Not Complaining, Just Evolving – an interview with Ray ‘Chopper’ Cooper
After a successful career in the folk group The Oysterband Ray Cooper, better known as Chopper, decided to venture out on his own as a solo act. Now on the eve of a new tour and with a second album in the back he spoke to us about touring, the new album and how important it is to embrace change within music.
When I call him up Ray ‘Chopper’ Cooper has just released his second album Palace of Tears and takes a break from packing and rehearsal for a tour that will keep him on the road until November.
‘I don’t like being away for more than a couple of weeks, so I come home for a bit. I’m going to Denmark, then eastern Germany and then to England’ he explains.
The tour comes to an end on the 16th of November in Brighton, where Cooper went to art collage and a place that holds a lot of memories for him.
‘They were my formative years and I lived in a succession of crappy flats over the course of four years’ he comments on the Brighton days.
Not from a particularly musical background Cooper’s early influence was mostly American music of the seventies and not purely folk as one might think.
‘I’ve always straddled both rock and folk and in the beginning I listened to a lot of artists and bands who meld folk and rock; like Neil Young, Johnny Cash and the British band Fairport Convention. The way folk has inspired those artists is how folk has worked for me as well.’
To Cooper folk has always been a source of really strong melodies and this may very well be why his new album Palace of Tears isn’t inherently folky as one might expect.
In the beginning of the eighties Cooper became one of the founding members of the band 3 Mustaphas 3, a world music cabaret band that played mostly in London, but was the reason for his first visit to Eastern Germany, a place he would return to several times and would influence his latest release.
‘It was a lot of fun’ Cooper says as he thinks back on those days. ‘It was formed in the beginning of the world music scene. I was there for the first two albums and after I left they became more jazzy and better. When you tackle folk music from another country you can do it very seriously or just have fun.’ Cooper is quick to say that 3 Mustaphas 3 did take the music seriously, but it was with the act itself they had fun.
After leaving the band, in 1986, he tried to do a solo project, but nothing came of it and he joined The Oysterband in 1988 as bassist and cello player. He moved to Sweden after meeting his wife and has been living there for the past fourteen years. In 2012 he announced that he was leaving the band and left after their Ragged Kingdom tour in 2013.
‘The main reason I went solo was to sing and do my own material’ he explains. ‘When you’re the singer in a band you’re already there as a singer in a band, to be a singer I had to leave the Oysterband. I was happy to be a band member for two decades, but when I released my first album I realized it could work and that I needed a new kind of challenge. I wanted to write more of my own material and develop myself as a singer and it’s more convenient for me to organize my own tours in Sweden, I drive myself to Denmark and Germany.’
Already in 2010 he released his first solo album Tales of Love, War and Death by Hanging and was well received. In May of this year he released his second album Palace of Tears and has been seen as a very different album from the first.
‘They are very different,’ Cooper explains. The first album was quite a strong statement and some of the songs deal with war, quite heavy topics. Even though it was acoustic I tried to make it fairly hard hitting, whereas with the second album the historical content is much more recent and a much more personal history. I tried to go for more emotional depth.’
When listening to Palace of Tears as an album there is a kind of general tone of darkness and most of the songs are observations of the world around and there may be a lot of things the listeners might recognize. The album in itself might be able to be summarized in the title song.
‘I’ve been an observer for the past 25 years living and working in Northern Europe, witnessing, observing and experiencing things. That’s what the new album is about. I played East Germany quite a bit during the cold war era with the Oysterband and we got to know a lot of people and we became observers as their lives changed when the Soviet Union vanished in a puff of smoke and it was very disorientating. There were losers and winner at that time, especially in the short term and I’ve got many strong feelings from that time. I’ve played in Western Germany and people say they recognize the feelings from the songs. I’ve been an expat for the past fourteen years, it is really all about my experiences, old photographs and places I’ve been’
It’s not only the subject matter that is different between the albums; musically there is quite a change from the dramatic folky to the more melancholy, a Swedish tone perhaps.
‘I have always been drawn to the blue side of things’ Cooper comments as the subject of the Swedish vemod comes up. ‘And it was what drew me to Sweden.’
This tone might have come from the formation of his new band; The Swedish Kitchen Orchestra and has already played two shows, in Sweden, with them. The band adds two violin players and a piano/organ player to the mix. Unfortunately his adopted country isn’t his main focus when it comes to touring.
‘I’ve done a couple of shows in Sweden this summer, but I would like to do more shows next year. Nearly all my stuff is outside Sweden and I do most of my touring in Germany and I have three tours in three regions booked there in the coming year. It is easier to tour in Germany and together with Denmark they are some of the best countries to tour in. They really like music and want to understand the words; they aren’t so affected by fashion.’
Part of the reason for touring in Germany is also because they have a romantic view of Sweden, just like the Danes have one of Scotland, which works well for Cooper since he has is roots in Scotland.
Cooper’s music is readily available on streaming sites like Spotify and to download from iTunes, but has he felt any effects of illegal downloading or is it more difficult for artists to survive today in general?
‘I don’t like to complain about musicians’ situations’ he replies. ‘It’s never been easy; I just like to get on with it. Music changes all the time like going from Dancehall venues to rock clubs. You have to change with it. I do a lot of house concerts at the moment, it feels like something new. I play in someone’s living room and hopefully they get thirty or so people together to come see it. Other things are crowd funding and crowd sourcing, it’s a way to get in touch with the grassroots and that’s really important and people feel a part of it.’
On September 21st he is playing a house concert that will be live through the website concertwindow.com. It’s a matinée show at three p.m. and people pay whatever they think it’s worth.
So, apart from touring, what does the future hold for Ray Cooper?
‘I need to start thinking about what kind of album I would like to do next. I write very slowly so I need to get to work on it early. I finished my latest album in May, but I have played the songs all last year so to me it’s not that new. I will be living with the next album for several years as well, writing, touring and then recording it. I might tour round my hometown as well as a show in Stockholm in December.’
If you are interested to learn more about Ray ‘Chopper Cooper’ you can visit his homepage:
or follow him on facebook
or find his music on Spotify as well as his work with Oysterband and 3 Mustaphas 3
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