Features | Interviews


By Christopher Alexander | 4 May 2005

Eluvium is the nom de plume of Matt Cooper, an ambient musician from the Pacific Northwest who has made three albums for Temporary Residence Ltd. This year he’s released the excellent Talk Amongst the Trees, which features the superb “Taken.” CMG’s Christopher Alexander recently had a lengthy chat with the musician when he was on tour in Brooklyn. They discussed the cycles of the universe, the nature of existence, and other things bound to interest the indie-rock community.


CMG's Christopher Alexander (CMG): So I need to establish background before I ask this question but: When I wrote the review for your record, it was really late at night. I was way past deadline and I was trying hard to write what I thought was a really good review. Right as I’m about to turn it in I look at the sleeve of the record. And it occurs to me…this record is all about alien abduction.
Matthew Cooper (MC): Umm…
CMG: So was I just really tired, or am I at all close, or, what?
MC: Well, actually you’re not far off, but “Area 41” is not in reference to Area 51. Area 41 is the name of the part of the brain that receives and deciphers sound. So it’s more in reference to that. As far as “Taken,” and “Calm of the Cast-Light Cloud,” they are kind-of references to forms of abduction, but really they’re kind of referential to the idea of oneness, total desertion from everything that we know, and basically ideas of that sort.

But when I first started putting together the record, that was the initial idea --- basically, oneness and understanding of one’s self and being detached from everything that we know. But as the record kept on building and building I was reading up a lot - I’m pretty much a huge dork science buff kind of person. But I started getting further into really understanding atomic structure, and the basics of the multiverse and the universe, and thing along those lines. So the record started heading more in the direction of oneness as in, literally, the energy of everything, and understanding the patterns of human destruction and civilized destruction while at the same time, the fact that that destruction really has no basis in the energy of the atomic structure of the entire universe and if anything is actually just a much more powerful version. So I guess it’s trying to keep all that in mind.

[Awkward pause]

[Laughter] I know that’s a little bit complicated. . .

CMG: Oh no, that’s great. I mean, obviously I’m in the wrong line of work. I’m now going to hang up the phone and go study accounting, or something. That’s a really good answer, though. I mean, obviously you must be interested in philosophy.
MC: Yeah, it’s really hard to say. It’s not like I can say, you know, “I’m really interested in Zen,” or any specific forms or philosophy. But I think that obviously there is an inherent philosophy that I am discussing that maybe seems to be a kind of grouping of all philosophy, really. Moreover, I’m trying to understand, just simply, the facts as they are, and gaining an understanding of why my brain will think what it thinks and why humans act the way that they do, and I try to understand things from a much more simpler view. I mean there’s such a giant, broad spectrum to everything that is happening, whether it’s reality or not. Really, I’m trying to just simply understand the cycles of everything that are just so basically obvious. Everything that humans do, or animals, or the way the weather works, just simple revolutions and cycles of solar bodies or celestial bodies; all of this is so obvious and simple, and I think I’m just trying to tune into understanding that, and being a part of that, rather than try to solve these pretty simple problems that really only have to do with human kind, which seems kind of silly to me.

CMG: Were you trying to do something similar with the last record you did (Accidental Memory in the Case of Death)?
MC: I would say that Accidental Memory was a little bit more towards the humanistic standpoint of the same idea. So in a way, it’s kind of like a growth of one accidental memory to the next. It would just be the obvious steps that a brain would take, you know, first trying to understand one’s self before trying to understand everything else.

CMG: Does the title allude to some type of phrenological phenomena, or something else?
MC: I’m not really sure what I was trying to get at there, actually. I just woke up one morning, and the phrase was in my head, and I think it was maybe --- the more and more I thought about, I felt like I was maybe hinting at existence being something other than just ourselves, I guess. I received a lot of e-mails from people that are really tuned-in to the idea that someone really dear to them has died, and their memory lives on, so on and so forth. But I don’t think that’s what I was really getting at. But I dunno, it’s hard to say. There were so many different things going on with me at that point in time of my life, that it seemed to just kind of be this blurry collage of it all. I guess, that’s how the piano work came to be, was that I was living in this apartment that happened to have a piano in it, and that was basically my way of filtering it out.

