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Stuart Cook interview: “I love connecting the dots and chasing down influences”

We talk to the Capac member about his new solo album.

Bristol artist, Stuart Cook, hasn’t let lockdown get in the way of his creative endeavours.  

Following Capac’s “beyond music” voyages, in particular last year’s After Lights Out with Tom Harding, Cook grabbed our attention last month with his collaboration with fellow Capac member, Matt Parker, with their debut album, Parallel Vectors.

In between these releases, last year whilst visiting a play park with his children, Cook found an abandoned piano close by. Inspired by the piano’s appearance and sound, Cook decided to play on it, with the ensuing recordings ending up on Piano at 51°40’49.6″N 2°14’09.2. Cook’s latest solo album.

Piano 51°40’49​.​6″N 2°14’09​.​2 is an expansion on Cook’s appetite for field recordings and modular synthesis. Here, Cook produces sounds akin to a hybrid machine careering through space at blinding speed. The soundscapes elastic, manoeuvring into odd shapes and sizes, and providing the sharpest reflections. Alongside meticulous abstract minimalism, Cook creates something that stands completely on its own.

While as beyond as some of the music he has created as a member of Capac and later with Parker on Parallel Vectors, there are some moments of conventionality that push through on Piano 51°40’49​.​6″N 2°14’09​.​2.

There’s the earth rumbling drone of Void | Proprioception that even the most innovative drone pioneers would be proud of. So, too, the world’s noise luminaries with Immutable |Vestibular – a harsh, pulsating composition riddled with anxious intensity. Both compositions could have been sonic backdrops to accompany Blade Runner 2049.

And perhaps that is what best describes Piano 51°40’49​.​6″N 2°14’09​.​2. A new world exploration that revels in dystopian sci-fi chaos.

We spoke to Cook shortly after the release Piano 51°40’49​.​6″N 2°14’09​.​2

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Sun 13: Along with Piano at 51°40’49​.​6″N 2°14’09​.​2, you also released Parallel Vectors with Capac band mate, Matt Parker. You also released Capac’s latest record, After Lights Out with Tom Harding, last year. I guess lockdown’s been a pretty productive period for you?

Stuart Cook: “I guess it has been in some ways. Perhaps all that pent up energy came out in music!”

S13: Am I right in saying that Piano at 51°40’49​.​6″N 2°14’09​.​2″W was written on weathered piano that you found whilst walking around?

SC: “There’s this play park that’s somewhere relatively close by that we’d visit occasionally to meet with family once restrictions were partially lifted. After I’d seen the piano and played around on it I knew I needed to record it. The sound of it is extraordinary. We (Capac) had been talking about this idea of finding specific pitches in mundane objects in our surroundings and this piano was lovely for that. A few of the keys only made the sound of the keys hitting wood, kind of like a piano without music. I thought it’d be fun to describe this conventionally ‘unmusical’ piano through sound.”

S13: How long did it take for you to write the album?

SC: “It was super quick. Probably a few weeks to get the main parts down, then maybe a further few weeks to arrange and tweak. Each piece is pretty much a patch on my modular system. There were some great fun patches, like Void | Proprioception which is a contact mic on a wooden floor that my kids jumped off the sofa on to. The mic triggered the piano sample through a load of distortion and then the audio from the contact mic went through an envelope follower to control a few parameters here and there – gotta have fun right!

“It was an interesting challenge using a single sound source for an entire album, lots of stretching, twisting, granualising it beyond recognition; this is something I’ve always enjoyed doing.”

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SC: With your songwriting approach, is the theme or concept the most important part to the process?

SC: “That’s a tricky one, I feel I swing back and forth on this quite a bit. I do enjoy a concept but they tend to form over time rather than setting it out in some kind of rule book prior to starting anything. I’ve found in the past that this line of thinking has stopped me getting started. I fully appreciate that it works wonders for some, but I like to see where the sounds take me and react to them. Boundaries are good, but they need to be flexible boundaries, more like sponge and less like concrete.”

S13: With regards to your collaborations with Capac and more recently with Matt, what role do they play in your approach?

SC: “Without them I would not be doing what I’m doing. Together we’ve been on many wonderful musical trips, and there’s no doubt that we all influence each other greatly. I feel we challenge each other in interesting and creative ways. Musically we have a lot of shared interests but all living in different cities means we’re involved/aware of different scenes, and I think that helps a lot with challenging each other.”

Stuart Cook - 51°40'49​.​6"N 2°14'09​.​2

S13: The artwork to Piano at 51°40’49​.​6″N 2°14’09​.​2 feels very contrasting to the music you make. Can you tell us about the story behind this?

SC: “Sure. The label, Waxing Crescent Records, are working with a fabulous artist Eidolon, they’ve been creating these wonderful drippy bright vivid pieces to go with each album. I really enjoyed seeing their interpretation of my music. There’s lots of details on there that may be missed on a first look.

“They told me they were imagining the play park coming to life and I feel that captures the essence of the album and mirrors what I was doing sonically. I’m really pleased to be a part of Waxing Crescent Records. I took a punt on asking Phil [Dodds – label founder] after I saw an open call out for new music, and he was kind enough to release my strange debut album in amongst some very well established artists.”

S13: Who were your early influences and what was it about music and sound that drew you towards composition?

SC: “I think to some extent I’ve always been fascinated by sound but didn’t always have the means or vocabulary to fully express it. Playing with sound and music feels like it was kind of inevitable. Early musical influences were probably those which you’d expect. I’ve always had a tendency to dive deep into things, I love connecting the dots and chasing down influences, crate digging in the digital age, I guess.”

S13: Have your creative challenges changed over time?

SC: “I/we’ve always worked in different ways I guess. The three Capac albums were all written and produced remotely so that’s always been a challenge but a good and interesting one. In terms of personal creative challenges, I’m not sure. I guess I’ve learned to do things for myself much more now rather than attempt to emulate what I like, or what I feel is expected. I like to try new things, learn and explore, make mistakes and solve problems.”

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S13: I wanted to ask about your production techniques. Whether it’s here or with Capac, I’ve found the production to your work is pretty much beyond next level. It sounds like there’s an awful amount of attention to detail in how the final product is presented. Would that be an accurate assumption?

SC: “That’s incredibly kind of you to say. There has always been a huge attention to detail. I think that comes in part from working together with others. Different ears hear different sounds; we all have different experiences, different influences, preferences etc. When that’s all smooshed together there’s potential for a lot of ideas to get mixed together in a wonderfully beautiful way.

 “On a personal level there certainly is an attention to detail but in quite a free-flowing and natural way. I like to create the opportunity for ever changing movement, but not necessarily be in complete control all the time, it’s very liberating and really fun.”

S13: Are you working on anything else at the moment?

SC: “I am. I have a few things in the works in various stages of completion. Some work with feedback, self-governing systems, and further explorations into playing with sound at the micro level. I hope to be able to share it in the not too distant future.”

51°40’49​.​6″N 2°14’09​.​2 is out now via Waxing Crescent Records. Purchase from Bandcamp.

By Simon Kirk

Product from the happy generation. Proud purple bin owner surviving on music, books and LFC. New book, Welcome To Charmsville, available from all major vendors.

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