AMAZESing Grace

Musicians, they’re a strange breed aren’t they? Overly protective of their music, their art, and rarely willing to share the secrets of their trade with anyone lest their methods be revealed as phony. Or, they’re too honest, too throwaway, too laissez-faire to realise that they’ve got a genuine talent that if they applied properly would enable them to fulfil their life’s desires. Whichever way you look at it they’re interesting cats, and MAZESJack Cooper is more interesting than most. A man whose restless creativity knows no bounds, since wrapping up proceedings on Mazes’ first album A Thousand Heys, Cooper has been involved in a variety of groups, as well as pursuing his own record label (Suffering Jukebox). On top of that are two self-designed projects that Cooper initiated and undertook via online blogs that show a fearless practitioner willing to explore the boundaries of his craft. Art Is Cheap saw him explore the “profession” of songwriting by inviting people to commission him to write songs for them. Charging £10 a go (but often receiving donations of a lot more), Cooper wrote and recorded songs based on titles, ideas or lyrics emailed to him by prospective customers, most of which were posted on the Art Is Cheap blog, and released later on via Art Is Hard Records. Then in November last year came Cape Clear whereby Cooper announced he was to write and record an entire album in 24 hours, informed by the five stages of sleep with drones and loops and lots of repetition. Heavy stuff.

Mazes play live in Liverpool 22nd Feb - buy tickets now

Ores And Minerals, out now on FatCat Records, is Mazes’ follow up to their 2011 debut A Thousand Heys. Far from sitting in the same bracket that so many observers were happy to plonk them in, Ores And Minerals is a laconic pulveriser of a record, one that’s happy to find a groove and run with it. Furthermore it sees Mazes make a neat sidestep, a necessary move that has allowed them to show off more of their flair for knocking out a crunching hook. If A Thousand Heys had them pegged as fuzzed-up 90s American rock a la Guided By Voices, where does this sidestep leave them? The hooks are still there in their droves, this time hidden under less fuzz and clutter and bolstered by some krautrocky rhythms and repetition. There’s also more of a danceable element to Ores And Minerals, but label it what you want, it’s still a difficult sound to pinpoint. See for yourself with this album stream – we assure you you won’t be disappointed.

Through the murkiness of a cold, Jack Cooper answered the phone to us and was happy to engage in a conversation that could have run on for hours. “It’s OK, I enjoy talking about it,” was Cooper’s response, adding “it gives me a legitimate reason not to do anything today!” Here’s what came up over the course of nearly an hour.

Bido Lito!: You’ve had a few line-up changes since the band’s inception, and this record sees you back as three-piece. Tell us how the chopping and changing all came about.

Jack Cooper: Jarin [Tabata] left round the end of 2011 when we’d toured the first album. We had a few songs that we were playing live that weren’t on the first record, but they were all in that similar vein. And when he left I guess it was like a catalyst for change. I got really bored writing that kind of song, and I felt it was just one very small side of the things that me, Conan [Roberts, Bass] and Neil [Robinson, Drums] were in to. The first album got compared to lots of bands from America in the 90s. I mean, there was loads of good music that came around then, but I can’t remember the last time I listened to any of those bands. So it sort of felt that it was just a tiny proportion of the stuff I was in to.

BL!: So did you see it as an excuse to make a departure?

JC: [pause] Yeeeeeeehhh… I’ve been thinking about it recently. That first album is almost like a period piece, if you know what I mean? It’s very indebted to the 90s, what we were listening to when we were young. On this one, there were no influences really, and EVERYTHING influenced it.

BL!: Does that mean this this record is more organically Mazes then?

JC: Yeeeeehh, I think so. The feedback we’ve had from it is that it’s more original. There are obviously reference points there – people will always pick up on that. For instance on this one people have been saying there’s a krautrock influence. I mean I kind of get it: we don’t sound like Neu! or Can or whatever, but there’s definitely an influence there. I think with the first one you could more definitely say it sounded like Guided By Voices or Pavement, or whatever, but with this one it’s kind of unique.

BL!: People will always read in to things differently and pick out reference points that not everyone else can see…

JC: Yeh… [sounding unconvinced] Also I think a lot of it, and it’s sad to say it, comes from what you put in your press release. If you say “we’re influenced by Pavement and Sebadoh” people will write “they sound like Pavement and Sebadoh.” But if you don’t put anything, it challenges them to make up their own minds.

