A conversation with Ben Cooper
Interview by Adam McKibbin
Creaking floorboards, chirping birds and stirred wind chimes are all important bit players in Ghost, a sensitive but unaffected record from singer/songwriter Ben Cooper that rates as one of the top surprises—and best albums—of 2007’s first quarter. Aside from those field recordings, Cooper (one-half of Electric President, an electro-pop band also on Morr) essentially had no outside help in crafting his cinematic meditation on houses that retain fragments of previous occupants; the handclaps and even the high-pitched harmony vocals are his own.
Prior to the release of Ghost, Cooper chatted to The Red Alert at length about making the album, falling in love with old houses, and nearly getting arrested for the sake of album art.
You did Ghost mostly on your own. Were you bringing in friends intermittently to check it out, or did you have a pretty intact work complete by the time you showed it to anyone?
Well, I have kind of a family network. My brother plays music, and my whole family is very critical, so I use them as a bouncing board on how things are going. For the most part, I did it pretty isolated.
I would imagine that the isolation would suit this particular batch of songs pretty well.
Yeah, sometimes if you’re doing music that has a little bit of a theme to it, it’s hard to do it with other people, because they’re perhaps going to point out how ridiculous the theme is; in a way, it’s nice to work without anyone telling you it’s stupid. (laughs) That way you just keep going with it.
Is that pretty similar to how you guys make Electric President albums?
Yeah, those it’s basically just me and Alex [Kane] crammed into a room, usually his bedroom. He’s equally as much of a nerd as I am, so the same thing kind of happens. But there are different angles—Alex is much more into pop music, while I usually like a lot of movie soundtracks and really moody stuff. When I’m left alone, that’s why my stuff ends up sounding that way.
Do you feel like you’re limited by working like that? Do you hit sections where you wish you were in a deluxe studio?
I don’t ever really miss studios. Sound quality is never really the focus; I’m okay with things sounding shitty. The key thing for me is that it has an atmosphere to it. Being able to work at home, whenever you get an idea at random, that’s totally priceless to me. I guess there are sometimes when I can’t get a sound to work and it would be nice to have better gear or a room that was more built for recording audio—but for the most part I don’t really miss it.
Are you equally as interested in that technical side? Or are you more smitten with songwriting?
It’s both. Both things progressed with each other. Studios aren’t even much of an option because they’re so expensive, so songwriting and recording kind of evolved at the same time—now they’re almost the same process. I only write about half of the songs now—I’ll write the basic chords, melodies and words—and then wait until I start recording to do the accompaniment, because sometimes the guitar sounds great as it is, and it doesn’t need anything…other times, I’ll keep piling stuff on to keep pushing it further. But, yeah, I’ve come to really like the technical side, too. If all I ever did from here on out was record stuff, I wouldn’t be mad about it.
And you’ve had some experience recording someone else, as a third-party or an outsider?
Yeah, actually, there’s a hip-hop guy named Astronautalis, and I produced his last record and did all the engineering on it. It was interesting. It’s not something I can do very often; it’s really exhausting and frustrating. I’m used to being able to do stuff without a second opinion, really, or me and Alex will have it figured out before we start. It was strange to do something where your opinion is second because it’s not your record—I don’t know if that sounds egotistical, but it was weird because I had never done it, and I had been doing my own stuff for four or five years.
Who’s singing with you on “Along the Road?”
That’s actually me. My range goes from high to higher. Any time you think it’s a girl, it’s actually me.
How about some of the embellishments, like the wind chime in the beginning of “Welcome Home” – is that a field recording?
Most of that is field recording. Again, that one almost came out of necessity; where I record is near a busy road, and sounds are always leaking into the shed. There’s a bird on the last song on the record—for whatever reason, he built a nest over the shed and only made noise at night, when I was trying to record. On track 11, I went ahead and let him have his cameo. I just put a mic outside while he was chirping away and recorded the sound live while he was doing that.
How about the creaking that we get intermittently?
The office chair that I was sitting in was half-broken. Every time I would shift a little bit while playing guitar, it would creak and drive me crazy. At the end of the take I got kind of fed up, but when I played it back, I thought the creaking sounded better than the guitar takes.
That’s a good lesson: make your problems work for you.
That’s kind of the story of my life.
These songs do have that unifying concept—does that mean that they stemmed from one burst of songwriting, or were they pulled from various points along the road?
I actually built material for this record over the course of about two years—in the background of all these other projects. I was writing stuff under this idea, and I ended up over-writing. I have 24 songs—11 of them are on this one, and then the next record will be kind of the second half. I know “concept record” is kind of a dirty word, but I actually like concept records. I like unifying themes. Instead of a collection of songs, I like it to feel like a complete piece, so I usually write with a theme in mind.
