You may already know them, but for those who have no idea what music Modern Nature, an English band that has released “two and a half records” since 2019, make, we suggest that you take advantage of this brief introduction to start listening to their music. As well as doing yourself a favour, you will also avoid the risk of having to “cage” a music that is in truth elusive and characterised by a sort of aerial fluidity, which on the one hand drags you into a continuous flow that is easy to surrender to and on the other, manages not to neglect the song form at all. The pen of Jack Cooper, leader of the band (who, between Beep Seals, Mazes and Ultimate Painting, is not exactly a newcomer to the British scene) manages to perfectly reconcile the strength of the single episode while placing it in the sound context of the record and in the constant flow of which it is composed.
So try to listen to their latest work “Island Of Noise”, which, though not really a concept album, traces a journey that starts from the placid “Tempest”, disrupted by the perturbations of the saxophone of the great Evan Parker, and ends and culminates in the minimal crescendo of “Build”, a track that we are not afraid to call a small masterpiece.In between, we find the electro-acoustic sweetness of “Dunes“, “Bluster” and “Spell”, the rarefactions of “Ariel” and “Simmetry”, the crystalline melodies of “Masque”, the sustained groove with almost Middle Eastern colours of “Brigade” and the syncopated and “cooled” groove of “Performance”.
Perhaps the most surprising quality of this sequence of chapters in song form, lies in the balance and maturity with which the band manages to embellish and transcend the song form, through the improvisation of the musicians (entrusted above all to Evan Parker’s soprano saxophone, but also to the alto saxophone and bass clarinet of Jeff Tobias, not forgetting Lily Carassik‘s trumpet) and the care taken with the arrangements, which are so calibrated as to draw a sonic fil rouge between the various tracks that, if it does not prevent them from shining individually, gives them a common identity that feeds the overall synergy of the plot.In short, an album not to be missed, especially now that it is being released in physical form after a first deluxe edition, released in December 2021 and sold like hotcakes.
This little marvel made us want to know more, so we contacted Jack Cooper who, despite the turbulence of brand new fatherhood, kindly answered our questions.
Hi Jack and thanks for taking some time out in the middle of this new adventure…
First of all, let’s talk about the new album. We are curious to know how it matured, what were the differences, in approach and themes, with How to Live and Annual, and if you see a path between the various works. Can we talk about a trilogy that this new record closes, opening up a new cycle, or is everything still in progress?
I think this project has a very defined set of themes. I prefer to think of it as a palette… Colour is a much more useful comparison.
I’m not so sure it can be considered as a trilogy, I think it feels too convenient to think that at the moment just because there are three. I feel like this record is a step closer to where I would like the music to be.I suppose that thinking of a trilogy, I would have to consider this record to be the end of something but it doesn’t feel like that.
It feels like there are elements of this record that are close to realizing the sort of music I think about in my head but it’s not quite there. But, no, I can’t say that it’s the final chapter of a trilogy. Maybe you could think of it as a natural progression.
What was it like working with Evan Parker? What did he contribute to the sessions? What did he add?
Well, I felt very nervous about it because I’m a huge admirer of his music and of the philosophy behind his music. The seriousness in which he approaches music is not a very common trait in a lot of musicians. Musicians have many different reasons in making music and with Evan, it seems his motivation is more profound than a lot of people. So I felt intimidated in a way because I wanted him to recognize that I take this very seriously as well. So I didn’t want him to think that this was just an indie rock record that he was asked to play on. We have a mutual friend, so I emailed him, asking whether he would be interested in playing.
He obviously googled Modern Nature; there’s a song in our first album called “Paradam” that is a reference to Rene Daumal’s book called “Mount Analogue” and Evan asked if Paradam was a reference to Mount analogue because “if it is, count me in”. So I think that he might have recognized a sort of kindred spirit and it was enough to pick his interest.
Did he record in the studio with you or remotely?
He was in the studio with us because except for a couple of snippets everything was recorded in the same studios because everything we recorded on tape. It’s possible to insert a digital file in this kind of situation but it’s not easy, so he recorded his parts in the studio with us.
The songs were taken in the studio in a way that I think of them more as a framework within which various musicians can color and fill the paint and there were elements that were written out for Evan like lines and melodies.
They were notated, but, as always, they were the canvas that I wanted it to play but there was a lot of improvisation as well. So I was kind of giving him an idea of the places that I wanted him to play but mostly I just wanted him to play like Evan Parker. The music was recorded with no rehearsal. There were occasions in which I came up with songs or sections that were heavily notated with kind of intricate melodies. To his credit, he tried but he basically said he didn’t wanna do it; the way he put it was he’s gonna play like it, it feels like I’m just earning my money and he was just interested kind of being himself and that was the same I was just interested in as well.
Compared to your previous experiences, it seems that with this band you have found a natural setting, more relaxed and able to accommodate your artistic moods. What is your relationship with the Modern Nature project and what is its intimate essence? The one that must be preserved and gives identity to the project, beyond the external contributions that enrich the formula…
I was very much interested in finding a natural flow and more relaxed feeling.
One of the reasons that I like to record on tape is not only because it sounds particularly good but because it pushes you into an attitude where you just record, you don’t worry about the mistakes too much or playing perfect. I think that hopefully, that kind of laid-back approach comes across the music. I think that nowadays a lot of music, on a philosophical level, is very difficult to process, especially with digital music and the way that a lot of records are constructed nowadays that are literally hard for your brain to process because there are so many things goin’ on. I think when you start living space (and I don’t necessarily space in a kind of stereo spectrum), I mean the space between notes, longer periods of silence your brain can focus on individual elements a lot better so that you can absorb it properly. A lot of modern music I just find too difficult to take in, in the same way, you watch a Marvel movie.
