Dutch for Forest: An Interview with Cosmic Bos

Wading into the world of Cosmic Bos is not for the faint of heart, but I highly recommend it nonetheless. Over the past five years, the band has released twenty albums of improvised music along with videos and a podcast documenting their process. The self-contained unit does everything in-house—including music, video production, and marketing—so as to maintain full creative control over their art. I dropped them a line recently to see what makes Cosmic Bos tick and to learn a little more about their latest endeavor, Improv Squared, which allows other musicians to join in the fun. 

Let’s start with your name. “Cosmic” I get, but can you explain “Bos”?

Bos is Dutch for forest, also in English it’s a very lazy way to write boss. We had wanted our name to reflect the spiritual journey of music creation, to evoke the musical nature within us all, to give us all control over our creative destinies, to become our own Boss, to channel the Cosmic Forest, so yeah, Bos is Dutch for forest.

Cosmic Bos consists of Nick Jackson, Andy Jackson, and Joe Philogene. What does each of you bring to the project, and how did you start making music together? 

Andy and Nick are brothers and have been making music together for a very long time, Joe has been working with the pair for several years, appearing on the Cosmic Bos Improv Music podcast since the first season back in 2019. Andy and Nick are both seasoned singer/songwriters with a rich history of improvisation and worked together on previous projects including Products of Monkey Love Podcast (the original improv music podcast from 15 years ago), Vocalizer, Donny Stax & and Meta-Cassette. 

Joe became a full member of Cosmic Bos back at the start of 2021, with four full improvisation sessions making up the backbone of the third season of Cosmic Bos Improv Music Podcast. Joe brings a worldly vibe and rich musical knowledge and history to the project, with his traditional African instruments and his wise soul. 

Andy and Nick are multi-instrumentalists, and both do all the parts of the project, playing the music, mixing the music, releasing the music, shooting the music videos, editing the music videos and releasing the music videos.

What drew you to improv music in particular?

Andy – “the rush you get when you make something up on the spot and it lands is like drugs, and when you can do that with other people it’s an almost transcendent experience, like all taking drugs together. The music side of it was born out of my love for improv comedy, and not quite understanding why improv musical comedy followed such rigid rules for improvisation on the music side of the equation, all geared up for the comedy but little to no freedom in the music.”

Both Andy and Nick grew up with Whose Line is it Anyway? Which certainly helped with a love of improv. 

I’m curious about the extent of your improvisation. A track like “Space Babies,” for example, sounds very polished to me. Is it all just off the top of your heads, as it were? Lyrics, chords, and melody? Do you have any material or framework in place before you start recording? More broadly, how does your process work? 

Well, in the case of “Space Babies” that was indeed a prewritten set of lyrics. Andy has a big Book of Songs (Big B.o.S) full of poems/lyrics which often help inform the music creating process. The music in our sessions is always completely improvised, but if you hear well polished rhymes then the lyric is most likely prewritten, with the melody being improvised over the improv music. Our process is one of removal rather than overdubbing, so if something doesn’t sound quite right then we will just remove it.

On our record “Sunrise Reflections,” you can hear the original improvised version of Space Babies, this is also the version we made the first Space Babies video to, where Baby Theo is literally floating about in space. We were really pleased with how the song had come out of the improv, so we rerecorded it, so we could tighten up its structure, make it a tiny bit faster and put on a ridiculous intro. Then we made another video, this time allowing Baby Theo to build a rocket to take into space. So the extend of the improv is loose, but having a set of lyrics in front of you doesn’t dictate melodies, so sometimes you have to drop words or add in ones to make the lyrics fit the music. We have done it so much by this point that it feels like a game, one with surprising outcomes each time.

Your podcast offers an incredibly detailed look at how you make music. I’m reminded of the old saying about not wanting to know how the sausage is made. Cosmic Bos turns that notion on its head, taking listeners behind the scenes and, in effect, provides a glimpse into the sausage-making. What’s the idea there? 

Because we’ve made so many albums over the years, and have learnt all the in’s and out’s associated with the process, it only seemed right to lay it all out in the open. Back in 2019 we made a documentary about our process, and in the interim years our process has changed considerably. We also wanted to take a bit of a break from releasing improv music every month, and go back to our roots. Cosmic Bos put out our debut album back in 2017 and since then we realised we haven’t actually made an album in the traditional way for five years. It feels right to us to show our process, in the hope that it inspires others to have a go, making music is the most fun thing we know how to do and sharing that with people is the next most fun thing to do.

