How to Cooke (A Respected Halifax Journalist)

By Geoff Tobin

With three Best News Writer awards from the Coast, a band as his namesake, and a bundle of artists with kind words about his work, the Chronicle Herald’s arts and entertainment reporter has made a name for himself in Halifax out of his passion for music and movies.

600cooke


Members of The Deluxe Boys crowded around Cooke’s parents’ car during his first year at University of King’s College. From left to Right: Jay Ferguson, Cooke, John Gould, and Matt Murphy.

Related Links

Stephen Cooke and journalists from Boston and London, England share words and pictures about the arts in their online blog. Flex your cultural muscles at: http://tsutpen.blogspot.comRead Stephen Cooke online at The Chronicle Herald’s Entertainment page: http://www.thechronicleherald.ca/EntertainmentCheck out The Coast, and their “Best Of Halifax’s” Readers Poll archives at: http://www.thecoast.caWatch for updates, and hear from actors and crew about local filmmaker Jay Eisner’s upcoming film Streets of Domination:
http://www.myspace.com/streetsofdominationGet news about Stephen Cooke And The Respected Halifax Journalists, Wolf at: http://www.radiatorcollective.com/wolf

Check out the Just Friend’s Records artist roster at Just Friends’ homepage: http://www.justfriends.ca

slide show
Links will open in a new window

By Geoff Tobin

When the Chronicle Herald’s arts and entertainment reporter Stephen Cooke turned 40 in August, he dropped his evening duties at Halifax bars, theatres, and concert halls, and headed to the Big Apple for something he’s longed for since his days as a student.

He saw another concert.

Two decades after hearing Beastie Boys’ 1985 hit song She’s On It while attending University of King’s College, Cooke experienced the legendary hip-hop trio live.

And he didn’t even have to run back to the office to file a story about it.

“It’s kind of weird when I’m at a show, and I don’t have a note pad,” Cooke says, “I’m fidgeting, because I’m so used to writing things down.”

A month later, fresh off the mic for his weekly radio show and after a week including Billy Talent, Brad Paisley, Tragically Hip, the Atlantic Film Festival, and the North-by-North End Festival, Cooke sits down with a bottle of water outside Dalhousie University’s CKDU radio station headquarters.

He doesn’t hesitate when asked what he would change about his job.

“I’d put more hours in the day.”

Cooke began at the Chronicle Herald while working at local music station C100.

Changes in C100’s required spoken-word content left the station with more time for music, and lost Cooke his job.

In 1997, the Herald brought him onboard full-time for the East Coast Music Awards. Since then, he’s become a valued source for music and movie coverage, reviewing shows at venues as big as the Metro Centre, and as tiny as the North End’s One World Café.

He devotes his late nights, column inches, and music-savvy humour in the Herald’s Nightclub Notebook to local musicians whenever possible.

“The independent music scene is something I can never cover enough of,” says Cooke.

“The last five years has been one of the most creative periods for local music that I can remember.”

One With the Music

Cooke started writing at Prince Andrew High School in Dartmouth, when the Herald published student profiles and student-written concert and play reviews.

Cooke explains, “I wrote this play-by-play of Snow Queen Pageant. I caught a lot of flak for it . . . it was very sarcastic.”

Cooke later studied Journalism at King’s, where he began playing with the band The Deluxe Boys alongside Jay Ferguson (Sloan), Matt Murphy (Cityfield, The Super Friendz), and John Gould.

Cooke and Ferguson first met at the used record store where Cooke shopped and Ferguson worked. The two became friends, and Cooke began writing songs and playing bass with The Deluxe Boys at gigs at Gottingen Street’s The Flamingo, and around Halifax.

“He always wanted to play music in a local band,” Ferguson remembers.

“He’s always been very supportive of local music, because he comes from it.”

Cooke says the demand of rehearsing kept him from pursuing music, but his close relationship with musicians didn’t stop there.

“He’s just generally an easy-going guy to talk to,” says Ferguson.

“His love of music spilled over into being a good reporter . . . He’s a top notch journalist.”

Since his days with The Deluxe Boys, Cooke has kept a close eye on the musicians that have come and gone in Halifax, and made friends with many of them along the way.

“You sit down and have a conversation with someone,” Cooke says, “then, you write about them, and then you keep seeing them around, and you have this connection.”

Cooke says he’d had his “wrists slapped” at C100 for trying to draw attention to local music.

At the Herald, Cooke can pick which artists to cover, and he balances his coverage of mainstream acts and Hollywood movies with local CD releases, film premieres, and festivals.

“It’s a wildly creative time for local music . . . we’ve had a lot more concerts come here lately,” Cooke explains, “and the film scene is bursting (with) young filmmakers who were making short films the last few years, and now they’re starting to make features.”

While Cooke’s “Snow Queen-Pageant” sarcasm occasionally shows up in reviews, Cooke keeps his criticism of shows on the technical side – venue choices, and sound quality – and says he tries to see the show within the context of its audience.

“It’d be a mistake to go into (Brad Paisley) saying ‘Oh boy, I’ve got a bunch of rednecks’ . . . You can’t really fault someone for style, especially when there’s 10,000 people who strongly disagree with you.”

