How Ian Cooke Created the Year's Most Ambitious Denver Album
Ian Cooke (left) and his band have just released a new album.
Painting by Heather Reynolds
Ian Cooke pauses and chuckles when asked where his musical career might be right now if he had never met friend and longtime collaborator Ian O’Dougherty. “I think I may have gone to California and tried to score films,” he guesses. “Singing and songwriting was always something I was planning on doing, but I wasn’t quite ready until I met Ian.”
To date, Cooke and O’Dougherty have collaborated on five albums. Together with bassist Whit Sibley and drummer Sean Merrell (the foursome performs collectively as Ian Cooke), they recently released their most ambitious effort to date: Antiquasauria, a concept record about dinosaurs. It’s lush, unique and historically and scientifically accurate, and it represents a new level of ambition in the creative collaboration between the two Ians.
In his younger years, Cooke had a hard time fitting in. A classically trained pianist and cellist, he struggled with the lessons imposed upon him by his teachers.
“I always had my problems throughout school,” he says. “I always wanted to play the Cranberries on my cello as opposed to Mozart. My parents always encouraged me to experiment and go outside the assignments, but my problem was that I didn’t want to do the assignments at all. I always wanted to do my own thing.”
Inspired by chamber-pop groups like Rasputina, Cooke began to compose his own music, writing songs and recording them on a tape recorder. Unsure of himself or his talent, however, the only place he performed the songs was in his own bedroom, and he put the resulting tapes away in a bag that he’s kept to this day.
After high school, Cooke attempted to give the classical route another go and enrolled in the music program at the University of Northern Colorado. Unfortunately, his appreciation of classical music (or lack thereof) had not changed much, and his studies began to wear on him.
“I failed my orchestra audition,” he says. “I couldn’t do what they wanted, like the six hours of practice. It became an awful chore instead of something I enjoyed.”
At the same time that Cooke’s interest was waning, a short drive down I-25, in Denver, O’Dougherty (who was playing with the band Uphollow at the time) was feeling similarly discouraged.
“All of Uphollow’s gear was stolen the night after playing the Bluebird and the night before a six-week tour,” says O’Dougherty. “We borrowed gear from people, but the shows were terrible, because it was like wearing someone else’s clothes. It was just devastating. That gear was our livelihood. We all put school on hiatus to do the band thing. After we got back, we just split up. I didn’t touch a guitar for, like, six months. I was trying to do film and screenwriting in Los Angeles and then eventually moved to Australia.”
While in Australia, O’Dougherty gradually became inspired to write music again and bought two guitars: an electric and an acoustic. After yet another burglary robbed him of his electric guitar, he was forced to rely on the acoustic, writing slower and more somber music than Uphollow had traditionally played. As he continued to write and play, he began to hear spaces for other instruments.
“Everything I heard was either pedal-steel stuff or cello,” he says. “Originally, it was a solo album, but it ended up being Uphollow’s Ten Fingers album.”
Although the group had called it quits months earlier, O’Dougherty had kept in touch with his former bandmates and began to send tapes of his ideas to Sibley, who was living in Europe at the time, taking part in his own musical exile. Both musicians were heavily influenced by Built to Spill’s Perfect From Now On and the cello played on it, and they conjured up an idea to re-form Uphollow when they returned to the States and to reimagine the fast, punk-inspired music they had once played together. First, though, they would need a cellist.
Steeped in the rock and punk worlds, neither O’Dougherty nor Sibley knew anyone who could play the instrument, so they placed an ad on MusicMates.com seeking a cellist. Cooke, bored and living with his parents in Greeley, responded.
He and O’Dougherty immediately hit it off. They had plenty of things to talk about, including Australia (Cooke was born there), a love of Kids in the Hall and, of course, music. O’Dougherty enlisted Cooke to play cello in Uphollow, but he had no idea what an undiscovered songwriting gem his new friend was.
“Cooke’s personality was very different at that point,” says O’Dougherty. “He was painfully shy, and we didn’t know anything about him, really. We knew that he was an artist and that he liked Björk and that he could play whatever we asked him to play.”
As Cooke became more comfortable in his surroundings, he began to unveil some of the songs he had written alone in his room. His contributions, including songs like “Monster” and “Sleeping Bag,” which were eventually featured on Uphollow’s 2005 album, Jackets for the Trip, impressed and surprised his bandmates. The strength of Cooke’s songs gave O’Dougherty pause, making him wonder if what Uphollow was doing was best for all of them.
“[Cooke] started showing us these songs, and we were so excited,” says O’Dougherty. “We now had three songwriters. Sometimes that can be a very good thing to have, and sometimes it can be bad. For Fleetwood Mac, it was great. For the Beatles, it was arguable, and for us, I don’t think it was great. Still, though, [Jackets for the Trip] was the best thing we ever did, but it was like we were more of a collective and less of a band. It was apparent that we needed to give Cooke his own vessel. We knew that a whole album of Cooke songs would just be better than what we were doing.”
