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
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
Jethro Tull's Ian
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
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
So this was now the early
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.
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!
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
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
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
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
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!
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.