Feelings Aren't Eternal and Neither Is Life: An Interview with Deerhunter
We have—as expected—a pretty candid interview with Bradford Cox and his bandmate Lockett Pundt about the group's seventh album 'Fading Frontier'.
When you call Bradford Cox and he answers his phone that means he’s ready to talk. When he tells me he and his Deerhunter bandmates are walking his dog Faulkner on the way to rehearsal, I ask and make sure it’s a good time for him. “Obviously, I answered the phone,” he chimes back.
One thing I’ve learned over the years interviewing Bradford Cox a handful of times is that he won’t let the conversation get in the way of his schedule, whether he’s busy or not. The last time we spoke, for 2010’s Halcyon Digest, he achieved the following over the course of 90 minutes: signed a book out of his local library, went grocery shopping, spent ten minutes driving home, and even relieved himself—all without putting down the phone. “I’m not really a fan of interrupting my routine to talk about art, which I don’t like talking about in the first place,” he tells me now, when I remind him of our previous interaction.
Though he is often pegged as a difficult interview, or to some a “cagey prankster,” Cox is always engaging. He can be gracious, cunning, and temperamental but also very funny—he is quick to make wisecracks or brutally honest remarks in a droll accent that reveals little of his Georgian upbringing. However, getting him to talk about songwriting is next to impossible. He considers it to be “terribly boring stuff” that “nobody wants to read.” And maybe this policy of his is what’s made Deerhunter such a fascinating band over the past eight years. On Deerhunter’s seventh album, Fading Frontier, he does share more personal details of his life, and it only makes sense: a lot has happened to him since the release their last album, 2013’s Monomania. Last December he was hit from behind by a car, which broke his jaw and put him into a depression that curbed his interest in music. It was at this point he began to focus on other things in his life, like becoming a recluse, as well as owning a house and adopting a dog. This lifestyle change, which he mostly attributes to simply getting older, helped shape Fading Frontier, a much calmer and melodic record than its manic, garage rock-inspired predecessor.Continued below.
Noisey: Are you outside at the moment?
Bradford Cox: I’m walking with my band and my dog. We’re taking a walk before the hurricane comes. It’s very dark and cool air. So let’s talk. What’s going on? How are you Cam? It’s been a long time. How is the kid?
She’s good. She wished me good luck for this interview.
Well, I’m gonna make that happen for her.
[Cox starts yelling.] They just let my dog off the leash for no reason and he ran into some guy’s backyard. I don’t know what the fuck they were doing! They just decided to let the dog off the leash. Anyway, let’s talk. Let’s have a conversation.
How is life for you?
I don’t want… y’know, life is up and down all the time for everybody. One day you feel absolutely great. The next day you feel stressed, a little nauseous, you need some ginger ale. Sometimes you feel like there’s a pain in your armpit and you think, “Oh, I’ve got six months to live.”
Are you still off the grid?
Off the grid… [Interruption: yells at Faulker to come.] Hold on a second I need to find out what just happened.
I live a quiet life. There are certain ingredients in one’s lifestyle that tends to result in more of a social existence. For example, the tendency to drink or do drugs. It’s not like I have moral objections. At my age I don’t enjoy the sensations. It always makes me feel ill and full of anxiety. So I don’t do those things. I do zero drugs. None of the band do them. Some drink beer, but in moderation. In other words we’re not a band that goes out and parties. I can think of some other bands that do. But we’re kind of eccentric in that way. So if you want to call that off the grid. I talk to my mom! I talk to my sister and my dad. I don’t hide. I am reclusive in that I don’t find there to be much excitement in what the culture I’m around offers. I find more excitement in my house, my books, my dog and my records, and instruments.
I noticed on the album concept map you did for Vulture recently you listed your dog as an influence.
It’s kind of like your daughter.
In how he plays a role in your life? I also own a dog.
Yeah, but obviously you’re heterosexual, so you have a kid, who is no question way more important than the dog. To me, my dog is as important as a kid. Don’t take that the wrong way. I’m not going to take him on tour or expect everybody to accommodate my dog. A dog is a dog, I know that. He’s definitely spoiled by me, but he’s just a normal dog. A rescue dog who’s treated normally by everybody. He doesn’t have some kind of glamorous dog life. He gets his walk every day, some treats, some bones, he gets to go to a dog park and play with other dogs.
So, you’d say he’s enriched your life?
As much as your daughter has enriched yours! It gives me a reason to get over my little, trivial this and that. I’ve got work to do. I’ve got to make my dog happy.
How did he like starring in the video for “Snakeskin”?
He liked it. He likes being around his Daddy. He likes being around everyone because he likes people. He’s not a suspicious dog, he’s very trusting. So the video shoot was very fun for him because people were giving him attention and treats and playing with him.
When you click on a link on the Deerhunter website, it barks. Is that Faulkner’s voice?
Yeah, that’s Faulkner barking. I didn’t get him to record his barks. I was recording a radio voiceover and he kept barking, so I took one of the barks and cut it.
In a recent interview with Pitchfork you spoke about domesticity. How much satisfaction do you get from keeping an organized home?
