By Philip Runco. Photos by Justin Eisner.
Phil Cook’s formidable collection of keys jingle and jangle with purpose as he strides through the green of Moore Square Park. I’m not quite sure where he’s leading me but neither is he. It’s an unseasonably cool afternoon in Raleigh, North Carolina, and we’re both just along for the ride.
“Let’s see,” Cook says to himself, GS Boyz’s “Stanky Legg” filling the air from a nearby rally. His eyes dart back and forth from behind a pair of large brown sunglasses when a short stone wall encasing a garden catches his attention. “There could be a vibe somewhere in here.”
The multi-instrumentalist is in perpetual pursuit of a vibe. It’s more an all-encompassing principle than a clearly defined thing. It’s how the musicians he idolizes approach their lives and work. It’s the spirit of American Southern music’s hundred-year lineage. It’s the way a group of instruments can swing.
There’s a relentless energy in the way Cook speaks. You get the sense this is always the case to some degree, but today is different. The 35-year old is in the midst of a pivotal moment in his life and every cell of his body is fully aware of it.
The previous day, Cook released the first true group of songs under his own name – a soulful, charming, and vibrant record called Southland Mission. The night before that, he had celebrated the occasion with a packed concert at Raleigh’s A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater as part of city’s Hopscotch Festival. It was a huge production; a mix of eight musicians and singers joining Cook on stage to bring Southland Mission to life. “I don’t normally play with, like, nine fucking people,” he shares with a laugh.
Over the past decade, Cook has frequently been part of the supporting cast bringing other people’s visions to life. As a studio ace and touring musician, the Durham resident is in high demand. He played organ for the legendary Blind Boys of Alabama for a year. He handled piano for the Indigo Girls’ Amy Ray for another. More recently, he’s been a vital piece of M.C. Taylor’s Hiss Golden Messenger live unit – one of the most slyly dynamic and groove-digging bands out there. (He played banjo, guitars, piano, and organ on last year’s excellent Lateness of Dancers, too.)
Southland Mission is where Cook takes the sum of those experiences to create an even greater whole.
“You gotta know when you interview me, this shit goes way wild, like, real quick,” he warns me as we sit on our perch of grey stones. “As long as you get into that with me, we’re totally on the same page.”
Phil Cook plays Brooklyn’s Rough Trade Wednesday and Washington’s DC9 on Friday. Hiss Golden Messenger performs at this weekend’s Landmark Festival. Southland Mission is out now via Thirty Tigers.
What’s your history with southern music? How does someone from Wisconsin end up making a record like Southland Mission?
I have a basic belief about music. It’s really simple: As a general cultural force, music has always moved through the fabric of culture very rapidly, true to its original intent. Music is like a number of things – there can be a vibration or a signal that’s distorted and not totally pure, but a clear, pure signal has a longer chain in its ripple effect of how long it moves through culture. Purity, to me, comes from authentic places. It really has to come from someone’s true being and self. Insecurity can’t get in the way.
Historically, this has always been true. A hundred years ago, when the first music was coming out of the South – everything from Appalachian string music to field and prison hollers to blues stuff to gospel to zydeco to jazz – it was all being made by people that were really close to the core and the salt of life. They were poor. It was a lot of poor people. To me, that was a pure vibration.
When people say “roots music,” that isn’t a past thing to me. Roots music is something that’s consistently feeding everything that’s going on. The whole tree is close to the trunk. The roots and trunk is there, whether you like it or not. We’re still branching off from a hundred years ago. Every year, the bands that come out are bright leaves and then they fall off and they’re just gone. Every fucking year, right? All of music is just a huge tree.
Proximity has nothing to do with anything when it comes to what resonates in you as a human being. You need to surrender to what you let in. This music is what resonates and vibrates in my body. This is what feeds my soul as a human being. This is what makes me understand and balance my experience. If you’re open to what feeds you most, then you’re going to understand a lot more about how culture works and how it fills the needs that it fills and why there are metal kids in Iowa.
It came to me via my dad’s record collection when I was fourteen – you know, the middle school years. I woke up and I started rooting through my parents house and I found my dad’s record collection. It had a whole bunch of blues from Chicago, which was about six hours from where I grew up. From there, I followed the music south.
There’s a huge history of it, dude. This whole last hundred years has proven that with recording technology and the mass production of things, you can have bands like Credence Clearwater Revival. They were from fucking Fullerton, California – you know, that’s so not anywhere near where the music they we were making sounds like. People that were in The Band were from Canada, dude. Even if you look at the British Invasion, that’s so far removed from where that was actually happening. To me, that’s a sign of how powerful and pure of an initial explosion southern music had and how it’s still affecting people. That is the story to me.
There were no reservations? There was absolutely no thinking, “Do I have a right to make this kind of music?”
I have been struggling with appropriation questions and whether I have a right to make these things because I’m from Wisconsin. It’s held me back from making things that I heard in my head for a really long time. In searching and searching, what I needed was a concrete experience that made me see things in a clearer light. For me, that was the chance to record on the Blind Boys of Alabama record.
It scared the shit out of me going into it, but it was the most incredible experience of my life. Not only did I find that I was respected on a level of just being a professional musician alongside these guys who are total veterans; I also realized that we all have one goal, man: We want to move people with what we’re doing. That’s my intention, at least. When I brought that into a studio with these legends, I found that all of the music that I had studied from when I was fourteen to twenty-five – those ten years that I just sat and learned from records – was met with open arms. In fact, the guys encouraged it. They made a point to tell me that they were really happy that I studied this music. That was the point where everything switched in my head and I started to say yes to somethings that I had said no to all along. I was giving myself permission to follow the sounds in my head.
