“It’s a lot to take in… It’s impossible to see,” Jack Cooper sings on Modern Nature’s No Fixed Point In Space. The limits of language fascinate Cooper, who spends much of the album guiding his collaborators, including members of The Necks, This Is Not This Heat, and Julie Tipppets, to a place where words aren’t required. “Songs begin with the melancholy, drifting post-rock sound pioneered by Talk Talk, before bristling strings, eerie horns, and electronic bleeps overtake the band’s voices completely,” writes Jesse Locke in his Aquarium Drunkard review.
But sometimes language does come in handy, which is why we rang Cooper up at his space near Cambridge, UK, to discuss the album, how the natural world informs his creative process, and the nebulous zone between composition and improvisation. Our talk has been condensed and edited for clarify. | j woodbury
Aquarium Drunkard: No Fixed Point In Space finds you utilizing song forms and recognizable pop elements, but you allow a lot of room for your contributors—it’s a very spacious album. Did you give the players a amount of room to do their own thing?
Jack Cooper: Over the last few years, I’ve taught myself rudimentary notation and I’ve become increasingly reliant on that to an extent as far as collaborating with people. These records are expensive to make, because we record them on tape and there are a lot of musicians involved. So, really out of necessity, I wanted to get to a point where I could be more direct with my ideas. A lot of the instrumentation on the record is notated, but that notation is quite loose. It can be just a melody line and then various bits of direction. It depends on your definition of “improvisation” and what that means to you. There is definitely a lot of interpretation of what I provide, but we just don’t have the time and also I don’t really have the inclination to just let people play. That sounds like I’m becoming more of a dictator, but I’m not. It’s really something I’ve developed because I often sense with musicians that they like directness.
AD: It’s true, right? You wanna give people the freedom, but giving somebody a path to walk is often so helpful to the creative process. The line between what is improv—that line feels blurry?
Jack Cooper: Extremely blurry. I think of “composition” as being something you’ve improvised, but then repeated, but even free improvisers come into that situation with a mindset. It ceases to be completely, spontaneous because nothing can be.
AD: It’s clear that the music of Mark Hollis important to you. On late era Talk Talk records, there was a lot of rearranging and shaping of live jams, moving things around, collaging and creating a tapestry in a way Miles Davis would work. Are you doing similar things or mostly focusing on live takes?
Jack Cooper: More of a live take. The idea behind going in with notation is you are taking a few steps for the musicians in the room. You’re almost drawing an outline and you’re allowing them to color it in. Obviously, I think it’s clear that Mark Hollis is an influence. I think you could take some of the songs that are on Mark Hollis, his solo album [and] as actual songs, they’re really not that much different than the songs on The Colour of Spring. But I think there are other people who have maybe come from a pop or folk world who have [also] got worn out by the cliches of pop music’s form. You can say the same with maybe Robert Wyatt, someone whose gift with melody never changed, but it was just the way that he framed those melodies become more and more abstract. I suppose that’s a path that I’m on. I am definitely influenced by those people.
AD: You mentioned Wyatt. His collaborator Julie Tippetts sings on this record. How did you connect with her?
Jack Cooper: First of all, my mom gave me a Julie Driscoll and Brian Auger compilation when I was 12 or 13. My mom gave me a bunch of records when I was about that age. There’s a recording of theirs, “Let the Sunshine In” from Hair, and I’ve never really got over hearing that performance for the first time. If ever I put it on now, just that one song, the way that she sings…it’s incredible. It’s electric. I really loved her ’60s work, but I thought of them as a singles band. I was completely unaware until a few years ago that she’d had this second act as an improvisor with the Spontaneous Music Ensemble and her husband, Keith, that she had come from this pop music or blues background, but had grown tired of those restrictions.
I’d worked with [her collaborator] Evan Parker on the last record, and I got really friendly with John Edwards, who plays with Evan and has played with Julie in the past. Sometimes it’s as simple as asking, “Can I get your email?” If you ask musicians, “Hey, would you be interested in doing this?” most of us are like, “Yeah, that sounds interesting.” I’ve always had a lot of luck just asking people. It was the same with Evan Parker and Chris Abrahams from The Necks, who plays on the record. It was just as simple as going, “Hey, I’m doing this. Would you be up for it?”
