I’ve been friends with Richard Coker since the mid-1980s. I’m normally not this direct/borderline irreverent when interviewing a person. But Richard is one of the most intelligent and unflappable people I know. I’m fairly certain I could wildly opine that his birth was instrumental in the breakup of the Beatles and he would not blink an eye, plus he’d likely have a balanced challenge of my absurdity. This is not the first time I’ve interviewed Richard for this blog, in addition to his solo acoustic work (which we discuss in this interview) he is also a member of the Crumsy Pirates (aka the subject of the blog’s first interview). My thanks to Richard for his tolerance of my questions and his willingness to discuss his new release, a collection of twelve-string songs, Loa.
Tim O’Shea: You sing with a British accent at times, don’t deny it–and it’s never intentional, I know. Does it annoy you when people think it’s an affectation on your part?
Richard Coker: I’ve loved British music all my life, but I have never purposefully tried to sing with an English accent. No one’s accused me of affecting it, though. Maybe said accusations are lacking because so few people are familiar with my music. However, linguistically speaking, there are far more traces of British Isles speech among Southerners. Appalachians still use Elizabethan words (at least they did before satellite dishes). Perhaps, too, when I’m singing I favor softer, more Englishy, vowel sounds. I like the way they feel when I sing them.
O’Shea: How many songs have you written over the years?
Coker: I’ve been writing songs for over twenty years. I still have lyrics for over three hundred songs. My current acoustic set has about seventy songs to it. If I had to guess, my total song output is somewhere around four or five hundred.
O’Shea: You play several instruments (you play the theremin for the love of God), but am I correct in thinking you’re happiest playing acoustic guitar. If so, why?
Coker: I play, in order from best to worst: guitar, bass, keys, saxophone, melodica, drums, theremin, clarinet, mandolin, kalimba, recorder, and viola. You are correct about my pleasure for playing the acoustic. It’s the easiest way to write and perform a song without accompaniment and still have it sound complete. Everyone has gotten very used to orchestration in modern music. Playing in a band or programming some electronic backing always provides a lush aural texture. However, my own preference (in art and life) is minimalism. I like the spare sound of the instrument and the voice. In the past couple of years I’ve added a larger spectrum to my acoustic sound by writing and performing on 12-string. The 12-string has this amazing, mysterious, dark and psychedelic tone to it that I really enjoy.
O’Shea: What was the hardest or most cathartic song of this most recent release to write?
Coker: The hardest song to write on my recent CD, Loa, is called “Immortal.” Not so much with the music as with the lyrics. I was working on some new concepts about poetry. My words are often stylistically drawn from impressionism, existentialist literature, and the French Symbolists. These words were more surreal. After all, reality is weird and living forever must be weirder still. So I was trying to think of some of the odder vistas eternity might provide.
“Raining dust / Underneath an azure sun / Iron lakes / Hum // We drift alone through the ether / Fall on fallow fields / Electric clouds spitting steel at the ground / Stain the atmosphere // Cliffs of chrome / Line a labyrinth of bone / Mistral winds / Moan // And when each star has burnt away / We will sing / For a long forgotten place / Everything”
O’Shea: Looking back and listening to early demos of some of these songs, which song evolved the most for you in the revision process?
Coker: Interesting question. I don’t revise songs much once they have been written. They are more like something trapped in amber. If the song evolves, it is in the singing and performance. Since I am avowedly DIY and lo-fi, I rarely demo anything. Or maybe I demo everything. I have yet to be too satisfied with the recordings I have made over the years. Then again, production is something that is used by musicians to make their work sound “perfect.” I would rather strive to make a better song with a lesser recording than the other way around. You can hear everything clearly on a modern pop record, but it remains soulless and horrid. Some of the most intense music I have heard was poorly recorded. I would way rather listen to Bukka White or Charley Patton than Christina Aguilera or Kanye West.
O’Shea: Quick–name another lyricist who can work “voivode” into a song (as you did with the song “Feast”)? Do you get a kickback from Wikipedia when you make people do searches for obscure words? Seriously though, where on earth did you you learn about Slavic military terms?
Coker: Another lyricist that would use “voivode?” Maybe the singer of Candian cult metal band Voivod? As far as slavic military terms. I could claim a history degree or a passing knowledge of Russian. The truth is that I picked up the term through studying vampires. The song “Feast” is about the parasitic nature of power. Myths of the vampire include nobility bathing in and drinking blood to stay young; symbolically an accurate depiction of the leaders of the world. No matter how fairly they attire themselves, they still carry the faint scent of corruption. The problems of the world are never solved, only renamed. Each generation likes to believe it is better off than the preceding one. The myth of progress. Unfortunately, we still haven’t left the iron age. War is unending. Economically, there is the same percentage of rulers vs. peasants as there was thousands of years ago.
O’Shea: Your song “Ossuary” opens with the lyrics–”Your culture’s dead/We made sure – we shot it in the head”–care to discuss the inspiration behind that one?
Coker: My inspiration for that line can be seen all around us. Modern America suffers from the post-modern malaise of pop culture. Everything is stylish, impermanent. Marketers and media aggressively cow people into conformity and mass consumption. Acquisition is the ultimate sacrement. This produces a huge amount of waste. Our descendants will no doubt curse us as they mine our filth.
“Ossuary” was written about the rebellion of art. Rather than destroying (consuming), you create. This is one of the reasons that artists are hunted down and killed by the powerful. They are screwing up the game and providing a blueprint for an alternate existence. Hence, entertainment was invented to distract people from thinking. Art tends to make people think and that pisses off everyone. People love witch hunts. It gets rid of the troublemakers. So, yeah, they HAD to shoot culture in the head. It was interfering with business.