The project of Nathan Cooper, formally of THE MODERN, his unashamedly synthpoppy tunes have gained a cult following over the past few years.
Busy recently with a variety of other projects including contributing music for the film ‘Miss You Already’ which starred Drew Barrymore, Toni Colette and his brother Dominic, the follow-up album has perhaps taken longer than expected to appear.
However, KID KASIO is back with ‘The Kodo Song’ and raring to go. Nathan Cooper chatted to The Electricity Club about the single’s elaborate video concept, how he still believes in synthesizers and the album format, plus much more…
‘The Kodo Song’ is possibly the most serious KID KASIO song yet, what has brought this about?
I wrote the song with a good friend of mine, Benjamin Todd. We’d just written some music for a film and he came to me with this highlife guitar chord progression and a rhythmic idea. There was something almost PAUL SIMON ‘Graceland’ about it.
It was the chorus part, and I remember I came up with two different ideas for vocal toplines over it. I thought they were two of the best things I’d ever written. Kind of as a joke, I thought I’d record something really stupid to put in between them, a kind of red herring, so that when I unveiled all 3 ideas to Ben, he’d hear this crap idea, sandwiched between these two works of genius, and it’d give a kind of perspective and make the two good ones sound even better!
So anyway the next day, during his lunch break, I went down to the shop where he worked, and predictably I totally chickened out of playing him the crap idea. He listened to what I thought were two of the best vocal lines I’d ever written, and he just looked up and said “Hmmm, have you got anything else?”, so I said “well there is something else”…
I kind of cringed as I heard it bleeding through his headphones while it was playing, because it was literally just nonsensical, garbage lyrics I’d made up on the spot, just these words that meant absolutely nothing, gibberish that I’d thrown together in two minutes. I just kept thinking “this is so embarrassing”. But of course, he took the headphones off and was like “that’s it, that’s fantastic!”
The problem I had then, was weaving some kind of context into the verses, something that would justify the gibberish chant in the chorus. The music throughout the song was quite upbeat, and I wanted to imbue some kind of air of melancholia through that. I think it was Neil Tennant who stated that if you can juxtapose those two emotions and capture that awkward knife edge between gloom and joy, and keep it precariously balanced there over 3 minutes then you have yourself a great pop song.
I often write songs about love, but I thought why not try something else? OMD managed to sculpt perfect pop songs using subjects like power stations and the atomic bomb! That’s always fascinated me, and it dawned on me that the way I could fuse the South African vibe of the music with an air of melancholy was through the story of the Anglo-Zulu war, and I was pretty sure no pop songs had ever been written about that before! So that’s how it came about.
The premise of the story is about two friends conscripted up for this war in the late 19th century, who sing this nonsense chant together on the battlefield. One of them gets killed, and it’s about how the memory of their friendship lives on through this song, that they both used to sing together. So I guess you could say the songs about friendship and the longevity of music.
There appears to be an air of HOWARD JONES in his ‘Dream Into Action’ period, is he still an influence?
Obviously I love the whole Synth Britannia thing, and the importance of KRAFTWERK and that kind of metronomic Germanic dance sound that was so important to The Blitz Kids, but I feel like I kind of got that out of my system a while ago. I’m much more interested now in that 83-86 period, where all these pop acts were experimenting with different rhythms and this whole kind of “world music” influence that infiltrated pop. It’s world music, but diluted via the limited technology of the 1980s, so you get this marvellous conflict. They were taking this truly organic music and totally recreating it with machines, with Synclaviers and Roland TR909s, which in return creates this entirely new genre which permeated the “new pop” of the 80s.
There was a whole sub-division of these bands that kind of existed in that fey, well meaning, world music / synthpop genre. I think, journalist Simon Price, encapsulated it best recently, when I heard him describe it as “White Pyjama Music”.
It sums up perfectly bands like CHINA CRISIS, RED BOX and certainly HOWARD JONES in his ‘Dream into Action’ period (although his pyjamas were orange in the video!) and even BLANCMANGE to a lesser extent. I’m continuously trying to capture the sound of that era, albeit with a 2015 slant.
A really talented producer called Adrian Hall mixed the album for me, and for each particular track he asked for a mix reference.
I remember for the ‘The Kodo Song’, I played him ‘Tantalise’ by JIMMY THE HOOVER and ‘New Beginning (Mamba Seyra)’ by BUCKS FIZZ!!! I think he may have thought I’d completely lost it.
To answer your question, yes I’m massively influenced by HOWARD JONES! I’m a solo synth artist who plays 80s influenced synthpop. I’m indebted to him.
Originally when I played the song live, I was using some Keith Haring animation on the backdrop, but I realised that for the actual video, I was really keen to get across the story behind the song and Haring’s “Pop Art” style wasn’t going to be able to do that in the way I wanted.