Do you remember how this theme emerged, of houses with memories?
Well, I like antiques, but not necessarily the nice ones. I like old houses, I like things that are creaky and smell funny and feel like they have a lot of history. I was visiting a friend who was moving into a really old house that a circus troupe used to live in—this really creepy old place. After seeing that, I got the idea of houses with these histories, and, more or less, these houses watching you as you leave behind little ghosts of yourself—and who knows whether they’ll come back out when someone else is living there.
I’ve been working on a screenplay of mine and I was at a roadblock with it, but when I listened to Ghost for the first time, it helped shed some light into where I wanted to go. It’s very evocative. I guess I’m going to owe you a future percentage or something.
That’s great. I always like the idea of throwing your stuff out there, and triggering something else that will trigger something else—this miasma of ideas. Sometimes I’ll see a random film and, for whatever reason, will run home and start playing piano. I saw Pan’s Labyrinth and ended up writing two songs after it. You never know where it’s going to come from, but it’s really exciting to think that you might put something out and it will trigger something for someone else.
Do you have plans to tour this material?
That’s definitely an issue right now. Because of the way I recorded it—on some songs, I used over 100 tracks—there’s pretty much no way I can do it by myself, but I don’t think I can afford to bring a band. We toured for the Electric President record and lost a bit of money—and we only had two people. I have no idea how to hire the five or six I’d need in order to do this—or even to find the actual people to do it. Locally, I know three or four musicians, and they have families. So right now it’s kind of logistically impossible.
Do you know what’s next, album-wise?
I’m currently recording another Electric President album with Alex. I’ve started the next Radical Face one; I’ve finished two songs for it. I think I’m going to record all the ones that I’ve written, and whatever is leftover from the next album, I might release as an EP or something. Then I have two side projects right now that I’m hopefully going to record over the next two months.
Now I’ve had a thousand opportunities to hear about the Portland music scene and the Seattle music scene, but I think this is my first opportunity to ask: How’s the Jacksonville music scene?
(laughs) The thing that’s odd about Jacksonville is that there are a lot of really good musicians and artists around town. Area-wise, though, Jacksonville is huge—it takes an hour and a half to drive across it. I don’t even know any other bands outside of a few friends that I went to high school with, and we all work together a lot. We’re actually starting a project of assignment-based music; we’re making each other write under really awful guidelines, basically—things like you have to conceive, write, and record a song within three days. We’re currently working on one where the only instrument you can use is your body, so you’ve gotta find a way to make a song out of yourself. We’re going to start posting the results online, to make this even more mortifying. So, yeah, there are things happening here, but it’s all really scattered and loose; there’s no real scene or anything to latch onto in particular. I live within walking distance of all the musicians I know. I like living here, but I guess musically it’s kind of a shithole.
I read somewhere that there was a glitch with the album artwork that caused a delay in the release date. What happened there?
Me and Morr Music have not had the best communication—we’re getting all that worked out now. There were a lot of things that I assumed were a certain way and they assumed were a certain way, and actually they were opposite. Now we’re trying to make sure we’re on the same page because we’ve been running into these delays because we’ve been assuming too much. I didn’t realize that they have an artist who essentially does everyone’s artwork on the label. I thought he was an option, so I was doing my own artwork for it and saying “This is the cover,” and they said “What do you mean? This guy does the cover.” But I didn’t feel like it fit and eventually they decided to let me go ahead and do my own. Because of that, I ended up redoing the artwork, and I like the finished version a lot more than what I had been planning. The early artwork was a little bit on the creepy side—like I actually almost got arrested for taking the photos.
The original idea was based loosely on one of the songs—I had burlap sacks that I had made and put over my head and burned eyeholes out of, sort of like how they used to hang people, I guess. I was taking pictures down in South Florida in a little town called Starke. I went down there because they have a lot of abandoned buildings. I was taking some photos with my brother, and someone called the police and said that a guy just got out of a car with a bag over his head, got a shovel out of his trunk and marched up to this house. They were assuming it was a serial killer of some kind, so they sent out the entire police station—like every car and the greatest part was that there was also a helicopter sent out. So we just took the photos and were driving on, and then we got pulled over. We assumed we were half-a-mile over the speed limit because we were in like the #2 speed trap in America. When we got out, the guy had his hand on his gun and was speaking over his loudspeaker – “Stay back! Get your hands up!” (laughs) He asked if we had a shovel, and we explained that we were just doing album artwork. He was totally relieved. So he called everyone off—apparently there were some guys scanning the area for bodies. It was a fiasco.