One year ago, after winning the Sound Off! battle of the bands, COSMOS was riding a high. They were looking forward to a year packed with the spoils of this victory, which included performances at Bumbershoot and Sasquatch, as well as the debut of lead vocalist Téron Bell’s solo project, Campana. However, at this time last year, the band itself was still a bit disjointed—Bell was living in West Seattle preparing for his project, while keyboardist Ryan Gross was in Bellingham, attending school at Western Washington University along with bassist Jonathan Mantello. Drummer Greg Maltsberger was studying at Shoreline Community College, and saxophonist Daniel Leong was a junior at Garfield High School, playing in the jazz band.
One year later, the same day as the final round of 2017’s Sound Off!, the whole band is together at KEXP for an in-studio performance, gearing up to play songs from their new record, Moonshine.
When I walk into the lobby of KEXP, Bell, Maltsberger, Gross and Mantello are huddled around a table trading jokes as videographer Dylan Fout captures the moments with his camera. Local rapper Travis Thompson, whose new video “Father Forgive Me” was filmed by Fout, is also at the table with the band, holding a newly purchased vinyl of Kanye West’s The College Dropout.
Like Kanye West, Bell had his own experience dropping out of college that he chronicled on record. On Campana’s Eviction Notice, he addressed his decision to make an early exit from school while also dealing with the death of a close friend and being evicted from his home (on the same day). I ask Bell if he still agrees with his choice to leave school.
“I feel really empowered by that decision,” Bell says. “I realized at such an early point in time in my music career that I really wanted to do this, so I have never wanted to not prioritize music. College will be there forever.”
Bell is no longer the only college dropout in the group. His bandmates burst into laughter at the topic and are forthcoming with tales of Bell influencing the other members to put their educations on hold.
“He takes great pride in that,” Gross says, laughing. “I left school after last winter quarter. I was living in Bellingham and driving back and forth every weekend [for recording and rehearsals], and it was driving me nuts.”
Watching the band perform live is a very different experience than listening to recordings of its music. With 10 tracks, Moonshine contains production from four of the five members. Gross, Mantello and Maltsberger each produced three tracks, and Bell produced the final track. Each member had full creative control over his own tracks, and the band created a live rendition of each after it had been completed in the studio.
Moonshine provides many different sounds that blend into a cohesive project by maintaining the light, spacey themes that the band is known for. Gross’ tracks have a hip-hop feel, while Mantello’s tracks have dance club vibes. Maltsberger’s tracks hew closer to rock. But Bell’s lyrical assault packs enough punch to keep hip-hop heads like myself focused for the full journey. Describing the band’s sound, Maltsberger says, “We’re trying to have a grounded message, but with a totally up-in-the-air feel to it.”
Although a lot of music coming out of Seattle has darker, grainy sounds, COSMOS avoids the doom and gloom. The project features upbeat tracks that feel spiritual at times. And even with four individual producers creating their own musical flavors, it still feels connected, mostly by way of Bell’s lyrics, which manage to be, well, cosmic, while maintaining a down-to-earth feel with robust social commentary.
On standout track “To the Moon,” produced by Gross, Bell raps, “I came down from a different planet, understanding, steady going through the struggle, but I promise I can manage. Journey of an artist, never parting from my canvas.” Lyrics such as these complement the extraterrestrial nature of the band, while being connected to the struggles the young MC faces in his daily life.
The live rendition of “To the Moon” takes the track to the next level. The chemistry of the band is outstanding, and the impromptu solos that peppered the KEXP performance were even more compelling than Bell’s sharp lyrics. Leong and Gross seemed to be attempting to one-up each other—ultimately, while Gross showcased impressive skills on the keys, it was Leong who stole the show with a beautiful solo that brought just as much emotion as the soulful voice of MistaDC (who joined COSMOS for the in-studio performance). You’ll have to wait until April 20 at Neumos to see for yourself, but with Moonshine out on March 28, you’ll have plenty of listening time to get ready.