In the past two years before music came back in focus I got a lot of satisfaction. That was my main goal, my main job, I always had something to do. That was it: I always wanted to decorate my home with junk and strange things. I’m not interested in just going to a store and buying something. I prefer things that are messy and organic. I like to decorate. When I say, “I like to decorate,” I think some people get this idea of Designing Women or something. It’s not quite like that. It’s more like Lonnie Holley will give me a piece of art or something strange. I just like finding objects that are slightly homemade and misguided. I collect bad, homemade pottery from the Goodwill. And not for ironic reasons. I just enjoy the idea that somebody tried something and then whoever received it as a gift didn’t think it was good enough to go in their house. But for me it is. I want to be the person who says, “This is good enough for my house.”
You admitted that Monomania was a very hateful record. This album almost feels like it is devoid of hate. Are you less hateful now?
I’m less of any person, if you really want to know the truth.
Why do you feel like less of a person?
Because I’m getting older! I’m older now. As you get older you’re less of one thing or one other thing. You’re just a grown up, a person who mediates their feelings, who says, “These feelings are not eternal. Everything is temporary. Who I am now is really irrelevant. And why sit here and sell everybody this act? It’s very dramatic.”
And you didn’t feel that way five years ago?
Five years ago I said everything I felt was the most intense, transcendental feeling that could ever be in a human mind or body. I don’t regret anything. I don’t care if I annoyed anybody. I don’t care what people think about me. It doesn’t bother me. They’re on their trip. I’m on mine. I don’t need confirmation. I don’t need validation from anyone. I’m doing my thing. If they like the music, that’s the most important thing to me. If they don’t like the music, I’m disappointed and I wish I could have made something they like. But I’m sure there is plenty of other music out there for them.
You mention getting older and you’ve said this album seemed to make the band members closer. Do you think those two things are connected?
You’re bound to be closer as you get older. Most bands break up by now because they argue about money or drugs or sleep with each other’s wives or sleep with each other.
What does Deerhunter argue about?
Deerhunter argues about where to eat dinner. Which season of The Wire is the best. The closest we get into a band argument is, “We have to eat and everything closes in ten minutes,” and we have to decide. We get into arguments about other things but they’re more temporary and not worth writing about. Like which guitar sounds better.
What I've always loved most about Deerhunter is the band's ability to evolve with each record but always sound like Deerhunter. It feels very natural. “Take Care” and “Ad Astra” are my favorite songs on Fading Frontier because they break some new ground for the band.
They’re mine too. And I would agree with you 100 percent. I think they are the most continuative of Deerhunter.
I wanted to ask you about those two songs. How are they different to you?
I don’t answer questions like that because it’s not up to me to interpret the songs. What’s interesting to me is that we both have the same opinion. It’s not interesting to me why I have that opinion and comparing notes as to why we share that opinion. I think that you and I liking the same songs the most is interesting enough. Don’t you?
I was more interested in discussing the origins of these songs.
Oh, that’s terribly boring stuff. Nobody wants to read that.
Like you, growing up I was a big fan of Stereolab and Broadcast and—
Right. Are you asking about influences? Because I used to read the interviews and find out that I should listen to this, this and this. I should check them out and try this. Time [Gane] never talked about what kind of compressor he used on the drums. So it depends on what you’re asking. If you’re asking about the technical aspects of recording than it would be terribly boring. But if you’re asking me what kind of music influenced those songs…
Well yes. I was getting to that.
OK. For me “Take Care” started out very simply as Rosie & The Originals’ “Angel Baby” but sort of like a mental institution version. And I don’t mean that to sound provocative. Like I literally meant, without being overdramatic, what would it sound like if Rosie & The Originals were a mental institution’s house band. And then the song changed because the producer [Ben Allen] made some decisions on his own, and normally I resent that kind of thing, but I found that his decisions were interesting and created more of a topography for the song to travel. My version started at an intensity level of ten and stayed at ten. But James’s version has more of a dynamic. He contributed to that song very much so.
I know you’re friends with them now, but how would 20-year-old Bradford Cox have felt if he’d know Tim Gane and James Cargill were playing on this record?
The 20-year-old Bradford would excited. But the 20-year-old Bradford would also never imagine owning a house or a lot of things. I expected nothing but failure. When I was a kid my doctors told me I wouldn’t live to be 30. True story! Ask my mom. I grew up being told I would not live past a certain age, and that the likelihood of someone with my condition wouldn’t live past a certain age. I don’t think I have a fucking condition as much as they thought! Obviously I have Marfan syndrome. There are a lot of people that live healthy lives with Marfan syndrome. But I had a specific severe case… I don’t need to get into my medical history. My point is, my expectations as a kid were lower than you can imagine. It didn’t make me depressed. We were raised that way. An average reader would say that’s sad, that’s shocking, that’s horrible, “Jesus, man! That’s tough!” But kids are told that all the time that they have six months to live and that they’re not going to be an adult. “Hey, guess what? You don’t have to worry about what you do when you grow up.” And honestly it’s less shocking for them. It’s like, “Huh, okay!” We don’t grasp that live is temporary! We think we’re going to live forever, but these poor kids are going to die. Their life, their mortality is so apparent, so vulgar. But ours is the same way. All it takes is one wrong turn or whatever. Nobody’s promised tomorrow. I’m not saying don’t empathize with sick children. What I’m saying is that these sick children know more about life. And when you ask me what I would have thought when I was younger I’d say, “Well, I thought I would’ve been dead by now.”
