Matthew Robert Cooper on the Literary Inspirations Behind Eluvium’s “(Whirring Marvels In) Consensus Reality”


I’m a longtime admirer of the music Matthew Robert Cooper has made, whether it’s as Eluvium or under his own name — or one of several other aliases and projects that have added to his impressive discography over the years. Eluvium’s new album (Whirring Marvels In) Consensus Reality represents something of a shift for Cooper, who was dealing with health issues that involved changing the way he wrote. I spoke with Cooper about the literary influences underlying this new album, his thoughts on music and technology, and what he’s been reading lately.

I’d like to talk about the literary influences on (Whirring Marvels In) Consensus Reality.  Is this the first time you, as a musician, have drawn from literary influences or is that something that’s suffused a lot of your music to date?

The influences were T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and Richard Brautigan’s All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace. And I’m not positive that they were so much selected as just being many of the different themes and ideas that I’ve been kind of sketching out. I guess I just naturally got steered towards them, so I don’t know if it’s so much that I chose them as maybe they chose me — or something like that.

When you’re thinking about all these different feelings and things that you’re trying to communicate and write, I tend to write down a lot of what it is that I’m exactly trying to go for, and hope that it will also steer the actual composition. It tends to lead you down these rabbit holes of looking at stuff and researching stuff, and so I eventually was just kind of led to The Waste Land.

It’s not that I wasn’t familiar with its existence, but I was led towards it and some of the ideas that were brought forth in it. And then Richard Brautigan’s Machines of Loving Grace — my brother was really into Brautigan when I was a teenager, so I knew a little bit about him from then. I read a little bit of his stuff as well, but I think I stumbled upon Machines of Loving Grace several years back and it just had this eerie-ness to it that was perhaps not even intended, but I thought it was interesting.

Not to presuppose his intentions, but more just to draw from how I felt interacting with it now. But yeah, as far as literary influences and things like that, I’d say that pretty much everything I’ve done has in some way or another been influenced by something I’ve read or was reading at the time, whether it’s song titles or certain themes that tie into some larger theme that I’m trying to address.

Both Eliot and Brautigan are writers whose work has endured to the present day, but there are also many things about them that feel very rooted in specific experiences of their lives within the 20th century. When writing music that’s inspired by them in the 2020s, what aspects of their work did you kind of, did you find yourself taking most hold of? 

With Elliot, the first thing to me that’s striking is just this notion of uncomfortability with change. I try not to die on any hills when it comes to literary interpretation. I’ve always been more about the emotional context of stuff. Even when it comes to reading Hemingway and Steinbeck and writers like that, I would totally miss certain allusions that people who went to school for it would tell me about. But with Elliot, some of the things that I notice are a preoccupation with change and a concern and with the upheaval that things like that create. An ever-constant presence in that the only thing that is constant is change. 

But there’s also themes like death and dying and rebirth and just aging in general. And I think those passages in particular were of interest to me from an emotional standpoint. I haven’t read everything he’s ever put out. I haven’t read a ton from that era either — so I wasn’t super-familiar with his stuff —  but it’s beautiful. It’s absolutely beautifully written. Its very flowery language that surprised me. I think I pulled from that especially when I am referring to the sections about, basically, dying. Something that I think we all have issues with is coming to terms with the inevitable.

As for Brautigan, I guess for some reason I still feel as though that feels contemporary enough. It t feels fresh in my mind. So it doesn’t seem like that is too divorced from the modern age. And there’s the little twist of how these things are ultimately in control of the powerful and the elite, and how that kind of sort of destroys any realistic idealization of technology, at least in the current present. 

This new album follows Virga I and Virga II and Shuffle Drones, all of which seem a little more overtly conceptual than the rest of your discography, at least to me. Would it be accurate to say that? And how did working with a record-wide thematic focus on those earlier works influence and shape your music on this record?

I’m not entirely certain I’d agree with that assessment. It’s hard to say. I guess what I would say is, those records were made conceptually with specific restraints in mind — mainly in the instrumentation, but also in the level of interactivity with it. I feel as though most, if not all of the stuff, that I’ve made has tended to be steeped in at least my own personal narrative, and I tended to not really push that angle when sharing the music with other people, just allowing for it to exist how it exists.