AD: The title has such resonance: No Fixed Point in Space. Where did that come from?
Jack Cooper: It’s an Albert Einstein quote, but I took it from a Merce Cunningham dance piece. It’s startling seeing him dance; he has a piece called “Points In Space,” [which references Einstein’s quote] about there being “no fixed point in space.” It resonated with me and made sense; I’d started to think about the form these songs were framed in as being like collective rather than like a hierarchy—and the idea that there was all these instruments and instrumentation and music moving around each other and orbiting at different volumes, different timbres. It was all moving around, but there was a pulse to it. It just seemed to fit.
AD: Similar to the line we might draw between improv and composition, the line we draw between ourselves and nature is illusory. You’re writing about cycles of growth and rebirth on this album. In an age of climate change, we all find ourselves questioning and trying to parse out our place in the natural world. I wonder what that has been like for you and how it’s interplayed with songs and your songwriting over these last couple years?
Jack Cooper: I think maybe after the last record I felt that I wanted to move away from writing lyrics that were as literal. In my mind, what helps with the writing is that I have a very established palette of things that I sing about with Modern Nature. There’s a tone to it, and when I started writing the lyrics to this, or I was singing them as I was writing the songs as you do when you have words that are there almost from the get-go, I said, “Well, what am I trying to do with this? Why am I singing about these things?” I don’t wanna get bogged down with singing about trees and mountains and things like this. I feel that nature is everything. It’s life, it’s what’s going on in our heads, it’s what’s going on outside of our capacity to imagine. It’s everything, and I suppose with this album I’m trying to zoom out.
AD: Modern Nature draws on folk rock and indie rock, but there’s a distinct jazziness that runs through your work. I think jazz is one of the genres were temporal freedom is prized. Is that part of what draws you in?
Jack Cooper: Most other music, pop or rock, for want of a better word, is bound by time and structure. Nothing else is, whether it’s jazz or classical, film, pr art. Everything else is far more abstract and can exist more as an object rather than a duration of time, if that makes sense. So it got to a point where I listened to a lot of things and I’m like, “Well, that was great the first time around. Why are you doing it again?” A lot of the time [with modern music] you can hear blocks of audio copy and pasted, and it’s like, “Well it’s not that you’re just doing it again. You’re just…I don’t know what you’re doing. I don’t know how that’s meant to resonate with people, something that’s so artificial like that.”
AD: So much of music’s power comes from the way it plays out in our own imaginations. I’m thinking about the lyric in “Ensõ.” I think you say, “It’s impossible to see,” and I don’t know if you’re referring specifically to anything, but I think about the idea that this record somehow is saying, “These are the songs, and they exist on this work, but now the listener will fill in the rest.” Does that jive with you?
Jack Cooper: It does. That line is inspired by lyric writing. What you’re doing with lyrics is you’re processing for yourself [and] trying to make it resonate with people. But language can’t do that. It only goes so far, so I quite like having statements like that. It says, “It’s a lot to take in,” and I really like lines like that because it’s the equivalent of being like, “What are you gonna do? There’s no point discussing this, because it’s way bigger than we’re able to comprehend.” The jazz mindset in that the melody or the lyrics are really just a vehicle for something bigger or more exciting, you have a theme and you take it from there and it can go anywhere.
AD: That’s the beauty of the form is that there’s something to fall back on and then there’s all this wild space to explore. What are you listening to lately?
Jack Cooper: I’m going through a Circle phase at the moment. You ever listen to those recordings? Anthony Braxton, Chick Corea, Dave Holland, and Barry Altschul. There’s an incredible interpretation of Wayne Shorter’s “Nefertiti,” and it starts and you’re like, “I had no perception of where this was gonna go. They had played together in Miles Davis on the road after Bitches Brew and are referred The Lost Quintet, because they never made a studio album. But they were so good. That’s the fascinating thing about Miles Davis as far as direction is concerned: all he needed to do with his musicians was either give them a little direction [but sometimes] just the fact that he was Miles Davis was enough direction for most musicians. They were like, “Oh, we know what to do,” because it’s him.”