More Than Another Retro Band: The Beautiful Simplicity of Ultimate Painting

Ultimate Painting.

Ultimate Painting.

When did the pastoral sounds of U.K. psychedelia go out of style?

Most modern psych music traffics in noise, reverb, distortion and lush synthesizers, but that wasn’t always the case. Buried in the late-’60s folk music of artists like Roy Harper or Bert Jansch and The Pentangle was a distinctly English answer to psychedelia, one that Pink Floyd would blast off into the stars when Syd Barrett took his first acid trip through the British countryside in ’66 wearing citrus over his eyes. It was a simpler time of discovery with nature, before anyone knew how much was too much.

This thought lodges itself in the mind when you listen to Dusk, the wonderfully out-of-time third album by East London’s Ultimate Painting coming on September 30.

Helmed by the duo of Mazes frontman Jack Cooper and Veronica Falls co-frontman James Hoare, Ultimate Painting’s music could have easily turned into the same oversaturated, bloated ego-stroking exercise that plagues countless other bands. But Cooper and Hoare work off of each other so tightly, so subtly, that their interplay often leads you to wonder who’s even taking the lead on a given song. This blending might come off as a boring  and monotonous in lesser hands, but it’s a testament to the strength of their songwriting that Ultimate Painting manage to keep the vibe simultaneously light, wavy and catchy as the best paisley meditations on time and space.

Ultimate Painting took their name from a piece of art made by the Drop City collective, a Southern Colorado commune founded in ’65 whose members sought to willfully remove themselves from society and create a better world. It’s a good name, for sure, but Hoare and Cooper also realize it’s somewhat apropos to their songwriting approach. Free of band politics, free of clutter, this is music that simply exists, breathing as it unfolds and demonstrating that a good song needn’t be a platform for letting out your vanities.

Maybe that’s why Ultimate Painting have been so productive, releasing one solid album every year since forming in 2014. Observer recently talked to Cooper and Hoare about keeping their musical relationship conducive to being both easygoing and productive, the importance of knowing when a song is finished, and why The Rolling Stones have tried to write the life and tragic death of their founder, the late Brian Jones, out of music history.

I thought a cool place to start might be your name. Last summer I covered an exhibit at this place called The Walker Arts Center, “Hippie Modernism: The Struggle For Utopia.” Their whole thing was that Tim Leary’s “Turn on, Tune in, Drop Out” was really an arc that we could take to remove ourselves from normal society, a refusal. You turn on with drugs, religion or technology. Then you tune in by meeting other who share your views or lifestyle or philosophies. Then you drop out by removing yourself entirely and starting a new way of life. That’s where Drop City comes into this for me. Ultimate Painting being one of their more widely known works as a collective, why did you pick that as your band name? Was it an aesthetic decision, a comment on culture or lifestyle?

Jack Cooper: I went to see a documentary about Drop City, and that period in history really resonates with both of us. The period when everything seemed possible in the ’60s, before it kind of got reigned in. The attitude of the people involved in that commune was really inspiring, especially with the art that they were making, because it was purely for them. I suppose it was sort of a microcosm of the ’60s really, because it was fairly idyllic, and then after the Summer of Love people started hearing about Drop City, and would make pilgrimages to get involved with it, and their original ethos was watered down.

Maybe the same pure component to the music that you make, the simplicity of it, the baroque romanticism…maybe the same thing happened to that music at some point. Someone pissed in the water of the pastoral pop band, Bert Jansch and Pentangle or Roy Harper. Maybe people can’t make music like that anymore. 

Cooper: I think when we started we were in other bands that were an ongoing concern. We were on a path with other bands, and this started as a way of us being friends, purely for us. But a lot of bands really start like that, and it’s almost like as soon as other people hear it or it gets pressed as a record it becomes something else entirely. People are interested in booking shows for you and it stops being, I guess…

Fun?

Cooper: [laughs] Well, elements of fun are removed from it when that happens, for sure, but other things present themselves that are also fun.

I like the idea that being in a band doesn’t have to be a calculated obligation. I’m hearing Ultimate Painting was your guys’ refuge from that, insofar as how you met and how you work together? Is that were the looseness comes from? A conscious decision to not be so meticulous?

James Hoare: It could be a backlash against the way you have to work with certain people? Because even recording these days in the studio, often people will make you do countless takes of things and you’ll edit vocal takes culled from 50 different tapes you’ve got. I don’t really like doing that, and it’s the same with recording—I quite like writing songs in the studio, and I like when bands do that. My favorite stuff is the Beach Boys stuff and the Beatles stuff. The records I like, at least, they never even played the songs live, you know?

Well The Beatles stopped playing live in ’66.

Hoare: Exactly, and the great Beach Boys records? Maybe the touring band played a bit of the stuff, but they were probably just playing “California Girls” or “Fun Fun Fun”. There is definitely an appeal [to] the looseness of being able to write stuff, and as soon as you have the idea, record it straight away. Not have to rely on loads of other people getting together and going to a rehearsal space. That’s why a lot of songs don’t even have endings, they just fade out, and I like that because you don’t even know. When we did the basic track there’s no conclusive ending, you just fade out.

