Darren Cooper and Three Hour Tour – Practice Makes Perfect

“I love power pop! However, labeling Three Hour Tour as purely power pop is sometimes a little inaccurate, and makes me feel a bit straight jacketed,” Darren Cooper proclaimed as we hashed out what it is that makes his band so good. Turns out, a lot of it comes down to experience and a dedication to creating something that embodies his many influences.

Three Hour Tour (THT) has been around for more than 20 years; having emerged in 1989 from Big Hello, a trio Cooper was in with Brad Steakley(AKA Brad Elvis, drums) and Brian Sindler (bass). That group was high profile, playing 3-5 nights a week on the Midwest circuit, building a fan base and impressing even the most casual music fan. Their choice of covers was astounding and, even more so, their plethora of original material made them one of the bands to watch. You just knew that one day they were going to be the next big thing. It didn’t quite happen as expected.  “I believe we were just starting to hit our stride and jell as band when Brad was persuaded to return to The Elvis Brothers for some lucrative gigs,” Cooper recalled. “Anyway, I had all these songs, and no band.”

And thus, THT was born. A single (“Valentine’s Day”) recorded for Parasol Records kicked off a relationship which included two 7-inches and two full length releases, the latter of which (1969) ended up as number four on a Virgin Megastore London compiled list of the ten best pop CDs released in 1996 and highlighted in MOJO in February 1997. A third album (B-side Oblivion) was released a little over a decade later in 2008 on the band’s own Martian Records.

In October 2010, THT released their fourth album (Looking For Tomorrow); an engaging, endearing and aggressive album which combines all the best that rock has had to offer over the last 50 years.

And their leader, guitarist, singer and primary songwriter Cooper is a man with an appreciation … for many things … music, guitars, cars and perspective. He’s not one to let others take the easy route when describing the group. “If you listen to the title track of B Side Oblivion,” Cooper said,  “or the song “Dead Reckoning” from the last album, those songs are really, to me, more Americana, while songs like “For Now We Say Goodnight” and “All Time Low” are straight-forward, Rock.”

Cooper was born and raised in the heartland of America, a place where A.M. radio ruled and you spent your summers in the fields – working during the day and often partying at night. Growing up in farm country can be freeing. Without much to do there’s the opportunity to explore and to be exposed to many different things … some of which, when put side-by-side on the turntable or the cassette deck,seemingly would be in conflict but which make sense in the bigger picture.

Heavily influenced initially by The Beatles, Cooper then moved on to Steppenwolf, Ten Years After, The Who, The Doors, Stones, CCR and Led Zeppelin. “There was a lot of Led Zeppelin in the air,” Cooper recalled. “I mean a lot! A lot of the guitar players wanted to be Jimmy Page and all that. The drummers wanted to be Bonzo. At 12 or 13, it was Alice Cooper, Sabbath, BOC, Aerosmith… then, at about 16, it was The Ramones, The Dictators, Bowie… all the good stuff! I had an infatuation with Ted Nugent from ’76 – ’78; his band at that time was amazing live. Cheap Trick was always a favorite, especially their first album. Then I discovered SplitEnz…and later still Guided By Voices…wow!”

Music was in his life from very early on. “I got a drum kit for Christmas when I was five. It was a cheapy, called The Liverpool Combo, followed by a real kit when I was nine,” Cooper said and then continued, “one of my brothers kept playing my drums, so I got a copy of a Beatle bass. My other brother kept playing that, so I just grabbed the guitar. My first real guitar was a ’73 Gretsch Roc Jet, purchased at Samuel Music Company in Mattoon, IL. It was $405, slightly used, and I detasseled corn to pay for it.”

That Gretsch gave him the fever for more. “Some of the best guitars I have owned,” Cooper intimated, “include: ‘67 and ‘77 Gibson Byrdlands, ’74 Les Paul 20th Anniversary (which had a great tone and endless sustain), ’76 Gibson Explorer, ’76 Les Paul Custom, ’78 Dean ML, ’78 Dean V… The Deans looked cool. The Strat I have now is a really good one…great tone and plays so nice. Rick Nielsen (Cheap Trick) signed it and wrote ‘Practice, you Putz!’ – which is a compliment coming from Rick!”

As great as his arsenal is and has been, the key to Cooper’s current tone is his Hiwatt ½ stack. That sound originally dates back for him to 1979. “I was using two Fender Twins and two Dual Showman cabinets, alaNuge, and I wanted to get past all of that, I guess,” Cooper laughed. “A friend and I listened to a bunch of guitar players, and after hearing Pete Townshend and David Gilmore, I decided to go Hiwatt. We saw an ad in a guitar rag showing a picture of a Hiwatt Bulldog. DJ’s Music, in Cicero, Illinois, was listed as a dealer. The next day we were on our way North! I purchased a 100 watt Bulldog at DJ’s and a few months later bought a 100 watt stack. Regretfully, I sold all in the mid-1980’s. However…at the start of the Looking For Tomorrow sessions, I found my old ‘79 head sitting in the amplifier room at Private Studios in Urbana. It was a very happy reunion for me!”

Cooper kept his ear to the scene early on and followed the likes of Slink Rand, Skater and other local bands playing mostly covers. “My favorite local bands were Screams and The Rave,” Cooper said. “I first saw Screams at the Tuscola Community Building. Jesse Ross was supposed to be the band but couldn’t make it, THANK GOD! (no offense, Jesse). Screams were amazing, featuring a vocalist (David Adams) that would kick American Idol judges’ asses, and a drummer (Brad Steakley/Elvis) that played like Keith Moon. The Rave was just pure fun.”

Cooper’s experiences compelled him to form his own band, Hammer, a cover band that gained a healthy reputation across the region for their take on Sabbath, Cheap Trick, Bowie and The Ramones … among others. “Sonically, we probably sounded more like The Who,” said Cooper. “We didn’t have their talent, but we had their equipment: Hiwatt guitar amps, Sun Bass heads and Premier drums. We were loud. We had a great PA. In fact our PA was good enough for Motorhead at Studio One in Champaign. Yep, they used our PA!”

In the 80’s, Cooper commandeered the very popular Artificial Limbs. During that period, he was approached by Brad Elvis about forming a new band. They recruited Paul Chastain (Nines, ChooChoo Train and, later, Velvet Crush) to form The Housepets. Shortly thereafter, Chastain recruited Cooper to play guitar on both ChooChoo Train albums and tour the U.K. Big Hello followed and then came Three Hour Tour.

Cooper is in a great position. Having already built a respectable history and reputation as a guitarist/songwriter, he’s created an evengreater legacy with each release. And, along the way, he’s tapped the most talented members of his peer group to participate as members of THT. Cooper relies on drummers Brad Elvis and John Richardson (Badfinger, Gin Blossoms, The Martyrs) for album tracks. Richardson typically plays with the band live. He calls on producer wunderkind Adam Schmitt and Chastain for bass duties and Kent Whitesell (The Martyrs, Greedy Loves) to fill out the live sound as rhythm guitarist. Whitesell also engineered the 7 inches and first two CDs from the band. It’s an in demand cast of characters that help bring Cooper’s vision to reality.

Hot on the heels of their latest release, Cooper is already in in the studio polishing off THT’s fifth album. “I am really excited about the new Three Hour Tour album,” he said.  “In fact, all of the songs are written, and some of the basic tracks have already been recorded. I also plan on releasing a compilation CD called Early Three Hour Tour on Martian Records. The compilation will be released this spring/summer and the new album should be done by fall of 2011.