Updated: May 12
by Scott Roos
photos by Scott and Deanna Roos
Born and raised in the northern wilderness of Nunavut, singer-songwriter Dylan Jules Cooper has felt like the perpetual outsider in his adoptive Saskatchewan home. Moving to Saskatoon as a teen was a life changing event to be sure, mostly leaving an unsettled feeling in his bones.
“I learned music because my dad's guitar was just laying around when we lived up north and I really had nothing to do and nowhere to go,” recounts Cooper in a conversation with NSMZ, “There's so much isolation up north and really finding anybody who was musical in the small town that I grew up in (was what you did). It was you gravitating towards each other no matter what and then you kind of held on to that as much as you could.”
That overarching feeling of being out of place is something that perpetuates throughout his music. Sonically eclectic, vocally, at times, bizarre and lyrically, in its simplicity of message, translucent, Cooper’s music is unpredictable, yet engaging. It’s always this voyage of self-discovery that's found throughout his latest full length entitled Rockulism. He's not content to just "be" in one place artistically speaking
“I just feel like a visitor a lot of the time. I feel like I'm visiting Saskatoon, I'm visiting wherever I play. I feel like I'm never really completely settled and that really stems into my music too. How can I just settle with one definition or genre or something like that? How can I settle with just playing Saskatoon or how can I settle with anything really? I feel like I'm constantly trying to change and redefine who I am because of my bedrock being not this place,” says Cooper.
ROCKULISM TRACK BY TRACK - Knee Jerk Reactions to oddball soundscapes:
The album opens with an instrumental track that has almost dreamlike, ethereal quality to it. The words “rockulism” and “I will love my enemies” are being spoken repeatedly throughout by a male and female voice. On the surface, it’s a keyboard laden track underscored by a hip hop style drum beat that eventually disintegrates. It’s an artsy, almost indie imbibed, spoken word track to introduce the album. The song seems, at least on the surface, cliche, and it’s very tempting to hit “next” but maybe it’s meant to set the tone for the listener. Do not “abandon hope all ye who enter here”. Instead, prepare for a wide-ranging, maybe even ham-fisted attempt of Cooper to come up with his own personal definition of the majesty of rock.
“It's a play on the phrase populism,” muses Cooper of the album’s title and, by default, its title track, “The political term populism, at the time that I decided to call it that, it was the Trump era. I kinda missed my chance at it being more relevant but it's also kind of a weird play on words.”
“Can I say That I love You”
This track is a slow tempo ballad that showcases the Elvis/Orbison-esque crooning tone of Cooper’s voice. An oddball choice for the first fully realized "song" on the album.
“I guess I've always wanted to reach higher than I think I can hit in terms of my vocal range. I've always really wanted to use my voice as an instrument. And so that ended up resulting in this Roy Orbison thing, who I've (been compared to) before. It's just me trying to explore as much as I can with my voice,” remarks Cooper on the crooner comparisons.
It almost feels like parody in the vein of Zappa’s “Go Cry on Somebody Else’s Shoulder” which famously, outwardly needled and saber-rattled the 50’s. Cooper’s taking on the “croon” is catchy at the same time and altogether less mocking than Zappa's, however. The chorus presents this huge, monolithic affair, reminiscent in tone and texture to the Beatles “Don’t Let Me Down”. Perhaps this record is some sort of farcical, left wing tribute to eras gone by? It’s not like this is a comedy. It’s a more “tongue in cheek” vibe but it seems to work.
“There's hundreds of thousands of musicians and artists out there making something. If I let myself start taking myself too seriously then one day I'll have a real wake-up call and reality check that life is impermanent and art is impermanent and so I just laugh at it all. I try to make fun of what I'm doing sometimes,” says Cooper.
“It's not like I don't take my music seriously on a grand scale. What I hear in my head I'm trying to make it sound as best as possible. We practice hard. We fine tune our parts. I still try to make it musical and loveable and all that but it's a fine balance. It's not stuck to an image or sound and stuff. I do whatever I want. I'm not tied to the idea of an image or something,” Cooper continues.
A pedestrian chord progression and riff opens up this next track. It’s got a more “stadium” feel. The Orbison warble is still there but the waltz or 6/8 feel that was apparent in the previous track is instead replaced by something more straight ahead tempo wise. The chorus is once again monolithic in size and scope. There’s a stepwise guitar line at the end of the choruses that is a not so subtle tip of the cap to Zeppelin’s “Over the Hills and Far Away”. There’s a meandering guitar solo and a dreamlike instrumental section as well. Groovy is the word for this track.
“I am really just trying to define what rock means. Redefine really. That was my approach with (the) Rockulism (album),”states Cooper, “to me the spirit of rock is improvisational, it's messy, it's loud, and lyrically it's supposed to resonate.”