The completeness of the journey was making this record. This record felt like the biggest right of passage in my life. I had all of this knowledge and touring experience, but I had to nowhere to put it until I was in the right time and the right place. And then I saw clearly what my real love of American music is; how much respect I have for every single recording and person that’s come before me. I want to pay a loving tribute to them wherever I can for the rest of my life.
It’s one thing to be on stage and fronting something in a way that you’re on top of it. The other way to approach it is to just be excited to be part of something. That’s my baseline every day. When I walk on stage and I’m sitting with amazing people from all walks of life – all of whom have different skill sets that we’re putting into one blended sound – that’s the most absolutely pure I’ve felt in my life.
We’ve all started to realize that the honor of making great music and great records and moving people is an incredible wave to ride. It’s paying honor and tribute to what America really gave the world, which is sadness and hardships and the crazy obliteration of all kinds of cultures, but on the back end, the thing that changed the entire world: the music that came out of this country. That’s my door into loving this country for what it is. It’s what it always can be.
One of things that strikes me about the record is how there’s such evident thought given to the structure of songs, but the overall vibe is one of looseness and an unfussed warmth. How do you strike that balance?
What I’m most fascinated with in this musical diaspora is the juxtaposition of things that are swing and things that are straight ahead; things that are loose and things that are tight. When those things coexist, that’s the most authentically human. At any given point in time, we have that cycle of loose and tight within ourselves. Within a group, you have people with a tighter role and a looser role. If the music reflects that, it’s the most interesting thing in the world to me.
The hardest grooving shit I’ve ever heard in my life isn’t when something is totally in swing or when it’s all straight; it’s when those things are happening at the same time. Look at Levon Helm – one part of his body would swinging and the other part would be straight. That’s all he ever tried to do. There was always a little bit of wonkiness happening. No wonder that’s the hardest grooving band. And where did he learn it from? He grew up in Arkansas. He was around it every day when he was going down to the radio station and listening to all of the African-American blues musicians play. He soaked it up.
Dude, look at D’Angelo and Questlove. Nobody swings harder than D’Angelo on the face of the planet right now. It’s maybe the hardest swinging music of all time, but when I say that, he balances all of the different ways that a groove works. He brought together everything that’s happened previously and threw it out in a whole new way. It’s changing the swing game. When you listen to it, you’ll always hear Questlove’s hi-hat and snare are super on top of the beat. They never even fucking think about moving. They’re totally rigid. But the kick drum is out on a lunchbreak. It’s never falling in line. It has its own brain. When you listen to his new record, you hear how the piano and the keys work – the way certain things lag behind. Even with the piano, his right or left hand will lag behind or be on top.
That’s the whole spice of American music. Swing is the whole fucking thing. Swing inherently involves a looseness and tightness. My goal was the make a record that swings really hard. That’s what we have in Hiss [Golden Messenger], too. We’re all on that same page. That’s what you’re hearing. That’s what I hear in my head.
Inside Southland Mission is one photo – a shot of you and your brother. He produced the record with you. How would you describe your relationship with Brad?
Brad and I are in way, way too deep. We’ve been in this game for long enough that there’s no walking away in every sense. We are tied together for the rest of our lives. We’ve had to reconcile that while being in a band five feet from each for the last six fucking years. We’re always five feet from each other. Brad and I have had to work out almost our biggest core of issues. We have maintenance that we always have to do, like any siblings that are a year apart. We’re one year apart, man. And it’s just the two of us. We grew up pushing each other. It’s how it worked.
To me, it’s about the fact that my brother fought for the integrity and honesty of the record almost from me sometimes. I would get doubts in my head. We all get doubts when we’re making something that’s really close and open, and when you’re stepping onto new territory. You’re terrified some days. Those are days when Brad’s is my strength. He push me back out and say, “You gotta go do this. You gotta play what’s in your head. You gotta play what you hear.”
At the end of the day, that’s the ultimate thing that any musician needs to follow. People follow books and they follow Youtube videos now, and there are a bunch of headless people playing solos exactly as it is, and that’s all fine, but it’s just prescribed, man. It’s all so prescribed. If people started to learn the fundamentals of rhythm and the basics of everything, and they started to play what they hear and let their ears guide them forward, that’s the right path. It’s always going to be about listening to your own body and paying attention to what you hear.
I’m waking up to this fucking shit now. I’m almost 36. It’s taken me this long. If you talked to me four years ago, sitting in this same place, I wouldn’t be saying nearly the same shit. I just was so lucky to have that Blind Boys [of Alabama] session and the session with Amy Ray, the other hero in my life who I got to play with. You gotta learn from your heroes. You gotta learn not just exactly what they’re playing, but their entire vibe. You gotta ask, “What is this whole thing about?”
My favorite quote in “Almost Famous”, that Cameron Crowe film, is what Philip Seymour Hoffman says. I’ve thought about it my life: “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone when you’re uncool.” That’s an incredible line that a human being wrote down; it ended up in a movie in the 2000s, but it’s still such a true cultural statement. I still think about it. That’s anther statement that’s given me strength. You have to find a way to stand up every day and put your best foot forward. It feels good to know that down to the core of my ass.
Does “Sitting on the Fence Too Long” touch on that feeling?
“Sitting on a Fence Too Long” is absolutely getting at that. All of the songs are totally about my family and about my head. That was another thing: I had never written songs before. I had to figure out how to start somewhere.
Mike Taylor – Hiss Golden Messenger – was my inspiration. He told me, “Write about the things you know the best.” That’s my kid and my wife. And my own doubts – I know them really well. I know them so fucking well, man. We’re old friends. I’m familiar with the things that scare me every morning when I wake up. I know their faces really well.