Cameron Cooper during his Farang Magazine Publisher days
The first time I took note of Canadian expat Cameron Cooper was while perusing a copy of Thailand Tattler at my lower Sukhumvit area gym. There was a picture of him on a motorcycle and a lengthy review. Whether it was for the Ducati Scrambler, the Harley-Davidson 750 or the Triumph 675 I can’t recall – Cameron has ridden and written about them all – plus many fine automobiles too. I remember thinking that’s a good gig for a Bangkok based writer. I knew of his name previously as the publisher and co-editor of Farang Magazine not long after I arrived in Thailand in 2001. I was an irregular reader of the magazine, which seemed to cater to Bangkok irregulars. It went the way of many magazines of the 21st Century and had its last hurrah in 2007.
We first met at John Branton’s Queen Bee pub on Sukhumvit Soi 26 where he was getting in some rehearsal time with a Rolling Stones cover band, where he plays the part of Bill Wyman, with a little Daryl Jones cool thrown in, as the bass guitarist for what was then called Sticky Fingers and is now known by their following of fans as the Midnight Ramblers. He was friendly enough, polite as Canadians tend to be in Bangkok, and displayed a sense of humor. He seems equally comfortable with his band of brothers or grabbing a cigarette break and a drink by himself.
When he’s not meeting deadlines for well-known glossy magazines, riding his own Kawasaki or playing his Fender guitar, he runs a business: Uncle Cameron’s Meats, where he provides many Bangkok restaurants and savvy consumers with his own recipes for sausages, bacon, ribs, chicken, and various other smoked delicacies. Cameron runs the business with the able assistance of wife, Pat Cooper. They will be married twenty years this coming March.
I last saw the Midnight Ramblers play at that well-known Irish pub in Bangkok – Hooters Silom – for St Patricks Day. Cameron played with his right arm in a sling while still recovering from a broken-arm related to his Kawasaki needs. The Midnight Ramblers are fresh off a two-night gig in Laos as part of the Savan Fun Fest located in historic Savannakhet. Cameron and the Midnight Ramblers will be headlining at the Ploenchit Fair this week, November 30th 2019 from 10:00 am to 9:00 pm at Bangkok Patana School. All proceeds will support Thai charities under the management of the British Community in Thailand Foundation for the Needy. The Midnight Ramblers are due to take the stage around 7:00 pm. It is a fun-filled family day with a great track record that should be sought out by Bangkok expats, visitors to the Kingdom and Thais alike.
Cameron agreed to this interview at Thailand Footprint as a way of promoting the Ploenchit Fair and the charities they help support.
KC I think of expats living in Thailand as a set of waves. First wave, second wave etc. How would you characterize your wave? What year did you arrive to stay? Do you maintain friendships with that wave of expats? Are they still here? What do you think of the current generation of expats arriving and staying in Thailand, say post 2010 to present day?
CC: I arrived as a backpacking quasi-hippie in 1992, toured around Thailand and India for a bit, and then, having run out of cash (and having no return ticket – I lived dangerously in those days), moved into the now dearly departed Peachy Guesthouse on Phra Athit Road in March 1993 and set about making friends and trying to find teaching work.
Those friends, who helped me get on my feet I have stayed in touch with ever since. There have been a couple of deaths and departures, but the relationships forged during that “wave” have persevered – as a sort of surrogate family, which was especially valuable back in the pre-email/Skype days when biological family contact was primarily through postcards, handwritten letters and underexposed photos of me getting drunk with my Bangkok friends. Now I post photos on Facebook of the band onstage or my latest batch of smoked pork bellies … You grow, you know?
All of us arrived within a few months of each other in 1993 – during the pre-1997 boom – and I often wondered if it was unique – though it almost certainly wasn’t.
Peachy GH also played host to an earlier wave (with quite limited cross-socialization, oddly enough), consisting of your James Ekhardts and your Collin Piprells your Evil Davids and such. They were a group of mostly journos cum novelists, a decade or so older, who had arrived a few years before.
As far as those expats who came after me, I had very limited exposure to them, so can only assume they exist, or existed, because that would make sense. I did attend a couple of parties hosted by younger expats during the Farang Magazine years, and they struck me as lightweights. Smokers were banished to the balcony, among other such coddling social policies that they seemed to believe were self-evident. They probably thought we were self-aggrandizing old farts.
I suppose most expats’ lives feel special and somewhat happenstantial from their own perspective. If I knew any post 2010 young expats, I’d probably lean towards the curmudgeonly and incorrectly dismiss their experience as somehow inferior to mine. They are probably all cautiously polite to each other and aren’t allowed to utter the word “cunt” in company. At least that’s what I’ve read about that generation.
