Interview with UK Singer/Songwriter James Cook

by Alex Cosper

Conducted April 14, 2015 on Facebook

Alex Cosper (AC): Ladies and gentlemen, I want to introduce you to a friend and musician from the London music scene named James Cook .. He sets amazing storyteller lyrics to great melodies .. He's worked with some top level names in the music industry and is now making a name for himself .. James, thank you for joining me for this interview.

James Cook (JC): Hi Alex Cosper

AC: James, let's start with your background .. FIrst of all your music reminds me a little of a blend between Marc Almond of Soft Cell and Tears For Fears, but it's also very original. How did you get into music?

JC: Ok, i have had the Marc Almond comparison before, but am not particularly a fan. I guess we have similar backgrounds and influences though, both growing up in the suburbs of London, albeit in different decades (he, the 60s, myself the 80s). We are both fans of David Bowie, Lou Reed and Scott Walker though. My first band Nemo is very electro influenced, however. AC: You've covered David Bowie on a recent mini-album that features other covers .. Is David Bowie one of your main influences?

JC: would say Lou Reed was my main influence, I discovered him around age 14, and decided i wanted to be a songwriter like him. I taught myself to play guitar after I found a battered old acoustic guitar and a 'teach yourself to play' book under the stairs in my childhood home. Which was timely, as i had been hitherto writing songs without any previous musical knowledge. I discovered Bowie later actually. The covers album (called Reverse Engineering) is an acknowledgement of some of my favourite songs and artists, though.

AC: Not to suddenly plug my own music, but a lot of people say I sound like Lou Reed, who is one of my influences, besides the Beatles and a ton of 60s-90s rock .. Your mini album I mentioned called Reverse Engineering also has covers of XTC, Kraftwerk, Go Betweens, Teardrop Explodes .. Tell me about that project from a few years back.

JC: Well, I just wanted to have some fun and try some different ideas and techniques before I got stuck into my current album Adventures In Ausland. So when I was recording the drums in Prague I decided to record both albums simultaneously, then first work on the covers album while I wrote and arranged Ausland. I loved the scientific phrase "Reverse Engineering," which means discovering a new technology then taking it apart to see how it works and creating something of your own from that process. It is a useful writing technique too.

So I chose some of my favourite artists and tried to create something new and unique from some of my most beloved songs. Anne-Marie Kirby (my long time violin playing collaborator) wrote two fantastic string quartet arrangements for David Bowie's "Ashes to Ashes" (in my opinion, one of the greatest pop songs ever written) and Kraftwerk's Neon Lights, a pioneering electro song which I always felt was subconsciously written as a classical chamber piece for synths. XTC, GO BETWEENS, FUN BOY THREE, John Foxx's ULTRAVOX! and Julian Cope's The Teardrop Explodes are some of my favourite bands from the 70s/80s post punk era, so I decided to give them the treatment. This process then feeds into my second album proper Adventures in Ausland.

AC: We'll talk about your upcoming album, but first let's go back to your first album called Arts and Sciences featuring this title track .. This was the first song I heard from you here on Facebook and I think it's one of the best indie songs I've heard this decade .. Obviously, you like to mix educational themes and history in your lyrics. That's refreshing compared with the bulk of pop music this decade, that there's something thoughtful in the lyrics.

JC: Oh wow, praise indeed. Thank you so much. That song was actually written at the tail end of the recording process of that album (that, up until i wrote that song, was going to be called "Black Market Futures"). I came up with the phrase "Arts & Sciences" while i was recording, and then suddenly the song flowed out. I thought the phrase was an apt description of the modern creative musical process, so I decided to make the song a narrative of the birth of the modern 21st century approach to music making. However, as some of the subject matter on the album had become about very heavy and serious modern political and cultural issues, I decided to do it from an autobiographical and almost whimsical point of view, because I wanted to make a POP! record after all!

AC: And that helps make it very original. Do you agree that the world needs more social commentary music that opens people's minds without rattling their skulls too much? I like how you still bring the whole point back to an entertaining perspective mixed with clear visual imagery.

JC: There is definitely something within the British class system, our culture, the weather, that fact that we are an island, yet within that small area, there are such diverse cultures and nationalities that make for such great pop music. Historically I think we are the best in the world at this. Arguably the 80s was the high watermark for pop music, and also came at a time when the Thatcher government was destroying, selling and dismantling everything working people stood for. The quality of the culture and left wing, subversive nature of much of our pop language was a defining part of the late 20th century. I do feel that it is my duty to try to continue this strain of our culture, as well as simply being a massive fan of it all. I don't think the form is irrelevant and anachronistic, so I will continue to make records as long as I can still come up with the songs.

