May 4th, 1999, and DIY icons and post-hardcore figureheads Fugazi have reached the northernmost date of a pretty exhaustive UK/Ireland tour promoting what would turn out to be their penultimate album. Supporting the band in Aberdeen was then-fledgling Dundonian quartet Laeto, to whom Fugazi were a noted inspiration.
“They more than lived up to our expectations in terms of being excellent people” recollects Laeto drummer Robbie Cooper. “They made a point of talking to us [and] stood at the side of the stage and watched our set”, even stepping in to insist that “the promoters pay us twice the fee we were offered” to ensure all costs were covered. “For them it was just one of many hundreds they had played” Cooper notes, “[whereas] for us it was one of the best shows we have ever been involved in, and an honour to share the stage with such legends.”
Fourteen years on, and a track recorded at that gig (bony End Hits cut Closed Captioned) forms part of a new compilation curated by Cooper as part of his Human Is Not Alone project. It sits alongside previously unreleased tracks from closer-to-home acts like Titus Gein and Lapsus Linguae, plus handpicked cuts from the back catalogues of RM Hubbert, Zu and more, and will be accompanied later this month by a handful of gigs designed to raise money for Marie Curie Cancer Care. It’s a charity that understandably means a lot to Cooper, who in 2011 was diagnosed with a rare form of aggressive cancer for which he is in continued treatment.
“The short answer is I am OK” he writes when we email to ask how things are. “I have certainly been worse. If I compare myself to when I didn’t have cancer then I am doing terribly but there is no merit in doing that. I have to take each day as it comes and today I am feeling alright.” Having a rare type of cancer, he explains, complicates his treatment options, forcing his medical team to “basically [make] it up as they go along” – which means multiple therapies, frequent surgery and a great deal of uncertainty. “My body is a living experiment where the results of the experiment can literally mean the difference between life and death” he continues. “So far the best guesses of my doctors have not been able to stop the cancer in my body from growing and spreading. And so I keep having surgery, as physically cutting it out is at least proactive.”
Earlier this year, things were particularly difficult, which led to Cooper being referred to Marie Curie. “The cancer had basically taken over my life” he says of the period. “I was in constant pain... [So] I spent three weeks in their care, at the end of which the pain was under control and, in turn, I felt more in control of my life.” With the hospice reliant on donations, Cooper checked out feeling compelled to “give something back”, and Human Is Not Alone was born.
“One of the best ways of thanking the people who work in a charity is to give them the means to carry on their work by making a donation” he says. “Given I am not a wealthy philanthropist I thought I would try to achieve this goal by luring as many people as possible to locations in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dundee, and make them give me the money I need in exchange for an evening of loud live music”. Each of the evenings in question will feature performances from Fat Goth, United Fruit, Hey Enemy and Vasquez (a line-up firmly worth catching, charity or no charity), with donated merch being flogged on a name-your-price basis and all involved – venues, printers and so on – offering their services free or at cost price.
While the venture is designed, first and foremost, to “heap thanks and praise on the staff of Marie Curie”, its remit extends further, with both gigs and compilation continuing Cooper’s long involvement in the Scottish underground music scene and even acting as a retrospective of sorts. “That is very much by design” he confirms. “It is normal for people who have serious challenges to their health to reflect on what they have done in their life… [and] I very much wanted this to be a compilation of bands that I had enjoyed live and that would remind me of my time in music.” This includes those for whom he’s drummed (as well as Laeto: American Men, Geisha and Iron Crease) and those with whom he’s played shows, promoted shows, or otherwise crossed paths over the years, from the aforementioned Fugazi recording to new music from each of the four bands on the tour bill. In the case of US act Shipping News (represented by the coiled groove of Axons + Dendrites), the connection was through guitarist Jeff Mueller’s earlier band June of 44, who Cooper had put on in Dundee in the late 90s; though offered use of a June of 44 track, Cooper opted for Shipping News in recognition of their bass player Jason Noble, who died last year of another form of rare cancer – a sharp reminder of the project’s significance. And they aren’t the only act on the compilation to have been, in Cooper’s words, “touched by the icy hand of cancer”, with Cerwyss O’Hare – former bass player with Macrocosmica, whose Torch #1 closes the album – sadly passing away from the disease in July this year. Human Is Not Alone may have its roots in Cooper’s own experiences, but it evidently speaks to a far wider context than a single individual’s health.
As well as raising money, Cooper hopes that Human Is Not Alone will help bring fresh exposure to the featured artists, noting that “by definition even the best known underground bands are only popular amongst a niche audience” and observing that none of the acts involved are supported by mainstream record labels (indeed, the compilation itself will be released through Bar Bloc’s newly-minted micro-label). Additionally, his online mission statement expresses another, more idealistic aspiration: the desire to show that “far from simply a marketing utensil or commodity, music can still represent something greater to people and benefit the wider community.” We ask Robbie what music represents to him, and his reply contemplates music’s importance from angles both personal and social. “Music is something primal” he writes. “It exists in every known human culture in some form or another... [which suggests] that music production is innate amongst our species. Ever since I first sat behind a drum kit aged 16, music has been a source of joy and frustration in almost equal measure. Learning new techniques can be extremely slow and very challenging at times but once you get it the thrill is intense. Through music I have made some of the most enduring friendships of my life, including that with my wife (happy 5th anniversary Miriam!). It has allowed me to travel to new and exciting destinations. It can make me feel good and it can make me cry. It can be the reason people get together and for Human Is Not Alone people will be united in recognition of the work done by the staff of the Marie Curie Cancer Trust. Live music has provided me with some of the most memorable moments of my life and I am so glad that it can be the conduit through which I give something back to the people that have supported me.”
Previously, Cooper has written about his diagnosis and treatment with candour (and a perhaps surprising amount of humour, given the subject matter) on his personal blog. In his first post – which covered his diagnosis, initial therapies and the decision to debut as a stand-up comedian the week before substantial surgery – Cooper writes of the need to stay positive when faced with such shattering news, citing evidence of a correlation between mental fortitude and physical recovery. Ten months on, we ask how he manages to do so amidst such testing circumstances. “It is definitely hard to stay positive all the time and as things have gone on and the cancer continues to be a problem I have realised I have got to try and learn to live with it” he replies. “I have been told that I am never going to be cancer-free and so what I have to do is try and not think about it too much.” Human Is Not Alone seems, then, a rewarding way to channel these experiences into something constructive; something powerful and lasting with the potential to improve the lives of others the way Marie Curie improved his. Cooper ends his answer by underscoring music’s therapeutic qualities. “Listening to music is certainly something I do when I am feeling low and want to feel better” he states. “Just the other day I sat down and listened to the Big Business album Here Come the Waterworks at a ridiculous volume and air-drummed until my arms hurt. I felt a whole lot better after that.”