I was a drummer. I played with some pretty good guitar players, so I actually first picked it up around 19, just to like learn three chords so I could sit around a campfire and play. And then, playing with good players, I picked up good pieces along the way. I’m still learning, so I’ve still got a long way to go. I think I had two lessons. Then, you know, asking people that I knew – ‘show me that. Show me one little thing.’ So that’s been pretty much it; and the rest is selftaught. 

I encountered the Grateful Dead through one of my older brothers. So I would hear the Dead growing up. It wasn’t really until I turned like 18 and started doing LSD and went to see a band in Madison, Wisconsin, called Insect Fear, a psychedelic band.  And, you know, I started listening I think I think someone finally turned me on to Terrapin, which I had never heard before. And I’m like, oh, okay. This floats my boat. 

And then I  I don’t know how the transformation happened after that, but it happened. I was living in Madison and I went to school in Madison for two years and I was taking all these classes that were really cool and interesting to me and I wasn’t getting any credit toward any major, so I’m like, this is fucking ridiculous. I’m wasting my time. So I transferred looked for a school that I could study stuff that was interesting to me, which is more kind of psychology and the arts. And USCS (University of California at Santa Cruz) had an interesting program. That’s how I wound up here. Well, I will say that I did meet a girl in the parking lot of an Alpine Valley show who said ‘You should go to Santa Cruz. You would like it there.’

Photograph Lisa Sofranko

McNALLY: And there is the real story. 

COOPER: Yeah, that’s exactly it. That’s true. 

McNALLY: Tell me about your first Grateful Dead concert. 

COOPER: Alpine Valley in ’84. Opened with “Iko.” I remember we camped out. I had just come from shoulder surgery, so my arm was in a sling. I had some good psychedelics…and that’s as much as I can remember. I do remember that one of the shows the sky started filling with faces of Geraldine Ferraro (1984 Democratic Vice Presidential candidate). 

McNALLY: Well, that’s good psychedelics. 

COOPER:  And then I began with the China Cats, about 12 years ago, in ’08. I got us a gig, and I knew the owner, so I kind of felt like I didn’t want to back out of it; but my friend Gary (Gates) didn’t want to do it after I booked the date. So I called up a couple of the other guys in Gary’s band and I said, well, let’s just do it. You know, we’ll do Dead tunes we know in common and go and have fun. I said, oh, I know a bass player. It’s Roger Sideman and he said, well, I know a guy who can play the Jerry part. And I said, okay, I’ll play the Bob part and away we went. And we did that under the name Dough Knees for two years or a year, and we changed the name to the China Cats and went through a few different incarnations with personnel. And then ten years ago we did our first gig with the current lineup, which has remained steady and solid for the last ten years. Matt (Hartle) plays the leads, and I play the rhythm parts.

McNALLY: How much of you know, what do you think about Bob Weir’s approach to the guitar? 

COOPER: It’s inventive, but I think From my ear, he had to evolve his playing style depending on the keyboard player, because when Brent came and started playing the organ, Bob had to totally change his tone and to fit within the tamber of what was going on with the organ in there. And I think if he would have done what he was doing in ’73 with an organ player, he would have blended into this mess. So that’s just my take 

Photograph Lisa Sofranko

But to get back to the China Cats, Matt really brings gravitas to the band. He’s a fiery player. And he he goes for it. He’s got great tone. He knows the knows the material really well. He’s educated and he’s got a degree in music, so he can recolor things and he can hear the color notes; and when someone shifts, he can usually follow pretty quickly or respond. And I think everyone at this point everyone looks up to Matt as kind of a de facto leader, partially, because he’s a Jerry role; and partially because of his musical attitude. And then he has developed a reputation on his own from doing these Sunday shows down at Michael’s on Main (a Santa Cruz-area restaurant with a big Dead Head scene). 

As for me, I’m not an over-player. And I think that’s one of my strengths. Matt is gung ho, soloing and the keyboard player gets pretty active himself. There is not a lot for me to say other than, you know, longer notes and more legato stuff and leaving air, and leaving spaces. 

Roger Sideman, our bass player, is great. Roger is like a brother, and he knows the stuff. Everyone knows the stuff, which is great. I trust Rog. I trust everyone in the band, musically. You know, if we do a song that we’ve never done before, we have never even rehearsed, I have full confidence that everyone is going to nail it, because everyone knows it. Roger’s got a good head on his shoulders and he’s got a good musical sense and he listens. 

