Mike Cooper: “I didn’t inhale.” Interview by Tony Mitchell


Rome-based English blues and Hawai’ian guitarist Mike Cooper’s latest release on Lawrence English’s Room40 label is Fratello Mare, the title of a 1975 film by Italian director Folco Quilici set in Polynesia. It is a dramatized documentary whose protagonist, an old man called Atai, takes us back to the early 1950s when Polynesia had yet to be invaded by tourist ‘barbarians’, and was a collection of unspoilt islands where people lived from fishing. Atai is actually born at sea, hence the title ‘Brother Sea’. The film specializes in underwater photography and portrays Polynesia as an idyllic world. Fratello Mare is Mike’s third release for Room40 based on films in the Pacific, after the remastered Rayon Hula (2010), partly based on live recordings of birdsongs Mike made in Queensland. He describes it as ‘a homage to the Hawaiian cool jazz / exotica musician Arthur Lyman and Ellery Chun, creator of the Hawaiian Aloha shirt. This collection is made from samples of some of Arthur Lyman’s records, deconstructed, treated and reconstructed with lap steel guitar and/or electronics played across the top and with the repeating brightly coloured ‘looped’ patterns of my many Hawaiian shirts in mind’. This was followed by ‘White Shadows in the South Seas’ (2013), a similar South Pacific soundscape. You can find a promo video for ‘Fratello Mare’ on Cyclic Defrost, with a series of quotations about the beach from Australian historian Greg Dening. The Room40 bio of Mike is worth reproducing:

“A young Mike Cooper can be spotted playing a beatnik guitarist on an anti-nuclear march in London beat cult film “That Kind Of Girl”. His first band The Blues Committee played with and supported blues legends such John Lee Hooker, Howlin Wolf and Jimmy Reed. Cooper was central in launching several of the first folk and blues venues outside London, especially in and around Reading. He was a regular on John Peel’s program from 1969-1975, recording numerous sessions. His free music group The Recedents was formed in 1982, threading directly into London vibrant improvisation community.He moved to Italy in 1988 after a slew of musical projects during the 80s in the UK and EU. Since 1994 he has spent increasing amounts of time touring and exploring Oceania. One of the outcomes of his exploration is Beach Crossings-Pacific Footprints – a radiophone work commissioned by Italian and Australian radio – that traces the history of colonisation in the Pacific by Europeans from Tahiti up to the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. His recordings have been re-issued numerous times by labels across the globe. Original pressings are found for obscene prices via various outlets.”

Tony Mitchell: Hi Mike! Are you in Rome at the moment? It must be hot!

Mike Cooper: Hi Tony. We are in Spain right now on a working holiday. I had one concert near Valencia, and one in Poland in between days; an interruption. I flew to Warsaw because it was together with Michael Chapman http://www.michaelchapman.co.uk/
who I hadn’t seen for many years. We toured together often in the sixties, so it was worth going. Yesterday it was 43 degrees here talking heat.

Tony Mitchell: Speaking of Rome, I’m curious if you ever come across a Dutch blues musician called Francis Kuipers? He used to play at the Folk Studio, and lived in New Zealand for quite a while when I was at school there. He ended up working with beat poet Gregory Corso …

Mike Cooper: Of course I know Francis. We did many concerts together in the late eighties and early nineties in the Folk Studio in Rome. The Folk Studio, apart from Gerde’s Folk City [in Greenwich Village, New York]was the longest running permanent venue for acoustic music in the world until Giancarlo Cesarone, who ran it, died in 1997. Francis is still around in Rome.

Tony Mitchell: You told me once you were born in Australia, but you can’t have stayed there very long … according to your bio it was 1994 before you came back to this part of the world.

Mike Cooper: No I wasn’t born there but I went to school there as an immigrant kid in 1953…five years in a penal colony…my folks hated it but I loved it and longed to return which I did in 1994 and I came back every year to play.

Tony Mitchell: Another blast from the past – sorry about this – but could you tell me about being asked to join the Rolling Stones? This must have been in about 1963 when you were in Reading – pre Brian Jones?

Mike Cooper: I didn’t inhale.

Tony Mitchell: I noticed your early 70s albums ‘Trout Steel’ and ‘Places I Know’ were re-released on vinyl recently by Paradise of Bachelors. That must be gratifying. Are there plans to re-release other early stuff?

