Q&A: Daniel Lopatin — AKA Oneohtrix Point Never — On The Making Of His Excellent New Album, R Plus Seven
If you didn’t know anything about Daniel Lopatin — the synth maestro behind Oneohtrix Point Never — and you just had to guess what he might be like based on the music he releases, it easy to see how his recorded output could easily conjure visions of some kind of very relaxed intergalactic wizard methodically crafting sonic soundscapes on a variety of machines created sometime in the 1980s that were presumably found drifting in space. In the world of minimalist electronic music, Lopatin has carved out his very own zone — a sonic landscape characterized by otherworldly synth sounds, occasional bits of drone, and wide swaths of silence. In reality, Lopatin is just a very industrious guy living and making music in Brooklyn. In addition to making music as Oneohtrix Point Never, Lopatin has recently busied himself making music for films (he, along with Brian Reitzell, created the score for Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring) and running his own label, Software Recording Co. On October 1st Lopatin will release his full-length label debut on Warp Record, the not surprisingly really wonderful R Plus Seven. I called him up in his studio to talk about the new record, his new live show, and what he plans on doing next.
STEREOGUM: So how’s it going, what are you up to?
LOPATIN: I’m at home working on preparations for a new live set.
STEREOGUM: Oh nice.
STEREOGUM: What does that entail for you?
LOPATIN: Well, here, I’ll give you a little phone demo. [plays music over the phone] There it is.
STEREOGUM: Ha! Oh wow.
LOPATIN: That involves me and my collaborator sort of starting from scratch with the record, midi from the record, audio from the record, chopping it up and basically adding some new instruments around it, new tracks around it, kinda trying to do something fairly different from what you hear on the record. It’s also kind of ornate and has a lot of moving parts that switch around kind of quickly, so what I’m trying to do for the live show is something more vertical … and more hypnotic in a way.
STEREOGUM: I imagine that must be fairly complicated. Will this live setup be different from how you’ve done it in the past?
LOPATIN: Yeah, it’s much different. I guess the short of it is, in the past I didn’t really know how to perform my music live. I just kind of messed around in a more or less collage-like manner with stuff, samplers, loopers, whatever. And this is much more kind of live mixed. It’s more or less how a DJ or a techno producer would approach a live show, where everything kind of lives in one world on a time line and things evolve and get routed in and out of each other. It’s more computer music and less just random throwing paint at the wall.
STEREOGUM: Do you enjoy that part of it? It sounds like it could be stressful, but it also sounds like it would be fun.
LOPATIN: It’s super fun and so cool. I’m having a lot of the same feelings I had when I first discovered how to hook up a drum machine to a computer; It’s like a new and magical learning process, because I just don’t usually work this way. But I want to do a show that’s hypnotic in the way that involves rhythm without there being drum machines. So I have to think like a drummer, I have to think like a drum machine, which is totally new.
STEREOGUM: Again, that sounds amazing but also really complicated. Your last album, Replica, came out in 2011; Obviously you’ve been very busy over the past couple of years with a variety of other projects, but was your approach to making R Plus 7 different to how you worked in the past?
LOPATIN: Yeah, it was a lot slower. I worked a lot more intuitively, like the way a songwriter would work. Just sit down at the keyboard and think about melodies, think about structure, and then kind of go from there. So that’s kind of like a starting point that was typical for me a lot of the time for this record. It was usually like I had an idea about a sound or group of sounds, and then I would kind of work the melody magic around it. This is a little bit different in that respect, but there’s also a lot of weirdly tedious procedural stuff I did just to generate sounds. It was a challenge just to get stuff and that was new as well. That’s part of the process where I just sit there like an archivist or whatever and just kind of go through things — go through choices — and wade through a myriad of stuff that’s been generated or sourced or culled and prepare it to be an instrument to be played. So it took a long time. Usually it’s more like I don’t have any idea what to do, or I’m waiting around for an idea to hit me, like “Oh cool! I’m going to use 30-second commercials because they change a lot. Okay and I’ll just make music around that.” Okay I have the idea, and then I do it in a week, that was easy. This was more like, “Well I’m not gonna get an idea, I just have to basically compose things. So, I don’t know, is it working today?” Not that the tedious aspects of it were bad … I actually kind of like it, the boring stuff, it’s fun, but it was a slower, much slower process.
STEREOGUM: Do you tend to just work on Oneohtrix music intermittently in between working on other projects or are you the kind of person who needs to focus singularly on finishing a record?
