For the past 40 years Mike Cooper has been an international musical explorer, performing and recording, solo and in a number of inspired groupings and a variety of genres. Initially a folk-blues guitarist and singer songwriter his work has diversified to include improvised and electronic music, live music for silent films, radio art and sound installations. He is also a music journalist, writing features for magazines, particularly on Pacific music and musicians, a visual artist, film and video maker, collector of Hawaiian shirts and appears on more than 60 records to date.
All content in this biography is copyright to and can only be re-produced by prior agreement with its owners – text, photographs, video and sound – copyright 2011.
THE EARLY YEARS – 1958-69
“Guitarist Mike Cooper
is as responsible as anyone else — and more so than many — for ushering in the blues boom in the U.K. in the late ’60s. His use of a ’20s National Steel didn’t hurt, but neither did his knowledge of the techniques of Fred McDowell
and Blind Boy Fuller
; or his rock-solid songwriting in both the folk and blues genres.”
-( All Music Guide – Thom Jurek.)
Born August 24th 1942 in Reading in Berkshire. Cooper started playing guitar shortly after leaving school in 1958. Listening to New Orleans and Dixieland jazz at local jazz clubs and becoming Involved in local skiffle groups are the first musical activities. In 1961 Cooper saw live blues musicians for the first time. Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee with the Terry Lightfoot Jazz Band at Reading Town Hall and harmonica player Jimmy Cotton with Chris Barbers band at the Beaulieu Jazz Festival. At Beaulieu Cooper was equally impressed by the Jamaican saxophonist Joe Harriott as well but took up playing the harmonica afterwards.
In 1962, as a singer and harmonica player, he co-founded an r&b band The Blues Committee
, with guitarist Paul Manning, guitarist Dicky Reeves and drummer Eddie Page, inspired mostly by Alexis Korner and his Blues Incorporated group which had played in Reading. In march 1962 Alexis had opened the ABC Ealing Blues Club which became a centre and catalyst for blues in England.
The Ricky Tick organization was running blues events at several venues in Reading and The Blues Committee
played support alongside many visiting American blues players mostly at the Olympia Ballroom in Reading. John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed and Sonny Boy Williamson were among the visitng artists as well as many British r&b and blues bands such as Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, Jimmy Powell and The Dimensions, Stormsville Shakers, Long John Baldry and The Hoochie Coochie Men and Cyril Davis. The Blues Committee also promoted their own concerts at The Latin Quarter, The Crown and Alexander School of Dancing in the same period.
There is a live recording from the Marquee in 1964 of the band playing four numbers and a rehearsal tape from 1963 with another four numbers. The original line-up folded in 1964 but Cooper continued with other versions into 1965. Saxophonist Geoff Hawkins was a member of this later version and encouraged by Geoff its repertoire expanded to include modern jazz tunes and songs as well as rhythm and blues. No recordings exist.
http://web.mac.com/cooparia/iWeb/Site/The Blues Committee.html
“Cooper stands out as the man who truly made something of his own out of
At the same time Cooper was also playing and singing folk and country blues, as a solo artist, in local folk clubs in and around Reading. The Latin Quarter and The Crown were again venues that Cooper played both as a solo artist and with The Blues Committee. The Crown and Latin Quarter folk clubs booked touring folk artists. Guitarist and singer Martin Carthy, acoustic blues players Gerry Lockran, Royd Rivers and Cliff Aungier, the British singer/ songwriter Leon Rosselson and the street musician/busker Don Partridge were some of the artists that Cooper came into contact with and who subsequently introduced him to the folk scene in London. Clubs such as The Troubadour in Earls Court, and Bunjies Coffee House where Cooper would eventually play.
There are two short clips of Cooper in the 1963 film That Kind Of Girl directed by Gerry O’Hara and starring Margaret-Rose Keil. Cooper is an extra and in one scene is seen (but not heard) playing guitar.
At the end of 1963 Cooper bought a second hand steel bodied National resophonic roundneck tri-cone guitar for the sum of 8 pounds and a copy of Blind Boy Fuller’s 1935-40 recordings on the Phillips Jazz Masters series. He learnt to play the Blind Fuller songbook but, through ignorance, good luck and some talent, soon developed the songs into a style, although rooted in Fuller’s North Carolina finger picking style, was very much his own. Around the same time Cooper met a now unknown American traveller in a coffee house who was passing through Reading and he showed Cooper how to tune into an open chord and play lap-steel style with a miniature whiskey bottle. Not a style that Cooper pursued with much interest until sometime later in his career though.