It dawned on me that getting together an army of extras and flying them over to the plains of South Africa in full military regalia might be over my budget! So a realistic style animation was the only way.
I thought about the mood of A-HA’s ‘Take On Me’ and the less well-known DIRE STRAITS video for ‘Brothers In Arms’ and thought that the black and white, rotoscope, pencil sketch mood of those videos would suit my song too. I put together a four minute film using various clips from documentary footage and from the film ‘Zulu’ and using green screen, put myself within the action (although in a very low-tech way!). Then using a program called Toon Boom Studio, I painstakingly began tracing every frame of every scene.
I think, foolishly at the start, because I had read somewhere that ‘Take On Me’ took 4 months to make, that mine would be the same. But what I didn’t realise was they had a team of people doing it. It wasn’t just Morten Harket sitting alone in his room with a pen day after day!!
I quickly realised I’d bitten off more than I could chew. I’d be waking up at 6am and animating all day until 2am the following morning. I’d watch back what I’d spent the whole day doing and my heart would drop because it would flash by in the blink of an eye. It was absolutely soul destroying! It got to the point after about 8 months where I was beginning to lose sight of the end result and felt it’d never be finished. It became this massive burden, where I couldn’t relax or do anything without this huge feeling of guilt that I should be animating.
Eventually I had to give myself a break because I felt I was going mad. It was during this brief hiatus while working on some music for the film ‘Miss You Already’ that I decided to give from my second album to Drew Barrymore and Toni Colette on the set of the film. I really didn’t expect to hear anything back, but the next day, I got this text from them saying how I absolutely had to release ‘The Kodo Song’ track immediately! They both loved it. That was the incentive I needed to push forward and get it finished. So thank them. Or blame them!
I’ll wait until it takes off for that! I’m the same with samples. If it starts troubling the charts, then I’ll worry about that then.
I remember years ago in my previous band THE MODERN, we tried to get clearance on a sample from Numan’s ‘We Take Mystery To Bed’. It cost us so much, and took so long, and the song never even saw the light of day. I certainly hope it gets to the point where I’m in discussions with Paramount about ‘Zulu’, but I’ll wait for that to happen. Perhaps when the YouTube views get into 6 figures!
How do you feel about the end result?
It’s almost impossible after working on something for 2 years to have any perspective on it whatsoever. If you try and imagine slowing the video down to one single frame and then zooming in on that frame and meticulously drawing a Zulu warrior’s spear handle for instance, or the medal on the military uniform of a soldier and then imagine panning out on a whole battalion and having to draw everything in that scene with that detail. Buckles on belts, buttons, boots, guns, faces, a crowd of Zulu warriors carrying spears. I’ve drawn enough spears to last a lifetime!
And then once you’ve finished that scene, imagine repeating the whole process again, with only the tiniest of indistinguishable changes, and again, and again, 12 times just to make up one second of footage, which flashes past in the blink of an eye. So for some of the longer scenes that lasted maybe 8 or so seconds, I was drawing almost 100 near identical scenes.
The best analogy that I can think of is it felt like I was an ant dragging each letter one-by-one onto a blank page, page after page, until a novel was written. For me, from the perspective of the ant on the page it doesn’t look that good. In fact, you can’t really see what you’re doing. But I’ve had a nice response from it so far which is good.
I’m just finalising the artwork and it’ll be out before Christmas. I’m really embarrassed to admit it, but I had it mastered back in 2013!! It’s this video that’s held up the release!
My original intention was to release ‘The Kodo Song’ first, at the start of 2014 and then one more single after that, and then the album at the end of 2014 / start of 2015. But because the video took so long, everything got pushed back.
I’ve refreshed some of the tracks so they sound up to date, but I’m lucky in that the music I’m making isn’t like dance music, where the sounds change every few months or so. Because of the retro element to my music, it gives it a timelessness, thank god! Whether I release it in 2013 or 2016, it’s still going to sound like 1985!! *laughs*
Can we expect any new directions?
Unlike the first album there’s some collaborations, so the tracks I released with RICARDO AUTOBAHN and THE SANFERNANDO SOUND last year will be on there, as will some tracks I wrote with an old friend of mine Liam Hansell who goes by the name of KALCULUS. His production style is much more minimal. The two tracks on the album that I recorded with him have a starkness about them which I think is quite different to anything I’ve done before. We were very conscious of stripping the track back to its one or two most important hooks, as opposed to trying to cram in as many as we can which is often my way.
