Interview: Matthew Cooper

Matthew Cooper“Things just flow and I just choose to listen to them flowing and let them guide me. I’m not saying that in, like, a zen way. I’m not saying that it is THE way. It’s just how I work. Things build up in you and you release them and you want that to be the most natural stream possible or else it may constrain or obfuscate that release of the build up, which doesn’t feel healthy.” — Matthew Cooper 6/11/21


Who is Matthew Cooper?

Matthew Cooper is a Portland-based musician and composer who has created eleven albums and numerous singles, EPs, and film scores, all under the name Eluvium. To describe his music, I’ll borrow the opening statement on his Spotify bio: “As Eluvium, musician Matthew Cooper has created a massive body of work centered around his patient, high-definition ambient music.” To describe him, I’ll have to use words like friendly, quiet, brilliant, thoughtful, and sometimes he even laughs at my jokes, which makes him kind. I first met Matthew and his partner, artist Jeannie Lynn Paske, when they would walk by my garden and I’d force them to carry away my excess zucchini.


The Interview…

J: Where are you from originally… like, where did you grow up and what was that like?

M: I was born in Memphis, Tennessee and stayed there until the end of my 6th grade at school and then moved to Louisville, Kentucky. My whole family is originally from England. I was actually the only person in my family born in the states, shortly after my father took a job for the University of Tennessee and moved the family from overseas. I could probably go on and on about images and memories from childhood that are vague photographs and emotionally connected phantoms of images from my youth, but I’ll try to give a good cross section of varying elements of it in not-too-many run on sentences.

Memphis for me is a lot of memories of being outdoors. My mother and father joined a canoeing club, and there were lots of trips to various rivers and streams in surrounding states. I particularly remember trips to the Nantahala in North Carolina, probably because I purchased a shirt with a duck wearing sunglasses on it that said something funny, and I also busted my chin open being dumb at one of the campgrounds. On many of the canoeing trips we would camp overnight and do little spelunking trips and things like that. I was also involved in cub scouts and webelos, which had its fair share of camping trips and summer camps, as well as pine box racing, etc. Plus there was Nintendo and soccer practice (my dad was a soccer coach) and swim team (I felt very much at home with swimming).

At some point I became fascinated with gadgetry and taking apart radios, and even famously fixed the family television with rubber bands and some books when the channel knob started going funny. I also studied piano with various teachers in the area. I’m not entirely certain why I began lessons, but it was most likely because my sister also studied music was common in our house. I fondly remember Simon and Garfunkel featuring heavily, sprinkled with some Neil Young, John Denver, and lots of classical music.

Upon moving to Louisville, things changed quite a bit. I was entering 7th grade and excited for a new life outside of Memphis. I had been growing apart from most of my friends, especially one who was becoming a little too “Be All You Can Be” for my taste and a bit harassing (I believe he later signed up). After moving, I immediately befriended my next door neighbor who had a giant Led Zeppelin poster in his room. I quickly quit piano and became interested in guitar instead. Music and playing guitar would come to feature heavily in this stage of my life, as would experimenting with various drugs and a difficulty with authority and religion (I was originally raised in catholic schools with uniforms and all that). After a few years of high school, I dropped out, eventually tried several other schools that didn’t work out, and had a few run ins with the police, usually due to marijuana.

Throughout all of it I was playing guitar as much as possible in various forms of indie rock/teen angst/punk type bands. Louisville has a very rich culture of underground music, and although most of the songwriting I did never reached the unique quality of the underground punk culture the city is known for, it certainly became a heavy influence on me. Meanwhile my siblings (I have two brothers and a sister) had all moved to the Pacific Northwest and were sending me lots of albums of the underground music scene out this way. Although my relationship with my parents is very strong now, and they were always supportive of me, it grew a little rocky for a while there, and eventually I moved into a shared apartment with a friend, dropped out of high school entirely, took on many bad jobs and, after floundering a bit, eventually went back to “work at your own pace” classes and graduated in a matter of days.

To make some extra money I took a job delivering pizzas in a beat up little truck with no tape deck or CD player, but it had a radio. At that time, a new radio station called “The Walrus” started up and it decided its gimmick would be to play that Beatles song over and over again for several weeks before officially launching. I listened to that station exclusively while I was out delivering pizzas. When I wasn’t delivering pizzas, I was mainly listening to psychedelic jam bands, underground indie-rock, and gaining interest in instrumental music. I was also still performing and was bringing in decent money with all my tips, plus skimming off the top here and there, staying up late with friends, taking psychedelics and cannabis, and writing noisey ecstatic music and poetry. And I was filled with dreams of moving out to the Pacific Northwest.

