Mesita’s music is both about change and consistencies. Over the five years he’s been making, recording, producing, and distributing his music, his sound has travelled many paths, from chipper and enthusiastic guitar strums to Kid A-style electronica. While he’s always open to expanding his palette, the one man behind it all – James Cooley – has always stayed in the centre of it all. And for someone so devoted to his aim and his project, it’s amazing how down to earth Cooley has remained. It seems that with each release his fanbase grows, enticing in a new set of listeners as he explores different forays while managing to maintain a severely likeable, if not relatable appeal. There’s a lot of anguish to be found in Cooley’s latest releases, but even when I ask him about the stuff that would worry most people on a day to day basis, he comes off accepting of where life takes him, or where he’s put himself in life.
He’s described himself as adaptable, and that’s certainly made clear as he talks about how he can’t take everything with him when packing up and moving from state to state (though I’m impressed how he manage to take apart a guitar so as to bring it with him). There’s often a hint of sorrow to be found in Cooley’s words, but his optimism seems to guide him. Recording might be a terrifically strenuous process for him, often making for EPs that are albums that never quite made it, but he has a heart of gold regarding his pursuit. As the people who listen to his music rises into the hundreds of thousands across the world, he seeks to make the best music he can, which is the most honest aim a musician can have and one of Cooley’s best consistencies. I’ve known Cooley for a few years now on a semi-casual internet basis, but finally sitting down and having a direct conversation with him finally made me feel like I was getting to the heart of the man whose first felt-packaged EP I still recall buying with a warm supportive glow.
Beats Per Minute: So I hear you’re in Chicago now. How are things there? All things go?
James Cooley: This place is incredible. I moved here without knowing much about the city at all. Never visited and didn’t really know what to expect but had heard great things. Bought a plane ticket, found a place online, and dove in headfirst. And after being here for a couple of weeks, it’s exactly the place I need to be right now. The people here are so warm and genuine, it moves at just the right tempo, a major city with great transit, fantastic views, right by the water, with that new thrill to it… There’s something magic about landing in a new spot that’s really refreshing. It gives a lot of ability to reflect on past stuff, old baggage that seems ridiculous now. Having a new pond to swim in, there’s new perspective. I can let go, light the bags on fire, jump into something new. Chicago is brilliant.
BPM: Have you found it bringing out something new in terms of creativity? I know you like to shake things up and never stay anywhere too long, so do you see moving from place to place as an essential condition for your music to come to life?
Cooley: I’m not sure… It’s been great to get out and explore – something that’s been necessary for me on a personal level. I felt so stuck in college having never really left Colorado, dealing with growing up, coming out, and finding my place with little clue as to what it was like to live outside Littleton. It never hurts to have some new inspiration flood in, jumping to a new place with new people, a room with a new view, it can really shift perspective. It’s definitely been an exciting adventure so far, one that’s greatly fuelled this music for sure. But I’ve lived in five different cities in the last three years and personally wouldn’t mind living in Chicago for a bit, even if things get stale in a few years. I’d like to think physically going from place to place isn’t essential to grow and shift musically because I don’t know how to keep this constant moving around up. That’s why I love big cities, lots of room to explore. And I think the music can stay invigorated as long as I’m willing to keep an open mind, try new things, and keep it fresh even with the chains of a year lease.
BPM: That’s what I was thinking: while it might be freeing to “live out of a suitcase,” as I think you once put it, it must somewhat tedious having to pack up everything over and over again. Plus, I assume you’ll have all your recording equipment and instruments in tow, which – if my experience is anything to go by – can be cumbersome to have to travel, with for even a short journey.
Cooley: It’s become a lot easier to travel as things have scaled back a bit. The big thing was always the drum kit, both moving it around and having a quiet place to play without disturbing any neighbors. The sampler has really been the go-to recently because it solves a few problems. The whole setup can fit in a backpack now, so it’s less physical setup and more sitting there really listening and working with it, regardless of whether in an apartment or a coffee shop. It’s not only extremely mobile, with just a laptop and a small midi controller, but it can sound a whole lot better. It can be tweaked, like the sound is in front of you. It can be stretched and pulled and looped, manipulated to fit just right into a track. It can sound a bit sterile, but it can also be thickened up and changed around, not sound like it’s all computer. And since most of what goes onto the track is performed live with effects recorded directly, so no going back to get that delay out and whatnot, it’s become a lot easier to spend time getting the sound right, keeping the human element in it, and then put it down into Audacity with the sampler, one or two takes and then on to the next addition.
“I still don’t think I’m laying it out as much as I should.”
