Surviving the Last Days of Excess with Oneohtrix Point Never
The world is overwhelming, and the Brooklyn-based composer is just trying to process it all on his wonderfully all-over-the-place LP 'Age Of.'
Photo by Blake Wood
We are living in “the last days of Excess.” Daniel Lopatin makes this proclamation on the rooftop deck of a Greenpoint apartment building with the Manhattan skyline—one of humankind’s greatest monuments of capitalist hubris—over his left shoulder. He’s prone to these sorts of grand statements—this one comes just moments after he has referred to Kanye West, offhandedly, as a “chaos sentinel”—but this one’s troubling given the context. In the midst of explaining the mythos behind Age Of, his new record as Oneohtrix Point Never which involves—if I understand him correctly—sentient AI at the terminus point of the universe dreaming stories of human folly through four archetypal epochs: Ecco, Harvest, Excess, and Bondage.
Lopatin is wearing a Hellraiser T-shirt and a baseball hat with a simple geometric insignia that looks like something out of a cyberpunk anime. He has this way of talking quickly but affectlessly, as if he is telling me incredibly important but is also kinda bored by it, like the truths he possesses are more or less self-evident. He lays out the record’s Ages thusly. First, Ecco is a phase of pre-evolutionary ignorance. “We’re like single celled organisms,” he explains. In Harvest, we become “rulers of soil—we celebrate this equipoise—a balance of being with nature,” living in agrarian harmony with the world. Eventually the scale comes unstuck, we start taking more than we give, or as Lopatin puts it: “we start seeing how tricked out our BMX bike can be.” That’s Excess, the age of unchecked industrial ambition. Bondage, which comes soon after, is an era of engorgement, wherein “we keep making more and more shit until there’s no space left.” Then we fail, and start from Ecco again. So basically what he means when he says that we are at the cusp of this final transition is that things—on a cosmic scale—are very, very bad.
No day is too beautiful for apocalypsis, so here we are sweating on on the first truly summery day of the year musing about the end of the world—which to paraphrase another music-making doomsayer, is always at hand. “I was born in ‘82 and there were these bizarre wars, explained through mass media in ways that made no sense,” Lopatin explains. “I remember watching the Gulf War through night vision. That was sold and propagated as a showbusiness moment for the news. There’s no tether between us and reality right now. We don’t understand the actual consequences of anything.”
He squints into the late afternoon sun, letting the impact of that statement set in. It should be no surprise, given his predilection for drama, that he knows the power of a well-placed pause. It is in my disposition, as a generally nervous person, to agree with him. I often feel like I am approaching a cliff, even if I have little idea of what that might mean practically. I am afraid of falling. I let him continue.
“There’s not some kind of truth; there’s just sci-fi fantasy,”—Daniel Lopatin
“I’m just so...distrusting of everything right now,” Lopatin says, in a sort of half-chuckle, half-resigned-whisper—as though he know how it sounds to be saying it, but he can’t help himself. He’s is speaking, broadly, of the tenuous state of geopolitics in our current moment, but he also has feelings about other less obvious societal forces. He expresses dismay at the unshakeable feeling that he’s being controlled by forces bigger than him, and he gestures toward this intangible “ether” or “a thin filament of anxiety” that’s been a perpetual companion in the Trump era. “It’s hard to align myself with anything,” he says. “Everything seems like a cult.”
Lopatin is sensitive to the pervasive idea that “the wrong mythologies” have power to cause disastrous shifts in culture—that, for example, Trumpian fantasies fulfilled the needs of a certain noxious subset of the population. “Alt-Right trolls basically generated a ton of response to Trump by creating insane mythologies that titillated people that had no tether to community,” he surmises. “Seriously disenfranchised people needed some kind of release, some kind of fucked up way of seeing the world, and they generated for themselves a mythological universe of dangerous ideas that are being propagated.”
So, naturally, he decided he needed to tell his own story, one of society’s failure—a Babel-like tale of getting close to really figuring some shit out, only for it all to come toppling down, and having to start again from square one. These are big fanciful ideas, no doubt, self-serious, but also not, constantly undercut but the casualness with which he recounts all of it. It’s as if he’s veering back and forth between a sort of eyebrows-raised speculative fiction and legitimate socio-political armchair quarterbacking. I sometimes have a hard time telling the difference which is which, but if Lopatin’s to be believed, it doesn’t really matter. “There’s not some kind of truth,” he says at one point. “There’s just sci-fi fantasy.”