J: So you not only make great music, you also tell wonderful, tangential, stream-of-consciousness stories. That’s a great combo. And after this setup, I’ve got to ask… did you follow your dream and move to the PNW at that time, or were there some other stops before you made the leap?

M: I moved to Portland, Oregon.

J: Cool. What I’ve gleaned so far, and tell me if I’m wrong, is that you don’t like feeling constrained, at all. And that your genuinely inquisitive nature, when combined with your overwhelming need for creative expression, produces a more or less continuous flow of creative output, which, when effectively channeled, can result in a lovely outcome, but without the proper conduit, can make quite a mess. So… sounds like you’re an artist at heart. When you got to Portland, were you able to find an effective way to express yourself, and more importantly, be okay?

M: I wouldn’t be able to correct you on that as I’ve never really taken the time to give it a clinical look. It’s hard to say how much of a mess would be created, if any, because I feel as though creativity can always find an outlet… I think. There are so many ways to do the smallest things that I would still consider a form of creation or expression, no matter how subtle, that I think can ultimately boil down to an artistic act, as long as we are doing anything beyond whistling past the graveyard in what we do.

When I got to Portland I played a lot of acoustic guitar (the only instrument I still owned and hadn’t pawned) in downtown apartments and generally annoyed my neighbors often. But I think I felt pretty free and excited, as one tends to be living in a new place. I held down crummy jobs here and there and got by as best I could I guess. I stumbled into various friends and formed new relationships that were often based around a love of music or just having the free time to spend. It all had its ups and downs and lefts and rights to say the least. The apartment noise making moved into sharing a house with other friends, adding in lots of other instruments, and playing music loudly in the basement at all hours of the night (much to the dismay of the surrounding houses). And then eventually I moved on again, this time into another apartment downtown with an old friend from back home. I was doing solo stuff again, and sometimes my friend and I experimented with a new found appreciation for making particularly odd noises, sampling records, and making instrumental pieces.

J: I guess rather than mess, the word I maybe could have used is disarray. It seems like when creativity is searching for a means of expression… when a thing needs to be expressed… but no apparent conduit is available, we just begin searching for a way to communicate. That process can result in a great deal of disarray, but eventually the communication happens one way or another, which I guess could end up as anything from a masterpiece to a drug addiction, but usually something in between those two. As I listen to your story, I’m hearing the tale of a creative young musician who channeled his way from a solitary stream of consciousness to something like a flood of musical experimentation, and eventually back into more of a pool of reflection. All in all, it sounds like your move to Portland was working out pretty well… but maybe less well for some of your neighbors during the flood stage. So did your more meditative times in that downtown apartment help you define a specific direction you wanted to go? Or did you continue along the path of pretty open-ended experimentation?

M: Hmm…That’s an interesting thought. Though oddly enough, drug addiction often seems to go hand in hand with many people that live a life full of nothing but creative expression… so I wonder about that particular metaphor. Nonetheless, I see the idea that finding a comfortable way to express oneself usually will make one feel more at home in their own skin, and without that it can make a person lash out, or feel boxed in or both. Feeling boxed in has always been a big bother to me. The feeling of being categorized and painted with a single brush, but also from the standpoint of dealing with authority figures. Which I think was more the problem in school when I was younger. I’ve always had a hard time with that and still do, I think. In some ways creation is maybe sometimes about making a world without those things that don’t make sense to you (although art can obviously be about many things, and sometimes about confronting things that make you uncomfortable as well). But also it lends itself nicely to living a life where you are in more control and sort of your own boss.

I think, around the time I moved back downtown again, it definitely put me into a zone of making what I wanted to make, purely for the sake of making it. Or experimenting on a thought or idea. And it was less about trying to be a personality type through what I was making. I guess what I mean is that when I was younger I always felt (possibly through the influence of MTV and the music industry as a whole) that a certain personality or character was important to or inherent to artmaking or music making, and I tended to try to mimic or copy a style. But that is just commodification or putting something in a box to sell it. As one gets a little older and wiser and moves away from the influences of teenage-dom that becomes just too tiring to try to uphold, I think you stop trying to imitate what you see as success in the music world. Instead, you start making things in order to help yourself make sense of the world around you. You filter your thoughts or put them in an arrangement you can look at and wonder about. But maybe those earlier years were still formative from a mechanical standpoint.

