A Homespun and Natural Kind of Rock: An Interview With Ultimate Painting

Drawing from the legacy of the Beatles and the Velvet Underground, the still-young group Ultimate Painting made quite a splash in 2014.

Ultimate Painting

Ultimate Painting

Label: Trouble in Mind
US Release Date: 2014-10-28
UK Release Date: 2014-12-02

It is the final day of the 2014 CMJ Music Marathon in New York City, and the UK band Ultimate Painting is scheduled to play its last performance in the Big Apple before heading over to Chicago. It had been a busy time in the city for the duo of singer/guitarists Jack Cooper and James Hoare; both men played six shows in four days during the festival. So it would be quite understandable if now, on the final day, Ultimate Painting decided to "phone it in" for this late Saturday afternoon show at the Rough Trade NYC record store in Brooklyn, having already performed a earlier set on the same day in neighboring Manhattan. This rigorous schedule goes to show that when a band is relatively unknown, it has to take whatever opportunities are available to get noticed.

Amidst a relatively small crowd gathered inside the record store’s warehouse-like performance space, Cooper and Hoare, along with their backing drummer and bassist, walk onto the stage without much fanfare and took up their instruments. If group may have seemed tired after the string of CMJ gigs, it didn’t show it. For about 30 minutes, Ultimate Painting plays a tight and seamless set of low-key indie rock that seems to come out of the Velvet Underground’s playbook. Unlike some of its contemporaries, who rely on turning up the volume and bashing away, Ultimate Painting employs a "less-is-more" approach in its angular-sounding guitar-oriented music, highlighted by Hoare’s shimmering axe playing and the duo’s vocal harmonies. The audience’s applause and cheers, which may have started out tentatively, get a little louder throughout the gig.

Following the set, Cooper and Hoare immediately go to do an interview with an Entertainment Weekly reporter who was in attendance -- an impressive get considering the many up-and-coming, no-name acts who performed throughout the festival. A short time later, the British duo speaks with me just outside of the record store. As we begin our conversation, it starts to get dark and windy. The evening approaches. The personalities of Cooper and Hoare mirror the music they just finished playing: down-to-earth, mannered, and intimate.

Ultimate Painting formed when Cooper’s group Mazes was the opening act for Hoare’s band Veronica Falls during a tour. “We were aware of each other,” says Hoare. “But we weren't like good friends, just enemies in a way. [Laughs] Like in the way that you can live in a city, and you know people, and you say hello to them. I didn't have Jack's phone number, we didn't know each other that well. But then we did a tour together last year, got along well, made plans to start doing some recording, and then quite soon after we did.”

A commonality between Cooper and Hoare is a love for the Beatles, which explains the melodic sensibilities of their own songs. “It has been for me over the course of many years with a few people where you think everyone is into the Beatles,” explains Hoare, “but not everyone is really into the Beatles like we are. I reevaluated [Jack] as a person. His love is obviously that strong. [I was thinking,] ‘There has to be more to this guy. Okay, he's pretty cool.’ And then we realized we had a lot in common musically and other things as well.”

“I think maybe James didn't expect it,” said Cooper, “but me and James basically have the same musical upbringing. I don't meet many people who are really into the Beatles anymore in my kind of circle of people in London. And me and James are both obsessed with the Beatles.”

This respect for the past is also linked to the band’s name, which was inspired by the ‘60s Colorado artist commune Drop City, whose artists created the work called The Ultimate Painting. “It was just something I saw in the documentary about Drop City,” says Cooper. “It was super inspiring. I could completely empathize with these people who were like, ‘Fuck this, we're gonna buy this shitty piece of land and live together.’ It was something about this group of people who were involved with this -- they were just very nice and inspiring people.”

Work on what would become Ultimate Painting's debut album began in Hoare’s apartment and took a relatively short time to record. Rather than using the latest state-of-the-art technology, Ultimate Painting opted to adapt old-fashioned recording techniques that gave the music a more homespun and natural feel. “That was the whole thing about it,” says Cooper. “Pretty much anything you listen to from the '60s or that was recorded well [or] is listenable sounds good. No one really records onto tape any more... James has a really nice tape machine, it's really nice equipment. More than anything we wanted to make something that sounded really good.”

