The Ry Cooder Interview
Ry Cooder has a brand new album out - just a year after Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down he's released Election Special. It's strange to call Cooder prolific here, because throughout the 1960s, 70s and 80s he moved between session work, producing, guest-spots, soundtrack albums, solo projects and has collaborated with everyone from Taj Mahal to The Chieftains. Still, it's true to say that he's hit a late-career purple patch - there's some inspiration, clearly. Between 1987 and 2005 there were no albums released with the Cooder surname on the spine - unless it was a movie soundtrack. Since 2005 this is his fifth full-length solo album and he's worked with The Chieftains, Mavis Staples, Ersi Arvizu, also writing a novella (to accompany the album I, Flathead) and a book of short-stories.
"Well, since Flathead the last couple of albums have been recorded at my engineer's house. It's easy. He lives in the area and he has everything set up in his living room so it's the easiest thing to do - for us to just record there. The drums stay mic'd at his place and so Joachim [Cooder, Ry's son] will meet me there. And I'll just walk on over with my guitar and my amp and it's all pretty much one-take. It's live singing and I'll add bass or mandolin or whatever needs to go on there, maybe Flaco [Jimenez] will lay some accordion on there afterwards but for the new album, for Election Special, it's just me and Joachim."
Pull Up Some Dust opens with No Banker Left Behind. After immersing himself in Dustbowl-era music and social history, Cooder saw parallels to the modern-day situation; he saw, he says, "a need" for protest music - a type of music he has followed and played, in various forms, all of his professional life.
It's more overt with Election Special, opening with Mutt Romney Blues, a song about the Republican presidential candidate leaving the family pooch on the roof of the car - and sung from the point of view/voice of the roof-racked dog; Cooder has fun displaying his anger. There's disdain and disappointment on this record. There are some modern-day blues. But it grooves. It bites. And it feels, instantly, like a great Ry Cooder record - a reminder of his albums from the 1970s, more so than with the previous "concept" albums that looked to tell a story across the length of the album, here each song is its own chapter, its own short-story.
"Each song," Ry picks up, "is a story about a current issue. I watch a lot of TV, a lot of news, I read a lot about what's going on - and that's influenced these songs. The old-time social music is what comes through me - and I've absorbed so much of it that when I did start writing my own songs it did come out in that way. And in my last albums I've looked at history, including some fiction in with the historical setting, so here was a chance to look at what's really happening right now - because let me tell you these people are evil [Republicans] and we can't have them getting in [the White House] again. It's an extremely hyper-critical time in America and so I wanted to reflect at least some of that in these songs."
Cooder says that not a lot has changed for him, process-wise; it all boils down to creating music.
"You know, I do what I always do - I sit in my chair and I practise these instruments - there's always something to work on, got to get better, got to work - and I'm watching the TV and reading and I can't believe these things I'm seeing and hearing and so that comes across in the new songs. That's it, really. It's about getting the word out - you have to get the word out, you have to speak about what you believe and believe in."
He's enjoying working with his son, percussionist and drummer Joachim. One listen to Mutt Romney Blues from the new album shows the feel the two have now after more than a decade of working together.
"Joachim was born and grew up with an understanding and an ability to accompany," Cooder explains, speaking very slowly here, wishing to hammer home his point right as he's dreaming up the correct way to articulate it, "and he does this always - without being told what to do. He understands the dynamic. Always. So it's a joy. It's easy. And really it's just the two of us on this new album; I played bass and mandolin and all the instruments besides Joachim's percussion."
Cooder explains, "Well, I did the Mexican point of view with Chavez and then when it came time to do the White point of view, with Flathead, I invented this character, Kash Buk, and I thought 'well, no one is going to believe this character unless I write the stories' so that meant that the songs I'd written in character extended out to sketches and ideas that made the story that went with the album - and then there were leftover ideas that nagged at me so I kept writing. I wasn't going to do anything with them. But I showed them to a friend, who liked them and said that I needed to publish them - I didn't know anything really about that. But we looked into it, sent them off, and thankfully the City Lights publishing house decided to publish them into a wee book. So there you go." And there's an almost embarrassed chuckle at this point.
