Eli's Cook is here and He's Making a Big Noise
I first saw Eli Cook at the Hamilton, in Washington, DC. He was opening for blues icon John Mayall. I must confess to being a bit of a show nerd. When I go to the movies, I want to see the previews. If I run late, and miss them, I feel I didn't get my money's worth. I feel the same way about live music. I want to see the opening act.
I went to the Hamilton to see John Mayall and write a review of his performance, and managed to find an excellent seat with great sightlines (it's hard to go wrong at the Hamilton). I had not heard Eli Cook before, but the roar he produced that night with his one man opening set, and his rich baritone, made me sit up and take notice. After his set we spoke and Eli agreed to do an interview with me.
Cook is a 28 year-old blues-rock guitarist from Charlottesville, Virginia. He started out as a sketch and paint artist before switching to music and guitar in his teens. He has developed into a national touring act.
When you see him perform, several things are immediately obvious. Technically, he is brilliant. He has a thorough grounding in the blues, bluegrass, and folk, and he respects the traditions. His voice is booming, and he picks a 12-string as easily and fluidly as he does the resonator. On both occasions, Cook was performing solo, with his improvised stomp box, a tambourine, and his guitars. He also fronts an electric power trio on other nights.
It is common for opening acts to have to play through loud crowd chatter. But, that night at the Hamilton, Cook caught everyone off guard. The sheer power of his vocals, the nimble nature of his fretwork, and the sonic boom of his stomp box quieted the ticket holders quickly. I am always impressed when one person can command the attention of a room. By working the tambourine with one foot, the stomp box with the other, picking to beat the devil, and ferociously howling the blues, Cook made his presence known instantly.
After a few false starts, we managed to find time for our interview. I found him to be very knowledgeable about all sorts of music, and willing to talk about it. I also found him to be shy and reserved when it came to speaking about himself and his place moving the blues forward as a young musician. His new album, Primitive Son, was released this year and features guest appearances by Sonny Landreth, Tinsley Ellis, Pat Travers, Leslie West, Artimus Pyle, and Vinny Appice, to name a few.
There are a lot of musicians -- Dylan, members of the Rolling Stones, for example -- who have turned to art, drawing or painting. But you came to music after art, is that correct?
Yeah. When I was a kid I dabbled in drawing and painting, all that good stuff, up through high school. When it came time to decide what I was going to do with a post-high school education, I decided not to pursue art, even though it was a viable option. I did so for two reasons. One, I had become very interested in music, and two, I couldn’t see much in the way of a career [in art] financially. I couldn’t see it as a stable thing. So I decided to skip it and play guitar instead.
At what age did you start playing guitar?
What was the first music you heard that really caught your ear?
When I was a kid I remember my parents playing a lot of old vinyl -- '60s and '70s stuff, a lot of classic rock stuff, blues-based stuff, Waylon Jennings, country music like that. In the '90s, the oldies stations consisted of rock and roll from the late '50s and early '60s. like Elvis, Carl Perkins, the Hollies, early Beatles. Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, the Monkees, that was the stuff I heard in the car on a daily basis.
So you could say you had a classic education…
Was the guitar the first instrument you tried?
I became interested when I saw my older brother playing guitar. I saw him playing guitar with his friends and some of them were playing electric guitars, and they were really good. At least, in my mind, at 12 years old, they were very good. I remember I picked up my father’s acoustic Takemine and I learned how to play the riff to... "Whole Lotta Love," I think… or "Communication Breakthrough"… one of those Zeppelin tunes, just on the low E string. And that was very exciting to me that I could pick up the instrument and pick out something I could recognize pretty quickly. That inspired me right from the get go.
Did you learn to play by ear, or did you learn to read music?
No, I tried to learn to read music. I took some music theory courses and what not, but never succeeded. It’s all been by ear.
Your guitar style is definitely blues-influenced. At what point did you discover the blues as opposed to say, the classic rock stuff?
