No stranger to the pages of Aquarium Drunkard, Ultimate Painting’s Jack Cooper and I were introduced several years back over a mutual love of the Grateful Dead. Earlier this year he sent me a brief email saying, ‘Hey, I am working on a solo album and here is a rough mix – would you listen to it and tell me what you think?’ Sure Jack, absolutely. And I did — again and again. The album, released last month via Trouble In Mind Records, is the sparse yet hypnotic Sandgrown, a record inspired by Cooper’s coastal hometown of Blackpool, England.
Below, we catch up with Cooper discussing the album’s origins and influences, the fate of Ultimate Painting and the greatness that is Relatively Clean Rivers. Oh, and if you haven’t yet, be sure to check out his recent Lagniappe Session covering the likes of Scott Walker, Terry Allen, Sinatra, Woods and more.
Aquarium Drunkard: Sandgrown has a timeless sound, both lyrically and musically, in a way that makes it hard to pinpoint what era of your life it references. What is your current environment?
Jack Cooper: Physically I live in Leytonstone, which is in East London. My wife and I just moved here a few months ago. It’s a few miles further than the east London most tourists will know and I guess it hasn’t been gentrified too hard yet, although that’s definitely in the post. I have a space where all my music equipment is a few miles away, which I have to drive to, so you kind of get the idea. London, like New York or Paris is a little much for me to deal with nowadays and I think, honestly, I’ve never really been cut out for that — so it’s nice to be able to see it from where I live, but not necessarily be in it.
AD: What about mentally? You’ve been on the road a lot this past year in both Europe and America.
Jack Cooper: Mentally I’d say I’m feeling good. Ultimate Painting just finished a short run in the US a fortnight ago so I’ve acclimatized back into being a normal person now. Touring takes it out of me … not really in a physical way but I tend to put a lot of pressure on myself to do my best and then make sure everyone else is happy and having a good time. I’m good at taking the rough with the smooth and I’ve done enough to realize there are good shows and bad shows, but I’m usually just anxious that everyone is enjoying themselves. I’m perhaps too quick to think people are pissed off with me, when they might just be pissed off at the world.
I think part of the reason I’ve made this record is a way of processing the past and where I am now. Like, what the hell is this? Going back to your original point, I think it references every stage of my life and the “Blackpool” of the album is just a frame in which I can tell stories, be self-indulgent and self-analytical, process memories or try and recreate places and feelings. It’s the first time I’ve sort of set myself a framework and it was weirdly liberating.
AD: It’s interesting you point out the anxiousness of touring and acclimation of post-tour life as the lyrics of this album nod heavily to these emotions. How much did this inspire you while writing the album? Was it intentional?
Jack Cooper: I didn’t really set out to deal with any emotions per se. I really just thought the song cycle idea was an interesting way of framing lots of different approaches to writing words. I’ve never really had a set way of writing lyrics, because in the past, it’s the thing that has interested me the least about making music. And I certainly had no intention of writing an album about how difficult it is to tour or acclimatize myself after, because I just think it’s really boring. I’m quite happy leaving that kind of writing to someone else … you know the ‘long road, cruel mistress’ stuff. But I am anxious about everything all the time and I suppose that comes across, but I certainly didn’t want to make a record about that.
I guess having a concept or device can work in the same way as a movie, in that the narrative of the movie might actually be the least pertinent aspect of the thing. I suppose the direct inspiration would be something like Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood or even 22 Short Films About Springfield. Having “Blackpool” as a theme and as a limitation, worked for the words in the same way recording on a 4-track worked for the music or how working in just charcoal might work for an artist.
AD: 22 Short Films About Springfield! An excellent reference as you see the characters and stories through multiple lenses as they cross and divert. What does Blackpool, your hometown, mean to you now from a lens of traveling and Leytonstone?
Jack Cooper: Well, it’s an odd place. Way back at the turn of the 19th/20th century, it was the place where the north of England would holiday. All of those great Northern cities which powered the industrial revolution would decamp there for the summer holidays, so it was very forward-thinking and focused on fun. By the time I was a kid, air travel had become cheaper and people were more aspirational. Blackpool sort of became this kind of tacky cliche of the British seaside. Generally speaking, the North of England suffered very badly in the seventies and eighties, so the places those towns went on holiday was always going to suffer the most. When I started going into town on my own and then working around the promenade, I was exposed to the underbelly a little more. Blackpool would attract people for work and fun during the summer but then the summer would end and you had a lot people kind of stranded there with nothing to do except get in trouble or whatever. Weirdos, hippies, punks … etc. Blackpool is a huge punk town.
I can honestly say I’ve never been anywhere else like it. The nearest place, weirdly, was Santa Cruz in California and anyone who’s seen the Lost Boys might get where I’m coming from. Having said that, Blackpool has a real charisma and charm. Although it didn’t have much of a local music scene when I was a teenager, as someone growing up there interested in making music, I was encouraged, because show-business was something everyone held in high regard. A lot of people off TV lived around there because British TV was so linked with light entertainment and Blackpool was the capital of that kind of thing. Weirdly there are a few great musicians from there as well like Graham Nash and Robert Smith from The Cure. Jethro Tull formed there but you’d never really hear too much about those kind of people. Ian Donaldson from Skrewdriver was from Poulton, which is where I lived for a long time, just outside Blackpool … the less said about him the better, obviously. I think the first album’s great before they reformed as white power band. But that’s Blackpool … it’s the highest percentage of gay people in the UK, a really liberal place but then the biggest white power band in the world are from there.
