“I never had any thoughts about writing music or singing my own songs,” says Joachim Cooder, the drummer, percussionist and producer who is the son of legendary guitarist Ry Cooder. But after the birth of his first child, the reluctant songwriter just couldn’t stop the music from coming out, resulting in his first real solo effort, Fuchsia Machu Picchu.
“The [EP] started with a plant we bought when my wife was pregnant with our daughter. It was a fuchsia Machu Picchu. We planted it in a dirt pile and I started singing to it,” he says. “Becoming a dad changed everything. I carried the baby around and made up lullabies and stuff. We’d walk around before the sun came up, so my wife could go back to sleep. I was developing songs and singing them to my daughter and told her stories about my life though the songs.”
Cooder has kept a low profile despite being involved in his father’s original Buena Vista Social Club album, one of the most notable recordings of the past 20 years. He also played with Mavis Staples, Dr. John, and other A-List artists and composed film soundtracks before gradually stepping out on his own.
His first solo album, Love on a Real Train, released in 2012, was a collaborative effort with his wife (singer Juliette Commagere), brother-in-law (guitarist Robert Francis), and a few other folks. After the album was released, he returned to his life as a sideman. That is, until he started working on his father’s new album, The Prodigal Son, released in May this year.
“It’s the first time I’m an official producer, but I’ve put songs together for other albums he’s made,” Cooder explains. “This time, a lot of songs were based on background tracks I made — a rhythm track or an ambient film score thing I worked up.” He also played on the album. “Sometimes songs were a product of our two parts meshing and coming together. We did a bunch of recording, just the two of us — drums and guitar. Then he’d overdub other things — some singers and a few other players, but very sparse.”
Between tours, Cooder laid down tracks for his own record with electric mbira, tankdrum, keys and hand percussion, giving it a sound that’s part Americana and part world music. Then he expanded the sound with the help of his wife, brother-in-law, and his dad, who added guitar, bass, banjo and mandocello. “We’d get into the studio for a couple of hours in between childcare and other household duties,” says Cooder.
The songs on Fuchsia Machu Picchu are rhythm heavy, with Asian, Middle Eastern and African rhythms bubbling through the mix. Cooder croons the poetic lyrics in a calm, mid-range tenor that suggests the lullabies at the heart of these compositions. “I call them electro-Congo-Bali blues,” Cooder says lightly. “I’ll be playing them this summer, on tour with my dad. I’ll open the shows with my trio, then we’ll join my father on stage to play the songs from The Prodigal Son.”
Cooder, 39, has been playing the drums since he was a child, inspired by LA session ace Jim Keltner. “Jim left a drum kit in the basement of our house. He was rehearsing for a record with my dad. When everybody was gone, I’d go down and play his drums,” he says. “He gave me a Remo PTS set that I still have. He’d borrow it back now and then, ‘cause he loved the sound of the snare. He had all these crazy kits and, when he was playing, I’d crawl around and try to get inside his drums.”
Perhaps it was all those crazy kits that influenced his kit of choice today, a vintage Trixon set from Germany. “The drums are conical, not cylindrical,” he says. “They look like they’re melting and have a Jetson-like futuristic look. I also use an Array electric mbira (thumb piano), a tankdrum and an Array organ, which is sort of like a glass piano, but the keys look like nails.”
His touring kit is an eclectic mix: Trixon conical bass drum; Ludwig WWII COB snare; Slingerland Victory snare; Camco LA floor tom; Zildjian K cymbals; copper timpani, circa 1900; and Slingerland timbales.
When his dad toured with David Lindley, Cooder was introduced to hand percussion. “I was around 15,” Cooder says. “Lindley had a Turkish doumbek. I’d grab it and get on stage to play on a couple of tunes during their encores. It was the first time I played any hand percussion.”
After high school, Cooder studied world percussion at the California Institute of the Arts and formed Radio Bemba to play classic and original Latin and Caribbean music. He also traveled to Cuba with his dad for the Buena Vista Social Club sessions. “I brought some of my stuff, including a Nigerian udu drum. The musicians all thought it was cool. They’d ask me to ‘play the boom boom’ and let me add the percussion hook to ‘Chan Chan.’”
It’s experiences like this that taught Cooder much of what he knows. “I didn’t take any formal lessons until I was much older,” he says. “When you play with people, you learn so much right away. Drum books and watching videos didn’t do it for me, but playing at a young age gave me a musical way of thinking, not just technique.”