Eventually I found myself in various little apartments entertaining myself with ideas that were a sprinkling of all I’ve consumed, combined with genuine intrigue and artistic comfort. And here and there, something would pop in that felt like me. So in that sense, though I would like to say that open-ended experimentation continues to this day, I think that at that time, moving back into the city was definitely part of blossoming into my own voice. It didn’t come immediately, but it served as the opening of those gates in a more purposeful manner.

It was shortly after that that I started working at a record store in town, and my world of music was blown wide open. Because from there I was able to listen to anything I wanted or was curious about. So I began devouring tons of stuff I had never heard before, both through the suggestion of co-workers or just through pure curiosity. I could borrow anything and bring it back to my place and stay up all night listening. I could stay in and make various sound experiments or little films or poems or wander the downtown streets and bars, mixing with the strange and various characters one does. I was still living a bit on the edge, but mostly keeping to myself a lot. Within a few years my first album came out on a record label that i had become a pretty big fan of.

J: Wonderful story. You clearly experienced an amazing process of maturing emotionally and creatively, and it’s also kind of amazing that you’re able to parse that out the way you did. I do have one question about the addiction metaphor… I debated using that and wondered how you would respond to it because I initially had the same thought you did. But as I considered it further, I wasn’t convinced the creatives who experience long-term addiction are living a settled or centered life in any way, and in fact, the addiction eventually ruins most of them. I mean, how many addicts turn out okay? Addicts I’ve known, who were mostly drunks, truly were a mess and absolutely filled with all the stuff that comes from unmet needs, creative and otherwise. Also, when I read your comments about how people try to be a specific personality type or imitate what they see, it seemed plausible that drugs are simply part of that as well, but are much harder to give up once adopted. But regardless, I’m glad you avoided that and found your voice and the ability to be comfortable with your own definition of creative fulfillment. I think your ability to see a unique path and to have the courage to follow it is unusual and admirable. And by the way, since we’re talking about your creative evolution, how exactly did you feel when your first album came out? Does anything stand out in your memory?

M: That’s nice of you to say. I think it is fair to say that much of my path and life and abilities and courage come from being supported by and surrounded by a lot of others who have been willing to put up with me. That ability and comfortability of support is important, and strong friends and family who push you to make things that you truly love, to make things you believe in, and also allow for you to be troublesome and pestering at times and still believe in you, is a wonderful thing and I think i’ve probably been pretty lucky in that department.

I remember when the person who runs my record label told me he would like to release my first album. My legs turned to silly putty a little bit. We were in a record shop downtown by Powells when I ran into him. I had heard through a mutual friend that he was enjoying what I was making. For a while before this I had been sending out demos to all the labels I liked, and it just felt like no one was interested. At a certain point I gave up trying and felt resigned to just making sounds for personal comfort and enjoyment, and it was that type of material that grabbed his ear. He had come into the record shop I was working at and asked what I was up to lately and I just gave him a burned CD-R of what I had been making recently. Although my life didn’t exactly change dramatically. I still had to keep going to work (something I wasn’t very good at doing) but I think I had a renewed sense of purpose.

I think when the first album came out it was reviewed fairly well, but I didn’t really know much about any of the places that did reviews or whether any of that really mattered. I just didn’t pay attention to it. I was just head-down, moving straight into making more music. My first album was very ambient and a kind of swirling miasma of quiet sounds and washes of static noises. But then around that time I moved into another apartment that had a large old upright piano in it which consumed me. I hadn’t played a proper piano in years — since I was a little kid — but I just set myself to writing solo piano music for my second album. When I moved apartments again, I brought the piano with me to keep working on it. I then chose to record the resulting material at some after-school music program place that I happened to live next door to and would walk by all the time. So some 16-year-old kid recorded the album for me. My next door neighbor (a long time dear friend of mine who had just moved out here) lent me the money to pay for those recordings and later the record label reimbursed him. I think it was like 200 bucks. I had no idea what I was doing but I just kept doing it. I just kept making stuff.

J: Silly putty legs is a great description… as was the follow-up recording session with the high school engineer… those two moments would make terrific scenes in a screenplay. And your closing comment — “I had no idea what I was doing but I just kept doing it” — says so much, but without some context, I’m not sure how to picture that. You mention you had a renewed sense of purpose, but what was that purpose? Were you feeling driven or passionate or in love or desperate, and to achieve what exactly? Maybe on some level you were just having the time of your life… having so much fun. I’d love to get a glimpse into your state of mind at that time if you can share it. Regardless, your approach seems like a perfect example of the zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki’s explanation of “beginner’s mind”, which is open to any possibility and not held back by conventional thinking. So can you give me a sense of what you were feeling… what was motivating you to move forward and how you felt about, if you were even aware, the fact that you were breaking new ground? That might be helpful to people who are attempting a similar approach and feeling uncertain about it.

