An Interview with Matthew Cooper of Eluvium
Matthew Cooper is the musician behind the long running ambient, alt-orchestral project Eluvium. False Readings On marks Cooper‘s eighth full-length album as Eluvium which was just recently released. Cooper talks to us about composition, art, and his musical journey.
Somwherecold: Hello Matthew, thank you for answering our questions. It’s been almost 10 years since we’ve interacted with you, so I thought I would start with a broad question. Eluvium’s first disc came out in 2003, which makes this 13 years of releases for your project. Would you please reminisce about the time between Lambent Material and False Readings On? What strikes you as personally most important along the musical journey you’ve taken?
Matthew Cooper: Oh… um… i couldn’t dare to say a “most important” thing – as there are so many things that i am a part of or have gotten to do that are still just wonderful to consider. Working with Yo La Tengo on a track for my last record was kind of a dream come true. Getting to make a film score that has ended up being one of my favorite albums I’ve done. Working together with my wife on so many creative things over so many years is pretty amazing and wonderful to me. Touring the world with Explosions In The Sky was a major blast or memories and wild times. Having made friends with those guys in general from the get go is important – I consider them some of my closest friends now. — And speaking of making friends… Jeremy Devine from my record label has become such a dear friend to me as well. Ultimately, as corny as it may sound, I feel like the friendships that have been made outshine anything I could possibly come up with. Music brought me all of my closest friends.
In between Nightmare Ending and False Readings On, you recorded two albums with Mark Smith from Explosions in the Sky. Can you tell us about that project and perhaps a little about the writing and collaborative way you both worked together?
Well, the band Inventions was sort of born out of a desire for both of us to be able to throw some curveballs out and try new and strange ideas outside of our normal “day jobs”, as well as just a mutual respect for each others creative endeavors and a desire to work with a good friend on weird new ideas. The process is about what one would expect for two people that live far away from each other and also have lots of other musical projects going on. We just start mailing each other stuff when the mood strikes and the time is available, and once things really start to feel right and we can see a finish line, we get together out on the Oregon coast and stare at the ocean together while finishing things up. I think we will always have certain sounds that we bring to the table that are inherently “us”, but we strive to push our own boundaries of creativity, and funnily enough, still most people seem to think “ that guitar part was made by Mark”, or “that synth line is definitely Matthew”, when it is often the opposite and it actually isn’t a guitar or a synth in the first place. That isn’t to say that Mark doesn’t use his guitar (and beautifully) or me my organs and pianos. I think we just try to push ourselves outside of reaching for those things immediately and think of something that might make us a little more uncomfortable instead, and then see where it leads us.
In terms of Eluvium, how do you approach constructing an album? Is there usually a theme set out ahead of time or does the album build from a more organic place?
It is an ever morphing creature tied between ideas and musicality – I generally start with a feeling of something I am pursuing in my mind already, and the idea or thought process becomes strong enough to feel a need to creatively expel it, and in doing so the idea begins to mutate into something different and hopefully more unique, which changes my perspective on what I was originally thinking or intending. There are long breaks of just sitting and considering it all, and then there are fits and starts of composition that build things up. Sometimes there are pieces that seemingly come out of nowhere and a lot of the time they are the best ones.
Can you talk a bit about the choice to include operatic/choral singing on False Readings On? What drew you to incorporate these elements into your writing? How did you go about choosing/composing/writing those parts of the music?
I wanted to incorporate something pure to rise above the chaos of the music and textures. A lot of what was created was me taking note for note samples of old opera vocalists and rebuilding new phrases that I had written and transcribed for the album. Some of it I translated into Italian or Latin, and then I would try to phonetically recreate the phrase in a musical voice. Sometimes this did not work out though and I just let the music do what it wanted to do. It was a pretty long drawn out process that doesn’t really matter to the listener I wouldn’t think. But it was important to me for there to be meaning, no matter how obfuscated.
With “Posturing Through Metaphysical Collapse”, you brought to the table a finale that is this beautiful piece of ambient composition. Would you please talk about how you approached composing this piece? What was the writing process like? Also, why this particular track at the end of the album?
