Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox on Lady Gaga, Hipster Culture, & Stephen Malkmus’ Internet History
Last month, I got on the phone with Bradford Cox, lead singer of ambient-psych rockers Deerhunter, for what was supposed to be a twenty minute conversation. It lasted three hours. Cox is notorious for having the kind of verbal diarrhea that can get you into trouble. More than once, he’s been accused of arrogance, obscenity, and overall dick-ishness because of comments he made on his blog or in interviews. He speaks like he makes his music: stream-of-consciousness bursts of creativity and ideas. Deerhunter’s fourth album, Halcyon Digest, comes out tomorrow, but as you’ll see in the following highly, highly abbreviated interview, he was willing to talk about anything and everything, except that. Here’s Bradford Cox on why he doesn’t drink anymore, hipster culture, Lady Gaga’s teeth, Janelle Monae, Victorian architecture, the Arcade Fire, online shopping, Vampire Weekend, Volvos, and Stephen Malkmus’ internet history.
You’ve said several times that you create things because you don’t have anything else to do. You don’t need a reason for everything. Everybody has so many ambitions for everything, like, maybe if I design these flyers for my friends, somebody will give me a job as a designer! I’m not that kind of guy. When I was that age I wasn’t the person who was going to move to New York to try and “make it.” Fuck making it. I wanted to deliver Chinese food and get enough money to buy a bag of weed every week. I’m still sort of that way, except I don’t smoke weed anymore.
Do you drink? Nope.
How’s sober life? What do you mean?
Not drinking and smoking. Does it make you feel good? I smoke cigarettes. I mean, I don’t have a reason for anything. Yeah, I guess I would probably say I don’t drink because I always wake up with a sore throat and a headache. I don’t see the point. Some people need that, but I don’t. I’m not talking down to anybody, but I find a lot of the people that drink a lot are the people that need that extra little push to be able to get on stage, or to be able to flirt with a girl, or to be able to hang out with their family. I think I got it from my dad. He doesn’t drink or anything, and I was always just raised to be a man and suck it up. Get on stage and do your job. A lot of people don’t want to wake up at eight in the morning and do their desk job. A lot of the time I don’t want to sit there and pack my bags to fly somewhere. Sometimes I get an upset stomach, like today I got diarrhea really bad. If I had to get on a plane tomorrow to go play a show, I would be scared. So when it comes time to get in the car and pack your bags, I just do it, and I don’t need to chug Jack Daniels first.
What would you be doing now if you weren’t in a successful band? I’d be in an unsuccessful band. I think that my life is designed to be a sort of spectacle, and whether you’re happy or not, I don’t know if it depends so much on your level of success. I know happy people who work at the video store two nights a week and go out for a burrito after work. Some people are happy because they have a good girlfriend or boyfriend and they look after each other. Other people are real happy because they have a fucking $80,000 sports car and their wife is cheating on them. Other people would say none of these people are happy and it’s all a desperate illusion.
You’re famous for creating your music stream of conscious. There’s nothing I do in my life that’s not stream of conscious. There’s never been an interview where I didn’t use that phrase at least 25 times, because people always want to know why I do things. They always want to know the story behind something, and it’s like, I don’t know. When I do laundry I do it stream of conscious. I don’t even know what I’m doing, I just pick up random objects. Sometimes I wash candles accidentally.
What about eating? Do you do that stream of conscious? I get in a car and I just end up at a restaurant somehow.
You never say, I’m in the mood for some pizza tonight? No! Usually I’m in the middle of being stream of conscious about something else, designing something or recording something else, and my body starts craving food. It’s irritating.
Is eating a hassle for you, or is it something you look forward to? I’m going to refer to the previous comment. Sometimes I’m hungry, sometimes I’m not.
You not thinking about things before you do them has resulted in some controversy. I just had a big mouth and I approached interviews the same as I approached everything else. So if I ended up dissing some band (which now I just find tacky, it disgusts me that I was so rude), I was young and I didn’t know how to handle myself. Everything I do is just automatic. I just feel like the minute you start trying to design your identity, the minute you start trying to portray yourself in any specific way, it’s so artificial. I mean, I’m not a cool guy, really. I’m not like, New York hip.
You’re Athens, Georgia hip. Not really.
A lot of people would call you de facto hip because you’re the lead singer of Deerhunter. I think that’s just laziness. I am who I am, and I’ve tried to experiment with wearing different clothes, but then I realize eventually I’m going to end up wearing the same thing I always wear.
Why do you think your music attracts a traditionally hip audience? I think that’s disrespectful to our audience.