M: Maybe what I meant wasn’t a renewed sense of purpose but more a sense of validation for what I was doing. It felt good to have a record label saying they liked what I was making and wanted more and, even when I completely changed course, that they would follow along with me without question, and on top of this, to be slowly gaining an audience that is intrigued by what you are doing. These things lit a fire in me. I felt a greater urge to push myself further and felt I’d been given a pass to allow for that exploration. It is interesting you mention love though, as around that time I had started hanging out a lot with a girl who worked at the record store with me. She was a painter and an animator interested in creatures and stop motion animation and was interested in weird music and noises and abstract thought experiments. And I’m sure that was feeding into my creativity.

We made some stop-motion animation stuff using some of her paintings and I made the score. She decided to take a job transfer up to another record shop in Seattle and after a lot of train rides back and forth, up there and down here, it wasn’t long before I was packing everything I owned (which was pretty much a crate of records and a chair and some clothes) into the back of a truck and moving up there as well. We’ve been together ever since. Within the first several months of being up there I made another album called “Talk Amongst the Trees” — my third album — a remove from the solo piano music and a step back into textural noises and ambient stuff but a little larger in scale and vision than anything i’d done before.

To answer your question on processes… It’s interesting hearing about this approach of “beginner’s mind”. I wasn’t familiar with the term, though I would say I’m definitely familiar with the concept. I think in general I’ve tended to never try to over-analyze what I’m doing, and so it is funny to try to analyze it now, though it being in retrospect to some degree it doesn’t really harm anything. I’ve always straddled a weird line between over-analyzing mental/conceptual ideas I want to provoke and creating thought experiments in my mind about the purpose or direction of something i’m going to do, against the reality of not thinking about those ideas and just making things purely for the sake of making things by following basic intuitions. I’m not sure if I’m able to clearly state what that means exactly. I would describe it like meditating on water, or a tree, or clouds, for a very long time — for as long as possible really — and then going forward to make sounds and not thinking of anything at all — not thinking about process, or instruments, or voice, or meaning. Things just flow and I just choose to listen to them flowing and let them guide me.

I’m not saying that in, like, a zen way. I’m not saying that it is THE way. It’s just how I work. Things build up in you and you release them and you want that to be the most natural stream possible or else it may constrain or obfuscate that release of the build up, which doesn’t feel healthy. Of course, working in this way, I think over time you can build up a bit of a “god hand” that helps create the eddys and swarms and cycles and openings and somewhat compose things or gain nuances and tributaries as they flow… but I feel like you have to be really careful with doing that so as not to break whatever it is you are working with. I’ve definitely, as time has moved on, become more obsessed with creating puzzles and complex narratives that intertwine with multiple meanings, as I always found that stuff to be intriguing as a listener. But sometimes I can paint myself into a corner doing this and it leads to me just wanting to abandon the project all-together, for losing its sense of purity in its existence.

It’s taken me a while to understand all this, and I honestly try not to really dive too deep into focusing on what it is, because I don’t want that to disrupt whatever it is that I make. There is a lot of magical thinking in this state of being, but I think that’s okay because this world is allowed to be of my own invention. In the end it can’t really be anything else when it comes to my perspective on it. It doesn’t have to be anything but itself, and I don’t want to beat it against a rock in order for it to fit into working with the last thing I made or to force its hand in any way.

I’m not sure about your suggestion of breaking new ground though. I do suppose it isn’t extremely common for artists to vary wildly in form so quickly. I was just making what I wanted to hear at that moment in time, and making whatever happened if I stayed out of my own way. I’m still trying to allow myself that, if nothing else. It’s lasting import or significance ultimately has to be of little concern to me. It just is a natural thing that I do in order to be, and because of this my albums, to me, often end up feeling like old photographs of a state of being in a specific time in my life. I think I tend to say “I think” or “I guess” a lot when describing all of this because I just don’t really know if I WANT to know or if that would ruin it. So I walk a fine line between healthy consideration and allowance of total freedom to what I make. I try to keep them separate though. In a way, it ultimately couldn’t really matter how it is considered, outside of it being this little gift I play with, alone in the corner.