Μultinational artist Mike Cooper talks about the lap steel guitar, British Blues, Alexis Korner & Rembetika

"The most important experiences are the ones where I have learnt something new...not necessarily music either. Knowledge comes from experiences you live through and you can channel that into music."

Mike Cooper: Sliding around the world

Virtuoso in lap steel guitar, composer, sound artist, song writer, improviser, columnist and collector of Hawaiian shirts, Mike Cooper is one of the most interesting and special musicians in the wider area of experimental music. His path begins in the folk - blues scene of London in the 60s where he becomes famous as a songwriter and guitarist near musicians like John Lee Hooker, Howlin Wolf and Jimmy Reed.

Between 1970-1972 he released a series of classical albums (Do I Know You?, Trout Steel, Places I Know, Machine Gun Company) that although they are based on blues and folk tradition, have elements from jazz, country, psychedelia, traditional music, improvisating forms and field recordings. That period he recorded a series of sessions for John Peel's show.

From the late 70s Cooper is active in the improvisational scene that is built around London Musicians Collective and collaborates with musicians like Eddie Prevost, Keith Rowe, David Toop, Steve Beresford, Max Eastley, Paul Burwell, Viv Corringham and Lol Coxhill. From the 80s until today he stays an active member of the improvisational community and continues to work on musical genres such as: exotica, reggae, no wave, electronica, hip-hop, free-jazz, ambient, field recordings and the traditional music of Haiti, Greek Folk music and (maybe most of all) the music of Hawaii. Through those routes he has create a very personal and special musical style (that some have characterized as space-age folk music) and combines experimental and avant-guard researches with the immediacy and tunefulness of folk music.                                                                     Photo by Greg Weight

Interview by Michael Limnios

How do you describe Mike Cooper sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy?

MIKE COOPER - plays lap steel guitar / electronics and sings. For the past 50 years he has been an international musical explorer pushing the boundaries of his music. Initially a folk-blues guitarist he 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. 

With his roots lying in acoustic country blues he has, arguably, stretched the possibilities of the guitar even more than his better known contemporaries Davy Graham Bert Jansch John Renbourne etc. by pursuing it into the more avant-garde musical areas, also occupied by contemporary guitar innovators such as Elliott Sharp, Keith Rowe, Fred Frith and Marc Ribot, with an eclectic mix of the many styles he has practiced over the years. Ranging freely through his own idiosyncratic original songs, traditional country blues, folk, free improvisation, pop songs, exotica, electronic music, electro-acoustic music, and ‘sonic gestural’ playing utilizing open tunings and extended guitar techniques.

His most recent c.d. is White Shadows In The South Seas on Room40 Records a collection of 21st century exotica pieces described in one review as "Matise for the ears."

I believe improvisation produces the most exciting and interesting music. My music is infused with blues and folk music even at its most abstract and is the result of "listen, watch, learn and play"

"The modern electric blues became too commercial for me. Now after all these years I like to listen to some more electric players like Albert King, Hubert Sumlin."        Photo by Greg Weight

Which is the most interesting period in your life? Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

The most interesting period of my life is the one I am living right now. I am at this point in my life able to play music which is (I hope) very much my own music...the result of 50 years of playing.

The best moment is always the one when I am playing without having to think about it too much. The perfect moment of improvising is one that happens without you (as the musician) even noticing it.

The worst moment of my career was with my band Continental Drift when we were playing support to BB King at a festival in Paris in the early 90's. The audience hated us and after about three numbers they started throwing plastic bottles of water at us.

Why did you think that the Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following? 

Blues is not the only music to have a devoted following of course. Opera, classical, jazz and folk all have devoted followers. Any music which 'speaks' to people - or touches people in some way - will last for ever and have a following. Here in Greece Rembetika still touches people hearts. I think it is honest music that generates a lasting following.

