For many people, the 2012 film Searching for Sugar Man was their introduction to the music of Sixto Rodriguez.
Not Davey Ray Moor and Liam McKahey, who were already fans of Rodriguez when they formed the London-based Cousteau circa the late 1990s. So while the documentary provided others with their first taste of the forgotten Detroit musician, its release did something else for Moor and McKahey: factor into the first step toward them re-establishing their partnership after more than a decade apart.
Billing themselves as CousteauX, songwriter-instrumentalist Moor and singer McKahey are back with a new album, available now in digital form and due Sept. 22 in CD and LP formats via Silent X Recordings. The self-titled, 10-track effort is as moody and cinematic as Cousteau’s first two albums (both of which featured Moor and McKahey). After-hours piano, upright bass and soft horns once again contribute to the stylish atmosphere — and then there is McKahey’s alluring croon, still a classy, comfortable and convincing fit for Moor’s songs.
Moor recently checked in to discuss his approach to writing the material for the CousteauX album, how Searching for Sugar Man played a part in reuniting with McKahey and other topics.
Medleyville.us: If Wikipedia is to be believed, you left Cousteau after 2002’s Sirena in order “to pursue production jobs in Italy.” Was that the primary reason, or were there issues with the other guys in the group or with the band’s then-label, Palm Pictures, that contributed to your departure?
Davey Ray Moor: “Wikipedia and the internet never lie — we know that! There is substantial truth in this, but I think it is fairer to admit there was a constellation of issues exerting their gravity on my decision-making at the time. Our record company was falling apart, I was being offered exciting work in Italy and the U.K., my girlfriend — I married her — was just about to have a baby, and I just wanted a change.
“We’d worked doggedly for years launching Cousteau, and band years are like dog years. So much happens: It is all so intense, and a lot of fatigue and weariness begins to corrode the sense of shared mission — every band will tell you this. I think much like divorces, band breakups revolve around people who once loved each other passionately, but when members fall out with one another, it brings forth the absolute worst of emotions.”
What did you think of Cousteau’s third album, Nova Scotia — and were you aware that the band was going to continue without you?
Moor: “Yes, sure, I was aware the band was going to continue without me — that was my idea! So I was delighted to know the thing we worked so hard to establish was going to enjoy a reincarnation. I could hear the absence of the things I do well on that album, no question. I think Blur without Graham Coxon or the Red Hot Chili Peppers without John Frusciante are similar creatures. Some people can’t hear the difference; for others, it’s a fundamental change. I think that album was a brave and valuable thing for the guys to do, and Liam stepped up and transformed himself into a seasoned songwriter, so that’s got to be a good thing.”
What were the circumstances that led to you working again with Liam, this time under the banner CousteauX?
Moor: “We had a messy divorce, like bands do. We didn’t communicate until the Rodriguez movie Searching for Sugar Man came out. Liam and I were such big fans of Rodriguez when we first started Cousteau. So in 2012, I wrote to Liam on Facebook to let him know that our private hero had now been brought to the world’s attention.
“The message had a thawing effect. Liam wrote back tentatively in November 2014, a FB message exchange occurred, and soon after we were on the phone. It wasn’t long until one of us said, ‘We had such a good thing back then — we should do it again, no?’ And from that instant onward, all the animosity drained away and we remembered that we used to be close friends and that we loved what we had achieved and how we achieved it. The truth is that getting older and having children makes you value the good things — the kind of things younger men damage and discard rather carelessly. Both Liam and myself had worked in various different projects over the years that brought us to the realization that a precious chemistry happened between us. Liam singing my songs brings into life an exquisite synergy that is irreplaceable. We’re now in a position in life where we can do this again. Cousteau’s music was always pre-aged and matured, so slipping back into those suits was easy for us.”
Did you consider bringing in any of Cousteau’s other members this time around, or did you view this as strictly a partnership between you and Liam?
Moor: “We got in touch with them all, and they weren’t particularly interested. So we did the right thing, yet in a way we realized we had an opportunity to celebrate the creative nucleus whilst making the whole thing a whole lot more viable. Many of my favorite bands are two-pieces, and I think technology and the internet means we can be a whole lot more lean and economical with the pragmatics of our situation. There is a great sense of creative excitement we now get from working from the song toward an arrangement appropriate to the song. Bands seek a signature sound, which used to mean that all members of the live act needed to be playing on every song at all times —usually. So it’s cool to focus the voice and the songs within a fresh range of textures and approaches.”
What was the first song written for the new CousteauX album — and did you approach it as you did in the past when writing material for Liam to sing?
Moor: “ ‘Memory Is a Weapon’ was the first and a point of departure for me. I had listened to Liam’s work with his act The Bodies and also with [the Tony Visconti-produced] International Blue project. I realized firstly that Liam favored darker, edgier and more sinister aesthetics, and also that a cinematic quality suited the power of his voice. So ‘Thin Red Lines’ and ‘The Innermost Light’ followed in the same vein — stretching Cousteau’s romantic vibe into something more lustful and strange. ‘The Innermost Light’ I’d written with U.K. legend Carl Barat from The Libertines, and Carl was delighted that we found a place for it with the CousteauX reboot. Our creative approach is still much the same whereby I do my part in preparation for the moment the magic happens when Liam gets up on the microphone and transforms these sketches into something timeless.”
The music business has changed in many ways since the release of Sirena. How have you and Liam progressed over the past 15 years, and whom do you envision as your audience?
Moor: “Liam has become a better, more powerful, nuanced and confident singer, if that can be believed. I think I’ve become a better songwriter, although you’ll need to be the judge of that. Maybe it’s because of the kind of music we do that age and time has assisted rather than eroded our original vision.
“The music business used to be what I call ‘disorganized crime,’ and thankfully most of those bloated middlemen have been removed. What the internet destroyed in terms of CD sales it replaced with access and a direct line to music fans. A band like CousteauX attracts a certain kind of lifelong devotion evidenced by the fact that people are as intensely into the band as they were 15 years ago. These people have lives, jobs and money, and are happy to spend 20 bucks a year ensuring that people like us keep supplying the thing that makes them happy. Our audience is global — we have 37 nations represented on our FB page — yet they seem to have a commonality in their hunger for bittersweet emotional music with both passion and delicacy. Our job now is to reconnect with the people that used to buy our CDs.”
— Introduction and interview by Chris M. Junior
Liam McKahey (left) and Davey Ray Moor. Photo by John Halfhide