Mike Cooper Talks
There are plenty of sounds that grace the airwaves within Ransom Note Towers, some of which one or two of us will take home with us and spend our own time in the company of. One such album, for me anyway, that has recently come through the door and impressed has been 'Cantos De Lisboa' – a collaboration between Mike Cooper and Steve Gunn. This blues-fuelled wonder has brought several smiles to my face so I caught up with one half of the pair behind its inception to dig a little deeper;
For those not in the know, who are you/what are you/where are you?
Mike Cooper – Born in Reading in the UK in 1942 – currently lives in Rome and for the past 45 years has been an international traveller and music explorer, pushing the boundaries of his music. He is also a film and video maker, visual and installation artist who also composes and performs live music for classic and contemporary silent films. He plays lap steel guitar, electronics and sings.
How did you first get into making music? Who was your first great inspiration?
I started playing skiffle music around 1958, acoustic, mainly inspired by American folk and blues. Skiffle was very popular in the mid-late fifties – a kind of DIY music which preceded punk by a generation. New Orleans and Dixieland jazz was very popular at the time – bands like Chris Barber's Jazz Band, Ken Colyer, Kenny Ball, Terry Lightfoot – they all featured a 'skiffle' set mid way through the gig. These skiffle groups eventually gave birth to the British Blues boom – Alexis Korner, Cyril Davis etc by drawing attention to the music of Huddie Leadbetter, Josh White etc. The first live Afro American blue artists I saw were Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee with Terry Lightfoot's New Orleans band in my home town of Reading in the UK in 1959 and then Jimmy Cotton with Chris Barber's band.
I started playing acoustic guitar and singing a mixture of folk and blues and in 1962 I joined The Blues Committee as a singer and harmonica player. We were a quartet of two guitars, drums and myself, no bass, playing a repertoire of Chicago and other electric blues styles – Bo Diddley, Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters etc. That lasted until about 1965. I was also playing solo as well after a while in local folk clubs around Reading. Again a mixture of folk and blues. In 1965 I made a four track 7 inch vinyl record with another guitarist Derek Hall. We shared a residency in a coffee house folk club called The Shades in Reading. The record was self financed and titled Out Of The Shades. A limited edition, very rare record. After that in 1965 I went professional and dedicated myself to playing just Country Blues and in particular the music of Blind Boy Fuller.
You and Steve have both had rather lengthy careers, why does now feel like the right time to collaborate?
I have collaborated with other musicians considerably in my career – if you mean with Steve well to be honest I didn't know Steve or his music at all before this project. It was suggested to us by Matt at the record label. I was familiar with a similar project that he had instigated with the Congos – one of my all time favourite reggae groups – and so I thought why not, lets give it a try and see what we can come up with. I was aware, after looking Steve up, what his general musical "zone" was and I figured we could come up with something satisfying to both of us and musically interesting at the same time and I think we did.
What's the message that you're trying to convey with Cantos De Lisboa? Do you think it's important for music to be more than just an aural device?
Apart from any 'message' in the lyrical content of the songs we made, for me the 'message', if there is one, is in the act of collaboration. I am old enough to be Steve's grandfather let alone his father, so several decades separate us in terms of experience and influences. Collaboration brings us together in a place we might not have arrived at otherwise. It can be a template not only for music but for other activities as well of course.
There are a lot of different influences audible in your sound, how would you best describe your sound?
Its a difficult thing to describe a sound. There is a whole school of writers discussing that very concept at present. As you have noticed there are a lot of audible influences in my playing – I have played a lot of different styles and genres of music in my career and they all come together at times. I play lap steel guitar mostly these days and I am aware of the history of its journey from its roots in Hawaiian music, through to Afro American Blues to Indian and African and even Mediterranean music. I also play a lot of free improvisation and electronic music and so this is 'the sound' of what I do. Combined with Steve's music it becomes another sound equally difficult to describe. Maybe electro-acoustic urban folk? Most of the music I like comes under the category of 'urban folk music'. I don't care for much classical or pop industry music.
Pony Blues is a very intense, layered piece of work – how did you go about constructing the track? Where did the key ideas come from?
Pony Blues came about as I remember from a guitar groove that we both came up with during a session of just improvising or 'jamming' as some like to call it. We recorded just the guitar parts live in the apartment we rented to use as our 'studio'. We would just sit around and play with the microphones open and the recorder running and see what we came up with. There were no real plans or musical goals at that time. We then took the tracks we had into Golden Pony Studios in Lisbon and listened to them and decided what we might do with each basic piece. I have a library of song lyrics that I have created and also a repertoire of blues and other songs I carry about with me. I have a trio in Rome called Truth In The Abstract Blues, myself on lap steel, vocals and electronics, Roberto Bellatalla on acoustic doube bass and Fabrizio Spera on drums. We recently released a record on vinyl on the Ethbo label. Our mission is to play what we call Avant Blues, reclaiming the blues repertoire; taking it away from the rock-blues guys, the Stevie Rays and the Erics, and putting it back into a 'living' musical place where the words 'improvisation' and 'spontaneous' might have some real meaning. We never rehearse and we never have and every concert is different. The music is total free improvisation free jazz. I sing a standard set of generic blues lyrics across the top of whatever we come up with musically, fitting the phrasing into the rhythm and tempo and deconstructing the 12 bar completely into a new form of blues. Pony Blues is an old 1920s Charlie Patton song and the version Steve and I made is one of a few you can find lurking in amongst my various recorded efforts. I found a way to fit the lyric into the groove that Steve was playing on his guitar there.
