Legend goes that a kid named Mick Jagger wanted to start a band with the young Mike Cooper in the ’60s. When Cooper balked, Jagger instead recruited Brian Jones and started a blues-indebted band called the Rolling Stones instead. Mike Cooper’s idiosyncratic path took him elsewhere. Now in his sixth decade of music-making, Cooper remains a gifted, prolific player. In June, the excellent Paradise of Bachelors label reissued a clutch of his crucial early-’70s albums: 1970′s Trout Steel, his third album, and Places I Know/The Machine Gun Co. with Mike Cooper, his fourth and fifth, which were originally meant for release as a double album. While Cooper’s songs are rooted in country blues and folk music, with these albums, Cooper began expanding the parameters of his sound. Saxophone and stand-up bass wander into the proceedings and push everything into audacious new realms.
He also recently teamed up with the guitar slinger Steve Gunn (whose 2013 album Time Off is a must hear) for a few days of recording in the Portuguese city of Lisbon. The resultant album Cantos de Lisboa — the 11th entry in RVNG’s FRKWYS series of artist collaborations across generations — veers from Charley Patton’s “Pony Blues” to strange meditations for Hawaiian steel guitar and the type of woozy music that Cooper calls “ambient-exotica.” There’s also a new Mike Cooper album called New Globe Notes, Tell Me (recorded as Truth in the Abstract Blues) and a duo record called Trace also out this month.
We called Cooper at his home in Italy, where he talked about the importance of John Fahey and Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks to his music, cutting up Thomas Pynchon novels for song ideas and hearing fado live in Lisbon with Steve Gunn. Fittingly, the poor phone connection at times turned Cooper’s voice into static and white noise, to which Cooper quipped: “There’s nothing wrong with a little noise.”
Are you watching the World Cup?
I have no interest whatsoever in football, but I’m surrounded by thousands of people who do. My partner is half-Italian so I’ve been in Italy 26 years now. I go back to London a few weeks each year and that’s long enough. The weather, the costs of everything, the Englishness of the place. The Italian sensibility and weather suits me much better. But I meet many Americans who would never go back to America. Everybody wants to be somewhere else!
As a fan of what you yourself call your “ambient-exotica” work from the past few years, Rayon Hula and White Shadows in the South Seas, the former of which samples old Arthur Lyman exotica records from the 50s, I wonder what the process is for making these albums.
It’s something I eased into recently, through my interest in playing Hawaiian slide guitar. I started traveling a lot in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. I went to Hawaii twice, Tahiti, Fiji and then I started going to various islands in Indonesia. The sound of the insects in those places are always impressive. I start off with field recordings mostly, which I’ve got a lot of from my travels. That forms the basis of it. White Shadows is a [recording of a] live soundtrack [I wrote to accompany] a silent film from 1928. I do that to quite a few silent films. [Cooper is often enlisted to provide live instrumentation to accompany silent films at local theaters. — Ed.] The first one I did was for the 1931 film Tabu by F.W. Murnau. For these, I use lap steel with electronics. I’ve done it so many times now I can play it with my eyes closed. Recently, I did a soundtrack for Legong: Dance of the Virgins, one of the last silent films and first color film shot in Bali. I’ve got these gamelan samples — well, they’re not gamelan; I found a website that sells wind chimes and has mp3s samples so I downloaded them and used them instead. For this next record, I’m thinking it’ll revolve around these artists and writers who had boats: F.W. Murnau, Jack London, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jacques Brel, they all had ships. It’ll inspire the pieces.
Growing up in England and Australia, were you always into exotic music? When did you start on guitar?
As a kid I was into objects more than music: maps, stamps, stuff like that. We went to Australia when I was 11 and that was a long trip, six weeks to get there. I only started playing guitar at 18 inspired by skiffle groups. Initially, I was a singer in a blues band and had a guitar but didn’t play in public. Leadbelly and Josh White were big influences and then I discovered Blind Boy Fuller and started learning all of his stuff.
The three records Paradise of Bachelors recently reissued: Trout Steel from 1970 and the double album Places I Know/The Machine Gun Co. with Mike Cooper, all move beyond trad styling and blues-rock to take in free jazz and the like. What made your music open up to embrace those sounds?
When the opportunity came along in the late ’60s to make those records, my producer Peter Edan was also working with a lot of young London jazz artists like John Surman and Mike Westbrook, so I had access to those kinds of people. I had the idea to do something else with this music. I had written these songs, but wanted to do “expanded” music, not another acoustic guitar and voice album. I wanted to do something else.
I had heard Astral Weeks and loved the feel of that album. It sounded improvised and didn’t feature these cut and dried arrangements to them. It also featured acoustic bass heavily which I really liked. It really drove that music on the record. When I looked up the names of the musicians, they were all jazzers. I thought, “That’s the thing to do, get jazz guys to play on these songs. What could we — emphasis on we — do with these tunes that I’ve got?” That’s how it went along.
Speaking of the jazz influence, is it true that the album title The Machine Gun Co. comes from Euro free jazz legend Peter Brötzmann’s intense 1968 album Machine Gun?
Yeah! I was in Belgium with Bill Bozman who plays on Trout Steel, and we were playing in folk clubs and we were in Dent and saw a club offering “free jazz.” Brötzmann was doing this Instant Composers Pool night. I bought the album and liked it very much. It felt important, like nothing I had ever heard before. That was a pivotal moment for me. I was aware of guitar player Sonny Sharrock and American free jazz like Pharoah Sanders but it was intense to walk into the European version of it. But I had no intention of imitating either of those two players. It did something to my head though, something very different going on there. I was trying to get to that spirit and that freedom.
These albums of yours from the 21st century use noise, drones, tape collage and the like. What made you abandon those traditional genres like blues, country, etc.?
I had always been interested in collage. Juxtaposition is an interesting thing to me: different ideas and musical pieces, visually and aurally put together.
Were you a fan of John Fahey’s Requia and that song on The Yellow Princess, “The Singing Bridge of Memphis, Tennessee”? Both of those songs featured Fahey’s acoustic guitar against a backdrop of tape collage and manipulated field recordings.
I was very aware of that. I use that as a reference still. I did a radio show last week and played records that inspired my listening and I realized that this one part of that Fahey piece had “California Dreamin’” in the middle of it.
In addition to these three reissues of your records, you have a slew of new albums out now, like the duo album with Chris Abrahams called Trace, the collaborative album with Steve Gunn, FRKWYS Vol. 11: Cantos De Lisboa, and New Globe Notes. Do you find your music to be of a continuum or has your approach changed over the years?
My approach to playing has changed dramatically from those records being reissued. The PoB guys asked me about coming to the States and playing, but I told them, I don’t play that stuff, I can’t play that stuff. It’s a different period and a different person even. My approach to playing guitar changed as did my writing. Only in the last six years did I start writing and singing again. I did free improvised music for over 20 years. I did collage songs and have a project where I’m using Thomas Pynchon novels, Gravity’s Rainbow and V., and making songs out of them via the cut-up method.
How was it recording in Lisbon with Steve Gunn? Did you know his music?
I had never met the guy before! But playing free music for so many years, by the time you get to my age, I can pretty well suss what a person is going to do, listen to them and find a common ground with them. We’re going to play live again this fall and I’ll probably do it differently.
What’s your favorite memory of recording in Lisbon?
Steve and I got taken to a real local fado place, where people were wandering past and would come in the door, stop in to sing a song, then wander back out again. It reminded me of U.K. folk clubs from the ’60s but it remains a folk tradition there in Lisbon. It was very lovely.