Humor is also a major element of what you do, but I wouldn’t describe your songs as “jokey.” Why is humor important to you, and how do you balance it with the more “serious” side of making music, for lack of a better term?

Because improvisation is usually associated with comedy it seemed only natural to include some of it in our work. For both Nick and Andy it’s fair to say they are heavily influenced by The Beatles, and in particular the fun loving approach to music that they had. You would never call The Beatles a comedy band, but songs like “Yellow Submarine,” “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” and “Piggies” to name a few, are clearly meant to invoke humour, while also not being laugh out loud funny. It’s a unique place in music and we love to explore it. We also find that having humour in our work allows for the serious songs to hit with more gravitas, for example, our latest single ‘Vaccine’ is a very heavy song comparing humanity to a virus, but it is paired up with ‘Sir, France is ‘cross the Sea, See’ which is a silly quirky song about language and the French. We have to give a big shout out to our comedy musical influences, with Monty Python, Weird Al, Flight of the Conchords, Tenacious D and The Lonely Island all being inspirations. And finally, Nick and Andy are brothers and as such are mandated to try and make each other laugh at all times.

I definitely hear the Flight of the Conchords influence! You also have a pretty strong following. I saw, for example, that your video for “Astral Underwear” had 7,000 views within weeks of its release. Do you have any advice for building a following? 

Just do your craft, that’s the best advice we can give. Andy and Nick have both been releasing music and video content for 20 years, and for 14 years YouTube has hosted that. We are part of the YouTube partnership program meaning we can host ads on our videos and also promote ourselves, which helps with building a following on that platform, but we had to get to over a thousand subscribers and something like 140,000 hours watched before we got to that point. We always try to make content that we want to share with the world, rather then chasing trends, and our following has grown steadily over time, there must be better ways to build bigger audiences, but they most likely would include compromises to artistry, and at the end of the day we consider ourselves artists.

Do what you love doing, and if no one will help you, then just do it all yourself, it has never been easier to make music then it is right now. Building a following is a byproduct of doing what you love, at least, if you want that following to stick around.

And what about Improv Squared? What’s the idea there, and how is the project coming along? 

Improv Squared is our latest distillation of the music making process. For the first two years of our podcast we made improv-revisation with a producer and performer Chris Mace. That process involved a day of improvising music, followed by a month of revising that music. It was long winded, but we managed to get seventeen albums out of it, with a variety of musicians joining us along the way for an episode or two (which is how we first worked with Joe). For the third year of our podcast we made completely improvised albums, four in total, with Chris stepping aside and Joe becoming the third member. We were searching for the space between these two improv techniques, and we think we found it.

Back in October last year (2021) we started work on Improv Squared, with “Astral Underwear” and “Ensemble Story” being the first two songs we made using the process. It was done by improvising for four minutes, and then overdubbing that improv with another improv, and then another. We put out videos to both these songs which shows us literally recording them. We then booked up sessions with Chris Mace and Joe Philogene to craft five more songs (“Vaccine” and “Back is Back” with Chris, “Champignon, Lumiere,” “Badder Decisions,” and “Talking Frog” with Joe), did an improv squared session with our good friend Donny Stax (“Magic Fun Guy”), crafted two songs using lyrics by Dayne Howcroft (“Faded Memories” and “Forever Bruised”) and constructed our French language dance track (“Sir, France is ‘cross the Sea, See”). These eleven tracks make up the first Improv Squared album titled Petite Champignon de Lumiere which is available on Bandcamp and everywhere else 1st April 2022.

We are already constructing the next set of improv squared songs to send out to other artists to build up album two, and if you are a musician and you would like to get involved then drop us an email at cosmicbos@gmail.com  

Anything else on the horizon?

Hopefully more live performances, but other than that, focusing on making our album ‘The O Door’ and podcasting out the whole process, and improv squareding with all the wonderfully creative musicians around the world.  

Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions! 

It was a pleasure, thanks for asking.

Interview by Marc Schuster.

Kids: The Joy of Collaboration!

