5 August 2000 -- On Friday 28th July, Cockburn was interviewed by telephone by Brian Elie from KMUD Radio in Garberville, California. He was due to play a concert the next night at the Mateel Community Center in Redway (see poster on left - click for setlist and report). This interview was transcribed by Bobbi Wisby.
Brian Elie: Let's talk a little bit about your new record [Editor's note: Breakfast In New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu] and Colin Linden and John Wynot who put it together with you. Tell us about how that process went.
BC: Well it was typical of how we usually make records. Colin and I, as co-producers, got together and figured out who we wanted to play on it. What sort of musical approach would suit the songs and -- I mean, I already had a pretty good idea of that, I usually do -- but there's that sort of discussion -- then we confirmed that we were able to get John Wynot, who you mentioned was the engineer, and you know, moved from there. There's the matter of finding a studio, getting everybody together in the same place at the same time and then playing the music.
When it comes down to the actual recording, our procedure is to do as much of it live as possible. Most of the vocals that you hear, in fact all of them, the lead vocals are live off the floor as the band plays, basically. The occasional fix here and there. When you get a really good take with one bad note in it and so on. We try for the 'livest' possible performances and once that's done, Colin and I will take the tapes off to some little studio somewhere and do the overdubs and that's the way we been doing that for the last couple of albums.
You know, we'll go into a little rehearsal studio that doesn't cost anything. Just give ourselves unlimited time and, well, I guess no time is unlimited, is it? But at least time free of budgetary constraints anyway and work on guitar overdubs or any harmony vocals that we want to add and those kinds of things. So, at that point you would have people like Margo Timmins or Lucinda Williams come in and do their bits.
Brian Elie: Alright, well it sounds quite layered and obviously it sounds like you layered it when you built it.
BC: Well, it's not really layered. It's just people playing the music, right?
You get bass, and drums and percussion and guitar and in some cases, keyboard together and everybody plays the song, that's so, if that's layering... then it's layered.
Then I will then sometimes add lead guitar parts, sometimes color things that we think of after the fact. So, in that sense, I suppose, but when you say layering I usually think of the kind of sound, like a Steely Dan kind of sound where there's really really carefully thought out ingredients and elements that are put together one layer at a time... you know first the rhythm section and then somebody else and somebody else and so on.
So, you have total control over every note that happens, and we don't like to operate that way. We tend to want something more spontaneous than that.
Brian Elie: Well, let's talk about world travel. You've travelled all over the world playing music, seeing what's going on. You're always commenting on what's going on, and Canada is somewhat a conservative country although somewhat liberal. What's it like to be a Canadian travelling around the world and then being outspoken about what you see?
BC: [laughs] "What's it like to be a human being living in the world?" you know, I mean, it's... [pause]. Actually, the significant thing about being Canadian is that we're not a world power. We are kind of in the American sphere but we're not America. So people don't have to resent us the same way as they might an American presence. Nor do they envy us the same way they envy Americans, nor do they want our money as badly.
So, in the situation where, where people are in need of money or where there are greedy elites and so on, we just aren't as much of a player as the United States. So as individual Canadians travelling around - we're less subject to all the baggage that that carries with it, so I don't know that, that makes a difference, really.
I mean, I met Americans abroad who are doing great charitable work and other Americans who are exploiters. There are Canadian companies out there exploiting things. We got oil companies exploiting the violence in Sudan, you know, making what they can of the trouble in Nigeria and so on. We all are in there with everybody else, but but to a lesser degree perhaps just because we're a smaller nation economically and populationwise, but I've been lucky enough to be able to get involved with a lot of development related works that other people are doing that I get to help them out with the publicity for, so that has afforded the opportunity to travel to some pretty interesting places in a way that's very different from being a tourist or and very different from being on tour in a musical way, so you get to see a bit of an inside view of things and travel in some out of the way places that you wouldn't normally run across.
Brian Elie: Well, a few years ago you went to Mali and made a film there called River of Sand. Can you tell talk a little bit about that?