If recording the album in that D.I.Y. manner was deliberate, so was the music’s minimalist, straightforward approach. Both musicians performed all of the instrumentation on Ultimate Painting and divided the songwriting duties 50-50. (“We used very simple instruments, simple instrumentation, kept a lot of space to it,” says Hoare). Fueled by a groove and a catchy melody, the opening title song sets the tone for the rest of the record. “It wasn't called anything for ages and we called it 'Ultimate Painting,'” Cooper said. “I don't really know why. James sent me a song that is called 'Jane' on the record, and I sent him the song 'Ultimate Painting'. It wasn't called that and I can't remember what it was called. Those two songs together were the songs where we were like, ‘Oh this could be really good.’”

Another Cooper-penned track is the rollicking “Talking Central Park Blues”, which could be interpreted as one’s experience navigating the Big Apple. According to the songwriter, that track is based on some truths and imaginary stuff. “When people analyze lyrics of mine, it doesn't mean anything,” he says, “it's a flippant line, it's a lazy line. It's bullshit for someone to criticize that because they don't know what it means to you as a writer. Some might go James' song 'Jane', 'Oh, it's about a girl called Jane.' I don't even know, but it's probably not. It's probably way heavier that he might not want to express like that. I just find it weird when people talk about lyrics and want to understand them as well. 'Talking Blue' is loads of stuff that only means anything to me.”

Hoare also wrote the devastating ballad “Winter In Your Heart” that closes the album. “It's personal experiences again, like suffering from depression,” he says. “That's what it is actually about. But it's also juxtaposing that with positive things in life. I actually think the chord sequences are in a way uplifting. So it's positive and negative experiences put together.”

Much of what has been written about Ultimate Painting has compared the group’s sound to the Velvet Underground. Perhaps fittingly, our conversation took place two days before the first anniversary of Lou Reed’s death. Cooper and Hoare acknowledge the Velvets’ influence. “I always think the Beatles and the Velvet Underground as the light and the dark, almost,” Cooper muses. “The Velvet Underground is certainly a huge influence, mainly sonically. 'Talking Blues' has more of a Velvet Underground feel, and that style of lyric writing is kind of Lou Reed-y or Dylan-y or something, especially the third and the fourth Velvets record [The Velvet Underground and Loaded], where there's so much space and it's all kind of loose, the sound's really good. That’s what we were going for.”

Prior to coming over to the States to tour, Ultimate Painting had only performed a few times in the UK. Hoare describes the difference between playing on both sides of the Atlantic: “In some of the other places in America, you feel more of a difference like [in the] Midwest. When we were playing somewhere like in Cleveland or Chicago, you feel the response is a bit more positive than if you had the same amount of people in London. I think it's when bands play in smaller places -- the more out of the way places -- [people] can be more appreciative of the fact that you've come to town. Whereas opposed to New York and London, they're spoiled for choices because they're the places where everyone goes.”

Even though both Cooper and Hoare are currently concentrating on Ultimate Painting, it doesn’t mean they are splitting from their own groups. “We have plans to do another record, but they're very loose plans,” Hoare says about his other band, Veronica Falls. “I don't know if they're gonna materialize. We might do another record sometime down the line. Both of us are still doing other bands, but we probably like to focus on this. We're having a really good time with this. You can't plan things out in this way but I think we'll probably both dedicate time to this project and be working on new stuff.”

Before leaving the members of Ultimate Painting to soak in the remaining time of their stay in New York City -- and given that they’re relatively new on the music scene -- I ask about what they hope people will come away from their record. “I don't really care what people think about it,” Cooper says matter-of-factly. “I hope they like it. I hope they think it sounds good.”

Ultimate Painting’s self-titled debut is out now on Trouble in Mind.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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