Even when people ask about certain themes or references that I make, I’m trying not to give anything away, and let that be for the listener to decide. But there’s always been, for lack of a better term, like a narrative heart. But yeah, I think what you’re getting at maybe is more about how the levels got one deeper, with the technological choices that were made. I think maybe because of that I decided to just go in full force with that narrative and explain it, open my eyes. I guess I don’t know why; it’s just a difference.

What’s it like to be creating music with a algorithmic element to it when there’s suddenly this sprawling debate over things like ChatGPT and similar forms of technology? Is there something surreal about that?

It’s not entirely unexpected, I guess. I feel as though a lot of this stuff has been on the cusp of coming for a while now. I mean, these are themes that ultimately have been talked about, you know, since Philip K. Dick. I guess what I find is the most enjoyable aspect of it is the ability to sort of play into it and use these ridiculous tools in an almost goofy manner in order to make expressionistic points with the album itself. So that’s handy. But beyond that, I don’t know.

(Note: a few days after our conversation, Cooper emailed with some additional thoughts on the topic in question.)

I didn’t mean to suggest that something so intensely affective as our use of intelligence can be only a mere child’s toy ( although it certainly can, and often is).

I think that there is obviously concern there among everyone — of change, of course — not to mention things like jobs and creative expression and consideration of their place in our society. It would be inhuman not to have a sense of that. But i think there also tends to be a little too much focus on something to fear, when it seems we are ultimately the captains of the ship, and what it does, and what is has the ability to create and cause change to, can come from anywhere at any given time and not necessarily be from a highest bidder. We forget our own hands are on the wheel sometimes. What we see can become a question of our feelings towards a reflection of ourselves. This is perhaps the most unsettling thing. I want to believe that these tools (no matter how complex the reality) can ultimately be used for good — but I think like all things in life it just kinda depends on the person. The personal curiousness about it and commitment to thinking about it creatively ultimately coincided with a necessity to interact with instruments in a different manner than which I previously had done before, which in turn reflected back upon the compositions themselves.

You’ve released a lot of music as Eluvium, but you’ve also used other aliases, as well as your own name. Does the name you’re going to release something under factor into the equation? Do you know from the outset which type of record this is going to be,  or does it come more to the forefront after you’ve been writing?

I generally intend specifically, when I set out to make something, who it’s going to be for.  Well, I guess with all things Eluvium I don’t know if there’s even necessarily a need for myself to think that. It just is. But I don’t work on stuff and then think, “Oh, this would be good to release as a Martin Eden record.” If I were to make a Martin Eden record I would sit down and make a Martin Eden record.

The same is true for the Matthew Robert Cooper stuff. Although I definitely do struggle with that line a little bit sometimes. There is some material that I’ve had for a while that I worked on several years ago, that I’ve been sitting on because I don’t really know what it is, I guess. It’s done, I guess, but I’m just not sure what it is to me and what I should do with it.

That would be probably the only time that I can think of that I didn’t specifically intend for it to be one thing or another. I think that’s because that material was made from an artist retreat that I went on and there was this inherent  need to be making something while I’m there — or at least a feeling that I should be making something while I was there. So I was just making things for the sake of making things more so than considering it from any perspective.  And it’s just sat on a shelf since.

Does more of your reading end up being early 20th century stuff, or are you kind of covering everything?

I think for the most part, I cover everything. I feel like recently I’ve been more on modern stuff. For the past several years, I think, mostly new stuff; some autofiction, like Ben Lerner. Some books in translation, like Hiroko Oyamada’s The Factory. So, recently, more modern stuff. When I was in my teens and early 20s, I feel as though I was reading lots of Steinbeck, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, all that stuff.

Both my brothers are writers and readers and were pretty influential — not only on my musical choices back when I was younger, but also my reading. Like many people, they came up on the Beats, and kind of branched out from there. So I followed a similar trajectory to them. 


Photo: J. Paske

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