Comfort’s Phil Koehncke on Ambient Interludes and Productive Conflict

Photo by Brock Saunders.

On their 2017 debut EP, Sheltered, Richmond ambient indie-rockers Comfort live up to their name in four warm, atmospheric tunes. Written and performed by singer, guitarist, and multi-instrumentalist Phil Koehncke, with bass by Kevin McCormick, it’s an intimate record that showcases Koehncke’s strong melodic sense and dynamic use of effects, bouncing from distorted tremolo lines to clean, reverberant picking with ease.

As Comfort has grown into a full band affair, that sound has evolved, as evidenced by their striking live show. Willy Anderson, alongside Koehncke, weaves mesmerizing layers of melody between Tanner White’s jazzy high-hat rhythms and McCormick’s tasteful basslines. Comfort comes on like a force of nature, as visceral and energetic as they are elusive and dreamy.

Following a string of local shows, Koehncke spoke to The All Scene Eye about the origins of the band, his guitar rig, and Comfort’s plans for recording new material.

Can you tell me how Comfort got started?

We were jamming around since last January, so about a year. I first started with Tanner, our drummer, and Willy, the other guitarist. Kevin, our bassist, is somebody I’ve known since freshman year of college.

I was writing and recording an by myself EP, which later became the EP that we have out now. I got Kevin to play bass on it, and I was talking to them, and I was like, “yo, would you want to play some of these songs live so we can get some shows going, and have it become a collaborative process?” And that’s what happened. Here we are now from that.

But on that EP, it was just you and Kevin?

Yeah, I played everything except for bass. And I should mention this: Kevin was my second set of ears on the EP. He’s really honest and knows how to articulate his opinions quite well. He would just tell me if something was shit, or something was boring, and we’d talk about it. He’d give his reasons, and I’d be like, “alright, yeah.”

Is it different now, writing songs with the full band?

Oh, definitely. There’s more of a chance when you’re writing with a group of people for the songs to come organically, as opposed to when I’m writing it all by myself. I may have the sound of a band in my head, but the process of writing it and recording it is much more constructed and much more based on the layers of it, and thinking between each layer. When you’re with a band, and you’re with collaborative, creative people whose ideas you enjoy hearing, it allows things to go much smoother.

Can you tell me about your musical background before this project?

I’ve been playing guitar since I was 10, so around 12 years now. I come from a suburb in Northern Virginia, and there just wasn’t a lot of musical people, or people who wanted to make the music I wanted to do. So I had to teach myself a lot of things about the music making process, about recording, about writing songs and playing the other instruments to make the music that was going on in my head. Comfort is actually my first band. Before, it’s just been me trying to teach myself and get the sounds from my head out into the real world, so to speak.

What part of Northern Virginia? 

Reston, Virginia.

I’m calling from Bristow, so I’m right up here near Manassas.

Right on, Prince William County?

Yeah, you got it.


So I know up here it can be difficult to find people who are doing the thing you want to do.

I was just always interested in creating space and atmosphere, and obviously, effects and things like that, and I think that’s where we found the bond with one another.

I remember when I was in high school in Reston, I had this multi-effects unit, and I would wig things out. I used a gaming microphone on my piece of shit amp to make ambient textures that I would connect with one of those keyboards you get from Target, just to create some, quote unquote, soundscapes.

Was it just because of the equipment you had, or was there a musician who inspired you?

It wasn’t necessarily a specific musician. There were a couple, and again, I’m only one representative of the band. The first concert I ever went to was for this band called Porcupine Tree. They were kind of prog rock, or prog metal. When I was, like, 15, I started getting obsessed with the frontman, Steven Wilson. I was finding out that he had all these drone and ambient side-projects, and that almost excited me more than the music. I was like, “what are these textures he’s creating, these voices that don’t sound real?” And then I started falling down that ambient route.

I got really bored with guitar until I was in high school, and I discovered this band, Oceansize. They’re less of an influence on me now, but back then it was really cool because they were playing in odd time signatures, but they had these beautiful delayed out effects on their guitar, and it sounded so genuine. It wasn’t like they just had their calculators on stage, beating off about their virtuosity. That stuck with me, and as I got older, through them I got into bands like Pavement, Flint, Talk Talk, Mogwai, My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, things like that. That’s where I am now. Not in terms of what I listen to on a daily basis, but those were core things that set me up to make to make the music I wanted to.

Where is everyone else coming from? What do they bring to the table?

Tanner studied jazz drumming his freshman year of college, and he’s very well read within that style of music. I mean, he fucking nails it. That brings a different flavor and allows us to play with different times and tempos. In my opinion, that’s what he brings that makes it really interesting.

Kevin, the bassist, comes from a minimalist perspective. He’s kind of the guy that like–well, we all do it, we all stop ourselves after a while, but if one of us is going off too much on what we want to do in these crazy things, he brings it back to formulate it into something workable. 

One thing I notice about his playing is that he does a lot with a little, you know what I mean?

That’s what it is. And that’s kind of cool, he almost does the rhythm guitar part, and that’s what I like about his playing. I think I can speak for all of us when I say that. It adds much more harmony to the music, as opposed to if he was just going with the rhythm. On heavy parts, he’s not unwilling to go full out Dinosaur Jr. power chords. Which is really cool, but his restraint–he picks the right pockets to add his sound.

Willy adds his flair to it from his different tastes, and also the effects he uses. He uses a good amount of pitch stuff, weird delays, he does some slide guitar–that’s when we’re not playing standard parts–and I use a lot more echoes, and texture, and different kinds of distortion. 

The thing is, it’s hard for me to speak for them. Everybody brings something very specific to the table. When you listen to the recordings, you can tell that’s just me, but even when we play the EP songs live, it’s different, and it’s more of a band thing. But going back to the question, we all have quite different taste in music, and I think that’s where the conflict happens. Not conflict like a bad thing, but that conflict of taste and interest. I think that’s what makes it beautiful and special–to us, I should say.