So what does 33-year-old Bradford think of having Tim and James on his record?
They’re my friends at this point. I think of it like, “Man, there is nobody who can play noise as melody like James.” He makes electronic sounds that are truly filled with pathos. He has definitely not lost his gifts. And Tim is more like a buddy I talk to often. We share tracks we discover off old comps. We talk about structures of songs and equipment and that. I like the way Tim works. When I work with Tim or think about it Tim, he’s more controlled, and always thinking more about music, music, music. Tim is reliable and not as unpredictable. But he’s not predictable. I just knew he was going to this great work for us. With James I knew I was going to have this great transcendental experience because I didn’t know what he was going to do. I don’t direct either of them, but I say, “Tim, I want electric harpsichord.” There are two ways to do it. “Give me some material, we’ll cut it up.” Whereas with James, I just put it all in, as is. I don’t even think he intended it to be that way. I think he gave me stuff to use and edit the parts. I was just like, “Fuck that! I’m using it all!” One thing that Deerhunter is never going to be too far away from is noise. You asked about “Ad Astra” so I’m going to turn over the phone to Lockett for that.
Hey Lockett, tell me about “Ad Astra.”
Lockett Pundt: It’s a weird way that the song originated, but I wrote it after reading some news story about a family that had a child they neglected. It ended up dying and they were extremely religious and faith healers who prayed for the kid to recover, but really needed medical attention. So the kid ended up passing and it’s a morbid story that stuck with me. What I ended up writing was more light-hearted. The story I ended up writing has the narrator walking into the woods and finding an alien reciting a space ritual to bring back a buddy of his. That’s where it came from and the rest just happened. I’m usually more methodical when it comes to writing, but this was one of those songs where I actually fell into and wrote it in two hours.
And what inspired you to use synthesizers so heavily on the track?
It was stuff that I had bought around the time. I got a Poly 6 and used it on everything I could. I was really excited to use it. I owned a few synthesizers over time but they weren’t as musical to me. They weren’t really generating songs. But the Poly 6 was very organic sounding and limited, but every time I play it I feel songs in it. I find it very inspiring to write or even play using it. I’m not a very proficient keyboardist. The song itself is rather simple but it started on that and then I just did everything with it. On the album we just used a lot more equipment, but when I wrote it I was just using the Poly 6.
Bradford is opening the Deerhunter tour with an Atlas Sound set. Was there every any discussion about you doing Lotus Plaza or Moses doing Moon Diagrams also?
If I wanted to, everyone would be cool with it. At some point we talked about alternating the opening sets, but Brad just likes to perform and would much rather be doing that than sitting backstage. That’s not the reason why he’s doing it. He’s excited to be opening the shows. And it’s the same for Moses. He could have played his solo stuff too. I think it’s much easier for Bradford to get on stage, not necessarily to even do it with a plan. Moses could do it more than I could. I’ve pretty much written is for a band. Brad has always been solo for the most part. Same with Moses.
[Back to Bradford] So you’re opening for Deerhunter as Atlas Sound on the tour.
Bradford Cox: I wouldn’t really call it that. Everybody is acting like it’s a big deal. The reason I’m playing is because the tours got so screwed up and turned around that it’s just too difficult to find an opener that can keep up with all of the changes. I have Atlas Sound drones and materials and exploratory stuff that I enjoy playing. I think the audiences will enjoy it. I didn’t make a big decision. It wasn’t meant to be, “Oh, I’m opening up for myself.” I’m not fucking promoting anything. The reason why I’m playing is to give people some entertainment. If they like Deerhunter they’re most likely going to like Atlas Sound. And we also use the same equipment, the sound checks will be the same and we’re giving audiences more for their money. We’re a band that doesn’t have a huge budget.
I just assumed it was something you wanted to do.
I do want to do it! I don’t do anything that I don’t want to do. Everybody’s going to read that and think, “Oh, what a cock-sucking, stuck up, arrogant, fucking drama queen.” But now, I just don’t have time to. I’ve got a dog to tend to. It’s really difficult to go on tour, so if I’m gonna do it I’m gonna make it worthwhile.
How will you survive touring without Faulkner?
I’m a grown man. Faulkner will be at my dad’s house and have a great time. He has a brother there. A soul brother. Winston Churchill. So anyway, to make a long story short, I’m doing it because a) I feel like it, b) It’s not gonna be fucking hard for the audience to listen to, c) I like to think of it more as a happening. I don’t know when an Atlas Sound show will end and a Deerhunter show will begin. I don’t know if I’ll have a set break. Maybe Deerhunter will join me on some Atlas Sound stuff. I don’t fucking know! All I know is that I’m interested in playing music and having fun. If I can accomplish that, then the audience will feel the same way.
Cam Lindsay is on Twitter.