“I’ve learned to open myself up with a trusted few,” says Matthew Cooper, the composer/singer behind Eluvium. For the longest time, that’s meant Cooper’s wife Jeannie Lynn Paske, whose art has adorned his album covers for the past decade. He met another kindred spirit in Eluvium’s early days, though: Explosions in the Sky guitarist Mark T Smith.
Having originally bonded over a Scrabble board and a bottle of wine, Smith and Cooper have shared a label (Temporary Residence Ltd.) and countless tour legs since 2004, but their idle chatter about a possible side project didn’t turn into an actual record until the past year. The self-titled debut of Inventions traces over the parallels between Eluvium and Explosions in the Sky—lots of minor-keyed chords, ambient washes and plaintive piano progressions—then colors right outside the lines with abstract melodies, life-affirming blasts of feedback and subtle nods to the electronic music Smith has wanted to incorporate into his own music for a while now.
In the following exclusive we present two distinct sides to an Inventions mixtape (available for download here)—one from each member, complete with a track-by-track commentary—along with an interview that includes a story that’s straight out of a midnight movie, only Smith and Cooper made it out alive…
The New Year, “Folios”
Anyone who was/is a fan of Bedhead should have this album, period. It’s the orange one.
Brian Eno, “Deep Blue Day”
Penguin Cafe Orchestra, “Numbers 1 – 4”
I love this group very much. This album is my favorite. While it doesn’t have “Perpetuum Mobile” on it, that’s okay.
Angela Hewitt, “Les Baricades Misterieuses”
I hadn’t actually heard this piece before seeing the film The Tree of Life. I then fell in love with it.
OMD, “The Romance of the Telescope”
My wife introduced me to Dazzle Ships back when we met working at a record store. We would drive through the mountains together… a lot. Usually we were filming scenery and discussing a stop-action animation film that I was helping her work on. We would listen to Chris Smith’s Map Ends, Mogwai’s EP + 2, Roy Montgomery’s Temple IV, James’ Laid, and OMD’s Dazzle Ships… among other things.
Peggy Lee & Benny Goodman, “Where or When”
I’ve been really getting into old vocal music or old jazz or big band or what have you. I first heard this song used in Miranda July’s film The Future and immediately looked it up. (As did many people, I would think.) Peggy Lee plays in our house quite often now.
Stephan Mathieu & Ekkehard Ehlers, “New Year’s Eve”
Heroin was a wonderful album by these two masters. I was pretty into both of them when I was living in Seattle around 2006. It felt like a good halftime break or beginning for part one of the mixtape, which I’ve noticed doesn’t really have any new music on it. I guess i’ve just decided to go with various forms of nostalgia for this mix.
Polmo Polpo, “Requiem for a Fox”
If you haven’t heard this album, do yourself a favor. Sandro Perri is an amazingly talented man and his Polmo Polpo releases are filled with some of the best stuff out there. I was lucky enough to catch a unique concert of his in Vancouver years back. It was in a high rise of some sort, in some art space with everyone sitting on the floor. With the windows open on a lovely night—I remember seagulls floating by in the city lights—he was sitting behind tape decks playing loops and doing really interesting things with a gated microphone (I think), building walls of noise and beauty. He finished by quietly saying, ‘I think that’s just about enough of that.’ It has to be one of my favorite concerts ever.
Vera Lynn, “We’ll Meet Again”
Not to make this about Pink Floyd, but I was a pretty decent Pink Floyd fan a long time ago, so I have no idea how I never got the reference to this song until recently. I was watching a documentary or something—I’m assuming it was about WWII—and it had footage of Vera Lynn performing for the troops and I just thought it was beautiful. Then I realized it was what Roger Water’s was singing about… At any rate, it was re-recorded years later with a more upbeat feel to it, but I prefer this version. With all the interesting history, I really just simply enjoy the tune. It falls in nicely with the old vocals stuff I’ve been listening to.
Papa M, “Plastic Energy Man”
I will never stop loving Aerial M, and Papa M’s Live from a Shark Cage, and perhaps slightly unrelated, all of the Rachel’s albums. I am forever indebted to all of them.
Cluster, “Zum Wohl”
I seem to not be able to make a mixtape without putting this song on it. And so it is.
The Zombies, “The Way I Feel Inside”
It’s the Zombies. It’s my favorite song by the Zombies.
Yo La Tengo
Yo La Tengo forever.
Microphones, “Great Ghosts (Live)”
At the end of this vivid, amazing song, there is a long pause and then the smallest smattering of tepid clapping. It kills me every time. I just find his headspace to be very unique. Explosions once played with him in someone’s very nice garage in Italy. And another time we were his backing band and went to a beach with him and he was throwing a spear.
The Books, “Be Good to Them Always”
More than any other artist, this band opened up my mental landscapes when it came to the endlessly (and often joyously) creative use of samples. In this song Nick sings along with the spoken samples to a pretty stirring and sad effect.
