Video filmed and edited by Ryan Penny
Bradford Cox is never at a loss for words. The Deerhunter frontman speaks in a constant flow, as if the only way he could possibly get to what he's trying to say is by saying everything he can think of, trusting that the core point is in there somewhere. It's a tendency that has gilded his recent success with an almost instantaneous backlash. If he'd just let his dark and lovely compositions speak for themselves, he'd likely be universally hailed as some kind of an icon for underground cool.
But the constant heart-on-sleeve transparency has lead many snarky observers to infer an ulterior motive. Surely, a man who plays against the rules of taciturn rock mystery must be some kind of crazed attention seeker. Obviously, anyone who would happily self-publish blushingly embarrassing personal details and interior fantasies on a band blog must have started making music only for the exhibitionist opportunities that a raised profile might bring. But Cox is anything but cunningly insincere.
As we talked for nearly an hour about the album he recorded under the longtime alias Atlas Sound, it became apparent that spilling out the contents of his interior life is more a method of self-analysis than a ploy for celebrity. The music he's been recording since he was young is largely extemporaneous; the words sung in an unfiltered stream. Now that these subconscious creative bursts are displayed for public consumption, he's as baffled by their meaning as fans and detractors alike. In addition to that, we talked about his unusual creative process, the infamous blog where the majority of his day-to-day work is posted, and the possible sources of it all.
How long have you been making songs as Atlas Sound?
Basically, I use Atlas Sound to refer to all my solo stuff. I mean, that's what Deerhunter kind of started as. I've been making tapes since I was ten or eleven. I would say ten was when I started, but that was really, you know, like banging on pots and pans.
Yeah. I had a karaoke machine that my family had bought as some sort of ill-advised Christmas gift, which we never used. You could overdub. You could play a cassette on one deck and have a microphone plugged in and record onto the first deck. So I'd have two tapes: I'd record a guitar and then I'd put that into the second tape deck, and then I'd record vocals while the guitar tape was playing. Then I would take the guitar and vocal tape, put that in the deck and tape over the one with the guitar part only.
Have you listened to any of that stuff lately?
Actually, yeah. It's really intimidating. It makes me feel like I'm trapped and I want to move. I have boxes and boxes, like crates -- I would say I have five or six hundred cassettes. Some of them are half-filled. Sometimes I'll just randomly open them, reach my hand in, grab a tape, open it up, and listen to it. A couple times it's been stuff from 1995 or something. Some of it is absolutely, terrifyingly bad, but sometimes I'm just like, "Wow, that's cool." That's actually how some Deerhunter songs happened. "Spring Hall Convert" was like that. That was a tape I made in ninth or tenth grade.
When you are writing songs by yourself for Atlas Sound, do you get a different feeling when you finish a song than you would in a collaborative effort for Deerhunter?
There is a big difference, because with Deerhunter it's like, "Oh, this is finished, now it's time to record it." Whereas with Atlas Sound, the songs are being written as they're recorded.
So how do you know when something's done?
I never do. I do stop at some point. I'll add enough stuff until I feel like it's getting crowded. It's like the way I've learned every instrument that I've learned how to play: It's just by ear. When it sounds done, it's done. And if it seems like it's missing something, I'll go back and add something. But it's all immediate. I don't usually work on a song over a period of days or something. Every song is pretty much the product of two or three hours.
Quick, immediate. I don't write lyrics in advance, I always improvise. So a lot of times I go back and I cringe, because it's just stream of consciousness. When you have mediation between your head and your mouth or some kind of control over it, I'm sure that's a nice feeling, but I usually just let it happen really fast. I don't really ever edit anything down or anything. The Atlas Sound record, how it is, the sequencing is pretty much linear. It's how I did it, in order.
The vocals on the Atlas Sound record are a bit less buried in effects or buried in the mix.
That's something I've been definitely moving toward.
Do you ever think that you'll want to record without any vocal effects at all?
Oh, I have. I've done that a lot more recently. The reason I used effects in the first place was to use the vocals as more of an instrument. To have it be on the same level as the instruments. Because I'm not a "songwriter" and I don't write lyrics in advance, I'm more interested in ambiguity, sonically too, in terms of the way things mix. I prefer it to be a little bit skewed. The traditional concept that the vocals are supposed to be mixed pretty high, but I guess that concept was thrown out the window a long time ago.
You've talked a lot about the influence of doo-wop groups and girl groups -- more on your newer stuff, which is almost in contrast to that. A lot of that stuff is really emotionally direct.