Despite his grave proclamations, Lopatin says he isn’t much interested in “doom and gloom.” In some senses, why would he be? Even though he’s obligated to a gauntlet of interviews, today is nice, and he’s finally had the chance to settle down to a well-earned lunch—a salmon grain bowl with a side of disdain for journalistic cliches. “This is the part where you say, ‘he got Quinoa Kitchen,’” he deadpans. Our conversation is occuring at the peak of his mainstream success to date—in between the first live shows of the Age Of era all sold out, at one of the bigger venues he’s ever played in his career. Soon he’ll take the project to the giant stage of Barcelona’s Primavera Sound festival, and to London for another string of sold out dates.
Oneohtrix Point Never has always been respected among experimental music heads and curious critics—a 2011 Best New Music review from Pitchfork echoes the general tenor of the early praise, casting him as the author and creator of a “tiny universe with its own cracked logic”—but now it feels like he’s at the precipice of an even bigger breakthrough. Thanks to his successes over the last few years—a tour with Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden, a critically acclaimed “cybergrunge” album about puberty accompanied by a sort of alien ARG, and an award-winning soundtrack for the Safdie brothers’ grimy thriller Good Time—he’s been afforded the resources and opportunity to make grander than basically anything he’s ever attempted before. So he decided to fixate on the end of the world.
That’s what ultimately birthed Age Of, a borderline hubristic effort that melds the composerly, obsessive, synth-heavy pieces that have become his signature with a new pop impulse—in a relative sense. It is undoubtedly his most ambitious effort to date, fueled by more disparate streams of thought than he perhaps ever has before. In conversations around the album’s release, he’s namedropped 90s cybernetics researchers, obscure medieval instruments, postmodern visual artists, among other even more abstruse references. In our afternoon chat, he racks up a few more, nodding to Pet Sounds, the Nietzschean concept of eternal return, the Japanese avant-ecstatics in Boredoms, and Rick & Morty. Which, I realize, can be read as a Fisher-Price My First Psychedelic Experience starter kit, but he’s always had a way of taking corny source material and turning it into something transcendant; this is a guy who once took microsamples from 80s TV commercials and collaged them into bleak ambient pieces.
The apocalyptic storytelling that’s buzzing around his head isn’t super apparent in the album itself. The kibosh was apparently put on that by James Blake, who helped with some of the late stage production and told Lopatin, per the latter’s recent recounting to Red Bull Radio, something along the lines of “Shut the fuck up with your shit.” Still, you can hear its vestiges in the pieces, which feel transgenerational in their sonic referents. I hear bits that remind me of ancient folk music, 70s singer-songwriter’s earnestness, Tangerine Dream’s stargazing ambience, prog’s backbending rhythmic interplay, the impossible instrumentation of 90s electronic music that people called IDM, R&B’s slippery rhythms, as well as future-facing genres that remain. If an AI were to look back and craft a recombinant version of the musics of human history, it might sound something like Age Of.
It is like little other music I have ever heard, and the beautiful thing is that Lopatin knows as much. He gleefully describes the band he’s assembled for the live shows around the record: “We don’t sound like anyone else...we’re a complete anomaly.”
The circumstances of this new record’s construction came together around the idea that all great records carry with them their own creation myths. Last summer, during the promotion of score Good Time he hit a bit of a creative wall and decided he’d do what all great composers and bands before him do in that situation—as he told Rolling Stone—“Let's make an album in the woods.” The impulse led him to a Western Massachusetts suburb, not too far from where he grew up as the child of two Russian computer engineers, or where he first started his attempts at making loop-based electronic music, as a kid adjacent to the free improv scene that populated his college town.
Returning to Massachusetts, he rented a small egg-shaped house—one with few right angles, in an apparent effort to throw shake himself up and reconnect with the intuitive style of music-making that he’s long held most dear—the Pet Sounds mindset. “I had it calcified inside me that that was the ultimate state of composing,” he says. “Being Brian Wilson. Being simultaneously a genius and sort of lost at sea—not really knowing what you’re doing but reaching for the stars.”
So he did a lot of thinking, sitting in this weird rounded house, under a chandelier that he said could “cut me and end my life at any moment”—talking with friends as loops played, zeroing in on the themes and words that would bubble to the surface in these conversations. He basked in the strangeness of the environment, and the general overwhelming nature of the world at large, and emerged with this weird, misshapen, and equally overwhelming record
It is inevitable that music will be a product of your experiences, but over the course of the last year that’s one of the things that Lopatin has really been fixating on. It came to a head just a few weeks ago, when he was deep in intense rehearsals with the band he’s put together for Age Of’s live shows. The other players—the virtuosic pianist Kelly Moran, the drummer Eli Keszler—who plays a kit in a way that Lopatin recently described as “bacterial”—and the electronics manipulator Aaron David Ross—are each boundary-pushing composers in their own right. So as they were practicing their alien music—in an environment that Lopatin curiously describes as a “Gen X startup” playing “psilocybin ping pong”— they also dove into heady philosophical conversations. They sought to figure out both the principles that unite the music they all make separately and the themes that make them distinct. Ultimately they came to the half-serious idea that their music, their movement, needed a name, through which they settled on an idea they call Compressionism. In part a joke about how their engineers kept fiddling with their compressors, they chose the name for the way in which each of their practices condenses the immensity of existence in the age of the Extremely Online into music.