There is a distant echo of British pastoralism in your music. What is your relationship with the English folk tradition and, more generally, with your country, which has just come out of the Brexit storm?
I feel that folk music runs inside what we’re doing but I’m not interested in sounding like a group of the sixties or the seventies. I want to do music that has that spirit and a connection from where I’m from but without sounding like a revival
Just another question related to the atmosphere of the record. We hear lots of British folk references but it is also related to Brexit, to the political atmosphere, or is it something you would have done the same way?
It’s a very interesting question because I grow up feeling European and I suppose in the last few years I felt more engaged with Europe, and I think that since Brexit many English people, and I say English because it was the English government to put us in this situation, it’s not Scotland or Northern Ireland: I blame England.
And the sort of feeling I think with a lot of left-leaning people felt ashamed or embarrassed with Brexit. I think a lot of younger people who are trying to find elements of being English to be proud of have nothing to do with nationalism or something like that, it’s finding a way to take inspiration from an England that kind of transcend that, to find aspects of our culture to be proud of.
There are so many of the great innovators, artists, and thinkers that we might look to such as Derek Jarman, from which we took the name Modern Nature, Bridget Riley, Mike Leigh, Clement Attlee, Virginia Woolf, etc that are quintessentially English but very contrary to what our establishment currently stands for.
In your music, there is a lot of space between the notes… Even your way of leading the dances with the guitar seems to lead the band in this direction…
Well, I think space is the element that most music is missing. If there’s space, then your mind can process what is there more easily. It’s easier to appreciate and process a tree on its own in a field, as opposed to one in a forest, if that makes sense.
Do you think that your compositions/performances have more to do with the world around you or do they mainly describe an inner world? Do you think that Modern Nature’s music has its own timelessness or is it a child of the times in which it lives?
It’s difficult, I feel like a lot of the words and the lyrics involved with the record are very much a way of me trying to grasp this particular moment of history I suppose, which feels like we’re going backward and I think that a lot of political and psychological landscapes are really confusing for people including myself, so I think a lot of the words and the thinks we are talking in lyrics and stuff is a way to process what’s going on in the outside world but I feel that I am more interested in kind of exploring in what you can’t say with the written words. I feel like music is a form of communication and expression way beyond written words.
We found the last track ‘Build’ to be a great closing track. Are you one of those who think that a great record, like the most successful films, should have a great ending?
The way that I approach these modern nature records is quite the same or similar approach to writing a play or a novel so the idea is the way that the albums are laid out is always very intentional.
I’m trying to build a kind of narrative, a story arch so the idea with that song really was not exactly a conclusion but like in a way that someone would direct a final scene, the way to tie things up so the idea with the music was to have all the different elements that we had in the records, different musicians, different melodies and condense it down to the most simplified state so everything that comes before it’s been already elaborated.
But the idea with this song is to kind of break it down to a sort/sum of components so that’s why it is so metronomic and everyone especially on the choruses (except for Evan) is playing one note.
So behind improvisation, there’s a strong, solid idea
Tell us about the film and book projects that accompany the album and in some way constitute its “visual” companion. What was your goal? We’re curious to know what criteria you used to associate images and notes and to choose the people who contributed to the book… We saw a sort of journey…
Well, I think the idea behind the book, the film, and the separate record is that I just felt that when I finished the record there was the possibility and the kind of themes involved with a sort of endless, it felt like there was something I could just keep working on, so I felt there was like there was a lot of ground to be covered and I wanted to give it my all I suppose. So I was always like this: whenever I hear a record for the first time that I like or become obsessed with, I read as much as I can about online, I listen to many different versions of it or demos, alternate takes, and things like that. So I feel that if this is a record that people got into, it would be great for people to really kind absorb themselves into it, So that was the idea of making all these kinds of elements that support it I suppose.
How long did it take to complete the record? When did you start and when did you end?
I actually had the majority of the songs before I recorded the “Annual” record, I had been working on them for a while but I was essentially waiting for a new deal with the record to have the money to produce the album so I did annual before. I think most of the songs were written in early 2019 and when I was kind of writing the arrangements, the score the sections of the album (I spent the first half of lockdown 2020 working on them). I think we recorded it in September 2020 (the actual recordings took 10 days) and then it has taken a while to come out.
So most of it was ready way before COVID and you kept it in store for a long period?
Yeah, there are elements of the lyrics that changed even when I was about to sing them in the studio. So there are definitely elements of COVID that made their way into the world but the songs and the kind of ideas, themes were quite before
How was it during the lockdown? Did you manage to write stuff? How did your creativity react to that situation?
Well, it’s difficult to say this because people have suffered so much in the last couple of years. There were hard times for example financially but the first few months of the lockdown almost felt like being on school holidays when you were a kid. it would feel just weird, new, and foreign; there was something quite refreshing to having so much time on your hand.
So I felt particularly creative and motivated because as a kind of touring musician all of your energy is taken by touring life. Once you take that out of the equation you are kind of completely concentrated on writing and recording
Finally, we would like to have some information about the content of the second disc in the special edition of Island Of Noise, Island Of Silence.
I think for a lot of music, not necessarily singing or a voice but words can detract from music in a way. Once you have words on music then intentions behind the music can become too obvious it’s …. to what you listen to the words, I suppose. And I felt that there was enough going on, there was enough communication in instrumentals to be potentially more interesting than when I was singing on it. I think that part of it comes down to the fact that I don’t like my voice so it was nice to hear the song without it.