BL!: From the outside it seems as though Mazes is quite a fluid entity – what with the line-up changes and other band members’ collaborations and work in other bands, plus yours and Conan’s record labels [Suffering Jukebox and Italian Beach babes respectively]. Is that fluidity key to the band, and does it inspire creativity?

JC: Definitely. There’s a very old fashioned idea, which I think is a British thing, that a band should be like a gang of people. People always want to go and see ‘the original line-up’ of bands. It seems a very old hat thing, in my opinion. I like that Mark E. Smith idea that a band is more like a football team. That makes a lot more sense to me. I mean look at Kraftwerk who are doing that tour at the moment: there’s only one of the original members now in that line-up. But if you look back at that band, that line-up was pretty much different for every single record they made, yet they still have this identity. And people change as well: to tie yourself in to the same people, or the same kind of mindset seems odd to me.

BL!: Mazes have released a variety of things on various different outlets and with different people. Does the collaborative process come about due to you wanting to do something different, or does the fact that you’re in contact with so many music makers keep you active creatively?

JC: I dunno… I got bored a few weeks ago and I did that Cape Clear thing which was more a sort of improv-y thing I did over a day. And then I did something else… One of the bands I’m really in to at the moment is Vision Fortune. Me and Austin from Vision Fortune are going to play some shows together as a little two-piece… You get excited by things don’t you, and you just… you want in don’t you [laughs]!

BL!: But do you have a main focus?

JC: Yeh, it is Mazes, definitely. But I like that to be my central hub, and there are lots of things going on round it. Neil and Conan have so many things going on around the band too.

BL!: Given all that, how important is spontaneity to you?

JC: [pause while he ponders the question] Yeh, it is. It is completely. I think with this record there has been a bit of a different approach, in that it was something that came about after tinkering with it for months and months. The record we made first time around was very much a product of two guitars, a bass and drums – you’re always going to sound a particular way. I think with this one we wanted to take a bit more care and to craft it a bit more. I’ve been asked that before about spontaneity, and that used to be the thing, you know, the main idea behind the band. But you know, you change and things get lost along the way. I don’t think that approach is any better than this approach, it’s just different.

Mazes - Ores And Minerals

Ores And Minerals

BL!: Has this new approach changed anything in terms of the recording process?

JC: Everything we did before was done on an 8-track. And then we did the first record and that was recorded in a proper studio. If I listen to it now it sounds like we’re trying to make it sound lo-fi, or we’re trying to make it sound distorted but in a digital way. And it kind of grinds me a little bit listening back to that record. I’ve always used GarageBand to demo things because it’s so much easier, and cheaper, if you’ve already got a MacBook. But with this one we recorded it all ourselves, and I taught myself Ableton… The drums were recorded on cassette tape, and then I transferred then in to Ableton or GarageBand, and then it eventually got mixed in Logic so it’s gone through all these different processes. I’m pretty in to digital recording these days.

BL!: Can you ever see you going down the fully digital path in the future, and producing a Mazes album that aims for a really clean sound? Or are you just happy experimenting?

JC: I think in general I’m more drawn to distorted sounds. But then… I think that some of the songs on the record sound really clean, sort of clinical-sounding, and that was what I was keen to do. And then when you do have some distorted sounds the contrast is interesting.

BL!: What do you think about the recent upsurge in psych-influenced sounds that seems to be so prevalent with bands in the public eye at the moment?

JC: [getting animated] Yeh, it’s a weird one to me, psychedelia, ‘cause I think there’s kind of two camps, one of which is kind of a 60s revisionist thing. Which is fine, I do like some of that type of thing. And then there’s truly modern psychedelia, which I think is more interesting. Things like Swans, where there’s an element that you can transcend [yourself] listening to those things. I think that’s a lot more interesting than bands who try and sound like a 60s band, I’m not really interested in that.

BL!: Yeh I see what you’re saying. A progressive and modern twist on it, like a few bands have shown recently, can still make for very powerful music.

JC: Yeh, completely. What kind of bands are you talking about?

BL!: I do like the way Animal Collective have taken it, a really warped take on things.

JC: Yeh I completely agree with you there, that’s modern psychedelia. I think Dirty Projectors too are from a similar stable. And Deerhoof maybe. I mean I really like that Goat record, but it’s kind of aping a lot of stuff. And I think the same thing about Tame Impala too. When they got Todd Rundgren to remix one of their tunes I thought “yeh I get that, ‘cause that’s who you’re kind of ripping off.” But I think it’s necessarily a bad thing… just don’t tell me it’s original [laughs]!

