Best of What's Next: Ultimate Painting

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As many of us know, sometimes life has a strange way of falling into place around our most casual endeavors, even when we’re busy putting concentrated effort into other, more sharply-defined goals. For guitarist-songwriters Jack Cooper and James Hoare, that’s exactly what’s happened with their new collaboration Ultimate Painting. Cooper and Hoare were barely acquainted when their two longtime bands—Mazes and Veronica Falls, respectively—toured together in 2013. On that outing, they found themselves chatting about music and enjoying each other’s company, which led to an informal recording session.

Recorded quickly and casually on all-analog gear at Hoare’s London apartment, the pair’s new self-titled debut album (out now on Chicago-based imprint TroubleInMind) flows with an ease that immediately lets you know the music wasn’t fussed-over. Although Cooper and Hoare had shared rough sketches with one another prior, they did most of the writing together on the spot, working out guitar and vocal arrangements on the fly and building the songs up from there. On the other hand, considering the loose atmosphere, the songs cohere remarkably well. This is especially surprising considering that some songs weren’t even arranged into traditional verse-chorus structures and, thus, required fade-outs for lack of a more decisive way to conclude them.

Clearly, Cooper and Hoare gelled creatively, but they also emphasize the importance of their newfound personal rapport.

“It was the hanging out, the social aspect, and especially talking about music that sparked us just as much as each other’s playing,” Hoare explains over a Skype call with Cooper at his side.

Cooper chimes-in: “We spent a lot of time talking about the most obvious bands like the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Velvet Underground. There’s a thing with people in other bands—and I guess record collectors and listeners too—where they’re always trying to turn someone on to something they’ve never heard or talk about obscure records. There’s lots of things we like that are obscure, but it was refreshing to just be able to talk to someone about the Beatles.”

Given that both Cooper and Hoare play in British indie-pop bands with heavy psychedelic leanings, it’s no surprise that a psychedelic undercurrent runs through their debut. But in this setting, they forego the shoegaze of Veronica Falls and the punkish uptempo rock of Mazes (not to be confused with the psychadelic Chicago band of the same name) for a considerably mellower mood music that one imagines they might want to listen to after playing a gig in either of those other bands. The pair’s clean guitars gently jangle and sway like two boats docked side by side in calm waters. Meanwhile, Cooper and Hoare make little effort to hold themselves back from sounding like the iconic bands they discussed back when they were first breaking the ice. By the start of track three, in fact, Ultimate Painting blatantly references the Velvet Underground twice. The second time, on a Cooper-penned number titled “Talking Central Park Blues,” the pair arguably crosses the line between inspiration and mimicry as it hits uncomfortably close to the Velvets classic “What Goes On.” That aside, the album puts across a warm, nostalgic glow without ever tipping over into overt retro-philia.

Fittingly, Cooper urges listeners not to read too much into the band name, a reference to an improvisational work by Drop City, a 1960s Colorado commune inspired by John Cage, Buckminster Fuller and Allan Kaprow.

“If you’re a band,” Cooper posits, “you have to have a name, and it doesn’t necessarily have the gravitas that people think it does. Ultimate Painting was just a name we liked. I’d seen a documentary about Drop City. That whole period of time in the early-to-mid ‘60s when things began to change, in America particularly, is something both of us are interested in. The name just seemed to fit.”

He continues: “I’m guilty of asking ‘Why is that band named that?’ as well. But if you pay too much attention to the story behind the band name, it gives it more weight than it deserves, because it was kind of a flippant decision. Then again, if you’re interested in pop culture or high culture, the early ‘60s kicked the door down as far as that’s concerned.”

Cooper and Hoare may be fascinated with ‘60s American counterculture, but their delivery has “English” stamped all over it. American listeners may initially attribute the esoteric touch of the lyrics to differences in dialect. But as it turns out, the music’s meaning will likely be somewhat abstract to Brits as well. Cooper and Hoare, who mostly didn’t touch each other’s lyrics, don’t necessarily go as far with the abstract wordplay as, say, The Fall’s Mark E. Smith, but they certainly don’t spell things out either.

“My lyrics,” Hoare offers,”are nearly always based on personal experiences, but then I mask them in a way so that you can’t really tell that I’m writing about myself or someone I know. They won’t necessarily make sense to people who don’t know what I’m talking about. I quite like that when I listen to songs, actually. Like with R.E.M — I have no idea what Michael Stipe is talking about, but the words sound nice to me, and that’s enough. You don’t want to write things that are so obviously about emotions laid bare, but you can say certain things so that the listener gets some kind of impression.”

The lyrics, in fact, complement the music’s lack of intrusiveness. As a whole work, Ultimate Painting trickles forth from your speakers, its accessibility bolstered by how naturally Cooper and Hoare were able to blend their individual songwriting styles. So impressed were they with the process, in fact, that they have committed to plans for a second album, this time with Mazes drummer Neil Robinson onboard. Speaking to Paste a mere three days before beginning recordings on the follow-up to their debut, Cooper and Hoare both stress that their other bands haven’t broken up, but also that the music they’re making together is no one-off.

“I don’t really like to see things as side projects,” says Hoare. “I guess they inevitably get categorized that way, but I don’t like to see this situation in that light. You should do music because you enjoy doing it, and if something becomes the thing you end up doing the most, then that’s what it becomes.”

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