BC: Yeah, River of Sand... I was approached by the director, a guy named Bob Lang, who I'd worked with in some other kind of minor ways in the past. So I knew him and he said, "Do you want to go to Timbuktu?" [laughs].
I said, "Sure," you know, "what's the deal?" and he said, "Well, I've got this idea that I'm trying to put together and I wanted to find out if you were interested first." Of course, I was. So, it remained for him to flesh it out and get it organised and so on. Which took him about a year to do. And then, all the sudden, it was on... this film-making excursion to Mali. And we spent about a month there filming.
As you said, it's called River of Sand. The premise, the point of the film is to expose the issue of desertification, which is defined by -- your listeners probably know this -- but in case they don't, it's defined by the UN as the degradation of arid land into actual desert. Going from land that's usable by human beings and to land that isn't usable by human beings and this is a problem that's happening all over the world. But it's particularly noticable and and particularly severe in all the countries that border the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, of which Mali is one.
So, we were going to go there and, through connections with the development community, we were able to go into small villages and see how people are dealing with their problem. And some villages are dealing with it really well and the people we spent most of our time with were working among that group. Other villages weren't doing so well with it and were having a very difficult time. And this, even with the people who are doing well, there's the sense of the precariousness of things. If they had two bad years in a row, they're dead, you know. There's no margin for error, there's no margin for bad luck in a situation like this. But we made a interesting little film that doesn't go deeply into the topic but is a sort of workable introduction to it, I think.
And it also happens to have a lot of great music in it because Mali is, as -- again, your listeners probably know this -- is the home of people like Ali Farka Toure and Toumani Diabate, any number of incredible singers and players of instruments. And we got to hook up with some, the two people I just mentioned, and another guy named Nasourou Sare for the film. So there's footage of me playing with these people and so on. And a lot of the music that I and Toumani Diabate play together ends up as the sound track to the film. So, it's not your average didactic kind of development film, it's quite interesting.
Brian Elie: Did you enjoy playing with those guys?
BC: Oh, very much, yeah! Especially Toumani Diabate. He's a incredible musician. He plays the kora, that's what gave me the idea of using cora on the album. We couldn't get Toumani Diabate to do it, but we were able to get Daniel Janke, who's a Canadian kora player, who did a fine job. So that was a, that was a very rich and rewarding trip in all kinds of ways.
Brian Elie: All right. Well one of the listeners just called in and I was handed a note... I am not familiar with this, but they asked to, that, I ask you about a documentary film you did called "Link"?
BC: Called what?
Brian Elie: "Link"
BC: Never heard of it!
Brian Elie: Never heard of it? Okay. Well then we'll go on to something else. Let me ask you about the notion that art reflects what's really going on out in the world. And certainly that is true of your music, I'd have to say. But what do you think about that notion that the artist really tell us what's going on in the world?
BC: Well. I think, it's... [pause] ...the way I view it, the job of art is to speak the truth as the artist understands it, whatever truth is important to the artist and whatever appears to be true to the artist. Which necessarily makes it a subjective thing. Then it depends on what orientation the artist has and, to some extent, what medium you're working in and it happens in songs that it's possible sometimes to get pretty close to describing things as they are. Sometimes that seems like the right thing to do. Sometimes you wanna be dreamier about things but a lot of the time I have found myself writing what is basically reportage. I'm trying to describe scenes in a vivid way that will make them live for people. Depending on how you put those scenes together sometimes they add up to a [chuckles] editorial comment, a judgement on what's going on. Of course not being a journalist and then therefore not having to lie and pretend that I'm objective.
Brian Elie: It's an advantage.
BC: [laugh] I can go ahead and be as emotional as I want about things and usually the situations that trigger a song are situations that produce a strong emotional response in me and it's incredibly moving... the beauty of a landscape, or whether it's a tragedy in peoples lives or some way in which people are suffering, that there are all kinds of ways in which you can be moved. Therefore, there are all kinds of songs waiting to be written [laughs].
