Cosmic Guilt | photo by Bob Sweeney | courtesy of the artist
James Everhart on confronting fears and crafting a vision with the psychedelic Americana orchestra Cosmic Guilt
Philly singer-guitarist and graphic designer James Everhart has been quietly finessing the sound and message of Cosmic Guilt for the better part of a decade. Following their recent big-band debut at Sunflower Philly along with Hey Slow and Ali Awan, Everhart and his crew are approaching an understanding of the true definition of “cosmic guilt” and how we all collectively suffer through and support each other within it.
The country-leaning, introspective, orchestral tracks are much more finely-tuned than one might think when looking at Everhart’s background — he plays in the unhinged garage-punk band Scantron, and is an alum of raucous retro rock crew Low Cut Connie. But Cosmic Guilt is meticulous, and everything from their matching fringed jackets to yellow-tinted specs is calculated thanks to Everhart’s love of art direction. If you ask him about Cosmic Guilt, which the band implores you to do, you’ll get a much more complex story than you’d anticipate.
The Key: Take me through Cosmic Guilt’s background? I know some of these songs were written while you were in college, others are newer, and quarantine sort of threw a wrench in your plans to put this together.
James Everhart: I was always playing in bigger, louder rock bands, but I grew up listening to British folk music like Fairport Convention and Pentangle, Nick Drake. I started listening to Wilco and Uncle Tupelo at a really early age. My dad always played a pretty steady digest of WXPN in our house. On Sunday nights we’d all listen to all acoustic music, like Mountain Stage stuff, and all kinds of folk music. And I’ve always had a penchant toward wanting to record music like that.
At that time, though, I wasn’t really ready to write songs with that more mature kind of vibe. So then later on, when I left Low Cut Connie and after Scantron, I definitely wanted to try something new. I had all those early songs written, but they were just kind of there.George Murphy [also of Cosmic Guilt, and Low Cut Connie] and I got asked to open for a band called The Spring Standards on Boxing Day at the Arden Guild Hall in Delaware.Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie used to play there and we were opening for a folky band, so we’d just planned on playing some country covers, but then I had all these early Cosmic Guilt songs so we played those. We asked Hannah Taylor to sing and we performed as this nameless project.
So we started writing more and I hosted this thing once a month that we now call the “Cosmic Brunch” at my house. We all bring our favorite country things, a plethora of good marijuana and records and we just jam. That started back in 2019, and since then we finally got a solid lineup with Josh Friedman on drums and Tyler Yoderon bass and we booked Baby’s First Rodeo shortly after. I’d said it was like our 30th show, and that we’d been a band forever. but it was really our first gig. I remember it was really great, and then I bought a house shortly after, and then COVID hit. I lost my job at City Winery, collected unemployment for about a month, and then went really hard into freelance design, and I found myself with a lot of time to work on this album finally. I still haven’t stopped.
TK: Everything that I’ve seen from Cosmic Guilt, just from a marketing and promotional perspective, is so well put together and you’re obviously using your design knowledge to create a really cohesive and intelligent aesthetic for when you’re on and off the stage.
JE: I think that with the power of having a band full of fashion designers and digital artists, it’s pretty easy for us to market ourselves. I really enjoy being a creative director and this is me taking real-world experience and finally getting to apply it to a band, and that’s something I always wanted to be able to do. Scantron was so grungy and we wore flannels or whatever, but Cosmic Guilt feels very curated every step of the way.
TK: Absolutely, and I can tell there’s a lot of you in this project from the sound to the image. How do you feel about stepping into the bandleader role?
JE: I love it. I love it — and I hate it. I love just being a guitar player when I’m working with other bands, you know. Like, little responsibility, you just jam on your own in the background, and since I’ve been playing for like twenty-five years, I know that I can play. When it comes to singing and wrangling ten or more people and teaching them these songs and coordinating their schedules and making sure they have black shoes and white shirts, and yellow-tinted glasses, not red-tinted glasses, and so on and so on, that’s where it becomes a lot. I know the band feels like, very “insider,” but it’s so fun. There’s no end-all to it, it’s kind of just like a hobby. Why does an old man like building birdhouses, you know? Why do I like making bands and stuff look good?
TK: It’s a valuable skill to have and it makes the entire performance more of an experience for you and the audience if you’re coming to the stage with this amount of curation.
JE: I grew up in the time where the White Stripes were doing their thing, and they had such a tight art direction, and that was always really striking to me. The power of a nicely chosen color palette is so fascinating. Cosmic Guilt has the yellow and black thing going on, and the next trick is that I want everyone to come to the shows dressed like that.