The result is more modern I think, in the way that a lot of current dance music will rely on one really good hook, rather than trying to tessellate 6 together all at once. That’s not to say lots of hooks can’t be good sometimes too. There’s one track on the album which sounds a bit like ‘Cupid & Psyche 85’ era SCRITTI POLITTI in terms of production, where there’s often 5 hooks all somehow going on at once. There’s also a track which started out as a cover of a DEPECHE MODE 1983 album track, which I think I will have to get some sort of clearance on, and another song, which was inspired by the film ‘Drive’.
It’s a mixed bag, albeit a bag made out of that black, grey and red striped material that all 80s duvet covers were made out of!!
The industry has changed quite a bit even in the last four years. Is there still a place for the traditional album format or have the Swedish synth duo KITE got it right by only releasing exclusively EPs?
I think music, particularly pop music, has started to develop at a much slower pace over the past ten years. If you look at the Top 40 now, it’s not a million miles away, in terms of sound, to what it was 4 or even 8 years ago. Compare that to the late 70s, early 80s, when trends and sounds were changing at a break neck speed, week-in week-out.
If you watch the re-runs of TOTP1980 that are running at the moment on BBC4, it’s hard to keep up, everything is moving so fast in terms of music and fashion. You’d never ever be able to release the same record in 1982 as you did in 1977, apart from anything else, sonically it would sound completely out of step. Yet today, what is at no.1 now, could easily have been at no.1 in 2010. I think because of this, its not unheard of for artists to wait much longer between albums than they used to, there isn’t the incentive to stay one step ahead. The fear that the next youth movement is creeping up behind them, that will render them insignificant, that anxiety just isn’t there anymore.
So I think because of that, it has afforded artists more time. With that in mind, I think artists should be making full length albums. If people want to make EPs that’s totally up to them. But for me, I’m not a huge selling artist with an enormous fan base. I’m not ONE DIRECTION… I don’t have Simon Cowell beating my door down demanding a product. No-one really cares if I take 4 years to make an album.
So I may as well take my time and record 10 or 11 songs, rather than 4 or 5. Plus I still love the whole concept of an album. The A side, The B side, the album as a chronological story with a beginning, middle and end. I know that’s not how most people consume music anymore, but I think its still a good way of creating a product, as an artist it’s a good framework. Having said all that, I think KITE are great by the way!
Haha! I think in terms of broad cycles, we are definitely living through a golden age of synth, in a similar way that the 80s were. The majority of current pop music is synth driven, which is definitely something that should be celebrated. In terms of current chart acts, I love the Norwegian producer KYGO, he uses this one synth sound in all his tracks, which is kind of like ‘Popcorn’ meets Pan Pipes!!! I’ve been waiting forever for the Pan Pipe sound to come back in!!
And yes I love YEARS & YEARS, I’m a sucker for anything synth driven with a male vocal. I realised the other day, they tweeted me back in 2011 before they were famous saying they “Loved my album”… who knows maybe I influenced them! I tweeted them back but no reply yet! Maybe the four year gap was a bit much!
I’m sure a return to guitar bands is only just around the corner, but until then we should all make hay! The memories of turning up at venues in the early 90s during the grunge era and being laughed at by sound engineers when I told them I was the keyboard player is still all too painful for me! Even when I look at the Top 5 from 10 years ago, from the week my old band THE MODERN released our first single makes for shocking reading! THE ORDINARY BOYS, ARCTIC MONKEYS and FALL OUT BOY!! I know as electronic artists we should be thankful of the here and now.
What did you think of DURAN DURAN’s ‘Paper Gods’?
As literally their number one fan, I couldn’t be happier for them! Going back to the dark days of the early 90s again, I remember when the mere mention of them would inspire hoots of derision. So I’m happy that they’ve kind of taken on this mantle as the modern day elder statesmen of pop.
I’m not as keen on this album as much as the last album so far, but that might change. I’m a massive Nile Rodgers fan and I’m definitely partial to some funk slapped bass and there’s definitely some of that on this album. John Taylor is a massively underrated bass player in my opinion. And as for Nick Rhodes! I was lucky enough to meet him a few years ago and he was the nicest bloke ever, we chatted about nerdy synth stuff and he couldn’t have been more humble. I actually wanted to grab him by the collar and scream “you’re my f***ing Hero, you’re the reason I do this, I had a poster of you on my wall when I was 8!!” but thankfully I didn’t do that, I kept it together and we chatted politely about the virtues of the Crumar synthesizer.
So what next for KID KASIO?
The second album will be out before the end of the year, and then I’ll make a decision on what single to release next, depending on what peoples’ reception to certain songs are. And perhaps another video, although what I will say is it definitely won’t be anything involving animation!
The Electricity Club gives its warmest thanks to Nathan Cooper
‘The Kodo Song’ is available now as a download from the usual digital outlets, along with the 2012 debut album ‘Kasiotone’
Text and Interview by Chi Ming Lai
2nd November 2015