March 25, 2012
We are sitting here with the mighty Jim Cooper, a Chicago composer who has his paws in many projects in Chicago.
Hi Jim. Thanks for doing this.
This is an honor and a privilege, to be interviewed by someone of whom I am also a huge fan.
You have been the front man/composer for the Chicago band Detholz!, composer for Travelers of Tyme, Travelers of Tyme has scored a number of ads and a documentary last year called “A Second Knock at the Door.” You are also affiliated with Chicago music acts such as Bobby Conn, Baby Teeth, Lovely Little Girls, Daniel Knox, and you recently started playing upright bass with an American composer by the name of Van Dyke Parks. You’re going on your third tour with him. Did I leave anything out?
No. I think that that about covers it.
Cool. Ok, so to get started, what is your primary instrument?
The upright bass.
You ended up at Wheaton College, where you studied composition. Did you always want to study composition, or what led you to want to go down that route?
That’s a good question. Actually, sort of a torturous question too because I didn’t decide on a major until well into my junior year. This was because I was really torn at the time. This kind of tension has defined my life in many ways. My parents wanted me to become a pastor, so I was taking a lot of Biblical Studies courses. I wanted to be a musician but I was torn, thinking, “well, am I still a Christian if I am a musician? I guess I have to be a pastor or a missionary or something.” That was my freshman and sophomore years. I really wrestled with that. My hands were in both of those pies. I was taking Biblical Greek but I was also taking Music Theory classes and Bach Chorale Theory. Finally, when it got to be my junior year, I was a little older, a little wiser, I was like, this is what I need to do-what I HAVE to do. So I switched my major. I didn’t graduate with a Bachelor of Music, I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Music because outside of the B.M. degree I had a lot of flexibility for electives so I took as many courses as I wanted. The elective list was limitless. I took, you know, they called it “techno-music” at the time. It was in the “techno lab” in the Wheaton Conservatory, which you could break into. You weren’t supposed to practice on Sundays and you weren’t supposed to be in the building after certain hours of the night but all of us would break in, especially those of us that were working on computers in the “techno lab.” And I remember many, many nights working all night in there.
What kind of stuff did you compose at Wheaton? What was the instrumentation?
I tended towards the absurd when I was there. I would write a lot of kinda jokey, schticky pieces. I did an arrangement of “Spanish Flea,” that Herb Alpert tune, for woodwind quintet. I did a piece on this so-called Kodon CD one year. That really was my first foray into conceptual composition. It was like a 12-step program, with 12 pieces, all in different styles, and they were very, very short pieces, 30 seconds each at most. There was some surrealism in there, there’s one piece that’s percussion layering, there’s a jazz piece, there’s an a cappella piece. So it kinda goes all over the place. The text is incidental. It doesn’t really make any sense. It’s like, “Step 1, blah blah blah, Step 2, blah blah blah” and then whatever is said is reflected musically.
Does anything stand out, from your training at Wheaton?
I feel like I received an excellent education and preparation at Wheaton and I really can’t say enough about it. If I had to touch on a specific class that I feel like changed my life, it would be my Bach Chorale Theory class. All we did all semester was analyze Bach chorales. If you get your head inside of those chorales and understand the inner workings and the way the pitches are moving and the voicings, I feel like I learned in one semester about as much as I needed to know in all of my time there.
And that stuff is pretty mathematical.
Very much so. And I am a math retard. But when it’s applied in music I have a pretty good understanding of it and that definitely carried over into my senior composition recital piece.
… which I’ve heard about. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?
Well you’ve done your homework. By that time, you know, it was my last semester there. I knew this was coming. This was the end of my degree so I blew off all of my other classes that semester. I was taking Math 101, I think, which is the only class I came close to failing. I just never went. I just took the test at the end of the semester. It brought down my GPA a little bit but I was so focused on getting that fucking recital done. I poured hours and hours and hours into that piece. And I shared it with my cohort, Rick Franklin, so he did the first half of the recital and I did the second half - most of which was made up of a performance piece. It was electronic and had a whole visual element. My little act at the time was calledJink Swanson’s Sharp Pagoda and The Spleen. And I remember the movements. “Moral Reverberator” was one of the movements.
What was the concept behind it?