He went professional in 1965, not by choice but by the circumstance of having got married and losing his job both in the same week. A coffee house in Reading called The Shades, run by Sid Lackington, provided a once-a-week residency and playing other folk clubs in neighboring towns close by provided an income of sorts. A singer/guitarist named Derek Hall moved to Reading and lived and worked at The Shades. Derek was a guitarist who could actually match Davey Graham both in technique and musical ideas. Cooper and Hall began to share the Shades residency hosting their own nights and provided support for many of the visiting artists, which included John Renbourne, Bert Jansch, Davey Graham, Al Stewart and others. The Shades was an important cultural and social meeting point in Reading at that time attracting a mostly young, bohemian and alternative audience.
Sid Lackington financed Cooper and Hall’s first record “Out Of The Shades” – a limited edition 7 inch four track independent release on the local Kennet label based in Newbury. The tracks were Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee’s ‘Living With The Blues’ which features Cooper singing and playing harmonica; “Paul’s Song” an original by Cooper and Paul Lucas (another local folkie); “Darlin’” is an American blues/ballad sung and played solo by Derek (probably learned from Skiffle musician Lonnie Donegan) and ‘Skillett’ an old timey American banjo tune with Cooper singing and Hall playing guitar very much in the Graham mode. An eclectic mix in contrast to Cooper’s live performances which were by then almost exclusively Country Blues. Derek returned to live in London not long after the recording, returning to Reading for occasional concerts or to play at The Elephant folk which Cooper had opened.
At the end of 1965, in November, a highlight occured when Cooper played a support spot to the visiting American guitarist and singer Doc Watson at a concert in The Rainbow Room in Reading organised by his close friend Dave Wilkinson.
The period 1965 -1968 saw the emergence of the Acoustic Blues scene in Britain. Initially Cooper had developed a distinctive style and sound in virtual isolation (with regards to acoustic country blues) and now he began to meet other like minded musicians, such as Jo Ann Kelly, Dave Kelly and Ian Anderson.
As well as playing solo he briefly teamed up with harmonica/jug player Jerry Kingett. They travelled to play concerts in Holland where they recorded a never released and now lost album. Cooper has three tracks of this duo, from a session recorded in London in his private collection. In 1967 they travelled to Bristol in the west of England for the opening night of the Folk Blues Bristol and West Club at The Troubadour, supported by the resident blues musicians Ian Anderson, Al Jones and Elliott Jackson. Cooper advised Anderson (the organizer) to book the London based Jo Ann and Dave Kelly, who he had met playing in London Clubs such as Les Cousins, Bunjies Coffee House and the Half Moon in Putney. The Half Moon had been started by one of the very first British acoustic blues players, who was a Big Bill Broonzy fan, Gerry Lockran.
Kingett decided to resume his art school studies full time after a while and Cooper continued to build his career as a solo performer and to travel the length and breadth of the UK playing folk and blues clubs virtually seven nights a week and started to travel abroad to play more often. He played the Holland Blues festival solo and Norway with Jo-Ann Kelly in 1967.
In 1968 it was suggested, by Ian Anderson and Cooper, to Gef Lucena who owned the small independent recording label Saydisc in Bristol that he start another label to issue recordings of American and British blues artists.
Prompted by the popularity of the Troubadour Folk Club and the Folk Blues Bristol and West club, that had moved its nights from the Troubadour to the larger Old Duke in Kings Street Bristol, Lucena agreed and started the Matchbox label. Both Cooper and Anderson had previously recorded three four track seven inch records for Saydisc. Cooper’s ’Up The Country Blues’ (Saydisc SD137) is probably one of his least known and rare records, recorded 2nd march 1968 at the Old Quaker Meeting House in Frenchay. The first release on the new Matchbox label was a compilation L.P. ‘Blues Like Showers Of Rain’, which featured as well as Cooper and Anderson, many of the artists performing the acoustic blues circuit at that time including Jo-Ann and Dave Kelly. It was released in July 1968.
Anderson and Cooper then combined their individual Saydisc seven inch records, recorded some new pieces and released it on the Matchbox label as ‘The Inverted World’ (SDM 159). Both artists had in fact already been signed to major record labels by the time it was released.
