On Southland Mission, Phil Cook has hit his stride. The record, which found him weeping upon listening back to demos alone in a cabin in Gailax, VA is a testament to the community of inspiring and talented individuals Phil has reveled in and continues to give back to. After serving as musical director on I’ll Find A Way with longtime heroes The Blind Boys of Alabama, Phil had a revelation — one that that has since provided the inspiration for a record that is pure in every sense of the word.
Speaking with Cook during a European tour opening for The Tallest Man on Earth, he speaks of nothing but gratitude for the team effort Southland has been. He tells us this record made life easier, clearer for him. Phil if you’re reading this, the feeling is mutual.
Aquarium Drunkard: Is this the first run of dates in Europe for the new record?
Phil Cook: I did some shows when I was opening for Hiss Golden Messenger. I was opening the show and then playing in his band in February. Doing these tunes, but the record wasn’t out, I was just like hey just so you know, I got a record coming out this fall. This is the first time I got to have the thing for sale, and playing the tunes and talking about the record and it’s really exciting.
AD: How has the response been over there?
Phil Cook: I love it so much. It’s been so fun. Tallest Man’s fans are fans of good music. They love what he does and I think they are coming out and have been really appreciative and kind and listening. They’re open to shit. I just want people to be relaxed and be themselves and have a good time. I try to make people feel comfortable right away. There’s no mystery to what I’m doing.
AD: It seems like you value the idea of building a certain degree of trust with your audience.
Phil Cook: Luckily, the door that I’ve found into music was so pure. I feel lucky that it was just a love of the music itself. It was never, not once about getting chicks. It was never about that or magazines or pictures and posters. It’s just about records. I get older and I kind of meet more people from that funky old tribe of dudes where it really is just about the music. Music has given me my best friends in the entire world. It’s brought me all over the place. It introduced me to places and people. I have nothing to feel but grateful at the end of the day.
AD: You had a very clear vision for Southland Mission. How did you begin the process of attempting to make it a reality?
Phil Cook: When something is kind of itchin’ at you for a while, it’s maybe something that feels a little bit different or it has a different hunch about it. It takes a while for that to build enough momentum for you to realize to think what’s going on. All these snippets of ideas that just felt different. Different than Megafaun. It was a different thing. It started when Megafaun was finishing. This whole process has been a kind of vision quest or right of passage for me. It’s been so intense that at the end of it, I look back at what I have in this record and all I can ever tell people is this is the first thing I’ve ever done. The first thing I’ve ever done and I’m 35. 36, shit. I just turned 36.
For me, there are people that go through something like this once a year but that’s not me. I am a long arc. I’m always telling my wife to be patient with me. I’m a long arc…I’m so sorry, baby, I’ll get there. First thing that happened was I met Mike Taylor from Hiss Golden Messenger. He’s become a brother to me in every sense of the word. Mentor, brother, spiritual comrade. Watching him work has made me want to reach deeper and write about what I know. My family and my friends.
Lyrically, which is the hardest thing for me. He gave me the strength to write about things that are very vulnerable for me. Every record he bares himself so naked about where he’s at with his life but he does it with such grace. It’s really inspiring. He introduced me to so many records that were blowing my mind. I thought my brother and I knew a lot about music but man.
The second thing that happened was Justin Vernon hooked me up with being a musical director on that Blind Boys of Alabama record. I had the chance to work one on one with my heroes. It was the first time I ever got to play on a real gospel record. It was what I like to call ‘being a part of the real deal’. That was the catalyst of the whole thing. I had a lot of ideas beforehand that I felt like that’s not for me. I’m just a white kid from northern Wisconsin and I just love this music and that’s all it’s ever gonna be. I love this music from the south. I was tied up with all these feelings about what it meant to try and do this kind of music.
What I realized in that process with those guys is just that the music found me, way up in Wisconsin. It found me and it really set me free and set me down on a path and Ive been running down that path forever. Meeting those guys felt like I had arrived somewhere where I had a place to put all of this knowledge and skill that I had been working on with such a specific filter and language that they were familiar with and acknowledged and said aloud to me, wow you know this shit dude. You know this music. They could tell how much I loved the music. What it has done for me and where it has brought me out of.
After that, I realized that it’s in the presence of making good music. That is my home. It’s my story, it’s what I can offer people. This music called me down south so I moved down there and I started to realize the bigger picture… that the sounds I hear in my head include all this stuff that is the most important thing that America has given the world and given itself. It’s this complicated, crazy story. There is a human cry that echoed through this entire world. If you’re not listening to that than you are doing something wrong.
I just started saying Yes. Getting my ideas together and started talking to more folks, getting out there in the community. Just being like hey, you know any good gospel singers? Great, call em up and let’s start singing together. It’s all in the honesty of wanting to make a great record and great music. The possibilities are endless. The amount of talent that is in the community of Durham, NC in all the different scenes is jaw-dropping. There were so many people I could work with and make music with in the spirit of what music can do and what it can give to people. So that was when I woke up and was like I gotta do this. I’ve been waiting for a long time. Now is the time.