AD: It’s interesting you bring up Skrewdriver as this past weekend in America we witnessed some of the most violent hate crime in decades. Given the current political states of the UK and America it is easy to hang your hat on everything being politically related, and yet the album opens with the line “This isn’t a protest song”. It’s a bold declaration. Did you feel the need to take that stance?
Jack Cooper: I’ve never been too shy of writing songs that are ‘political’ for want of a better word. I don’t really believe that it’s necessarily an artist’s responsibility to speak out or to use that forum but I think things are regressing so quickly that it’d be weird not to. My issue is that I’m still making my mind up on a lot of things and I feel a little self-conscious being forthright when I might not always be completely informed. Songs like “I’ve Got The Sanctioned Blues” or “Bills” are political, but they’re about subjects which I feel confident talking about. I mean, I felt really good about “Sanctioned Blues” being on the UK radio a lot during the election because people seemed to really respond it and god bless the BBC for playing it.
But yeah … that line you quoted is addressing that. The whole song. I’m not talking about Trump or the Alt-Right here because that’s black and white, but I think myself and a lot of other people are sometimes wary of being forthright because people are so quick to criticize and shame you if your opinion doesn’t completely fit in with your social circle. I’m not talking about that kind of ‘this is political correctness gone mad’ attitude … that populist point of view. That’s complete bullshit, but there’s a difference between that mindset and then someone being a little out of touch or ill-informed. That seemed very evident with the Brexit thing over here. If you voted to leave the EU, you were called a racist or xenophobe and in the vast majority of cases that wasn’t true. People had a lot of reasons and I think the main one was that they used that vote as a protest against what they perceive to be an unfair system and I can’t blame anyone for doing that. I hasten to add that I voted to remain, but I wouldn’t judge someone who didn’t.
But yeah …I guess that first line is meant to be ironic because of everything that follows it. The decline of the north of England.
AD: Sadly, it’s a very terse environment we all live in right now. Everyone has an opinion – for better or worse. Which brings us to influences. Ultimate Painting is often compared to Velvet Underground and it’s evident on Sandgrown, but I can hear bits of Yo La Tengo, later Pavement and even bits of the Grateful Dead. What were you listening to or looking for influence when it came to writing and recording?
Jack Cooper: When Ultimate Painting first came to America, Bill (co-owner of Trouble In Mind Records) played me the Relatively Clean Rivers LP which I’d never heard and I’ve gone back to regularly ever since. So sound-wise, I was hoping to get somewhere in that ballpark. I’m not alone, but that record could have been engineered for me … I think it sounds perfect … the frequencies and sounds feel like what I’ve been trying to get at for years. It really does feel like a mid-point between that Velvets third LP and American Beauty/Workingman’s Dead, but maybe more attainable and weird. You know I love the Grateful Dead but I think I was specifically thinking about those records, the concise song stuff off those two LPs.
AD: That Relatively Clean Rivers album is really something else. I first heard “Hello Sunshine” around 2006 when Keith Wood of Hush Arbor’s covered it on a tour cd-r with Wooden Wand and it floored me. It really is a missing link between the West and East Coast psychedelic scenes – upbeat but kind of downer at the same time. What about English influences – since the album is based there?
Jack Cooper: I was really trying to make something very English because I’d been listening to a lot of Gong, Robert Wyatt, Richard Thompson and things like that … early seventies English stuff. I was kind of blown away when I read about, and then bought, that English Weather compilation that Pete and Bob from Saint Etienne put together, because that kind of feel was exactly what I was trying to channel. “JLT” by T2 and “Big White Cloud” by John Cale were two songs I put on a playlist when I was making the record so I was knocked out when they included those 2 songs on the comp. I’d really love to talk to them about it at some point.
I guess a lot of singer-songwriter stuff too. I think there’s something to be said for releasing stuff under your own name because I think people have less expectations of it having a thing, if you know what I mean?
AD: Had you thought about naming the band? Or was it always going to be under your name?
Jack Cooper: Not really. Bands need a sound or a thing, where as a Joni Mitchell or Bill Fay can just write songs without having to have a selling point. If I’d have called this project a band name, people would’ve expected me to have some kind of new sound that differed from Ultimate Painting. I was talking to my friend Conor about this recently … I just got into Steve Gunn and I was wondering whether people would have different preconceptions or expectations if he’d named the project The Gunns or something, instead of his own name. What do you think? I mean the Gunns is a bad name but you get what I mean …
AD: Having known Steve for many years I cannot imagine him calling his band The Gunns…unless it was a Guns & Roses cover band. (laughter)
What’s next for you and Ultimate Painting? You guys have released three studio albums in as many years along with James and yourself both having solo projects. Is there any rest in sight for 2018?
Jack Cooper: We were content to keep working at the rate we had been, but I think we both got a little burnt out on it after 3 years of working really hard. That initial excitement sort of dissipates a little bit and you have to figure out why you like doing the band again. We started recording a bunch of songs earlier in the summer, but we both figured out independently that we were perhaps heading down the wrong path, so we’re taking a little time to work on songs together and then we’re going to start recording in a few weeks. We’d maybe got sidetracked a little bit and were second guessing what we were meant to be doing, rather than what we wanted to be doing.
We were moving away from both playing guitar, which may have been evident on the last LP, but people really respond to the way we play together so we want to make a record that’s way more like how we play live. The original idea for the band was for everything to be pinned on mutually dependent guitar parts like Television, so we’re going to hone that. This last US tour we did was fun because we weren’t really promoting anything and we naturally moved towards the jammier elements of what we do. We were both pleased with the last record but the songs were difficult to play live and tended to be a little slower, so I think we’re focused on making an album that we really enjoy playing live. words / d norsen