Brian Elie: Well, let's go back a bit to a song you wrote called Call It Democracy, talking about the International Monetary Fund and then we move ahead 15 years later and the World Trade Organization and what happened in Seattle. It's almost a prophecy in a way... 15 years earlier, the way you wrote -- let's talk a little bit about that, if you would.
BC: [laughs] Well I don't know if -- I'm glad you said "almost" because I'm not quite sure I wanna be guilty of prophecy at this point in my life -- although that's a call somebody else can make I suppose. But that situation has been going on for a long time, it's crystallized more in recent years. The song Call It Democracy talks about the exploitation of people in the Third World by us basically through the agency of the IMF and other similar organisations which exist.
Supposedly, in terms of the propaganda we're fed, that these organisations exist to help people in the Third World, but the people they help are the small elites that run countries at the expense of everybody else and that have historically been destructive enviromentally and in terms of human rights and everything else. So, in the early 80's when I was first getting to understand these relationships, I found myself among people frequently who were the victim of this relationship, of this [unintelligetable] economic relationship. And I was inspired to write that song out of getting to know those people.
This situation's crystallized from that, it's much more sophisticated and much more entrenched now. In those days [laughs] it was all about, "saving the world for democracy," you know? You had to exploit these people and suppress this other nationalist tendency in this people and so on, in order to save the world for democracy and keep the Soviet empire down. Well, that's no longer an issue...
Brian Elie: [laughs]
BC: ...in fact, to the point when you don't even hear people talking about democracy any more [laughs]. I mean, we who supposedly hold it so dear. The only people who say the word, "democracy," any more seem to be the people in the streets of Seattle or DC, you know, protesters.
So, the powers that be don't have to use that rhetoric. They don't have to bullshit anybody any more, they just say, "Well, we're out here to make lots of money." And they've convinced us all that gambling on the stock market, which essentially in the world has become a hugh casino, that this is desirable, that greed is the way to live and people are buying into it big time.
So it's not necessary to maintain the facade any more but, of course - as we know, there are those of us who see through that mechanism and who see the negative implications of it. And, who are not satisfied with lettings things go that way. Whether we're able to do anything very effective [laughs] to stop it, remains to be seen. But, certainly, it's comforting when you look at something like what happened in Seattle or DC or in various European venues where similar things have gone down that there is a significant resistance to the headlong rush toward this celebration of greed.
Brian Elie: Well, it seems to me that the corporations shouldn't have the same rights as individuals, that's part of the root of the problem.
BC: Well, it certainly is and, in fact, under the law they don't [laughs] -- it's just that they get away with it, you know!
Brian Elie: Yeah.
BC: I mean, corporations have charters. They're supposedly empowered by the government with permission to do what they do, and if they don't do what they do properly -- in theory at least -- that permission should be withdrawn. But we don't see too many examples of it being withdrawn. It's the flow of money, you know.
Brian Elie: Well, you have been commenting on the environment for quite sometime, of course most famously with If A Tree Falls, but way back with Gavin's Woodpile, songs like that. The environment is pretty important to you. I know you've spent a fair amount of time out in the country, so would you talk about that a little bit, if you could.
BC: Yeah, I'm worried about it. I think we're in a lot of trouble and it pains me greatly because to me the -- you know other people have said this before, but it was my own discovery too --that being in touch with nature is the closest we can get to sort of understanding, at least finding a physical manifestation of our relationship with God or with the Universe, if you want to call it that if you're uncomfortable with the "G" word [laughs]. That we as humans get so caught up in our own tribe or species concerns, that we don't always keep sight of -- in fact hardly ever keep sight of -- our relationship both as individuals and as a species with the Universe as a whole. And it's only by sort of being in nature away from the clutter and the power of humanity that we get to see where the real power is.
And when I see that nature being destroyed, which I see everywhere I look, it's disconcerting because I wonder -- looking up at the three or four stars that show in an urban night sky [laughs] and the little blades of grass that are coming up through the pavement -- what kind of vision, what kind of understanding we are going to have of our place in things if that's all we got? And it's everywhere, it's not just down to corporate greed, it's also about the numbers that we're producing of ourselves. It's about any number of factors that are not only due to human misadventure. We are a hugh contributing factor to the environmental degradation that's going on around us and it's hard to see how we're gonna stop that, really, unless our numbers become drastically reduced, and that's a sort of scary thought too...
