Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox Begrudgingly Ranks His Band’s Albums

On the eve of the release of his band's seventh LP, Cox looks back on a wild catalog—a process he says is kinda like a visa interview.

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11 January 2019, 1:26am

In Rank Your Records, we talk to artists who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.

Bradford Cox made a whole record about how we can’t trust our memories. That sentiment was there in the title of Deerhunter’s 2010 album, Halcyon Digest, which implied that it would be a collection of memories of a golden era. But no, like everything the band had recorded to that point, it was a collection of songs about sickness, death, perversion, and isolation. His point seemed to be that even if things were different in the good ol’ days, they still probably kinda sucked.

“Nothing is as good as you remember it being,” Cox explains. “We digest, compile, and collate our memories to be more agreeable to us. We leave out the bad parts.”

And yet, here he is, remembering. Deerhunter formed in Atlanta in the early years of the 2000s, originally the prickly, punkish product of a collaboration between Cox and friends. The at-times tumultuous comings-and-goings of their band members has been recounted at length elsewhere, but the core cemented shortly after the release of their first album Turn It Up Faggot. Cox and guitarist Lockett Pundt, alongside drummer Moses Archuleta and bass player Josh Fauver, rose to prominence in the latter part of the aughts on a string of records that synthesized Cox’s fascination with both composerly avant-garde-isms and the grand mythos of Americana and rock ‘n’ roll.

There had been bands that sounded like Deerhunter before, but few fronted by characters as charismatic as Cox, and few that were inclined to pair such dramatic, thoughtful music with anarchic live performances that—as Cox told SPIN in 2008—involved cardiac episodes and mimed sex acts. In an era when rock music—and to use a term that Cox tells me he abhors—"indie" were mannered and polite, Deerhunter were outsized outliers.

Deerhunter is a different band now than they were then. Fauver left the band before the release of their 2013 album Monomania, and he passed away in 2018. On the day Cox and I meet, he’s only a couple of days removed from speaking at Fauver’s memorial service, which has him thinking about the ways he and the band have changed over the years.

“Conversations have come up about how chaotic and how frightening our shows were at that time,” he says. “People have said to me directly that we’ve mellowed or cheapened ourselves or sold out. There are some people that don’t move on from their youth, and we bury them. I moved on. I disavowed punk. I want to be a better person and a healthier person. I don’t relish thinking about a time in which I was coughing up blood onstage.”

On January 18, Deerhunter will release Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?, another record with a remembrance built into its title. But like Halcyon Digest, it’s skeptical of the past. The opening track “Death in Midsummer” has a dramatic refrain in which Cox yowls “There was no time to go back.” The rest of the record follows in kind. It is decidedly forward looking, full of the instrumental experimentation and formal contortions that the band started exploring on 2015’s Fading Frontier. It’s a bold step into the unknown, the sort that the band has always made.

This is probably why, fidgeting with an oversized brown suit that shrugs off of his shoulders in a manner that’s somewhere between teen-at-a-job-interview and Stop Making Sense, Cox starts our interview by lambasting the very concept of looking back at his catalog and picking favorites.

“I don’t know why any artist would enjoy this,” he says. “It’s a bit like signing up for a visa or something. Being interviewed about your personal life by a bureaucrat.”

Noisey: In the ranking that you sent over, the record that got talked about as your debut is missing.
Bradford Cox: Oh yeah. I’ll tell you the truth. I sent the email accidentally. I have a new computer. The new MacBook’s keyboards are really weird. I pressed enter to start a new line and it was like, “Wooosh… OK, well that’s fine.” I would have put that one last, but I don’t generally acknowledge it. We didn’t know what we were doing. It wasn’t the fault of the engineer or of any of the musicians. We didn’t have the time that we’ve had since to experiment in the studio.

You were really young at that point.
We recorded that first album and Cryptograms in the same year. It’s not that we were better songwriters or something just a few months later, but we’d never had our footing in the studio. I’d always been self-recorded. When I listen to that album, if I’d just had an extra week to think about things, it might be in a different position on the list. Or I might acknowledge it as something I’ve done. At this point, I consider it to be a student film. You don’t rank a great filmmaker’s thesis film at film school as among their filmography.