This track was originally two or more other tracks that I was working on. All of them were long form and I just couldn’t tame any of them… they wouldn’t translate as well as I wanted them to. At some point in time my brain pointed me in the direction of taking elements from each of the tracks and putting them all together and it worked out quite naturally, as if I was always working on the song, but just by creating several different songs that somehow had interchangeable parts. So I worked on it quite a bit to tame it and showed it to the Jeremy and Anna and Tommy from Temp Res, as well as to my wife. They all seemed really into it, and thus it came to exist. I was, personally, totally fried and unsure of anything at this point after having mixed pretty much everything else on the album but this one beast of a track which was completely eating my brain into madness. So, yeah,.. I wasn’t sure whether I should even include it or whether it was done or what. So really Jeannie and Jeremy and Tommy and Anna are to thank for pointing me in the “right” direction on that one. People seem to have responded quite positively to it. It was clearly an album closer from the get go. It pretty much summed up how I felt after the meta-weirdness of creating the album and the psychological nonsense I had been putting myself through. It was a release, of sorts, but not exactly the release one was expecting.
Can you talk to me about the artwork and artists you choose to do your album covers? Do you do commissions perhaps after they have heard the disc or concept for the disc or do you find pieces they have done previously that speak to you?
I’ve worked with Jeannie Paske (obsoleteworld.com) almost exclusively for Eluvium. Our process is very natural and mutually inspiring. We met working at a record shop and getting together working on various stop-motion animation projects together, and a mutual interest to drive around the Oregon wilderness listening to various musics. Years later we were married. For the album art, sometimes she comes up with her own things, sometimes I suggest direction or concepts. She has pretty much heard the music being created as it goes along, so she generally has an idea of the emotional plane. It just makes sense and feels right to work with this person that has seen you through the process and been inspiring you the entire time and helping you out of your frustrations and sparking new interesting ideas.
What draws you to particular sounds, tones, or textures in your compositions? Are there moments when you are composing where you liked a sound or tone initially but then abandon it for something else?
I’m drawn to statics and white noises and fuzzy edged things like dishwashers and box fans and humming tones and vibrational things. But I really just like sounds in general. They are ever inspiring and unique. I think it would be easier to list sounds I do not like. Abandoning ideas and selecting through sounds…that is pretty much the entirety of composition. Making choices like this. I’ve found that forcing something to work doesn’t ever really work, and letting things change if necessary is a good thing.
For the gearheads who read our site, what sort of gear do you use in the studio and, if different, what do you use when you are performing live?
I wish I could be more accommodating to the gear heads for you, but there isn’t some awesome “go-to” list of things that I use. I seek out crummy things that break a lot sometimes, – like Goodwill toy keyboards and old casios and yamahas of the plastic variety, and other times I use plug-ins that I’ve randomly come across while searching around or reading about in various places. – I use Equator D-5 monitors, if that is helpful ? They are kind of excellent “not breaking the bank” monitors. – I use a lot of modular stuff too, Make Noise, Mutable Instruments, Qu-bit, 4ms… I have a Teenage Engineerings OP-1 that gets brought out from time to time, a couple of Nord synths…lots of old looper pedals, loopstations, Akai headrush, RV-3, ten bazillion headphones, crappy tape recorders and digital recorders, and a bunch of microphones that may or may not work. It’s funny, I have lots of gear, but I’m not really a gear head. I just like things that make interesting sounds. It doesn’t have to be on some “pro” level for it to appeal to me. In fact, I tend to lean towards stuff that has a good chance of not working the next time I turn it on. It can be a little frustrating when it comes to performance though. I pretty much become very reliant on a computer, which is fine, but I prefer more hands on stuff. I use the computer a lot, but I simply prefer hardware and turning knobs manually and the instantaneousness of playful creation without looking at a screen and burning my eyes out. Nonetheless, it just isn’t practical to pack up things like that for a tour. Flight checking all of these fragile little things would cost a fortune, give my anxiety worrying about them in the process, only to end up not having the right power cable for the day of the show or something.
While I know that False Readings On just came out, what do you see as Matthew Cooper’s musical future? Do you have any other side projects in the works or even new ideas concerning the next Eluvium album?
I’ve been working a lot of piano pieces lately, and I also have some very symphonic works starting up… and another project relating to the structure of the universe in relationship to the human brain. Who knows if any of them will see the light of day or not. For the time being, most of the things I’m working on are just for comfort and the act of creation. I always have too many ideas that I want to work on. I try not to discuss it much though. It isn’t determined if I will see them through to a release to the public, or if it is just a phase I’m going through.
What sort of artists and musicians have influenced how you think about, hear, and understand music?
John Cage is probably the biggest inspiration that checks all of those boxes.
Ummm… Rothko, Dali, Monet, Seurat. Terrence Malick, Stockhausen,… I don’t know…. Everyone ?
Do you have any more comments for our readers?
— Thanks for caring. Have a beautiful day.
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