Following the review of “Tropical Gothic” (out on Discrepant and featuring a great collage cover artwork by Evan Crankshaw), his new awesome record, we had an interesting conversation with the British influential guitarist, polyhedral artist and authentic musical globetrotter Mike Cooper, who – unlike many musicians who get banal and predictable after two or three releases – keeps on surprising listeners with witty and brilliant stylistic freaks. Long life to Mike!
Chain D.L.K.: Hi, Mike! I’m very happy you accepted to reply to some questions… considering your impressive flair and the supposedly unquenchable fire of your creativity, I guess you’re OK, but I have to ask…how are you? 🙂
Mike Cooper: I’m very well, thank you…
Chain D.L.K.: You’re English, but you’ve lived in Rome for ages…how do you explain such a decision? After so many years, even if your music (full of many kinds of exotic influences) lets your listeners know you’re more a citizen of the whole world, do you feel more Italian or English?
Mike Cooper: I can’t say that I feel either English or Italian, really. I have lived in many places since I was 10 years old, and I travel a lot. I feel comfortable, more or less, in most places. Or maybe I should say I usually find a way to feel comfortable in most places. I’m not addicted to either English or Italian food, for example. I like warm places and I like beaches, and so England doesn’t come into that equation at that point.
Chain D.L.K.: I keep on following your amazing sonic path, as it’s never predictable and banal…and that’s a truth that no fan of your musical career and sound can refute yet…it might take a lot of space to trace it back, but I’d like to ask you how this long-lasting exploration into sound started.
Mike Cooper: I grew up listening to the radio, where there was a lot of different music, obviously. It never occurred to me that you were expected to dedicate yourself to one genre of music, because I heard it all as one thing. In terms of experimenting within music, I came at it through listening to jazz and trying to play it. I know nothing about western classical music or harmony (I don’t read or write music), and I realized after a while that it takes a lifetime and dedication to become a ‘jazz musician’ – whatever that is – and I was, and still am, drawn towards folk music of all kinds, especially when I realized that improvisation is the basis of both those musics and improvisation was what I wanted to investigate. There was the political element involved as well; folk music is the music of ‘the folk,’ not the ruling classes.
I started by playing an imitation of Afro-American acoustic blues. It spoke to me. I followed its sonic path through jazz and onto the more experimental free jazz – it was, and still is, all one music to my ears. At a certain point, I wanted to know what the European equivalent of the sonic experiments of free jazz was, and I discovered ‘contemporary classical’ music and then European ‘free improvisation’. Free improvisation seemed to go further down the same sonic path that contemporary music headed but with less restriction imposed by the score or the director. It seemed more democratic to me and, eventually, more interesting, in fact. I have sat beside a few contemporary music composers and watched them become disappointed as performers try and interpret their pieces. I involved myself with the free improvisation scene in Europe for 25 years, mostly playing in a trio called The Recedents with saxophonist Lol Coxhill and drummer Roger Turner.
Chain D.L.K.: Related to the word ‘exotica’ by which most of your releases are labeled, would you consider yourself as a sort of Les Baxter of experimental music?
Mike Cooper: I am quite happy to be called the Les Baxter of experimental music, but it is only quite recently that people have started to listen to the ‘ambient/electronic/exotica’ elements of my music. It’s not true to say that most of my records are labeled exotica. I have made over 50 solo records and about 25 with other people. I began to make ‘exotica’ in 1999 when I started my Hipshot CDr label; the first release was Kiribati, and then Globe Notes in 2001, which was the fourth record on Hipshot, but no one took much notice of my exotica until I made Rayon Hula in 2004. David Toop gave it a half-page review in Wire magazine, which drew attention to it, and it was re-released as a double ten-inch vinyl record by Cabin Records in the same year. Kiribati was re-released on vinyl by Discrepant and Globe Notes on NO=FI records in Italy. Lawrence English commissioned three more exotica releases for Room40 records in Australia, starting with White Shadows In The South Seas as a CD in2013, followed by Fratello Mare in 2015 and Raft in 2017. So, there are only six records of mine which I would call Ambient/Electronic/Exotica. There are several recent releases of other kinds of music. Blue Guitar on vinyl from Idea Records, for instance, is solo guitar with vocals. Part of my ’Spirit Songs’ project, using cut-up lyrics from Thomas Pynchon novels to make songs, and Reluctant Swimmer/Virtual Surfer, also on Discrepant, is a live performance recorded in Rome some years ago which seems to cover a lot of different musical territory, viewed in retrospect. It’s a favorite record of mine, again initially released as a CDr on Hipshot and re-released by Discrepant.
