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Talking to Bradford Cox, the front-man for Atlanta’s Deerhunter, one doesn’t necessarily get the sense that this thoughtful and interesting young fellow is behind one of today’s more interesting bands. Deerhunter’s music is dark; it’s dense, it’s chaotic, and in a way, the aesthetic behind Cryptograms, their debut for seminal experimental label Kranky, is reminiscent of early 1980s, non-Depeche Mode/Erasure Mute Records. Think of bands like Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle, and you’re on the right track. The album is split into two distinct sessions, as discussed below. Even more surprisingly, this young band is generating a lot of attention from places such as Pitchfork and other music blogs. Our talk was quite interesting, as you’ll soon read—just as interesting as the music his band makes.

I get the feeling that Cryptograms almost didn’t happen.

Yeah, that’s true—that’s very true. I don’t mean to make it appear like it was the hardest, overdramatic production ever, but our wheels took a while to quietly start spinning. Part of it was that we wanted to make something that we felt would be something we put a lot into, instead of just putting out whatever comes out of us.

An experiment in capturing a spontaneous session?

The interesting thing about it is though there’s some spontaneous movement and creativity on the spot, the songs were worked on and arranged beforehand. We still did it very quickly and we did it in an improvisational style, but we’d worked out in advance that we’d go in and play. It was an interesting experiment, but it was hard work. I don’t know if we’ll ever make a record like that again, because hopefully we’ll never have to. At the time, we were broke. The reason we recorded it so fast was we couldn’t afford it. Some bands have more resources for recording, but sometimes that can actually hinder creative impulses. See, we had to make really quick decisions; we didn’t have time to make a lot of overdubs, and there’s no editing. None. What you hear is what we did. It’s like we played the album all at once in a room. I went back and added little elements here and there, but we didn’t sit around thinking about things. We couldn’t spend hours on a song to fix one wrong note. There are tons of wrong notes in there; there are bad vocal takes, but it is what it is, you know?

I think those conditions add an element that wouldn’t have been there had you had more time to work on it.

Oh, I think so too, definitely. I think that’s really important, because I’m not into perfection. I’m the opposite. I’m not into faking a performance. There’s nothing on the record that makes me go, “Oh, let’s go back and make it perfect!” One the second half of the record, I was really, really, really sick with the flu. I don’t even know how I got through the session, to be honest! (Laugh) I kind of wonder, though, if me being sick and weak at the time actually makes the performance better, and would the songs have the same emotional feel if my voice had been stronger.

From what I’ve read, you’re into the live performance element, so a record like this seems fitting.

Well, that’s not completely accurate. Personally, I prefer working in the studio. Other member of the band, they’d probably say they prefer playing live. I’m more into song writing and song making now. Live performances, for me, are really hit or miss. Like, I’m either into it and I feel really good about it, or it’s mediocre or kind of good, and I hate it. I’m really picky about live performances. It’s really hard to get it right.

On the first session on Cryptograms, it sounds like you were struggling to decide whether or not you were an instrumental or a vocal band, because there are a number of instrumental passages.

It’s interesting that you say that. First of all, there’s not a single song on Cryptograms that didn’t have lyrics at some point. Even the instrumentals—well, all except “Red Ink,” that wasn’t really one that had progressed, and “Tape Hiss Orchid,” the little ambient interlude at the end. “White Ink” and “Providence” had words. We’ve never, ever considered being an instrumental band. I don’t like instrumental bands, actually. I like a little bit of personality to be there. I like instrumental music, if it’s done by individuals, and I like instrumental music done by some bands. It’s kind of hard to explain (laughs). I’m not talking about jazz—there’s some jazz I love. Ambient music is perhaps my favorite music of all. What I don’t like is instrumental pop music and instrumental rock music, or post-rock. I never really got into that. In the case of our own instrumentals, we never really thought of it.

Considering your feelings about making instrumental music, on listening to those songs as instrumental, did it surprise you how well they stood on their own?

I don’t know; I wonder, though, if we had planned the sessions, if we would have had those songs as instrumentals. We tried vocals on them, but I didn’t like them. But I do like the way those passages make the record a lot more dreamy. At the same time, it was not a direction we’d naturally want to go. It was a one-time thing. I love making that kind of music, but I’m not sure that’s a style we’d want to be associated with—instrumental pop songs. Does this make any sense? (Laughs) I’m always willing to try something once.

What I liked about them was they added variety to your sound, as opposed to having an album of all vocals. And I agree, it does add a cinematic quality to Cryptograms. When you perform live, do you perform the instrumentals with vocals reinstated?