KC: When I think of Cameron Cooper I think of the 5 M’s: Music. Meat, Magazines, Motorcycles, and the Muse/writer. I have you pegged as an upper middle-class Canadian kid who had the world on a string and gave it all up for the uncertainty, excitement, and adrenaline rushes of Southeast Asia. Am I close?
CC: I didn’t have the world on a string before leaving Canada. I’d been working for Greenpeace Canada for a few years (hence the quasi-hippie schtick), and the campaign I’d been working on had been basically “won” (pulp and paper bleaching processes, if you must know), so I’d worked myself out of a job. So I collected my unused holiday and sick pay and headed out here, as outlined above.
My family fit more into what Orwell called “lower-upper-middle class.” My father was (still very much alive at 90, but long since retired) a civil engineer from working class roots, my mother (also still kicking up a storm at 82) was a housewife, nurse and estate agent. So we were comfortable, but not rich. My Scottish father certainly didn’t feel wealthy. With four kids in the house, he used to ration the orange juice and muesli (though probably more generously than the portions that landed on his plate during WWII), and in the winter he kept the thermostat pegged at the temperature of an Autumn night in Ayrshire.
But yeah, I had all the advantages of a comfortably off westerner – properly fed, a solid education, books, intelligent if sometimes competitive dinner table conversation, and loads of great music. Two of my siblings became full-time pro musicians, and my piano playing father has gigged regularly since his first paid performance in 1947.
So yeah, I was handed the string that was apparently attached to the world, but for the longest time didn’t take a very firm grasp of it.
Cameron Cooper – Martini Shaker circa 1989 – Thinking East
Being out here felt exciting, like being on the vanguard of something, which in a way we were, as globalization really began to take hold. Being here still feels a bit exotic to me, I suppose since I’ll always be one of “the others” — not Thai – no matter how long I live here or how long I am married to one. I don’t think I regret it. Not unless the ghost of expats past and present transported me to witness a parallel universe where I made different decisions and my life turned out to be far more interesting.
KC: You are a Canadian and the bass player in the most popular Rolling Stones cover band in Thailand and probably Asia. When did your love of music germinate and bloom? When did your love of the Stones begin. How and when did the two merge?
CC: As I mentioned above, I grew up as the youngest in a family of musicians. My father had played jazz piano all his life and played daily – usually after the kids went to bed. That penetrates little brains, I think, falling asleep to the sound of one’s Dad at his most relaxed and creative. Before I went to school and discovered otherwise, I assumed everyone’s father played piano, but I quickly discovered I was wrong. (I have some recordings of him playing – a style I’d recognize even if I was in a coma, and I find them strangely soothing and regurgitative of memories).
My mother was also very musical, and played vibes in a band with my father for some years. We had a dedicated music room in the house – the two boys and two girls had shared rooms, while there was this special room with a piano and guitars and vibes and other instruments.
Various bands they played in would rehearse sometimes at the house. I was fascinated by the saxophone, the bass and the drums. It was one of the only occasions when I would sit quietly, cause if I acted up, I got booted out.
My older siblings taught me the basics of how to read music around the same time I learned to read text. I wish they’d spent a little more time teaching me bass clef though – I’m still crap at that.
When people like my father, brother, sister and visiting bands weren’t playing, there was music on the “Hi-Fi” – Oscar Peterson, early Lou Rawls, Nancy Wilson, Nat King Cole Trio… the list goes on, but those musicians stand out. In the late 60s My brother introduced the Beatles and Steppenwolf and other Rock and Roll classics to the house – somewhat to my father’s consternation. No Stones at that point though. That would have driven my father daft.
So eventually learning an instrument was almost obligatory really, and as the youngest, you tend to follow suit, since it is your only vain hope of ever being taken seriously within the family unit. Plus, I had a feel for it.
I studied some guitar and piano, but in high school took up the baritone and tenor saxophones and was pretty good at them, playing in college level bands by senior year, and even joining the musician’s union at 18 years old. (Yes there was an effective musician’s union at one time – back when musicians got paid and weren’t expected to play for what bar owners like to call “promotional value” – as well as personal glory, of course.)
Then off to music school for a bit – the Humber College jazz program. That was fun, and totally immersive. You live breathe and shit music – and parties. Then I worked as a pretty well-paid street musician at Yonge and Bloor street in Toronto on saxophone for a couple of years.
Sax was my jazz instrument, but I’d taken up the bass as a rocker, and eventually, that’s the direction things took – where I felt most at home musically.
Cameron Cooper on a Washburn bass guitar
The Stones only really hit me in a big way at about the age of 17 or so – on the heels of my favourite rock band, The Who.
I do remember though being at a campground in 1971 (I was nine) and in the recreation hall there was a jukebox that had the Stones song “Brown Sugar” – a big hit that summer. On the B side was “Bitch” – a naughty word I’d never dare say in front of my parents.