BL!: Can you reconcile any kind of psych connection with Mazes’ music in any shape or form?

JC: It’s definitely something I aspire to, for music to kind of… emote something in you, or transcend you in a way that isn’t a lyrical thing. We’ve really tried to do that with some bits on this record. We haven’t put phasers on it and tried make it sound like the 60s. In the use of repetition, for example, we’ve tried to do something that is a bit cerebral and can mean something to you. In that way I would be comfortable with it being described as psychedelic. You know, there’s something inherent about music that you can’t put your finger on that is magical, and inexplicable, and I think some music more than others is like that. I think we’ve tried to do something interesting musically with this album.

Jack paid himself £10 and covered The Grateful Dead’s Sugar Magnolia as the final piece of his Art Is Cheap project

BL!: I just want to go back and talk about the Art Is Cheap project that you did. Looking back at it now, did that prove any easier or more difficult than what you thought at the outset? Did you even think about the potential ease of the whole thing when you took it on in the first place?

JC: It was definitely an off the cuff thing. It bookmarked the kinds of songs I’d been writing, with Mazes and bands I’d done before, what I sort of call Paul McCartney type of songs, where the focus is melody. It got to a point where I could do it quite easily – reviews of the first album always picked up on it being ‘melodic’ – so this was a test to see if I could just do it. Almost like a Tin Pan Alley songwriter job, that sort of thing. I didn’t find it easy, but it does come quite naturally. But I got really bored with that type of songwriting. It was fun to do though, and to interact with people like that is pretty interesting.

BL!: What did you get out of it from a songwriting perspective? Did you find you were flexing different muscles when you were almost writing to order?

JC:  No, I found that I wasn’t at all, and it was a catalyst for a change in the way I write songs. Once you get in to that frame of mind you find that it’s sort of a cheap trick. I half fancy that I could have a go at writing songs for other people, I really think I could give it a good shot. But it’s not what I want to do as an artistic outlet. I’d love to have a go at it as a profession, but things like that don’t really happen nowadays.

BL!: Has the whole experience changed your method of songwriting then? Maybe highlighted some of the cheapness in composing the pieces to satisfy certain criteria.

JC: Ha. Yeh, I suppose it did. [pause while he ponders]. It did seem to cheapen it [pause again].

BL!: When you’re writing now, do you find yourself wanting to steer clear of certain methods and styles, because of this?

JC: I don’t want to sound pretentious, but there are bits of that technique in writing songs that I still use, but yeh. I think this new record is still pretty melodic and tune-y – it’s not very difficult to get in to, there are lots of hooks there, and I think I’ve kept a lot of that. It’s just a case of trying to push myself a little bit more, and hopefully some more interesting things will come out of it in that way. Another way I think of it is, if you’re a footballer and you’ve got a great right foot, you still have to work on your left foot. Well, not unless you’re David Beckham…! If you want to be really good at something you have to train yourself up in different ways.

BL!: That’s a very interesting outlook, one that I’m not sure how many musicians stick to. A lot of people are content sticking to what they know and are comfortable with and ploughing that same furrow.

JC: Yeh. [pause] That’s why I think Paul McCartney has never got the credit he’s due because he can do all of those things: he can write very melodic songs, he can write amazingly interesting pieces of music, very kind of unusual pieces. But it’s very rare that he’s done it all in one piece, if you know what I mean. He’s never combined it together for me, which is why he never gets the credit he’s due. D’you know what I mean?

BL!: Well he’s had a fair amount of credit! But yeh I kind of see that. Do you think he’s kind of writing a song to order? He’ll write a song that’s a certain type, and then another that’s something else.

JC: Yes I do. And it’s almost like you can never completely trust him because it’s almost like he’s never revealed his true self, whereas John Lennon used to do that all the time, probably to a fault. With McCartney you’ve never really got to know him, even though he’s written hundreds of songs.

BL!: People have failed to connect with Paul McCartney the way they connected with John Lennon.

JC: Yeh, it’s weird isn’t it? I think he’s probably a better songwriter than John Lennon – technically. And I’d say he’s probably more au fait with avant garde music and unusual music, and he can adapt to that. But I guess he just doesn’t have the honesty John Lennon had.

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