That's true, but the way I look at it, I'm influenced a lot by doo-wop and girl groups, but to me it's more like a sonic picture. If I actually sat and listened to what they were saying, in the context of the song, I don't relate to it at all. Love songs about boys and girls, I'm not interested in that -- that's not my context. But the whole sonic picture, I am interested in. Especially with doo-wop and a lot of the girl-group stuff, I'm always more interested in the parts that are like vocalists, wordless vocals: the harmonizing, the oohs when the vocals become like an instrument. That's kind of what interests me.
In Atlas Sound you seem to be drawing from that tradition but also a lot from ambient music. Why is ambient music such a continuous thread in your work, both with Deerhunter and Atlas Sound?
It's part of that ambiguity. Ambient music just tends to be more emotive to me. But what really appeals to me is when the two things kind of merge and there's this confusion or a bizarre. If you ran a doo-wop record through a ton of reverb until it just became a cavernous echoing thing, I just think that's very interesting. It's taking something and stripping it of its directness and just leaving an impression.
I think it has a lot to do with memory. I've always kind of been more interested in the ringing in your ears after a show than the actual show itself. Or when you walk away and the song is echoing in your head, but it's not like the song is playing out in a linear way in your head, you just have one part of it kind of echoing.
And that's what I really feel like listening to electronic music and the repetitious elements of that. The way your memory works is sort of like sampling. When you think about one of your favorite songs, you're usually thinking of one part of it looped. You remember impressions of the song. I think it's very rare when people think of their favorite song that people would remember it from start to finish.
I read on Grizzly Bear's blog that you were almost halfway done with the next Atlas Sound record.
If I have the ability, I can record three or four songs a day. Because I don't sit there and try to mediate it. I don't try to craft, I don't really know what I'm doing.
How deep into recording do you have to go to feel like, "This is a record"?
At first I think of a title, and then I think about the vibe -- ugh, I hate that word so much -- the atmosphere it would evoke, and then I generally start conceptualizing the album artwork. It's really bizarre. When I think about my process I think, "Wow, this is really retarded. This is a really autistic way of making a record." But I think about album artwork and titles and then it just makes itself.
Does that screw you up from a practical standpoint? The guys in Liars said it was really frustrating to write a bunch of new material and then have to wait a year, say, for the record to come out.
It is really frustrating, and that's why I started the blog for Deerhunter. It's been misinterpreted so many ways -- like it's a way to get attention -- and I've done nonmusical things on there that sometimes I regret, that were just stupid. But the idea was, and is, and continues to be, if I could just anonymously put stuff up there and remove ego and name and possession from it -- [sighs] it's such a heady thing -- just to have immediacy.
Part of me is obsessed with the construction of an album, the artwork, the packaging, the titles. The other part of me -- if there could just be a direct route from my brain to instruments, to the audience, and there was no need for packaging. It does get tired. That's a really good point Liars bring up: By the time a record comes out, you're generally sick of the songs. That's why with the Atlas Sound record I didn't concentrate too much on working on the songs or working them out fully. They're kind of like first impressions, like sketches kind of. And I haven't listened to that. After I made the record and turned it in, besides mixing it and the mastering process, I don't listen to it. I don't want to listen to it, because I don't want to get sick of it. With Deerhunter, I was super excited. We worked really hard on this record, and we played the songs for two years, and now I hear the songs and they're just hollow shells. They're hollowed out.
I saw you at the Cake Shop during CMJ and you seemed a bit worn out.
I didn't even want to hear music at that point. That was just a day where I was hungover and I was sick. It was really interesting, because immediately after that Cake Shop thing I had to grab a guitar and walk two blocks to play as Atlas Sound at the FADER Sideshow. I know the songs as they are on the album. I can strip them down and play them on guitar, even though alot of them are built on electronic sounds. But on the walk there, I was like, "You know what? I don't want to play any of these songs."
I did this thing that probably confounded and bored shitless the entire audience. They were looking at me like I was retarded or something. Like, "Why is this kid wasting our time?" I just wanted to make something nebulous. I just made a wash of sound for thirty minutes. Sometimes I wish Deerhunter could do that; I wish that we could get on stage and not play "Deerhunter songs." That we could just create a big sound. We've got bass guitar, we've got drums, we've got two guitars, on different occasions I've used electronic instruments, samplers. We've got this stage with all these instruments, so much possibility and you're playing the same songs that you wrote two years ago. It just gets really exhausting.
About the blog, you don't see a lot of bands putting out that much new music that fast. It's sort of like a boxed set in slow motion.
Yeah, I wanted it to be exactly that. I want it to be a direct link from the process of where our songs come from, and instead of having the songs sit and collect until there's twelve of them that you can sequence and put out on a record with a booklet. My original idea was to make an EP every day.
Do you ever worry about your music becoming a bit disposable?