AC: That would be great if music could go back to changing the world like it once did and you are definitely leading the way with deeper lyrics than regular old assembly line pop. You've played live a lot throughout Europe in big places like London, Berlin and Prague. What type of venues do you like to play?

JC: I have never really been so successful as to play anything bigger than 300/400 capacity venues; these days they are even smaller (100 or less). When Nemo were at their peak we played on the main stage of the Montreux Festival, but really I prefer smaller intimate venues, not only to play at but also as a punter. The bigger the show, the less of a connection you can make with the audience. It becomes about the sound of the band and the atmosphere of the room rather than about the songs and the artist. I have played across Europe and into Russia, America, South America over the years. But I missed London, being away from it for 6 years, and missed our culture (however in decline it might be). It's important to be almost one to one with the audience these days of micro industry! Plus, I am totally outside the mainstream, however "pop" my music is, which is why i call my monthly London club night OUTSIDERS.

AC: James, you lived in Berlin for awhile and played with a musician friend of mine from my hometown Sacramento, California where I programmed alternative station KWOD in the 90s .. His name is Anton Barbeau .. I played his music on the station .. Strange small world isn't it?

JC: Anton Barbeau! Yeah we were neighbours, met and drank in the same coffee house in Neukoelln Berlin called Café Valentin! Became friends over the last 3 years or so. We have similar tastes in music, he is a musical anglophile. I actually got him to play guitar on my new album before i left. You can hear him playing the trippy guitar solo in my song "The Blackout." on the new album.

AC: I am looking forward to the new album. I understand you are recording it in various places in Europe.

JC: Well it's finished! But yes, I recorded it in Vienna, Prague, Berlin. Much of the songs were written in many different parts the world during my travels promoting Arts and Sciences. LA, Buenos Aires, London, Berlin, Montevideo, Prague are all in the writing. I finished it last year when I moved back to London. It's called Adventures in Ausland. Ausland is German for "abroad" or "outside." So it fits with the international themes of alienation, culture and crisis. However, it is essentially an English Pop record, so it felt right to return home and give something back to my culture, however ambivalent it may be to me!

AC: You visited Los Angeles in 2011 to perform .. How was that experience for you?

JC: It was great, I love LA. I know it well, beacuse during my IAMX and Nemo days I had a girlfriend of three years who lived there. So I travelled back and forth a lot at that time. I still have lots of friends there, and I think it is still a real music loving city. I wrote "Dog Arms & Dilemmas" and "Art Deco," two of my favourite songs from Ausland.

AC: So not only have you already played in Europe, Russia, North America and South America, you've aligned yourself with some fairly well known musicians such as Chris Corner of IAMX and Sneaker Pimps and Grammy winning Sony/RCA recording artist Imogen Heap .. How did those relationships come about?

JC: Well when I first moved to London myself and my band NEMO started up an electro/indie club night called "The System," It became quite a popular and star studded little music night. Graham Coxon from Blur was a regular, who also performed his first solo gig there. Chris Corner from the Sneaker Pimps DJ'ed and became one of my best friends (he later invited me to join his new band IAMX as guitarist). Imogen Heap, whilst still in Frou Frou, was also a regular. She once told me she had an epiphany whilst watching my band NEMO play about her new musical direction, convincing her to use electronic music, which later became her award winning album Speak For Yourself. She subsequently took us on tour as her backing band, as well as the support act.

AC: Interesting how all the pieces of your story beautifully tie together. What was the inspiration for remaking the 60s Jacques Brel song "Jacky" ??? You've retitled it "Jamie" and added your own humorous lyrics that mention lots of pop culture characters from Simon Cowell to Kurt Cobain.

JC: Ha ha. Well I discovered Scott Walker in the 90s, and as a student of Politics and French living in Paris, discovered the genius of Jacques Brel. One of the 20th century's greatest songwriters, in my opinion. The problem with Brel, is that, firstly his songs are all in French! If you don't speak it, and even if you do, the style, humour and satire is so nuanced that it's very difficult to interpret correctly. There have been many famous and successful English translations of Brel's songs, most famously Scott Walker, Terry Jacks ("Seasons in the Sun"), plus countless other versions of songs like "If You Go Away," "The Impossible Dream," etc. I always thought, however, that these versions/translations often miss the point of the song, or fail to correctly translate the sentiment. I finally decided to pluck up the courage to do one of my own, and "Jacky" was always my favourite one. I therefore took all the popular 60s and cultural references he makes in the song, and put them in a modern context. It was important to understand what he was singing about at the time, in order to then retranslate it and make it culturally relevant today. I was actually called "Jamie" as a child, and as the song is a personal narrative (Jacky was Jacques' childhood name), I again had to try and make it personal and cultural, much in the same way that I did when I wrote "Arts & Sciences." A TALL ORDER! I hope i succeeded.

