Ever since he picked up a pair of drumsticks at eight years old and began playing along to a James Brown CD, Louis Cole has been chasing the funk. “It’s a feeling that is hard to describe but I know when it’s there and when it’s real,” he says. “It’s this squishy, wiggly thing – something I can’t really live without.”
As part of the jazz-funk duo Knower, as well as a frequent collaborator in LA’s improvised music scene along with the likes of bassist Thundercat and saxophonist Sam Gendel, Cole has spent the past decade creating mind-meltingly complex bedroom productions built around that squishy, wiggly thing. Layering each instrumental track himself, Cole’s three solo studio albums since his 2010 self-titled debut play like the frenetic soundtrack of a surrealist video game – all anchored by offbeat lyrics and an undeniably danceable sense of funk.
Yet it wasn’t until 2017 that Cole began to get proper recognition. It came from an unlikely source: a short novelty track about being too scared to check his bank balance. “I’m not really interested in making music that sticks to fads; I just write what I’m feeling at the time, and at that time, I was scared to check my bank account,” he laughs.
The finished product, Bank Account, “was mainly me wanting to show off how much I’d been practising the keyboard. I never expected it to take off like it did.” A video of the track – with Cole playing keys and drums – was shared online by Björk and John Mayer and ultimately earned Knower a spot opening on Red Hot Chili Peppers’ tour that same year.
“Before that, I wasn’t sure if I’d have a career, and after the track came out, things began to change. But it also meant that people thought I only wrote really dumb lyrics,” Cole says over a video call from his LA home. “I was like a meme, since people hadn’t heard all the other albums that I had put out under my name. I had so much more music to prove them otherwise.”
Recording most nights until 6am before sleeping for eight hours and then practising one of his many instruments – drums, keys, bass, guitar, vocals – for another four, Cole’s devotion to his craft has resulted in his most accomplished and well-rounded work to date, the 20-track opus Quality Over Opinion. Beginning with an orchestral spoken-word piece on the struggle to achieve authenticity in his music, the album sees Cole meander from free jazz freakouts (Bitches), to tender, balladic intimacy (Laughing in Her Sleep), and even extol the virtues of oral sex (the 70s clavinet funk of Park Your Car on My Face). It is a sprawling record; one that demands attention, not only in its unpredictable themes but through its innate flow of thumping groove.
The slap bass syncopations of single I’m Tight provide the perfect example of Cole’s intricate, funk-centric process. “The two years I spent not touring during Covid let me write out all the ideas I had stuck in my head, and one was to create a track from piecing together different 16-bar sections of funk,” he says. “I ended up making almost 100 of these little funk [sections] because it was so meditative. The hard part was stitching them together into a coherent song that wouldn’t sound like a collage of shit. I’m still not sure how I’ll work it out live!”
It’s a challenge for me to try to write a song about sex that is as fun as the act itself but not corny
Cole’s live presence is a force to be reckoned with. The last time he was in London, in 2021, he was accompanied by a full brass section and backing singers wearing skeleton suits, while a crew member would end Cole’s lightning-speed drum solo by coming on stage to smash a prop chair over his head. “It’s a filtered version of me when I’m on stage,” Cole says of these theatrics. “I love having fun with the audience but my default mode in real life is shyness and I have to try to break out of that. One of the things I do is wear sunglasses – the bigger the better – because I don’t want anyone to see my eyes. That freaks me out.”
Cole is so shy that he won’t turn on the camera for our call, choosing to speak softly over the blank screen instead. He seems to live in two opposing states: the loud performer on stage, often shirtless and clad in huge sunglasses, while at home he spends hours alone, practising in isolation. Which side does he prefer?
“I feel like writing is what I’ve been put here to do,” he says after a pause. “It’s my favourite thing in the world and I really try to create from a place of introspection, to make something deep and emotional, since so much of what is released otherwise is chasing validation or money, and you can hear that in the music.”
For someone so keen on authenticity and emotional depth, though, Cole’s songs are often pretty tongue in cheek (see After the Load Is Blown on 2018’s Time LP for a ripe example). “Just because something has quality doesn’t mean it has to be serious,” he says. “It’s a challenge for me to try to write a song about sex that is as fun as the act itself but not corny – it’s still worthwhile.”
Sex songs notwithstanding, that emphasis on craft and playfulness comes from Cole’s upbringing in jazz. His father worked as an ER doctor but played piano in his spare time – “He sounds like Bill Evans, he’s really good,” Cole enthuses – and between his stints playing along to James Brown, they would jam through jazz standards together. “It was the luckiest upbringing because he became my musical education,” Cole says. “Funk is fun but with jazz you can just go wild with it – it’s so open-minded and experimental, which I love.”
He counts his parents as some of his biggest fans now and that free-form experimentation he learned as a youngster is what continues to drive Cole’s creativity, whether it’s in instrumental virtuosity or unexpected lyrical themes. “I put as much energy and love and spirit as I could into these songs,” he says. “I hope people can feel it.” And is he happy with the funk he produced? “Oh yeah, it’s all over it. I’m just waiting for the next wave to hit me.”
Quality Over Opinion is out on 14 October on Brainfeeder.