But to the contrary, you guys really aren’t mired in that studio-level wizardry or intricacy. These are very warm, simple songs, simple moments. In the modern landscape of pop music, that itself is an act of defiance. These songs could have been more complicated if you wanted them to be, but I get the sense that’s not what you’re driving toward. You’re not overloading these songs with theremin and animal noises.

Hoare: Yeah, I think the simplicity is something that we talked about from day one, and the recording set-up that I have in my flat where we’re sitting now, where we record everything, is old-fashioned and lends itself well to those ideas of working, I guess. So they work well. Our initial ideas before we recorded were [to] strip things back, have a minimal approach and use less instrumentation, let the songs speak for themselves. That’s helped us come up with a sound.

Ultimate Painting

Ultimate Painting.

Let’s talk about that sound a bit. Pitchfork likes to mention Yo La Tengo, totally fair I guess. I could mention Belle & Sebastian as far as U.K. centered, sunnier pop music is concerned, but that doesn’t do you guys justice either. Dusk is different. It’s not dark or morose per se, but it sounds a little more somber, and I hesitate to say this, but a little more British? More pastoral? What was the aim here as opposed to previous records?

Cooper: It’s very much a product of its environment. James has [that] studio in his bedroom, the bedroom has these big bay windows on the front that look out onto a leafy, pastoral scene. Up to now we’ve only ever recorded in the autumn, that’s how it’s gone so far. Every day we meet up, get coffee, walk through the park, come back and start working. It’s very much a product of that English…

That’s what I’m feeling. “Skippool Creek” is almost a very chill answer to The Small Faces’ “Itchycoo Park”. Is Skippool Creek a real place?

Cooper: Yeah, Skippool Creek feeds into the River Wyre, which is where I’m from up in the North of England.

Hoare: I can hear what you’re saying as well about the Britishness of this as opposed to the other two, where I can hear some more American influences, although we probably weren’t doing so intentionally.

Is that where the “Song For Brian Jones” comes in? It’s sort of your most upfront, paisley song on the album. Was it just a matter of that it sounded like an old lost Brian Jones song?

Hoare: No, I read a book about Brian Jones and always really liked him. I’ve always held The Stones at arms length. I like some of their late ’60s records, you know, and I really like the singles he did. I really think they shafted him, and they tried to write him out of history, really. I read that Keith Richards book and that really made me mad. I was in Switzerland and wrote the song really quickly about it.

Our songs are always things we just write, then put together and try to make the whole thing make sense as some cohesive thing. But I felt quite strongly about Brian Jones, and I really respect his instrumentation and what he gave The Stones, you know? I do think he’s being written out of history by those guys.

That seems to happen too much in psychedelic music. The real Floyd fans know Syd Barrett, oranges on his eyes as he walks across the countryside tripping. But Roger Waters, whether you love him or not, tried to do that to Syd. But it’s kind of ugly to talk about how Brian Jones died, maybe they leave him out for convenience?

Cooper: Yeah, there’s a certain amount of embarrassment with how they treated him, and I think it’s easier for them to say he was kind of a loose canon or not a particularly nice guy, because it justifies how they were really callous with him. And he really is what made that band interesting. After he died they obviously went on to make some good records.

But he was the spark.

Cooper: Yeah, after [that] they essentially just became a blues band.

Hoare: Yeah, and very quickly became boring. But I agree with what Jack was saying. They realized that their behavior was atrocious, so they justified it by making claims about him and trying to justify what they did, really.

You guys really seem to understand each other as musicians. Maybe that’s something learned from your past projects and knowing what needed to be different about this friendship and this collaboration, like we talked about, but with each of your records you also become harder to distinguish and tell apart, for the better. Each record sounds like more of a blending of your instruments, your rhythms, your vibes. Is that something you had to work toward, or was it just something that came naturally?

Cooper: It wasn’t necessarily a conscious decision, but it’s certainly something that’s interesting to me. It’s cool because you’re not the first person to have said that, even my wife says that she finds it hard to figure out which is my song and which is James’ song. There’s just two of us, so it’s easier to figure it out with just one other person. But it’s weird, we’re kind of merging as far as the way we write is concerned. I don’t know if it’s me going further over to James or him going further over to me, it’s very ambiguous.

You guys could play bachelorette parties! The package deal. Cougars would eat that up. Let’s talk about “Lead the Way”, because it’s very catchy and the main hook comes up again just for a second at the tail end of the record. Just something I wondered about.

Cooper: On the first two records we tried to tie it all in by having reprises. I think on this one we were trying to not do that as much, but for some reason…

Hoare: We’ve always liked when records have little snippets of songs, a motif or something you hear in something you’ve heard earlier. Maybe that song has something in it lyrically, a message that we’d like the rest of the record to have, or at least a feeling.

Cooper: That’s one I hope people pick up on. When we recorded it, that was the one we had to work a little more at because we both knew it was really good and needed a bit more attention. The couple of people we’ve spoken to about the record so far have picked up on that song, so that’s good.

In any creative work, when you’re making something that has a lot of potential, that’s all the more reason to spend a bit more time on it. It’s the same for me—if I’m working on a story of great consequence or impact I’ll want to spend a bit more time on it to make sure everything is extra polished. It’s a craft, you build these things. And that’s different from production, maybe people forget that.

Hoare: Yeah, and knowing when something’s finished is an important skill as well. Some songs or pieces of art come really easy and some don’t, but it’s about knowing when something’s done.