Brian Elie: Well thanks for...
BC: ...if anybody's got an answer for it, I'd be happy to hear it [laughs].
Brian Elie: Well, thanks for constantly pointing it out to us anyway. We talked about the "G" word. I'm gonna bring up the "D" word, which is the devil. I was looking on the Internet and I'm told, at least, from reading on there, that you've pulled out "Dialogue With The Devil" and have been performing it now and again and, in fact, claiming that you just now understand the song.
Brian Elie: [laughs] Can you talk a little bit about that?
BC:Well when I wrote it, back in -- whenever it was --'73 or something. I was, you know, a much greener person. I hadn't experienced nearly as much of life as I have now, obviously. And so, you know, when it talks about, "face to face with past regrets," at the age of 20-something -- certainly for me, I mean, there are people whose lives can be filled with regret by that age -- but most of us aren't that way. I wasn't, so 30 years later there's a lot more [laughs] to look at that you could sort of go, "Oh yeah. Right. Hmmm. Could have done better there." And so it's in that sense that, that I've made the reference to finally understanding it, but it was an old song that got a lot of attention when it was new and kind of wore itself out for me.
Other songs came along, you mentioned Gavin's Woodpile, other sort of long -- what I think of as 'big songs' -- came along to replace it. Hoop Dancer, stuff like that, but it ended up sort of lying on the shelf for a long time. And then just this last year, I kind of went, "Hey, wait a minute! That's worth pullin' out and I think people would like to hear it." So we have been doing it at many shows, most of the shows during the winter, and some this round too.
Brian Elie: All right. I'll look forward to that maybe. If I may, I'd like to bring up the subject of love. It seems to me that you, you know, around humans you were, kind of felt a little burned by love, "stuck your hand in and pulled it out scorched," and now you've sort of come full circle in a way with songs like, "Great Big Love,", so talk a little bit about love for us, if you would.
BC: It's hard to say anything meaningful that hasn't already been said, and, and even that I've already said or haven't already said, but to me love is a force of nature, it's kind of like neutrinos (negative sub-atomic particles) or something, or maybe it is neutrinos! It's, it's stuff that is everywhere, pervades the universe, it's the glue that holds things together and, as such, it's something we tap into in various ways at various times. The more we tap into it, the better. For each of us, as human beings, there's a way in which we can tap into that. People find it through religion, through love with another human being, through the kindness of strangers, I mean, there's many many ways in which you can experience it, obviously, that are to the point of endless cliche, but I see it as sort of central to everything and it's not - it's not an accident that, that the Bible talks about the fact that, "God is love." But, you know, that these are, the concepts are inextricably connected. So I guess, I'll stop there! I'll quit while I'm ahead! [laughs]
Brian Elie: [laughs] OK, well, let's talk a little bit about guitar players you like and marksmanship, because, I understand you, you like to shoot bow and arrows.
BC: I've never been much of a bow shooter. I was involved in competition hand gun shooting...
Brian Elie: Oh! Okay.
BC: ...for a very long time. Although I haven't done much of it the last few years. I've been too busy and the whole scene has become kind of -- mmm -- we were able to at least kid ourselves it was an innocent sport, but it doesn't seem so innocent at this point.
So you know, it's become less fun but that's the marksmanship part of what I was doing. I'd like to be good with a bow and arrow, but I've never really got into it. I've done some other stuff too -- fenced and learned a few other sorts of skills of that sort or at least been casually exposed to them -- but at this point, I'm more interested in guitar. And there are many guitar players that I like. Bill Frisell would be one, sort of an all round really interesting musician. We just played in Seattle and they have got -- what they call the "Experience Music Project" -- that is a whole museum based on Jimi Hendrix.
Brian Elie: Right!
BC: And everything that led up to him and the things that came after that owe something to his presence. It's an enormous, fantastic building by Frank Gary. It's quite an experience to go there so
Brian Elie: Did you get to go there?