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So by the time Cryptograms comes around, it sort of comes together.
I still hate the vocals. When I was a kid and I was learning how to record myself, I learned that in order to make my vocals stand out in the mix I had to somehow boost them to the point of distortion. You hear this in a lot of garage rock and stuff. The Strokes had that distorted vocal, telephone-filter sound. For me, it wasn’t emulation, it was the only way I could figure out, with the limited technology that I had, to not make the vocals sound buried and muddy. That’s one problem I have with Cryptograms. I wanted the vocals to sound like Bowie, but they sound instead like some kind of post-punk, distorted early 2000s thing.

Something separates this from the first record though.
Certainly instrumentally. We were using bells and tape loops and vocal loops. It was becoming less of a guitar-bass-drums, post-punk revival band. I’ve always been interested in composers, like Stravinsky and Messaien. I wanted to make something that wasn’t “action music.” I wanted to make something that was a little more like a landscape. [Andrei] Tarkovsky, the filmmaker, was a huge influence. There’s these long, slow shots. That’s what I was going for.

You said in an interview around when Cryptograms came out you had “no agenda and no idea what we were doing.”
Still don’t. And no aspirations, no ambitions. People that I’ve known that have built their lives around a plan often find themselves disappointed. It’s less easy to find yourself disappointed when you have no idea where you’re going.

There was some illness and some stressful situations that informed the making of this record. What was that exactly?
Well, I had the flu, but a lot the record was based on being ill when I was young. I spent a lot of time in hospitals growing up. I always thought that perhaps that made our records stand apart because there was some reality behind it. It wasn’t “Oh baby, oh girl, let me get with you” in garage rock language. None of our albums have ever been romantic or sexual. All of our albums have been about what most people consider things you don’t want to look for as subject matter in entertainment.

Like?
Like sick and dying children. I think we were one of the first queer bands in our genre. I find it interesting now. It’s very easy for bands to market themselves as queer.

It wouldn’t have been in the headline about you.
Or it may have been a headline, but it would have been in a condescending way. It was very difficult. Me being who I was, was a handicap in a way.

Has it been strange to watch that change?
What’s strange is watching culture invent ways of accepting things once it’s altered them.

What do you mean?
Well, they alter queer culture to be palatable to them and then they pat themselves on the back for becoming so accommodating. I was always unapologetic. You can read any of those old interviews. I got myself into trouble all the time. What was really ironic about the whole thing was that I remained a virgin through all of it. I was never sexually active. I never had any interest in any real relationships or sexuality. I think that earned me a disentitlement from my queer legacy. “Oh, he’s not actually gay.” I think I am, actually. People want you to be queer in their guidebook fashion.

I saw you at Coachella in 2010—
I’ve never had any feelings about anything that happened at Coachella.

You made a crack that’s stuck with me. You played after Owen Pallett and before Jonsi…
Oh yeah, “the gay ghetto.”

The gay ghetto. Was that a point that you’d seen a change in the way “indie” was approaching queerness?
No. Jonsi and Owen and myself, we never benefited from the marketing concept of being queer. That wouldn’t happen until much later. And then ageism gets into it. It’s a problematic conversation. Frankly, I don’t enjoy it. I’m happy being alone. That’s my sort of endgame. I want to be alone and I want to be left alone. Every type of romantic engagement that I see out there is almost always a direct reflection of capitalism, commodity fetishism, power dynamics, submission, domination, trade, trying to pull one over on another person. It’s competition and I hate competition.

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A lot of your records, you’ve talked about how the circumstances of making them were really heavy. But this was the only one where I didn’t notice any of that. Did it feel different?
Oh, there was drama. I was learning to get along with [producer] Ben Allen. We did not come to the project seeing eye to eye. I was like, “I know what I’m doing” and he was coming off the success of a lot of things and he had his ideas. I thought that he was enormously competent, but I wasn’t looking for an artistic collaborator at that point, so we did not get along. The rest of the band, I feel, began withdrawing away from the project because I was trying to defend our group interests vocally. And when there’s one person being very vocal, it starts to appear as if there’s a leader. On Cryptograms, and when Josh Fauver was in the band, the band was all equally engaged. There was no leader of the band.

It seems like it’s been a democratic thing.
Yeah. And then with Halcyon Digest there was this sense that it was more of my show. Then it became more of me and Ben Allen’s show, a competition between me and him over the sound of the record. I would do things like… I insisted we record “Basement Scene” in an actual basement, and I insisted that a 14-year-old boy—one of the engineer’s sons—engineer it entirely. The thing that I should say, though, is that when there were collaborations, they were the highest of our career. My favorite Deerhunter song of all time is on that record, “Desire Lines.”

