After All These Years

18 April 2012 | 10:57 am | Matt O'Neill

The scope of Mike Cooper's career is baffling. The span of years alone would humble most musicians. Beginning as a guitarist in London in the late-'50s, Cooper has remained consistently active in each subsequent decade – continuing to write, release, perform and tour music well into his 60s and, as of 2012, his 70s. For a sense of perspective, that's a career effectively outstretching the history of popular music as we know it.

“That's true, actually. I was thinking about it the other day – I've been in it for roughly half a century,” the guitarist reflects. “I'm always surprised by it. I got into music by accident, really. I found myself out of work and thought, 'How am I going to earn a living?' and decided to try and earn a living playing music. Me and some friends opened some folk clubs and, gradually, just started working seven days a week playing in our own clubs. It all just kind of blossomed from there.”

The breadth of his catalogue is even more astonishing. Originally a blues artist, Cooper has since delivered albums and ensembles indebted to jazz, punk, Hawaiian music, electronica, avant-garde composition, free-improvisation, rock and countless other styles. His work hasn't evolved linearly, either – at any given concert, Cooper could deliver anything from swirling post-electronic soundscapes to lyrical lap steel improvisations.

“It's the thing that's kept me going for 70 years, really – just keeping on changing stuff. Trying not to get stuck in one genre,” he says of his career. “Even in the past when I was playing blues, I was often asked – because I could play slide guitar and electric – to play with punk bands. I always just went with it. If I venture into something that I've never ventured into before, I try and do something new with it. I try to make the best of the situation, whatever that situation may be.

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“I think there is a thread that does link it all together,” the guitarist muses. “I don't play heavily structured music, for example. I don't read music and never have. So, the improvising, for a start, is always present – but I also think there's an ongoing fascination with the history of my instrument. As abstract as my music can sound on occasion, I think you can always find some vague thread of blues music somewhere. Even when it's just a pile of notes, if you sort them all out – it's still blues.”

Most remarkable is the guitarist's attitude. Cooper has worked within his industry for over 50 years. He's dealt with major label complications, pigeonholing, deaths of contemporaries and all other issues inherent to a life spent in music. Yet, he remains cheery, humble and optimistic. In an era where musicians literally half his age seem jaded, a 70-year-old Mike Cooper reminds audiences what music can (and should) do for a musician.

“Oh, I've never thought about retirement – this is what I love doing. It keeps me feeling young,” he laughs. “I often speak to young people about the music industry, such as it is nowadays, and their impressions of it are often quite odd. You know, I had a lot of label troubles in the '70s and I've been through that world but, eventually, you learn how to avoid those people and go about things in another way that works better for you. I feel lucky that I'm still able to do what I do.”