We don’t really perform them. Let me think…we’ve never performed “Providence” live, we’ve never really played “Red Ink” live. “White Ink,” we do play live. And on the record, there are vocals, but it’s more like processed vocal intonations, and they’re samples, so we can’t really do those live. But those songs—they never really developed fully.

So would you say Cryptograms is a transitional record for Deerhunter?

I wouldn’t disagree with that, but at the same time, I have no intentions of thinking about this record when we start our next record. I’m not going to try to continue it thematically when we do the new record. I don’t like it when bands do that, because it sounds forced, trying to recreate the moments of what came before. Then again, I have no idea what the new record’s going to be like. I sort of know what I’d like it to be, but that’s about it right now. I don’t want us to be as desperate as we were on this record, though.

Conceptually, you see Deerhunter albums as a singular artistic statement, and the album you have now doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the album that preceded it or anything else that might follow it.

Yeah, that’s exactly it. I kind of want each album to be a solid statement. To be honest, I wouldn’t mind changing band names every album, actually. Our name is so insignificant to what we do. I didn’t name Deerhunter and I don’t even like it. It’s not that I dislike the name, but I kind of like it, but if we could change the band’s name for every record, I would, because I envision us making totally different-sounding records every time. But I’m not trying to force diversity; I just have lots of different ideas I want to try out, things I’d like to experiment with.

It would seem that Kranky is a good home for you to have in terms of experimenting with musical ideas.

Oh, absolutely! I can’t think of another label I’d want to work with more. They’re really good people; they’re very open-minded about music. I know they’re willing to check out my ideas; they’re not interested in anything other than letting their artists make creative statements.

Deerhunter’s also generating a lot of “buzz” on the internet.

Yeah, that’s weird. I don’t really know how that happened. I don’t know how that stuff works. I don’t think you can try and make it happen—it just does. We certainly didn’t. With blogs and stuff, I don’t know how they do what they do—I just know how to write and record songs. It’s really weird, but it’s nice, too. It’s nice to hear people are excited about your music, and it’s very encouraging.

Does it even out the frustrations you’ve had?

It does, but I have to say, I’m just waiting for the shit-talkers. (Laughs) I’ve read tons of bad stuff about our live shows, but in terms of album reviews, there hasn’t been anything really bad, so I’m just waiting for some really bad reviews. I think bad reviews are much more interesting.

I tell people there’s a difference between some kid saying, “Man, this sucks!’ and giving no reasoning behind their opinion, and saying, “Man, this sucks, because you can’t hear the singer” or what have you.

I almost like the idea of the kid who says something sucks and can’t give an explanation a bit more. I’m way more interested in the less academic audience, the more gut-level reaction audience. I kind of dig it when people really, really hate us and talk bad about us and they don’t have a good reason as to why. I don’t know why, but I kind of get off on that. To me, it’s gut-level, and it has no basis in anything intellectual. It’s simply a base-bottom-level, almost primal reaction. I dig that. (Laughs) If a 15-year old kid thinks we suck or thinks we’re totally amazing and is steadfast in his hatred or is overwhelming in his approval and can’t verbalize it, that’s really interesting to me, because we’re looking at subconscious reactions here. These days you can sit down, read a ton of record reviews and blogs, figure out what those people like, and make a record based on that. People will react to that, thinking it’s cool or not, based on totally arbitrary personal data. But that’s not based on human reaction or human emotion. Like, I hate Philadelphia, because the time we went there on tour, it was raining and sleeting that day, and everywhere I went that day, it was freezing. I now associate Philadelphia with being cold and wet. But if we’d gone there when it was sunny and warm, I might love it, and it might be my favorite city in America. When I went to Portugal, it was sunny and warm and 72 degrees, and all I kept thinking was “Man, I want to live here, this is great!” and I didn’t know anything about actual life there, or if I’d even be happy there. It was based upon an emotional reaction. It’s a very personal status based upon being exposed to something new for the first time. I’ve seen reviews of our live shows by people who said listening to us play made them physically sick. (Laughs)

A friend of mine’s band, The Weird Weeds, once had a girl write in her livejournal that seeing them made her want to tear her eyeballs out. (Laughs)

(Laughs) Isn’t that a great review? That’s awesome. I’m waiting for one that good!

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 recordingCryptograms, his admiration for Liars, and how he plans to spend his time once Deerhunter’s tour with the Ponys wraps up.

[more:]

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’sHere 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.