I had a kid and my purpose became a lot greater in this world. Just the legacy I’m leaving behind and what kind of story I want my son to see about, what music can be and what music has given his dad. It’s not an isolation. It’s a community, it’s love. I’ve met so many great people and had such a great time doing this. It’s just been understood. Everything has felt better. The whole thing feels clear. I know what I’m supposed to do with my life.
AD: Mike from HGM mentioned it took you a long time to figure out what you wanted to sing about. Where were you and how did it feel when you figured it out?
Phil Cook: I’d take these walks every day and put my son in a backpack carrier and walk my two dogs and it was just me and him. I had these little ideas and I’d put them on repeat on my phone and stick the phone in my front pocket. I would sit and sing aloud. My son has been there for the entire thing. He’s been in the car when I’m checking mixes or making demos, and singing. He’s been there for the whole thing. The big one was taking 4 days and going up to Gailax, VA by myself with all my gear and a computer and putting all the ideas down at once and I spent about 20 hours a day just playing. four hours a day just sleeping or eating oatmeal or something small.
It was purging it all out of me. I didn’t even stop to listen to what I was doing. I was just recording, go for a walk every four hours in the mountains.I just needed to breathe that air and then coming back and singing some words. It almost like it wasn’t me doing it, it was just happening. The last day at the cabin I left and I bounced everything down real quick and listened on these old mountain, analogue speakers cranked up all the way. It was a revelation.
I sat there by myself and I kind of wept because I realized I had reached the center in this way. This center point that it all resonates from inside me and I realized that it was beautiful and that I was proud of it and I couldn’t wait to share it with every single person I knew. I had never had those feelings before in my life. It was big. That was the moment. I came back and shared all the demos with my brother and my manager Martin and Mike Taylor. Showed people and had to get the ball rolling. Started getting some money together for the studio and the players and started rehearsing. Then it all just fell into place.
AD: You’ve been working with your brother for such a long time now. What does it mean to still have him involved and invested in your work?
Phil Cook: It’s hard to begin. He is everything. He’s been there since the beginning and we’ll be on this path for the rest of our life. I have nothing but respect for how incredible he is and his skill set. Together we can kind conquer the frontier. He is my best mirror. He shoots me straight and knows me better than anyone. Knows when I’m holding back. He fought for the integrity and honestly of the record even for me. He would pull me aside and be like, you have to honor this and you are not honoring it right now. Set me back back into the booth and helped me find the place I would sing from.
AD: Everyone always has such a huge grin on their face when they see you perform. Who does that for you?
Phil Cook: The Wood Brothers. Their sense of time and swing is insane. I love that band. I saw them in New Orleans. If you go there, and you just spend time in that city…there is a joy in that city that is in all the performers that they put out. It gave me this bug that music is bigger and better than all of us, as Jeff Tweedy said. I always think about that. When it resonates in a room there is nothing better. New Orleans is my mecca. In every other version of my life I end up in that city. In this version, I don’t think it’s in the cards. It’s my favorite place to be.
AD: Your intro to deep roots, Americana music was from your father. Can you tell us more about the mixtapes he’d make for your ski trips?
Phil Cook: Music resonates through people and it causes them to vibrate, to move. If you pan out from a group of people at like a Woodstock ’94 or Metallica ’86 in Berlin, you just pan out and you see the movement of a whole crowd and you see the music moving through the people. The way I got to see that in real time and see what music does for someone is in my own dad. My dad is a musician. He plays by ear. He is a great accordion player. It’s the same thing. He played for joy and closes his eyes when he plays. He’ll have a little Motown song in his head and play it at the end of the day. I saw him do that. I saw music being a prayer for him.
The other thing he would do would be make these mixtapes before we went on these weeklong ski trips as most upper Midwestern families do. They go downhill skiing cause it’s Winter all the time there. You gotta find a way to keep busy and make use of the climate we have.
We would go up north and be up there for a week. We would listen to this tape the whole day. He made it from vinyl, from his LP collection onto a tape. It takes a long time. It takes an entire afternoon with careful planning. When you put that much care into a mix it’s just cooler. It’s just better. You feel it like a home cooked meal. It was everything from him.
From the March on Washington. He was a true and blue counter-culture kid. Hitched out to San Francisco and he had all this music soundtrack his youth in a real, meaningful way and he always was playing that in the house. Who wouldn’t? Its incredible. That music and culture mashed together so perfectly. It created a huge wave. We’re still riding that wave.
Dad would get up there and put the ski tape in his Walkman and headphones and he would just ski down the hill. Still to this day I’ve never seen someone ski like my dad. I knew he was up there listening to Neville Brothers and Otis Redding. It’s his dance. I saw his dance. He skips to music. People blow past him. It was this zen moment watching my dad. I could see 300 people and jut their shadows and their figure on a hill and I could pick out my dad immediately. Only because of the way he moved.
Honestly, the most incredible skier I have ever seen. It’s not about the flash or some stupid trick. Its not about this technical wizardry. It’s about the oneness he had with the hill. How beautiful the dance was. Your own personal connection to music and what you are doing. It was so pure. That is pretty seminal to me as a person. Watching my dad ski. words / j silverstein / photo Nick Helderman