Photo: Reid Haithcock
It’s easy to look at Henry Kohen’s baby face and call him a wunderkind. Or a prodigy. Or a musical virtuoso. Call him what you want, you’re not technically wrong—he is young. And he’s also talented beyond his years.
At 17, the guitarist became the youngest artist ever signed to Sargent House, under the moniker Mylets. In addition to his undeniable natural talent, Kohen, now 19, also has a gift for making his equipment work for him. On stage, he makes use of a long row of effects pedals, a small army of guitar loops, and a drum machine. Nothing is pre-programmed. Everything happens in real-time.
On April 21, the LA-via-Indiana one-man sonic ensemble will release Arizona, a staggeringly intricate work that still manages to remain catchy and full of hooks. You can listen to the title track below. We caught up with the young wunder-virtu-prodi-kind to talk about Arizona, escaping a small town scene, and the pressures of being the next big thing.
Noisey: So you started putting stuff out in your late teens. Tell me about some of the influences you had around that time of self-recording, self-producing music like that.
Henry Kohen: I’ve been playing music since I was about ten, and I played in a band with my brother and a friend all throughout high school. They kind of branched out and got into other things, and my brother went out to college. More or less, I was left on my own, and there wasn’t anyone left in town that I was interested in playing music with. So I just started figuring out how to do looping stuff. I was listening to a lot of Andrew Bird at the time, who obviously does a lot of the self-sampling kind of stuff. So I slowly started to work with that, and then wanted to take it a step further and instead of just looping myself, bringing in drums and vocals and try to replicate the best I could a full bad.
What were some of those first memories when you were ten that music started to intersect into your life?
I was lucky, my dad played a lot of music when he was my age, and got a job and moved into the real world side of things. But there was always a drumkit around the house, and I must’ve been seven or eight and he started playing music with my neighbors. So seeing bands like that, and there were also a lot of local bands playing around when I was young and in elementary school, so I remember going to see them even before I picked up an instrument. So, it was kind of just growing up in a house and a community that had a lot of music, even if the music didn’t influence me directly.
What was it like when you first picked up a looper? What were some of the first memories of that?
I bought a looping pedal off of this kid I was on a tennis team with. Which is weird, but not relevant at all. I remember at first trying to do covers of songs I like, Pixies stuff and Andrew Bird, and eventually got into King Crimson and Battles and more technical stuff that used loopers as well. So in the beginning, it was me trying to replicate sounds of other artists I was a fan of. And also making these soundscapes, and playing drums on top of it. But when you’re playing drums, you can’t manipulate the loops so it would be repetitive for 15 minutes, which isn’t enough to hold my attention or any listener’s attention.
I was looking through your Facebook earlier and saw you posted a picture of your pedalboard set up for shows. I’m curious, when you start a song, do you just mess around with the guitar on itself, or do you go in with the effects immediately?
Yeah, I almost entirely write songs without any effects or any looping even. It’ll just be practicing, I have all these finger exercises and one day I will mess up a part, and realize that I messed up the exercise, but stumbled upon a melody thing. So I’ll figure that out, and do voicings around it. The looping and effects don’t really come in until I’m sitting down figuring out how to play it live. A lot of the composition is just sitting down without the guitar plugged into anything, noodling around for days.
Photo by Jose Ruiz
Being a solo musician in full control of everything you do, who do you go to so you can bounce ideas off of? Do you look to other people or do you just trust your intuition?
When I was living in Indiana, it was entirely my own thing because I don’t think people took music seriously in the way I did, or at least in the direction I did. So that was entirely me, which was kind of terrifying because I was 15 or 16, and not to have a filter is weird. I’m happy with what I made at that time, but it was daunting just to have so much content available and not really sure what to do with it. But now I’m out in LA and I’m surrounded by the artists on the label, who I’ve really, really always respected and have a lot more friends, so there’s a lot more options on who I can take stuff to and I know I can get honest feedback from people who are approaching music in a similar way I do. And the producer on this record, Sonny, we gelled the first day we met. We have almost identical approach to music, so now I’m sending him all my ideas, and he has a good idea of what’s worth pursuing and what needs work and stuff like that. So I’ve got a lot of people out here I trust, and that I can go to with the knowledge they won’t alter anything to their standards.
