Readings on Eluvium: Putting Matthew Cooper into Perspective
In this interview, Eluvium describes the cognitive dissonance that birthed his new album and opens up about his perceived identity in the modern compositional landscape.
Composer Eluvium, née Matthew Cooper, was born in Tennessee and raised in Kentucky -- not that you could tell from his music alone. Cooper takes cues, not from Elvis or Hank Williams, but rather from diehard experimenters like Brian Eno. Fittingly, he grew up on classical music and, as he got older, adopted his brother’s more underground sensibilities. As a child, the notion of public piano recitals frightened him, though as a teen, he began to welcome the attention. Now fast forward through a multitude of projects and identities to somewhere not so distant from Cooper’s beginnings: “I’ve reverted back to that little kid version…no longer so interested in having a crowded room staring at me.” Which brings us to False Readings On, his tenth record under the moniker Eluvium.
Like any good experimenter, Eluvium hopes to shirk classification, but no one can escape the critical urge to sort and classify. (“Minimalism” is most apt; “ambient” isn’t too far off.) Music by this description should naturally coo esotericism and pretension, but Eluvium siphons his craft through a window of honesty and humility, as was evident from our last conversation with him.
It’s the challenge of every non-lyrical composer to convey ideas and emotions through music, and by no means does Cooper make it easy on himself. To me, minimalist music falls into two categories: music that is continually in the process of “getting there” but never quite arrives and music that doesn’t need to “get there” because it began there and never left. While much of Eluvium’s early work fits that first narrative, his new album seems to fall firmly into the second. But as he’s quick to point out, perspective, though inescapable, is only perspective. While some may find this record jubilant, Eluvium assembled it from an “extremely unnerving” place. Perhaps this phenomenon is what gives such credence to his title False Readings On.
Matthew Cooper resides in the Portland with his wife, Jeannie Lynn Paske, with whom he shares a reciprocal inspiration. Check out any of their album art, and hear his False Readings On today.
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Rumor has it Explosions in the Sky is crashing at your house. How’s that going?
Where did you get that rumor? [laughing] No, they are not at my house. They’re at a hotel downtown.
Can you tell me, are you guys working on something right now?
Mark [Smith] and I, the other guy in Inventions, always talk about what we’re gonna’ do next and maybe toss each other some sounds or inspiration, but there’s nothing in the immediate future.
Would it be wise to assume another Inventions project is on the horizon?
Yeah… I think both of us certainly would want to. I can’t foresee the future, but yeah, at some point in time. One of the things we like about the project is not trying to control anything about it and just letting things fall where they may. That’s how we’ve been able to get as much done as we did in the past couple of years. The timing was right, and we were excited about it. So we just started going crazy.
According to your label, your new album serves as a meditation on “self-doubt, anxiety, and separation from one’s self”? Are you afraid that if you were a normal person, you would stop making good art?
[laughing] That’s a good question. I’m not really sure which part of that to tackle first. I think I am a normal person is my answer. I think all people are normal would be my philosophical answer to that. Another way of answering it would be, I am afraid of change in myself and what that will do to my creative process. But sometimes change is more important, so you sometimes have to grit your teeth and do what is important for yourself and the world.
How do you see your new album as pushing change, relative to your past work?
I know a lot of people find the music I’ve made in the past to be kind of sad or depressing. But I think it’s quite the opposite, very much a celebration of life in all its complexity and beauty and strange forms. I think this album is a bit more disquieting. It’s more aggressive. And that was difficult for me to work with because when I put something out in the world, I want it to be positive, ultimately. I think the world can always use that. But it’s just a matter of perspective and finding what was positive about it. Things can be aggressive and disquieting and still do good.
False Readings On seems to have more of those huge, crescendo moments than much of your early work. Is that what you mean by aggressive, or are you talking more in terms of dissonance?
I guess a little of both, actually. I was coming more from a dissonance perspective. More intense would be a good way of putting it.
Can you speak to how the notion of cognitive dissonance is reflected in your music and in your process?
Cognitive dissonance was definitely one of the founding concepts when I started working on the record, but it was ultimately more about perspective. I mean that in the strongest sense possible. It’s about cognitive dissonance of religion, politics, misinformation, all of those things: what makes a person a person, what you believe that is, and whether those beliefs really mean anything, and whether it’s important if they do, and what happens if you don’t have them anymore.
Originally, I was to sing what I saw reflected in society, but I thought it weird to just point a finger at society and say, “This is what is happening to you!” It was important to take what I was saying and shift my perspective and place all of those thoughts upon myself. The process was a lot of mind games, and it created a lot of internal anxiety in me, and that is what the music came from: me struggling with those anxieties and what it is I was trying to say for myself and what balance I could find within that. That’s why, from a compositional standpoint, there is a lot of constant [tonal] dissonance happening in the record, whether it’s static or tape warble or chaotic, modular synthesis tones and various things that create unrest. But I still wanted there to be a purity that could outshine that or battle that. That’s where the operatic vocals and chord progressions came from.