I have to say though that I am not a fan of much modern blues. I never owned many blues records. In the begining in the 60s I liked to listen to Blind Boy Fuller and Blind Blake a lot and Chicago blues players, Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf etc.  After I made my first record "Oh Really" I stopped listening to blues and I became a singer-song writer and I started to listen to more jazz than anything else. The modern electric blues became too commercial for me. Now after all these years I like to listen to some more electric players like Albert King, Hubert Sumlin. I like to hear those 50s and 60s electric guitar sounds. They all had very distinctive guitar sounds. Probably a combination of cheap guitars and cheap amplifiers sometimes. Now most electric guitar players have the same 'sound'. Freddy Roulette for instance...the moment he plays three notes yuou know it is him. He is one of my favourite electric lap steel blues players.

"My music these days is mostly improvised but I draw a lot of my technique from all these other (world/folk) music without making actual musical reference to them." Photo by Leila Buongiorno

Do you remember anything funny from John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed, Howlin Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson?

When I met John Lee Hooker in the 60's I didn’t realise how young he was. I thought he was an old man. I was only 21 yers old myself. He gave me a whiskey bottle with his signature JLH written on it. When he signed it I realised he couldn’t write his name.

Howlin Wolf - a very, very big man but a very kind and gentle man. I still love his music.

Jimmy Reed always had his wife standing behind him playing bass. Jimmy was so drunk he could never remember the words to the songs and his wife would whisper them to him as he sang.

What's the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

The 'best jam' - if that is what it could be called lasted from 1982 until 2012. It was with my improvising music trio The Recedents, with drummer Roger Turner and saxophonist Lol Coxhill. Unfortunately our friend Lol Coxhill died last year and we decided to stop. Lol Coxhill and I came from the same musical background of blues. He was one of the most amazing people I have ever met as well as being an amazing improviser. He played on many records including with Kevin Ayers, The Damned, The Clash, Alexis Korner, Rufus Thomas and many more. We have a five cd box set of live recordings coming out very soon spanning our whole period together.

My own personal 'memorable' gigs - Sharing the stage with Fred McDowell in 1969, sharing the stage with the Grateful Dead at the Hollywood Festival in 1971; a concert with Hawaiian musicians Ledward Kaapana and Cyril Pahinui at the Honolulu Academy of Arts in 1995; playing with local musicians in Fiji; playing with my band Uptown Hawaiians and six Tahitian dancers and musicians at a festival in Zurich in 1996; many more of course...

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

I can answer this in reverse. The best musical advice...always try and play with people who are better than you...that way you learn. Listen, watch, learn and play.

The most important experiences are the ones where I have learnt something new...not necessarily music either. Knowledge comes from experiences you live through and you can channel that into music.

Are there any memories with Ian Anderson, Jo Ann Kelly and Alexis Korner which you'd like to share with us?

I never played very much with Ian Anderson although we made a record together (Inverted World) but it was two solo artists sharing one side each of an l.p. and we played together on one track I think? I have a memory of both of us on a hippy shopping trip looking for beads and necklaces in Weston Super Mare in 1968.

I played often with Jo Ann Kelly and she was amazing. There were not many female British acoustic blues artists in the 60s and she should have been a big star.  She had a wonderful voice and was a great guitar player. Johnny Winter persuaded her to go to America and said he would record her and make her a star but he let her down.

Alexis Korner (he was part Greek you know?) was a big influence on us all of course. I used to go a listen to Blues Incorporated a lot and it influenced the musical direction that my band The Blues Committee took from 1962 to 1965 before I became a solo acoustic player. We mixed Chicago blues with Jazz. My friend Geoff Hawkins was the saxophone player in The Blues Committee. Later on my later band The Machine Gun Company played together on a festival in Heidelberg in the early 70's. There was a lot of trouble at the festival as some local anarchists said that it should be a free concert and just before our set there was a bomb scare. The organisers asked us if we still wanted to play and of course we said yes. Alexis said to us "Don’t worry I will be with you...right behind that big bass amplifier...!! " We played many concerts together over the years. I was at the opening night in 1962 of his club in Ealing in West London. Thats where I met some guys who wanted to form a band and call it The Rolling Stones.

In your opinion what was the reasons that made England to be the center of the Blues Boom at early 60s?