New song! I’ve been a fan of Brian Lambert for a while now, so I was especially excited when he asked me if I thought his latest song needed anything. He suggested that it might need a synthesizer part, so I added one and also added some backing vocals. And just for fun, I made the nifty poster you can see in the video below…

I really enjoy collaborating with other musicians. For example, last year, I really loved playing on a couple of songs with the La La Lettes — “J’ecoute La Radio” b/w “Song 71 (You Didn’t Want My Love).” I played keyboard and sang backup on the first one, and I played drums on the second one. And I seriously can’t listen to “J’ecoute La Radio” without smiling. It’s such a fun song!

And, of course, there’s my ongoing collaboration with Timothy Simmons. We’re working on a new album at the moment, but here’s a track from our first one. I’m not sure I’d call them “songs” so much, or even compositions. They’re more like sonic explorations.

“Tadpoles” by Simmons and Schuster

Allow Mistakes to Happen: An Interview with Timothy Simmons

I’ve been friends with Timothy Simmons for years. We met in high school and then went to the same college, which was when we started making music together. At the time, he was a drummer and percussionist, but over the years he’s developed into a talented multi-instrumentalist, not to mention a dedicated music teacher. His first solo album, Serafine, was written and recorded as the soundtrack for the children’s book Serafine Learns to Sing and an accompanying series of lessons on the building blocks of music. His second album, Transforma: Light Returning built on the themes he developed in Serafine and offered hypnotic meditations on the wonder of nature. Somewhere along the line, he found time to record an album of instrumentals with me, and now he’s back with a third solo album titled Climbing the Spiral Stairs.

You started your musical life as a drummer, and now you’re a multi-instrumentalist. What did your journey look like?

I’ve always thought it would be cool to know how to play many different instruments. Then I literally fell into a job teaching music. I had been teaching high school English, but found myself in a position where I was invited to create a music program for young people who learn differently. That meant that I needed to learn to play a variety of instruments in order to teach effectively. At the same time, I had reached an age and time in my life where I just didn’t have the time to be in a band anymore. So, I decided to just be my own band. I started writing some songs, and eventually got to where I am now, creating music and playing all the instruments on my recordings myself. It has taken many years to get to this point, and it has also meant writing a TON of bad songs, but that is all part of growing, right?

I know you’ve been involved with an organization called Music for People. What’s their philosophy or mission, and how has it influenced you?

Music for People (MFP) is an amazing, thriving, supportive community of musicians, teachers, therapists, and artists who guided me in those early years of learning to play many different instruments, and also taught me a methodology for using improvisation with my students that became the foundation for the curriculum that I created to teach music to adolescents with learning differences. Over the years, I’ve remained connected with MFP and continue to play music with my MFP friends and mentors. MFP teaches that all of us have the right to make music, and that music is accessible to everyone, not just a small minority with years of training. If you can speak, you can make music. Start with one authentic sound and build from there. Through improvisation, MFP helps musicians really attune to the music that is happening inside themselves, and provides supportive, intuitive structures for bringing that music out. Simply put, I wouldn’t be the music teacher or musician that I am today without MFP.

What about teaching? How does being an educator influence your ideas about music? Or, to look at it from a different angle, how does making music influence your teaching? Are the two pursuits in dialog with each other?

My journey to becoming a multi-instrumentalist started when I began teaching music. So, you could say that my teaching and my personal playing are intimately connected. I practice every day so that I can be a better musician and teacher. At the same time, I mine my practice sessions for song ideas and inspiration for new music. It’s all part of one continuum of creativity.

The new album is called Climbing the Spiral Stairs. How does it build on your previous albums? What are you doing differently?

Unlike my other albums, this one was completely improvised, and it is an entirely solo-guitar album. Each song was recorded in one improvised take. Then, each piece was edited and mixed. Typically, I like to add a lot of extra instrumentation. However, this album is incredibly simple – eight solo guitar pieces created completely in the moment. All of my music begins in the process of improvisation. Improvising is part of my teaching approach, and also part of my daily practice. But what typically happens is that I tend to return to a particular melody or chord structure again and again, and when that happens, I know I’ve got a song brewing. Then I spiral back to it and work on it in finer detail.

For Climbing the Spiral Stairs, I sat down and recorded the entire thing in one take in only an hour or two. When I did it, I truthfully had no idea that this would end up being my next release, but when I listened to what I had recorded, I realized that all of the music I laid down could be sequenced and mixed in a meaningful way. So, rather than picking through the recordings and composing pieces out of recorded improvisations, I decided to just allow the in-the-moment creations stand on their own. It’s incredibly simplistic, and that is really exciting to me!