BPM: Considering you just said you could settle in Chicago for a while, do you see yourself fleshing out the instruments you have at hand? You’re working with a more electronic sound with your sampler, laptop and midi controller, but do you think you’re likely to move back to the guitar, or perhaps start working with another instrument altogether? Or is that just something you’ll deal with when you get to that point in your career?
Cooley: The setup being used has always been more about adapting to what I have access to. No lies, I’m pretty broke. I’ll keep making and releasing music regardless, but working electronically is much easier on a tight budget. The goal is to do it in a way that isn’t plastic, isn’t pre-set sounds that sound like everything else, just blend into noise. Guitar is definitely coming back front-and-center. I unbolted a Stratocaster in half and stuffed both ends into my checked bag. It’s been nice to have that back after taking a break from it. With all this though, if I had a choice, put me into a studio with great gear and the ability to focus exclusively on recording for a month or so, leave me alone and something nuts would be made at the end of it. Live drums, live guitar and all that. But since I’m not there yet, better use what’s here for now, put in the effort and make it interesting. It’s always been about using what you have, adapting to your situation even when it’s not ideal. If anything, discovering some great new ideas and ways of working that might not have happened if you had everything you thought you needed right from the jump.
BPM: Do you think the lyrical content of your songs is being affected by the setup you’ve had over the years? It’s easy to picture that stereotypical image of songwriter hunched over a guitar, somehow channelling his deepest and darkest emotions onto paper, but if the material on your XYXY EP is anything to go by, then you seem to have no trouble mining the subjects and issues that affect you. I might even be inclined to say you’ve gone deeper. Comparing “Out For Blood” and the epistemological crisis/breakdown you capture of “Search For Meaning” from your last album to that of the lyrical content from your new material, you seem to be more focused and specific, which can make for a more distressing listen if you sit down and read the lyrics.
Cooley: I still don’t think I’m laying it out as much as I should. Coming out was a huge step that just needed to be done. Maybe it’s about mining inspiration from those depths but displaying in an abstract way. I could be so forward about what I’ve been through, and need to be, but the music is first up for getting those ideas out. I’m much weaker at putting it into words. I want to keep level-headed with it, not cartoonish, so specific that suddenly so few can relate, but not too broad where it gets over-corrected, over simplified with the original message suffocated. If anything, right now the concentration’s on having the words compliment the melody, and hope it takes as little out of the song as possible, I guess. I’d rather go with simple lyrics over thoughtful melodies because the music is where my aim is right now.
BPM: Is it a case then that the vocal melodies are born once the music has been figured out and laid down, or is it the other way around?
Cooley: Every new song brings a new set of challenges. The lyrics might be there first, or the main structure, or a vocal melody. In a lot of ways, it works out like Sudoku. Every piece of a song is reliant on what’s happening around it, and sometimes that audio scaffolding needs to be put up to really see what works and doesn’t. And then that’s taken down and it’s on to polishing up what’s left of it.
BPM: That’s a point I was going to ask about: although self-produced, your songs always sound technically brilliant in a way that most people would pay good money to go into a studio to get. Obviously you want to be as clear as you can to get your message across, but do you think you’d still be pursuing the same path and releasing as much music as you do/have done if you were in a situation where all you had was the microphone on your Macbook or a simple tape recorder?
Cooley: Thanks man! It’s all about working with what you have. If all you’ve got is the mic on your Macbook, go for it and see what happens. It’ll be a start. There’s no incorrect way to go about it as long as you’re going for it. I saw Deerhoof live this last year and overheard their drummer Greg talking to someone about how a lot of Breakup Song was tracked. He was saying there are parts of the album where he just set his macbook on a floor tom and recorded drums into the built-in mic. And the drums on that album sound fantastic. What matters is the performance being put down on the track. It’s one simple question you gotta keep asking yourself, “Does it sound good?” I’d much rather hear a great performance on a cassette recorder than something kinda limp and soulless tracked with a U87 and a Neve.
BPM: I know Deerhoof are a personal favourite of yours and that you’ve been overwhelmed by Daft Punk’s new album, but I was wondering what else you listen to. What artists or albums are ones that you keep going back to and rely on?
Cooley: At this point… it’s been a lot of Q-Tip, Bonobo, Sigur Ros, Talk Talk, been really into Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$, Killer Mike, Big Krit, and then old standbys like Air, The Streets, Stereolab, The Walkmen, Nas, and Destroyer. I had to reset my phone and load music back onto it, so that’s been pretty much the list of stuff I’ve been going to ever since until I get some new stuff back on it.
BPM: You’re fondness of rap and hip-hop intrigues me. I’ve certainly heard its influence in your beats, but do you think you’ll ever be more upfront about it. Do you see yourself getting someone to lay down a verse in one of your songs in the future?
