Bradford Cox harbors no delusions that his music makes the world a better place. For nearly 15 years he’s been the frontman of Deerhunter, a band from Atlanta that rarely stays to one lone aesthetic. Deerhunter’s music is made of gloriously shape-shifting genres and sounds—vacillating from post-punk to pop–auspiciously under the all-encompassing umbrella of indie-rock. Equally innocent and snarling, one minute Mr. Cox sings drenched in dissonance and reverb, while he croons or whispers the next.
“I’m attacking the concept [of], ‘oh, I play music and that helps people.’ ”
Mr. Cox had no desire to talk about inspiration or what went into a tune, which explains why our conversation about Deerhunter’s new album, Fading Frontier became about so much else than an artist, or as he would say, an entertainer. Much of the onus to keep things on track fell on this reporter, both for bringing a nervous, apologetic energy to interview a man who hates interviews, and for asking prefacing questions that Mr. Cox considered to be bourgeois. Nonetheless, what follows might be the most refreshingly transparent, honest, no-bullshit conversation with an artist I’ve ever had.
I last remember seeing Deerhunter back in 2005 or 2006… maybe not that long ago, but seems like a while.
That’s such a long time ago. I mean, if a child was born then, it would be 10 now. They would be buying Taylor Swift albums.
You hear about all these old time indie rock dudes whose kids love her.
Well that’s why I decided to be gay, so I never have kids that love Taylor Swift.
That’s a good strategy! So you’re opening Deerhunter shows with Atlas Sound sets [Bradford’s solo project], and I was wondering how you split the time and energy between the two…
I don’t care. I don’t think about music in those ways.
You make it first?
I don’t just sit around thinking about how I’m going to divide my life up between these two projects. It just works, you know?
And you don’t think about it when you have to juggle both at the same time?
I’m a very…selfish and difficult person. When I feel like doing one I’ll just do that. Whatever I do now is just whatever I feel like doing. Because I’m old! I’m not young anymore and I don’t owe anybody anything. All my debts are paid.
Wish I could say the same.
So I just don’t give a shit. Well…it’s not something you can’t say. I mean, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true if I say it, but if I proclaim it. You could just say, “I have no debts” and live the life you want to live.
“How I feel is not important, what’s important is the article. If I want to feel good, the first step is probably not to do interviews.”
You’re talking about some Aleister Crowley style of thinking now, “do what thou wilt.”
I’m thinking more like Mother Theresa. Lately I’ve been thinking I want to volunteer.
And do what?
Some human good.
You don’t think your music is sufficient? It’s just a job for you?
That’s a very bourgeois concept, you know. I’m attacking the concept [of], “oh, I play music and that helps people.”
You’re doing it for yourself then, right? I mean, you’re doing it for some reason.
I just do what I do, I don’t think about who it’s for. But then sometimes I think, you know, there are people out there that would raise the price of a drug that’s necessary for the treatments of AIDS, and they’d raise it for profits, and I think that the only choice you have in this world is to combat that sort of corruption or be part of it, submit to it.
Some people quit music for that reason. They see themselves as muckrakers, they don’t enact the change that they want to and they get the hell outta dodge.
I dunno…I just find several things today… sometimes you read the news and you’re just like, “Jesus.”
There were no direct intentions with Fading Frontier? Maybe different from your other projects, lyrically, thematically?
What do you mean?
[When you sing] “Take your handicaps, channel them and feed them back” on “All the Same”.
It all just comes from nowhere, and when I hear a line like that coming out of my mouth I think, “that’s the spirit.”
It’s a great line. And it’s interesting how the record starts off by settling into that groove instead of making some grand opening thing, it just kind of begins and you say “it’s all the same.” You make it really personal for a line or two, but these songs could be about anybody. What were you thinking when you wrote about “my friends dad got bored, changed his sex and had no more?”