Also, Marc, you engineered the recording, and I’m grateful to you for your help. I think one of the reasons that it came out so nicely is because of your positive spirit and help.

Ah, you’re making me blush! The titles of your compositions often reference nature. For example, you have a piece on the new album called “Leaves Underfoot” and another called “First Snow.” Do you start with a title and try to write a piece that evokes, for example, leaves crunching underfoot, or do you compose a piece, realize it sounds like a particular natural phenomenon, and then name it accordingly?

I compose a piece and name it based on what it reminds me of, but in the case of the two songs you mention, they came from a list of possible song titles that I keep in my songwriting journal. I have a list of several hundred possible song titles. Sometimes I write based on the title and whatever it inspires, sometimes I choose titles for pieces that need one. Still, there are lots and lots of titles that don’t have songs! I have some favorites that still need songs, maybe you can help, Marc! Here’s one: “The Librarian’s Wicked Bible.”

I like that!

As far as referencing nature is concerned, I know I do that a lot, and I guess I’m just inspired by nature. It’s not like I’m this outdoorsy kind of guy. I’m not rugged at all. But I do feel like the music I make fits well in an imagined natural setting. So, when I choose titles based on what the music feels like, I tend to lean on natural phenomena.

You also tend to gravitate toward instrumental music. Is there an overriding philosophy in your approach to composition?

When I first set out to expand my musicianship beyond just being a drummer, I fancied myself a “Singer-Songwriter.” But the truth is I just don’t like my voice! But I don’t think I’ll never write a song with vocals again; in fact, I’ve been quietly working on a sequence of songs based on ghost stories that include lyrics and vocals.

It’s funny, I teach my students that our voices are the most natural and beautiful instruments we have, and we use our voices to express what’s really inside our souls. I spend my teaching day encouraging young people to sing and to open themselves up to what their voices sound like; to explore their voices without judgment. And still, I struggle with my own voice. It’s a work in progress, I guess.

However, I will say that when I decided to give up being a “Singer-Songwriter” many years ago, my creativity and songwriting inspiration blew wide open. It was like I had let go of some expectation that I would work in a particular structure or style, and when I did that, I feel like my abilities as a composer really blossomed.

So now when I write, I allow my mind to wander, and to follow whatever path a melody leads me down. Sometimes, this means I end up with these long, drawn-out suites that involve recurring themes and rhythmic changes. But it’s just because I’m not allowing my music to be restricted within one genre or structure. I just let the music tell me what it wants to be. If my music ends up being complicated, it’s only that way because I followed a melody to see where it would lead. I’m not sure if that makes complete sense, but when I’m playing it does!

On the surface, your music sounds fairly straightforward, but it’s actually pretty complex, especially in terms of time signature. And you also play around with different non-standard guitar tunings. Are those conscious decisions?

Well, it’s like I said: I just try to see where a melody will lead me. The open guitar tunings are a way to follow melodies a little more easily. They started out as a way to create more engaging chords when I was first learning to play guitar. It was kind of like cheating! And then I just fell in love with their sound. So now when I sit down to improvise, I do what I teach my students to do. Play one authentic sound, then another and another until you find something that feels right. Then repeat that until you need to make a change. When that need to change comes along, follow it to see where it leads you.

Allow mistakes to happen and listen to them carefully. Don’t be too quick to correct yourself. Allow the mistake to open you up to new rhythmic or melodic possibilities. Most of my coolest ideas were mistakes! I also practice a lot. I like to return to old improvisations as much as possible to see if a song is in there somewhere. It can take me months, sometimes, before I realize that I’ve got a new song. That is why I’m so excited by Climbing the Spiral Stairs – it was so spontaneous and free, and I think each song still has a nice central melody. There are lots of hooks on the record, even though they were all completely improvised.

I also sense a bit of a prog-rock influence in your music, or am I just imagining that?

Yes! I’m a total prog geek! I admit it.

All kidding aside, what I look for in any music I listen to, and what really inspires me is when artists combine ideas in interesting or unique ways. That’s what I love about Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. Banjo jazz – it’s not supposed to work, but it really does. It works because the artist is open to what the music tells them. A lot of what we might consider “Prog Rock” does not do that at all. These are artists who restrict themselves to rules or structures that are whatever “Prog” is supposed to be. That’s not progressive. But some artists look for ways to move their music into new territory, and that is really exciting and inspiring to me.