“[Compressionism] is a historically motivated need to organize and make sense of an illogical flow of external media inputs that is living in a completely cybernetic reality,” Lopatin says. “Which is what we’re in right now.”
The first step of adopting a Compressionist practice, per Lopatin, is to “accept the barrage”—to open yourself to the massive influx of information, to the popping videos and officially licensed Disney vore and the baffling Kanye West tweets (he’s a Compressionist, as well as sentinel of chaos) and overall the absurdity of the 24-hour news cycle. He says you can’t “run away into the woods and hide,” even though that’s what he said he thought he needed to make Age Of. It’s all going to become a part of the work anyway so you have to let it in, that’s the first step of taking control back. “What I’m interested in is that extrapolation of meaning from things I didn’t ask for,” he says. “It’s a way of negotiating a scenario you didn’t choose for yourself.” It seems to me its a way of saying, the world is a lot, so of course art will be too.
Appropriately, the first live shows that Lopatin and his supergroup play are called MYRIAD—a name that is both a backronym for “My Record = Internet Addiction Disorder,” and in general a bold statement on the multifariousness of the work that he’s made. It answers the implicit questions that come up when you read the ambitious descriptions of it that describe it as a “concertscape” and “an allegory for the current disquiet of a civilization out of balance with its environment.” What is it exactly? What does it mean? The one word summation, of course, is MYRIAD.
It starts with an ambient wheeze from overhead speakers, as witnesses take their seats in the cavernous space of Manhattan’s Park Avenue Armory. There are thick plastic drums evocative of hazardous waste containers and a bar stocked with fluorescent Red Bull-based cocktails—this being the crown jewel of the energy drink slingers’ annual avant music festival in New York—a detail that is most probably coincidental, but feels striking nevertheless. Surreal sculptures, by Lopatin’s longtime collaborator Nate Boyce, rotate overhead—shifting in the low light: from one angle it’ll appear to be something like a gargoyle holding a harp, from another something more upsetting and insectoid.
“I was never totally sold on this idea that I’m just a musician," Lopatin says. "I wanted to be the Tim Burton of music."
This is all before the music starts—but when it does, it is, of course, snowblinding. The tracks of Age Of get rearranged into their original epochal structure, and broken down for four sets of hands. Drippy wurlitzer fantasias bleed into Auto-Tuned ballads punctuated with death metal growls and the delirious swirl of cello loops, care of Age Of collaborators Prurient and Kelsey Lu, respectively. Each of those guests make stunning impressions amidst the celestial din, but none so much as the crew of dancers in cowboy hats who sauntered, dead-eyed, through a bleak performance of the record’s lead single “Black Snow,” a slow, still ballad that roils with the apocalyptic energy that Lopatin describes the following day. It feels like an elegy for the end of the world.
I could go on about the bewildering scope of the whole thing, but instead I invite you to check out what Lopatin calls the event’s “quasilibretto,” a hefty document made available to all attendees of the shows, replete with a dramatis personae, an abstract version of the narrative, and a list of the people who helped realize it all, which numbers upwards of 50. It’s a bit of a shock to see Lopatin operating at this level ultimately—selling out a run of three Manhattan shows in two nights, employing basically four NBA teams worth of people to create some combination of experimental theater and prog concert. It is impressive, even if you were to come into it with no context, which is part of Lopatin’s intention. In an ideal world, he says, the whole gesture of what he’s doing would be comprehensible to everyone—it’d be as pure and self-contained as mime, or a great film. “Scale is interesting to me,” Lopatin says the following day. “I was never totally sold on this idea that I’m just a musician. I wanted to be the Tim Burton of music. It’s stupid and embarrassing that you can describe something to one person and not to another. Until I’ve solved that problem I’m not going to feel like I’ve achieved too much.”
It was only a small handful of years ago that you could catch Lopatin hunched over a bank of electronics on the floor of a dingy DIY space, conjuring fractalized torrents of synth ephemera out of humble gear. He invited you into fantastical worlds with the sounds alone, conjuring post-capitalist nightmares, or as one title put it, Zones Without People.
At least for now, Lopatin has the ability to bring those worlds to life and to sit at the center, a benevolent architect smiling over his own creation. “I felt like I was on stimulants,” he says, of seeing the show in action. With a voice and a face presiding over it, his world is less mysterious, the sounds more legible, more human, which is nice. If our world’s at its end, it’s good to have another option to escape to—even if it is just the dream of a bored computer program.
Colin Joyce is an editor at Noisey, and is on Twitter.