“I definitely feel that one chapter has ended and another begun,” observes Eluvium’s Matthew Cooper as he takes a turn towards pop in his fifth album, Similes adding vocals, percussion and new sense of verse/chorus structure to his ambient soundscapes.
Is that singing on an Eluvium record?
For most of the aughties, Eluvium’s Matthew Cooper refined a dreamy, minimalist sound, layering textures of guitar, piano and synthesized tones over one another in beautiful, surging compositions that were anything but traditional songs.
Born in Tennessee, Cooper came of age in post-Slint Louisville. He took piano lessons from the age of five or six on, and, by high school, had begun to explore the guitar, briefly fronting a punk rock band. Moving to Portland, Oregon, in the late 1990s, he began listening to the avant-garde composers like Erik Satie, John Cage and Phillip Glass and post-rock instrumental outfits like Tortoise and Aerial M. His own music changed during this period from a fairly conventional singer-songwriter act to the solitary sound explorations he is currently known for. Eluvium, the band name, was picked at random from a dictionary. It means “the debris from rock.”
His first album Lambent Material, in 2003, channeled Brian Eno and Keith Fuller Whitman in what Stylus called “sublime ambient/drone pieces, indescribably transforming the listener away from the mundane.” An Accidental Memory in Case of Death, a year later, turned away from electronics to piano, evoking the modernist rigors of Satie. With Talk Amongst the Trees in 2005 and Copia in 2007, Cooper continued to work in a wordless, obliquely structured medium. Yet as he approached the follow-up to Copia, it became clear to Cooper that something had to change.
“I was actually working on another album instead of Similes, and I had almost finished it and I kept on feeling a lot of frustration,” Cooper admitted in a recent phone interview. “Eventually, I realized that what I was doing didn’t really feel like a step forward for me. It felt like I was revisiting something that I had already done before.”
Cooper had been immersed in writing a soundtrack for Matthew McCormick’s Some Days Are Better Than Others (debuting at this years SXSW) just before he began the new album, and found himself enjoying the process immensely. “There was something about working with Matt that felt loose and free and creative,” he said. “It reminded me of why I enjoyed playing music, and I felt like I was lacking that in the album that I was working on.”
“I sort of decided that I wanted to do something that I hadn’t done before, or at least not since I was a teenager,” said Cooper. “I wanted to work more in the pop space and to use lyrics as an instrument.”
Cooper went back to work, scrapping the album he’d been working on and creating a new set of songs, this time with words. You can hear him thinking aloud about the whole problem of lyrics – their capabilities and shortcomings -- in the opening song, “The Leaves Eclipse the Light”. Here, against a backdrop of blossoming synth tones and eerily disembodied percussion, Cooper ponders “Can I find the words to use?/The thoughts that I would write/Overanalyzing how the leaves eclipse the light.” He sounds exhilarated by the possibilities that verbiage can bring, but also uncertain about his capacity to meet that potential.
“That was actually the first song that I wrote lyrically out,” said Cooper, “so it would definitely make sense that that would be sort of the first intention, to play around with the concept of words altogether and whether or not it was going to work for me. I had words in my head, and I was trying to figure out whether I could actually say them or not. I think a lot of the word play would probably come from that angle.”
After deciding that he wanted to sing, Cooper next had to explore just how he wanted to do so, finally settling on a somewhat monotone style that fades in and out of the music. He explained that one of the themes of his album was the interplay of thought and feeling, creativity and daily life. This rather plain delivery, more spoken than sung in some places, contrasts the rote feelings of everyday life, as opposed to more magical sense of the creative process in music.
This sense of mystery amid the ordinary recurs throughout the album. In “The Motion that Makes Me Last,” Cooper sings “I’m a vessel between two places I’ve never been.” It’s not a reference to his musical journey, but rather to the inexorable progress of human life, where we move from the birth that we can’t remember to the death we can’t envision. Yet around this inscrutable concept, Cooper has layered concrete details. “Shapes are for looking at.” “Colors create my mood.” “Life is real.”
“That song is really about being human and alive – and yet unaware of where one has come from and where one would go afterwards,” said Cooper. “The lyrics focus on these very obvious, specific things, basic ideas that everyone can agree on. And yet it finishes by saying I’m a vessel between two places.”
These two songs, as well as several others on the album, are structured in traditional verse-chorus form, a significant departure from Cooper’s earlier, more free-flowing work. He explained that, with all the change in his work, he felt he needed some guidelines. “In the past, I’ve had these sort of shape-shifting chords that could be one note or the other, as interpreted by the listener,” he said. “But I was so unsure of all the directions that I was trying to head in that I felt like at least having these solid chord progressions would give me a backbone to rest upon, so I could play with everything else freely.”
Cooper also added percussion to these songs, for the first time ever, though not in the form of traditional drums. “I realize that I didn’t really need much more than something that just keeps the momentum just barely alive,” he said. Most of the rhythms – the hollow, clicking ones on “Leaves Eclipse the Light”, the skittering scratches on “Making Up Minds” – emerge from a single source, a cheap marimba attached to a gourd with a contact microphone inside. “I just would bang on the side of it to create the rhythm,” he said. In “Weird Creatures,” he whacked the microphone with a ballpoint pen for percussion.
Don’t fall in love with the gourd – or the writing instrument – though. Cooper said he’d like to do more with percussion next time, perhaps learning some drum programming software or even bringing a kit into the studio. “Absolutely. I would love to actually add a lot more of a rhythm section. That’s been something that even before I was pursuing more of the pop vocal stuff, even in the instrumental realm, I really have been wanting to do, like a very percussion-heavy record.”
He even briefly considers enlisting a drummer, before admitting that his process is, necessarily, solitary. “It’s just much easier for me to communicate with myself than to communicate with other people,” he said, with audible regret. “It’s not other people’s fault. It’s obviously mine. It’s just…my studio is at home. I can do things at the pace that I want to. If something’s not going right I can tell myself why or why not.”
Once all the parts were recorded, Cooper began an extensive, borderline obsessive mixing process. It took far longer than usual, and he said that he sometimes doubted that it would ever be finished at all. “I sort of had to wallow in it for a long time,” he remembered. “And then eventually, I started wondering whether I was getting too comfortable wallowing in it and…was afraid of finishing it. So eventually, I had to do so.”
Part of the difficulty was determining how prominent the vocals should be, which changed, song to song, depending on the overall message and mood. “I worked like crazy. I was driving my wife crazy, listening to different mixes over and over and over again with minute changes,” he said. “Eventually,” he added, “I just had to stop.”
But, as a result of this painstaking process, the vocals do become an integral part of the work, not an addition. Like all other sounds in his compositions, they ride the surface of some songs and blend into the depths of others, so that they can only be dimly apprehended. The result is a record that is at once mysterious and oddly accessible.
Cooper has been calling Similes a pop record since he finished it. His label people tell him not to, that this is misleading, that in the market pop means something entirely different than these ethereal songs. But Cooper remains stubbornly attached to the label. “Oddly, I kind of feel that I have yet to make a record that isn’t a pop record,” he said. “I listen to what I’ve been doing with ambient and noise and drone and textural stuff and relative to what I was usually influenced by, like Stockhausen or Steve Reich or John Cage, it just seems so much more pop. There are chord changes and melody. It’s really not that far from the concept of pop music.”