Talk Talk: Jack Cooper

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If you've been anywhere near the inner workings of the indie-music scene over the decade, the name JACK COOPER will be familiar to you. Known most recently and notably as one half of Ultimate Painting and previously leader of the now defunct Mazes; Jack has now released his debut solo record Sandgrown via Trouble In Mind

The album draws a lot of its lyrical inspiration from Jack's experiences in the North of England; his hometown of Blackpool and its surrounding areas. Musically there are hints of John Cale and Robert Wyatt with an analogue authenticity enhanced by the use of the primitive 4-track system Bruce Springsteen used to record Nebraska

Fans of his previous bands will notice the change in tempo, muted yet weighty vocals and his progression as a song-writer. We spoke to Jack about the album's universal themes, the influence of societal deprivation on artistic expression and the uncertainty of seeing your own name in lights following a musical life within a collective. 

Starting off with the album, you said it was in the offing since you were about 18. Why now?

I don’t really know. It was a point where I’d done lots of stuff with Ultimate Painting, we’d done three albums. When we do an album with the band, we write about five songs each. I’d have to write some more upbeat ones, so I had a surplus of slower more introspective stuff that I hadn’t used with Ultimate Painting. The themes that had emerged from these songs fitted together in a way. They were all, not necessarily about where I’m from or growing up but had that slightly nostalgic tone to them. 

With Ultimate Painting it’s very 50/50. We’re both involved in the actual process of recording but it’s at James’ house and it’s his equipment so I hadn’t done any actual physical recording myself for a long time. I just wanted to get back into that. When you’re in a band you’re always relying on the other person so it’s nice to do something for yourself and craft something from 0 to 100 and have control every step of the way. 

Blackpool has obviously been an influence on the album because that’s where you’re from but what are the themes on the album that transcend a specific place. 

I think for someone who was from London or New York, their frame of reference is probably a lot different from mine growing up. It’s probably something more relevant to someone in their very late twenties or in their thirties. The feeling of being slightly apart from the rest of the world. I think that’s the overarching theme of the record. Feeling slightly out of sync. Whether that’s physically where you are in the world or not feeling like you belong. 

Maybe nowadays things are different because no matter where you’re from you have access to, potentially, all the information in the world, all the records that have ever been made are at the end of a Google search.

Why was Bruce Springsteen's 4-track recording of Nebraska so important to you? 

I wanted to do something in the same style as when I first started getting into recording. When I was 18 I bought 4-track for the first time. I’d been playing guitar for a few years and it hadn’t really occurred to me that you could record yourself. I always thought you had to go into a big studio and it would cost a lot. This was just before people started recording on computers. Then everyone could record on computers. I didn’t have a computer until I was, I don’t know, 24 or something. So when I was 18 I bought this 4-track and I would sit and mess around with it. I always enjoyed how tactile it was and how you could manipulate the tape in certain ways. I just wanted to get back to that way of recording and how simple it is. There’s not much you can do to it. The sound goes in and that’s sort of it. 

With Ultimate Painting we record everything on tape so it’s a bit like that but this was maybe a step further back, even more basic. 

I guess with the feelings of nostalgia I had towards where I’m from and that kind of time of being 18 and growing up, finding your way, it made sense to record myself in the way that I would have when I was that age. 

Do you go back to Blackpool much?

No, not really. I used to live in Blackpool but when I left home my mum moved to Lytham, which is about seven or eight miles down the coast so I don’t have much of a reason to go back to Blackpool anymore. I go maybe a couple of times a year. Everytime I go back it’s changed, always for the worse, It never changes for the better. 

It’s interesting to me how people from London are moving to Margate and how Margate has become this hipster haven for artistic people who can’t necessarily afford to live in London or they can but pretend that they can’t. That sort of thing would never happen in Blackpool or Whitby or Morecambe or Northern towns because there’s no money in that part of the world. No one wants to invest or make things better. So Blackpool just keeps going down and down and down.

