Some of you in the Kansas City or St. Joseph, Missouri area may have recently noticed a new paper on newsstands named Tuning Fork Magazine. If the writing of the cover story seemed familiar; there is a reason. It was conceived as a side project of Vocals On Top. Because that magazine is in print, there are certain limitations, mainly article length. I’m not sure of the exact number of words that had to be cut from my intended article but it was significant, something like 20-30%. I did not make these cuts and was not asked to do so. I would like to present to you the full, unedited article on local rock icon Todd Cooper right here on Vocals On Top.
If you didn’t get a hard copy of the magazine you can read it here and pick up a copy of issue #2 featuring the ambitious young men from the band Radkey. Here is the original, unedited version of the Todd Cooper article:
The transfer of a single dollar bill from one high school kid’s hand to another’s created the thrash-rock monster that is Todd Cooper. While on the way to Record Wear House, an unimpressed friend took Todd Cooper’s wrinkled up dollar bill in exchange for a cassette tape of Metallica’s 1986 magnum opus Master of Puppets and the life of one of St. Joseph, Missouri’s most notable musicians was forever altered.
“Master of Puppets changed everything” Cooper says, “All I ever wanted to be was James Hetfield.” His admiration of the Metallica frontman led to the formation of his first band back in 1987 and started the career of a lifelong St. Joseph musician. “I paid a dollar for Master of Puppets and that is my favorite record of all time.” Cooper says with a chuckle. He remains the same dedicated music fan he always has been. “I’m still the fan boy I was when I was 14.” he says, and later would add “I’m an adult just as long as I’m required to be.”
Todd Cooper is a member of four local bands: Full Power, Third Wounded Man, It, and Blue Oyster Culture Club. He is also the brainchild, owner and manager of local business Twilight Gardens. He plays hard rock music and is considered one of the nicest people in town and his friends and family mean the world to him. His nice guy image isn’t at all unwarranted; he gladly sat down with me for over and hour and a half and said he would answer any questions that I had. Our interview was set in the underbelly of Cooper’s business where concrete lawn statues are created.
Cooper plays guitar and fronts longtime local band Full Power who were active from 1987 to about 2009. He is also a member of high-profile cover band Blue Oyster Culture Club who occasionally draws over 1000 people to their shows. Cooper is active in the band Third Wounded Man who is less thrash metal and has more of a Clutch type of sound providing a significant difference in sounds between them and Full Power. Third Wounded Man is an extension of what Full Power was in many ways. The band was mainly formed as a way for Cooper to remain writing original music. Another one of his bands, It, plays songs based on movies as part of one big concept. None of those bands is active in the bars every weekend anymore as Cooper has become as he puts it “more experienced” as he refused to refer to himself as more “mature.”
You can’t really talk about Todd Cooper’s music without mentioning Bill Blizzard. Blizzard is a long time drummer of Cooper’s and has played in every band with him except for It. The whole reason Cooper plays guitar is because of Blizzard’s inability to pick it up as quickly as he did on the drums. Cooper knew that he had to play guitar because that was the only way he could be in a band with his longtime friend, thus starting the 20 plus year career of Full Power. Blizzard was even with Cooper on that monumental day when he bought Master of Puppets (though he wasn’t the one who sold it to him.) Cooper and Blizzard retired Full Power as a working band in 2009, but when talking to Cooper it is easy to see in his eyes and the way he mentions the group that they will always be his true passion. Cooper and Blizzard poured their hearts into the group for years. “We didn’t go to parties or go out boozing it up, we were playing music in a basement.” Blizzard says.
Full Power never did become a lucrative project for the friends. “We never, ever made money on Full Power,” drummer Bill Blizzard says. “ We drove to St. Louis and made just enough money to cover gas once.” This kind of story isn’t uncommon for bands. This was by no means an isolated incident for Full Power as well. The group did manage to make some waves from their medium sized Midwest town. “Music has never been about money for me,” Blizzard says. “ If it was I would’ve stopped before I started.” The band’s level of success peaked when they drew interest from well known label Roadrunner Records. Full Power’s music was sought out by the label but ultimately the label declined signing them in favor of looking for the next big band similar to their best selling act at the time: Nickelback. Full Power isn’t a thing of the past however; they still play occasional shows, most recently a reunion show last fall.
The local music scene was definitely affected by Full Power. They would influence other local bands to start playing and still remain a piece of St. Joseph’s music history. Their musical children are still around town and Cooper has heard by way of members of other bands that Full Power was an influence for them. “That to me, is the greatest thing we ever did,” Cooper says, “I can never say thank you strong enough when I hear that.” Cooper’s role in local music is as an example and not so much as a leader. “I’m not the ‘go support your local music guy’ like I probably should be.” He would go on to explain that is it simply not his scene to go to bars.