Cooper’s meeting with others involved in acoustic country blues increased his awareness of the different styles and regional idiosyncrasies of the genre and he had begun to incorporate bottle-neck and lap steel into his playing, re-calling his meeting with the anonymous American who had first shown him this style, and moving away from a strictly finger-picking rag-time based style. In particular he was listening to the blues of Son House and Fred McDowell. The former’s intense voice and the latter’s driving single chord and bottle neck lines attracted him to their music. Again Cooper adapted both of these musicians style into something of his own rather than slavishly trying to copy them and re-present them. Touring folk and blues clubs and sharing stages at festivals and the all night sessions at the Les Cousins folk club in London’s Soho also bought him into contact with an even broader range of performers. Musicians such as Michael Chapman, David Bowie, John Martyn, Duffy Power, Ralph McTell, Roy Harper and visiting Americans like Stefan Grossman, (with whom he became close friends) Dave Van Ronk, Spider John Koerner and Jackson C. Frank all began to influence Cooper’s music.
A phone call in 1968 from record producer Peter Eden offered him a possible recording contract with Pye records. Peter Eden had ‘discovered’ folk singer Donovan’s in 1965 and had signed him to Pye Records. Eden lived in Southend where Cooper had played with his the Blues Committee some years earlier and he had also purchased a copy of the Out Of The Shades 7 inch that Cooper and Derek Hall had produced. By 1968 the music press had finally caught up with the fact that there was an acoustic blues boom happening – in fact it was almost over – but there was press and Eden was aware of Cooper’s presence in it. Peter Eden had a track record which, in hindsight has earned him the ‘British Phil Spector’ title in that he had a musically eclectic and experimental nature and taste in music. Something that Cooper came to value and would profit from later when he wanted to expand his own musical pallet to more than ‘the blues’.
Eden took Cooper into Pye Studio’s in Marble Arch on the 30th December 1968 and they recorded what was to become ‘Oh Really!?’ the first of five albums that Cooper would record for the Pye or the ‘progressive’ Pye label Dawn. ’Oh Really!?’ was finished on January 8th 1969 with versions of Son House’s Death Letter Blues, Blind Boy Fuller’s Bad Luck Blues. Derek Hall re-united with him for a duet, with Hall playing guitar on Blind Blakes Leadhearted Blues and Bessie Smith’s ‘Send Me To The Electric Chair. Cooper’s ‘outside-country-blues’ listening becomes apparent on Four Ways and Divinity Blues two Cooper original instrumental pieces that refer to other guitar musics. Crow Jane is played lap-steel style and the closing few seconds of the frantic finger picked Pepper Rag instrumental segues into the last song Saturday Blues with a snatch of acoustic feedback. A small sign of things to come. The album was released in 1969 with a cover photo shot at the 1st National Blues Convention in November 1968 where Cooper played. He is watching Bob Hite and Al Wilson of Canned Heat performing live with blues scholar Dave Evans.
This 1969 l.p. “Oh Really!?” on Pye records is widely acclaimed as one of the best acoustic blues albums of the period. In early 1969 Cooper also had the pleasure of meeting and playing with one of his blues heroes Fred McDowell who toured the UK for the first time. Several tracks on ‘Oh Really!?’ were heavily influenced by McDowell’s playing.
“I cant remember what I did on this gig but it must have been weird as i was playing Fred McDowell inspired pieces by then – maybe I avoided them and stuck to the Blind Boy Fuller and Son House pieces. I remember eating hamburgers afterwards from a stall in the street with Fred. High Wycombe didn’t have much to offer the late night diner in those days.”
By the time ‘Oh Really!?’ was released in 1969 the music press had finally realized there was an acoustic blues scene which was in fact almost over. Son House toured the UK the following year in 1970 but Cooper had been playing blues for more than seven years and many of the festivals he was playing were very eclectic and exposed him to a lot of different music. Cooper was, musically, almost ready to move on.
1970 – THE DAWN COLLECTION ….
