The Dark Arts Of Bradford Cox
The songwriter behind Deerhunter discusses getting over the trauma of making his band's last record, moving on to a new phase in his career, and what he sees as a lack of vitality in indie music.
Deerhunter's seventh album, Fading Frontier, is the latest entry in one of the most consistently excellent bodies of work in rock music over the past decade or so. The new record isn't a huge departure from what Bradford Cox, Lockett Pundt, and the rest of the Atlanta-based band have done in the past, but much of it has a serene, clear-eyed quality that is distinct from the more depressive or hysterical music in their back catalog. It's the sort of record that is tempting to classify as "mature," but that may imply that the band have lost their vitality, which isn't the case at all.
This is my third interview with Cox, who also records on his own as Atlas Sound. He's a remarkably candid conversationalist, and interviews with him tend to feel more like a heart-to-heart than a purely professional exchange. The first time I talked to him was for an extremely emotional Q&A at Rolling Stone not long after he had what he described as a nervous breakdown. The second time was for BuzzFeed, and it basically amounted to him making fun of Morrissey for a half hour. This time around, he spoke very openly about this new phase of his career, his alienation from the current indie rock scene, and what he calls the "dark arts."
My impression of the new record is that it feels like the calm after a storm, or like coming out of some period of intense emotion. Like coming out of depression, and not necessarily feeling happy, but just knowing you're on the other side of it. Is that at all what you were going for?
Bradford Cox: Fading Frontier was recorded mostly in the daytime, and we were always in this garden behind the studio. It was that perfect time of spring, when it's not that humid. It's cool at night, warm during the day, and lots of blue skies. Once summer rolls around in Atlanta, it becomes gray, humid, damp, a wet laundry feeling. Whereas in spring, it's really refreshing. Everyone wants to read into the record, like "Bradford's happy now!" but, like, let's just take it as a physical thing. Can't we just talk about the weather? The weather was really pleasant when we made it, and we got to experience a lot of daylight hours, which was the complete opposite of Monomania. Recording Monomania was perhaps one of the unhealthiest experiences of my life. It was just a record of utter pitch-black darkness. Just dark, dark, dark. I'm not just talking emotionally or psychologically.
Did you consciously decide to avoid doing anything like that again?
I don't think anyone in the band could survive doing that again. It was almost hexan, or like witchcraft or black arts. It was hyper-magnetic and draining, like some kind of perverted alchemy. I know to most people it just sounds like a garage rock record, but it was very cathartic. I recently found this hard drive — we had filmed the entire recording sessions with a friend of mine in a home video kind of way. I was looking at the footage and I was just like, "Jesus, I look like a walking corpse!" It's not like I'm so much happier now, but like, damn, anything would be an improvement.
When I say "black arts," I am not being funny or referring to Satan or some conservative historical view of the black arts as an actual terminology for witchcraft. It's just the forms of art that are, I don't know, more…primal. Patti Smith, I think, is a practitioner of dark art. John Coltrane, in his later period in life, like Interstellar Space, that's definitely a record of black art. A Romanian composer like György Ligeti, that's very much black art. I think that someone that practices black arts isn't concerned with immediate returns, or the failure of one experiment or another. I think Radio Ethiopia is a great Patti Smith record, but I guess people were very dismissive of it, and commercially it was a disappointment. I like to think that maybe Monomania is a Radio Ethiopia for us. It was vital, the message was intact, but it didn't really float with people. But it doesn't make it any less special. It wasn't a comfortable record to make and I don't look back fondly on making it. It gives me the heebie-jeebies, frankly. It was just witchcraft. That's just where it came from. I had no control over it; I don't like that kind of thing.
Do you carry those associations over to when you play those songs live?
BC: The Monomania tour was very dark and any kind of humor was sinister, you know. I was in a zone. I would like to say that zone is gone. That was very much, here's just the dark part of me. It's not an act. I don't take it too seriously, it's not high art, but it was an exorcism.
Do you think anyone else right now is making "black arts" music?
BC: Last night I thought about Patti Smith at her peak, and the vitality of her, and engaging with dangerous music. I used to be a sort of frightening figure, just aesthetically. A stark, bony, sickly figure, and I had all this feedback and noise behind me. I was very theatrical, and it was vital because I was just screaming about hopeless concepts. Whereas now I'm just too tired and too old and unexpectedly and unwantedly sort of bourgeois. I can't pretend to be a 19-year-old with all the anger in the world, or a 23-year-old reading Jean Genet and thinking about having a staring contest with death or something. I'm at the point where I have a less vital message, and that's just part of getting older. I guess that's why people lose a certain relevance, and people always prefer earlier records. When I listen to this record I don't hear that sinister, scary vitality. But then again, I'm not fucking 23 years old. But you know, the sad thing is that I don't think there's any 23-year-olds right now doing what we did, or what many bands before us inspired us to do.
I have no interest, or I'm not educated enough about exactly what's going on. And I'm sure a lot of people would be like, "There it is, you just don't know." Well, what I'm saying is this: We were very lucky because we were some kind of transgressive band that got more attention than is normal, and certainly more than expected. Are there any bands like that now? What's going on that's vital? I'm certainly wouldn't say we are. This has nothing to do with me — I'm speaking entirely outside myself as a fan and observer. It seems like Death Grips might really be going into this area, but I still haven't had a chance to see them and I don't know exactly what they're doing. It's hard to understand and I think they want it that way; they're embracing this…cult, or occult, militarism. Secret society weirdness vibe. I think their music has some interesting shock and awe to it. Those guys aren't fucking around, they're not playing. If we're being specific, white music is banal as ever. It's just like artificial flavoring at this point, just nothing. It's just a memory of a half-forgotten nostalgic drum sound.