The local music that means the most to Cooper has more to do with attitude than talent. “I connect with people putting their heart into things.” he says. He repeatedly emphasized how much more important a musician putting their heart into what they do is than how talented they are. He thinks that he made up for his own lack of natural talent by putting himself all the way into his music and not holding anything back. “I didn’t have much talent, I definitely didn’t have the singing voice, but by God I had heart. I meant everything I said and did. Cooper is a ‘true,’ he explains a ‘true’ as: “A real music fan, someone who got it, were called ‘trues’… people who were true fans.” Cooper says. “My heart will always be leaving high school, turning on my truck and putting in something like Testament and almost bending the steering wheel in half with it.” How much more “true” can you get?
The shocking thing about Cooper is that his personality is very much in conflict with his style of music. Much of the music of Full Power, It and Third Wounded Man is heavy and often thrash metal. You would never know it by Cooper’s smile. He has the ability to channel the beast when the stage lights are on but hardly carries that persona with him after a show. That isn’t to say a smile doesn’t creep onto his face when he is performing though; when playing with Full Power he would say “There aren’t supposed to be any smiles in metal, but man, I’m having so much fun…”
Twilight Gardens features lawn statues, birdbaths, and many other stone lawn ornaments. Rows of molded concrete line the winding path through the small yard outside. Some sections have kittens and bunnies, while another contains gargoyles and Frankensteins and is not too far from the section full of angels and religious figurines. The basement of the adjacent house is where the statues are made, and the location of my opportunity to speak with Cooper. The cement mixer churned in the next room providing the ambiance for the conversation. Cement dust covered the shelves and figures still in production as a Twilight Gardens employee tore open bags of quick-crete to feed the hungry cement mixer. Cooper repeatedly insisted that, like making music, he was doing something that he loved. “The only thing older than my love of music in my life is the love of this,” He says while reflecting on when it began. “I remember being in the second grade and telling my parents I wanted to do this for a living.”
The seeds of Twilight Gardens started when Cooper was just a kid and his father would buy statues in bulk and bring them back to the area for resale. People would wait all year for the Cooper family’s yard sale so they could buy the statues. This simple means to a little extra income eventually turned into an every day job. He and his father started the business back in 2001, and they were business partners for a week before Cooper would lose his father. The name itself is a tribute to his parents: “Twilight” being a tribute to The Twilight Zone TV show and “Gardens” from his love of working in the garden with his parents when he was young at twilight.
He consistently jokes about it not being work or a real job because he enjoys it so much. Always striving to be better he has his sights on becoming a better sculptor. He makes about 40 new molds per year and says that his favorite one is always the next one he is making. In a business dominated by people that are 20 years older than him, he feels like he has a fresh take giving him an edge. He doesn’t paint the statues the traditional way and his stock isn’t the normal selection you would see at a standard similar business. He stocks more Frankensteins and gargoyles, and firmly believes there is a strong market for those types of statues. He must be right: he says he has sold tens of thousands of statues from the small local business. He humbly estimates that about 90% of the statues he sees around town came from the dirty workshop in which we were doing the interview.
A song is still never far from his mind even while at work. He writes songs in his head all day and that seems to be his true artistic outlet. He doesn’t consider himself an artist for doing the statues; he gladly accepts the compliment but doesn’t necessarily agree with the sentiment when somebody calls him that. Music and his work with Twilight Gardens are very much connected in his mind. He has been known to create pieces and give them to musicians. He has given them to many of his heroes as an expression of appreciation for what he has gained from them. He feels so strongly about the music that he listens to that he feels it is a small way to give back a tiny piece of himself in exchange for all that the artists have given him with their music. Music seems to humble the already humble Cooper whether he is creating it or listening to it.
The connection between Twilight Gardens and Todd Cooper’s music is evident when you talk to him. His eyes light up the same way when he talks about listening to Metallica’s Ride The Lightening for the first time or when he talks about touring a statuary shop for the first time when he was young. Family is a very important thing to him and he incorporates that into everything he does. The Twilight Gardens business is heavily influence by his parents, especially his father and in his music, he treats his bandmates as if they were family. He even claims that his favorite part of making music is getting together with his closest friends. One thing is for certain: Todd Cooper is a genuine guy and if he is doing something, there is no doubt that his heart is in it.