“DO I KNOW YOU? – On his debut for Dawn, Cooper hybridized his use of the blues in his songs. The opener, “The Link,” and Journey to the East,” are open, modal pieces, which use open tunings and drones — full of a driving power and fluency with the traditional languages to make them both breezy and muscular.” (All Music Guide – Thom Jurek)
At the end of 1969 Pye records decided they needed an ‘alternative-progressive’ label and initiated the Dawn label. Perfect timing for Cooper who was trying to distance himself from the, in his view, slowly fossilizing Blues Scene and break into songwriting and more adventurous music. His listening tastes had always been much broader than just blues. Saxophone player Geoff Hawkins’ presence in the later version of The Blues Committee had introduced him to a whole range of contemporary jazz music and musicians. With The Blues Committee they had played Ray Charles’s ‘What I Say’ and Lambert Hendricks and Ross’s lyrics to ‘Sack Of Woe’ by Cannonball Adderley for example. Cooper bought a big Gibson SJN Jumbo acoustic from colleague Mike Chapman in an effort to shed his ‘bluesman’ image and stopped playing his, by now trade mark, National steel guitar. Peter Eden was willing to help and moved him from the Pye label onto Dawn and they decided to record another solo acoustic record. Eden had a working relationship with the publishers Southern Music who owned a small studio in Denmark Street. The studio was more congenial to a solo artist than the vast Pye studios at Marble Arch. Impressed with Richard Davis’s acoustic bass playing on Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks Cooper asked Peter Eden to find a bass player and Eden booked Harry Miller for the session.
Harry Miller had arrived in the UK in 1961 from South African where he had started playing with Manfred Mann. He was the first of several jazz musicians who would arrive from South Africa, escaping apartheid, during the sixties. Harry only played on two tracks of ‘Do I Know You?’ but that session was to lead to a long friendship and several recordings not only with Harry but later with several of the South African and British jazz musicians that Miller was working with at the time and that Eden was also producing.
‘Do I Know You?’ incorporated ‘ambient’ or ‘field recordings’ into Cooper’s music for the first time. Birdsongs, the sea and church bells were featured, something Cooper would return to many years later but with a different aesthetic. The cover is a photograph of Cooper leaning up against a wall in the ruins of what was Reading Abbey in front of a plaque commemorating the song ‘Summer Is A-Coming In’ – a ’round’ of six part polyphonic musical counterpoint reputed to be the oldest know piece of written music of this kind. The plaque reads “The most remarkable ancient musical composition in existence was written down at Reading Abbey circa AD 1240.” and Cooper, provocatively, has his back to it wearing a leather motorcycle jacket. Inside the gatefold cover Cooper is walking with G.T.Moore, another Reading musician friend who would later also record for Dawn records as part of the group Heron with Eden producing and later as G.T.Moore and The Reggae Guitars.
They recorded ‘Do I Know You?’ in a couple of days. Cooper arrived with a streaming cold which affected his vocal performance which sounds slightly nasal at times as a result. However a recent appraisal of the record says…
“As an album, Do I Know You? proves that Cooper was a major talent, who, if given the chance, would have had staying power due to his musical restlessness; and it provided a mere hint of the things to come on the legendary Trout Steel a year later.”
The record was released in 1970 and Pye/Dawn were happy enough with the sales and critical reviews to increase the budget for Cooper’s recordings. He was able to ask for more session musicians and stop making solo acoustic records. Since 1969 he had started spending time in Spain visiting a painter friend from Reading Roland Fade who had moved to, what was then, a fishing village called Almunecar in Andalusia. Cooper found the ambience of the Andalusian life style of Southern Spain so conducive to creative writing that he produced a huge body of work in a few months that would eventually become the next three albums and two seven inch extended play records.
TROUT STEEL – THE QUANTUM LEAP….
Although he only appears on a couple of tracks on ‘Do I Know You’ the experience of recording with a musician of Harry Millers calibre and ability to improvise was a revelation to Cooper and would influence his musical direction in the future and his approach to recording. Cooper realized that if you came with an idea of a song and had musicians who could improvise they could decide the final result and you ended up with more spontaneous piece of music than if you attempted to impose arrangements. Cooper couldn’t (and still doesn’t) read or write music and didn’t have the abiltity to come in with arrangements anyway. As long as you were prepared to ‘go with the flow’ and didnt have too many pre-conceived ideas about where it was all going to go things would be interesting and you would end up in some pleasantly surprising places.
“…featured in the pioneering New Musical Express Book Of Rock in the mid-70′s…Mike Cooper may never have matched the commercial success of some of his contemporaries, but he can boast an impressive body of work that continues to grow.” (David Wells – Paper and Smoke liner notes)
Returning to the UK in the late 1970′s he began to develop a parallel career and establish himself on the avant-garde and free-improvised music scene, working initially with members of the London Musicians Collective, such as Eddie Prevost, Keith Rowe, David Toop, Steve Beresford, Max Eastley, Paul Burwell, dancer Jo-Anna Pyne. and vocalist Viv Corringham. With saxophonist Lol Coxhill and drummer Roger Turner, they formed The Recedents, a free improvising trio now in its third decade.
