodale Park, Franklinton and other neighborhoods. “I was rediscovering my love of being outside. All the time in my neighborhood I would be like, ‘That house is so cool. Has that house always been there?’” Cogley said. “Getting outside was very useful in terms of being like, ‘Oh, there’s all of this other stuff happening besides what’s in [my head].’ … A big part of the problem was that I had lost all perspective. What was in my head was everything. The ego was very much running the show.”
“Vermin Supreme” sums up that pre-transformation mindset. “It’s the I you’ll never get away from/A parasite that’s gutting you from within,” Cogley sings, then confesses that he’s “on the hunt for some magic dust to spring me from this rut/Or better yet, fully wring me from myself.”
Cogley also spent a chunk of last summer hiking in Alberta, Canada’s Banff National Park, which pushed his gaze outward even further. “I was experiencing all of this beauty and accumulating all of this perspective about my place in this universe. I had pretty profound experiences there,” said Cogley, who tried to maintain that perspective on return flights home from Calgary to Chicago to Columbus. “I tried in vain, all the way from the Calgary gate to the Columbus gate, to make eye contact with one person. I wanted to have that human moment of, ‘I see you; you see me.’ And it didn't happen. It was crazy. And it was this moment where I was like, ‘What are we even doing?’ You put your head down, and you’re focused on your goals for that day, and you miss everything else.
“When I came back from Banff, I spent a month really disillusioned, because how do I exist in this insane world where we’re all doing that all the time? And when everybody else is doing that, it’s another way of feeling isolated, you know? I’m still kind of figuring that part out.”
One way Cogley is countering that ever-present isolation is by turning his solo project into a dream team of Columbus musicians for the Saturday Giant’s Bytes/Blues release show at Rumba Cafe on Friday, March 1. Normally Cogley, a multi-instrumentalist, uses loop pedals and other effects to create the sound of a full band by himself onstage, but for this show he recruited local musicians Joe Peppercorn, Sean Gardner, Dan Gerken, David Murphy, Casey Cooper and a string trio led by Samantha Schnabel, most of whom Cogley plays alongside at the wildly popular annual Beatles show, Sgt. Peppercorn’s Marathon.
“[Initially], I decided to do music alone because if I did it alone, then nobody could take it from me. It eventually became an artistic choice, but that was not the motivation. … I think if I had had other people around me when I was on tour, I probably would not have become so disconnected and isolated,” Cogley said. “I don’t want to be alone in my room playing these songs 10 times in a row. I want to release it with my friends.”