Shane Cooper and I are sitting at a park in Woodstock while his dog, a ‘chowpei’ called TigerLilly, bundles around freely and excitedly. In person, Card On Spokes lives up to his reputation as one of the most authentic personalities in the South African musical landscape: real, honest, and also genuinely kind. We’re talking about his roots, which lie in one of South Africa’s sleepiest cities, Port Elizabeth.
‘It was a cool place to grow up. Me and my friends would skate everywhere and walk and hitchhike. It was super easy to get to the beach, and we would hang out there. Everything was close and PE is super friendly. The way people describe Cape Town as cliquey – PE is not like that.’
Reared on his parents’ hippy-inflected mix of Joni Mitchell, The Beatles, Van Morrison and Leonard Cohen, music and art have been in Shane’s lifeblood from childhood. His father and mother were both painters at a stage and the house was a fertile environment for creative expression. Shane himself was something of a prodigy – though you’ll never hear him admit to that. The seeds for what would become a fruitful, rewarding, and thus-far lifelong relationship with music were sewn in that house in Walmer. ‘Art was never considered not-an-option as something to pursue,’ he tells me.
It’s been just over five years to the day since Shane Cooper officially announced himself to the world as Card On Spokes, with his demo EP In You Go. Almost exactly a year after that he was awarded the 2013 Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Jazz, although he tries to keep his jazz world and his Card On Spokes world distinct. In the years since then he has managed to build a career and a living for himself out of music, both as a double-bass playing jazz musician and as an electronic artist who has swiftly become one of the most dynamic and exciting in the country – although highly underappreciated.
We are chatting in the wake of the release of As We Surface, the fourth CoS EP. He is calm and direct, choosing his words wisely but never displaying the vaguest hint of reticence. There is a touch of reflectiveness about him today: this album marks yet another venture further into a sound that draws from multitudinous influences yet is uniquely his own, and there is a quiet sense of looking back on the journey that has taken him here.
He moved to Cape Town as soon as he finished school to study jazz, but his older brother’s influence meant he was already well-versed in the world of cutting-edge electronic music. For him, the gold standards of that sound belonged to the houses of Warp, Ninja Tune and African Dope, with the latter being one of his greatest influences. Once he finished his jazz degree he found himself with time, and that time turned into In You Go.
Shane describes the difference between acoustic jazz and electronic music as being like the difference between improvisational theatre and animation.
But even before that, he spent hours fooling around on his father’s laptop with pirated software, as he was recently reminded when he came across a piece of his own lineage. ‘I went through a Spring clean the other day and I found a whole bunch of old ripped CDs that I have of stuff I made from when I was in high school,’ he tells me. His moniker back then? Beetroot Mothertongue. ‘I never released anything, I just played it to my homies. We would hang out and listen to it and get stoned and whatever. I’ve got a bunch of these tracks that are on different discs, and I was listening to them the other night at my place while drinking whiskey. It was really cool to go back to it because I hadn’t listened to it in a long time. It was really sincere stuff. At that time it was not well-produced or anything but it was very experimental. It had all had beats but it was quite trippy stuff, and introspective.’
Shane describes the difference between acoustic jazz and electronic music as being like the difference between improvisational theatre and animation. As We Surface is a particularly finely-crafted work of the latter, the mark of someone who gives most of his time toward perfecting his art and his craft. He is professional, but being that in the local context isn’t always easy.
What it comes down to is that everyone’s struggling around the world, Capitalism is not working out for anyone except the rich.
‘This is my quietest Summer ever in Cape Town,’ he tells me. ‘It’s an exciting time creatively but I’m scared too. We’ve lost a lot of venues in both spheres. In terms of jazz we lost Straight No Chaser and Tagores and for all genres we lost Assembly. Joburg’s doing ok at the moment but there’s no new places popping up. ’ True to form, he’s straightforward in his assessment of why this is. ‘What it comes down to is that everyone’s struggling around the world, Capitalism is not working out for anyone except the rich. I think it’s a worldwide thing, I know all my friends living abroad are having similar struggles.’ There is no bitterness in his tone though. Not for a minute of our hour-long conversation does he sound even slightly bereft of hope.
His commitment – to music, to art, to collaboration, to hope – is perhaps best exemplified on ‘They Don’t Care About Us’, the second track off As We Surface. It’s the third track he’s done with TheCITY singer Bonj Mpanza – ‘a very symbiotic creative relationship,’ he terms it – and it marks a departure for their work together in its political content. ‘Bonj wrote the lyrics in solidarity with the #FeesMustFall movement. It’s also, for a larger picture, in solidarity with the Marikana miners and their families, and a very big discussion that’s taking place in South Africa now. She went with her heart and I was behind her, it was an important message for us to communicate.’
There are other new steps on this EP. It is the first time that he has included horns in his production, with Marcus Wyatt on ‘Faded Pictures’ and Shabaka Hutchings (of Sons of Kemet fame) on ‘As We Surface’. ‘Overall with this EP I wanted to include a lot more live instrumentation. And it’s a step that I’m going to delve even further into on the next one, more and more. I love the process so much because it’s the world I’ve always lived in: a space of live musicians and the three-dimensional feeling of being in a room with the drum kit in the corner and the bass amp on the left. I love trying to translate that into my electronic music and create that depth. Everyone’s got a million plug-ins and all these software tools that start to sound the same. But when you’re manipulating acoustic sounds they’ve got so much personality and character. Every double bass is different, every drum kit is different. I like cheap and nasty instruments sometimes. Like a shit, fucked-up guitar – it can sound amazing. Then you tweak it and sample it and turn it into things.’
Shane has a holistic view of his artistry, exemplified by his recent turn to painting. The As We Surface artwork was painted by him, one in a series of impressionistic paintings he’s created in the last year. He has no grand designs on gallery shows in New York – this is something personal, a way of creating art removed from commerce and finding a way for that free-roaming creativity to feed back into his music.
All of it feeds into the same process which, as Card On Spokes, is ultimately about endlessly trying to turn his fluid, but considered, philosophy into something that can get people dancing and dreaming – hopefully both at the same time. ‘It’s one thing being a fan of that, dance music, dancing; it’s another thing understanding how to create it. Finding a balance of putting in the very imaginative things that inspire your mind and take you on a narrative journey, all on top of a bed of really dancefloor-centric music which can move a dancer in a crowd. I’m constantly trying to learn new ways to do both those things at once.’
Card On Spokes is performing this weekend at the inaugural Muse All Weekend Festival at Colorbox Studios in Cape Town, alongside NYC’s house royalty Monique Bingham, gqom king DJ Lag (as part of his nationwide EP Launch tour), Joburg’s DJ Kenzhero, Floyd Lavine, Paul Waxon, Fever Trails and so many more… More info here and tickets here.
In the mean time, indulge in Card On Spokes’ latest gorgeous music video for the Boiler Room-premiered EP single, ‘Impala Parlour / Journey to Life’: