Eskimo is a 5 piece Bay-Area band, complete with marimba and trombone. The
sound is almost indescribable, but if I had to try, I would call it
Art- Damage- Jazz- Funk- Carnival- Punk. The Bay Area Music Magazine, BAM, said:
"Eskimo could conquer the world....until then they can always run away with the
circus." Their own PR describes their performances as attracting "a rabid
following of religiously attentive oddballs, freaked-out interpretive slam
dancers and connoisseurs of the cutting edge."|
My friends and I, Eskimo fans for the past ten years, remember the early days when they played every show under a slightly different name, such as Eskimo and the Bunnymen, The Eskimo Clark Five, and Eskimo Clearwater Revival. I was thrilled when I got the chance to interview one of the members, vocalist and marimba player David Cooper. Thanks a lot to David for indulging me with this interview.
How would you describe Eskimo's music?
That is a very difficult thing, it comes up all the time. People ask us what kind of music do we play, and we really struggle with it every time people ask us. Because there is little that unifies all our music, there is no description that would fit perfectly with all of the songs. Recently, John Shiurba said something that I think should be our official answer to that question. He said, "It's like multi-culti, but without the culti." I think that just means that we'll use any sort of music or influence that we can find a use for. But, somehow everything we do comes out sounding like Eskimo, and I guess that just comes from playing together for ten years.
That's true, we are.
What happened to the other members?
Well, the original full line-up of the band included three people who are no longer in the band. Eric Bonerz, the original drummer, was there from the start. Now he lives in L.A. and he works for the clothing company X-LARGE and he seems to enjoy being a career man now. Mark Landsman, our original bass player, moved to New York so he could attend Columbia and pursue his Ph.D. in History and that's where he is now, and then Greg Walker our original trombonist moved to L.A. also, where he is peddling screenplays.
How did you guys get together originally?
John and I were in another band together. We met at Cal, at UCBerkeley, and that band didn't really go anywhere, so we sort of started the band with Eric. We started Eskimo as kind of a joke thing where we would just go out and play on the street for spare change as a way to eat lunch for free. The other people in the band I guess we all met at Cal, except for Eric who was a student at CCAC.
And are you in any other bands? I know John is.
(laughing) John is in a bunch of other bands. I'm not in any other bands. Let's see, John and Tom and Steve Lew have Ebola Soup.
Oh, is it just the three of them?
The three of them with drummer Gino Robair and that band is on hold right now but they're going to be doing something in the spring, more shows in the spring. And Tom plays trombone with a lot of other groups as needed. Andrew is in another band called Fatty Boom Boom.
So, how do you feel about your old songs?
Mostly we're sick of them. We haven't had a new Eskimo song except for these ones we just wrote this last fall for the past three years running and we weren't performing much either during that time, but since the CD
Der Shrimpkin came out and we wanted to promote it, we were doing the tour and a bunch of shows around here, and we were getting very tired of playing even those songs. Even though it's our most recent CD, we wrote most of those songs, like, 5 years ago.
Of your older songs, I like Coffee Table Blues. I can see how it's really poppy and very different, but the whole feeling behind it was really strong, very universal about the struggle between doing what you love and the pressure to go for the money, and I think when I first heard it I thought it had to do with music, but then I realized it had more to do with your painting.
Yeah, that's true. Yeah, those lyrics were so personal for me, I wrote those words, so now they make me wince when I hear them. At the time that we made that tape we had a very different idea about what kind of band we wanted to be. Originally we were much more like the Violent Femmes. They were a street trio, and that's what we were at first, and so we tried to write songs like that, that were poppy as you said, but funny and accessible. And then mostly because John started listening to a lot of Captain Beefheart, we took a conscious change in direction and tried to become a very strange band. And it continues.
Did you guys actually break up?|
Well, we thought that we came to the end of the whole thing just as we were recording the songs on Der Shrimpkin, because Mark was going back to school and Eric had this job opportunity in L.A. and since we had been doing it for six or seven years at that point. We were having no success shopping our demo tape around. Everybody would say that they liked the music, but they did not think there was a market for it. So, we sort of threw up our hands and decided we should just record everything we hadn't recorded yet and end it right there. So, it wasn't that we broke up so much. We had no personal differences among us, we just felt that the band had run its course. Then after that is when Les Claypool heard the tape and decided that he would put it out, and that sort of started things going again.
And do you still paint?
Yeah, I do.
Which one do you consider more your thing, or do you?
Well, it's funny, it goes back and forth. Whichever one I'm doing more of at a given time, it's the thing I'm not doing that seems like the interesting and exciting thing. (laughs) I've made almost no money as a painter, very little money as a musician either. But, Eskimo is much more active, and I have to say that it's far more gratifying to be in a band that people pay attention to than it is to be a painter working all by myself in my studio. It is certainly much easier for Eskimo to get a show, than it is for me to get a painting show, which is nearly impossible. Painting is the thing I studied in school and it's the thing that I still pursue as sort of a closet career, and I'm hoping eventually it will pay off in some way. But, I never studied music, and the fact that I'm in a band is really a fluke.
You just happened to play the marimba?
Yeah, I just happened to buy a marimba, actually. I grew up playing the drums and there was a piano in my house so I could sort of play that. A friend of mine had a marimba and when I saw it I knew I had to get one, and that coincided with the birth of Eskimo. It was my purchasing the marimba, I think, that really formed the band Eskimo in the beginning, because we had to find a use for the marimba, we couldn't be a rock and roll band really, so we had to think of something else to do.
How did you guess that?
Is it true? You definitely have that kind of sound to your songs and the ones that you sing, which I really like.
Yeah, I did. My parents' record collection was mostly the soundtracks to musicals, so I think that did really influence the songwriting that I do.
Any other projects?
Yeah. Do you know about this Residents tribute album that's coming out? A friend of mine, who is in the band Giant Ant Farm, is forming his own label, called Vaccination Records. And to sort of inaugurate the label he invited all the bands that he knows to contribute to this tribute album to the Residents which is coming out in March. It's called EYESORE- A Stab at the Residents, and Eskimo recorded a song for it. It's exciting for us because all our friends' bands locally here have a song on it also.
Really, like who?
Charming Hostess, Idiot Flesh, Thinking Fellers, Giant Ant Farm has a song on it, The Residents themselves contributed an unreleased song to the album. So, it's coming out in March and there is going to be a release party at the Stork Club March 30th. And we're starting to talk about touring Europe possibly in the fall, if everything works.
You toured the U.S., right, last summer? How did that go?
Well, (laughs) it was a kind of mixed success. We had some really great shows in big cities like New Orleans and Boston, and New York and Chicago, where the audiences were very receptive to what we were doing. But we did not go over very well in cities like El Paso, Texas and Pensacola, Florida. (laughs) Yeah, that was a very strange experience. But we look forward to doing it again. We normally tour up and down the west coast maybe once a year or so, and that's always fun, and we have really great shows up in Seattle and Portland. But the rest of the country is still really terra incognita for us.
The Further Adventures of Der Shrimpkin (1995)