Cooper’s punk rock influences shine through on this track. There’s also a “Rock n’ Roll” Zeppelin vibe that permeates although minus the big rock drum musings of Bonham. Instead Cooper presents more of a laid back drumming approach. It should be noted that Cooper is a highly respected Saskatoon area drummer who, back in the day, fronted scenesters Von Jumbo from the comfort of his drum kit. This song sounds like a madcap mash-up of Sha Na Na, Zeppelin and The Ramones.
“I used to play in a band that was pretty active in Saskatoon called Von Jumbo and that was seven ten years ago now from when we started. We kind of went through a period where we were looking for a singer and we just couldn't. We didn't know how. We were still really young. We didn't know how to jam and find people and do the right process. So I said 'f*ck it I'll just do it.' So that's how I cut my teeth on playing fast, loud, heavy music behind a kit and singing to the point of almost blacking out a couple shows.”
This rifftastic track is more bluesy than the previous efforts on this album. Thorogood vibes but with Cooper’s understated, less snarly vocals. The variety continues.
“Something’s In The Air”
Acoustic laden, trippy, hippy folk. When Cooper first started, he was more a folk singer-songwriter. This track definitely has those vibes. “Oooohs”, “aaaaaahs”, and wah wah guitars permeate throughout this five minute long treatise of mellow grooves. There’s also a weird calypso section which is, to be honest, bizarre. But, in general, the whole tune is vibey. Pardon the pun…
“I decided I didn't necessarily want to be a folk artist. I just wanted to be an artist. I just want to write whatever I feel like. Not whatever I feel like but whatever really resonates with me so that shift in mindset resulted in five albums in 2020 - an electronic album, a punk album, a folk album, a rock album and then Rockulism which is kind of a combination of a lot happening. It's been a bit of an evolution of sound,” Cooper explains of the evolutionary process of his sound and style.
With “Aimlessly”, Cooper treats the listener with another GIANT, big rock style ballad. Opening with a kaleidoscopic, otherworldly, acoustic guitar and echo imbibed vocal, the whole thing swells to a fever pitch with a huge chorus. The Roger Waters-esque rhythmic bass line, and syncopated guitar riff in combination with the other sonics might make one think that this is Cooper’s tribute to Pink Floyd. His vocals are a far cry from Gilmour or Waters, though. And the guitar solo is a more in your face slap than Gilmour’s trademark tones. There’s a bit of Zappa in here too and "Love Hurts" Nazareth. Throughout this whole record there’s a sense that Cooper is creating art for sure. But with a feeling of oddball parody. That being said, this track is solid.
“I Wanna Be Your Freak”
Another straight ahead rocker with a catchy chorus. The guitars reach back into the 1970’s yet again. Harmonized vocals… With a change in tempo and riff at the end.
At the end of the day, Rockulism presents as a fascinatingly varied stab at Cooper’s personal definition of rock with several tips of the cap to classic rock’s heroes and villains. There’s also lyrical elements of writers like Waits, Prine, Johnston and Young. Simple and straight to the point and oddly relatable.
“I really do put a lot of thought into my lyrics trying to be as relatable as possible. Not mired in too much and too much metaphor. It's something I'm always trying to work on to get better at too but I try to make my words something that is really digestible for everyone - just those very basic, get to the point lyrics. If that's your thing to listen to lyrics definitely that's what I want to try to be best at in terms of my own standards,” Cooper explains.
He also credit’s T.Rex’s The Slider album as a major influence. Cooper’s music is varied and weirdly interesting in that same vein.
“ That album blew me away. The variety in that album - the acoustic guitars, the rock guitars and the huge arena rock jams and then you could hear this rock music but in a smaller space type. It was all over the place and so weird. The lyrics - he was like 'fuck it I'm gonna write ping pongs in space'. No one knows at all what he's talking about. It's a fantastic work of art. So I think that was like a big, or at the very least a subconscious influence on Rockulism,” says Cooper.
Rockulism is an ambitious project from the mind of one of the more unique characters in the Saskatoon music scene. It’s unsettled, often jarring, sometimes downright ridiculous. It’s part parody, part sincerity. Cooper’s style is hard to pin down but that’s the beauty of what he creates. If rock music is to be seen as “art” then its artists like Cooper who are propelling it forward - at least in Saskatchewan. It’s a true expression of where Cooper is currently at and that’s what makes Rockulism so special.
“All my recordings to this point and hopefully forever I do it all myself. I try to craft those recordings and the sounds and everything on that album in the very specific way that I'm hearing. So there's no other real major input from anybody else. What you're hearing is everything from me,” Cooper concludes.