That’s funny because when I listen to it, it sounds more triumphant than a lot of your music. More glorious.
[laughing] I’ve noticed some people saying that. It’s really interesting to hear that. Like I was saying about my past catalog—I guess people like it, but they find it sad, and I find it to be the total opposite. And this record I find to be extremely unnerving, but people are not responding to it that way. Again, that’s what’s amazing about perspective and also why I try to tread carefully about what the record means because it’s important for people to find what they find in it, whatever it is.
The title of your new album, False Readings On feels like the beginning of a phrase that’s left incomplete. Could you explain the significance of that title?
I like phrases that can be read in multiple ways. The way that I normally see it is as a statement about civilization and our habit of usually not pausing and reflecting the different options. We power through things—even something simple as the combustion engine or the layout of a typewriter—where we say, “Well, this is working, so let’s just keep going with that,” and not think about the fact that something else could come along and replace it that would be much better for everyone. So it’s a commentary on how civilization seems to have been built on that mentality. But also, it’s supposed to literally be “false readings on” Eluvium, a comment about myself.
I was thinking of it as being a full statement, like “False Readings: On!”
Right. Well, a lot of the imagery I was conjuring up was very mechanical and computerized, so I like that. A false reading is something that happens with voltage and the like, so it plays on that as well, if you want it to.
More generally, what inspires your choice of titles?
I don’t know… Like I said, I try to come up with something that can be read in multiple ways, but often, they just come to me out of nowhere. I read a lot of books. My favorite thing to do in the afternoon before dinner is to sit on my back porch and have a beer and read my book. Beautiful phrases are right there in front of you, and the next thing you know, you’ve been staring into space for like ten minutes and haven’t turned the page. I get inspired by phrases like that a lot.
“Eluvium” has been your primary musical identity, but you’ve also released music under your given name, as well as with other groups. How do you distinguish your identity as Eluvium from the other musical hats?
It’s a good question, but the answer is quite simple to me. I just feel it. It just makes sense. I don’t start a project without already knowing what personifications I’m dealing with.
You’re often described as a minimalist or post-minimalist. What do you think about those terms?
I’m not a huge term guy, but minimalism is something I do relate to, so if there were one out of all the many people tend to use about me, that would probably be the one I most closely relate to. I don’t think that’s all I am, but I like it. People say “ambient” a lot, and I make music that’s ambient, but I make music that’s not ambient as well. People say “post-rock” a lot. I don’t even know what that means. That’s the broadest term ever. But yeah, in a certain way, I am very much a minimalist, even when it comes down to decorating a house [laughing], but also with the music I enjoy listening to. So that’s definitely a large part of me.
Do you consider yourself part of a larger musical tradition, and if so, can you describe what that tradition is?
I don’t know. I’ve always felt like I have trouble fitting in with whatever else is going on. The only real person I one hundred percent relate to is John Cage and his love of sound in general. I feel very much a part of that. But at the same time, he created music that is nothing like anything I would create. It’s hard to fit in. I’m sure a lot of people feel that way. I have peers that I respect greatly, but I don’t know.
Do you not see yourself alongside folks like Nils Frahm, Basinski, Tim Hecker—those guys?
Yeah. I like all of them. Maybe if you take all of them and mix them together… Everybody has a uniqueness to them. But yeah, there are Tim Heckers and the Fenneszs, and the noise world, and then there’s the classical scene with Jóhann Jóhannsson and Max Richter, Dustin O’Halloran, Winged Victory [for the Sullen] kind of stuff, and I relate to all of those guys, but I don’t really know if what I’m doing is the same thing. I feel like I take little bits of everything and mix it together.
I guess it’s the music critic’s M.O. to categorize and label, but I always wonder if musicians think of themselves as part of a group.
To be quite honest, often times I wish I was mentioned in the same breath as a lot of other artists I respect. I’m not…all the time. It’s kind of weird. I feel a little like an outlier. That can be a good thing but sometimes it feels a little lonely as well. I think most musicians shy away from labels and things like that. But they have their purpose.
What do you think about the major players of the minimalist canon—Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Phillip Glass? Were they influences?
I love them all. Influences…? I’ve always had a hard time using that word. I’m not sure why. I guess I don’t like to think of any specific genre or idea as such a strong a navigating force in what I do. Nonetheless, all of those guys were certainly eye-opening to me. When I was working at a record shop, we could “rent” any music we wanted from the store. I would devour all of that stuff and anything related to the early minimalists and experimental composers.
Do you have any influences we would never guess?
Well, people would maybe not picture me in high school listening to Pavement and the Silver Jews and Dinosaur Jr. and Olivia Tremor Control and The Music Tapes. I also like Hum a lot. I was a really big Hum fan. I don’t know if any of those are direct influences though…
Any lesser-known gems you’d recommend?