When I was a kid it was definitely on its way out. I saw it happening because when I was 15, in 1995, I used to work on the promenade renting out deck chairs. By the time I was 20 I was still doing that every summer, with another 20 kids, there was a gang of us with various different stacks along the promenade. Between 1995 and 2000 when I stopped working there the amount of deck chairs that were being hired out had almost dropped to nothing. You saw at the tail end of the 80s when people started getting cheap flights to Europe that they’d go there instead of Blackpool and by the end of 90s Blackpool was just left to hen parties and stag dos. 

Buy tickets for Jack Cooper's London show at The Waiting Room here

When I was growing up there, it had this strange underbelly because you’d get people moving there to work in the summer, then the season would finish, the nice weather would go and these people would stay there but there’d be no work. So people would fall into the bad habits that come with unemployment. There was a seediness to Blackpool that seems to have gotten worse and worse over the years. 

While that kind of deprivation is clearly a negative thing for the town, there’s a theory that it maybe affects artists in a positive way?

I struggle with that as a concept. When Donald Trump was elected people said 'well at least we’ll get some good comedy out of it and punk bands'. Good things do come out of protest and deprivation and having to rely on yourself but I find it hard to completely subscribe to that as a method. It seems sort of counter productive but I know what you mean. 

I remember being a teenager before the internet and there was just nothing to do so you kind of had to start writing or join a band. It kind of forced you into that. I think people will always find a way to express themselves, whether it’s out of having nothing better to do or the fact that nowadays you have access to everything ever, so that’s an inspiration. People will always be looking to create stuff, it’s just that the inspiration changes. Where you are or your circumstances. 

Listening to the record, you don't really sound like how we’ve heard you before. Has this been the way you’ve wanted to sing?

I suppose when I’m at home or listening to certain things, I sing in a different way. I learned to sing by singing in bands. Singing over amplifiers and a drum kit and noise. You know there’s the thing about Manchester or Scouse accents having a certain tone to them. The Scouse accent for instance is particularly nasal because it was developed to be heard over loud machinery and in factories or on the docks. So it evolved in a way that it can cut through. I think I always sang in bands in a certain way and when I sat down recording at home on my own I felt more comfortable singing how I would as if I was singing along to another record. It always sounds strange to me when I hear my own voice talking because it’s deeper than the way that I sing. 

Was this the one album you wanted to make or do you think it will be the start of a more permanent solo career of you?

It’s difficult to say right now. James and I have a really great relationship and I don’t think either of us are thinking that Ultimate Painting will end anytime soon. If he decides to do Veronica Falls again, I just wanted to do something I could rely on. As a default it would be a nice thing for me to have and something I could go back to at any point. 

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Order Sandgrown via Trouble In Mind here.

How do you feel about performing now it’s your name on the poster?

I feel strange about it. When I first started doing Mazes, all the early recordings were just me and that could have easily been a solo thing at that point but that felt more like it would develop into a band and it did. When I was younger I used to play shows on my own and even released a 7 inch under my own name. I never felt very comfortable doing it. I wasn’t a particularly confident musician back then. 

I’m in my mid thirties now but I feel like the songs that i’m writing now are the best i’ve done. I’m figuring out what sort of songwriter I want to be and how I want to play and how I want to sing. With the last Ultimate Painting album I feel like I’m getting good at what I want to do. Now I want to make the most of the fact that i’ve gotten to a certain place, if you know what I mean. It’s just like with anything if you feel satisfied with the way you’re writing or the way you’re making stuff, you just want to it as much as you possibly can. 

With the band, although we’ve been quite productive with three albums in three years, I only write half of the stuff. So to write five songs a year really isn’t that much. Everyone we know was like 'oh I can’t believe you’ve done three albums in three years' but it really doesn’t feel like that much. The both of us together are so lazy. We recorded the other day and did about an hours worth of work! I guess from the outside it does look like we’re productive. 

MusicJamal Guthrie