While Uphollow continued to play shows, Cooke began writing music at a feverish pace, this time performing his songs as a solo artist instead of condemning them to the demo bag. O’Dougherty, Sibley and former Uphollow drummer Justin Ferreira were supportive of his new journey, and in 2007, with the help of current drummer Merrell, they helped him record and release his first solo record, The Fall I Fell.
The album was a mesmerizing journey into chamber-pop mastery and featured lyrics about Cooke’s self-discovery, not only as a burgeoning songwriter, but also as a gay man. It also marked a new chapter in O’Dougherty and Sibley’s musical careers as they shifted their focus fully to the newly formed band.
“The first time we played as a band was at the release show for The Fall I Fell,” O’Dougherty remembers. “We recorded the album and said, ‘Well, here’s the band that played on the album,’ and we’ve just made it more of a band gradually since then.”
The group (Ian Cooke) followed up The Fall I Fell with 2011’s Fortitude; on that album, the four musicians began to experiment with prog-rock time signatures as Cooke’s lyrics became less personal and more steeped in fantasy. Initial attempts to give his sound a brighter pop sheen were abandoned in favor of a pursuit of high art and loftier themes.
“The song ‘Kingdom’ always stood out as the song that best defined us [on Fortitude],” says O’Dougherty. “That was also the song that had a reference to a Quetzalcoatlus. It’s about an imaginary kingdom where [the dinosaur] wants to live, and we thought, this fantasy-prog-rock thing is working, so let’s explore that.”
Defying convention and traditional subject matter, Cooke, a self-proclaimed science geek, began to write songs about his favorite dinosaurs, which led to the creation of Antiquasauria, which was released earlier this month on the Greater Than Collective imprint. O’Dougherty served as the record’s producer.
Antiquasauria, which comes with a custom-made coloring book, follows the stories of eight dinosaurs, ranging from classics like Stegosaurus and T. rex to lesser-knowns like Polycotylus and, yes, Quetzalcoatlus. Cooke’s lyrics deliver scientifically accurate facts about each creature while still rhyming and sounding poetic. For example, on “Diplodocus,” he sings, ‘Ventral double rail: chevron bone array. Run along coachwhip tail: caudal vertebrae.’”
Aware that the lyrics were in danger of becoming, as he puts it, “too science-y” at times, Cooke focused on ways to put sentiment and feeling into the record.
“I wanted to give them all human qualities,” he says. “I wanted to make the listeners relate to the characters. ‘Cassowary & Fruit Bat’ [from Fortitude] was another song that gave human qualities to an animal. That song helped lead us here, as well. We wanted music that was okay for kids but not exclusively for them.”
In the song “Tyrannosaurus,” Cooke tells the tale of “the darling of carnivores” suffering an ankle infection and eventually perishing. He goes on to compare the beast to a monument, singing, “My skeleton stands dominant in Chicago,” a reference to Sue the T. rex, the largest and most complete T. rex skeleton ever found. Sue resides at Chicago’s Field Museum, and the band has plans to visit her.
“The idea is to do a museum tour and do educational stuff at museums around the country,” says O’Dougherty, who also works as the band’s manager. “We could do shows in conjunction with [museums], or just there. It’s an untapped market, and it’s exciting, but it’s really difficult. I’ve talked to the person at the Field Museum on the phone, but...what are we, and what do we offer? It’s hard to say.”
Cooke and O’Dougherty both know that a concept album about dinosaurs isn’t the easiest sell, and planning shows at museums and getting away from the noisy bar scene has proven difficult. But the pursuit of music that they love and believe in is their highest priority right now, regardless of where it finds an audience.
“Listeners are always willing to take the chance; businesspeople are not,” O’Dougherty points out. “We want to make art and will continue to do so. In general, I think, culturally, we’re not taking chances right now. We surround ourselves with sounds we are already comfortable with. I think this album is going to take time. It’s a dense and challenging album, and I think it will take a while for people to hear it and get it. The people we want to be our audience, we want them to be like us.”
For Cooke, whose current musical journey began the day he responded to O’Dougherty’s classified ad, the focus is on what’s next.
“We had talked about volume two and the next stage of dinosaur songs,” he says. “We thought, ‘Now that we’ve done this once and we’re on this new path, maybe doing this again will be more successful.’ We’re still trying to see how this is going.
“I often think maybe I should just try and be [a visual] artist instead, but there are equal and equivalent obstacles for that; it’s just as hard to be creative in another field. I don’t know — I guess I’m always doubting myself. But I have Ian O. to keep pushing me to follow through.”
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