Ethan Robbins’ first choice of instrument was cello. But he was 4, and there simply wasn’t one small enough.
So, by default, he picked up a violin. And as the years ticked on, his interests turned toward guitar — and only then did he discover the truly fun side of music, he said.
“It was my dad’s old guitar that only had five strings, and I didn’t at the time know that it was missing a string,” he said. “I knew what the notes were and I could figure out how certain chords could be played, and then when I figured out it needed a sixth string, I had to start all from scratch.”
He did and, a decade later, joined forces with upright bassist Kirsten Lamb and percussionist Ariel Bernstein to form a groovy Americana band, melding bluegrass, rock and folk to create a sound all their own. They call themselves Cold Chocolate, and recently caught up with The Sag Harbor Express before their back-to-back sets on Saturday night at Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island.
The Sag Harbor Express: What is the origin of the band’s name?
Ethan Robbins: The name, besides being a very delicious treat, comes from — for me — a childhood memory. When my family would visit my grandfather in Pennsylvania growing up, he would always have frozen Milky Ways in the freezer waiting for us. It was a thing we would talk about the whole way, the whole car drive over there, and as soon as we got there, we’d run in right for the freezer, and pop open that bag.
That idea of cold chocolate has stuck with me. I still really enjoy it. And I thought it would be a fun name for a band.
Does it have any particular meaning for Kirsten and Ariel?
Robbins: It’s just for me. I think at this point, it’s just a name. I don’t attribute too much meaning to it anymore. Sometimes I don’t like to explain the name, because I want it to stand by itself so people can attribute anything they want to it. The band came together and I had the name already, and it went from there.
What is the dynamic like between the group?
Robbins: That’s a really good question. Being on tour is a tough business. A lot of people assume that as a touring musician, your main job is to play music, when in fact your main job is to drive. So we spend a lot — a lot — of time together in the car.
When you’re on tour with people, everyone’s personalities are basically amplified. Something you think about that person, you reallythink about it when you’re on tour with them. We always try and keep it very light, telling jokes in the car, and we listen to music. We’re still surprising each other with our own personal preferences. We’ll take turns in the car putting on our own iPod mixes and stuff like that.
I try to bring the humor. Ariel is kind of like the cast master — making sure we’re on top of our stuff. Kirsten keeps us all grounded musically. She’ll definitely spearhead the conversation about how the show goes the night before, how can we improve.
What is your songwriting process like together?
Robbins: I’m the principal songwriter, so I’ll bring a song to the group and the level of finished that it is varies depending on the song. But no matter how finished I think it is, we always end up totally stripping it down and rebuilding it and rearranging it to the point where it doesn’t sound like a totally different song, but it sounds like a way better song. And I rely on the other two’s ears to hear things I can’t ear.
When I’m writing a song and I finish it, I’m set in the way that it is. But what I like about being in a band is getting other people’s opinions. As we’ve written our last album and look forward toward our next album — which we are in the process of writing and arranging, and we hope to get into the studio at the end of this year — we’re doing a lot more collaborative work.
I should tell you: One of the things that has affected my songwriting is that I had a baby 10 months ago. I haven’t had as much time to write, which has actually worked out in my favor in some ways, because now I’ll really just write the bones of a song and it’ll be very rough, and I’ll be able to bring it in at a much earlier stage than I would have in the past. In that way, the directions it can go are a lot more open, and I think we’ve stumbled upon some cool stuff we can do that would have never occurred to us.
What inspired the last album, versus what is inspiring your next album?
Robbins: I think if you asked Ariel, he would say the last album was about my courtship of my now-wife — the back-story of our love — and I think he’s right, to some extent. I think this next album, as you can probably imagine, is mostly about my daughter — so far, at least.
That said, I always like to leave interpretations and lyrics in general on the vaguer side, because I don’t want to tell people what a song is about. I like to leave it open and let them fill in their own details. I think that’s what makes it a really good song. In the past, people have come up and tried to tell me what they think the song is about, and it’s not what I think it’s about, but I think that’s the best part.
I say, for me, this album is about my daughter, but I think it could easily be just about love and life, and I hope it can have its own personal meaning to each and every individual.
Cold Chocolate will perform two concerts on Saturday, April 14, at 6 and 8 p.m. at Sylvester Manor Educational Farm, located at 80 North Ferry Road on Shelter Island. Tickets are 25. For more information, please call (631) 749-0626 or visit sylvestermanor.org.