New Zealand is a thing. When you’re describing music, it’s a thing you use to describe certain music. And what is the definable NZ sound, you may ask? Well, most of you reading this already know. I’m talking The Clean, The Bats, The Chills, and if you dig a little deeper, the “undie” sounds of The Axemen and Toy Love. Those of you who have no clue what it means to be (or sound) NZ must consider location. Being that removed from the mainland comes with a curse—getting those crucial Velvet Underground and This Heat around the same time—and a blessing, namely the freedom to make whatever interpretation of those records one desires devoid of scrutiny from the rest of world. It wasn’t until those first Flying Nun LPs washed ashore and aged ever so slightly that the rest of the world did notice, and subsequent bands popped up copping dreamy, oft-kilter guitar lines and daymare vocals wrought with sleepiness and general indifference. The ouroboros had begun.
Ultimate Painting, two guitarists and vagabonds named Jack Cooper and James Hoare, was certainly NZ-sounding when I got around to hearing their self-title debut a year ago. The record was unassuming, with languid melodies just kind of waiting around for a bus or maybe a train to take them to the station. Then I came to find out they were not NZ at all, but utterly UK, formed in a convergence of Mazes and Veronica Falls.
Now, the band has released its sophomore album, Green Lanes (Trouble in Mind Records). There’s a completely democratic craft to the way Cooper and Hoare twist and curl each other’s parts and parse around each other, like Pavement on a slow-motion game of Qix. (Yes, not Tetris, but Qix.) They echo each other in close precision, veering slightly when the mood calls for some subterfuge. These parallels become beautiful harmonics, and melodies shine bright in the melancholy of “Sweet Chris” and even brighter on “Kodiak.”
A friend asked me if they could get “any slower.” I suppose, and I hope. They seem to know, via our e-mail conversation, exactly what they are doing even when their minds seem completely apart.
How has this project been different than your experiences in Mazes and Veronica Falls?
Jack Cooper: Well, Mazes always felt a little bit like we were banging our heads against a brick wall, in that it was often one step forward and two steps back. We took a bit too long making a second record, and by then our label had run into some legal difficulties, which sort of hindered our progress. It wasn’t their fault at all, but it was very frustrating. I’ve had lots of people recently say they think Mazes will be one of those bands people discover in 10 years, but I don’t know. I sort of feel slightly aggrieved by the whole thing. In contrast, Ultimate Painting has been very different. James and I have put out quite a few records between us, so there was a healthy amount of interest from the start. Combine that with Trouble In Mind being run by a couple of solid gold people, and it’s all been very straightforward.
James Hoare: Every band or working situation will be quite different from another. In Veronica Falls, I write the songs with two other people and that has a dynamic that tends to draw out the writing process considerably, almost like a board of directors if you will—getting an idea out there, discussing it, practicing it (many times), demoing it, playing it to the manager. We quite quickly got to the level where the band became a full time job and was sustainable, but it has never been as easy going as Ultimate Painting. Ultimate Painting is far less rigid and the actual recordings are more to my taste sonically. So it is a bit easier for me all round, I guess.
How did the two of you want this to be different than those bands?
JC: I didn’t really. I certainly didn’t consciously try and approach it differently. With Mazes, I was writing songs for Mazes. With this, I just write songs that come naturally.
I’ve found that Green Lanes is even more mellow than the debut. What was the reason for slowing down even more than before?
JC: I can’t really put my finger on why that would be. On the first LP, I was responsible for the more upbeat songs and I think subconsciously I’ve drifted towards James’ approach, which is slightly more melancholic. We recorded it in the middle of winter, so if you’ve ever visited England at that time of year, you can understand why we might not have been the brightest pair of people.
JH: I think Jack drifted. I’ve had severe clinical depression for many years, so I tend to write songs that are more melancholic. I would like to be able to write in an upbeat style, but it’s something I find very hard. Jack, on the other hand, is really good at it, so hopefully he will be moving back to those territories in due course, at least partially.
It says that Green Lanes is five songs from Jack and five from James. How do you keep the band so democratic and how do you decide who gets to do what?
JC: We’re only two albums in and that’s just the way it’s worked so far. I see no reason why that has to change. James tends to play the bass and organ parts. We split the guitars down the middle. I tend to write the lead guitar bits on my songs because it’s something I really enjoy crafting, but it’s usually whoever comes up with the best part. I played the guitar on “Two From The Vault,” but then went home and James finished the whole thing. I’m really easy going when it comes to things like that.
As far as the interplay goes, a lot of the guitar playing is interchangeable and perfectly intertwined. I would even dare to call it “jammy” or “jam band-esque.” Do you have a definition of “jam” and do you think it has a negative connotation?
JC: Yeah, I guess the songs have taken on a different life now that we’ve played them all live for a while, and there’s certainly a looseness to it live that we’re into. Most of the songs have evolved or stretched out. I think that’s something we’re into exploring a lot more. But yeah, on record, those interweaving guitar parts are pretty much the sound of the band.
JH: I agree with the interplay. We do have a few songs where we extend the outros live, which one could call jamming. I personally don’t like the word. It reminds me of wah-wah pedals and being 12 years old, which was not a good time.
What are some of your most current influences, especially when making Green Lanes?
JC: Lots of old blues records, and I was listening to lots of John Coltrane. I don’t know if any of it seeped in.
The Grateful Dead also get mentioned in comparisons to this album. Do you have an official stance on the Dead? Does English youth have a official stance?
JC: I’ve been into the Dead getting on for 10 years, but since about 2010, I’ve immersed myself in them. I listen to other things, but I listen to the Dead more than any other band. I don’t think I’ll ever change my opinion that The Beatles are the best songwriters and innovators, but the Dead are my favorite band. Grateful Dead music is almost impossible to explain to people who don’t get it. In England, it’s pretty rare to find a kindred spirit. I like visiting America because I can talk to people about the best version of “Jack Straw” or whatever.
JH: I don’t get it. They sound like a mediocre band who are pretty much always playing the same guitar solo. They did put out two decent albums in 1970 and then didn’t ever do anything else noteworthy. I think people want to believe they’re the greatest band in the world, like people who believe in aliens and UFOs or Hitler escaping to Argentina and living on a beach. It’s something to hold on to, basically. If you put your mind to it, you can convince yourself of almost anything.
So “(I’ve Got the) Sanctioned Blues” is a politically charged song about David Cameron’s “draconian sanctions and benefit cuts.” Can you elaborate on what issues face youth culture in the UK that American audiences might be ignorant about?
JC: It’s very bad here at the moment, and the Tories are a majority government now. It’s scary thinking what they’re capable of over the next five years. Our welfare and benefits system, healthcare, public transport have been dismantled and sold out from under us. The worst thing about it is that there’s total apathy towards politics. People don’t care. The establishment just gets away with the most mind-blowing stuff and nothing happens. It’s completely shocking and you sort of just stare into the abyss ticking off news reports that David Icke told us about years ago.
Fill in the blanks:
In 10th grade, I was listening to _____ in _____ with _____ doing _____ wishing I was _____ with _____.
JC: In 10th grade, I was listening to the Beach Boys in bed with myself, doing nothing and wishing I was living in Florida with my cousins.
JH: In 10th grade, I was listening to Snoop Dogg in the back of a BMW with my pot smoking friends, doing the weed smoking, wishing I was less/more stoned.