My parents played some John Lee Hooker, I heard Muddy Waters’ Fathers and Sons record a lot, and Mississippi John Hurt, his album Today got played a lot. And then there was a blues show on NPR every Saturday night, broadcast out of Harrisonburg, Virginia. Professor Blues is the name of the DJ. He’s been doing it for, like, 30 years. It still goes on. We didn’t have TVs, so we listened to the radio. Saturday night consisted of A Prairie Home Companion followed by the blues show. So it was ingrained in my brain early on.
What informed your style of guitar playing? Who were the players that helped shape your own style?
Initially Lightning Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, and Mississippi John Hurt, those three were big on my list of people to listen to. Then I started to get into open tunings and slide, with Elmore James. Elmore James and Muddy Waters, from there you go to the Rolling Stones. Jimi Hendrix was the first person that made me want to play electric guitar with the Band of Gypsys record. But I am always trying to keep an open mind and hear new stuff.
So you started acoustic…
Definitely. The blues stuff that appealed … you had one musician who sang and told a story, played rhythm and lead, a sort of self-contained band. That made sense to me because I didn’t have anyone … I didn’t have a band, at first.
You added the tambourine and stomp box…
Playing live, just having the chance to make more noise. Build the sound, as it were.
Your set up [playing tambourine with one foot, and stomping a guitar case with a mic inside it, with the other foot], gives you a big sound. The first time I saw you, opening for John Mayall, you got everyone’s attention with that booming sound, right from the jump.
Rhythm and voice are the most important parts. If you can get people locked in, with the rhythmic element, that’s half the battle. It is hard to do that with just a guitar. Incorporating some foot percussion helps.
What do you listen to, in terms of more recent music?
I try not to be too jaded and keep an open mind. Truly new music … to be honest with you, it’s hard to find truly new music that appeals to me. There is a new band in England called Royal Blood that is very interesting. They have some unique approaches to riff rock, and sort of Zeppelin-esque stuff. The band Clutch, I’m a big fan of grunge, Stone Temple Pilots. I try to listen to everything, man. The more I do that, the more I see the common threads between [styles of] music, then you can find something there to appreciate, whether it is hip hop, or folk music, country music, bluegrass, metal, or anything. At the end of the day a good song is still a good song, no matter what the format or production is.
I think musicians are more open-minded sometimes, than fans.
Well, you have to be, to be able to cross genres, if you want to make a living at it.
What do you think you bring to the blues?
What do I bring to the blues? [laughs] I guess I try to put an emphasis on original songwriting, lyrical content … I try to give it a bit of a unique presentation. My vocal style is a little different than the typical blues and R&B vocalists. I try to do things with a little bit more intensity, for lack of a better word, do them a bit heavier, even if it is an acoustic song. Just make it bigger and more dynamic, but organically, if at all possible.
Your new album, Primitive Son, is your fifth record, right?
Fifth official. There was a demo that I used in the early days to get gigs, but I couldn’t find it now if I tried.
It’s a band album, a classic power trio, guitar, bass and drums?
Yes, sir. For the most part it is self-produced. I did use a guest producer on one or two tracks I recorded in Los Angeles with some guest musicians, but the rest I produced myself.
Do you record live in the studio or track by track?
Usually we track the drums live, and then we will go back and layer it, redo guitar and vocals. That way we can focus on one element at a time, and try to dial it down. This album is very song-focused, so we tried to pay attention to the different elements in each song.
You have had the opportunity to open for some well-known names…
B.B. King, Taj Mahal, Johnny Winter, Robert Cray, Parliament/Funkadelic, Gary Clark, Jr, Sonny Landreth. I’d like to open for Buddy Guy one day; that would be a trip.
How long had you been playing before you got your first opening slot for an established artist like B.B. King?
Probably about five years or so.
Did you have any butterflies knowing they might be around?
Exactly. It [the first time\ was about as exciting an achievement as I could have imagined.