Julia Holter, “Marienbad”
Sounds like a song just bursting to come out of an idiosyncratic artist. The way it unfolds (structure wise) is mystifying but it seems like it comes naturally to her.
Fuck Buttons, “Surf Solar (7” Edit)”
Makes me dizzy. Makes me feel kind of insane. So good. I haven’t made a mix in the last few years that didn’t have this song on it and I won’t start now.
David Lynch & Alan R. Splet, “In Heaven (Lady in the Radiator Song)”
Yikes. I should probably be judged pretty harshly for this, and I’ve never been able to explain it, but I just can’t get into much music made before about 1991, with a few exceptions, anything related to David Lynch being one.
Swan Lake, “All Fires”
I find these lyrics chilling.
His newest EP is my favorite; I think it’s his most meaningful. I look forward to hearing what he does more than I do for just about anybody.
Shane Carruth, “A Low and Distant Sound Gradually Swelling and Increasing”
I think this soundtrack rules in an understated, monolithic kind of way. This sounds really stoner-like, but a while back I played this song on my speakers and then several minutes later started playing it from the beginning on my computer speakers in the same room. It was disorienting and deeply beautiful. Also, this track has a very accurate song title.
Male Bonding, “Year’s Not Long”
I don’t listen to too much rock music anymore but sometimes there’s a song… Sometimes there’s a song…
John Frusciante, “Ants”
Lyrical and haunting. Which is impressive for a 2-minute instrumental song. First heard it in the killer RHCP documentary Funky Monks.
Fridge, “Cut Up Piano and Xylophone”
This track comes from the album Happiness. If I had to distill what I think the feeling of simple happiness sounds like in audio form, it would be the tones of this song.
Julianna Barwick, “One Half”
One of my favorite albums from the last year. The whole album is drenched in the finest reverb the world has to offer, but on this song she emerges ever so briefly and startlingly and clearly.
Songs: Ohia, “Farewell Transmission”
Never got into this band, but there’s something about this song that I keep going back to. It’s just… extremely great.
You two have known each other for a while right? How did you originally meet? What were your first impressions of one another, on both a personal and creative level?
Matthew Cooper: I think we basically met on our first tour together on the west coast in… 2004? My initial impression of Mark was that he was quiet… which I liked. It probably wasn’t until a Scrabble board was placed between us, on a later tour, that we started to get to know each other, taking turns playing music while we drank wine and tried to destroy each other.
Mark Smith: I actually thought he was quiet and reserved too, which I later learned he’s not. I liked his dog, an enormous Alaskan Malamute named Atticus. And I really loved what he was doing musically, a lot of beautiful noise.
Had you discussed working on a side project together before forming Inventions?
MS: I think in a very light-hearted manner, the way all musicians say, ‘Hey, let’s be in a technical metal band together,’ or, ‘Hey, let’s be in a Silver Jews cover band together.’ But it was pretty spontaneous when we started last year.
“By that point we were quite sure that somebody had released a toxic gas into the plane and we were all going to die, one by one”
You’ve toured together before. What’s one memory you really treasure from your time on the road?
MC: Having traveled to New Zealand, Australia, all over Europe, Russia and multiple trips through the U.S., there are so many beautiful and fond and funny memories; not just with Mark, but with everyone. I think a particularly nice late-night drive one tour through Florida sticks out in my mind. I’m not sure where we were, but there was an extremely long bridge and a gigantic moon in a clear sky, and Mark and I were talking about things of interest and listening to good music while everyone was sleeping.
MS: When we were departing after our show in Moscow, for some reason Chris Hrasky, Matthew and I were traveling separately from the other guys, and we got picked up by a cab at like 4:30 a.m. It was dark, and our driver didn’t speak any English, and we told him to take us to the airport but he hardly acknowledged us and started driving. It was a long drive and there were almost no other cars on the highway and it for some reason felt eerie and tense driving through the woods towards somewhere that we hoped would be the airport.
At some point, without saying anything, our driver pulled off the road to a closed convenience store. He got out and went to the door of the store, and tried to open it. (Again, the store was closed without any lights on.) It didn’t open, so he went around back. Chris and Matthew and I, in our sleep-deprived state in a foreign country, were fairly certain we were about to be killed or kidnapped. After an interminable, tense wait in which we were trying to decide whether to escape, the driver came back with a bottle of motor oil (not exactly sure how he acquired it), lifted the hood, poured it in the car, and then drove us to the airport. Then, a couple hours later, on that flight from Moscow, a man three rows in front of us fainted. That’s probably not that unusual, and the flight attendants were attending to him. But then a man one row behind him fainted as well. By that point we were quite sure that somebody had released a toxic gas into the plane and we were all going to die, one by one. I treasure that memory with Chris and Matthew. Everyone was fine, by the way.
Matthew, what did you think Mark brought to “Envenom Mettle” that made you realize there was potential for more than a one-off collab there?