AC: Americans mostly know Brel's re-adapted song "Seasons in the Sun," (originally called "Le Moribond") recorded in English by Terry Jacks in the 70s .. British musicians seem to be aware of a lot more literate songwriters such as Brel .. I'm curious where you find music and if you listen to the BBC.

JC: Well before the internet, I used to listen to BBC radio a lot. I read a lot about music in the NME, and autobiographies, books, libraries, obsessively listened to albums and artists. Alongside politics, pop music was my obsession and really replaced my academic aspirations. I guess I transposed all my literary and academic predispostions into modern pop music and its history. But really the internet has replaced all those things, I find both NME and BBC comparatively vacuous these days. And my writing took over from my fandom once i started to get good and more successful at songwriting and recording.

AC: Speaking of the internet, what's your take on the indie revolution in terms of music platforms such as SoundCloud and BandCamp, which almost replace record labels, at least for indie artists?

JC: Well I have made 8 albums so far, and if it wasn't for modern technology and the internet, this would never have happened. I don't really like streaming platforms because they have devalued music and essentially got people out of the habit of paying for music. However, accessibility to music Is now unprecedented, and it's all out for those who want to look. the internet has replaced libraries, record shops, bookstores, music venues and everything that used to make up 20th century music culture. We have gained much, but at the same time lost so much of the culture involved in the community of indie music. I do not mourn the music industry's loss of its stranglehold over the financial and creative aspects of music. But where's the revolution? Popular culture is now more dumbed down than ever and the internet is now used as a tool to control people even more than before. Now that musicians have creative control of their own destiny, why is there no innovation? Where's the great leap forward? Maybe it will not be in music where the next cultural shift occurs. It doesn't feel like an edgy platform for young people to explore their creativity. Maybe I am old, but kids seem to be making incredibly generic music these days. Unless I am missing out on something ... ?

AC: All valid points .. I guess for me the indie revolution is more of a dream that hasn't come true yet. But what has come true is I met you through the internet and I think your music is better than most major label music of this decade. Talk about this recording "Lilly." I love the violin sounds. It sounds like you have some classical influence as well as rock and new wave influence.

JC: I think you are right, it still hasn't quite happened yet, we are in a transition period. Well I have always loved strings as well as synths, so this album is as close to a Chamber/Orchestral album as I will get. I love new wave and electro pop as much as I love 60s bands like Left Banke and Velvet Underground. I realise that the self taught/punk noise end of things works even better if you marry it with the classically trained end of things. Hopefully you get the best of both worlds. So here I used electric bass and cello (Terezie Kovalova) doubled together to bounce the drum groove (Tom O. Marsh) along. The strings sound huge, but they are just two harmonised violin parts together, played by Anne-Marie Kirby, with whom I have been working and writing for 15 years. This song actually came to me in its entirety in a dream, something which has often happened to me when writing, but never before so vividly and completely. I remember waking up in the middle of the night with the guitar riff going round my head, i quickly recorded it down before i forgot it, then all the images from the dream came out in one splurge and I wrote it all down as is appears in the final version. i went back to sleep, but when I checked it all the next day I realised I had something good.

AC: Time to wrap up the interview, which I've thoroughly enjoyed since you have a lot of interesting things to say that mix music with so many other ideas. We'll have to do another interview sometime. What are your closing thoughts about where you are in music and where you are going?

JC: Well, I want to thank you for this interview, which, I agree has been a lot of fun. It's really nice to get questions like these because they actually help you to articulate the things that normally just stay as unvoiced concepts in the subconscious! Musically, I am doing my monthly club night, which I hope to take to Europe, along with my great new band, Pablo Sosa (drums), Anne-Marie Kirby (violin) Emma Price (synths) and Rhiannon Lock (cello). I am currently writing and recording my third solo album, which I hope to have out before the end of the year. The working title is ANGRY LOVE SONGS, and it will be mostly guitars and synths, punchy and direct, I hope! I will be saving the strings for the The Dollhouse second album, which i am currently writing with Anne-Marie Kirby. So keep watching this space, buy my albums, support independent music and keep the faith! ...

AC: James, thank you for this interview. I'm glad you continue to fill your music a sense of creativity. Like Rolling Stone said about your music, it's "cinematic, exciting and unconventional .. like an experimental divine comedy."

JC: Thanks, Alex and goodnight!

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