Cooley: I really enjoy good hip hop. It just hits right, has that good energy, honest and upfront with a lot of cool varieties of sound going on. You can put it on at a house party and dance with it or headphone-it on the train, really sit and listen to what’s going on. It’s so well balanced. As for any sort of collaboration though, it’s not something I see bringing into Mesita in the same way I wouldn’t have someone help with backing vocals or any kind of session musician. But that’s how I feel right now with it, and who knows what it’ll change into and become in the future.
“Getting my heart broke is the greatest thing to ever happen to me. But now a corner’s been turned with it”
BPM: I know you’ve always been intent on keeping the creation process to yourself, but would you be open to adding in a guest or two over time, say another vocalist or musician?
Cooley: The aim is to keep it a solo project, stubbornly continue going it alone for now. I have no press people, no managers, no audio engineers, no one else working on this stuff. It stays a one-man operation for better and worse because that’s what feels right for the moment and it’s how I’m geared. But I would love to work with others on other projects, some other collaborations while still having this solo thing going. But the way I make music changes so frequently that I don’t know how different the approach will be down the line. I might decide to open things up and have guests, bring in some backing vocals or live strings. I still try and keep an open mind, consider those big changes. There’s always new territory to explore. If that’s the way it feels right in the future, it’s the way things will be changed, the way I’ll try and adapt to it.
BPM: So would you be open to collaborating the other way around? i.e. guesting on someone else’s song, or some production work for another artist.
Cooley: That’s hard because I put so much energy into this stuff, to branch out and still keep focus on the Mesita stuff at the same time can be a bit too much. Making this music is based so much in the moment that the zone has to be right. Things fall apart if I take too long or if my concentration breaks. That’s a definite fault I’m trying to patch up and get better at. Sometimes it’s a bit too easy to get distracted or want to drop everything and go in a completely new direction. Collaborating in any way just changes how I’m thinking so much. If I’m still trying to keep in the zone of one thing I’m making and I start working on anything else, I usually get too involved in what’s new and exciting and end up wanting to scrap what I had been working on before. So I would be open to it, but it would have to be the right project and the right timing.
BPM: Going back to “Search For Meaning” for a moment, I always find the religious reference impacting. Considering elsewhere in your lyrics you deal with issues that might conflict with traditional religious ideals and viewpoints, I wondered where religion/faith came into your life and/or music.
Cooley: “Search For Meaning” was more about experiences of other people I’ve known, how one can be born, grow up feeling a certain way, and then told by others that you were somehow created wrong, that your love is invalid, screwed up, evil. They say that your creator will judge you for who you love, that same creator responsible for making you love what you do in the first place. It’s an absolutely dismal way to be raised. I am fortunate enough to grow up without that misery, in a loving and accepting household. Other people I’ve met had it much worse, and that’s what that song was trying to touch on. I’m in it to tell stories and express the sounds in my head, not preach whatever beliefs I have any given day. They shift so often anyway. With being religious, I’m not and I am. I don’t go to church but I live it every day.
BPM: Do you think it’s appropriate for musicians and artists to preach about religious beliefs and such through their artform?
Cooley: As long as the music is good, I have no problem with it at all. Everyone has their own ways to go about it, their own approach to music. I think it’s important to be open and honest, try to tap into whatever it is that drives you, inspires you. Do what’s in your heart and you’re good to go.
BPM: So what particular theme or topic (if any) is driving and inspiring you as you work on your new album?
Cooley: Right now, it’s mostly growing up and moving on from old baggage. Getting my heart broke is the greatest thing to ever happen to me. But now a corner’s been turned with it, I can stop just moping around, actually write what’s been going on since. That was a big problem with the last stuff, the reason why the album I was working on turned into an EP. I was so drained having those four songs around when I’d finally moved on from the source material. The old baggage needed to be tossed, so now there’s a new stack of baggage to sort out. It’s like Minecraft. Gotta find new mines, can’t just stick around in the old ones expecting to find something new.
BPM: I suppose it’s apt then that your new song is called “Forward.” This point in your process must be pretty exciting then, looking out in a horizon of possibilities. Does it feel like that in this instance, or is there apprehension present?
Cooley: I’m trying not to force anything this time around. It feels great to be making music right now. And that is what the plan is, to make song after song and go with whatever feels right. I’m not putting a lot of pressure on coming up with another album soon. I would love to have had a new album by now for sure, and I’m sad the last EP didn’t end up as one, but whether this work now leads to a new album, one or two new EPs, or just a barrage of singles, I’m fortunate even having this opportunity to make new music, and I’m loving every moment of it.