On Oysterband, Part 2: What Chopper Said
This is a busy time for Oysterband. Even now they are putting the finishing touches on their newest recording, a collaboration with June Tabor–their first joint effort since Freedom and Rain in 1990. As all the band’s loyal fans know, since this past winter when they were unable to come to a suitable agreement with De Montfort Hall, they’ve been sorting out the new home of the Big
Session Festival. John Jones has been organizing another one of his enormous walking tours, this time in May in the Peak District of England. Ray “Chopper” Cooper has been fitting in tours and house concerts supporting his solo CD, Tales of Love, War & Death by Hanging, between Oysterband gigs and recording. Despite all this, somehow there was still time for me in the afternoon before the Saturday evening show at the Gosport & Fareham Easter Festival.
I met Chopper in the bustle of Ferneham Hall, which was hosting not only the headline acts, but various small musical performances throughout the day, as well as a craft fair and a pig roast. Of a woman serving up real ale, he asked what she had that was “good but not too mind-altering:” we came away with pints of a 4.25% which was dark and tasty, a fine counterpoint to our conversation.
Recording with June Tabor again, after 21 years, was a great experience, Chopper told me. “We were so young then,” he added, about the making of Freedom and Rain. When I mentioned that I was fascinated by June Tabor’s voice–velvet: smooth in one direction, but rough at the same time–the Oysterband cellist agreed. “She has a strong voice. Sometimes frighteningly strong.” June also has very specific ideas of what she will and will not sing. “It has to be something she feels really strongly about,” Chopper said. “She’s a word person. The words have to mean something to her.” He detailed their process: the recording sessions together at Rockfield, and then the band members going their separate ways to work on individual tracks before sharing files on the computer. These files are uploaded, he said, onto a server, to be accessed by the others; the files are too large for emailing back and forth. In these next months, Oysterband and June Tabor will be shaping the recordings into the new CD, scheduled for release in the fall. Already, on the band’s website, are dates for shows together, to promote the new release–with more dates to be announced as they are arranged.
One of the more interesting points Chopper made had to do with the recording and shaping of a CD. “So much more of what is recorded is discarded than kept,” he pointed out. I asked, in light of his own CD, Tales of Love, War & Death by Hanging, whether there is a narrative arc established in the arrangement of songs–whether they have to, after a fashion, tell a story of their own in their entirety. “Not so much a narrative,” he said, “but an atmosphere.” The songs have to fit together in such a way that they create a specific mood, or movement. Again, a case in point: just the other day, Oysterband posted, on their Facebook page, a recording they’d done years ago with June Tabor of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” which had not made the cut for Freedom and Rain: an example of a great version of a great song that didn’t fit the atmosphere of the CD.
Our Saturday afternoon conversation also brought news on the Big Session Festival. “The contracts are coming fast and furious,” Chopper said–perhaps ironically, though one can only hope not. When I mentioned that I’d read online commentary from fans who were saddened by the loss of the three days of the Big Session Festival– this summer, the Levellers have given over the Saturday of the Beautiful Days Festival (August 20th) to Oysterband to program the acts–Chopper explained that the Leicester Council made it impossible to stay at De Montfort Hall. “It takes more than a couple of months to find a new venue.” Meanwhile, he said, the Levellers had given them a budget and a free hand in choosing the bands for the one-day Big Session at Beautiful Days. The good news, however, for those impatient fans, is that Oysterband has contracted to move the 2012 Big Session to Catton Hall, in Walton-on-Trent, Derbyshire, with dates set for June 15-17. Again, more details are promised as they become available.
What’s on the horizon for Chopper himself? He’s writing new stuff for Oysterband, and as always is thinking ahead to a new Oysterband CD. When pressed about his solo efforts, he was quick to point out that the band comes first with him. However, since the release of his own CD, he has been taking time to do concerts, alone and with the fiddler Patrik Anderson; many of these are house concerts. “Music promoters don’t like them,” he told me. “All the money goes to the artist.” It’s a kind of underground performance and economy–“I like that.” There’s also an intimacy and an immediacy to house concerts which larger venues lack. Cooper says he’s recently been doing those house concerts without the benefit of a PA system, which forces a different level of performance. As far as any new solo recording is concerned, although he says he likes the idea of persona pieces–songs in which the characters speak for themselves (they’re not pretentious, with the “wise, all-knowing voice” that shows up in songs by, for example, the Grateful Dead), his next CD will be something different. It won’t happen for a while, and it won’t be historical. Even so, there’s much in the works for fans of Oysterband, and Ray Cooper, to look forward to.
4.25% real ale, for some of us, is mind-altering. Just saying.
How about Tales of Love, War & Death by Hanging? There’s this.