I’m most inspired by artists who make me uncomfortable. When I think I don’t understand what I’m hearing or when I feel uncomfortable by the sound I’m hearing, that’s when I get inspired to go back and listen again and again. And that process of listening to something new and weird and of slowly coming to an understanding of what I’m hearing is how I fall in love with certain pieces of music.

At the same time, I’m also just inspired by good songs. Prog Rock, Metal, Jazz. Whatever – if there’s a good song in there, I’m into it. So, I try to do the same thing. I look for ways to combine instruments in interesting combinations. And I try to just write beautiful songs, too.

You can hear some of that on Serafine – where I play an African balafon and mix it with Brazilian berimbau. Or on Transforma: Light Returning, I combine open D guitar with droney synths. Making these weird combinations is exciting to me. It’s also what makes this new album, Climbing the Spiral Stairs, a little different, because it’s just guitar and that’s it. So that’s new for me as well!

You also do a lot with loops, especially when you play live. What are the challenges of working with loops, and how do you overcome them?

Every time I think I’ve figured out how to be a good live looper, I find new ways to make it sound messy! The only trick is to practice, practice, practice! When I play live, I like to use loops because they help me re-create some of the weird instrument combinations and layers I create on my recordings. Also, it makes for an engaging live performance, especially because I’m not up there singing.

I think there are two main lessons I’ve learned from my years of live looping in front of an audience. The first is to keep it simple. Fewer loops actually create more depth. Too many loops and you can’t hear the layers anymore. The second thing that has helped me get better at it is to try make a mental map of where I want a song to go. I go into each looped song with at least a plan of what layers I want to use and when I want to use them.

Recently, I’ve been collaborating with my good friend Khalil Munir on his one-man play One Pound, Four Ounces. Khalil is an incredibly dynamic dancer and actor, and I back him up using live loops. We make a plan for how the show is supposed to play out, but it’s really different every time. However, having a mental map of where I want to go and keeping it as simple as possible really helps. I’m really excited about this project. The pandemic made it so we’ve had to wait before taking it to the stage, but look for it in the coming months here in Philly, and hopefully New York as well!

Is your live set improvised, or do you plan it out in advance?

It used to be completely improvised, but in recent years, I’ve amassed so many songs that most of my current live set is planned out. That being said, each piece still involves a good deal of improvisation. I’m calling audibles all the time, and as a result, I never really play the same song twice. Sometimes, I get a performance that is really unique and makes me want to re-write the entire song. Other times, I get a performance that is too fast or slow, and I have to push through and just hope I get to the end of the song without too many mistakes. I’ve learned to correct mistakes quickly!

Any plans for a follow-up album? What’s next?

Yes! This is a really busy year, musically, for me! I have already started recording a follow up to Climbing the Spiral Stairs. It’s called Periodicities and for this album I’ve taken each individual guitar improvisation from Climbing the Spiral Stairs and sent them out to friends all over the country, inviting them to add whatever they want. You’re on it, Marc! I’m working on editing and mixing those songs as they come back to me. I have four already in the works, and four more in process in the next few months. I’m hoping to release that this Spring or early Summer.

In addition, I’ve written all the music for a new instrumental album in the same style as Transforma: Light Returning. I plan to record it this Spring and Summer and aim for a Fall release. That album will be called Spirit is the Traveler. And I’m hoping to make another album of improvisations with you, Marc. Our last album, Simmons and Schuster was a thrill to be a part of, so hopefully, we’ll be getting together to record a follow up soon.

Yeah! Definitely!

I’ve just agreed to be part of a new project through Music for People called The Sound Travelers, where musicians from all over the country collaborate on music and lyrics, and I’m really excited about that, too. So, look out for a ton of new music coming soon! Plus, as I mentioned earlier, I hope to be on stage with Khalil Munir this Spring or Summer performing One Pound, Four Ounces. And finally, I have completed the manuscript for my first book. It’s called Serafine Finds a Song: A Storybook Guide to Musical Improvisation, Volume 1 and I hope to get that out to the world within the next year or so.

Wow, you’re a busy guy! Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions, Tim!

Thanks so much for inviting me to talk about my music, Marc! Your music is really inspiring to me, and your artwork elevates my albums. I’m so excited to be able to collaborate with you!

That makes two of us!