The interest in blues actually started in the fifties in England. It came about from musicians who were playing New Orleans jazz and it was very very popular...just before rock and roll took over. Musicians like Ken Colyer and Chris Barber for instance started to include an acoustic "folk blues" set in the middle of their jazz concerts. From that a thing called "Skiffle" was born...a kind of DIY 'folk blues" music which, like punk in the 70s, was a musically simple version of something that was perhaps more complicated in its original form. There were lots of skiffle groups and some like Lonnie Donegan or The Vipers Skiffle Group became very popular and had hit records in the charts. I started playing in a skiffle trio.

This simple acoustic music turned people onto the real blues and people started to look for records...which were very hard to find. There were a couple of specialist jazz shops in London that also had some (mostly Chicago) blues records, and some people were collecting 78rpm folk and blues records at that time as well.

In America of course there were young musicians who were deeply interested in the blues and collecting jazz and blues 78rpm records. People like John Fahey and Stefan Grossman realised that some of the players on some of the records they found were still alive and playing. Unfortunately America was (and still is) a deeply racist society and those artists who made those records were victims of a non-equal system and most of them were only playing for black audiences. England didn’t really have that problem. Although I am not saying England wasn’t racist, it was, but not to the extent that America was. White people and black people were not allowed to mix in some places. That never happened in England. Some Afro-American blues artists played for white audiences for the first time when they came to England.       (Photo: Sam Mitchell, Mike & Stefan Grossman)

You are also known of your work with world folk music. Would you tell a little bit about that, and what are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Rembetiko, Flamenco and Pacific Ocean's music?

As you know I play lap steel guitar. One day I discovered Hawaiian music and I also discovered that slide guitar or lap steel guitar was invented in Hawaii not as many people think by blues musicians. I then discovered there was a history from about the 1930s of Hawaiian guitar (lap steel) being incorporated into other folk and popular music around the world. In African and Indian music for example. I also discovered that Hawaiian music sold more records than any other kind of music from about 1914 up to the 1920s. There were groups playing Hawaiian music all over the world - even in Greece!!! This started me writing about this subject and I also, of course, started to listen to music from all over the world as a result of my search for lap steel players for instance in Vietnamese music, Arabic music, Indonesian music, Japanese music etc etc.

I am a singer well as a guitar player and blues, rembetika, flamenco and Pacific island music all share great vocal traditions. They are all 'peoples' music rooted in some urban/folk context. They are musics of resistance which appeals politically to me as well. They are also music which became popular first of all as a live event and then later because of the recorded medium which is interesting. The first rembetika records were made in America of course not in Greece.

My music these days is mostly improvised but I draw a lot of my technique from all these other (world/folk) music without making actual musical reference to them. I have a duo with singer Viv Corringham who sings Rembetika. We do something we call "Rembetronika" - we try to create a modern electronic version of Rembetika by de-construction of the old songs and putting them into a new musical context. It involves a lot of improvisation. Viv has been singing rembetika for many years and she is also a sound artist specialising in story telling and walking. We have worked together in many projects together over the past 30 years.

Do you know why the sound of the reso-phonic guitar is connected to the blues? What are the secrets of?

Resophonic guitars were invented by John Dopyra in California in the 1920s. John was a violin maker and a fan of Hawaiian music and he made his first guitars for Hawaiian musicians to play lap steel style, so these first instruments had square necks on them. He later made round neck spanish style as well. He wanted to make a guitar that was louder than a normal acoustic guitar (this was before the electric guitar pick up was invented) and he came up with the 'acoustic amplification' system of aluminium resonators inside the metal guitar body…that was the tri-plate, like the one that I have. Mine was made in 1932 and I bought it in 1958. They were quite cheap guitars at first and they were loud and because they were made from steel they were strong and stayed in tune much better than a wooden acoustic especially if you were playing out doors or in the street. I think thats the main reason blues musicians like them. The single resonator Duolian model is very loud and has a much harder sound than the tri-plate and suited the blues musicians much better than the more sweeter tri-plate sound which Hawaiian guys preferred.

 As I said I have an original National tri-plate from the 30s and I have a copy of that guitar made for me by Alan Timmins, called an F1, which is made from carbon fibre. Alan called his guitar F1 because he also made racing car bodies from carbon fibre and there are only three of these instruments in existence.

I have a microphone inside it and a magnetic electric pick up on top so that I can blend an acoustic and electric sound together. 

Mike Cooper - official website


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