Through the 1980s, as well as a short spell as rhythm guitarist in GTMoore’s reggae band The Outsiders, he also played in a number of experimental groups that mixed live free improvisation with dance beats – The Mayhem Quartet included pianist Pat Thomas, saxophonist Tim Hill and Neil Palmer one of Europe’s first turntable artists – Beating Time with drummer Paul Burwell, Gary Jones on bass and Tim Hill saxophone played punk no wave jazz. He also played Greek Rembetika music mixed with free improvisation in Avant Roots, a duo with longtime friend and singer Viv Corringham. Viv also joined Mike as a member of National Gallery, an acoustic country blues band that included guitarist/singer Mark Makin, and also as part of Mike’s Continental Drift band. An electric blues based band that moved into free-jazz and improvised musical areas. It included Mary Geddis, also on vocals, Tim Hill and Geoff Hawkins on saxophones, Pete Beresford and Pat Thomas on keyboards, Gary Jones on bass and Simon Price on drums.
“As both a performer and writer he has occupied an unusual niche, being willing to engage with both western experimental and so called Roots music styles (such as Hawaiian lap-steel guitar playing) and critical ideas about these circulating in various journalistic and scholarly contexts.” (Perfect Beat)
In 1987, together with the extraordinary French slide guitarist Cyril Lefebvre and incorporating the talents of Lol Coxhill, Steve Beresford and Max Eastley, they formed the Uptown Hawaiians to play and record a repertoire of Hawaiian, Exotica and other Lap Steel Guitar musics, re-affirming a life-long passion for Pacific music and cultures, old, new and imagined. They still play together from time to time, often with Paris based Tahitian musicians and dancers and the ‘Ukulele Tiki Party’.
In 1994 Mike made his first trip through the Pacific via Tahiti, Fiji and Hawaii to Australia and New Zealand and has returned to tour every year since. This has resulted in a number of musical and artistic collaborations with musicians,artists,film and video makers from these regions. It was during the first of these tours in Australia that he began to make Ambient Field Recordings, which now figure as a part of most live concerts these days.
As a journalist Mike has written extensively on Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar styles and performers and wrote the Hawaii chapter for the Rough Guide to World Music.
“….a masterpiece of contemporary exotica.” (Rayon Hula reviewed in the Wire).
Ambient Electronic Exotica is the genre and subtitle of recent solo performances, often accompanied with film or video, and three c.d. releases, ‘Kiribati’, ‘Globe Notes’ and ‘Rayon Hula’. Ambient field recordings collected in the Pacific, South East Asia, Australia and New Zealand, sampled, looped, treated electronically, and combined with acoustic or electric lap steel guitar improvisations to create Virtual Soundscapes.
Cooper credits the writing and recorded works of ethnomusicologist Steve Feld as a major influence on this latest phase of his music, in particular Feld’s work with the Kaluli people in Papua New Guinea and the concept of what they call ‘Lift Up Over Sounding’ – ‘Unison or discretely bounded sounds do not appear in nature; all sounds are dense, multilayered, overlapping, alternating, and interlocking. A constantly changing figure and ground…a spatio-acoustic mosaic of ambient and human sounds…a texture without gaps, pauses or breaks…part relations that are simultaneously in synch while out of phase.’ ( from Sound and Sentiment-Steve Feld).
Scoring and performing live music for silent films at festivals around the world since has proven a rich and rewarding way of combining a variety of different musical styles and of seducing people into listening to music they might not normally encounter. Initiated by a commission from John McAuslan, director of the Brunswick Music Festival in Melbourne, for a live performance of music for FW Murnau’s Tabu in 1995, his program now includes more than a dozen silent classics as well as several more contemporary films such as the 1964 Japanese film Onibaba, his own scratch video ‘Stolen Moments’ and a body of original super eight films titled ‘Those Final Adjustments’. See the film page for more details.
In 1999 he started HIPSHOT to produce limited edition cdRs from his studio The Steelworks in Rome where he currently lives. The first release Kiribati was chosen as one of the best ‘Outer Limits’ cds of the year by the prestigious UK magazine The WIRE and Rayon Hula won an honorary mention at the 2005 Prix Ars Electronica for Digital Music.
Cooper continues to play and sing acoustic music as well as improvising solo and with other musicians and artists. A list of current collaborations can be found on the Schismophonia page.
“Cooper was forging connections between folk and experimental musics long before America got New or Weird…”
PHOTOS- LEFT TO RIGHT – LEILA BUONGIORNO/ALESSANDRO CARPENTIERE / GREG WEIGHT