Foreigner's 4 is the record that rocked D.C. Cooper's world while growing up in Pennsylvania. And "Jukebox Hero" from that 1981 album, he recalls, made him realize he was destined to play in a band when he grew up. Cooper identified with Lou Gramm when he sang about that kid in the rain whose gotta keep on rockin' because someday he's gonna make it to the top. More than twenty years later, at age 36, Cooper has come to identify with Gramm in more ways than one during a rock 'n' roll odyssey that has taken the opera-trained vocalist from runner-up in Judas Priest's quest to replace Rob Halford to hired front man in Royal Hunt and finally to leader of Silent Force, which recently released its heavy-as-hell second album, Infatuator. In each of these bands, Cooper was (and is) the lone American — just as Gramm remained the lone American in Foreigner's original lineup for years. "Fortunately, everybody I've worked with speaks pretty decent English," Cooper told Michael Popke, explaining that language barriers he's encountered with Germans (Silent Force), Russians and Danes (Royal Hunt), and Norwegians and Greeks (his solo band) have been minor. "I post a sign in the studio that reads, 'Speak English.' It's easier saying something just once in English."
D.C. Cooper is proud of his heritage, and he has high hopes for American metal fans. Infatuator, the second album by the singer's band, Silent Force, is the group's first U.S. release, and it firmly roots itself in the heavy metal vein of British bands like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden. Unlike those groups, though, Cooper and Co. manage to free themselves of metal clichés and serve up a stirring album packed with emotion, depth and more melody than either Priest or Maiden has summoned in years. Could D.C. Cooper, after paying his dues on the local club circuit in Pittsburgh and essentially as a hired hand in Royal Hunt, finally be standing on the brink of receiving the respect he deserves?
"My dad said the other night that if he were me, he'd have given up years ago," Cooper says, confident that his music will still catch on with listeners in his native country and soar to newer heights in Europe and beyond. "When I bow out, I will do so knowing I've earned people's respect as a singer and a person.
Cooper — the "D.C." stands for "Donald Christopher" — isn't bowing out any time soon. In fact, one could argue that he's just now reaching his professional zenith. Infatuator, released late last year on InsideOut Music America, contains the most aggressive, most intelligent and heaviest music he's ever recorded. For example, three of the album's 13 tracks ("Hear Me Calling," "Promised Land" and "Last Time") address either directly or indirectly the death of Cooper's brother, Christopher, 15 years ago at age 22. And "Trilogy," a 12-minute, three-song epic that represents the album's only weapons-and-warriors indulgence, explores the lives of gladiators. "Those men were in the middle of riches, food and women one day, and dead in the middle of a coliseum the next," Cooper says. "Survival back then was so much harder, even though life was so much easier. I've always had this fascination with death — not that I'm going to go out and hang myself to see what it's like on the other side. But I read about the afterlife, and I think this life sets us up for what's coming next. I think there is something bigger than what we're going through now."
While Silent Force's 2000 debut, The Empire of Future (which IOMA plans to release in the States for the first time later this year) sounds like a hybrid of Cooper's 1999 self-titled solo album and his work with Royal Hunt, Infatuator represents a more stylized approach that accentuates Cooper's far-reaching voice. In fact, the man singing the rousing anthem "We Must Use the Power" sounds radically different than the one singing the soaring power ballad "In Your Arms." Sometimes, he even sings with what some listeners might detect as a slight accent — an observation that makes Cooper chuckle. "Any kind of accent you hear is probably not intentional," he says. "That just comes from hanging around so many Europeans."
Cooper speaks smoothly in a voice that belies his majestic vocals, displaying dry wit, friendly gestures and a welcome absence of pretentiousness — as if the guy just pulled up the stool next to you in a bar and engaged you in casual conversation. And his passion this mid-December evening is discussing the very real possibility that Silent Force could become a vital force on the U.S. melodic metal scene.
The band is the brainchild of Cooper and ex-Primal Fear guitarist Alexander Beyrodt, the man Cooper considers his closest friend since Christopher's death. After the release of The Empire of Future in Europe, Silent Force hit the road with Stratovarius and played several European gigs before getting busy on Infatuator in early 2001. Unlike the debut, whose material was written almost exclusively by Cooper and Beyrodt, much of Infatuator — a term coined by Cooper meaning a person who inspires foolish or unreasonable love or attraction — was composed as a group effort between Cooper, Beyrodt, keyboard player Torsten Röhre, drummer Andre Hilgers and new bassist Jürgen Steinmetz. The band played subsequent one-off gigs in Paris, Wacken and Pittsburgh.
That show in the States was Cooper's first performance in his homeland since Royal Hunt played a handful of U.S. gigs in 1995. The concert, which featured most of the songs from The Empire of Future, the title cut from Infatuator, a cover of Judas Priest's "All Guns Blazing" and Royal Hunt's "River of Pain," convinced IOMA chief Jim Pitulski — who released Cooper's solo album a few years ago — to take a chance on Silent Force. That accomplishment tasted extra sweet, considering the trouble surrounding the show: Most of the members of Silent Force were detained in customs on their way to the States, the original venue's doors were shuttered by the IRS prior to the concert and Symphony X (with whom Silent Force was sharing the bill) pulled out of the gig earlier in the week.