What’s disrespectful? To refer to them in general way. I think our audience is very diverse. I think what attracts people to our music is, first of all, hooks and/or atmosphere. We’re in an era now where music has changed from being, ‘Oh, I can hum to that song or sing along to it,’ to now, where it’s like, ‘I really enjoy that experimental synthesizer or the drone in the middle of that album.’ Bands like Animal Collective have really pushed us into the forefront. I watched a documentary last night about synth pop in Britain. I didn’t know how harsh the journalists were to the music over there when it came out — electronic music. We are in a time of radical change. Whether you’re talking about the economy being in the toilet or the music industry being in shambles, it’s a time of radical change. And in those times of radical change, people seek to exaggerate the familiar. Where I’m going with this is that I think people tend to seek to identify with things that they can relate to in the past. What happens is that we — The New York Times or whatever, not to pick on the NYT, because they’ve been very supportive of a lot of new culture and music — have a lot of cynical people. And it’s always been this way, whether you’re talking about punk rock or new wave or industrial music or house music. All these will always be viewed skeptically by traditionalists, because they’re usually a signifier of the iconography of change. People view that as pretension. I think that a lot of the antagonism of the “hipster” phenomenon is really just people that are trying to exaggerate the traditional and the familiar. This hipster thing, they’re using it in a condescending way, while corporations use it in an opportunistic way to market their films and music.
So when you say that you’re not hip, what is hip to you? What is hip to me? I don’t know how to answer that question.
The antithesis to what you meant when you said weren’t a hip guy. When I said I’m not a hip guy, I mean I like what I like and I don’t feel like what I like makes me an elitist. A lot of my friends are the same way. I just don’t understand how we can be called hipsters. We are the antithesis of fucking hipsters. Hipsters is a word that very much implies superficiality and sort of a daftness or a dilettante. You don’t really know these big words that you’re using, you don’t really know about Dada or Situationism. It can get political. It can be economic. The word hipster just drips of cynical materialism, and I just don’t feel that it describes me or my audience or my friends or other people that I know making music. There is a subculture where this sort of superficiality exists, but I don’t really know much about it.
Do you think that people who don’t know you perceive you that way? You tell me. What do you think?
I don’t know, to be honest. I never really thought about it. I feel like Vampire Weekend are trying to sort of mock the idea of elitism and hipster culture and what they think is the opposite of hipster culture, which is boat shoes and khakis and Ralph Lauren. And really, what they inadvertently did was just create a new style of hipsterness, which they really weren’t going for. They were just being themselves. I don’t consider Vampire Weekend to be hipsters, just dudes. If I came on stage in an Old Navy graphic T-shirt, Birkenstocks, and sweat pants, would I be making a statement or would everybody think that that’s the new hip thing? It’s just everybody making a spectacle of crap. I mean, I just don’t care.
I don’t really associate the word hipster with the extremely negative connotations that you just described, but I understand that other people do. Well, you live in New York City.
I would never look at you and think, He’s a fucking hipster. Yeah, I know you wouldn’t, but are you saying that you think other people would?
Yes. And the people who come to see your shows in, say, Williamsburg, are what most people would identify as hipsters. The people that come see me in Williamsburg are great, and I love them all. I have a lot of gratitude. But what I don’t think people realize is the people that come see us in Montana, or St. Louis, or in Buffalo, or Charlottesville, they’re people — disabled people, older people, very young people, the kind of people that I am and was.
Is there anything that obsesses you? A certain style of Victorian architecture.
Found where? In Atlanta and in Detroit and a lot of other places. A certain stained glass. I’m interested in photography. Aromatherapy.
How was the recording of this album? It was cool.
How many sessions did you record it in? This is all boring. Move on to some other questions that are interesting and that nobody else will get.
You’re right. I mean, Wikipedia can tell you that.
What would you do now if the album leaked? I don’t give a fuck. I don’t encourage people to leak it, but if anybody did leak it that was given a copy, it has nothing to do with me. I’m sure there would be consequences from the record label. My philosophy is this: I don’t know what to do in this era. I download album leaks, I just don’t condone people distributing stuff that’s unfinished. That’s just unacceptable. All I want to do is make music to make people happy. I’m not trying to sound like a fucking victim. My goal in life is to have people like my music so they can have it be the soundtrack of their lives and times. I want to be a part of a lot of people’s lives by having them listen to my music. I don’t care if they download it. It hurts me financially, but I also would be the last person to complain. I have a comfortable life, even though I still live in a fucking ghetto house in squalor.
Do you have to? No!
Can you afford to live comfortably in New York? Very. I’m not bragging, but you also have to understand that your idea of living comfortably and my idea of living comfortably might be different.
What you do with your money? I loan it to people that need it and save some of it.
You don’t spend much? No, look at me. I spend a lot of it on plastic surgery and I have my hair done every Saturday.
When you’re touring, is everything taken care of for you? What do you mean? Nobody wipes my butt.
They don’t? Not yet. My goal in life is to not be rich or famous. My goal in life is just to be respected as a musician.
You’ve been called an attention seeker. That’s never hurt my feelings too bad. If anybody was going to be like, Oh, he’s an attention seeker, it would be my bandmates. Wrong. They are so happy I do interviews because they are private people. They have no interest in doing interviews, and I do them by default. I am the farthest thing from an attention seeker. Do you know how many times I’ve left my bedroom this week?
Tell me. I went to the grocery store once. Today I went to a thrift store to try and find a pair of pants. I don’t drink alcohol, I don’t party, I don’t chase after people of any gender or anything.
Are you in an asexual state? Yeah. It’s not that big of a deal. People love to make a big deal out of that. I don’t have the mental stamina to develop a relationship.
