With a title like Cryptograms, the jumble of atmospheric instrumentals and ragged garage rockers on Deerhunter’s second album was predictably puzzling. With little regard for stylistic continuity, it required some rigorous decoding. Then again, the hallucinatory and disorienting experience of listening to Cryptograms is exactly what makes the album so magnetic.
If it’s conspicuously splintered, Cryptograms (released in February via Kranky) is a document of the creative frustration and turmoil that nearly led Deerhunter to disband. Unable to capture the sound they envisioned, the five members scrapped the initial sessions and considered quitting. But when they returned to the studio a year later, all the distractions that had plagued them snapped into relief. They proceeded to record Cryptograms in two day-long sessions, one in the summer and one in fall. With the April release of Fluorescent Grey, an EP of four new songs recorded during the mixing of Cryptograms, the Atlanta-based band’s sound only continued to solidify, fully integrating its divergent loves for meandering psychedelia and straightforward structure.
Through the fittingly enigmatic interface of e-mail, singer/digital-delay enthusiast Bradford Cox discusses recording Cryptograms, his admiration for Liars, and how he plans to spend his time once Deerhunter’s tour with the Ponys wraps up.
The initial sessions for Cryptograms seemed to implode and actually jeopardize the future of the band. Tell me a little bit about that first stab at recording.
I was very unstable at that point. I was not very responsible. I wanted to do something that could resonate with people and maybe put them in a certain headspace. We came to a standstill. I was afraid of it sounding like the first record. I was also afraid of it sounding like an exercise in effects pedals. I had a hard time communicating. There were a lot of personal issues. When you are in your early twenties, you think you have gotten past the whole teen-angst thing and suddenly you have “real” problems. Everything gets blown out of proportion. Also, the girl recording it did not get along with me because I was an asshole at the time.
The second attempt seemed to be a different story entirely. When you guys went back in the studio, each side of the album was completed in a day. What made the difference?
I don’t know. It just seemed more focused. I can’t explain how it happened, exactly. The album kind of recorded and sequenced itself at that point. I made a decision to let it be naturally sequenced in the order it was recorded. I know a lot of listeners have a problem with that, and for some people it might drag on and on. I don’t really care. To me, it makes total sense.
There’s an obvious difference between the two sides. Did you guys want to structure it that way — more atmospheric material on the first side and more structured songs on the second — or was it more a result of the material you were recording?
It happened on its own. I like how it came out, though. I guess the normal thing to do would have been to mix it up more. Some people feel like they have to get through this long, drawn-out, dull half to get to the real songs. Other people love the first half and think the second half is contrived indie rock. Some people want something more experimental. The other half wants pop songs. They all seem to agree that the album should have been one or the other. I say whatever happened happened.
You seem pretty unapologetic about how polarized people are when they listen to Cryptograms. Do you think a band should follow its intuition, no matter how potentially alienating?
I think if a band is not challenging itself and its audience, it should stop. I don’t want to give people what they expect because it’s boring and does not give you the chills. I am scared of mediocrity.
The sequencing on the album has an ebb and flow between the textural instrumental pieces and the more structured songs. It’s a fairly unconventional approach to songwriting.
I think songs should be comforting, whether it’s comfort through catharsis, like loud stomping stuff, or blanketing yourself in warm things like bells and reverb. Songs can be played any number of ways, you just have to make quick decisions without thinking and carve something out. Songs are skeletons. People are not attracted to bones. Even a lack of an aesthetic is an aesthetic. I enjoy the idea of knowing a lot about everything and not thinking when you act.
In comparison to the LP, the Fluorescent Grey EP is a concise statement. Is it indicative of a more song-oriented direction for Deerhunter?
I feel like the next record will be very much more song-oriented. I feel a lot more clear-headed now. There are some less ambiguous ideas I’d like to explore. I hope it does not alienate people who like the more ambient side of what we do, but I can see that happening.
Tell me a little bit about the band’s influences. When I listen to the record, I hear mostly older British influences: Joy Division, Wire, Jesus and Mary Chain. But I’m guessing you grew up on American indie of the early ’90s.
I love the Breeders. I don’t listen to Joy Division very much, but I like them. I used to listen to Wire and the Fall a lot when I did speed for a month when I was eighteen. Jesus and Mary Chain blow my mind, but I don’t think we really sound like them. I put them down as our only influence kind of as a joke and everyone took it literally. Jesus and Mary Chain possessed something I’m jealous of but could never have. We like so many things, really. It’s hard to sort out influences.
What is it about Jesus and Mary Chain that you envy? They do seem to strike a pretty amazing balance between noise and dissonance on the one hand and rudimentary pop on the other — which seems to be the two prevailing impulses in Deerhunter’s music.
It’s a combination of their sonic power and visual presence that I’m envious of.
I know that, for me, I formed my most enduring tastes in music as a teenager, and I’ve pretty much had to face the fact that I’ll never like any new music the way I liked music then. Kind of curmudgeonly, I know.
All I can say is that there is music that appeals to you in the short-term (for me it was a lot of noise and post-punk stuff) and music that stays with you in the long-term. For me, the music I keep coming back to has an elegiac quality.
What is some of that elegiac music that’s still haunting you?
Some records that stick out in my immediate memory that I continuously go back to are (in no particular order) Eno’s Here Come the Warm Jets; Michael Nymann’s Decay Music; Casino Versus Japan’s entire catalogue; Beat Happening’s first record; and the Flamingos, one of my favorite doo-wop vocal groups.
One contemporary influence I hear — particularly, in the album’s more experimental pieces — is Liars. Did touring with them influence Deerhunter’s sound?
I think that they are our biggest influence, but not in terms of music, more so in terms of people and friends. Liars are a band that truly invent their own musical language, and for any other band to try and speak [that language] would be impossible. You have to come up with your own [musical language], or try your best to, anyway. All I can say is that I admire them immensely. They will be revered for years to come. They are themselves.
Of the band’s existing work, what do you think is their best?
I love so much of it, but Drum’s Not Dead is an absolute masterpiece. It arcs perfectly, sounds incredible, and is done with so much feeling.
Based on the fragmentary prose poems included in the booklet for Cryptograms, I’m guessing you’re into literature. Who do you read?
My favorite writer is Dennis Cooper. He has had a big influence on the way I look at lots of things, including music. I also enjoy George Saunders. My favorite book of his is Pastoralia, which is a very sad and funny kind of absurdist collection of short stories.
I love Saunders, too. He has such a grim view of the world, but he’s also really, really funny. What do you think of humor in art or, more specifically, music? I guess Deerhunter strikes me as a pretty serious band . . .
I think the humor I relate to most is pretty dark or existential (Saunders, Todd Solondz, et cetera) and I think we [Deerhunter] exist in that realm for the most part. Our live performances can encompass that a little more than the records. I feel like I freak a lot of people out just by showing up. There’s something a little absurd about my appearance, and I tend to not shy away from that. I try to find as much humor as possible in things like meaninglessness and suffering and insecurity. The thing I like most about Solondz and Saunders is that they find humor in these sad situations without exploiting the characters they portray. They seem to empathize with pathetic people. I can’t stand mean-spirited humor or things that are intentionally hurtful.
Do you look forward to touring? Or do you more enjoy the process of writing, creating the record in the studio?
I like both from different angles. Both have their manic moments of pleasure and both have these shapeless anxieties surrounding them.
What are you doing once the tour ends?
I am going to jerk-off for twelve hours.