Inside the Thrift Store of Bradford Cox’s Dreams
In the dim lobby of New York’s Ace Hotel, 20somethings clatter away at their keyboards, their faces washed in the light of their laptops, their ears swaddled in mammoth headphones. And above, the hallways alternate guest rooms with those of permanent residents, some with signs on their doors warning possible fireman of the presence of their pet cats. It’s an urbane honeycomb of life, but behind one of the solid gray doors, Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox has created his own kind of habitat: napping away the overcast afternoon to the sound of classical music and church bells.
When Cox wakes from his nap to chat with TIDAL, he’s a bit muzzy from sleep, but still manages to look sharp in his customary suit of solid khaki — complete with a dun-colored baseball cap. All that week in December 2018, he’d been holed up at the posh New York hotel doing press for his upcoming eighth studio album, Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?, out January 18 on 4AD – and today is no different.
When his publicist leaves, Cox yawns and sips water and tinctures, pulling his knees to his chin atop one of the hotel’s rickety chairs like a kid – rather than a man topping out at around 6 ‘4. Despite being sleepy, he’s more than willing to talk about everything from the importance of being in charge of his artistic vision to his fascination with ‘90s glitch music. And, of course, his upcoming record.
A phantasmagoria of an album, Why flits from toxic rainforests (“Element”) to rainy Europe (“Tarnung”) to the afterlife (“Nocturne”) — or so Cox says in a release about the record. According to the musician, the meaning should and does change based on the listener. So close your eyes and see where it takes you.
Why comes nearly four years after Deerhunter’s last release, 2015’s Fading Frontier, and marks another chapter in the band’s winding mythology: a flirtatious dance between art and pop. The album was produced by singer-songwriter Cate Le Bon, as well as frequent collaborators Ben H. Allen and Ben Etter — and, of course, the band itself.
After shaking off the yawns, Cox spoke with TIDAL about the thrift shop in his dreams, audio fidelity and church bells.
Are you still writing songs via automatic writing?
I really wouldn’t know how to write any other way. It’s nothing like with a Ouija board or anything like that. I just sit and I play guitar and sing into a mic. Usually a phrase comes and then usually the phrase after that comes much easier, and I’m locked in and then I’m just telling a story. It’s like I don’t know which questions you’re going to ask me, but I can answer them easily.
So it’s like having a conversation?
It’s like having a conversation with a microphone and an 8-track recorder and a guitar – or a piano. I wrote a lot of this album on a piano. … I think my honest voice is submerged under the layer of consciousness.
Do you ever dream songs?
I have dreamed of phrases that I’ve used in songs. I’ve gotten ideas for songs in dreams a lot. Sometimes I’ll find something in a thrift store in a dream and I’ll be like, ‘Oh! I’m so excited!’ Then I’ll wake up and be like, ‘It was that thrift store again…’ It’s one that only exists in my dreams.
It’s huge. It’s a conglomeration of every Goodwill and Salvation Army. … It’s just like anyone else’s Shangri-La; there’s tons of junk and amazing books that aren’t published. Like a book about cinematography or something. It’s got all these answers to questions I’ve always wondered. Then I wake up and it’s vanished because it doesn’t exist.
But you take objects from the store and turn them into songs?
I’ll be haunted by them for a bit. If I’m really haunted by them, a song might come out of it. I doubt I’d write a song about a book about cinematography, but you never can tell. I might start a song like that and then end up with a song about the layers of reality that are designed and the layers of reality that exist underneath what can be designed.
It’s a terrible word, but this record seems pretty cinematic.
I view all of our records as films and I view myself as a director. I don’t view myself as a star. I’m almost reluctant and irritated to have to be in front of the camera. Sometimes I wonder if I’d be a better producer. Like the John Cale solo records in the ‘70s – I view them as very filmic. I get the feeling sometimes that he’d almost rather had someone else playing the songs and just directed it. You’re just more in control of the mise en scène.
You worked with Cate Le Bon on this record, since she produced it. How did that function with your need to be the director?
It was true that, on occasion, I was in the role of just being the musician and she was the director, but no matter who I work with I always end up being the director. She was more like the producer, in film terms, or an art director.
It takes a certain ability to not mind being irritating to be a good director. You have to be able to be obnoxious without being shy about it: ‘Can you do that again, please? Can you do that again? I know you thought that one was good, but can you do it again?
You would hope that people you’re working with would trust you.
You’d hope, but really I’m just after getting the right take. But usually they know it’s not the right take. If someone said to me, ‘No, I really, really think that was good,’ I’d say, ‘OK, we need to stop and listen to it together.’ I’m more hard on myself than anybody. It’s not that I think I’m perfect and that I demand more of my band or take it out on them; I’m very much after one thing and that’s the right take, the right song.
I know you’re very particular about audio quality and sound. What record sounds the best to you?
One of my favorite records that I own is a record of church bells in Europe. It’s very quiet; it’s a very strange record. It’s not like a documentary record, like a narrated record, like: ‘Here we have the church bells of a cathedral in France.’ I got it in Germany at a flea market. I listened to it so much that I was afraid I was going to wear out the record. I also got obsessed with Japanese water harps from the Edo period.
An audiophile would say these recordings are too old and dark and muted. That’s where I disagree with audiophiles. It’s like saying, when you’re watching a film, like the Robert Altman movie McCabe and Mrs. Miller – which is one of the most beautifully shot films I’ve ever seen – ‘It’s too grainy, it’s too washed out.’ And I’m like, ‘It’s beautiful!’ The time period suits that material.
People don’t realize that if you listen to good music recorded poorly, it’s still good. I’m quite a buff for Stravinsky and things like that and my favorite recordings of Stravinsky are Stravinsky conducting Stravinsky. That’s a lot of Stravinskys… The fidelity could be better, but the performance couldn’t. … People are coughing near the microphone, but it sounds so dreamlike. …It’s a matter of: you can’t keep good art down. No matter how it was recorded.
So what do you think of pop music today?
Well, I just sit at home and listen to my Mahler. I don’t think it’s possible for any music to come out today that’s more experimental than Xenakis. I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to make garage rock as good as things that came out already. I do respect the effort of making a new type of music that’s never been heard before, but I don’t think that any genre of music that we know and love can we improved upon.
I’m sure that in the ‘90s there was one last gasp of creativity with things like Oval and Pan Sonic – things that were considered then to be glitch and clicks and cuts and things like that. Early personal computer music was probably the last time there was an inspirational moment.
Now what I think we have to do is think about narrative, because technologically we’ve hit a ceiling. I don’t mean in terms of equipment, but I could have made this exact same record in 1977. And it actually might have sounded a little better then.
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