James Cooper is a self-described sonic alchemist and electronic music producer of the otherworldly trio Lyokha. Specializing in a dreamy, synth-and-sample heavy style of music borne out of a close-knit but all-inclusive subculture, Cooper creates sounds as amorphous and layered as the people listen to them and the culture that surrounds them. Everyone reacts to his music in his or her own unique way, pulling from personal memory banks to connect to whatever nostalgia the music evokes, or doesn’t evoke. Is it ambient electronica? Easy-listening music? Atmospheric chill-hop? Lyokha is all of those things and none of those things; trying to define vaporwave would be akin to trying to explain the Internet (or at least the 10 percent of it that’s accessible) to someone who’s never touched a computer. You just gotta dive in and experience it for yourself. Cooper spoke with The Phoenix this week ahead of the fundraising concert for the Prism analog studio. It’s the next time locals can ride out his Internet-inspired audio waves — at the Urban Farm Fermentory on March 25th.
How did you get involved with the Prism Analog Recording studio fundraising concert and why?
Well, I found out about Prism through the grapevine of social media and was immediately interested in the project and location. Analog recording has always intrigued me, and I’ve always been interested but lacked the means and funds to acquire the expensive gear. I got ahold of Nick Johnson and went down and checked out the spot and the build-out, slapped some Sheetrock up with the boys and started following their progress. Nick asked Lyokha to play the fundraiser as we are an analog (no computers) band and feel it fits the spirit of the studio.
How do you feel about recording music entirely in the analog domain? Would you ever consider doing it?
I think there are sounds and levels of depth and warmth in analog that you can attempt to re-create digitally but only come relatively close, a lot of character and “artifacts” that really give you a certain level of limitations in the process that are focusing compared to the millions of options in Ableton or digital recording. I would (and will) definitely record in the analog domain, not just because I have never been able to in such a serious intense setting (recording noise sets to a half-broken reel-to-reel doesn’t count... or does it?) with such beautiful gear. I think Lyokha will definitely be putting out a record recorded at Prism in the future.
So what are you up to these days? Is most of your energy focused on Lyokha?
Lyokha has been my primary focus. Now that we have our feet off the ground and have played a few shows, we’re settling into some writing time and working on a full length to put out this year sometime. I have a few solo projects in the works and a few collaborations also, but I don’t wanna give too much away.
What’s the biggest misconception about vaporwave or electronic music in general?
Well, vaporwave in itself is an ever-changing, growing genre with endless subgenres. I think the biggest misconception is that there is a finite conception. The beauty of vaporwave music is that you really can make whatever the fuck you want and adopt certain aesthetics and apply visual nostalgia to music to give it more of an otherworldly feel; maybe that sounds naive, but vaporwave has become more of a culture and representation of youths interested in finding cultural identity in a world where we spend most of our consciousness glued to screens on the world of the web. Vaporwave was born on the Internet so it has no geographical bounds. It belongs to everyone and is less of a genre than an Internet sub-culture.
What’s the most challenging part of the production process for you?
Smoking just the right amount of weed to write bangers without getting distracted by the vast collection of “Malcolm in the Middle” on my computer. Nah, I mean I guess I sometimes find it challenging to put a piece down and call it final. There’s always that tweak you wanna make a week after you’ve listened 200 times, or pushing the layers till the shit’s incomprehensible and then dialing it back, and wasting time. I guess the process is always a learning experience and I try to learn something new everytime I write and mix. I try to portray and push a vibe that is accessible but new and fresh to the ears, without being too obvious.
What does the name Lyokha mean?
Lyokha was a boy who was raised by wolves in Russia. They discovered him and tried to assimilate him into society, and he ran away back to the forest and was never seen again, I guess to me that is relative to how society and people in our generation tend to feel about it.
How do crowds react to your latest EP Two? Because it doesn’t seem to lend itself much to dancing as much as it does for straight contemplation.
To be honest, I never really pay much attention to the crowd. If I look away from my gear I tend to daydream and fuck up.
To me I guess I feel refreshed playing visceral emotional wavy shit; there’s plenty of dance music around, and I usually have to get pretty tipsy to even think about dancing and not about people looking at me. I think making music you don’t have to be hammered to enjoy is nice sometimes, but I guess it’s ultimately not my goal to give anyone a particular “experience.” I think including as many aesthetic aids and visuals to a performance hopefully makes it more captivating and more of an experience, but I like to think most of the perception and ideas come from the listener being taken just a little further from their reality and having to think, especially with instrumental music.
Is there a venue in Portland that’s most conducive to the listening experience you provide?
SPACE Gallery is dope; we like lights and fog and projectors. But we also like free shows; the Jewel Box is probably my favorite place in Portland to play. So comfy and cute, ya know? And Nanl really takes care of a lot of local musicians. He puts on a lot of local talent and is always out supporting artists, and it feels more like a boiler room session than a “concert.”
What are your future plans?
A wife, kids, a dog, and maybe a big red Ford truck with mud flaps and not one but two cup holders because I like to have options.