Cooke occasionally receives feedback praising or criticizing his articles, but his openness to different forms of music has made him a hero amongst local musicians, and a reliable source for fans to hear about up-and-coming acts.

He even has a band named after him.

The high-energy, nine-member band Stephen Cooke and the Respected Halifax Journalists, Wolf have been playing music together for over a year.photo cooke streets

“‘Wolf’, Cooke explains, was a recent addition to the moniker because “all of the hot bands have ‘wolf in their names.'”

Cooke enjoys the band — a collaborative effort including members of Scribbler, and musicians from Halifax’s Radiator Collective – but he says people often think that it’s his own.

Journalists, Wolf’s website tries to set the record straight, explaining, “Stephen Cooke is neither in the band or a wolf, but he is the fucking man.”

Dave Lipton, lead guitar player for Journalists, Wolf says using Cooke’s name was the band’s attempt to repay the reporter they felt gave local musicians a lot of attention.

“He’s all about it”, Lipton says, adding that Cooke has covered several bands that are friends with Journalists, Wolf.

Lipton sees Cooke at parties and coffee shops, and says the band enjoys his company because he is “just a normal guy”.

While the Coast referenced Cooke in 2006, saying that “You’re certifiably ‘Halifamous’ when there’s a band named after you”, Cooke doesn’t mind seeing his name on posters and show listings.

“I actually enjoy them. If they were a terrible band, I’d say guys, please stop using my name. But they’re funny, and their songs are fun.”

Tara Thorne, former arts editor for Halifax weekly The Coast, bumps into Stephen at events throughout Halifax.

“Having Stephen at the music helm there keeps the Herald contemporary,” Tara says.

“It gives them a bit of an edge that they probably wouldn’t have otherwise.”

Thorne says that Cooke’s relationship with musicians makes him a known go-to guy for artists who’ve got events or albums to announce.

“Smart bands know if you want to talk to someone at the Herald that you have to talk to Stephen Cooke.”

Cooke and Thorne admit their coverage tends to focus on live rock and indie bands, but both reporters try to keep up with all sides of the local scene by attending shows, and keeping an ear out for new acts.

“A lot of people talk the talk, and they’re not in the scene at all,” Thorne says.

“You have to be out in it, and have people know you.”

While such close interaction is normally avoided in other areas of journalism, Thorne says she understands the kinship Cooke finds in the musicians he talks to.

“It’s just that kind of town. It’s really hard to have professional distance because (Halifax) is so small.”

Reporters covering hockey or city hall might fear the conflicts of interest that mingling with their subjects could bring.

But Cooke says he’s never had any “dramatic blow-up” as a result of a review. In occasions where musicians he knows have questioned what he’s written, Cooke says his sensitive and open approach to reporting has helped him back up his reviews and opinions.

Edmonton Sun’s Entertainment Columnist Jenny Feniak says her relationship with Edmonton’s artists is an important part of the job.

“That’s actually why I am doing what I’m doing. My relationships with the artists here in Edmonton preceded my work as a journalist.”

Feniak has lost friends over poor reviews, but she says a close familiarity with the rhythm of a music community, like Cooke’s, is crucial.

“It’s important that you have a working knowledge of what happens, and how it’s happening, and where it comes from . . . the local scene is different than the major label industry. It works in an entirely different dynamic.”

Coasting along

It may be this working knowledge that has won Cooke three consecutive wins as “Best News Writer”, as voted by the Coast’s readers.

Though it takes Cooke a minute to confirm his number of wins – as he recalls where he’s displayed each of the three plaques — he says it’s been a great compliment.

Even if it’s one he doesn’t fully understand.

“(The Herald) is like the complete… opposite of the Coast. That amuses me more than anything probably, that this . . . award is being won by the other end of the spectrum.”

Cooke says he doesn’t think about the reader when he writes; he’s just trying to tell a story.

Thorne says Cooke’s reign as “Best News Writer” makes sense.

“I think it’s a testament to his reputation in the scene, because a lot of people that . . . would be voting in that would be the people that know him, and are musicians, and have dealt with him on a press level.”

Mat Dunlap, co-founder and a driving-force behind Halifax’s Just Friends music collective knows Cooke, his radio show, and his column well.side photo cooke

“I’ll find myself reading his reviews about movies or shows that I would never go see, just because he wrote it.”

Dunlap co-hosts the popular Let’s Get Baked radio show, and designs websites for Halifax artists. He says he often approaches Cooke with new music and news of upcoming shows.

“I mostly bring over the latest albums to him because I know he’s such a collector . . . just to get it in the Stephen Cooke archives.”

Dunlap says Cooke’s “Best News Writer” wins and his auxiliary rock-star status in Halifax are well deserved.

“For Stephen Cooke it’s a great thing. He’s kind of earned that title. Just from being here for so long . . . He does a big duty to Halifax.”

Cooke, while grateful, says he isn’t looking to defend his title in this year”s “Best of Halifax” awards, when they are released in the Coast’s November 8th issue.

“I kind of hope I don’t get it. It was pretty sweet . . . because readers are voting on it . . . But, it makes me wonder, what does that say about newspaper writing in Halifax? Certainly there must be something a little more vital than local bands and movies.”

“But that,” Cooke says, “is what people read about.”

And, apparently, it is.