Chain D.L.K.: According to The Wire, you were “forging connections between folk and experimental musics long before America got New or Weird…” …Do you agree or disagree with such feedback?
Mike Cooper: Well, that’s true. My 1970s records for the Dawn label (Trout Steel and Places I Know) were all about connecting the dots between folk and experimental musics.
I wanted to use jazz musicians on my sessions so that I didn’t go down the path of ‘experimental rock’. The Machine Gun Company record on the same label was trying to bring some elements of free improvised music into a rock music song format without it dropping into extended guitar solos or long instrumental passages as well. Machine Gun Company was a band, not session musicians, and so I had a working relationship with them where we rehearsed and played live. Recently, I have been thinking about a new genre – Brit-Folk-Futurism – which I might pursue soon. Some people have touched on it before, but they always get beaten back by the ‘folk mafia’ that exists, and they always seem to hold back and not explore the sonic possibilities for fear of alienating the audience for folk music, if one exists still? Martyn Bates and Max Eastley explored this area some years ago.
Chain D.L.K.: Are there any missing connections to be forged?
Mike Cooper: The live performance element these days, which is always different. I don’t play the exotica records live because that would be too easy – just to become a live d.j. In fact, other people do that with my records, I am happy to say. My live performances include elements of the exotica. From time to time in performance, I use my field recordings as another instrument in the overall pallet of sound-making devices that I use. I also sing for practically all my concerts. I have been singing my ’Spirit Songs’ for a long time now.
I started my musical life as a singer, not a guitarist, and it is my first instrument. Even the blues period was a vocal one. Blues is first and foremost a vocal genre. When I was playing free improvised music, for instance in The Recedents trio with Lol Coxhill and Roger Turner, I never sang. I was too aware of performers like Phil Minton and Maggie Nichols and their contribution to the genre. It was so huge and amazing that I felt I had nothing to contribute, and so I didn’t go anywhere near it. The Recedents lasted for 23 years and stopped with the death Lol Coxhill. There is a five-CD box set of live recordings which sums up our musical journey through those 23 years. When that period finished, I wanted to start singing, but I wanted to have a repertoire of lyrics that could be sung over a backing that would be different and freely improvised in every performance. That is what I do, mostly, live these days. There are other events when I do something completely different, of course. I think I have reached the point where an audience comes expecting me to do something completely unexpected, which is great.
Chain D.L.K.: ‘Tropical Gothic’ is a sort of self-explanatory title of the impressive style you explored in your last (awesome) output… What’s your own definition of the two adjectives before and after their union in this title and in the style you unrolled? Just a meeting of something Northern and something Southern?
Mike Cooper: Tropical Gothic is a musical exploration of the darker side of paradise. I am also making some video to go with the music. The history of the physical colonization by Europeans with European ideas of the rest of the world is still an ongoing thing. It hasn’t stopped. The ‘north’ versus the ‘south’ both in action and thought. Europe is experiencing some results of this at the moment with the arrival of people from far away places wanting a share in this ’treasure island’ called Europe, which has been mostly funded by the stolen wealth and labor and even ideas and inventions from these places.
I realized when I came to do a live performance in London at Cafe Oto of Tropical Gothic recently with Clive Bell and Sylvia Hallet, that – as an idea – Tropical Gothic is a ‘work in progress’ for me. Much more has been discovered since beginning and will no doubt continue into the future.