Can you tell me more about your guitar rig?

I play through a Univox Hi-Flier Phase 2–it’s a Japanese guitar made in the 70s based on this Mosrite–that I run into a Fender Twin Reverb. Both me and Willy use Fender Twins; they’re just really nice and clean. I think mine is kind of fucked up, because it distorts way too easily, but I kind of like that.

The main pedals would have to me my distortions. I use a Fab Tone Distortion by Danelectro, which is this cheap, $30 pedal that I don’t think they make anymore, but it’s really fat for what’s usually a cheap metal distortion. The next one is something called the Chunky Cheese. That’s a copy of what’s known as a Lovetone Big Cheese. I’m a big Pavement fan, and a big fan of the guitar from Oceansize, and they both use that fuzz pedal. It’s kind of velcro-y, and it doesn’t feed back. The next one is the Devi Ever Shoegazer, which is like two fuzzes in one. I use that for crazy, My-Bloody-Valentine levels of distortion.

Besides that, I have a chorus pedal, a tremolo pedal, and three delays. The one I use a lot is this blue Memory Man. It’s a digital one, and I can get these quick multitap repeats that let me create some really nice drones, especially with distortion, that just go on forever. And I have some reverb. That’s really it, without me going through each individual one. 

Another aspect of the sound, on the EP as well as the live show, is the samples.

Yeah, the voices, people talking. On the recordings, there’s the one on the ambient song, and then the last song, “I’m Also the Janitor.” We, as a band, have made it our finishing song, because we make a super ambient intro, and we extend the outro to crescendo, and to make a nice, memorable ending.

The live samples actually came from Willy. Willy and Tanner, just talking about documentaries and films they like, adding snippets and bits. He also adds these really cool pitch effects to drop it down, and that signals when we want to start the song. We’re thinking of changing out different ones. A couple I know we use are, we use a sample from a documentary of the making of Fitzcarraldo. It’s Werner Herzog talking about how the project went south. Another one is about a sociopathic child who had to be locked away in her room because she kept trying to kill her adopted brother. We have some other ones we’re trying to throw in.

It just makes it interesting, especially for little ambient interlude pieces on our recordings, just to keep a flow. I’m a big fan of Boards of Canada, and they use that a lot with children laughing and people talking in the distance, and sounds of animals. I think it brings an atmosphere and sort of a visceral feeling to what’s going to happen next, or what’s going on. It also means I don’t have to talk that much, because I can’t think of very good banter on the spot.

I remember the Werner Herzog sample from when I saw you at Gallery 5, and it struck me as a very cool way to splice the songs together. It gets old having to say something between songs every time.

Yeah, you know–what kind of banter would I have? Say a couple of jokes that get a pity chuckle, and that don’t land, or I ask them how they’re doing, or something?

“Everyone having a good time tonight?” “Yeah!”

“Yeah! Woo! Yeah!” Exactly. Not to knock anybody that does that, it just doesn’t seem very interesting to me, but never say never.

You mentioned this Northern Virginia scene that was unsatisfying. What have your experiences been like in the Richmond scene?

I mean, there was actually no scene, in the Northern Virginia scene. At least at my high school, and where I was from, there was jack shit. Nobody wanted to fuckin’ make music; it was so weird. For being such, like, this nice, well-off school–I guess that makes more sense, actually, now that I think about it. 

But, experiences here in Richmond. It’s great. A good chunk of all the friends I have here–and the people in the band are good friends of mine, that’s how it happened. It’s been interesting.

I’m not the biggest punk fan in the world, and there’s a lot of punk bands here, so that’s the one disconnect I have. It’s not that I don’t like punk music; I just don’t think I get it as much as other people do.

Besides that, just going to house shows and seeing friends’ other bands. We’re quite good friends with the guys from Keep. They actually lived on the same floor as me and Kevin freshman year. It was cool to see how they’ve grown, and just watch friends’ bands grow into what they are.

What’s next for you guys? Are you looking at playing more shows? Working on new material?

I don’t think we have any shows planned for February. Right now, we’re really just trying to demo as many songs as we can, and play shows just to keep that juice going, and to make sure our set is nice and tight, and just spread the word out.

We only play one song from the EP now, just because we’re bored with playing it. The only one we like playing is “Janitor,” and that’s how we end, just so if people do come to a show and they have listened to it, they’re like, “oh yeah, that’s the one!” Besides that, we’re demoing, we’re practicing, we’re writing, and we’re trying to record the newer songs we’ve been playing, and find a financially viable studio to work that into something we can share and be proud of.

Financially viable is key with a studio.

Exactly, so that’s where it kind of is. I mean, the demos, they don’t sound terrible. We record them live, and the EP was DIY, but there definitely is consistency in terms of production level when you go into a studio. You have rooms set up, you have pads to get rid of unwanted noise, and you don’t have to deal with grounding noises and focusing on levels, and how the space is going to affect how you’re going to record it. Especially with drums. For the EP, I miked the drums up with two microphones, one on the kick and one on the full kit, and kind of [laughs] EQed it to make it sound like it was good.

Where do you record your demos right now?

We record at our practice space, which is Willy’s basement. He’s got a really sick interface with a good amount of inputs that allow us to capture some decent sounding demos.

There’s a lot of dynamics to our music. There’s a lot of changes in volume, and changes from heavy to soft songs. It’s good to have a place where we can capture an essence of that, and send it to people, and see if they want to do it. It’s also good to have those so that when we do spend the money and go into a studio, we’re not twiddling our thumbs, trying to figure out, “how are these songs going to flow?” We know exactly what we need to do.


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