An Interview With Tiger Cooke

Published on September 25th, 2013 in: Interviews, Music |

By Paul Casey

Photo © Tiger Cooke

Tiger (real name Tadhg) Cooke is an Irish musician. He has recorded two studio albums, his most recent being the excellent Fingertips of the Silversmiths from 2010. Cooke has received his fair share of critical notice. The Irish Times called him “eminently likeable, utterly enviable” on the basis of his debut. Hot Press, a long running and popular Irish publication, was equally impressed, handing out some fairly glowing words. More importantly, your pal Muggins here likes it! Cooke has a handle on making music that is lowdown but witty. He is comfortable in the rockier end of the singer-songwriter camp but also willing to account for influences and interests outside of the obvious.

Fingertips of the Silversmiths is the album that pushed me to speak with him and has many of the qualities that I look for with modern singer-songwriters. It has a really nice sound, for one. It is present and hooked in. Cooke’s music avoids that muddled and confused revivalist shot, the one that generally comes with the embarrassing “Hey man we’re taking music back to its roots!” It’s lyrically interesting which always helps. Perhaps most of all, Cooke’s voice has that flavor. Just enough sauce.

Speaking about approaching the sound of the album Cooke said that many people over-think it. “I’m not a very radical writer. The stuff that I do is fairly, I’m not putting myself in that category, but it’s classical song writing. It’s not far out there or anything like that. I think there’s a lot of albums that tend to take the stuff and try and force it into being a radical production. I don’t really like that. I think it’s just personal taste. I don’t want anything to be completely crazy. I don’t mind if it’s inventive and it’s taking in a new direction but I prefer to let the songs breathe.”

“What I really like is stuff that has elements of the old and elements of the new. I wouldn’t be crazy about stuff that is totally revivalist. The kind of stuff that the La’s did, which I really like actually. He (Lee Mavers) drove himself crazy trying to chase this authentic ’60s sound, trying to get tape decks from the ’60s with authentic ’60s dust and all this kind of stuff. People go to crazy lengths for it and I don’t think there’s any need. I like that factor of taking influences and putting it in there, we used—luckily we had them because it’s costly to get them–we had some nice old mics. Which gives it a nice open studio sound but equally we put in synth sounds in there that are. . . they just sound so basic. It’s very not ’60s.” The synths on the album do recall a bit of the unlikely charm to be found on Christie Moore’s Ordinary Man, which also married a modern element with an older one to great effect.

One of the influences on Fingertips, according to Cooke, is the work of Ethan Johns. Johns has produced many albums you will know, like Ryan Adams’s Heartbreaker as well as the rather popular Gold. He has also worked with The Kings of Leon, Ray LaMontagne and the wonderful Tift Merritt, producing her debut. “He generally plays a lot on the albums he produces as well. Now I knew the name but I didn’t really know what he did and then when I was kind of looking at the albums that he did and that’s a lot of my favorite albums. While I wouldn’t have known he was an influence, he clearly was an influence.”

Speaking of other influences Cooke says he is not always sure if his love of certain music affects his work. “I would listen to a lot of stuff that I can’t hear myself in my own music but I really am drawn to it. I kind of grew up listening to a lot of classic ’70s singer-songwriter stuff like Neil Young, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, and then a lot of songs that I wouldn’t really have known who wrote them. I would have associated a lot of the musicals, the films and stuff I would have associated with Bing Crosby or Fred Astaire or you know, those guys. They would have been the classic kind of Tin Pan Alley song writing. Brill Building songwriters and all that. I would have listened to that a lot. And I loved Bacharach and David. Hal David, I think, is one of the best lyricists ever. It’s funny that Bacharach gets most of the plaudits for the songs but for me the lyrics of those, you know, their hits. What do you get when you fall in love. . . The lyrics are just incredible.”

You can also hear a fair smattering of Elliott Smith on songs like “Out of Reach,” which has a measure of Smith’s depressed charm to it. The death of Elliott Smith would prove to integral to the song “There’s an Elvis in Us All,” which in a different way sits beside Gillian Welch’s “Everything Is Free” as a pointed song about the music business. When you remove an artist, particularly a troubled one, it can make the selling of their music easier. Scraps that would have been discarded or songs that were not finished become the next big release, and for those singers like Jeff Buckley and Elliott Smith who inspire such dedication in their fans, these releases are the only thing to hold onto.