Chain D.L.K.: I enjoyed the almost ‘ethnographic’ quote of something ‘Tropical Gothic’ you did on the B side, where you quote the Gamelan driven dance Legong. Can you tell us something about this suite? Anything you want to teach about this traditional dance?
Mike Cooper: My Tropical Gothic record revolves around a couple of films and directors, but the live performance also includes references to books and writers that I like, and they all involve tragedy. History is full of tragedy and tragic events, of course, and I chose to focus on the ‘bad ending’ as an antidote to the often false idea that ‘everything is ok’. It’s not and never has been unless you were the power in control, and even then, it’s still not ok because it’s a lie they are telling themselves.
Onibaba is a film by the Japanese director Kaneto Shindo. He was a very committed socialist. His film Onibaba was shot in a field of very tall Susuki grass (Bull Rushes), and these tall swaying reeds Kaneto said symbolized the world in which common people try (or should try) to live hiding away from the eyes of rulers or authority. Onibaba is a film about class struggle told through a Buddhist story that Kaneto Shindo heard from his mother. The story is called The Mask of Flesh.
Legong and Gods Of Bali are both shot in Indonesia. Gods of Bali is a documentary film about everyday life and ritual in Balinese society, while Legong is a fictional story about male and social manipulation in the same society. It was the last color silent film ever made.
My ‘gamelan’ is in fact not gamelan at all. I found a website which sold metal wind chimes and there were short samples of several of them. They were mostly pentatonic scales in different keys, and I managed to download them from the site and make loops which I superimposed on top of each other and treated them digitally to make the Legong ‘gamelan’ composition. Onibaba is mostly played by using a self-made instrument I call a La’ap. It is a short piece of wood about 40cms long with five strings and a pick up. I use various delay and pitch-shifting devices to sample the La’ap and build up these very slow unfolding soundscapes.
Chain D.L.K.: Let’s switch to the A side… I can’t hide that you made me laugh with “Running Naked”…. a parenthesis of joy and levity after you explored very different moods…
Mike Cooper: Maybe you don’t know, but I perform live music/screenings with both of these films? That piece was made to illustrate a scene in the film where two of the actors are running naked through the reeds after having sex. It’s played on one of my electric lap steel guitars over a sampled drum piece from an Indonesian Sunda record.
Chain D.L.K.: The sequence of the tracks Samurai and Shindo’s Blues doesn’t seem accidental, as I guess you referred to Korean Shamanism in the title of the latter for that viscerally muffled blues… Or, is it a reference to Katani Shindo, the maker of the movie Onibaba, you quoted in the title of the last track?
Mike Cooper: Yes, well, Onibaba was made by Kaneto Shindo, as I explained above. Nothing to do with Korean Shamanism at all.
Chain D.L.K.: Why did you focus on references to that geographical area for Tropical Gothic?
Mike Cooper: As I explained before ,only this LP focuses on those two particular films and two places – Japan and Bali and the project performed live has a much wider field of reference across all of South East Asia, including Thailand, Hong Kong, Singapore, Tahiti, Pitcairn Island, Australia as well as Japan, Indonesia and other Pacific Islands. The tropical parts of the world. The darker side of paradise was the point.
Chain D.L.K.: What’s the connection between Tropical Gothic and your recent outputs (if there are any)?
Mike Cooper: As well as being part of my Ambient /Electronic/Exotica series of works, this LP connects to other past work in my video output, as well as some more recent video which I use in the live performance of Tropical Gothic. Some links to those are below.
Chain D.L.K.: Are you going to perform live this year?
Mike Cooper: I hope so.
Chain D.L.K.: Any other work in progress?
Mike Cooper: Always.
Some relevant links
Discography – http://www.cooparia.com/
Silent Films – http://www.cooparia.com/
White Shadows – http://www.cooparia.com/
Mike Cooper – Ko Lanta – https://youtu.be/4EXtncJ_MVQ
Mike Cooper – Walking In Ubin – https://youtu.be/5loRWYiLzs4
Mike Cooper – Walking In Lamma – https://youtu.be/AwPXLs0PIZE