When nobody was looking, I slipped my dime into the machine and selected the forbidden track. It was a dirty assault, kind of scary (even scarier than some of the psychedelic Beatles I’d heard at home), and I was aware in a vague but certain way that these guys were into dodgy shit – areas of life and the mind that the more straight and normal people who surrounded me at home and school did not dare to go. It was both frightening and tempting. Of course, I didn’t fully realize then that the whole Sticky Fingers album those songs came from was fuelled by cocaine and heroin, but I kind of felt it.
When I got into the Stones properly eight years later, digging into the Stones catalogue – mostly when I was high – it was still “dark” music, but by then that darkness felt like more of a friend. [As Paul Simon would have it, I suppose]
In various bands along the way, especially in the early days, you always ended up playing certain Stones songs as part of the rock and roll standards – “Jumping Jack Flash”, “Satisfaction”, “Brown Sugar” and the ever ubiquitous “Honky Tonk Women”, but a lot of the more challenging Stones numbers don’t get picked up.
So it came as exciting news 35 years later when writer/musician Joe Cummings told me there was a Stones cover band in Bangkok looking for a bass player (Joe joined later). I auditioned and got in and that was that. I love it and don’t get tired of the tunes – the catalogue is huge, and there are so many different styles and vibes in there, and variations you can explore. Played live, there is a lot of room for improvisation.
A lot of the Stones songs are more challenging than they first sound (Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” was murder to nail down). We’ve had some very accomplished musicians sub in when regular members had to be away, and they’ve universally acknowledged that the gig was a little more tricky than they expected. Above all, you have to catch the sometimes-elusive feel of the Stones – that “sloppy-tight” trademark sound that comes through on all their records.
KC: The Midnight Ramblers, like the Rolling Stones, have done small clubs and some pretty large gigs. Talk about some of the bigger gigs you have done and your favorite smaller ones too if you like. How are they different as a performer?
CC: When the Stones do smaller clubs, it’s for a change from the stadiums they normally play. For Midnight Ramblers it’s the opposite. We play mostly pubs and parties to a few dozen people , and sometimes get to play bigger festivals to a couple or three thousand. Our singer Eric, thankfully, can work stages sized from a postage stamp to a hockey rink equally well.
In small venues, you can see all the faces and body language of the whole audience, so it can actually be more daunting. You have to be smug and arrogant enough – or maybe better put, confident enough – to believe that what you are presenting is good, and if some audience members aren’t “getting it”, then that’s a shame for them. We love the music we’re playing (It’s only rock and roll but we like it), so we’re doing our best to attract and share that feeling with like-minded souls.
Big venues are less personal on a couple of levels. For one thing, the audience is mostly “out there” in the darkness – or even in the light, they are more of a blur. But if things are going well, there are always enthusiasts up front tramping down the dirt within a few songs, and then you feel that audience connection.
The sound is much more separated on big stages, and not nearly as loud and cohesive as in a small club, so it isn’t quite as easy to “feel the rumble” (as a bass player, that’s my primary personal goal.) And the other band members can be physically miles away, so communication is not as easy. A cueing eyebrow raise doesn’t carry much more than 3-4 meters.
KC: You recently played a gig in Hua Hin. Tell me of something that went a little overboard on the sloppy side. On or off stage. What did you get just right?
CC: Actually, that one earlier this month – at Father Ted’s Irish pub – went off without incident, really. The band has been a bit more restrained this year in terms of the partying. So have the Rolling Stones.
On the up side, the audience was a sold out crowd of mostly enthusiastic retirees, but a lot of younger folks this time out as well. Singer Eric worked his mojo really well that night, and the band was up for it and tight. The crowd were cheering their heads off throughout, which is always great. You know they liked it when they actually recognize the bass player offstage. All of the patrons seem to have a story about the time they saw the Stones in 1968 at the Marquee in London, or in Texas in 1972 – or last year in Berlin. These people are fans.
KC: You’ve got the headliner billing coming up at the Ploenchit Fair. What can music fans expect to find there? Why should they come out there for all or part of the day?
As it says on the package, it is a fun day out for the whole family. For me, the Ploenchit Fair has always been about running into people I haven’t seen all year, or less frequently that I might have liked to. There are games, rides and other activities for the kids I am told, though mostly over the years (at least until we started playing there two years ago), I have just sat with old friends, drank beer and eaten food from the countless vendors. If that is your plan, you might not want to come right at the 10am start of the day – or at least not if you still want to be conscious by the time Midnight Ramblers take the stage at 7pm. That would be a long session.
There are a lot of good bands on the roster this year – Cotton Mouth is one, headed up by the ubiquitous excellent keyboard player and singer Keith Nolan. Then there is the fun and funky Big Backyard – both featuring excellent musicians. We’re really looking forward to it – the band will be sharp as a tack and ready to rock the big stage.
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