“It was a thought that had gone in my head for a long time. I’ve always kind of wondered about that whole cult of the young deaths. A combination of suicides and just unfortunate deaths . . . drug overdoses and all that. Kurt Cobain’s mother described it as the “stupid club,” which is a little bit harsh. They can do what they like. Whoever holds the estate can exploit it to its fullest. It’s kind of a shocking way to treat someone’s memory. I don’t know if you read the book Dream Brother about Tim Buckley and Jeff Buckley? It’s a good read. But there was one point where Jeff had recorded part of the album which was going to be My Sweetheart the Drunk. I can’t remember what producer it was, it could have been Tom Verlaine, I’m not entirely sure. It was amicable but they decided that the recordings weren’t going in the way Jeff wanted them and so they decided ‘Okay well we’re just going to start from scratch and do it with someone else.’ And he took him aside at one point and said ‘Listen if you don’t like these recordings and you don’t want them released destroy them. Burn them because if you don’t they will be released at some point.’ And he didn’t and they were released a lot sooner than anyone expected.”

Speaking about how his songs take shape, Cooke looks up to the regular writers. “I think the more productive writers, the more productive artists will have a set schedule and they will churn out. It may not necessarily be good but they will do it. I’ve definitely tried to get more towards that. Obviously it’s more difficult when you’re working. But I think if you religiously do that it will keep the juices flowing. So even if what you’re producing is not necessarily good, it will mean you will be in a flow so that when the good stuff comes you’ll be ready for it. The danger is that if you’re just doing it fitfully that you tend to over-think it. You can stop or censor stuff that you know you would otherwise be just letting flow and not really worrying about it too much. It’s rarely going to pop out onto the page in its finished form. There’s a great line by Jimmy Stewart . . . or not Jimmy Stewart! Jimmy Webb . . . bit of a difference there! He wrote this famous book on song writing and he said that you’ve got to set yourself up in a room in which you can make no mistakes. There are no mistakes in this room. I think that’s the kind of frame of mind you have to be in. Just get it out there. Get it on the page. Feel free to make the mistakes. It’s much easier to edit and amend and change after it but it’s very hard to sit there, staring at a blank page pretending that everything that’s going to come out on the page is going to be exactly the finished article.”

Talking about the actual process of recording the album Cooke said he finds it stressful. “A lot to do with money issues, trying to, you know, get a whole band together and direct that. It’s funny actually, the job that I’m doing now has kind of helped me with managing people which is something that I was never really a natural at I don’t think. So hopefully that will stand to me when I’m playing more gigs and organizing recording sessions in the future. I really enjoy live performances, especially so in the States and on the continent. I’m not a huge fan of gigs in Ireland. I don’t know why that is. I don’t know, maybe it’s a mystique kind of thing. I mean, you know yourself the attitude Irish people have to other Irish people, it’s like ‘Ah sure, he’s only from down the road, we don’t need to pay attention to him.’ But when you go abroad people kind of sit up and take notice a little bit more so. You have a little bit of an advantage.”

Tiger Cooke has some experience touring in the United States, having been there on two stints with fellow Irish sorts, Guggenheim Grotto. “We basically spent, we spent every hour—without exaggeration—we spent every hour of two months together, which is something I don’t think I’ve even done with my family. It was pretty intense. I kind of feel like they’re my brothers.”

Earlier this year Cooke posted a blog on his website where he explained his decision to put his music career on hiatus. There are some who believe that all music should be free and that through the magic of really wanting it to be free, it will lead it to be created. Few of these people realized how hard it is to produce an album. (Those who do, should know better.)

So much time and effort has to be dedicated to each step and even for humble albums there is that small matter of money. These are the people who suggest additional jobs to the musician, on top of the work of writing, recording, producing, mixing, and performing. Rather than, you know, paying for the thing they use and enjoy. As good as Fingertips is as an album, the practical demands around it were considerable and put a strain on Tadhg. As he wrote in his blog: “By the end of the promotional campaign for Fingertips of the Silversmith, having spent so much that I was unable to fund a proper tour and pay musicians/petrol-money, I was flat broke.”

Speaking to me about this decision, Cooke spoke of how difficult it was. “It felt like a defeat in many ways, even though a lot of people would say I was very privileged to be able to do it for any amount of time, really. And I do feel lucky for that. I take most step backs fairly personally. A lot of people do, but you know it’s different if it’s some work you’re not heavily engaged in like, you know, making copper boxes or sweeping floors. But if it’s something that you’ve really invested a lot of your life into, it is very hard to remain stoic about it.”