TK: Another thing that’s so interesting about this project is the huge collaborative scale of it. Why do you like having 20 people on stage with you? [NOTE: An exaggeration, as Cosmic Guilt in full force is ten members strong. But still, that’s a lot of people! -ed.]
JE: I will say it went from just like seven people to what it is now because a lot of my friends kept asking me to be in the band, and of course I never want to say no, so we have a pretty good system in place now. George and I will play acoustic guitars that are miked, Jill is on glockenspiel, and then the way that things are mixed forces us to be a little quiet and intentional. The ten-piece functions more like an orchestra or something where everyone waits to step in on their exact part. I like watching live Roy Orbison performances — he’s one of my biggest influences for this band, just in the way his songs are so beautifully orchestrated. His band is huge, so it’s cool that everyone has their own parts and can enjoy themselves more. Maybe your whole part in one song is to sing for like two measures, or Jill will come in on the glockenspiel for a second. There are so many rhythms going on that I can just sing and make sure everyone else is getting to their parts.
TK: That’s actually completely the opposite of how I thought this would go. I was wondering if it was very loose and jam band-ish, with everyone coming in and going out as they please. Even more props to you to know how coordinated everything is.
JE: Yeah, we’ll drill this stuff home and everyone really appreciates this approach, and they listen really well. I’m lucky that this is a group of some of the best musicians I’ve ever worked with. Tyler Yoder and I have been playing together for forever and he’s still my favorite bass player to work with. Josh Friedman speaks for himself. He’s such a nuanced drummer. Todd on guitar is super raw, super rough around the edges, but he comes from an old school R&B background.
TK: So then when you’re working on a song, how do you approach it from the beginning? Do you bring the idea to everyone along with what you think their parts should sound like, or are you just working on the guitar and then the rest is collaborative?
JE: I write everything — I usually demo everything from this closet-office in my house. I’ll demo out most of the parts on various instruments and then I’ll take it to the band and be like, “okay, here’s a chord chart, do you.” When Josh has an idea for drums, I’m going to take his word for it. I know my own strengths and weaknesses, so if someone’s like, “I have an idea for this instead of this,” I’m never going to be like “no way.” It’s a very “by all means” process.
For the most part, I come up with an idea and then we piecemeal the parts together to see if they fit perfectly or not. I try to keep it light though — I had the band over every night this week and we were just hanging. I have this piano downstairs and we were sitting around it jamming to old Toto songs. I’ll always say this group is a bunch of theater nerds. We’re absolute performance nerds. A Cosmic Guilt party or a Cosmic Brunch is the dorkiest shit you’ve ever seen. We had our curtain call after the Sunflower show, and we ordered pizza and I don’t even think anyone drank, we just sang around the piano.
TK: That’s literally a high school cast party.
JE: Everyone’s always big smiles when we do that. That makes me happy.
TK: When you have a big project like this, it should be as fun as possible. Like you said, it’s relatively low-stakes because you all have other jobs and this is your “birdhouse” hobby. Why not fully lean in?
JE: Yeah, I have a career that I love now. I was deep in the freelance world for the past year and half, which was great. It was going really well, but then I started to feel a little burnt out and was wishing that I had a full-time design gig again and then I was lucky enough to find one.
TK: You’re quite the staple in the Philly scene as far as design work goes. You’re always my first thought and you’ve been doing so much great work with Sunflower and Human Robot and like every single band that needs a cover done.
JE: I’ve only really been doing this for maybe three or four years. I started working in design at the end of Low Cut Connie. I’m obsessed with the overall look of something, and I didn’t know what specifically I wanted to do because I went to school and got degrees in biology and psychology. So all of my background is in science, which is weird but I’m really happy that I have that. Mind trickery and the way shit’s laid out is interesting to me. But I dove into design when I was done touring and I loved it. I didn’t think I would find anything that I love more than music, but I love this so much.
TK: So now that you’ve found a way to tie all of these different aspects of your career together, what do you think you’re trying to say with this album? Why couldn’t you say it with Scantron? What’s special to you about Cosmic Guilt?
JE: With Scantron, I think I was laughing at some of the greater issues I was dealing with. Like depression, anxiety. I was trying to hide it. With Cosmic Guilt, I feel like I’m confronting it. The name came to me when George and I were walking around the Italian Market like two years ago. We were talking about the project and we’d just played one show, and we were walking around sharing a joint and kind of feeling bad about it. And I didn’t know why, it was a Saturday, we’re grown-ass men walking around having coffee, we deserve this.