MC: Originally, I thought he would maybe bring some nice guitar playing, which the song needed, but he ended up bringing all sorts of interesting and weird sounds and samples that really brought it to a whole different level and delivered on the needed guitar parts. It was invigorating and confusing and exciting and extremely comfortable.
What’s another reason you decided to do a record together beyond the simple fact that “Envenom Mettle” came out so well?
MS: The simple answer is that we just thought it would be fun. Matthew is one of my favorite people and a great friend, and we talked by email all the time anyway. So to work on this project together was just really natural, and a way to be friends even though we live far away from each other. We had talked about going camping together or something at some point, so now instead of that we will get together and mix an album every once in a while.
How did making this album differ from your respective day jobs? Was most of it written and recorded in the same room together or was it more of a track-trading process where the songs were developed over email?
MC: I think it was created a lot faster than normal for either of us. The floodgates burst open. The entire record was created with no form of communication other than email, until we were ready to do final mixes. We then rented a house on the Oregon coast, right up against the ocean; it was lovely. We finished mixing, and added in additional instrumentation where needed over four or five days or so.
Now that you’ve gotten a glimpse of each other’s creative process, how would you describe the way each of you approaches a song? Is it similar? More of an opposites attract thing that ends up producing something neither of you would end up with on your own?
MS: One of the joys of working via email (sincerely) is that you never know what you’re going to get back. I would say what I love about working with Matthew is how unpredictable it is. Sometimes he’ll take what I’ve done and just add a voice or a drum pattern; sometimes he will have just taken a snippet and created a whole new direction. And I guess I kind of try to do the same thing. So honestly that makes it hard to classify our approaches. Similar in their variety and attempts to do unexpected things? The end result is that I very much agree with the last part of your question; there’s no way either of us would have ended up with any of these songs just working on our own.
Since your music is mostly instrumental, the meaning of the music is left up for interpretation. Could you pick a couple key tracks and tell me the stories behind those songs, though?
MC: I’m not sure that we necessarily have stories to share for particular songs. As we’ve been working together, we have strived to create something that is very alien, while also retaining a strange level of comfort. With our use of vocals, for example… For the most part they are wordless utterances or can at least be heard in multiple ways, and although you may or may not hear specific words, they still remain understandable, to a degree, on an emotional level. We have definitely discussed what the songs feel like to us, or what they mean to us, but I always find that best left for the listener to decide for themselves.
What are some musical influences on Inventions that you haven’t explored as deeply with your previous work?
MC: I think our main influences have actually been purely striving to create something completely new to us, and to not pull from other music, if possible. Honestly, when I am working on something with Mark, usually my influence is him, and what he is sending me, and striving to send back something that does it justice, or that will at least freak him out on some level. We share a lot of love for a broad spectrum of bands and artists, I’m just not sure we specifically carry that influence into Inventions, at least not directly.
MS: That is a great answer, and I wholeheartedly feel the same way. I take so much inspiration from simply the exchange of thoughts and sounds with Matthew when we are working. That being said, there are musical directions and influences that I wanted to explore more in this band. My favorite artist going right now is Burial, and I just respond so much to his ambiguity—dark/light/alien/human/peace/unease/etc. And along with him other artists in the same vein of samples and electronics: Aphex Twin, The Books, Panda Bear, Four Tet, Boards of Canada, etc. To me it just felt really interesting to bring in some of those influences and mix them with some of the guitar stuff and feel of the stuff I do with Explosions, and with the world of Eluvium. Just trying to craft our own unique combination of sounds and feels.
How about some non-musical ones?
MS: So much of the reason I play music is just trying to find internal peace. I’m not a real messed-up person at all, but like anyone else, I just have these feelings that I don’t know what to do with sometimes—anxiety and existential dread and longing and confusion. And somewhere along the way I thankfully discovered that playing music and going on an adventure of trying to make a song helped me with those feelings. So a lot of what I do is directly connected to those feelings, and literally trying to mimic and derive and paint and inspire those feelings—along with more positive things—and maybe offer some sort of catharsis for them. What I’ve noticed with Inventions is that things don’t seem to be so direct; it seems to be more about the adventure itself, and the actual act of searching and trying to make things more alien, rather than less.
MC: Well said.
Mark, what’s your favorite Eluvium record and why?
MS: Matthew sent me some demos for his next record and I’ve been listening to it fairly religiously, so can I say that? Probably not, because it doesn’t exist yet, so I think I would say Copia. That album feels to me like where he first put it all together–where he found he could make a unified, composed work. It’s so heartbreakingly beautiful, and has such a great balance of optimism and sorrow, and has some of his most memorable songs, I think.
Matthew, what’s your favorite Explosions in the Sky record and why?
MC: A difficult question. I honestly love them all. If I absolutely had to choose I would end up going back and forth between Those Who Tell The Truth… and Take Care, Take Care, Take Care. Each of their albums have built themselves into my life in some exquisite manner, whether a place, a time, a thought, a feeling, a reason.
Can we expect more from this project or is it more of a wait and see thing?
MC: I think it is safe to say that you can expect more.