Talking Heads: Erland Cooper

Interviewed by Ben Hogwood

Erland Cooper is very much a ‘glass half-full’ musician. If anything, the glass is often full to overflowing as he has kept busy with creative projects through lockdown, up to and including a chance to finally realise the Barbican show he had planned for June.

Although he resides a long way from his native Orkney, both on a physical and spiritual level, Cooper finds solace and inspiration in his Hoxton studio. “It’s been an absolute safe haven”, he says gratefully. “When lockdown was very acute, I would still come over at 6-7am, before anyone was up, and not meet a soul. It’s obviously a bit different now, but it’s just been great, and I’ve been able to get under the fingernails of a few projects that I would perhaps not have had time for before.”

His third album, Hether Blether – the concluding part of an Orcadian trilogy begun by Solan Goose and continued by Sule Skerry – was released at the end of May. This was just as it was dawning that the UK tour, scheduled for September, was going to become a casualty of the restrictions brought about by the Coronavirus pandemic. He remains philosophical, however. “Live performance isn’t the be all and end all for me, it’s part of the journey, and literally part of the transportation to Orkney, when you’re up and down the country – in the Barbican Hall for instance. At the end of last year it came into realisation that there is a whole new enjoyment to bringing to the audience a room, a space, a ferry that takes you up to the North Sea and back again. That became a real process, but I’ve forgotten about it to a point. We were starting to put that into place, but that tour wasn’t until September anyway. Live music takes a lot out of me, and I tend to put it to the back of my mind until I’m ready to give it everything, so I hadn’t thought about it a great deal.”

In terms of the record, Erland had already let it out into the wider world. “You know a record is truly done when I play it to my close friends”, he says. “That’s when I feel like something’s done, and finished, but it’s taking it that bit further when you actually give it out to the world, and all of a sudden it’s getting reviewed – good or bad, it doesn’t matter – and it’s getting listened to. I got a message from someone who said they were trying to introduce music to my daughters, and trying to get them to sleep, a little bit earlier. Every night, about 15 minutes before they go to bed, they play one of my records back to back, and they said it sets the tone but it also gets them asking questions about classical music and electronic music. I just thought, you couldn’t plan that! There’s nothing you could try and do to plan that. So it really feels finished when it goes out the door.”

As with Solan Goose (air) and Sule Skerry (water), Hether Blether (land) is a deeply personal piece of work. “It finds some of the themes that we’re all feeling here during lockdown – those of community, ‘alone’ spaces, the people we spend our time with. Those are all feelings that are very much in this final record for me, personally. It is certainly a zeitgeist of it feeling like a good time to reflect and think about transportation, real or imagined. In a nutshell it was definitely surreal, but I also felt like it was important to just get it out. That was a good thing. Like a gannet!”

We agree on the importance of new music at this time, a source of positive energy. “I’ve really been enjoying the new records from Ghostpoet and Nadine Shah”, he says, “along with some classical releases, and going back to things I perhaps hadn’t heard before – Peter Gregson’s work, for example – and just going into things. Everyday when I come into the studio I listen to a new record, whether it’s a score by Alex Somers, or Julianna Barwick. It’s a constant, it’s a great thing.”

He was careful to control the noise around Hether Blether’s release in light of the pandemic, and found new positives from the experience. “When I was thinking about promoting the album I thought it was important not to shout about it, and just to have a break for a month or so. I think that was absolutely the right thing to do, and that’s the only thing I probably would have changed about the behind the scenes process. I quite enjoyed looking at it in a different way. It has been a great time for music, hasn’t it?”

We move on to discuss a mutual love, the Wigmore Hall – and its success in streaming live concerts, giving an indication of the live music we all miss. “That hall is very important to me”, he gushes. “I can’t wait to go back. I should take a little hip flask the next time I’m back there. I’ll do it very respectfully!”

Talk turns to a much wider space, and the video accompanying Skreevar, second single from Hether Blether. In it, Cooper dashes along the street in Orkney before jumping, fully clothed, into the North Sea. “I had a lot of e-mails from people saying ‘did you jump?’ and I had to say, ‘Did you watch the video to the end? Do you think a wee record label can afford to fake that?!’ We did one take, and that was it! I don’t know if I told you but when we did it I ran up to the edge three times. The first time was to judge how long it would take, the second time was so that Alex (Kozobolis), who was videoing could test running behind me, bearing in mind he had to do that with a camera and not fall in the sea as well, and then the third time.”

The shoot created quite a stir. “A couple of days before we did it we had to plan the tide, so we had that right. When we were practicing we had to stop traffic several times, and then there was a whole group of local folk who effectively started to egg me on, and then a bunch of tourists who were shouting like this sort of thing happens every day! Then, this really young couple were on the peer to the left, and they were oblivious to what was happening. They sat down where George Mackay Brown and I like to sit and reflect, and they must have sat down to have their supper and a glass of wine or something, after the second take. They got the fright of their lives when this six foot three, gangly bloke in a nice jacket jumps off the peer! They were just like, what? That was a highlight. It was very cold by the way, it didn’t look like it but it was!”

