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Steve Gunn + Mike Cooper: Pony Blues

Two guitar virtuosos collaborate through RVNG for a Portugal-inspired session, and a Thai ghost story emerges

by Nara Shin
on 05 August 2014
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Cult label RVNG's conceptual 12-inch series FRKWYS (pronounced "freakways") pairs young contemporary musicians with groundbreaking predecessors. As there are no limitations on creation, anything can happen—like percussionist David Van Tieghem musically responding to a bulletin board of objects carefully chosen by others. Now in its 11th edition, the latest FRKWYS release pairs guitarist and singer-songwriter Steve Gunn (a former bandmate of Kurt Vile's but whose solo albums stand firm on their own) with folk-blues guitar legend Mike Cooper (developing a taste for the avant-garde, and Hawaiian shirts, over time). The album Cantos de Lisboa not only bridges different generations, but also represents ties across many borders: Brooklyn-based Gunn and Rome-based Cooper met and recorded in Portugal, and the music video debut for the track "Pony Blues" was made in Thailand.

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Calling himself a "latecomer" to Cooper's work, RVNG label head Matt Werth tells CH, "When I finally did discover Mike’s music, it was in the form of 1970’s Trout Steel and 2004’s Rayon Hula. Made nearly 25 years apart, Trout Steel is as close to fringe folk perfection as it gets, while Rayon Hula bears experimental qualities well ahead of its time. Living with those two Cooper albums for several years and getting deeper into Steve Gunn’s music again (Steve and I lived in Philadelphia for a good period of time and even played music together), the lineage of both artists working in traditional folk and avant modes seemed to align perfectly. Both artists are also world class improvisers, which always benefits a FRKWYS collaboration." Referencing Fado, the beloved cultural music of Portugal tinged with late night melancholy, in their improvised recording sessions, Gunn and Cooper express the inexplicable and untranslatable through their acoustic and lap steel guitars—sometimes exotic, sometimes tense, but always meditative.

This theme of narrative across cultures resonates in their "Pony Blues" music video (which debuts today) in which lush Thailand greenery is a surprising contrast against the bluesy instrumental track. "When I first heard 'Pony Blues,' which is itself a Delta blues standard, I pictured a lot of themes I had been drawing from Southern Gothic stories in film and television—the films by the Coen brothers, and the first season of True Detective as prime examples," Chiang Mai, Thailand-based director Champ Ensminger tells CH. "Then I thought, how can we execute a story that draws on that attitude from an Eastern perspective? And I realized, here in Thailand where there is a spirit house in every building and some of the scariest horror movies you've ever seen, the answer was right in front of me."

The connection rural Thais have to the spirit world is akin to the spirituality of the American South.

"The connection rural Thais have to the spirit world is akin to the spirituality of the American South, particularly in how their established religions mix with local folklore. And they both have their own ghost stories—tales of the more malicious spirits told through oral tradition—to scare young people from going into the woods." The "Pony Blues" music video retells the story of one ghost in particular, called the Phi Ma Bong, which transforms into a beautiful man or woman with the features of a horse in order to lure travelers into the woods. "I wanted to show that these narratives of different cultures don't conflict, but rather resonate their common themes into some very visceral storytelling," Ensminger says.

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Ensminger was careful to match the visual narrative to the song's continuously building sonic tensions. "For almost seven minutes, [Pony Blues] shows no sign of resolving," describes Ensminger. "It was important to make sure the pace of the ghost story was a visual manifestation of this tension. The boy is doomed by his curiosity of the girl, and we as the audience are just as eager as he is to find out what she looks like, so we are led deeper and deeper into the woods with him without anything to pull us back."

Support the retroactive fundraising campaign for the music video production costs and score gear from RVNG and more in return. Steve Gunn & Mike Cooper's FRKWYS Vol. 11: Cantos de Lisboa is also available for $10-$12 via RVNG's online shop.

Image of Steve Gunn and Mike Cooper courtesy of Luis Martins, music video production image courtesy of Jay Santiphap

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