If it just occurred to you one morning, does that mean your subconscious or your dreams have any effect on your work?
MC: I wish I could say that my dreams do have something to do with my work, but really I think that my dreams are just abstract art. They’re just nonsense that I can decipher in any which way that I feel like doing, and I think it really is a lot more the way that I’m deciphering it than what it actually is. But I mean, the steps that one takes to do anything, are just the obvious natural answer to anything. I can say that “this dream is supposed to mean something.” But it’s just the fact that I’m saying that makes it mean anything, you know? I’m in tune with my dreams, and they can be pretty outrageous and lush, but really it’s just simply the feeling that I get from it that exists throughout the day that is more of what I’m trying to understand.
CMG: So it’s more the process of working through it, rather than the thing itself?
MC: Yeah I guess so, maybe. I’m not really sure, I don’t know. I guess I really have no idea. It’s like this juggling - like everything else, I try to keep a balance of total opposites with everything. On one hand, I feel as though I know exactly what I’m doing, both musically and with my life. On the other hand I really haven’t the slightest idea, and if something happens to end up being, there it is. I think maybe I can try and justify it but really it just simply is what it is, and I can’t give it much more than that.

CMG: For Accidental Memory, I know you recorded that in one or two takes …
MC: Uhm, yeah, it was basically all of it was one take. There was one song I did a second take on. After recording I just wasn’t happy with it, so I went back and did one more. But all the rest of it is one take, yeah.
CMG: Was that written on the fly too? Was that sort-of spontaneous composition or had you actually planned it out before you went in and recorded it?
MC: No, all of those pieces were basically all written when I moved into the apartment. And I hadn’t played piano in about fourteen and fifteen years, maybe a little bit longer, before I moved into the apartment. And I don’t really know how to play piano. I think I know one Bach piece, and some eighties tunes, and stuff like that. So really, all I know how to play are the songs I’d written. So I wrote the songs and I moved from Portland up to Seattle. I didn’t have a piano with me then, so I made plans to go back down and record them. I liked the idea that I hadn’t really played them. They were basically rough drafts of ideas. I liked the idea of entering the studio and not really knowing exactly how I was going to do them. I guess maybe it seems to carry more mood when I attempt things in that manner. Practicing something every single day becomes this sterile song in and of itself, whereas, if you walked in and just started playing, then it just becomes whatever it is.
CMG: So the idea is like, “it’s not too though through, it still contains that ineffable spirit that moved you to write that song in the first place?”
MC: Right, yeah exactly. So it’s not like all of a sudden I walked in and started messing around on the piano and that was what was recorded. The sketches for the songs were definitely there.

CMG: What’s your musical background like? You mentioned piano lessons a little while ago …
MC: My memory is a little bit blurry, I was so young. I took piano lessons for five years. I quit when I was about eleven years old. After that I took up guitar, and I took a year, maybe two years of guitar lessons, and dropped out of that as well. I studied guitar ever since, just personally. But I never saw or played a piano again until I moved into this apartment, and I just started working with it.

That’s basically it. With the guitar I feel like, there’s a point in time where I was really interested in lots of music that was very versatile and all over the map. So I was interested in solo guitar and rhythm section, and I was interested in complicated scales and tunings and all that. I guess I kinda got to a point where I didn’t know what to do with that anymore. I’d gone as far as I felt I could with it, and with guitar I just really bought it back down to a more tonal level rather than melodic. I almost feel like I’m using the guitar as a percussion instrument rather than a string instrument.

CMG: It does sound like that sometimes, especially on a song like “Taken” there’s this one guitar figure that’s feels very percussive, more so than just a guitar, or whatever.
MC: Yes, right.
CMG: Were you ever in any bands or anything like that?
MC: Yeah. When I lived in Louisville I was in a group for a few years, and it was mostly kind of politically charged teen angst stuff. I think I was a little too much like a leader that didn’t need to be in that group. After that I moved out to Portland, and I messed around with some roommates for a good while, but I think we played maybe one show, at best. Then I just started working on instrumental guitar pieces. I had been listening to Ariel M’s first record at the time it first came out. That record was very influential to me as far as, like, doing very simple acoustic kinda folky instrumental pieces. Then somehow, I don’t know, it morphed into this completely different thing. I think it came about from going to see shows, but I would only go for five minutes. I would just be there and here a sound and then get really inspired and just go home, and somehow the acoustic folk sound wasn’t there anymore, it was just blur of tone.

I never did any shows, though. The person who did the artwork for Accidental Memory made a film a few years ago with me. I did a couple of house shows for that, we would just project the movie onto the sides of houses in downtown Portland, and once I played in the back of a pickup truck to accompany that. But aside from that, I was much more interested in figuring out why I was doing what I was doing and things of that sort than I was at like, actually getting approval you know, and going out and playing shows.