Being a musician is a tough job. People expect you to work for free in lieu of some faintly magical solution somewhere down the road that will compensate you: velour-covered programs! Hypnotic gold tinted vinyl! The goal is: trick those suckers into anything except for the music. Most venues, in Ireland anyway, expect you to play for free and be glad for the opportunity. “Hey kid maybe you could sell some of those scented candles?”

“I know an awful lot of musicians here and as well in the States, and somewhat even Irish musicians who’ve had experiences where the reviews do not translate into sales and I think most people I know who are in bands just try and keep everything as basic and simple as possible. It can be a problem. The regular kind of criticism, especially from music reviewers here, they criticize bands for not taking enough risks and not pushing the boat out with their live shows. But I think they completely ignore the fact that in order to push the boat out in the live shows and even with recordings you need to have money to do it. It doesn’t take an awful lot of money but it takes more money than most of us have got when we’re just trying to survive off shows. Ireland is not like Germany or Switzerland or Austria where they actually pay for shows. The venues will pay you for shows. Here we pay for everything, including the sound man.”

Tiger Cooke is adapting to his new circumstances and has not given up on making music. “The job has kind of calmed down from what it was initially which was a big project that I took on. But I’m still only feeling my way back to regular playing and writing. I haven’t been gigging at all since last November I think, in Germany. So I’m just trying to find my way back to that. The game plan is to record an EP. Just really you know, a collection of tracks. Keep it simple. Just push that out and so I’m just trying to get the songs ready, get some demos down, and get into a studio. So that’s the plan really; I’ve kind of turned my back on albums.”

Cooke calls albums a “luxury item” for musicians not in the super-rich category (which is, by the way, most of them). This is a prudent decision for someone who knows what it is like to over-extend himself. It also comes from artistic considerations. He points to smart phones and MP3 players pushing people away from album listening and towards singles. Like many he sees it as a move back to the singles-cused scene of the 1950s and 1960s. “I think the album has kind of inadvertently made us all perhaps a little bit more conservative in our choices for how we produce songs and push them out. Because it’s very hard to release an entire album of songs going in a radical direction. If it goes badly wrong that could be catastrophic for a band. You’re talking about maybe a two-year album cycle. Thousands and thousands on touring, on production, on all sorts of payments. Whereas if you’re doing it for an EP or for a few songs, you could be as wild as you like and yes if it goes wrong you lose money but it’s a hell of a lot less expensive than making a mistake on an entire album. If it turns out to be a good direction, you can start to steer more things that way.”

It is easy to put too much faith in the possibilities of digital recording and the Internet as a solution to the problems many working musicians face. As Cooke reminds us, though, opening the floodgates to everyone makes it harder to get noticed resulting in money simply being spent elsewhere. “Things in Ireland really haven’t changed. The rewards for releasing an album, the financial rewards for releasing an album and selling an album did not match up to the cost of making it. Like the price for promoting an album, the price for manufacturing an album, you know that hasn’t dropped, it hasn’t fallen. If anything it’s increased. But the shifting of physical units has dropped completely through the floor. Everything has gone digital, which is good in one sense. You can put stuff out digitally and not be encumbered by a load of physical CDs, but all it really means is that your promotion spend has to be pushed somewhere else. While yes, there is Facebook and Myspace and Twitter and all of these things—it is a more open playing field—it just means that you’re competing with hundreds of thousands of bands as opposed to a thousand bands.”

The sheer number of musicians, new and old, available to people at either a very low cost or no cost at all is one reason why Tadhg is realistic about people hearing his music. He mentioned how he only recently discovered that Tom Petty is pretty good. I admitted a shameful lack of knowledge of The Rolling Stones. If Tadhg gets the chance to develop as a songwriter, musician, and performer he may end up as a guy who people pretend they have heard, lest they be shamed by arbiters of good music taste. I hope so because his music deserves attention.

You can listen to some of Tiger Cooke’s music at his website.

One Response to “An Interview With Tiger Cooke”

  1. New Popshifter Interview - Tiger Cooke:
    October 1st, 2013 at 8:20 pm

    […] I recently did a little phone interview with Paul Casey from a pop-culture blog called Popshifter. ┬áIt was published a few days ago, so here’s the link : […]

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