You sort of briefly mentioned that period of being 15 and 16, what were those initial shows like?
It was like a very, very rudimentary deal, like playing public parks to five of my friends every week during the summer. There weren’t really any cool venues in the town I grew up in, but there was a good community. Shows would get set up in restaurants and gyms and parks and stuff like that. It was just playing to the same people over and over which was great, but it doesn’t really lead to any kind of growth if you’re just playing to the same people at the same places over and over again. It was kind of a learning process. I’m still awkward on stage, but I couldn’t look up to acknowledge the six people that showed up, and I’d stand two feet away from the microphone. So playing these shows definitely helped me build up that thick skin which you need to play to considerably more people.
Were you ever involved finding like a community of people online to show your music to and get feedback?
The internet’s pretty scary to me, but it’s definitely helped. My brother’s pretty into 4chan and all that stuff, which is unknown territory to me, but I understand its importance and can appreciate it. But I remember when I first released the five songs I released when I was 16, he told me to go post on this website. I went on, and I did it, and it was terrifying hearing negative criticism for the first time. You think, “Ah this is it, I’m done playing music forever, someone on the internet said something bad about me!” So then I was like, “I’m gonna step away from that realm.” But obviously, the internet is unbelievably important. I know a session of mine got posted to Reddit and got a ridiculous amount of views and exposure I don’t think I would’ve gotten anywhere else. So I definitely appreciate it, but it’s not necessarily something I go out and pursue.
Looking around online seeing what people commented, I saw a lot of comparisons to Trent Reznor with the your song. How do you feel about that comparison?
There’s definitely been tons of comparisons to Nine Inch Nails, especially to “Trembling Hands.” I think that’s great, that’s a wonderful comparison. I haven’t seen “this is a ripoff.” it’s been genuine comparisons, which means a lot. Any musician should appreciate what he does. And it’s kind of weird though, it’s more or less that song on the record and one of the other songs are as industrially or whatever that brings that comparison.
How did you get hooked up with Sargent House in the first place?
I had left high school, and got into this college program in Indiana that I really had been hoping to get into, and did a lot to get into. Got to college, and within two weeks, I realized I would’ve been miserable. I mean, everyone is, there’s no excuse. A lot of people don’t enjoy college, but for me, for some reason, I hated it enough that it warranted leaving it. So I was pretty dead set on leaving college one way or another. So I wrote Cathy who runs the label, I didn’t include my music and I don’t think I said anything about her bands or anything. I just wrote asking advice, like I want to leave college and play music. What do I do? How does this happen? Because when you live in Indiana, bands don’t really come through. It’s not really a hub for anything and you don’t feel connected to the big hub of music and you don’t get how anything works. So I emailed her, and we wrote back and forth a couple times, and I think she got an idea about how serious and passionate I was which I’m glad came off in those emails. Then she asked me to send the music, and either liked it or saw potential in it, and wrote back and said, “I’d like you to be a part of this label.” Which completely blew my mind.
Photo by Nick Fancher
That’s fucking incredible. What is it about Indiana that’s so anti-music?
I don’t know, it’s really weird. Talking to kids who were a couple generations before me, it was great and there was all this local DIY stuff. And Bloomington, which is a college town, bands would come through all the time. I’m not sure what happened. Even Bloomington up until a couple years ago seemed great for those college radio bands to come through, and Indianapolis would get a couple good bands a year. But now it’s just Christian hardcore and dad rock kind of stuff. I’d love to go back and play a show, but I don’t know if there’s any kind of draw for that.
You mean you don’t want to open up for breakdown bands forever?
I spent many years in high school opening for breakdown bands. [Laughs]
I’ve seen a lot of people market you being a really young artist in a genre of people older than you. Has that been weird, like has that come up with other musicians?
Yeah, there’s some weirdness. I think the main thing right now is I’m not old enough to go into bars, which can be a factor in tour and stuff. But other than that, there’s some inner guilt things with me where I feel like these other musicians have been around so much longer and working so much longer, and it feels wrong to me being at this age where I’m really comfortable as a musician. There’s some guilt around that which I think is normal, and I think it’s good to feel that way, but not let it overpower me. But no one’s condescending about the age.
John Hill is on Twitter - @johnxhill