Well, basically the music was all based on the numbers 3, 5, and 7, which were significant to me at the time for very pretentious reasons. I was using all kinds of found sounds and cut up samples. We’re talking late 90’s. It was still a little cumbersome to use this stuff [90’s tech], but if I go back and listen to it now, I mean, you know, I was a very pretentious and arrogant young man who thought that he knew a lot more than he did. So that definitely comes across. But it has its moments too, where I think you can kind of get a glimmer of some cool stuff starting to emerge. The performance was ridiculous. I had Big James Mitchell and this other guy in spacesuits tie me up with electrical tape at one point, and carry me out. I was baptized with Listerine, which is a really bad idea. They had like a choir riser and I had candles all over those. When the curtains opened I was standing there with a billy club, dressed like Jim Jones. Very schticky. Very performance-arty. That’s what got me into CalArts because when they saw it, they were just like, “This guy’s doing this at the Billy Graham center at Wheaton College?”
So it’s interesting to hear about senior recital and then think about Detholz! because there seems to be some cross over.
Well, Detholz! was in full swing at that point. Detholz! started in October of ’96. So that was right at the beginning of my senior year.
What does Detholz! mean?
It’s a scatological joke. It basically is…a dethole is….a butthole. I can say that now that the band’s kinda over. That was a secret for years. Actually Jamesie, Big James, who was a founding member with Karl and I, came up with it. Originally we were The Death-Men. Now, I think what we wanted to call the band was Red Hot Anus and the Runs. And we’re like, “We can’t call the band that. That’s never gonna fly.” So Jamesie was like, “How about The Detholz!?”
How many albums did you guys put out?
I would say 5 … with 1 in parentheses.
Death to the Traitor being the last. And that was put out how long ago?
That was put out last spring.
Which album are you proudest of? Which one is closet to you?
Well, all of them are for different reasons. The first one, we were kids, right out of college. It’s got that youthful energy. Not every song on that record works very well, but the ones that do work are great. It’s called Who are The Detholz!?. There are a couple of songs on the first record that still thwum my heartstrings. Cast out Devils contains the song “Cast out Devils” that I wrote for my friend Kurt Hanson, who ended up committing suicide a couple of years after I wrote the song for him. He was there at the record release when we played the song and I dedicated it to him from the stage, and everyone that knew him said that he was just glowing. So that song means a lot to me. If there’s any one Detholz! song that I would say is closest to my heart, I would say it would be that one. And Death to the Traitor I would say is as much Bobby Conn’s record as it is ours. He produced it and you can see and hear his hand through the whole thing. That’s something that is an honor for me to go back and listen to.
When you were writing for Detholz!, did you think about song structure? Meaning, when you had an idea, were you putting it into form, like verse chorus verse chorus bridge chorus? And was that a format that you used for the Detholz!, or were you abandoning structure?
Different methodologies at different times. Detholz! music was always very Prussian and very ordered. It was kind of like building little tinker toys, so everything was in its place, whether or not the song was changing meter, or whether or not it was more of a straight-ahead rock and roll song in 4/4. There was always this kind of hyper-structure behind it. Through most of the life of the band I was thinking about structure pretty much constantly, and how the different pieces of the songs fit together. That changed a little bit with Death to the Traitor. Death to the Traitor music is a lot more static. The bass lines are a lot more repetitive. The songs have a lot more space in them. There’s one song on that record called “Lost Weekend” that’s a lot more improvisatory than we ever got. So I think had the band stayed together, we would have been going in an antithetical direction to, you know, “eins-zwei, eins-zwei!”
So what came out toward the end, do you feel like was more innate in that sense?
I don’t know, I‘ve always viewed music as a craft. I have a very hard time thinking about music as art or talking about it as art. You know, it’s like Frank Zappa says, “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” I’ve always thought of myself as a plumber or a carpenter, or somebody that just puts something together with his hands. I mean, I recognize that there is an aspect of music that is sort of ethereal, and something you feel, emotive, but I guess I came to think of it more that way especially as I got a little older and wasn’t so concerned with never, ever revealing how I was feeling to anyone at any time. That definitely figured into it too. That was a defense mechanism and something that made me feel like I was in control of my social situation. That is less the case now that I’ve got some grey in my beard.
That makes sense. So the persona that you took on as the front man, because I’ve seen it in action at shows, was that a conscious decision on your part? It feels like when I’m watching you, or when people are watching you, there’s a distinction between knowing who you are versus when you’re on stage, and that presentation of yourself.
How would you characterize that difference? I’m just curious.
It’s very dramatic. And it feels like you’re trying to convey a message, whatever that is in the moment is up to you. But I think over the years the message has changed, with The Detholz!.
