Interview: Jack Cooper (Modern Nature)

by Philip Moss

Jack Cooper: the enigmatic mind behind Mazes, Ultimate Painting and Modern Nature

The surreal events that have gripped the world over the last few months have affected us all differently. Jack Cooper was in the middle of a European tour with his band, Modern Nature – promoting new mini-album, Annual – when the Coronavirus really took a hold. Unfortunately, the tour was cut short – leaving the songwriter in a period of self-isolation well before the Government put the country into lockdown. ‘This isn’t too diff to my normal life,’ Cooper stated over the phone, ‘other than I haven’t been able to go to the studio once a week. But I’m still writing, as always. Before Annual was finished, I already had another record in mind.’

And this, in a way, sums the Lancashire native up. Born in 1980 in Blackpool, there’s been a musical obsession from childhood. The Beatles, Beach Boys and The Troggs primed him for Britpop, which then led him back to The Stone Roses through their infamous NME interviews. But the looking back stopped there, for his ears were pricked by the DIY spirit of contemporary American acts like Sebadoh, Elliott Smith and Pavement. 

A Thousand Heys – the debut album released by former band, Mazes – was informed by these new found acts, and is still the most instant thing that Cooper has ever put to tape. Its mix of snappy, transatlantic lo-fi stylings was the perfect springboard for the band to grow from. But Ores & Minerals is the record where the Lancastrian started to find his own voice, and although it’s an instant ‘no’ when asked whether he listens back to his previous works, it’s this LP that he’s most proud of from this period. The catchy abrasion of the debut is still present, but enveloped by a blend of quirky time signatures, unpredictable arrangements and looping guitars. It is more consciously crafted and hinted at Cooper’s reluctance to stand still: ‘I think it still stands up. I stuck to my guns. I was true to myself. It’s cohesive – we had a set idea and a palette of sounds in mind, and it manifested into what we imagined it could be.’ Along with final album, 2014’s Wooden Aquarium, these two records demonstrate that Mazes were a band well ahead of their time – and Cooper capable of exciting, unpredictable, but incredibly well constructed songwriting and musicality.

Before his relatively short, but inventive time in Mazes was over, the advancing Cooper had already formed Ultimate Painting, and believes the self titled debut is as strong as anything from his eleven record discography. ‘We were so pleased with the reaction to it; it felt so instant. Like with Ores & Minerals, James and I almost had a manifesto; there were limitations that we put on ourselves, and what we were trying to do was perfected. It felt very much like an internal success, and that we’d already achieved what we set out to do.’

Now living in London, he isn’t drawn back home to Lancashire. But he does still have a passion for the North West. In 2017, while working on Up! – the last recorded, but never released Ultimate Painting LP – Cooper felt the band ‘started second guessing’ themselves, and ‘started to write what we felt people wanted from an Ultimate Painting record,’ after it had previously been so natural. As a result, he left the band and wrote Sandgrown – a collection inspired by the people of Blackpool and the Fylde coast. Despite being ‘content’ with the record, Cooper feels he could have been ‘more ambitious with it.’ Where many would reflect on the fact that it is another very strong addition to their canon, this super critical trait is what has driven Cooper to get better, and constantly push the envelope of his artistry. 

Now, Cooper finds himself as the captain of new act, Modern Nature, which he describes as having a rolling line up. ‘I want everyone who is in the band at that moment to feel like they are a partner in it, but that they’re under no obligation to stay any longer than they want. I suppose a bit like a football team… The solo record was the first time I’d recorded an album that had a concept or framework to work within. So, with Modern Nature, I decided to take that a step further and start a group that in my mind is clearly defined, as far as the subject matter, tone and instrumentation goes. Keeping a group of people is very difficult – everyone spins a lot of plates nowadays, so it’s unrealistic of me to hope that three or four people will be able to do this forever. But it makes sense, musically, to keep things fresh… over the last six months we’ve settled down to a core of myself, Jeff Tobias and Jim Wallis, and I think that’s a good moon for other people to orbit around.’

Last year’s debut record, How To Live, is a quietly understated masterpiece. The motorik percussion that underpins the record is offset by the spacious and emotively ambient feel of Talk Talk, Spiritualized and his love for free jazz. Carrying the gentle calmness of a summer breeze, it the perfect record to let your mind wander to – yet, at the same time, is one in which you can totally immerse yourself. Criminals’ subtle melody has the softness of Nick Drake, while immediate single, Seance, is filled with a nervous anxiety that shows off Cooper’s experimental side, as it climaxes in a flurry of stuttering, chopped up tape edits. ‘I approached writing it in the same way I imagined one would approach writing a soundtrack or play, so each song serves a specific purpose in moving the narrative forward… the reason why it is a musical thing, rather than a book or prose, is because I am trying to explain myself in terms I can use. I had a clear theme and narrative. At the start of the record, the protagonist – whether that’s me or the listener – is in circumstances of high anxiety and nervousness, isolation and depression. Then, over the course of the record, I wanted that to dissipate, or for there to be an acceptance that those conditions are part of life. And accepting that brings a freedom. I framed it, so that it moved from a city that was grey to open spaces and greenery. It was all mapped out. I kept detailed notes. And part of that was filling a few pages of my notebook with words and phrases that fit with the plot of each song – then I’d tie all the strands together.’

This ruminative writing style has continued for new mini album, Annual – sonically, there’s not much to distinguish it from the debut LP – the mix of sultry double bass, meandering, looping guitar lines, and playful saxophone flourishes once again make up the heart of the collection that feels like a natural continuation. Flourish and Halo, in particular, show flashes of the melodic influences that first pricked his ears as a child. But it’s Annual’s cyclical, propelling concept that separates it from its predecessor. ‘Towards the end of 2018, I started a new notebook. I started the process again: filling pages and pages with notes, words, phrases and observations, as I was going about my days. As the year went by, the notes took on a life of their own; it was a perfect picture of my year. Different themes would reappear and the whole mood of the notebook seemed to become more optimistic in the summer, and turned back as the year moved into autumn. That’s where I had the idea to split the book up into seasons, and to use each as inspiration for a song. The intention is that the record feels like the soundtrack to the year. I thought it was a really succinct idea and I like the fact it’s 22 minutes long – I think it stands up next to the album on all levels, but it’s just shorter. Weirdly, streaming this record makes more sense than listening on vinyl because you can play it on loop… y’know, like another year begins. Having to pick up the record and turn it over is contrary to the continuous feeling I wanted. It was initially titled Seasons, but that felt like a microcosm. Annual felt more overarching and wider.’

Across a decade and a half, Jack Cooper has almost restlessly moved through various musical phases. The sound of the American DIY bands that informed the early part of his career may not be present in his work anymore, but the spirit lives on. He is very much a forward facing songwriter, who consciously avoids replicating things that have passed, and it’s talking about his latest incarnation that he gushes most fondly about. He has fallen into a groove that allows him to channel his infatuation for the natural world – making records with the kind of depth that his whole career has been building towards. And the contentment that this brings can very much be felt through the hushed, rewarding sonics and meticulously woven narratives of his Modern Nature output. Now we await how the events of recent times feed into the next chapter from one of the country’s most thoughtful and enigmatic songwriters. 

This interview was originally published in Zine Issue 5.

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