Mike Cooper “Making music is a way of getting through life; a pleasurable way.”

TMT-saint Jonathan Dean introduced me to Mike Cooper through a video link a few years ago, and since then, I’ve grown a large interest in the steel-guitar slides, typhooned loops, and blooming atmospheres that Cooper tour-guides in his Ambient Electronic Exotica series. As all the works in this series are rooted to a visual element, followed by more literal or cultural influences, his most recent album on Room 40, Fratello Mare (intended as a new soundtrack for the movie, Fratello Mare), traverses grounds sonically similar to the rest within the series.

However, as Mike Cooper released Cantos de Lisboa on RVNG Int.’s FRKWYS series — paired with the delightful Steve Gunn — I began to notice the other, more popularly outstanding (according to the depth of his discography) framing of music.

Below, Cooper takes us on a journey through the process of his ray-of-sunshine antics, including finding a kangaroo-toe totem, a lovely hallucinogenic drink, 20,000 flamingos, and the name of every Hawaiian shirt he owns… maybe. Onward into the weather.


Do you live in Italy?

I do. I have lived in Rome for 28 years.

Are there special places you like to play there throughout the year?

I play now and again at Dal Verme, a club that is connected to NO=FI Records, and at Fanfulla (another club). Also at Blutopia, a record shop that hosts small, but significant concerts, occasionally, usually with touring musicians who have a night free.

Was your recent trip to Spain music-related?

I am there writing this. I had one concert at a small two-day festival called Pop Al Carrer, south of Valencia, and a radio interview in Barcelona, but it was mainly a holiday trip. I had to fly to Poland in the middle of it for one day for a concert together with Michael Chapman. I only agreed to do it because I hadn’t seen him for about 25 years, maybe more.

What does your breath smell like right now?

At the moment: …of rum.

Do you believe or have you experienced seeing your music affect life outside of humans (plants, animals, fish, etc.)?

No, but the other way around, maybe, yes. I did a monthlong residency on Pulau Ubin, a small island near Singapore a couple of years ago, and I found that to be a very profound experience. I learned that trees and plants in the jungle can support each other through root and fungal networks. They also have the ability to attract animals or insects that will kill parasites that attack them. The daytime life in the jungle is very different to the nighttime. Humans have very bad night vision as you know. These thoughts and musings affected me and my music. A close and prolonged relationship with nature is an interesting thing to experience now and again. You learn to respect it as a living, breathing, self organizing, organism. Or at least we should.

How much of your noises are found-sound or synthetic?

I don’t use the word “noise.” The word “noise” insinuates to me something annoying. I use sounds, which I think appropriate to whatever I am doing. Some people might find them annoying of course, and call them “noise.” I rarely use synthetic sounds. Most sounds on my records and live concerts are generated by my guitar, often processed, sampled and looped, or I use my own field recordings.

Is the process of making music relaxing for you, or is the final product what you’re looking toward for relaxation?

Making music is a way of getting through life; a pleasurable way. I rarely listen to records that I make until a long time after their release. Live playing is the place where real music happens. These days I try to make all my records live.

Is there a mental practice you utilize within your daily life?

Other than cooking, no. I approach cooking as a form of meditation and improvisation.

Do you cook to music?

I tend to listen to WFMU internet radio when I am cooking, it saves me having to chose or put on a CD or record.

Some years ago I decided to give up writing songs that other people might sing. I also thought there were enough songs in the world like that. I was bored with songs that were predictable, especially for me having to maybe sing them the same way, more or less, during each performance.

Has there been a profound PURCHASE (instrument, technology, misc) you’ve made throughout your career that has changed your music style?

I own and still play the second guitar I ever bought in 1958. A 1932 National resophonic guitar, which has really defined everything I do on guitar. It has a distinct voice and many timbres to explore, even as a percussion instrument, its body being made of metal. They are very special guitars, originally built for Hawaiian musicians; they were also favored by American Afro Blues players, as well. A tough and beautiful-looking instrument.

It feels like there’s more of a mirage-esque theme to your newest album, Fratello Mare. I specifically hear/see this in “Secret Mexican Beach.” Did you have any intention of sculpting sound VISIONS on this album, more-so than sound EXPERIENCE?

All of these records in my Ambient Exotica series are cinematic, and all of them are featured as live sound tracks, either for silent films or as soundtracks for screening of my own films or videos. All of my work is linked together either intentionally or eventually. I am a recycler of my own work… never throw anything away.