It has because our lives have changed, and we’ve matured and grown up, (sort of). And for me it was just not—and this is part of the reason I felt like it was time for the band to end—I’m just not as pissed off. I was a very, very angry young man all through my college years, all through my twenties. I was much less pleasant to be around at that point, which my girlfriend at that time will attest. And I think as we all got older and made peace with ourselves and made peace with our pasts, it was hard, toward the end, really hard, to be that “Detholz! guy” again. To answer your question, yes, that was definitely a conscious choice on my part. That happened when I was in school, actually, and being again an arrogant college kid who thought he knew everything, I was like, “I’m gonna create this character that I’m going to BE.” And I did that. But I just got to a point, like once I got to my thirties, where I felt silly. Because I felt like it was no longer genuine. Now I enjoyed it, I still loved it. And there is something I have to say, something very sexual for me.
Yeah, like channeling that as much as I possibly can. It was a real rush. It just got to a point where I started to feel a little silly, like it wasn’t an accurate reflection of what was going on in my head. And also, I just was kinda done with it. I had explored all I needed to explore.
I wanted to talk about Detholz! because it was such a long period of time of your life, and you were the lead writer for them. I know you’ve done many other things since then along the same time frame. Travelers of Tyme started around 1995. Was it always kind of a surf rock, spy lounge music sound?
Definitely, yeah, it’s firmly in that camp. Those are styles that Shelby [Shelby Cinca, co-writer] and I love.
John Barry, James Bond composer. You guys are still working on stuff now. You just put out your self-titled album last year, which is the first full length?
Yeah. We did these little EPs when we were in school and then it just sat for years. We didn’t do anything with it. Then Shelby experienced a death in his family, and I was going through a rough time because I had lost a job and my marriage was failing, things were kind of up in the air, so that record was sort of therapy for us. Just having something to look forward to as we both went through a tough time. And you know, it’s all instrumental. There are no lyrics. The music’s fun. And Shelby is just a … he’s a creative dynamo of a guy. He’s non-stop. Just constantly producing different things.
Where do you envision that project going?
When I move out to California, we’re gonna do it live. He’s in LA. He’s a big part of my reason for going out there. We’ve been working on so much stuff together, we really need to be in the same zip code.
And T-Y-M-E? I’m curious why you chose to put the Y in there.
Tyme is this weird fluid thread where every moment happens simultaneously and not at all. It’s jumbo, yet shrimp.
But that’s where the travelers … that’s how they travel through time, using the conduit of Tyme.
Ok. That makes a lot more sense. Thanks. So I’m going to transition into Chicago music that you have been working on. First, Bobby Conn’s band, in which you play bass.
Bobby is amazing. He knows what every knob in the studio does. And he’ll often spend hours making adjustments on one knob. He’s incredibly focused, and an extremely adroit composer and technician, although he would likely argue that point. To boot he’s also a great person, wonderful human, both he and Julie [Julie Pomerleau, a.k.a. Monica BouBou, Bobby’s wife], and has been a huge mentor to all of us, all of us in the Detholz! and Baby Teeth alike.
Baby Teeth, with whom you play bass, as well as guitar?
Yeah, well, I’ll overdub guitar when we record sometimes. In that band, Abraham is the songwriter, but the arrangement process is really a true collaboration, cause both Pete and I are songwriters, so we both come at these songs with the attitude, less of a player and more from a compositional standpoint.
Pete Andreadis [the drummer] is also an extremely talented songwriter in his own right. In fact we all say this last record is really Pete’s record because he mixed the whole thing, he mastered the whole thing, he spent hours and hours and hours on it.
And that record is White Tonight. Any tours for Baby Teeth coming up?
We have decided not to tour. Those guys are both married and we decided just to play locally, regionally. There was a definitive point where we all decided, “you know what, we’re just gonna do this cause we love it. Let the chips fall where they may.” And the second we did that – well, we hired PR, a publicist, a couple of years ago to do Hustle Beach. She did a wonderful job and that was our worst selling album that we ever put out. This time out we decided not to lift a finger to promote it, like at all, besides sending out an email and doing the Facebook thing or whatever and we got more press than before! (laughs).
Next, Van Dyke Parks. When you tour, you’re playing upright bass and he’s playing piano, right? And the first two tours, has that just been the two of you?
Has that influenced your writing in any way, playing with him?
