At home in the Village

Robert Sandall talks to Ry Cooder about the band that has given his guitar-playing a new sense of pleasure and purpose

The Sunday Times (UK) 16th February 1992

Photograph - John Livzey

Ry Cooder has all kinds of stories to tell and a down-home, almost cowboy-ish drawl to wrap around them. He recounts how it was when he traded riffs on the slide guitar with the Rolling Stones, Little Feat and Captain Beefheart; recalls a mechanic, "a real south- western character", he met on a recent video shoot; breezily describes what it's like to spend half your life and all your career being adored by the few and ignored by the many.

Cooder's most poignant story, though, concerns his son. "Things got to the point a few years ago where I would spend days at home in my studio tinkering with my guitars and amps. And my 13-year-old came up to me one day and said, 'Dad, you don't really play any more, you just mess about with your equipment.' And I thought, 'Damn! he's right. What's that all about? Is there any future?' "

As it happens there was, and its time has come. Little Village, a quartet of musician's musicians comprising Cooder, John Hiatt, the English bass player Nick Lowe and the drummer Jim Keltner, release their first album tomorrow on WEA (WX462, all formats) and are set to play some British dates next week. There is very little point trying to hype four middle-aged roots-rockers who combine musical quality and experience with such an absolute lack of glamour. Calling Little Village the first authentic supergroup of the 1990s is a statement of fact that cannot add to the devotion their individual names already inspire. Particularly, as far as the British audience is concerned, that of Ry Cooder.

Although fairly famous, he is nothing like as famous as he should have been. In 1969, Cooder, a guest slide-guitarist on the Sticky Fingers album, was tipped to replace Brian Jones in the Rolling Stones. He was further credited with having made up the guitar riff to Honky Tonk Women. That he now insists: "Oh man, it wasn't my tuning or chord progression -- I got it from John Lee Hooker" says as much about his deep respect for tradition as it does about his self-promotional acumen.

A dozen albums and film soundtracks -- most notably for Paris, Texas -- later, the adventures of 44-year-old Cooder in the folk- blues field have become difficult to get into focus. Comments such as "l have a thimbleful of ambition. I can't plan a trip to the grocery store, let alone a career" may explain his overall lack of strategy. "People either phone up, or they don't" hardly sounds like the smart path to fame and riches, either. But the long gap between Cooder's 1982 solo album The Slide Area and 1987's Get Rhythm, and the near silence since, have implied more than just a lack of forward planning.

By his own admission, Cooder became "disillusioned" with himself professionally. "When I did Get Rhythm, I said, 'This is it for me.' I got a group of musicians together for one last fling, but I knew I couldn't sustain it economically. It had become like this great whirling dervish. A millionaire's hobby. And I despise that idea. Music has to serve the community in some way. 'Cos if your than" doesn't fit in, you're grinding yourself to pulp see. I felt alienated, horrible. And that spills over into your music and your ability to express yourself. So I said, 'No more of this.' "

A was past the roadblock was suggested by Lenny Waronker, one of Cooder's long-term admirers, a former record producer and now senior executive at Warner Records in Burbank, California. What Cooder needed, Waronker felt, was a proper band, preferably the one that had assembled briefly to help the American singer-songwriter John Hiatt make his 1988 album Bring the Family.

"I've never been in a band before," Cooder reveals. rather surprisingly. Although he starred on their debut album, Safe As Milk, he was only temping in Captain Beefheart's Magic Band, because their regular guitarist had had a "nervous breakdown". Likewise, his involvement with Little Feat. Cooder, the Mr Fixit of the Los Angeles blues fraternity, has played for everybody but not, in his mind anyway, with them.

"Bands generally don't get along. First thing they do is fight, last thing they do is fight. In between something happens. Maybe. Beefheart and those guys fought like cat and dog all the time, never did much of anything else. Plus, I can't stand the indecision, the lack of focus." However, Cooder always knew that a lot of his favourite R&B music -- Jimmy Reed's, say, or Sonny Boy Williamson's -- had been created by these unstable coalitions: "I used to wonder: 'Will that beautiful marriage of orchestrated sounds ever happen to me? I guess not.' "

He guessed wrong. Sitting in Waronker's Burbank office with Keltner and Lowe, Cooder does nearly all the talking and sounds like a man on honeymoon. He points to his chest -- "I can be fooled anywhere else but not there. It's all I got left" -- and describes a buzzing sensation he gets when Little Village hit their stride. "This is a real unit. You can play with a room full of people but your ear is listening for something else. You have an instinct as a musician. You have to know."

As is his folksy way, Cooder gradually talks Little Village into a story. "Jim and I have known each other man and boy now for 20 years, so he comes over to the little itty bitty studio in my home in Santa Monica, and . . . ding, twang . . . it's as simple as that. And then John [Hiatt], he's the pictures guy. He looks down on the ding twang and he says, 'The guy gets into the car, the girl gets out of the car and it goes like this. OK, book a studio engineer.' " The bass guitar, Cooder reveals, has been another of those things that put him off bands in the past. "Plugging the holes was always a problem. Nick hasn't fixed it, but at least now there's a floor."

Little Village, the album, comes across as very much a Cooder-Hiatt affair. It is a richly flavoured stew whose principal ingredients -- spry Southern funk, keening Tex-Mex ballads and the best slide-guitar work since Get Rhythm -- are enhanced by strong tunes and Hiatt's belting delivery of them. "I've played behind some incredible singers, man," Cooder says, "but when John sings those ballads, he moves some air around. For a white guy, he can really holler. Voice like a big trumpet."

The obvious thing to say about the Little Village album is that it sounds as though everybody's having a great time. Cooder, a veteran of too many unremembered jam sessions, bridles at this. "It's not enough to say, 'Well, we sure had a ball.' I caught myself saying that and it's not true. You may have been touched for a minute; that's interesting, it's luck actually, but you've got to turn that into product. 'Cos Lord, you gotta make some money some time."

So will he, finally? "Nothing is known. It's a case of don't quit your day job. There's business bands, organised bands, bands that bin together since they were four years old, bands with leaders who hired you. We're just a musical band, where you don't lead or follow, you just play. To be really successful as well," Cooder sighs and smiles, '`it's almost too much to ask."

Little Village play at the Hammersmith Odeon February 25-27 1992