People say you seek attention through your blog. Why, because I post mixes of music that I like on the internet? I’ve been shown that people enjoy getting turned on to music. So I have a blog where me and my friend Cole from The Black Lips post videos and mixtapes, and I give away music and stuff. People appreciate it!
I saw you post Janelle Monae’s performance on David Letterman. Yeah, I love Janelle Monae. That was absolutely fantastic, it made me all giddy.
You said she should be at the same level as Lady Gaga. What’s missing? Well, I don’t want to insult Lady Gaga because I kind of like her idea. Let’s be clear. I haven’t listened to a Lady Gaga album, but I have a lot of respect for her because she did work really hard and she produces her music. She’s a successful, creative person. She looks cool. She has an overbite, and I dig overbites. I don’t know what her music sounds like, however I did hear one of her songs in an airport at an Applebees or a Chilis-T- Go. I was waiting on my wrap, and on this big LCD television screen they had over the bar, they played one of her videos [sings “Bad Romance”]. Ever since then, whenever anyone says Lady Gaga, I can hear that song in my head. When you mentioned the Janelle Monae thing, I had to think for a second to recall what she sounds like. Lady Gaga is at her level because she has the ability to be all present. Fuck last.fm statistics, they’re irrelevant. There’s a million people with, “Nahh, nahh, nahh,” stuck in their head across all earthly domain at all times — all day and night, in every time zone.
Do you consider that an incredible achievement on her part? That’s not my field. Does that make sense? That’s like saying to a baseball player, What do you think of this guy’s basketball playing? It’s like well, that’s not my field. Then you say, But you play sports. I mean, I play little league softball, you know what I mean? Lady Gaga plays major league shit. Like I said, I like her teeth.
What did you mean by saying Janelle should be Gaga-level? In my fantasy world, the distinction between little league and big league is less defined. I don’t know if you realize this, but in my corner of the world, in your corner of the world, too, we think bands like Animal Collective and Arcade Fire are like the biggest bands in the world.
Arcade Fire is one of the biggest bands in the world. Not quite.
They just played two sold out shows at Madison Square Garden back-to-back that sold out in hours. Justin Bieber couldn’t do that? Are you telling me Eminem couldn’t do that?
Of course they could. I’m just saying Arcade Fire is huge now, they’re headlining festivals. Animal Collective isn’t going to be headlining any festivals. Animal Collective have headlined a lot of fucking festivals.
That’s true, but not Lollapalooza, like the Arcade Fire did. Animal Collective had a pretty big slot at Lollapalooza, and what they chose to do instead of catering to that audience and that scene, they kind of created this fog machine at sunset, with blissful, droning, ambient noise. Half the people in the audience were probably waiting for them to play “My Girls.” I don’t think they did. I think they just went off into some trippy zone.
What about Deerhunter? What kind of band are you? I think we’re more of a band that’s schizophrenic. We don’t know what we want to be. What you want to be usually has a lot to do with what your aspirations are in a socioeconomic context. Do you want to be famous, do you want to be rich? We don’t want any of those things. I want to be comfortable. Honestly, the more attention I’ve gotten, the less I’ve wanted it. I don’t want my albums to be ignored, I want them to get attention, but I don’t want the attention. I’m tired of me. I’m kind of a boring person who uses personal time talking to journalists way past the scheduled interview time about a variety of topics just because there’s nothing else to do. I mean, I was probably going to watch Indiana Jones.
Is that what you would have done? You still can, it’s only eight. I mean, I can do whatever. I’ll probably be up until four looking at guitars on eBay and looking at Volvos on Craigslist. I have no interest in actually buying one, I just like to watch the Volvo prices.
Is the internet endless for you? No, everybody realizes at some point that the internet is not endless. When you’re sitting and tapping your fingers on the keyboard thinking what you should look at, then it’s time to put down the computer. The stuff I do on the internet is not what most people would expect. A lot of people would assume I read about music or about myself. I mean, everybody does that a little bit, but I’m way more interested in a guy in downtown Decatur who has a 1991 Volvo with 56,000 original miles that he’s trying to get rid of for $4,000. That’s interesting to me.
That’s crazy. It’s kind of like how some people look at sports scores. I bet if you looked at Stephen Malkmus’ internet history, it would be all ESPN.com and stuff. If you looked at my history, it would be all guitars, eBay, and furniture catalogs. Let me ask you a question. Going into this interview, not that you may have even thought of it, but what did you think of me? It sounds narcissistic but it’s not meant to be, I’m going to prove a point.
Well, first of all what I thought about you was really based on the two hours of research I did prior to the interview. You struck me as serious artist and someone that takes art and his art seriously. Are you being nice to me?
I’m being serious. Well, I appreciate that, but if you didn’t have the internet and you just heard our records, you’d probably expect me to be Ian Curtis or someone real serious and dark. I put all that heavy shit into my work, and then I put It away. So when you talk to me, that’s all behind me, it’s on the tape. And so now I’m just me, hanging out in my bed, looking at this Indiana Jones box-set in my room, hanging, chilling, living.
Photo courtesy of last.fm