Joachim Cooder produced his dad Ry’s new retrospective double disc The UFO Has Landed; he got to make the ultimate mixtape by picking which cuts would represent the elder Cooder’s four decades’ worth of recorded output. Popdose bent the 30-year-old drummer’s ear and discussed what it was like hanging out with a working musician for a dad who built a reputation as a musical scholar, gifted movie soundtrack composer, and all-around fan of American roots sounds.
Popdose:Â What was it like growing up Ry Cooder’s son?
Joachim Cooder: Well, I guess it was great. I don’t think you think about it while it’s happening, but it’s where I kind of developed who I am as a musician, being around everybody. I’m a drummer, so I guess Jim Keltner was a huge influence on me. How Ry is with people and musicians helped shaped me into how I look at things in music and the world. It was just me, my mom, and him, so we traveled with him when he went on tour when I was young. I guess it was a great childhood; still is.
What kind of music did he play around the house?
JC: So much. There was alwaysâ€”I guess there was a lot of blues, but, then, I remember also listening to Huey Lewis. I don’t know why or where, but I remember seeing that in vinyl and I just loved it. I must have been really young. Maybe they knew each other. But, I mean, a lot of old Django-Reinhardt-style guitar music and old jazz. He loves this Latin radio thing on the weekend. That’ll always be playing in the house, some stationâ€”KXLU. I was exposed to a lot of older music that is not obviously in pop culture: old reggae, he gave me a lot of ska records when I was young, James Brown.
Did you ever get into it over a record you brought home, like Nine Inch Nails or something?
JC: No, nothing that crazy. When I was really young, when CDs first came out, I had George Michael’s first record, and the Bangles’ first record, and I just loved it. But he never ridiculed me; he was always very supportive of anything that I liked. And, I guess, say what you will about George Michael, but those are well-crafted pop smash hits.
So he never told you that you couldn’t listen to, say, MÃ¶tley CrÃ¼e?
JC: No. In fact, that was anotherâ€”I remember, in Japan on hisâ€”what tour would that have been? It must have been the Rhythm tourâ€”I wanted to see MÃ¶tley CrÃ¼e, who were playing in Japan at the same time, and he just had one of the helpers who was taking us around take me to go see it. Obviously he wasn’t going to go to that. Never anything too heavy or crazy or loud like Tool or Nine Inch Nails; that’s all just too crazy for me, and would have been too crazy for him.
Did you get to hear a lot of jam sessions growing up?
JC: I think the stuff that really struck me was, the record The Slide Area, they rehearsed it in the house. So Jim Keltner would leave his drums there all the time, and that’s when I would go in and play them at night when he would go home. So that record, I was around.
All the film scores really, really struck me because there was always a collection of odd people and Walter Hill, the director, would come around. So that was definitely exciting, going in and watching him play to film. And there were always oddÂ people coming around for those, because he would get strange musicians to play thingsâ€”or, maybe not strange, but just more eccentric types. You know, Johnny Handsome, which was probably seen by four people; I just thought that was so wild, and it was so seedy and violent. I remember watching it; I would just sit there, and if he would do a cue fifty times, I would just watch it fifty times, as he did it. And love Mickey Rourke and Ellen Barkin, crazy bad people. That was done in the house, too, so there was just Keltner and him, basically, the whole time in our little studio in the house.
For those who aren’t music insiders, explain who Jim Keltner is and why he was a big influence on your own playing.
JC: He has a crazy list of credits. He played drums on John Lennon and George Harrison records, Traveling Wilburysâ€”I probably don’t even know half the things he’s done. He’s, like, Mr. Session Guyâ€”like, top-notch guy. But he and Ry, since they have such a long history,Â whatever something that Ry was striving for rhythmically, it seems that he found Jim. And whatever it was that he was looking for, a kind of left-of-center way of playing, Jim was really right there with him, I guess. And I don’t know what it was, but watching him playâ€”I never played the guitar, I never had one, absolutely not one iota of guitar-playing.
It completely baffles me, but watching Jim, that’s what I took to, and Jim saw that and gave me my first kit. And it was just crazy. It was big, lots of hardware; it was the ’80s, so he had weird electronic triggers. He’s always done weird sampling, stuff, which I got into as well, and always worn sunglasses to look cool. He wore boots. So, yeah, he’s been sort of a semi-mentor-teacher.
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“Jesus on the Mainline” appears on The UFO Has Landed.
What was it like participating in the whole Buena Vista Social Club thing? You guys didn’t know it was going to be so popular when you started out, did you?