Exactly. I'm interested in that, that's what I'm trying to exploit. It gets old. It seems a bit self-important to me the way that bands have to posture and sit dormant for six months and you hear nothing from them, and then they come out with this album and it's supposed to be this statement that they are making.
The blog just seemed like a way to open the floodgate and just have ideas constantly being put out there. And really I don't know what I'm doing. I'm trying to sit here and act like I do, but I really just wanted to put out songs really fast. And plus, I thought it was really fun when people were asking for covers and stuff like that. It's a fun process, and it's educational for me. I'm constantly interested in acoustics and recording sounds. It's just a way to learn. Every time I get to record a song I get to figure out a different way to record drums or a different way to record bass.
It's giving over to your audience, your fans, a measure of control that is not very common. Are you interested in establishing a relationship with your listeners that is different than artist/fan?
Yeah. That's really interesting to me. I guess it's kind of an experiment. Being in a band it makes you a little bit jaded because you're always at shows. You're always seeing other bands, you're always talking to other bands, you're around music nonstop. It takes you farther and farther away from the place I was in high school, where going to see a show was a big deal.
My favorite band in high school was Stereolab, and I remember going to see them three or four times. It was like a huge mind-blowing thing, and if there was a way at that time that I couild have hopped on a website and left a comment like, "Dear Stereolab, cover this song. . ." and within eight hours there'd be an MP3 to download. To me it was an experiment like, "Wow, this would be funny. Let's do this." What else am I going to do? Jerk off or read a book or something? Why not make a song that'll make someone really stoked?
That's also a really cool feeling to know that you're making someone's day. That was actually a biggest motivation. It wasn't a big artistic thing, or some kind of conceptual audience/musician relationship or anything. It was also real simple, like why not make someone happy by doing this song they want to hear.
The downside to that is that you're also sacrificing a bit of mystery.
I'm never interested in the creation of a false mystery. There's enough mystery in the world that you don't need to synthesize it. I don't think that you need to be artificially cryptic. That's why I've taken a lot of shit, and that's why a lot of people hate me. A lot of people literally cannot stand me and find me intolerable and annoying. It's because I have no interest in being aloof. I'll talk about anything. It's been bad at some points because I've made an ass out of myself. I don't really care, because that's what you are, you're an ass sometimes. Sometimes you aren't how you want to be, but if you just constantly keep -- I just don't like it when artists want to build a wall around what they're thinking.
So, do you not have a real attraction to a Madonna or a Bowie, who has a very specific and changeable persona for each piece of music?
I totally respect that, but it's not where I feel comfortable. I would feel really pretentious trying to do a Bowie thing. And I don't think it's very necessary. A lot of Bowie's changes came from moving, changing location. Changing his producer, changing the personnel on his recordings, who was playing bass, who was playing drums, where it was recorded, stuff like that. And I mean, that stuff happens, that's life. People get older, they move, they change their taste in music. If you told me in high school that I would listen to Fleetwood Mac's Rumours and find anything worth appreciating there, I would have laughed. But now I listen to it, and I'm like "Wow, that drum sound." I can appreciate something in it, there's just a natural development, that doesn't have to be a real calculated, self-mystifying kind of thing.
I think that there's enough ambiguity in just letting your stream of consciousness ideas happen. There's enough mystery there that I have to figure out what I'm saying half the time -- I have to figure out what it means for myself. Sometimes I'll have a rough sketch or an idea of what I'm going to refer to, but I think alot of the fun of making music for me is improvising it and trying to figure out the meaning after the fact. Listening to a track and thinking, "What am I saying? What are the words even? What are the chords to that song?"
Do you feel a lot more freedom to be sort of amorphous like that with Atlas Sound than you would with Deerhunter?
Yeah, I do, because with Deerhunter there are five other personalities that are also in control of the beast. And some of them are less into improvisation and some of the concepts I'm talking about. It would never happen that Deerhunter would get together and record on a day-to-day basis. I'd love it if it were that way, but I don't think it's very common to find a band that are comfortable enough with each other to record in that way.
So, you're going to be touring the Atlas Sound record, are you going to be going up there performing the record more or less?
I've been thinking a lot about that. I'm kind of half in the door and half out the door on that one. That's what you do when you support a record. And I like the record. I made it and I like it. But at the same time, there will definitely be a level of freedom for the musicians to move within the song, in different directions.
My goal would be to put on a show like Stereolab put on when I was in high school when I was fifteen. They would drone out parts of songs. They would perform more or less their album, but there were all these new parts live, or rearrangements of songs. They would make an album like Dots and Loops that was really electronic and a lot of it was based on sampling and stuff but when they played it live, they would rearrange it for guitar, and bass, and drums, and like keyboards. I just have always been blown away by going to see them and seeing how they would reinterpret their own songs. So, hopefully it will be the songs reinterpreted and presented in a different way.