I'm interested in how crucial narrative is to Cooder's work as a musician. It seems to be what drives him. As a session player it was (and is) his job to help tell someone else's story; his 1970s albums seemed to exist, in part, for him to show off his take on a particular genre, a different one with each release, cover versions that he made his own - you can tell your story with someone else's words and it's still your story, in a sense, if you're putting yourself into it. Or at least it is your version of a history lesson. Then there's the money-gig across the 1980s, soundtrack composing, another way to tell stories. And another crucial element in that version of storytelling - when he returned to making albums under his own name, they became, for want of a word, cinematic. Mini-movies, concept albums with more of a sprawl to them and now this has extended to prose-writing.
"Well, yeah, narrative is it for me. That's how I work."
And then nothing. A pause so long I thought the line had dropped off. But he's back with a thought - and just in time. "It's how I understand writing - writing music, that is. That's what I understand," again a slow, deliberately drawled emphasis on that word. "I don't understand the conventional singer/songwriter approach, I don't even really understand that term singer/songwriter, I don't feel it applies to me at any rate, but I don't understand these conventions, you know, 'I'm so sad/She left me/I don't know what to do'" - a pause for laughter - "I don't do that." More laughter. "That's never been me and it's fine for people to do that, but I don't work that way. I like to bite a little bit off, chew it over. I like to see where this thing is going, you know what I mean. I need it to go somewhere."
And that does make sense. Spend more than a few minutes on the phone with Ry Cooder and he can fill in a whole decade with one sentence. And it stands alone - no need for justification. It sums up everything that went before that decade and how everything changed after. The perfect example is when we start to talk about his soundtrack work.
"There was a time when the phone would ring and it would be Walter Hill - but that hasn't happened for a while; that was good though at the time. It was another way to tell a story."
And so - just as I'm worried that I've dead-ended by reading too much into work that was probably just a crucial pay-cheque at the time, I ask Cooder to try to give me his idea on where he stands - what exactly his context is. Here's a guy who, when still a teenager, played in the studio with Captain Beefheart; who (not much) later worked with The Rolling Stones and Randy Newman, then went on to release wonderful and thrilling records under his own name and then "by strange fate" had a crucial hand in the cottage-industry of Buena Vista Social Club, affording a victory-lap around the world to musicians who hadn't travelled out of their home country until their 70s and 80s.
Is he just, as he once said, "a guitar player from Santa Monica" - or is there more to it than that?
"Ha, well, you know, that is the best description - still. Because it is a fundamental fact. I am a guitar player from Santa Monica. But you know it's that thing - isn't it - I mean, someone asked me what influenced my sound and I had to say 'every record I have ever listened to' and it's the truth. I swear. You gotta understand a thing about how I grew up and where I grew up; you see Santa Monica was this place that existed as an aircraft factory. That was about it. They built these big war aircraft - so you know that was that. And as a kid I was never much interested in school, I wasn't good at it. I didn't care for it. But there was this radio station in the area and it played this music, western swing, Merle Travis, Bob Wills, and I just loved this music. You know that stuff?"
I tell him that I do. And we're off again.
"Right, so I just fell for this stuff - oh my god, you know. And it was honky-tonk, or whatever, but it was great. And I was just convinced I was going to go and join Ray Price - that was it for me. And I told my dad. And he laughed and said that I was wasting my time, these were just a bunch of ignorant rednecks and that was that. As far as he was concerned. But you know, the really great thing - and here is where luck is so great - a lot of the records were made in Los Angeles. So I was just absorbing this music, learning about it, and then it became a thing that I could go to studios and find work. When the 1960s happened and particularly the folk-rock thing, say The Byrds, that created vast opportunities.
"I remember getting to see the great Earl Palmer." Another long pause. Another moment where I feel my grip tighten around the phone. I don't want to lose this call! And he's back. Back on Earl Palmer.
"Seeing something that good - watching Earl was seeing something that I didn't know existed. And I thought 'this is the real deal', you know what I mean?"
I have no idea what he means - how could I?! - but of course I blurt out yes. I felt I had to.
"Yeah, man, that's the real s**t. And I just tried to learn to fit in. I was watching these amazing players and if you cottoned on and were good enough, you got work. I tried to fit in. And then I learned that in LA it was actually, at the time, a very small scene. So one thing would lead to another, all right? So there were these amazing people, people on the fringe, but they were people doing amazing things. I remember one time Jack Nitzsche said to me, 'a guy who sleeps out in my yard has got a hit song'. He was talking about Barry McGuire [Eve of Destruction]. So, you know, it was a pretty magical time and place when I think about it. Absolutely."
