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Friars Interviews

mike cooper
The man that started it all at Friars

friars appearances 02/06/69  28/03/70 (Wycombe arts festival)

 

Hey, what's this....an exclusive interview with Mike Cooper, the first headline artist at Friars back in June 1969. He is still gigging today and performs regular tours in the Southern Hemisphere, and had only just returned from Thailand and other places when we talked. Additionally, he occasionally performs as a duet with Aylesbury's own Lol Coxhill. Musically, very much a free spirit and heavily into improvisation, Mike has been living in Rome for over 20 years. Just before another set of dates, he put the guitar down and told this website what he's been up to the last 40 years.

Mike, thanks for talking to the Friars Aylesbury website. I'm very pleased to be talking to you because it's the 40th anniversary of the birth of Friars in June and you headlined the very first gig!

So you tell me!

I appreciate that in the midst of time, you won't remember one gig so far back, but it was very important because it was the very first one for Friars Aylesbury.

That's OK then!

Back in that period of the 1960s, you were part of a big British blues scene weren't you? Who else was on that scene?

There was Joanne Kelly. Her brother, Dave Kelly was just beginning to do some things as well. He went on to become part of The Blues Band (who played Friars twice in 1982). Andy Fernbach....whatever happened to him...and Ian Anderson of course.

Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson?

No, no. The one down in Bristol. He used to run the Troubadour Blues club down in Bristol. He's the editor of Froots magazine now. He was down in Bristol, the rest (of the scene) was in London mostly. I was in Reading.

Throughout your career, you have embraced different types of music, blues, jazz and almost a bit of New World, working with South African musicians and the like. So your blues evolved into the jazz stuff you did?

Yes, what happened was, that I made one solo album, then I wanted to expand the music and fortunately my producer, Peter Eden, was working with most of the new London jazz scene which is how I met the South African guys and people like Mike Osbourne. So I spoke to him (Eden) about this and that's how that all started. I did have an interest in jazz obviously which came out and blues and New Orleans stuff...

A bit like improvisation jazz?

Yes, it was the improvisation that I followed and continued to follow throughout my whole career as this (improvisation) is what I do and I also do film soundtracks and video etc. But it was more improvisation that jazz really.

So this was now the early 1970s?

Yes, about 1970/1 after that first blues record. I only really made one blues album, 'Oh Really' in December 1968, released in 1969.

Would you believe that album was given away as a competition prize at that first Friars gig? I had an email from a fan who had an autographed copy of that album and it was lent to someone and never seen again...!

Well, there you go!

So...with your music, you had started to move into different places and it seems that the general love was improvisation whether it be jazz, blues, avant garde or whatever, but in life you were also nomadic to a degree weren't you? You were living in different countries?

Yes, I've lived more out of England than in it. I went to school in Australia, then my parents came back to England. Then around that period (early 1970s), I started living in Germany, France, Spain and now I'm here in Italy.

Why?

My parents emigrated to Australia but didn't like it and came back. I subsequently have gone back there and have done annually for the last fifteen years or so.

You do an annual South Pacific tour don't you?

I first went to the South Pacific on my way to Australia. Back then you could get all sorts of tickets allowing exotic routes.

On these tours, you end up in places such as Thailand, New Zealand, Australia...

I first used to go across the Pacific way and stop off at places like Hawaii and Fiji. It was quite good going that way and stopping at places like that. Air New Zealand did some good tickets!

I will concede to jealousy at this point!

Ha! (laughs)

After the jazz stage and you were living abroad as well, where did your musical styles take you through the remainder of the 1970s into the 1980s?

I was living abroad and came back to England in 1979 when I found out there was a really strong free improvisation scene going on in London. The London Musicians Collective it was called. People like Derek Bailey and Fred Frith were playing, Keith Rowe, people who kind of expanded the language of guitar playing. I was interested in hooking up with those kind of people so I came back to England and stayed put until 1987 when I came to Italy. But from 1984 I was coming to Italy two or three times a year with those improvising musicians. I started working with Lol Coxhill (Aylesbury legend)...

He played Friars the week after you supporting The Pretty Things!

Although you were working in Italy a lot, you were still in England.....

I was kind of running a parallel career really, because I started playing acoustic blues again in Germany and also the free improvising thing and there were two completely different audiences and they rarely met which was quite interesting. So I pursued those things. When I went to Australia initially, I did fold festivals out there. There was also a free improvisation and electronic scenes in Australia and I started working them as well. I also do a lot of live music to old silent films.

I was going to mention that, because most Friars fans reading this may consider you to be the bluesy folky artist from way back, but there's more to you than that isn't there?

Yes, I'm very eclectic. I don't do (what I do) for any stylistic reason, but what I do...one thing feeds another and it feeds something else. It's all connected somewhere down the line. I think that in the last few years, I am doing bits of all I have done in the same show rather than trying to split it up (into styles) and worrying about the audience too much.

You mention this parallel career with different audiences expecting different things, it's interesting as how you win all audiences over....

They didn't kind of meet initially, but then the old audiences fade away and you get a new audience and don't know your past. Many people who see me today won't know what I did in the 60s.

The soundtracks for the silent films...and a more ambient kind of music?

Yes, more avant garde and a lot of electronics. But I still use the guitar as a sound source. I put it through lots of different effects when I do these films, so it sounds electronic but basically it's still a guitar going on.

For some time now you've been living in Rome and you have your own studio set up there haven't you?

Yes, but nothing too fancy. I'm still singing, but with different types of music. I'm off tomorrow to an acoustic festival. It will be all guitar bit a bit of electronica in the middle.

Are your gigs these days all solo, or do you play with a band?

I've got about three bands here in Rome. We don't do much work outside of Rome though. We work once or twice a year. I do it as I really enjoy playing with them. They're jazzy rock and one of them has two laptop computer players for electronic stuff.

Aside from the local stuff, you have, as mentioned earlier, the South Pacific following as you go back every year...

There's always something to do out there. You find a little cinema somewhere and offer to play music to the films. In some of the places, there may not be a huge music scene, but there are plenty who will watch films.

Your career is longer than Friars and I am so pleased to be talking to the man who started it all off. You probably know all the bands playing on June 1st...

Yes! I actually saw Tony McPhee a long time ago at a blues festival in Bergamo in northern Italy.

Everyone's still going strong. Good luck on all the gigs you are playing and the fact you are still enjoying it! Thanks for talking to the Friars website.

Happy anniversary Friars. I am happy and honoured that I was the first person to headline there!

Mike Cooper official site

This interview and its content are 2009 Mike O'Connor/www.aylesburyfriars.co.uk and may not be used in whole or in part without permission.

 
 
 

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