Mike Cooper: Well the trio of albums I made for Dawn were re-released by POB…including Machine Gun Company. They were hard enough to get out. Universal own the master tapes…as they do of everything else that I recorded for Pye, and unfortunately they are extremely difficult to deal with. They actually couldn’t find the tapes for Trout Steel and it is re-mastered from a mint vinyl copy. Despite that I still had to be re-contracted to them before they would lease the tapes to POB … so I don’t think any more of that catalogue will be re-issued, which is a shame because there is other stuff there that I would like people to hear. Things I did with Dudu Pakwana, Mongesi Feza, Mike Osborne, Mike Gibbs, Harry Miller and others on singles or extended play 7inch records.

Tony Mitchell: ‘Trout Steel’ dates from the time you were getting heavily into free jazz. Then you formed the Recedents with the late Lol Coxhill …

Mike Cooper: Those records like Trout Steel were all recorded in 1970/71. When I was with Pye. I left Pye in 1972 and I had no record outlet until 1974 when I made what I think is one of my best albums, and the last of songs that I would make for many years. It is Life And Death In Paradise, which has the trio of Louis Moholo, Mike Osborne and Harry Miller as my backing group, plus some other musicians on other tracks. It came out on Tony Hall’s Fresh Air label and died a death. It got awful reviews… comments like ‘Great sounds for killing a cat’ and other enlightened criticism like that. I stashed it away and about ten years ago someone who will remain nameless (forever) came to my place and took away two test pressings with the promise of re-releasing it. He never did.

Tony Mitchell: I actually have a vinyl copy of it – can’t remember where I found it!

Mike Cooper: I gave up playing after its initial death and went to live in Germany, France and Spain until 1979. I was kind of traumatised into giving up song writing for a few years in fact. I went back to England and joined the London Musicians Collective and joined the free improvisation scene, where I met Lol Coxhill and Roger Turner and we decided to form The Recedents, a trio that would have no generic ties (or tyes) musically and would be experimental. We lasted until Lol’s recent untimely death. We only made a couple of records in its lifetime but recently we had a five c.d. box set of live performances released on the Freeform label.

Tony Mitchell: Moving on to film works, I remember seeing you perform at Macquarie University some time in the 90s to a silent film, ‘Tabu’ by F.W. Murnau, which you toured around quite a bit …

Mike Cooper: Live music for silent film screenings has been a part of my many cornered hat for more than 25 years. Tabu was the first film I ever did, starting at the Brunswick Music Festival in Melbourne in 1995. I went back every year with a new film until 2013. White Shadows is of course a silent film as well and was my last Room40 release on c.d.

Tony Mitchell: What made you decide on ‘Fratello Mare’ for your latest album?

Mike Cooper: Well it’s only a title of course. I was going to call it Legong, which is another film that I play live music to, in fact some of the pieces on Fratello Mare started life as live pieces for Legong. I am a great fan of Folco Quilici and I did his film Last Paradise for a while but I only have a VHS copy that I recorded from TV. It doesn’t exist on DVD or any other commercial media as it was made for RAI TV in Italy. Fratello Mare has a fascinating history. Folco Quilici went to the Pacific as a 25 year old in 1955 and just filmed everything. He released a film in 1956 called The Sixth Continent (the Pacific Ocean) and it was a huge success. After that he went to the Red Sea and began filming some of the first underwater films ever made and forgot about the Pacific.

Tony Mitchell: I watched Folco Quilici’s film online the other night, and it has a soundtrack by Piero Piccioni, who did music for Francesco Rosi, Antonioni, Bertolucci and others, and has become popular again in the fad for old Italian film soundtracks …

Mike Cooper: Yes well you realised my soundtracks have nothing to do with what is normally considered a film soundtrack. You can’t whistle mine!

Fratello Mare is available from Room40.


About Author

Tony Mitchell is an honoraray research associate at the University of Technology, Sydney. He has edited a number of books: on global hip hop (Global Noise, 2001), on Australian Popular Music (Sounds of Then, Sounds of Now, 2008), and New Zealand Music (Home Land and Sea, 2011). He is currently co-editing a book about Icelandic music.