Well I haven’t been writing a whole lot, since I’ve been performing and touring so much but I will say this about it: Van Dyke, having had the storied career that he’s had and having worked with so many great artists … he has a very specific compositional voice. And it’s really messy and very controlled. It’s like controlled chaos. A good example of that: we played a Vic Chestnut tribute show in Athens, Georgia at the university. They asked him to play a verse on one Vic Chestnut song for which all the artists came out at the end to play. His interpretation on the piano - how he played it was so loose and the chords were so craggy and it didn’t seem like they were put in the right places, but somehow it worked, in this really strange cool way. Actually I’ve been talking with Bobby about his string arrangements because they’re exactly the same way. You hear them the first time and you’re like, “what in the world is he doing?” But it really works. That guy has a command of the ensemble and an understanding of how all the instruments work that I can only aspire towards.
It feels like it’s ear bending (Van Dyke Parks arrangements). Like it makes you lean forward when you hear some of that stuff and think “what’s going on?”.
He’s just an extraordinarily gifted man when it comes to the art of orchestration and the art of arranging.
Transitioning to your upcoming move to LA, are hoping to do commercial work? Is that part of the goal, to focus on that full-time?
I don’t think I want to do it full-time. I think I want to keep doing it freelance, the way I’ve been doing it.
I have a good friend out there from Wheaton, who runs a commercial music studio and last time I was there I stayed with him and his lovely wife and he gave me the dime tour of his studio, and it’s an incredibly impressive facility with all kinds of instruments and recording rooms, and gazillion-dollar mixing boards and he’s got his own little studio, and I was like, “Whoa. You’re living the life.” And he looked at me, kind of philosophically, and said, “I’m living a life.” ‘Cause there’s a definite price tag, I think, that comes along to committing yourself to doing just all commercial music. If you go out there and really press hard for it, it’s not that hard to get yourself into a situation where all you’re doing is commercial work. In the spirit of Mark Messing’s “working-class musician,” I think I’d like to balance that out a little more.
That’s interesting because I feel like that’s a Chicago characteristic, the “working-class musician”.
I think he’s right on with that idea. I’ve been thinking about that a lot, actually.
I have too and I’m wondering if there are other attributes that you’ve learned in your time in Chicago, as a composer, that you hope to take with you to LA.
Having toured both sides of the pond, both sides of the states, and played with a lot of musicians, visiting a lot of different cities, and hearing a lot of different music, I still think the best, most creative music is happening right here in Chicago. And that the best musicians that I know, that have their heads screwed on straight, they have good work ethics, they show up on time, they’re prepared … they’re here. And what I’ve learned here is invaluable and incalculable, really. Not to be melodramatic but the time I’ve spent in Bobby Conn’s band, working closely with him, the experience that I’ve had with other Chicago musicians - I’ve moonlit in many, many bands over the years here, and every different group of people you play with, you carry something away from it - the people that I have played with, that I have learned the most from are here.
And that has more to do than with time spent, it has to do with this place and what happens here and the way that music is done here where most musicians have day jobs and it is a labor of love. And I think that that gives it a focus that it might lack in a place like New York or LA, where there’s more of it, you know, the pool is larger but the quality isn’t, I don’t think.
Have you thought about leaving Chicago before, and what’s kept you here?
Were I not married I would have probably left a couple of years ago.
So you stayed here mainly because of relationships?
Yeah, my friends are here, the bands I played in are here. In the past, my job set-up here was pretty cherry but I lost my orchestra directing job a year and a half ago, so...
Yeah, I remember. I feel like I met you right after that happened.
2011 was a dark year for the Empire. In the space of a year and some change, I lost my job, got really depressed, my wife left me, and then the band that I fronted for 15 years came to an end. That was a lot of loss to process in a short amount of time.
You know, I’m of the perspective: all or nothing instead of bit by bit, instead of dragging out all the loss over the years. That’s an incredibly hard year, but now you can move forward.
You make a good point. Because literally right when January of this year hit, we were out in New York, working with Daniel Knox, and it has been non-stop ever since, and will continue to be non-stop. It’s wonderful.
Yin and yang.
As I’ve aged in music and find myself more and more deeply mired in its peculiar brand of quicksand, the more I have ceded myself to it, attempting no longer to control it but to be carried by its eddies and currents (which, incidentally, is how you survive if you even find yourself stuck in quicksand -- don’t fight it) … this has led to a series of unforeseen events which, in essence, is a music in itself. That sounds overly lofty, but I guess I mean it. I’ve had a lot of red wine tonight. Thanks, Annie - Viva la Weatherman!
Chicago will be loosing a great troubadour to LA this coming fall. We hope you make your way back here often and keep us informed on all of your a happenings, out there. Thank you, so much, Mr. Cooper, for taking the time to sit down with us!