Lumpy Gravy

In nearly 30 years of spending my time on the most useless endeavour known to mankind - writing about music - I've been lucky enough to meet and interview many of my heroes. My general interview archives are elsewhere. 'Lumpy Gravy' is reserved for the lumpiest, and most exquisite, artists.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Mike Cooper

Pacific Voyager

While the mainstream music industry crashes, burns, and clunkily consolidates in a vain effort to hold onto its shares in a seemingly dwindling market, there’s a worldwide resurgence of a genuine musical culture once considered marginal. A groundswell of young artists like Jodie Holland and the American ‘free folk’ movement are finding their inspiration in American mountain music, raw blues and English folk styles from the 60s and 70s. Occasionally, one of their obscure progenitors is still alive and kicking. This is your life, Mike Cooper. This 63-year-old Rome-based, British-born guitarist, composer and label-owner spends half the year as a performing nomad, culminating in his annual trek through the Pacific Islands, which involves a habitual New Zealand stop off for a series of low-key gigs. Cooper chanced across NZ in 1994. "I played an acoustic slide guitar for a long time, and discovered one day that the way I play it, the lap style, was a Hawaiian invention. So in 1994 I traveled around the Pacific Islands, staying in each place for a few weeks." One of those destinations was NZ, which he still considers "a Pacific Island with all you white people living on it. Initially there wasn’t a lot here for me, just this strange folk club scene, but over the years it’s been fascinating watching the underground and improvising scenes growing exponentially." One of Cooper’s mind-altering experiences here was discovering the haunting re-imagined Maori music of Hirini Melbourne (RIP) and Richard Nunns, the latter of whom "eventually came to Rome with Moana & The Moahunters on a tour. While he was there I organised a gig, and we did a live CD together." This interest in the Pacific culminated in three critically acclaimed releases on which Cooper came up with a bewitching blend of ambient guitar and electronics, mixed in with environmental sounds recorded throughout the islands. But this exceptionally diverse musician, who considers that "sequels are obituaries", has already moved on. His current performances anywhere and everywhere (in New Zealand at the likes of the Devonport Folk Club, K’Road’s Wine Cellar, the Moving Image Centre and at Wellington’s Happy venue) are beginning to reflect the entirely of his interests, mixing drifting ambient sections with haunting songs. From a starring role in the British blues boom of the mid-60s (his first record release was 1963) to a singer-songwriter career in the 70s and on to free jazz and beyond, Mike Cooper has never seen the point in inhibiting his musical evolution. "The worst possible thing that could happen to you really would be to become popular, because then you’re stuck with it," says Cooper. "The underground is hope." See you next year.

* For more information about Mike Cooper, and his record label, visit

From the April 2005 issue of Metro, an Auckland, New Zealand city magazine. Cooper is one of those genuinely fascinating characters who very few seem to have heard of. I love the fact that on his current tour, he does a beautifully abstract/ambient set that's punctuated by several songs, which arrive like ghost ships out of the fog: one of these is Fred Neil's Dolphins. It turns out that Cooper is a big fan of Neil (and quite a few of his contemporaries) and the guy who did the most well-known cover version of Dolphins, Tim Buckley.