Given the growing cultural diversity within music, do you feel that it is key to explore other sounds and not limit yourself to constrictive genre titles?
I have played Blues, Hawaiian music, Reggae, Free-Improv; Free Jazz etc and I never ever considered that it could be a problem to involve yourself in various musical styles and genres until I started to play what is called 'free improv' in the UK in the late 70s early 80s and then I encountered some kind of disdain from certain musicians who didn't consider me a 'pure' improvisor because of my musical past and the fact that I would still play 'other music'. Naturally I gravitated towards playing free music with others who shared my broadminded attitude – people like the saxophone player Lol Coxhill for instance, with whom I played in a trio, The Recedents, for more than 25 years, until Lol died in fact. My musical mentor in cross genre playing is of course Sun Ra who could, and did, play anything. As I said earlier, I am a lap steel player and you can, hopefully, hear the worlds lap steel music somewhere in mine, as well as a few other instruments that slip and slide around the world. Anyhow, I grew up in a culturally diverse society both socially and musically. It is not something 'new' to me. In Reading where I grew up we frequented places where the local Trinidadian and Jamaican folks hung out. One of the places that my first band The Blues Committee used to play in Reading in the early sixties was a West Indian social club; black and white together. As I said earlier it is 'urban folk' that I gravitate towards.
Portuguese music plays a large part in the album's craft, how did you first come across these sounds and why did they strike a chord with you?
There was, as far as I recall, no intention to make any musical reference to Portuguese music on the record we made and neither do I think that there is any. We chose to use Portugese titles as an 'homage' to where we were and who we were working with and out of a love for Lisbon and Portugal. I have lived in the Mediterranean for more than 25 years and I am a huge fan of all of its music, especially Rembetika from Greece, Flamenco and Fado from Portugal for instance. Those musics have been described as either 'Greek Blues' or 'Portguese Blues' but they have nothing musically to do with Blues. However, they do share a certain something, called different things in different places, such as 'Duende' in Spain; 'Suadade' in Portugal; 'Soul' in Blues etc. Tapping into it and expressing it, whatever it is, is the thing that attracts me. The key word for me in music, whatever music I am playing, is 'passion'. I like music with passion; urban folk music is music with passion, the voice of the people.
Do you think that there is still a large scope of possibilities for ingenuity within blues as a genre?
I think perhaps I answered that above. Of course I do, but you have to think outside the marketing box that blues is currently sold in. Ingenuity within the blues genre won't get you gigs at many blues festivals though I can assure you…We (Truth In The Abstract Blues) know.
Who are you currently listening to? Are there any names that we should be looking into?
I am currently working my way through a 28 CD box set of Sun Ra live at The Detroit Jazz Centre – 1981/2 – a week long residency the Arkestra did over Xmas and New Year which was recorded from the desk. Wonderful stuff.
Names we should all be looking into? Well I dont get excited by much new stuff to be honest. I think it has become to easy for very mediocre musicians to find a public platform on the internet and it tends to obscure anything which might be new and exciting and also it has clouded peoples judgement and critical faculties. Music in public places for instance is just appalling. Machine made music for shopping or wasting time. Ghastly.
What's your favourite track on the album and why?
I like them all for different reasons. I think we covered a lot of ground from blues; songs; instrumental both melodic and abstract; some ambient; electronic. A good mix. One of my personal favourites is 'Lampedusa'. Lampedusa is an Italian island, very close to the coast of North Africa. It is one of the places where the refugees arrive attempting entry into Europe. The week we arrived in Lisbon there was a terrible tragedy when a boatload of several hundred sank near the coast and many lives were lost. My lyric for 'Lampedusa' was created well before the event as it happens but it seemed the right time and place to record them. The song is part of a large body of lyrics I have called 'Spirit Songs'. They have all been created by 'cutting up' two novels (Gravity's Rainbow and V) by Thomas Pynchon; sort of Willam Burroughs style. There are more of them on my Radio Paradise CD on the Johnny Kafta label. They form the basis of my live solo performances these days. Non linear, expanded song form sung across improvised backing. Never the same twice.
Anything you'd like to add?
"Be not afeared, the isle is full of noises; Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not. Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments will hum about mine ears; and sometimes voices…" – The Tempest / William Shakespeare.
'Cantos De Lisboa' is out now via RVNG Intl., grab yourself a copy here.