It’s a serious re-evaluation of identity; maybe I just had some stuff on my mind that crept out. I have a friend whose dad came out, and announced, “I’m gay and I’m leaving the family to go live with my boyfriend.” I’m not saying what I think about it—I’m saying I considered both the perspective of the father, reaching for some ultimate truth and honesty and the feeling of the faithful family who perhaps value…you could say, well what about the value of other people’s feelings over your honesty?
That’s empathy to me right there. You often hear bout the courage of an individual to realize themselves but you don’t hear about the kids or the wife left behind. The idea that there’s not one truth behind things is interesting. I’m looking for it on the rest of your record.
It’s not something I’m necessarily exploring…it’s a rock record. It’s not fully examined, so it’s not the theme of the record.
Would you say that there are any themes?
“A lot of times the honest truth is very boring, and it’s not inspiring…I’m not gonna play a game where I become able to spout out bullshit.”
I’ve worked like that in the past, but I don’t feel like there’s any obligation to have a theme. I think sometimes you just have to follow the songs and just trust when they go well together, that’s where the sequence is best suited.
I think that speaks to a sense of humor in the sequence. And the song “Leather and Wood”…
I don’t think “Leather and Wood” is funny. My assessment of that song is that it’s sort of dystopian, maybe a bit sarcastic and artificially hopeful. Not sarcastic in a humorous way, but like if you were trying very hard to believe these positive affirmations in the face of violence, or a giant void that smells like a new car. It’s not that I’m trying to be funny.
I guess it’s the humor of reacting to someone’s ability to sit with something, a humor in discomfort. Are you ever trying to be funny?
When I say jokes, maybe. Onstage I’ll say jokes or make a wisecrack.
Does it ever feel like stand-up comedy? The whole glut of touring and singing all the same songs every night?
Ultimately I’m just an entertainer.
Like Billy Joel?
Not unlike Billy Joel. I don’t really see myself as that different from him.
How does playing with these other dudes change that, as opposed to just making all the music yourself?
Well, you never really know what I’m playing.
Are you thinking that I’m being difficult or that this interview isn’t going well? Because I feel like you came into this with a really nervous energy. I’m not special. You don’t have to worry about what I think, you know? You shouldn’t view yourself as smaller than me. It never works for me to do an interview with somebody and I feel like if I don’t give them the answer that causes them to have a “wow” moment … because a lot of times the honest truth is very boring, and it’s not inspiring.
“I don’t start out with something I wanna say. I’m not a political artist. I’m not protesting anything. I’m just looking for a personal truth, you know, in the ether.”
I’m not trying to to goad anything artificially and try to pine for some killer quote, but I’m also inevitably obliged to take what you say and process it and parse it enough so that it works and everyone’s happy—you, my editor and our readers.
Was there a specific story your editor’s looking for?
By no means! But it’s sure to be a big record, you have a lot of clout.
I don’t have anything pre-set. I consider each question on its own. I’m not gonna play a game where I become able to spout out bullshit.
I didn’t want you to feel like I was throwing you a list of questions I’d written down on a notepad…
But how I feel is not important, what’s important is the article. If I want to feel good, the first step is probably not to do interviews. The reason I don’t like doing interviews is because what I do, musically, it’s very artificial for me to talk about with any authority. I’ve been honest about this for the past 15 years. I do control some of the structure and the editing, but I don’t know where a lot of my ideas come from. I don’t start out with something I wanna say. I’m not a political artist. I’m not protesting anything. I’m just looking for a personal truth, you know, in the ether. And it’s just incredibly dishonest for me to talk about. There’s no difference in you telling me what you think the song is about and me telling you what I think the song is about, because neither of us are right or wrong. So when you say, “what were you thinking when you wrote this?” I might have been thinking something very unrelated.
Like “Leather and Wood”, you know? It’s a song full of panic, it’s shocking. It’s very stark and it’s very disturbing. It reminds me of that sensation when you feel a bit of a warm feeling and then you reach down and there’s blood, maybe a sudden nosebleed. And you’re [wondering] “why is this happening?”
Panic before your brain understands it.