Are the titles in your discography related to your Ambient Exotica series? Just for information’s sake, as I believe most of this interview dives into those territories, mostly.

The Ambient Electronic Exotica series is Kiribati, Globe Notes, Rayon Hula, White Shadows In The South Seas, and Fratello Mare.

Moving forward with some Fratello Mare questions, is “A House In Bali” based on the book?

Yes. A House In Bali is a book written by Colin McPhee, who was an American composer who went to live in Bali the 1930s and wrote what is still one of the definitive books on Balinese Gamelan music. He adapted many Gamalan tunes for piano and his book describes his time living in Bali and learning from the masters.

Aside from the opening song on Fratello Mare, when’s the last time you passed bamboo?

I last passed Senor Bamboo about two years ago. Other than that I often pass bamboo at my local Tiki bar.

If there is (or had been) an actual “Pacific Log,” how long would it be by this point?

There is indeed, but it is not mine. It belongs to Louis Becke who was a Pacific trader in the early 20th century who turned journalist and writer of fiction based on his experiences in the islands. I created a Facebook page for him, and I have a lot of his books, including Notes From My Pacific Log.

In context of the “New Gamelan” sounds, how would you describe YOUR new gamelan set-up/kit, physically?

I don’t actually have any gamelan. All the gamelan sounds on my records are usually sampled metal doorbells played on an old Casio SK1 sampler keyboard or wind-chime samples played on the same.

Do you plan on touring the Fratello Mare’s release?

I don’t really tour records, specifically. Fratello Mare might get some airing if we can arrange some screenings of the film somewhere, I guess. I have an exotica ‘set’ I sometimes do by request, which covers areas of music similar to that on the Ambient Electronic Exotica series of CDs and records, usually with a video or film of mine, as well. I made a 50-minute super eight film called Planet Pacific~Pieces Of Heaven some years ago and I sometimes play live ‘exotica’ music to that.

I am a disciple of Lee Perry and other ‘dub’ artists who work with limited means and find ways of doing something with it.

From last year’s New Global Notes, Is “Yu Yangs Pond” based on the etching by Fred Williams?

“Yu Yangs Pond” is in West Australia. I drove through it once on a trip to Broome in the north. An event for me because I don’t actually drive, but the road is so straight and the traffic so infrequent that anyone can drive that road as long as you are not blind. I found a kangaroo’s middle toe by the side of the road. The rest was probably eaten by dingos. It’s on my studio table in a jar of red ochre from the same spot.

Have you ever found a pearl in “the wild?”

Many! Broome is a pearling town way up north there, and it’s pretty wild. One of Australia’s best bands, The Pigram Brothers live there — pearls in themselves — seven brothers of Aboriginal, Irish, and Philippine descent. The other pearl was a musician named Seaman Dan who is from the Torres Straights Islands situated between Northern Queensland and Papua. He was a pearl diver for most of his working life and a part-time musician, until he made his first record at the age of 70 singing and playing songs, most of which he wrote. I played on one of his records and in his band at the National Folk Festival in Canberra one year.

If you had to explain the meaning of the word “Tebutinnang,” would it reflect a tangible or intangible meaning?

It is a girl’s name and means ‘movement of clouds’ in Kiribati language.

Are your vocals in New Globe Notes hidden on purpose, or am I tripping?

I am in fact a singer by preference. These ambient records are a side street along the road I travel, although by no means secondary one. I am attracted to slide or lap steel guitar because of its vocal quality and ability to mimic the human voice.

Who is “Sakam Kava?”

I have forgotten the meaning in the Kiribati language, but in Macedonian, Sakam means “Love.” Kava, as I remember, is a hallucinogenic drink prepared from the roots of the pepper tree in Polynesia. Oliver Sacks wrote a nice essay about drinking Kava. It completely paralyzes your whole body, but leaves your mind brilliantly clear and bright. It is a ritual ceremonial drink.

Did NO=FI Recordings reach out to you for New Globe Notes?

NO=FI wanted a record and I would eventually like to get all of my original Hipshot CD-R recordings released either on vinyl or on CD (or whatever other format comes along). No one was particularly interested in releasing anything of my work for a period of almost 10 years, and so I released my music on my own. I made 30 CD-Rs in 10 years since 1999. The Ambient Tropicalia release, Rayon Hula, Globe Notes and Kiribati were part of those CD-Rs. Kiribati will come out on vinyl later in 2015 as well.

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