It’s funny. A lot of stuff I would have probably dug up from the old “super weird obscure” pile is starting to already get noticed these days. Like the Somnambient stuff, or Paul Panhuysen, David Behrman, Christian Wolff—things that go a little deeper into the scientific music world—or the ambient, new age world or experimental, classical world. It seems like that stuff is getting more popular these days. Moondog is being reissued left and right now, for example.
Four records off the top of my head that I really enjoy and never see people talk about are: Eternity and a Day by Eleni Karaindrou, Cyrus Rego’s self-titled album, Chris Smith’s Map Ends, and Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Virðulegu Forsetar. That release is my favorite, and it seems no one really mentions it.
Do you create music as something you would enjoy listening to, or do you take a more detached approach?
I create music purposefully to listen to. I do sometimes find myself also in the mood to try something from a more scholastic or scientific standpoint, purely out of intrigue— pure tonal stuff or just messing with frequencies and waveforms. But it isn’t super obviously applied to my compositional work as Eluvium.
How much do you conceive of a song before you start messing with instruments and effects, and how much comes out during the process?
I’d say it is half and half. A lot of stuff comes from me just being in a world of feeling and then just playing. But a good deal of it comes from me sitting in a chair on my back porch and staring at the sky. Or walking. Or biking. Sometimes a chord progression comes to me because a truck driving by mixes with the radio or TV in a weird way. Or I’ll be at the bookstore and the music from the coffee area spills over but I hear it very differently than what is actually happening.
The conception of sounds and the understanding of what the album calls for are interdependent and transpositional. Sometimes I know what a song or album needs, and other times, it just presents itself. Things are always mutating. Sometimes you need to discover where you’re going while, at the same, you’re trying to steer.
As someone who works in electronic and acoustic realms, how important is medium specificity to you?
The medium is only important to me when the process is important to me. Sometimes it’s easy and necessary to just put in a nice VST of bass tones, and sometimes it’s important to sit all day and find what it is you’re really looking for with pedals or tape loops or modulars or field recordings or old movies, etc. The process of making a record is amazing to me. I adore it, and I want it to feel like a process I’m going through and trying to figure out. But sometimes you just need to get the ball rolling too.
And what about your source of audio? How do you look at the choice synths and software available to you?
I usually find VSTs a pain to navigate and catalogue and not very enjoyable to deal with. I’m more of a hardware guy. But that’s not to say there aren’t brilliant and interesting sounds out there. I honestly use them all the time. I’m always missing the tactile feel of just building the sound and manually turning the knobs. I love all of my synthesizers and tape machines and little broken keyboards and various little sound machines. But I use software very when I know what I need and where it is.
Do you incorporate field recordings or samples into your music?
Yes, all the time. Sometimes it’s very obvious; sometimes it’s purely textural and blended in too deeply to notice on a conscious level. The vocals on the new album are all cut up singular notes by opera singers from a century ago. I wrote out some dialogue and translated it into Latin and Italian, then built tonal sentences from samples, note by note. Things like that are important to me. I know no one will ever know, but it means all the more to me to have them in there.
People often look at ambient as mood music that favors style over substance. How do you balance the desire to craft a mood with the desire to express your message?
Very carefully. [laughs] It’s interesting the way you phrased that question. You’ve kind of hit the nail on the head right there. I don’t know… I think my answer is “I don’t know.” I’m not even certain that I am an ambient artist. Yet I’ve been called one for 13 years. I know I can tell when the mood is ruined by trying to push the song into something more. So you try to find the right spot, or sometimes you take it in an entirely different direction and surprise yourself. Sometimes an extremely loud and walloping track that just isn’t sitting right can turn into the most serene and peaceful track by utterly destroying it with reverb, or making the EQ do something it probably shouldn’t. Then the problem is gone, and you have a different song entirely to consider.
When composing, do you think about your music in terms of live performance?
I always try to consider this when I start working on an album, and then it gets thrown out the window right away. I very much use the studio as a tool. That is why I have to be reliant on a computer on stage. Otherwise I would have way too many things to pack and a lot of it is fragile or extremely finicky or so random that it is possible I could never create it again.
You haven’t played live in about four years. Why is that?
I have anxiety, and it isn’t easy for me to perform live—technically speaking, either. I’m always trying to steer away from relying too much on a computer on stage. But in the end, it is the only way for me to do everything needed for a track to sound good to me and be interesting to play as well. I’m working on a live set again though. I’ll be out there again soon. I’ve found some ways to engage myself a little more and hopefully I can build on that so I don’t get bored or scared or what have you.
What advice would you give to someone looking to make it as experimental musician?
I’ll let you know once they send me my membership card. Honestly, to any musician. Just do what you want to do and what sounds good to you. Nothing else matters. If people start to pay attention, awesome!