(This first appeared in issue #71 of Shindig! magazine.)
Blackpool Tower of song. Ultimate Painting's Jack Cooper explores the emotional pull and push of home on his debut solo album. Duncan Fletcher listens in.
Jack Cooper's debut solo album Sandgrown is named in reference to a “Sand Grown 'Un”, the local term for someone from Blackpool. It explores the emotional pull and push of a place that ties and binds but that can also feel small and stifling. The album also has wistful, elegiac affection for a North that's been in managed decline since the 1980's, and a speaking up for marginalised and maligned communities. Key track 'Gynn Square', captures this perfectly.
“As a teenager I worked the deckchairs on Blackpool front,” says a jet-lagged Cooper, home after a short US tour with Ultimate Painting. “There were about 30 of us, all kids. We'd get taken out in a van each morning. Gynn Square was the furthest away and you'd have to get there on your own... It was kind of below the sea wall, a weird place... Sometimes people think of the north of England as backward but Blackpool was an incredibly liberal place – a lot of gay people, immigrants because it's a port town. I went to school with black people, Muslims, Hindus, it was a really multicultural place. I remember some drag queens from Funny Girls coming down, one just sat with me all day chatting, giving an insight into their world. But Blackpool also had a high proportion of heroin addicts. There'd be needles lying around and people shooting up behind the deckchair stack. You'd meet strange people and see things you didn't want to see. Scary people would talk to you and you'd feel out of your depth. Some places just have a sense of dread about them.”
The narrative is broken up by two instrumentals, 'Sandgrown Part One' and 'Part.Two', showcasing Cooper's sparse, but layered guitar work, something like Curtis Mayfield meets The Grateful Dead's Bob Weir. “That's exactly what I was going for along with the tremolo sound! I wanted it to be quite simple... I'm not fast enough to be a really good lead guitarist so I've tried to figure out my own style, kind of rhythm guitar with bits in.” The album was recorded on a Tascam 144, famously used by Bruce Springsteen on his Nebraska LP. “I'm no Springsteen fan but I've always liked the way Nebraska sounds. Wu-Tang Clan used a Tascam for 36 Chambers. That album sounds amazing! It has a kind of hazy fuzz to it. That's actually more of an inspiration sonically than Nebraska.”
For someone who has always worked collaboratively in bands, the question is why a solo record now? “I've always wanted to do, not like a song-cycle but a cohesive thing and I've always written about Blackpool, from that point of view. It would be odd to have done it within the band context just because it's so personal to me. With bands and collaborations sometimes things improve and sometimes things get diluted. This I wanted to be more of a singular vision... It's a solo album but because it has this overarching theme it's like one foot in the water of being a solo artist. It's not like 'these are my songs and these are my feelings on life'. This is just my feelings on one particular thing.”
Sandgrown is out now on Trouble In Mind.