And I appear to have Ry Cooder in full thinking-about-it-mode. He continues.
"Jackie DeShannon said to me one time 'could you drop me off at a house' and I said 'sure' so I gave her a ride. And she pointed this house out and said 'just here, that's fine' and I asked her whose place it was and she said 'oh, it's Elvis's' - you know, just like that." Cooder interrupts himself to laugh. "I asked if I could go in - but she said no." He's quite the comic now. He's got his timing going, he's adlibbing, Ry is becoming (more and more) wry as we go.
"Beefheart was a funny guy - and a very odd fellow. And there's certainly plenty of stories about him, he was a musical genius too, I'm very sure of that. But those stories are just anecdotal, they're good fun. But what I remember most are the musical events. I remember seeing Buddy Emmons warming up on Charlie Parker, playing it at triple speed, you know. And I remember thinking 'hell, I'll never be this good' and so you had to stick at it. You had to stick at it to get good and you had to back yourself. My favourite thing was one time the great Mac Rebennack [aka Dr John] took a session on some instrument he didn't even play. He just agreed to do it even though he couldn't play the damned thing. I remember saying to him 'well now, what the hell? What did you do that for?' and Mac says" - and here I have to cut in to tell you that Ry Cooder does a perfect Dr John impersonation, drippy and slippery and hipster-cool - "he says 'hey man, I got a week to learn. I'll learn. I gotta eat,' so," Cooder continues, "that's what it was about. That was the spirit. That was the vibe. We were just learning and working - and we needed to work. There was that hunger. The hunger was," he pauses to acknowledge the pun with a chuckle, "very real."
Cooder concludes this particular trip down memory lane by saying "I was just lucky to be in LA. That's really it. All of these experiences came from me being there. Being a guitar player from Santa Monica, and Los Angeles had the scene at the time. I've been very lucky to be able to move through a few styles and to explore with music; to do what I want to do."
I have to ask about Buena Vista Social Club.
"That was a case of fate intervening in a situation that wasn't predicted. Cuba's long living history of this amazing music was something that I wanted to see and hear for myself and you know I thought we'd be lucky enough to get a room for us to fit in when it came time to record - I thought I'd be laughed out of the room too. And then it turned into what it became - which was solo albums and tours. And the film going on and the album and it was just something that, like all of these things, you have to feel very lucky to have ever been involved in. You have to think that something very special took place and you were lucky to be a part in it."
So back to Election Special, the new album, released last Friday, it's filled with beautiful, weary, sad, wonderful songs. A favourite is Brother Is Gone - I think Ry Cooder is writing songs as good as an in-form Steve Earle, as good as Cooder ever has, and as much as I'm a fan of his music across the wide scope of his career, I'm pleased he's returned to the simple sounds here with Election Special; something so deeply internal as to appear external is driving these songs - passion, focus. Brother Is Gone feels as though it could be on Chicken Skin Music or Into the Purple Valley. And I like it for that. There's a chance many will like it for its political storytelling too.
"We have to do something," Cooder says, returning to the politics behind the album. "If we're able to say something, then we should do it. We can't stand by why people like the Koch brothers help run this country into the ground. We can't lose this election. I don't know what we'll do. But we can't."
And the passion for playing is still there for Cooder too, even if he's less interested in touring with a big band and fixing dates up on a large schedule.
"Oh, we'll see, I'm not so sure, but Joachim and I played a gig just the other day in San Francisco, oh you should have seen it. It was great. Really, I think I can say that. It was just great. It sounded good."
The phone goes down. I prick myself. I play Election Special for the umpteenth time already. And move on through my Ry Cooder collection from there.
Are you a Ry Cooder fan? Have you heard the new album? Will you check it out? Did you like Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down and the "California Trilogy" albums? What are your favourite Ry Cooder songs/albums? And do you have favourite musical moments that involve Cooder? His soundtracks? His session work? Buena Vista?
Postscript: I've done my best here to put across this conversation - one of my favourite interviews to be part of. And I'll tell you now, given that I'm a fan, I was very nervous/anxious for days in advance. The most nervous I've been before an interview. Only my Elvis Costello and Damon Albarn interviews come close, in terms of my nerves before the event.