Watching it from the seclusion of a locked down living room is strangely liberating. “It was a great memory. I was saying to the guys at the time, I did it when I was 16-25, I’ll do it again when I’m middle aged, and then again when I’m 70. I’m only doing it once though, to get it right! It was only about a metre deep, so you would have reached the bottom. I’ll tell you what though, I’ll never forget that as long as I live! How often can you say that to yourself, really truly? That was what it was for, to create an adult memory as strong as a childhood one.”

Erland has already performed at the Barbican in a sense this year, taking over the Centre’s Instagram page for a week and projecting films made by Alex Kozobolis to his own albums across the estate. “That was so interesting for me. I don’t know if you ever used to develop film, where you effectively learn the virtue of patience – even just posting it off to the chemist. You don’t know what 35-40 pictures you’re going to get back, and there’s something about projecting digital footage that had come all the way from Orkney onto something as iconic as the Barbican Brutalist architecture. It felt like a slow development of film, and I really enjoyed that. I felt that Margaret Tait, the Orcadian experimental film maker, would be proud of that. Using the technology we have now, a portable projector, we were reframing work done by hand as a reference for true escapism. I know the question has come up for a lot of people, asking themselves where they truly want to live in the future, because of how limiting it is living in the city.” The duo enjoyed their endeavours. “It was really good for Alex as well, he really enjoyed the process, and I got to enjoy the process of curating some of his photos of the Barbican which again was a joy.”

Lockdown has brought with it a deep appreciation of the natural world for many people, and this is a key element of Erland’s music and life. “I think noticing that everyday joy and magic from nature has been so prominent up until now because of less noise pollution. It shouldn’t take a pandemic for people to value the great outdoors, but I’m glad people are taking notice. I think it’s like anything in life, if you take away the liberty, that’s when you truly value it. It’s very sad really. I hope it’s a wake-up call, a consistent driver for people.”

He has remained in close contact with his home island. “It’s been lovely. My folks were down in England, believe it or not, on a very rare potential holiday to Spain. I really feel for them, because they don’t really go away that much, and they’re both now retired so were really looking forward to it. There’s something about that generation when the pandemic first hit which was quite cavalier, which very swiftly changed because they’re very intelligent people! We agreed that going back to Orkney made sense, and so they drove through the night and got to the ferry crossing just before they closed – it was the last one for the night and before they closed for lockdown!”

Now their existence is completely independent from the mainland. “My dad said that lockdown for them isn’t much different from daily life. They have a cup of tea with the sunrise, and go for a walk or two a day. For them it was really good to get home. I’ve become friends with a few other people posting on Instagram, and I’ve been drawn to them. I’ve found it a great joy. I have one friend who is a wonderful artist, she sent me a little Orkney rescue package, some food, pieces of fudge and bits of art. I must admit I ate everything the day it arrived! I feel very connected with it. Also, you know very well that these records that I have been making are ultimately a tool for someone who isn’t there, and would go off with their books and tape recorders, and take snippets back with them, to try and capture an essence of it.”

Cooper has a number of musical irons in the fire. “I am using a different approach for the ambient ‘sister’ to Hether Blether, for as you know there has been an ambient companion to each of the albums so far, Sea Change and Murmuration. The final record that will be a companion to Hether Blether is called Landform. I’ve shared my work with Marta Salogni, the Italian producer. She’s a great lover of analogue production and recording, using tape machines as an instrument, which I enjoy too. Instead of throwing ideas around I thought I might put into three folders, titled, air, sea and land, and just put sounds into them, a whole collection of tones out of Hether Blether, drop them into the three folders and say there you go. It’s a bit like pick a card, any card – pick a few, and then break up the elements of the final record. It is about the community but it pulls together elements from the first two albums as well, so just putting the tones into three folders and asking her to pick what she wants when she wants, at no pace, and no urgency. That’s something I’ve started. I also have something else which is quite ambitious, but I will say no more at this stage!”

It was perhaps inevitable that Cooper would be busy, given his work ethic. “I think when you give something away, I just have this hunger to keep exploring the things that excited me the most during the process of creating and honing in on that. You’ll probably get a sense of what I mean. It’s a culmination of learning, developing and writing wrapped up together, so I’m working on that. “

The calm of the studio is helping creativity. “It is, and I’m very fortunate to have it. The lockdown is the only time I’ve ventured into watching movies there. I tend to just work in the studio but I’ve had a few 18-19 hour days in there. It’s not just a working environment, sometimes it can become like a cinema! I tell myself that I can only watch a film in there if it has an exceptional score.”

Erland Cooper performs with members of the London Contemporary Orchestra at the Barbican on Saturday 10 October, with images and video content from Alex Kozobolis. The concert can be seen either in person or online, with tickets available from the Barbican website.

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