At ProgPower USA, a progressive- and power-metal event now in its second year, Cooper was slated to perform two songs with Vanden Plas, one of Silent Force's labelmates. But when the band canceled, he decided to make the trek to Atlanta, Georgia, anyway to promote advance copies of Infatuator and meet with fans. To Cooper's surprise, most of ProgPower USA's attendees were familiar with his background and had obtained an import-only copy of The Empire of Future through various mail-order companies now operating in the States. "One 16-year-old kid who plays guitar came up to me and said, 'I don't want to play four-chord songs,'" Cooper recalls. "That's really promising for me to hear. That means people want to hear melodic guitar payers who really play and singers who really sing. I'm hoping that's a sign that people are just getting tired of what's happening on the radio."
There's no doubt that Cooper can sing. Trained by renowned opera teacher Charlotte Coleman, his vocal talent landed him in the running to replace Rob Halford in Judas Priest back in 1994. "I just about dropped the phone," Cooper recalls about his initial contact with the band, which was looking for someone who could sing like Halford but didn't necessarily embody his persona. At the time of his Judas Priest audition, Cooper was fronting a Pittsburgh pop-metal band called Tung Bandits that "had the hair but no spandex," he says.
When Tim "Ripper" Owens ultimately was named Halford's replacement, Cooper wasn't surprised. Owens is deserving of the slot, he says, recalling that Owens' former Priest tribute band, British Steel, once opened for Tung Bandits. "I thought my sound guys had put on a Judas Priest CD," Cooper remembers. "He's perfect for it. I just don't know what would have happened to my career after that. I would probably have been known as the guy who replaced Rob Halford." Cooper also feared he might be dismissed after one album and one tour. (Incidentally, Silent Force performs Priest's "All Guns Blazing" on Infatuator to let listeners hear "what it would be like if I had been in that band," Cooper says.)
The Judas Priest auditions happened around the same time that Royal Hunt — a keyboard-heavy band out of Copenhagen, Denmark, in need of a new singer before beginning their first-ever Japanese tour — approached Cooper. The day after Christmas 1994, following a brief negotiation period, Cooper left the States for Denmark to begin rehearsals for the tour, which began in three weeks. A dozen rehearsals later, Cooper took the stage with Royal Hunt in front of 2,500 Japanese fans, singing material from the band's first two albums, Land of Broken Hearts and Clown in the Mirror, which were recorded with dismissed vocalist Henrick Brockmann. "I had notes and lyrics taped all over the stage," Cooper remembers.
After recording Moving Target, Paradox and a live record with Royal Hunt — he also made guest appearances on albums by Explorers Club, Pink Cream 69, Shadow Gallery and Victory — Cooper decided to make his own solo album. After all, he'd already garnered two consecutive Top Vocalist awards in Japan's Burrn! magazine's prestigious annual reader's poll. "At the end of the 1997 Paradox tour, Andre [Anderson, Royal Hunt's guitarist and keyboard player] made it clear to everyone that he wanted to take a break for about a year," Cooper recalls. "I just looked at him and said, 'Come on, man. We're not Van Halen. We just can't take a break.'"
But break they did. During Royal Hunt's hiatus, Anderson released his own solo record (Changing Skin) in 1999, a few months prior to Cooper's, "which totally blew my mind," the singer says, surprised by Anderson's competitiveness. Cooper's contract with the band also lapsed during this time, and just when band and vocalist were close to signing a new agreement, Royal Hunt posted on its web site that Cooper had been let go. Artension's John West eventually replaced him. "I have never talked to Andre about it," he says, adding that to this day he doesn't know why he was fired. And at this point, he doesn't seem to care. "They said I was not true to the soul of the band. I'll even take the blame. If that's what people want to think, that's fine. I've really stayed very politically correct over the years about it. I don't get too far into details."
Perhaps it's that level of emotional maturity that enabled Cooper to subconsciously write about his deceased brother so openly on Infatuator. "Last Time" paints a vivid, gut-wrenching portrait of the singer's psychological state in the wake of Christopher's passing: "One night I thought I saw him/Walk outside my window/But I know it's in my head/Deepest recess of a mind/That warped with memories/Likes to keep things left unsaid/If I ask of you/Try and help me see what's true/I'll close the book and walk away."
"Alex was the one who brought it up," Cooper remembers about realizing specific songs were about his brother. "At first, I didn't even realize I was doing it. When Alex said that, I had to sit down for the rest of the evening, have a stiff cocktail and try to figure everything out. Christopher's death changed my family forever and how we interact together. I would have traded my life for his in a heartbeat, because I feel something more could have come of his life than my own life. But God has kept me here for a reason."
Indeed, in addition to sharing his vocal and musical talents with an increasing legion of listeners around the world, Cooper is now coaching local singers and producing a variety of Pittsburgh-area artists, including one band with a "Molly Hatchet feel," a rockabilly country singer whose music carries three- and four-part harmonies, and an 18-year-old woman with a "Britney kind of style" for whom he's also writing all of the music.
Cooper is working on a new solo album, too, which he says will follow the vein of his first one, a more laid-back affair than Royal Hunt and certainly Silent Force. Production on that record is expected to wrap this spring.
Most exciting for Cooper right now, though, is a seven-country Silent Force tour beginning in March that he hopes to turn into a nine-country journey by adding gigs in the United Kingdom and the United States — the ultimate goal for the band's only American. The mere fact that Infatuator is readily available in the States is already a major turning point in Cooper's career. "It really makes me feel good that I can do this kind of music over here, and people are getting into it," he says about capturing the ears and hearts of listeners in America. "I'm extremely hopeful, and I still have faith."