JC: No, nobody knew anything. Nick Gold from World Circuit, the English label that it came out on, his concept originally was something completely different from what actually ended up happening. It was supposed to be something with these African musicians coming down to Cuba and some sort of exploration of the similaritiesâ€”I actually don’t even know. I don’t know what it was supposed to be.
But whatever it was supposed to be, those guys from Africa never made it. They never got their visas or something didn’t happen, so when we got down there, people had to sort of come up with something on the spot. So, some of these guys just basically showed up, last-minute, these icons, these legendsâ€”and it was amazing. Musicians, like, the real deal guys, the real deal old school guys, they’re all the same, no matter where they’re from. They have the same feeling and understanding. Somebody like Flaco Jimenez, the accordion player, or Gabby Pahinui from Hawaii, these are the real deal people that you don’t see any more. You get the same sensibility that you would from Ibrahim Ferrer from Cuba. So though it was different, you almost knew them without knowing them, because you know people like them.
The musical communication is very similar even though they come from disparate backgrounds.
JC: Exactly. And they’re all the same kind of people. I know my dad, playing with the really old-time blues guys over the yearsâ€”same people, who are unlike anybody else. You just sort of know that when you see them in concert or just hang with them, without even talking.
And I think that speaks to why Ry follows his muse and finds these interesting music that isn’t necessarily popular or even really practiced that much now, but yet he gets great reviews and he has quite a following as far as bands, and the critical establishment likes him too because he seems to find the more lasting stuff, as opposed to the Tool or the Nine Inch Nails or whatever. Is that kind of why Rhino’s releasing this two-CD set now and that’s why it’s relevant?
JC: The timing of the two-CD set is sort of just a fluke, because it kind of took forever to have it actually come out. It was supposed to be a year ago, but it’s kind of neat the way it happened, because he then just put out that I, Flathead record, and the ten-year anniversary of the Buena Vista Carnegie Hall thing just came out, so I think it’s cool for the public who maybe don’t know him for the soundtrack to Paris, Texas or one of his earlier solo records. Maybe they only know him as the guy who produced Buena Vista. People’s references are so varied, especially with modern culture, people forget what happened six months ago. So it is good timing that people now get to see his the full spectrum of his music, right now.
How did you get involved in the production of The UFO Has Landed?
JC: Rhino wanted to do it, and I don’t think my dad was able to think about it or focus on it, so I just said I’d do it. And people liked my approach, which was less chronological and more musical, and everybody liked the way that the music was presented, so they were happy to see it done and done like that.
Most of Rhino’s sets are done strictly chronologically. What was your thinking in the way the songs are sequenced there?
JC: I have, maybe, a unique perspective since I was around, not for the really early stuff, but for a lot of it, I was there, and I have it all in my head in a very sort of real way. And rather than somebody coming and just puttingâ€”it’s not like the hits, because there aren’t hits as such, but somebody just coming in from Rhino and putting it all together…. I thought the way I would do it is see what flows, like if I was making a mix for somebody who didn’t know anything, I would want all the songs to just flow together, be it the groove or….
What’s an example? OK, Johnny Handsome, which has all this Cajun zydeco music; they go to all these bars, like seedy Cajun bars, and so Ry and Jim did all the music kind of in the background. And they’re really good-sounding, really funky instrumentals. And I listened to it and I thought, this kind of groove sounds like “Down in Hollywood,” which was basically the same two guys with a band from years before. So let’s hear those two together; and then, sticking with the Cajun theme, I thought about “Let’s Work Together,” which is what Ry and Buckwheat Zydeco just did, last year. That’s the unreleased song. So it has that same zydeco accordion sound. So I thought, put that after the Johnny Handsome song. I just kind of went like that; I just kept flowing. Or, on disc 2, I put “Drive Like I’ve Never Been Hurt,” which is from his last record, next to “Crazy ‘Bout an Automobile,” because it’s purely car-oriented. It wasn’t always musical; it could just be a feeling, or a concept; kind of like a narrator, because it’s always the same, he is the narrator, so if I hear two things about cars, I just think, let’s put them together.
Did you get into any arguments about the songs you put on the set?
JC: Not really. There were a couple that he wanted on that I didn’t have on. James Austin, the Rhino guy who’s really great, he was sort of shepherding the project from the label’s side, there were a few where he was just like, can we have this one? Now I can’t give you an example because I don’t really remember. I know I put “Which Came First,” that crazy Slide Area song, and that’s something that neither of them would ever have thought to put on there, because that was one of the more obscure records, and definitely one of the more obscure songs on there. That record has always stuck with me because of the sound; it’s just kind of so out thereâ€”the whole record.
Do you think the average music fan really has any idea what kind of musicologist he is, and sort of a scholar of lesser-known musical styles?