That’s one of my favorites too.
Would it surprise you to know I have nothing to do with it? I play the lead guitar on the first verse, but Lockett redid it on the second verse because I didn’t do it as well. We were just going to quit and record the album somewhere else. So we were like, “OK, we’ll try one more song.” And Ben said, “Can I just do this my way? Since you’re obviously not happy with what I’m doing, let me just do one thing without you stepping on my toes and breathing down my neck and micromanaging me. Let me do my job without interference.”

Ben had input and he said, “Get out.” I was removed from the studio. Of course I agreed to it. I took a drive around and came back to my favorite Deerhunter song ever. I was not in the room.

A lot of people seem to gravitate toward Lockett’s songs.
Lockett is an amazing songwriter. If he wrote the way I wrote, our albums would be mainly Lockett’s songs. I’ve never rejected a song of Lockett’s. People wonder why I write the majority of everything and why it’s the Bradford show. It’s not because I want to be.

Has your relationship as collaborators changed over the years?
Yeah, it’s weakened. All bands must weaken. The best you can do is try to preserve the basic union. Lockett has a wife and children. I have a dog and a home. I’m not going anywhere. Moses lives here in New York and the other two members of the group live in Athens. There’s no time. There’s no way to collaborate. It’ll never be like the times when Josh Fauver would say, “This song sucks, but I do like that bridge, so what if I play this?” That is collaboration. Nobody criticizes me now because I bring the majority of the possible songs to the table. Everybody acts like my work is untouchable, but I don’t particularly care for that. I want people to have strong opinions because [if they don’t], when I have strong opinions it makes me feel that I’m being unfair and that I have to have kid gloves. Josh Fauver never had kid gloves with me. I miss him very much.

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I thought about making this record number one. It’s our least appreciated album. People need to get the fuck over it. People who call themselves our fans and hate this album… I can name all the weaknesses of all of our albums, but there is no weakness in Fading Frontier. There’s not a single vocal I’d retrack, there’s not a single effect I’d do differently. There’s not a single editing point that’s a bit off. Anybody who doesn’t like this album, I don’t think that they have the capacity to move beyond their fucking childhood and their little closed-in concept of what I’m supposed to be making.

It’s a perfect record. It should have been widely accepted. It should have won us new fans. I find it so odd how much Kings of Leon liked it versus how much art school kids [disliked it]. I think that it’s just a matter of: I have to make everything binary for people. Experimental. Pop. Experimental. Pop. This record was the most successful merger of those two things. There’s not a bad moment on that record. Not one bad song.

And “Snakeskin” is an undefinable weird moment in our career. I have no idea what I was on about when I made it. It’s sinister. When we made it I thought it was frightening. And now people think it sounds like “indie rock”—fun, upbeat. I just don’t know what people… That’s what every artist struggles with. What they think is their best work, their audience dismisses, and something they made when they were 21, everyone constantly holds up as a gold standard.

Is it the peril of longevity?
Yeah, somewhat. I think the underappreciation of Fading Frontier is directly related to the decline in attention spans, even though it’s a short record—it’s 30 minutes long. People never listen to it like a film.

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I’m not nostalgic, I say this all the time. But I just buried a friend. That was the closest collaboration we had. It has “Nothing Ever Happened.”

There’s some incredible bass-playing on that record.
There is no replacement. He was a one-of-a-kind person. He wasn’t just a bass player. He was a wonderful person in general. And he reached the most people with that album. I’m not nostalgic for it, but there was a certain feeling of “we can do anything now.” We were on top. I mean, I’m happier now than I ever was then.

For a lot of people, this was “the big one.”
Yeah, I don’t know why anybody would think that, it just blows my mind. Personally, I get it. I have my favorite albums by a certain band. Then when I think of their albums after it, I’m like, “Ugh, that album fucking sucks.” It’s just like, they didn’t think it sucked or they wouldn’t put it out.

Just three years ago in an interview you said it was the record you think about the least.
It was.

Is that a reaction to the success of it?
I don’t consider the success or failure of anything. Monomania and Fading Frontier are the only ones where I’m bothered. People might say, “Well, your career might be in a decline then because those are your two most recent albums.” But no, I’m bothered by the way people are listening to music. I think Microcastle was the last time that we released an album where people listened to the album from the opening guitar chord to the closing feedback as a theatrical piece.