CMG: You said that you had a political band in high school, but are you still a political person at all?
MC: That kind of waxes and wanes, I guess. I tend to kind-of view that whole system as completely pointless. The difference between me and one of my friends would be that they would say, “we are humans, and we are in this situation, and so the political process is something that we have to be a part of and have to deal with at this point in time.” Unfortunately I do have to agree with that on some level, and I do take part in it. But there’s really a much larger part of me that says, “no, this doesn’t make any sense, and I really don’t see the need to participate in it at all.”

I’m sorry, this may sound big headed, but I really feel that there are many human beings that are way above that level of working as a civilization. I almost wish that it could just be ignored and it could go away. So I mean, yes and no. I’m not politically driven, and I’m not an activist by any means, but I do understand why people take part in that sort-of culture. I guess.

CMG: Okay, just to clarify, by the process do you mean the political process itself, or do you mean people who get involved in issues that people tend to get fired up and worked up over?
MC: No, I think I mean the political process itself. The fact that human beings can’t govern themselves whatsoever - I mean, every thing in the universe should be able to tell the difference between right and wrong, you know? It’s just as simple as that. There’s no reason why we need some sort of all-seeing-eye person, who’s in no position to be making better judgment than the rest of human-kind. I mean, it just makes no sense whatsoever. I’m not saying that, if the entire human civilization is better than that, than it’s not like chaos will break loose. But I mean, who am I to judge what’s chaos and what isn’t? I think we’ve just built this entire structure based off of false ideas, so our way of judging what is the correct way of going about doing things is based off of something that is completely wrong in the first place. So I mean, there’s no way of really deciphering anymore. But personally, yeah, the entire political process just absolutely makes no sense to me.

CMG: So like, you’re playing out shows more and touring and stuff, that’s sort of a new thing for you then?
MC: Yeah, it is a new thing for me. When Lambent Material came out on Temporary Residence, I basically told Jeremy that I wasn’t going to play out at all. He said he didn’t care and that he loved the record. Also, just like musically, they’re very hard things for one person to do in a live setting. But then after I recorded Accidental Memory, all of a sudden I had something more to work with, and I started meeting all of these wonderful people, like this band Mono, and this band Explosions in the Sky, who loved what I was doing. And so they were asking me if I would go out on tour them. They were so wonderful that I couldn’t turn it down, I had to go along and experience it with them.

I mean, basically I still feel as though I’m in the same seat. It’s not exactly what I want to be doing, I’d rather be home working on a composition of some sort, working on, I don’t know, maybe a symphony or something like that [laughs]. But I’m meeting these really beautiful and true-of-heart people, and for somebody that doesn’t go out at all, it’s refreshing to see that there are people that actually do mean something in the world.

CMG: What is your live set-up like? Is it just you, or do you have others backing you?
MC: It’s just myself. Right now on tour I have a Judy Kowski, who did the artwork for the piano album, she’s made another film. It’s a stop-action animation film and she’s going to be playing the film behind me while I play. Musically, live it’s just myself. Maybe in a few years we could get three or four people and we could do a bit more Talk Amongst the Trees material in a live format. Right now I can only do a few pieces from that album, though.

Oh, so are you doing mostly stuff from Accidental Memory?
MC: Yeah. I can do a few songs from Lambent Material, pretty much all of Accidental Memory, and a few more things from Talk Amongst the Trees.
CMG: What songs from Talk Amongst the Trees are you doing?
MC: Right now I’m working on getting “Taken.” I kind-of have an idea for everything on there that I can pull of, as well.

CMG: I’m curious, in “Taken,” how many instruments do you have going on at the same time?
MC: That’s just one.
CMG: Just one!?
MC: Yeah.
CMG: So do you use a bunch of different delay pedals?
MC: I have a looping pedal, so it’s basically one instrument being played, but it’s continually being looped on top of itself. I guess if you count a musical bow on the guitar, that would make it kind-of two instruments. It’s all compromised from my guitar, but I do bow it a little bit to get sort of that residual sound you hear in the beginning, and then later on they become much more present just from basically messing around with it - bringing out the highs and lows and things like that. But as far as the effects pedals go, I pretty much have a looping pedal and then a reverb pedal, but that’s it.
CMG: So when you recorded it, it was just the one take with the looping pedal, or did you use multiple tracks for it?
MC: I literally just sat down and played it for seventeen minutes, I’m just continuously adding and adding and adding all in one sitting.

I’ve worked a lot with mic placement and recording techniques, but it’s not like I ever studied recording or anything like that. But you know, I did a bunch of lo-fi stuff in my life, so I learned how to get good sounds just by swinging a microphone around the room. A lot of Talk Amongst the Trees has peculiar microphone placement in order to get those very strange, long tunnelish sounds and things of that sort.