Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox speaks about his appearance, the avant-garde, and what made Berlin-era Bowie so fascinating…
With the release of Cryptograms, Deerhunter’s second proper full-length, and first for Chicago’s Kranky Records, the group has been swept from local band obscurity. Touring stints throughout Europe and the US with the Liars and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, kicked up a media stir that has polarized audiences.
Cox’s striking presence—he suffers from Marfan syndrome, a condition affecting the body’s connective tissue, which also afflicted Abraham Lincoln and Joey Ramone—is the target of many a poisoned pen. This, coupled with a flippant, sometime pretentious-leaning temperament has spurned ridicule for both Cox and the group. A conversation with Cox is passionate and often times wanders off of the topic in a stream-of-consciousness manner that’s reflected in the group’s songs. Engaging in such banter offers telling insights into Cox and Deerhunter’s true personalities.
Chad Radford: There's a distinct evolutionary step that occurs between your two CDs, but it's more than just changing things up from album-to-album. With each new show the group portrays a different phase, placing Deerhunter’s sound in a specific time and place. Can you tell me a little bit about this?
Bradford Cox: We have A.D.D. It's not a scheme. We are not that calculated in our decisions. I sometimes like to play guitar, which means a louder, less physical performance. Sometimes I don't feel like messing around with a guitar so I just sing, and I guess people are easily freaked out by skinny people because when I do that I just walk around and do my thing. People gawk like they're watching a car wreck. In terms of albums, I just want to make a discography that listens like a schizo mixtape that has the Shirelles followed up by Fennesz followed up by Spin Doctors. I have bigger aspirations for us sonically than being just another indie rock band.
CR: You do have a striking presence, but it's essential to the Deerhunter experience. There's an undeniable sense of honesty in how you “do your thing.” But this kind of presence also factors into the shows of artists as wide-ranging as Meatloaf, David Bowie and the Gossip. It's never directly addressed, but it's right there on stage for an entire audience to behold. Do you spend much time thinking about this?
BC: I try to not think about it too much because if I did, I would probably freak out and quit. I don't think of myself as abnormal in my head. It is very frustrating. Who is more attractive, anyway? Patti Smith or Avril Lavigne? I look how I look. I don't see any problem with it.
CR: There is a separation between the live Deerhunter experience vs. the records. What really separates the two?
BC: We can layer more acoustic instruments and room sounds more on the record, and have greater control over mixing issues. Live, it’s just loud rock instruments; bang blam. I try to make the shows engaging but sometimes I get bored and would rather be at home watching Sister Act 2 in flannel pajamas. With a record I can stop and start at various points. If I get bored with a song I can stop it in the middle and move on. But when we're into it there is nothing more fun than a good show.
CR: Do you think the songs on Cryptograms accurately capture the spirit and drive of the group?
BC: We haven't established enough of our own identity to say so just yet. The next album will be a lot less emotionally convicted. It will be more detached. That's how we are in general; we are a lot less emotional and tired.
CR: What differentiates the first record from Cryptograms?
BC: I view the first record as a total failure. I had the intention of making this off-kilter, collage, guitar, drum, bass record. I wanted it to sound like the Fall or something. But it comes out sounding like the era in which it was recorded, which is something that I really despise. It sounds like 2002—angry, post-hardcore dance punk. We were really young and angry. I'm embarrassed about anger now. Cryptograms is a subdued and introverted album. It's not the punk attitude.
CR: Is Cryptograms a reaction to the first album?
BC: Not really. It developed out of different circumstances, altogether. There were a lot more intense personal things going on. It was less about anger and frustration and more just being stunned or spaced-out by everything. And also, things like physical illness, fevers, and weakness played into it. I had walking pneumonia when we did the failed first attempt. I had the flu when we recorded the second half. The vocals on all the pop songs are really weird because I was so congested. I always thought I would go back and redo them, but we never did. At the beginning of "Spring Hall Convert" you can hear me hacking up some major junk.
CR: When I first crossed paths with Deerhunter circa 2001, you were interested in this idea you called "kitchen avant-garde."
BC: The reference comes from the idea that I used to see a lot of great shows in Athens and they all took place in kitchens. Everything was duct taped together and it had this aesthetic that I was fascinated with. Everyone had sloppily thrown together drum sets that looked like they just came out of the garbage. Everything was lo-fi but not in a self-conscious, thrift store chic, fanzine way. It was cute and childish in a way that said we have ideas but we can't scrape our asses off the ground enough to get them together, so we're going to do it as is, which is adorable and endearing. It's also a reference specifically to the Raincoats album, The Kitchen Tapes.
The avant-garde fascinated me when I was in high school. I was young enough that the word "avant-garde" wasn't a cliché. It was something that rang with a "this could freak out your parents vibe." The Velvet Underground is avant-garde to me. David Bowie is the most avant-garde thing I can think of. It's literary and it's challenging.
CR: There's a very Berlin-era Bowie aesthetic to your live performance.
BC: The Berlin image is something that I'm very attracted to. Is he sick? Is he coming off of something? The cover art for Low has this very hung over, strung out kind of ambient beauty to it. What is that orange light? Is this a post-apocalyptic sky? It's ambient in that it creates a moment. It's very evocative and it's very unclear. If there's one thing that we succeed in very well with Cryptograms, It’s evoking a feeling of someone who's woken up after being strung out one too many nights... It's the feeling of being lovesick and very spaced-out.
(Originally published by Stylus Magazine 2/12/07).