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Erland Cooper: Paul Weller & The Birds of Orkney

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“My dad was the headmaster at school, and I used to steal his key and go in just to use the music room,” opens composer, Erland Cooper. He got into music at a young age, growing up in the Scottish island of Orkney. We’re backstage at London’s Royal Festival Hall, where Cooper will be joining Paul Weller on stage in a few hours — a far cry from his Orkney upbringing, one would assume.

“I’d use the 4-tracks and the 8-tracks; nobody used any of it! I worked up a bit of a rapport with the janitor, and after about three weeks, my dad found out and said: ‘you could have just asked!’”

Cooper has always been at the cutting edge of music making, despite such a remote upbringing. He’s best known as the multi-instrumentalist of bands Erland and the Carnival, which he formed with former Blur and The Verve member, Simon Tong; and The Magnetic North, which also includes Tong, and fellow composer, Hannah Peel.

Unsurprisingly, it’s these shoegazing acts that attracted the interest of mod legend, Paul Weller, with whom Cooper has worked with a few times.However, the last few years have seen him focusing on his solo material, with music seemingly a long way from the new wave of Mr. Weller: he’s now an addition to the burgeoning neo-classical music scene, and he’s doing a fine job of complementing the likes of Nils Frahm, Max Richter, and Ólafur Arnalds. And despite those comparisons, he does offer a completely unique voice — chiefly thanks to his use of voice within his instrumental music, and also the voices of native Orkney birds, which he samples in a myriad of ways.

Cooper's debut solo LP, Solan Goose, was released earlier this year, and he’s recently put out a three-track EP to accompany it: Nightflight.

“The main challenge was getting rid of my own voice, and trying to use as few notes as possible,” Cooper says. “But it’s been a thrill, working with some amazing musicians. I do see how funny it is; one night I’m playing a bird centre to 200 people, the next I’m closing the show with Weller at Royal Festival Hall! It’s just trying to jolt expectations; when people think they have you clocked, that’s when I disappear into something completely different. You can’t just do the same thing - it has to interest you.”

While Solan Goose was largely piano composition, Nightflight is a much more electronic prospect; the three tracks are all ‘re-works,’ using source material from Cooper's debut album. While he is currently living between London and Surrey, Orkney, it appears, will always have an incredibly strong influence on his music.

“The weather changes in Orkney every hour,” Cooper says. “So that’s something I try to recreate in my music. Nature is the one true reset for me, that gives me a sense of peace. Especially when you have a busy mind; that can antagonise you at times.”

As we discuss the EP, Cooper casually mentions another game-changing musician.

“I actually asked Jon Hopkins if he could do a remix for me,” he says. “But he told me that he wasn’t going to be making any more music for two years, so I decided to have a crack myself for this EP. I set myself a few rules — I had to do the whole thing standing up! I hate that classic producer’s slouch. I also decided to only do it on Friday nights. I got it done over two weekends; and before you know it, it’s playing on the radio!”

With all this talk of production, it would be remiss to not find out about the studio side of Nightflight. We initially get chatting about the Universal Audio kit that Cooper uses.

“I like the LA-610 Channel Strip from Universal Audio, because it’s got the T4 circuitry in it,” he explains. “Which is the same as the LA-2A, the famous and beautiful valve from UA. It’s just a really good preamp, so I put everything through it; all the synths and mics go through it. And then I often put it through the analogue tape.”

Erland has also been playing with some high-end outboard kit from Thermionic Culture.

“Their Culture Vulture is superb,” he states. “I love the harmonic distortion, and in particular how it helps me to push things. I’ve been starting to work with that a lot more now: rather than taking a kick drum, combining it with the thump of an engine or something, and then putting the pair through the distortion, I’m also using side chain with the Culture Vulture a lot. You get a lovely purr out of it! The Soundtoys Decapitator is brilliant as well; I sometimes double that up with the Culture Vulture for parallel compression.”

The room is suddenly buzzing with people, as doors open for the Paul Weller show, so I let Cooper shoot off to grab some food. He’s a special talent, comfortable here on the huge Royal Festival Hall stage, or capturing bird sounds in his far-flung isle. Make sure you hear the results for yourself in his new EP, Nightflight.

Interview by Adam Protz