“You’re trying to make sense of something. Why is my baby bleeding? Why is my dog being so still?”
Yeah. You’re trying to make sense of something. Why is my baby bleeding? Why is my dog being so still? What’s going on? Not understanding the universe around you for a split second. That’s what that song evokes to me. I found a bell, I’m going to buy this bell.
[He pays for it.] I bought a great bell, an old copper bell, like a goat bell.
How is that different from a cow bell?
I don’t know, you’d have to ask a farmer.
That actually reminds me, what’s the sample about a molehill toward the end of the record? A bluegrass song?
It’s a traditional American song, “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground” and it’s sung by Bascom Lamar Lunsford.
“When I compare a song to a used condom on the floor of a forest, it could be I’m just saying, ‘that was a moment of ecstasy reduced to a shocking iconography of excess.’ ”
Then you go into the last song, and you talk about being a mole.
A lot of people consider bluegrass music to be good-time, fun, “yeehaw” kind of shit, and it’s really not. It’s a lot like what I’m describing about “Leather and Wood”… it’s very despondent and disturbing. There are songs about ethereal pain, and I find that some of the most haunting music I’ve ever heard is people like Dock Boggs and the singer that we feature here. That song is from Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music… it’s a very common song. It’s a traditional. But the writer Greil Marcus, when I was in high school I read his book Lipstick Traces and he writes about that song. He writes about in very nihilistic terms, almost transposing it with the concept of punk rock, and things I’ve always hit on with my band unintentionally—suffocation, nihilism and these kinds of things. And I thought it was very interesting to view the song in that context, because I don’t think that the singer or performer in any way intended his music to be heard [like that], I think it was intended to be more of a lullaby, to have an American mythological wistfulness.
I might say that about your whole record, on a song like “Snakeskin”.
I think you’re looking too hard into it. I’m not as good an artist as you think I am.
Well “Breaker” is an American pop song, we can say that, right?
I could say it’s a used battery, you know? I could say it’s a discarded condom. I mean a discarded condom, isn’t it really a suggestion of a moment of ecstasy? Walking your dog in the woods, and you walk by a used condom discarded on the floor of the woods, it’s an appalling, stark image. It’s very graphic. And you shudder, and you pull your dog away. But it’s really the byproduct of a moment of ecstasy. When I compare a song to a used condom on the floor of a forest, it’s not that I’m saying it in a disrespectful way. It could be I’m just saying, “that was a moment of ecstasy reduced to a shocking iconography of excess.”
But bearing in mind Greil Marcus’ interpretation of the Mole song it could go the other way.
Greil Marcus, you know… I only cared what he thought when I was in high school.
“There’s people who devote their lives for very little or no reward…to try and improve the atmosphere around them. And then there’s people like me, who make a living off [of] manipulating the atmosphere with no regard to the effect that it has.”
Are you happy with the record?
Are you just going through the motions now?
I don’t go through motions. I’ll quit. And I will. I hope the audience understands, it’s not that I think I’m so great, that I’m above doing what other people do. It’s that I don’t feel like wasting my life on that when I could do something that’s more valid. Maybe I could be making a film by myself without funding, or maybe I could work for the Atlanta Humane Society. There’s people who devote their lives for very little or no reward, to help people that are helpless, and animals that are helpless, to try and improve the atmosphere around them. And then there’s people like me, who make a living off [of] manipulating the atmosphere with no regard to the effect that it has.
How are you manipulating if you say what’s on your mind and you’re not going in with any intention?
Whether I control it or not, I’m manipulating the environment. If I create a heat from anxiety, my body’s warm—I’m manipulating the environment around me.
So it’s a scientific…
It doesn’t always have to be scientific. But you’re always affecting your environment.
Like when I started off by prefacing our conversation?
Oh, that didn’t really affect me too much. I’m used to prefaces. People want to reveal the context of their interest, “I saw you here and there, we met before in Prague… my cousin in San Fransisco, you slept on their floor once in 2004.”