Hopefully, like with the blog, putting new music up everyday, hopefully each show will be different. I'm sure some of them suck, like the FADER thing where I just played delay pedals. I'm sure it's boring for some people, but so is ambient music. So is a lot of electronic music.
There were at least a half dozen Atlas Sound songs that came out through the blog that are previously unreleased or not associated with any kind of release. Is that stuff just gone? Or are you interested in pulling some of that more "disposable" stuff back and working it into a live show?
That would probably be interesting. I would like to probably do that. We haven't even begun to start talking about the set, but I definitely would think there would probably be some of the songs that we've done. I do understand what you mean about the disposable nature about throwing something out there and never referring to it again. The thing that changes my opinion of it is I get e-mails, all the time, and messages from people that are like, talking about one of those songs. I got a message the other say from a kid in Denmark who listened to a song called "Monochromatic," which I put on the blog months ago and forgot about, which I don't even think about. He wrote me that, "I just want to let you know that I listened to that song seventy times on my iTunes."
Do you ever think that you are selling that stuff short?
No, because I pulled it out of the ether. I don't know how it even happened. I know the title because the kid mentioned it, but honestly if you asked me to describe it, if you gave me the title of one song that I put up there, I probably wouldn't be able to tell you. I don't know. The process where it's disorganized on purpose, it's just a collection of random creative bursts of energy. Like that song, I don't really know, if you want the honest truth, I don't know what the chords are, I don't know what I was saying. I'd have to go back and listen to it. And the fact that I made it but don't remember it, and this kid who wrote me listened to it a bunch and it meant something to him, it's kind of like this surreal situation I find myself in. It kind of blew my mind. This song really meant a lot to him.
Like making a notebook doodle that somebody frames?
Yeah, it really just blows my mind. What did he take from that song? I don't know what the words are. I don't know what the context of the song is. I sort of remember it being something kind of Jesus and Mary Chain-y.
I'll go through phases where one week I really want to experiment to find a drum sound that is huge and cavernous. Or to make a guitar sound that is shrieking and miasmic. And I wanna wrap it altogether and make it sound like a '50s pop song, a jukebox thing. That's kind of what the song I recorded yesterday was like, like a Phil Spector noise odyssey. And I'll be into that for one minute, but then the next minute I want to completely ditch that and make something that's totally based on bells and microclick-y beats. It's kind of like deejaying with instruments instead of prerecorded music.
It's like making an invisible mix tape, where you make all the songs. And that's kind of how I've always conceptualized making records in the first place. You're making kind of a mixtape out of songs that don't exist.
I'm really into that phrase, for some reason: "pulling something out of the air" or "out of the ether." I'm really into the idea that maybe there's -- and I'll probably sound like a hippy at this point -- but maybe there's this constant pulse or drone of music that's constantly available. You just have to take a snapshot of it. I mean it's constantly happening whether anyone's listening or not. That's really interesting to me.
I'm really beginning to understand what I'm interested in more. Which is the immediacy part, and I'm constantly interested in different musical concepts like percussion. I know that I want the next record to be really drum heavy--acoustic drums. Like this record is very electronic, programmed. I want the next record to be, like, I've been going back and listening to a lot of stuff I listened to when Deerhunter was first starting, like Faust, and a lot of krautrock stuff, and Fela Kuti, Brian Eno, like Taking Tiger Mountain or Here Come the Warm Jets, where there's like, two or three drum tracks in every song. That's just where I'm at right now: rhythm.
That stuff is sort of the same concept as a drone or something, but it's just a rhythm that you come in on.
Exactly, it's a repetition, hypnotic --
And it's still playing after it "ends."
Exactly and that's what I'm talking about with the constant thing, the constant pulse. It's just this ambiguous thing that I wish I could explain in one interview for once. I'm interested in an eternal drone that's constantly shape-shifting. It's the same song, but here's thirty versions of it. And, the context is not important. It's just like a primitive thing.
I'm really, really, kind of confounded right now as to how to explain it, but it's a primitive thing. It's exactly what you are talking about. Whether the music stops or not, whether it's eight minutes long or fourteen minutes long or it's a two- minute pop song: If it's a really effective two-minute pop song, like a Shangri-Las song or something, it loops in people's heads for hours.
And it's like it becomes hypnotic, it becomes a drone, and it goes back to your earlier question. Why do I keep going back to ambient music? It's because it's like a blanket. If you think about what children do, there's something about repetition and tapping on things, I'm just trying to do all this stuff, all this music, create a big distraction, to protect myself from anxiety and trying to face reality. It's like a big hypnotic blanket. Whether it's recording huge, cavernous drums or ambient stuff, it's all trying to make the same song over and over.