Ten years ago was a totally different era.
The reason why people like that album so much is probably because it was a time where people listened to things like Kanye West’s album—the big art one.

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy?
Yeah, I guess. The one with a painting on a cover that people acted like was the high mark of modern art. I never got it.

Microcastle was before that, though.
But my point is, that was the last album. Microcastle happened in the twilight of the album. Record labels think they can figure something out. “Oh, let’s release three songs before the album comes out.” As if that’s going to make people listen to the album then. It’s a mess, and I don’t have a solution. So I just sound like every other so-called progressive person. Who can we trust to get us back somewhere good? I don’t know. I just know that I hate everything. That’s why my generation is so pitiful. “I’m very unhappy! We don’t feel comfortable! We have a lot of anxiety!” It’s much easier to take an Ativan or a Xanax and watch Netflix or stare at Instagram than to actually wipe your own ass.

I don’t have any answers.
Nobody does. If they did, I would sign with them immediately.

Was the aftermath of Microcastle fun for you? Looking back, it feels like the peak of a certain era of “indie” as a commercial category.
I don’t remember it. Describe something.

It was a huge record for you…
Mmmm. Halcyon was a huge record. Microcastle was like Jay Reatard’s Blood Visions, you know? We played to 200 people instead of 100. We were just having a great time. Everyone was still alive. We were relatively young. We were also miserable and moving toward the negativity that awaited us. So I mean… I don’t know. I don’t remember anything. I remember nothing.

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Monomania is the greatest album I’ve ever made and anybody that doesn’t like it has no idea what I’m about or what I’m doing. They’re simply avid fans of what’s called indie rock and think we’re a notable indie rock band. I hate indie rock and never liked the term. I don’t consider myself a participant in indie rock. I think it’s a ghetto.

It’s marketing, right?
It’s worse than that, it’s an insult. “Indie” rock is like saying: You know, rock, but lazy.

It’s curious to me to think of this as your greatest album, since it’s the one that sounds the least like your other albums.
Well, I had a complete nervous breakdown. I was destroyed. I made a great piece of art out of complete nausea and panic and violent unhappiness.

You can sense the frayed edges in the sound of it.
We lived in that record. We recorded it entirely at night. All the rumors and all the mythology about the making of Monomania are completely true. I would say, and I said this to my manager at the time, I think Monomania was the last rock ‘n’ roll record ever made.

[Laughs]
I’m not being funny and I’m not being self-aggrandizing. I don’t know of anyone else who’s almost lost themselves and almost not come out the other side. I’m not talking about some VH1: Behind the Music shit. I’m talking about the shit that nobody wants to look at. It’s not entertaining. My sister calls it my mental hospital record. She won’t let my niece and nephew listen to it. It was completely derided by our core audience and they were completely wrong. Sometimes a razor blade can be just as ambient as a mist of vapor over an English lake. Sometimes abrasiveness can be just as ambient as baby powder.

So you think it’s spiritually connected to your old records in that way?
I think if it’s spiritually anything, it’s a cult. It’s dead. It’s the death of emotion. I understand why it didn’t achieve a high level of “metric success” because it was fucking made of sheet metal and sandpaper.

Which might be unpleasant.
I enjoy unpleasant odors. I have a candle at home that smells like motor oil. And I definitely prefer it to Chanel. I would say Monomania is the most cathartic and dedicated and lost in a work of art I’ve ever been.

I saw the show you did at MoMa PS1 where you played “Monomania” for 45 minutes straight.
That was pure art. I was in character.

Both the PS1 show and the performance you did on Fallon, also in character—
If the audience wants to criticize us by saying it’s pretentious, guess what? It was. [The producers of Jimmy Fallon’s show] just let me do what I wanted. I did actually ask if I could sing the song to a live rat. We went through a whole New York union thing about having a rat. You know how Hamlet talks to a skull? I wanted to sing “Monomania” to a rat and Fallon nixed it. I was going to lift the rat up and scream in its face and they thought it’d be traumatizing to the rat.

I coughed real blood on the bass drum because I had bronchitis. It was a fantastic moment in modern music history. And nobody even fucking cares. But at the same time, I’d rather it be that way.

This article originally appeared on Noisey US.