JC: Maybe the more intense music fan knows, but I feel like he has different kinds of music fans. There’s the people that love Buena Vista, but maybe have no idea about anything else. And there’s the real guitar-player fans, who love his blues slide guitar playing and don’t care about anything else. Or the soundtrack people. I don’t know how much they all intersect. I know in his mind, they all do. It’s no different [to] him; sitting in the room [with] Compay Segundo is like sitting in a room with Joe Seneca from Crossroads.
I feel like it’s all the same to him, but people have a way of compartmentalizing everything so much that they maybe don’t always see that. So, again, that’s why I like the timing of everything, to show people what else is out there.
I’m sure everybody who has heard a Ry Cooder song and can identify it as such probably has a different place where they encountered him. I first heard him when I was in junior high or high school and I bought the Streets of Fire soundtrackâ€”you know, Dan Hartman, 1984? “Hold That Snake” was my first Ry Cooder tune.
JC: That was a movie that I sat there while he was scoring it; I must have watched that over a hundred times, literally, just fascinated by that whole crazy worldâ€”Willem Dafoe, the bombers, the biker gang… and all that music, because he woiuld do really crazy techniques. Since there were no computers or ProTools or any kind of post-manipulation of music, he was doing crazy things. Walter Hill, the director, would love big giant four slides with big vases, kind of dragging them down these huge strings and getting these big crazy sounds. That was a very exciting one.
When all these technological innovations came out, did he really plug into the computer effects, the sampling, and all these digital effects that you can create from scratch? Or is he still all about making real sounds?
JC: Well, he’s always loved sampling. Keltner was, I’d say, a pioneer of that stuff. He was doingâ€”oh, and Jack Nitzsche, who Ry worked for doing soundtracks like Blue Collar, with Richard Pryor and Harvey Keitel, that has this whole sampling, this loop of a machine, a conveyor belt, which is like a blues shuffle. But it’s an early, early looping of sounds. He always sort of encouraged Jim to do that, and that’s what got Jim so into sampling and doing crazy stuff. So I would say that he always liked that; it’s always fun to create some sort of crazy loop out of stuff you sample and then play over it. You instantly have this thing that’s like a bed to play on, and it’s always inspiring. Like in Little Village, Jim made all these crazy things and that would inspire the melodic hook of the song. All of that stuff, he likes; it’s just like anything elseâ€”you can either do good with it or do bad. I know he works a lot now with this engineer, Martin Pradler, who’s pretty much been right there on the last four records of Ry’s, and they use all sorts of different gadgets.
It’s kind of ironic that he’s so into the traditional music, 1920s and ’30s blues and really authentic American, and even Caribbean and so on and so forth, and yet he’s embraced the new sound as well.
JC: Yeah. Again, I think it’s in whoever’s handsâ€”really, at the end of the day, it’s up to the person who’s doing it. I mean, people do terrible things with just a guitar.
So it can be authentic, even if it is digital and a new instrument.
JC: People keep inventing new instruments. Have you heard about this Hang? It’s kind of like an upside-down steel drum. They did this thing on NPR about it. This couple invented it, and you hit it with your hands, and it’s like the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard. And apparently, you can’t get itâ€”you have to send them a letter to explain how you would use it, and then if they agree that you’re worthy of it, you can buy it. But when I heard it over the radio, I was like, what is this beautiful thing, this new thing?
Well, have you put in for one?
JC: I keep meaning to. It’s on my list.
One more question: What are you up to nowadays?
JC: My main thing, which is a 24-hour-a-day job, is that I’ve been working with my girlfriend, Juliette Commagere, and we just put out her solo record. When Ry and Jim Keltner and Nick Lowe played in San Francisco, two nights at the Great American Music Hall, this show opened up. You know the song “El UFO CayÃ³,” off of Chavez Ravine? He did it, I guess, three records ago. She wrote and sang on it and sings on a lot of his more recent things. So we made this crazy record called Queens Die Proudly; we just put it out in October and we’ve just been on the East Coast playing shows and playing shows in L.A. It’s very indie, so we’re doing everything. When Ry asks me to play, I always do, but right now it’s been sort of more in the studio stuff with him than live shows.
Is he slowing down a little bit, or is he pretty much keeping up the same pace?
JC: He just did this couple of live shows in San Francisco, and he had a really good time, so I can see him wanting to do some more of that. I think he had these records he was making; they kind of had an arc to them, so I can see that maybe slowing down, because it was sort of a trilogy, those three: Chavez Ravine, My Name is Buddy, and I, Flathead. They kind of all have this common thread. Now I don’t think think he’s going to make another one, at least right yet, in the same vein. I don’t know what it’ll be. But I do see some live shows in the future, because he had a really good time and they went really well.