Baton Rouge's Alex Cook put his iPhone at the heart of his ambient music project.
A baseline throbs assertively as cameras click at the start of Museumgoer’s “BBC Sound Effects Library x Museumgoer.” The sophisticated strut recalls the groove of Roxy Music’s “Love is the Drug,” while the cameras bring to mind Duran Duran’s “Girls on Film”—a band and track that owe a lot to Roxy Music as well. Museumgoer is a solo project for Baton Rouge’s Alex Cook, who also sings singer-songwriter-y stuff as a solo act and South Louisiana Americana in The Rakers—“the thinking man’s drinking band.” Nothing else on his recent Museumgoer 2 EP draws as obviously from the ‘70s art rock band, but just as Roxy’s Bryan Ferry, Brian Eno and Andy Mackay learned to embrace process while going through British art schools, the process Cook went through to make the EP is central to its sound.
Museumgoer began as a way to learn to play the accordion. “My approach to music-making has always been very informal,” Cook says. “I learned to play guitar, I learned to play keys in the band. I decided that for the accordion, I’d try to do things right.” Rather than hack out some sound and organize the resulting sounds into compositions, he worked through Bartok’s “Mikrokosmos,” a common introductory piece for pianists, and he found that it suited the accordion. While teaching himself the piece, he started thinking about musical itches that he wasn’t scratching as a singer/songwriter and with The Rakers. He thought about chamber music, krautrock, and exotica/easy listening music, all of which seemed more possible on accordion as he understood it than the other instruments he plays. He did not, however, explore Cajun or zydeco music, which might have seemed like a more natural starting place.
“Nothing against it,” Cook says. “it’s just not what attracted me to the instrument.”
Soon though, he realized he’s not the shedding type, and that cloistering himself to master his instrument was not Cook’s style. "It’s probably why I’m not particularly accomplished on any of my instruments,” he says.
In the case of the accordion, he began to come up with simple melodies, which he recorded in his practice space. Since he has some cool instruments there, he used them to layer on parts until songs began to emerge. The first Museumgoer EP has a number of tracks that are truly experiments, but it also includes “Does Peter Greenaway Make Movies Anymore?” which served as proof of concept for the project. Cook came up with the title in part because it was a question he genuinely asked one day, fondly remembering the British filmmaker who had a run of art house hits in the 1980s with The Draughtsman’s Daughter, A Zed and Two Naughts, Drowning by Numbers, and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. Cook tried to evoke the soundtrack music that Michael Nyman wrote for Greenaway’s movies, music that was “like Philip Glass but poncey,” he says. “I think that song in particular gave the project some voice.”
Cook’s practice space lacked one thing—a mixing board, so he began the second learning process crucial to the project. “I started to fool with Garageband and recording technology to see, Can I make something completely on my own with my phone and not have to involve anybody else?” He wanted to be able to work intuitively which meant recording when he was ready, regardless of the whims or availabilities of other people. To that end, he recorded on his iPhone, which put recording technology in his pocket in the form of Apple’s Garageband app. Cook’s phone became so central to the Museumgoer project that it turned up in two song titles—“My Baby (phone) Only Has Eyes (will charge) For Me (with this cord)” and “The Way My Baby (phone) Looks at Me (when it’s charged).” Those titles reflect the difficult relationship Cook came to feel he was in with his phone, particularly when it became finicky and couldn’t be counted on to charge properly. He found himself asking his iPhone, C’mon, c’mon, just act right, like a lover to an unfaithful partner.
The results don’t betray their origins by sounding amateurish or haphazard. Cook’s chops may be works in process, but his aesthetic isn’t. The tracks are musical fragments, but they don’t sound unfinished. They’re ambient, but in a soundtrack way, not in Eno-like tones in slow motion that shape an abstract melody. “I think of them as ambient the way music in grocery stores is ambient or music on hold is ambient,” Cook says. “Remember the old Bob Newhart Show? It had this fantastic theme song that was not really jazz and not really pop. I’m striving to write something as good as the Bob Newhart theme song.”
His songs bring to mind library music—music specifically made for music supervisors on a budget who need music to accompany a scene in a show or movie but lack the money to pay a composer to write it. The Museumgoer tracks are imperfect as library music though, since the moods and rhythms don’t telegraph which scenes they’d best suit. That’s in part because the songs evolved and didn’t start with a pre-destined end point that they were born to reach.
The lead track, “His First Elevator Ride,” typifies that aesthetic. The piece follows a simple melody played on a keyboard that emulates the sound of a flute, but it threatens to give up and go home a number of times. Pauses feel terminal but the instruments creak back to life and rejuvenate the track until the synth flute takes a meandering solo that doesn’t demand your attention as much as it searches for space. If you notice and/or care, all the better, but when the song finally ends, the ending feels like the natural conclusion to the thought, and not an arbitrary or abruptly imposed stopping point.