On keys, Steve [Sofranko] really knows his shit. And he’s amassed a selection of keyboards now, so he can get that sound from like “Alabama Getaway” from the record, and you know that era stuff. And, you know, he’s had the luxury of being able to study all the different keyboard players. Whereas, Brent, obviously, comes in and all he had to listen to was, essentially, Keith and a little bit of, you know, TC and whatnot; but Steve can come in and he can say, well, this is what Vince would have done. This is what Brent would have done. This is what Keith would have done. And so he’s got a hand in with the Leslie. He’s got the Moog, he’s got the Nord piano. He’s got the electric keyboard. He’s got a wide selection of tones at his disposal and he uses them properly. 

Michael Owens on drums. He is a real free drummer. Which, you know, if I’m doing original material, may not be the most perfect mix, or not necessarily original material  but, you know, some songs where you just want straight backbeat if you’re playing, you know, “Mustang Sally” or something. And other songs like playing where you want a drummer to be, I guess, free is the best free and jazzy is the best way to think of it; and Michael nails that free and jazzy element. 

As to being a Dead Head, I know everyone’s got their own relationship with the Dead. Some people are in it for the dancing. Some people are in it for the scene. Some people are in it for the family. Some people are in it for the lyrics. Personally, for me, it’s a combination of their musical attitude towards performing and the sweetness of the song writing. 

Playing in Ventura is terrific. I think that having the two stages was a master stroke. That was brilliant, particularly when one band ended with “China Cat” and then the other band on the other stage started playing “I Know You Rider” at the same time as the first band faded out.

McNALLY: I was so proud of them. I just thought they did that so well. 

Photograph Steve Kennedy

Pandemic Update

Well, I do remember my girlfriend and I were visiting family down in Palm Springs early in March and we got on the plane to come home (to Santa Cruz). We both felt like we were just getting out right in the nick of time getting on this airplane like if we were there a day later, it would be a little more gnarly. I’ve been, knock on wood, fortunate that no one in my immediate family got it. I had a couple friends get it, and one childhood buddy of mine got it pretty bad. He’s recovered. But no, I was fortunate that way. And even Covid couldn’t get in the way of my work with the luthier Rick Turner (one of the founders of Alembic)…thank god. 

China Cats were down as a band for a year and a few months. We did our first gig in June (2021) with the full band. Now certain guys were gigging regularly—Matt (Hartle, also a China Cat) was gigging regularly because he had the Sunday at Michael’s on Main [popular Dead Head restaurant in Santa Cruz] thing that he kept doing; and I did some of those with him. They put a stage up in the front patio too. They covered it. So when it wasn’t mandated or anything to be completely shut down, we could play. They stayed open and had all the music outdoors. Matt kept that going. I did a few of those with Matt. I think the drummer and the bass player maybe did a few; but our keyboard player Steve Sofranko, he was on the more cautious side of Covid, and I think his first thing out was when we played this wedding this past June. So that was the first official China Cats thing. 

So as an alternative I did weekly streams like a lot of people did. I did some recording. Did a lot of gardening and—hold on a second. Yeah, I did some outdoor gigs here and there, besides Michael’s. You know, there is a gig that I play, an outdoor music festival where they’re certainly not very concerned about Covid. I did one last year, I think with Sarno [Brad Sarno is a Wall of News columnist and well-known electronics maker.] And Rob Koritz from DSO. Rob and I just did it two weeks ago with a couple of guys from Jerry’s Middle Finger. So, you know, just little things like that. The wedding gig was outdoors up in the Sierras, just when things had reopened. I felt comfortable. There was a lot of space between us and everyone else. It was outdoors and it was someone’s private property, had a few acres so there was plenty of space and I don’t remember feeling pressured about that. You know, there are some indoor gigs that I’ve done and I felt very uncomfortable and I have a couple coming up too, but we try to mitigate those when we can. 

But I’m looking forward to Skull and Roses. We’ve played it in the past, and I loved the fact that there are two stages and I love the—I loved the idea that Cubensis and whoever the other band was one did “China Cat” from one stage and then the other band did “Rider” from the other, a perfect segue. That’s beautiful. I wish I were there for that. Chris is a cool dude. I like Chris. We’re happy to be involved. I never saw the Dead at Ventura, so I heard a lot of stories, good and bad, friends getting hassled by the security, but I don’t know. But this gig is kind of my way to relive that without being there in the first place.