BC: Yeah! I spent about five hours there the other day.
Brian Elie: All right!
BC: And, it's [laughs] kind of... I'm so full of guitar stuff right now, you know, all, from Scotty Moore who played with Elvis and the Ventures, who were huge influences on me when were the current thing to... any number of jazz guys, and guys like Stevie Vai and Eddie Van Halen. If I had those chops I'd play like that too!
Brian Elie: [laughs]
BC: I'm a long way from being able to do that. But I kind of got my own thing, that works with my songs.
Brian Elie: Well, who do you listen to? I mean, who are you listening to right now? Who's in your CD player, in your collection currently? I know it's always changing...
BC: Yeah, it's always changing. I've got Jonatha Brooke's new album that isn't out yet, which is great [click for more information about Jonatha's new album or see other Jonatha albums onAmazon.com]. I've got -- let's see -- I've got the Platters Greatest Hits. I've got Arvo Pärt, a classical composer. I'm trying to think now. I haven't actually looked at the CDs for a few days. Not so many guitar players...
Brian Elie: Oh, really
BC: when it gets right down to it, although I listen to a fair amount of that, when it comes down to just putting music on to hear it's often not guitar music. It's stuff that I don't have to feel like I'm obliged to learn from.
Brian Elie: All right. Well it sounds like it's sort of eclectic, like KMUD.
BC: Yeah, very eclectic.
Brian Elie: Let's talk about how you have managed to blend many many different styles of music, most certainly on your new record, but all your records, but on the newest ones of late you've got a little bit of blues, you've got some African influence, and all kinds of stuff there. There's country influence... let's talk about that a little bit.
BC: Well the word eclectic just went by and that's really what that all comes down to. I'm interested in all kinds of stuff and everytime I hear anything that I'm impressed by I wanna do it too! So it all ends up, you know...
Brian Elie: [laughs]
BC: ...being in some way worked into the music, if it's something I can do at all. Things have been getting a little jazzier of late.
Brian Elie: Yes!
BC: Which I'm pleased about because you know, way back when before I was a songwriter and when I was, sort of, getting out of high school and thinking, "What am I gonna do with myself?" I thought that jazz was where I wanted to go. And it turned out not to be that, but that love has always been there. So it's kind of fun to find it turning up more in the music now.
Brian Elie: Yeah!
BC: I'm running a little short of time here. We've got this sound check to do.
Brian Elie: Okay, well I wanna thank you so much for calling on in. I'll just ask you one quick question...
Brian Elie: ...and that is, "What is happening for you in the future?"
BC: Well, I'm touring seriously up until the end of August, and then there's bits and pieces through the Fall. I'm actually involved in a collaboration with a young jazz pianist by the name of Andy Milne, who's made a couple of CDs and who has asked me about collaborating on some songs for his next album. So, after all these years of... you know... being a solitary songwriter, I'm finally doing what everybody else in the songwriting world seems to do and trying to collaborate with someone on writing. We've got one song so far that we're pretty happy with and may get a couple others. So, that's something that'll be recorded early in the new year probably, under his name, Andy Milne.
As far as my own recording plans, I'm trying to not make any because I'm going to take as much time off after all this is over, as I can. It's been going full-tilt now for a few years straight, so time for a break.
Brian Elie: All right, What do you like to do in your time off?
BC: I'm not making any plans at all. I'm gonna do what ever I think of! [laughs]
Brian Elie: One more thing I want to add. We just got an e-mail from London, England and someone was listening on the Web and they asked when your next live solo album was due out?
Brian Elie: [laughs]
BC: Next live solo album..? Well, there's never been a live solo album, so umm there's no plans to make one. So...
Brian Elie: Okay.
BC: ...you know, I can't say it won't happen but, you know, no plans.
Brian Elie: Ok, well we'll just have to go to the show on Saturday night.
BC: There you go!
Brian Elie: So, we'll see you Saturday night and wish you every success and look forward to seeing you then.
BC: Thank you very much.
Brian Elie: Thank you