Before I get called out on hypocrisy, because maybe I use nostalgic sounds here and there, but when I go on a nostalgia trip it's not aesthetic. For me it's about trying to recapture the smell or the feeling of something that I've experienced in the past personally. Like, Athens, Georgia, in 1987. I know what it smells like, I know what it sounded and felt like. I try to recapture, as an experiment, to see if I can go to a new place in the present time from there, if that makes any sense whatsoever. It's like time travel. But today I see a lot of people doing an "'80s thing" who weren't even born until the '90s. I'm not trying to be overly critical or cynical.
It seems like a lot of what you value comes from older artists who've made a lot of work.
BC: I'd say that most of my favorite artists are not young, and in my theory of art, they were never young. They were always old souls, you know, like Leonard Cohen.
You've got Tim Gane on this record, and I think Stereolab is a good example of that.
BC: Stereolab, right, no question. I think Broadcast was too. I don't understand how culture ignores them. I don't understand the relevancy game, and I could give a flying fuck how many hits something gets. It sickens me. I don't want to sound like an elitist, but it feels like they're being forgotten. Broadcast were never acknowledged in their lifetime. I look at Deerhunter and what we've gotten to do, and I look at Broadcast who were a far superior band, and it makes no sense to me. It kinda ruins it for me, you know? If you ever needed to know that talent and making something truly beautiful or whatever, it doesn't amount to anything or guarantee recognition; they're a great example. It's made me cynical at a young age to see how overlooked certain groups I've admired are.
Is putting Tim from Stereolab and James Cargill from Broadcast on the new record your way of putting them out there?
BC: All I was thinking at the time was what would sound really good on this would be Tim's electric harpsichord; or on "Take Care," this really needs a certain kind of noise that I could handle arbitrarily as just noise, but James from Broadcast is like the Michelangelo of noise. He makes breathtaking Renaissance art out of static and distortion. It's truly Baroque, you know? It was less of a move, but more like "this record needs this noise, it needs this texture," and luckily I knew just the right people.
That kind of co-sign matters. Your younger fans can find out about them through your records.
BC: My entire education in music was in reading interviews with bands like Stereolab and finding out about Brazilian music or a Romanian composer. You expose yourself to what people you look up to admire. "If he eats Wheaties, maybe I can be like him if I eat Wheaties." I don't think anyone doesn't go through that, to an extent. That's what culture is based on, the passing down of a certain narrative by imitation.
When did you make Fading Frontier?
BC: It was made in May, I think. I don't like to fuck around. I'm not a fan of holding on to a record for a long time unless it's something I want to do, like a scheduling situation that I can't avoid. I want the music to be heard as close to when I made it, as much as possible. I don't want to get into some "future of the music industry" thing, or where I stand on digital this or that, but I think it's ridiculous that a lot of people in the industry plan so far ahead that it makes a lot of improvisation impossible and makes a lot of people's expectations fixed and not fluid. Things just feel regimented in a way that art is not supposed to be. You have to book a show a year in advance now. How are you going to know if you'll be putting on the best show for people a year from now? By that time you might already be sick of the music, and you've moved on to some new music but you're playing an uninspired show and the audience paid a lot of money to see you play. My main goal in life, and this is the truth, is to make people — I don't want to say happy…
BC: I want to satisfy the listener, exactly. I want to entertain the audience. I want the people to leave the show with the feeling I used to leave shows with when I was young, and I couldn't get over it for another three or four days after it. I just kept reliving the set in my mind. That hasn't happened to me in maybe 10 years.
What was the last thing you remember doing that for you?
BC: Liars, on the Drum's Not Dead tour, were the last major arc of my musical experience, I guess. That was a band that was completely involved in something I don't really understand, some kind of transcendental transaction. They were on a precipice, you know? I've never seen a band like that since. I've never seen a band come close. And there was humor to it too; it wasn't like going to see Einstürzende Neubauten. Well, I guess there's humor in Einstürzende Neubauten, but a certain smug humor. Liars had charisma and personality.
How prolific are you lately? You went through a phase of releasing so much music in Deerhunter and as Atlas Sound, but it's slowed down a bit.
BC: Honestly, that prolific era is definitely slowing down. You can only say the same kind of thing a certain number of times and then you start thinking, "I want to think about something something else, I want to move on, I want to be non-linear." And then you think, what does that mean? I refuse to put myself into a situation in which I have to face some kind of "I'm losing it" kind of thing. I'm not "losing it"; it's changed. What it is is changing.
Do you spend more time on the songs now?
BC: I wouldn't say that's true at all. I have the same writing process I've always had. You know what it is, probably more than anything? I used to be a lot more engaged on an improvisational level than other people. I was always on tour and always had a guitar in my hands, and when I went back home, my battery was at full charge. I had a lot of energy to get off, just impulses that I could draw upon. I'm still constantly picking up the guitar or playing an instrument, but there's not as much for me to say. I don't think you should make music to make music, just to show that you can. That's the opposite of vitality. Those things always have to sound and feel like they had to be done, like them or not.
This interview is condensed quite a bit from a nearly three-hour conversation full of interesting off-the-record tangents. Sorry you have to miss out on some fun stuff, but if you're hungry for more off-the-cuff Bradford chatter, you should go see Deerhunter and Atlas Sound on tour together this winter.