“Cosmic guilt” speaks to a lot of people in my generation and your generation that feel so bad that we aren’t doing anything, or we aren’t doing enough. But in reality, we’re doing so much more than anyone else has ever done, ever ever ever ever. We run ourselves into the fucking ground for nothing. And so with this cosmic guilt, we feel this overbearing sense of pressure. “I don’t have all this shit my parents had at this age and blah blah blah.” And we shouldn’t. It’s a completely different time and I get that overwhelming feeling of seeing young people get really upset at themselves for not being able to achieve something when they’re the brightest and smartest and most intuitive generation.
And still, they’re just clawing at the sides of the well trying to climb up to daylight, it’s insane. So that’s where the name comes from, and that’s the overall theme of the music. I think it’s embracing that anxiousness and precariousness that people our age have found themselves in. It also binds us together, and that’s the whole point of Cosmic Guilt.
TK: I love that.
JE: I just came up with it. No, I’m just kidding. But that’s what it’s kind of all about.
TK: I have conversations like that all of the time. I’m twenty-four and I suffer from major time anxiety. At my age, my parents were already getting married and they both had careers and then they were getting ready to have kids and it just goes on and on and they weren’t even thirty. That’s the story with everyone’s parents. And I’m over here like, what’s my career? Should I buy a house? When should I buy a house? What? Should I move to the suburbs? Ew, no, why would I move to the suburbs? Why do I feel this pressure even though I know things aren’t done that way anymore?
JE: I think I’ve lived eight hundred lifetimes since I was twenty-four.
TK: That fear of settling — sometimes I still feel like a kid and sometimes I feel like the oldest person I’ve ever met. I can’t imagine making any hard and fast decisions right now.
JE: I still definitely feel that sense of Peter Pan syndrome. I’m in my band of merry men and women and we still have our high school curtain call and pizza party, but now we can afford the nice pizza.
TK: How did it feel being back up on that stage for the first time with everyone again at Sunflower?
JE: It went off so great. I’m planning a few bigger shows in the fall with the same lineup of those three bands — Cosmic Guilt, Hey Slow, and Ali Awan. It just went really well together with the weird blend of country and folk and rock. And there’s a lot of crossover between members in each act, and we all hang out anyway. If you go to the International, you’re going to see all three of those bands there in some form.
TK: That’s one of my favorite things about Philly music, that inherent support system. Everyone knows each other and everyone wants to perform together and you’re lucky if you can find a crew that works out so seamlessly the way you have. You’re also just the busiest person I’ve ever met, so the fact that you have the time for all of these things is still crazy.
JE: I have to be. The day where I don’t do anything is not a good day for me.
TK: The guilt of inaction is a very real feeling, and this is a very full-circle conversation. Another aspect of that “cosmic guilt.”
TK: How did you manage to fit in your work with Human Robot Brewery in between clients and rehearsals?
JE: They opened last winter and my wife, Molly, brought home a couple cans during quarantine, and their Czech 10 Pilsner is the one that we tried. My grandmother is from Slovakia and my dad’s side of the family, Everhart, is German and Scottish, so we like that kind of European Pilsner that literally just tastes like beer. We understand the depth and time it takes to make as opposed to an IPA, which is the easiest thing to do. But I was really impressed with the Czech 10, but their cans were just hideous. So I DM’d the brewery and was like, “Hey, I’m a graphic designer, I’ve done thousands of beer cans before” — which is a lie — “Can I design some logos for you?”
And so it worked out and I designed four labels for them to start, and the Czech 10 was my first one. As of yesterday, actually, it’s the number one Pilsner on the planet. It’s legit. But from there, I think I’ve done almost thirty labels for them, and working with Human Robot has landed me a ton of other freelance clients. So I’m glad I called that guy, because like in any industry, nobody’s going to call you. If you want something, you have to go get it. When I stopped touring, I wanted to be a graphic designer right away, and it took me years to actually get an offer. But I’m very happy for all the struggle and I’m sure there will be more, but it’s just something you have to do.
TK: It’s refreshing to hear that everyone feels like this, whether it’s in the music industry or another creative field. But to come full circle a second time, that struggle for recognition and understanding is definitely a product of “cosmic guilt,” and I think you capture that in everything about this project really nicely.
JE: This band is very “here we are, and now we’re gone, and here we are again” until we’re really gone.
Cosmic Guilt’s two lead singles, “Cautious Lovers” and “Sun In Your Eyes,” are out now, with an album on the way later this year. While their next full-band show has yet to be announced, Cosmic Guilt just taped the season finale of Cherry-Veen Zine and WXPN’s Unprecedented Sessions, which will air in August.