And, Cook agrees, Roxy Music is an influence on the project. He likes how the band embraced romance, but paired it with futuristic—sometimes silly—sounds that complicated otherwise straightforward emotions. But those complications emerged not through intention but “because it was Brian Eno’s first project, [and] he didn’t really know how to play that synthesizer. He was just making some weird, cool sounds up there. A lot of that goes into music-making for me.”
I first encountered Cook as a writer, and I have worked with him a number of times. I ran a number of pieces by him while I served as editor at OffBeat in the late 2000s, and before that, we bantered online about songs while he worked out his creative and critical impulses on his blog. In 2014, he profiled me and My Spilt Milk for Baton Rouge’s Country Roads magazine. When we started talking about music, he was a student media advisor at LSU, and for the last four years he has been IT Director for the Greater Baton Rouge Association of Realtors. The Rakers have been his principal creative outlet since 2013, and they’re working on their fifth album, which will be out soon on vinyl. Museumgoer emerged as way to make music on his schedule rather than a band’s schedule.
“I drop off my daughter at school, and I go to my practice space,” Cook says. “I’ve got maybe 45 minutes if I’ve got my act together before I have to go back and take a shower and go to work. The songs became a time challenge. Can I get a song orchestrated and done in 45 minutes?” Because he recorded the songs on his phone, he could listen to what he’d done while driving around—a handy way to maximize time and a historical throwback to the days of Motown, when Berry Gordy Jr. would check song mixes in a car to see what they’d sound like in the environment where people would hear them. Because the tracks were on his phone, he could tweak mixes throughout the day. If he was sitting on hold, he could work on a track. He could chop up parts, loop them, or cut and paste them, and while it lacks the tactile satisfaction of playing instruments with a band, Cook enjoys the big picture and small picture efficiency. “I love the way the informal technology informs not only your listening or reading but how you create those things. If you’re a person who creates music or literature or movies—you use the same device to watch those things that you use to make those things.”
Layering the tracks forced Cook to think carefully about each piece. “I tried to make them rich but not make them dense,” he says. He worked with four or five main instruments to keep them spare, but a few songs required 13 to 14 tracks, many of those spot percussion parts that appeared briefly as accents before they unobtrusively bow out. He also employed a number of virtual instruments that are native to Garageband. He recorded “Corvair Waltz” entirely on virtual instruments, but he still had to play them. The keyboards had a keyboard interface and the bass had a bass guitar-looking interface. For that song, Cook challenged himself to write something pretty using entirely virtual instruments.
“They’re not bad but they’re not great,” Cook says.
Working as he does sounds very 2019, but it has given Cook a reason to rethink his whole musical enterprise. The centrality of technology to our lives makes being a singer/songwriter strumming an acoustic guitar seem like an antique enterprise, but Cook now sees all of his projects as related. “Whether I’m using this 50 year-old accordion or this 10 year-old guitar or this two year-old phone, how really different is it?” Cook asks. “It’s just a machine you’re using to do some things.” And he approached each machine in the same way, not as something that required mastery as much as something to understand. “I’m going to use these things to get what I need out of them.”
As if to underline that point, Cook released Museumgoer 3 just days ago, three months after Museumgoer 2 and a couple of weeks after we talked. This time, he made an online Commodore 64 emulator the central feature of the music. “My first instrument, before guitars or keys or anything, was the Commodore 64,” he writes in the liner notes on Bandcamp. “I wrote countless sound programs when I was 15, many of them before I had a disk drive so I would wait as long as possible before deleting one to write the next one.”
There are textures new to Museumgoer on the EP, but it displays the same musical personality. “The Balloonist Over a Former Lover’s House” is a beautiful, gently melancholy composition that didn’t need to the title to suggest its mood. It’s the sound of the world inside Brian Wilson’s head that would come out if his imagination wasn’t imprisoned by California’s beach culture. The crackle of vinyl surface noise codes a wistful memory into the track, just as it does on “Firefly Island,” where Cook’s ukulele and the gentle flooooom of low-flying fireworks make the song a second cousin to Les Baxter’s Tiki fantasias.
The practicality at the heart of the project is true to a modern DIY spirit, and it extends to the EP lengths. Cook likes albums and has bought more than 1,500 for himself after getting his daughter set up with a turntable, The Beatles and XTC at her request. Still, in the streaming era, that’s at odds with the way people listen to music, and he’s not fighting the uphill fight, particularly when a more concise presentation is more effective. The first EP is 11 minutes, the second is 18, and the third is six, and he’s happy with that. “An album would be too much,” Cook says. “I really enjoy that for 18 minutes.”
Why Museumgoer as a project name? Cook recalls an incident from 2018 when a man fell into a sculpture by artist Anish Kapoor. Kapoor created a room with a pit eight feet deep in the center. Kapoor painted the sides and bottom of the pit in Vantablack, a black so dark that it absorbs 99.96 percent of the light that strikes it. That made the pit literally look like a big black circle in the center of the room. Kapoor envisioned the experience of looking at the black as staring into an abyss—a shallow one—but one man who did so found it to be a vertiginous experience and fell in.
“That’s who this music is for,” Cook says. “The guy who’s so rapt that he falls into one of the sculptures.”