LOPATIN: No this was very much a lot of turbulence. Like 75% turbulence, 25% focused effort, and the 75% was practically a year and a half of cobbling little demos and melodies together. Where I started with this was very far away from the final product. In between I was working on these special little projects. There was a film score, there was an audio visual piece for some robots, there was this thing I did for Doug Aitken … and so those things informed a lot of the palette of the record and the writing. I was kind of learning as I went along about the software I was using and the synths I was using at the time and it kind of came out of those mini little projects and then finally I got some focus time and then I just tried to channel all those things into the record.
STEREOGUM: Perhaps the most overused word in describing your music is “cinematic,” but that also happens to be one of the qualities that I love about it. It made sense to me that you’d be asked to create a film score by someone like Sofia Coppola. Did the experience of scoring her film reflect interestingly on how you thought about the pieces you were making on your own?
LOPATIN: Yeah, yeah for sure, although things can sound cinematic when you’re actually scoring something, they actually have to be cinematic moments. It’s no longer just your ideas of what is cinematic or of how music can kind of reveal itself in time like the way we think of score music. If you just listen to it without the film it’s interesting and without the film you can get away with it simply being interesting. When you actually do that along with a film and you’re servicing the actual flow — the narrative and visual flow — you really suddenly have to question all your moves, you know? So when I went into it, I didn’t work on it a lot beforehand, which was great. I had a really great friend and mentor in Brian Reitzell who helped me when we would have a challenging bit of a reel where I just got kind of stumped. In particular was a sex scene and I’m like, “How the fuck do I write music for a sex scene?” this is so strange, and I was like, “Oh god I thought I was so smart and so clever and now it’s like fuck, this is really hard.” And he’s just like, “I don’t know, just do it. Just try it.” And so I kind of went from naïve takes on scoring to “Bow-wicka-bow” style score, to “Oh, you have to work against the narrative sometimes” you have to work around visual rhythms, you can stay in the lane parallel to visual activity or visual rhythms, but to make it interesting you have to work against them. So a simple realization like that, there’s no way to learn that, you simply have to do it and fail at first. So when I went back to making a record I suddenly had all of these questions about my attitudes to all those things. So now I have a problem because I want to work against my own thing, but there’s not necessarily a visual antecedent to it so … Yeah, it was little things like that that I brought back to making the record. I was like “Oh shit, okay I gotta rethink this.”
STEREOGUM: I like that there’s a real brevity to the tracks on the new record. I think the longest track is a little over six minutes. There’s a conciseness to each piece and each song is a statement. I feel like with a lot of people who are working in the same milieu that you are, these tracks could be 10 minutes long or something, which is really unnecessary. There’s a remarkable sense of restraint in what you do. Does that make sense?
LOPATIN: Yeah, yeah. There’s a practical aspect to that; there’s a very fine line between the magic of what you’re hearing and the tedium of it at times. Especially in repetitive music, to make a long piece of music you have to be extremely skilled in your sleight of hand. Just to make long form music it’s very difficult and you really have to consider what you’re putting someone through. There’s times where I felt I’ve done that and pulled it off and the piece required it, and there are times where I’m like I simply don’t need that format to say what I’m doing here. There’s a nakedness to these songs. It’s supposed to elude you on a much smaller scale. It’s not meant to just put you in this, like, endless cavern. It’s so just unnatural to work like that. This time I was like, “How do I just proportionally scale down this feeling so that it is just being hypnotized and losing track of time?” It was about figuring out the distance between one musical object to another, how I could represent long distances in short periods of time. I would try to use these bleak breaks in the song and turn them into a sort of weird vortex or wormhole moment.
STEREOGUM: A track like “Americans” that has all these different sort of mini movements, but then the track itself is still only 5 minutes long, but there’s still so much going on. I also love the two songs that sort of bookend the record. Each of them builds on these really beautiful organ sounds. How did those sounds come into play? Those particular organ sounds have a strong religious connotation, it can’t be an accident that they bookend the record.
LOPATIN: Yeah, yeah. You know, without giving out too much, I like the idea of trying to create this latticework or tapestry — sounds that are often connected with religious music to sounds that are decisively not. So I was just kind of interested in this tension between those things, and I also kind of like fell in love with the pipe organ sound that I’d found, I was just completely addicted to it. I was into this idea that I could construct this ersatz orchestra in a way that’s small and is almost like a chamber ensemble. The way I think about things or hear things in my head is actually much closer to acoustic instruments. I don’t have weird synthesized fantasy of music in my head. I just sort of artificially construct those sounds as I’m going, but what’s in my head is often the most ridiculous melody I can imagine and it’s often … the arrangements are often very conventional. And so that thought to expression is kind of the interesting part where I get to do something interesting with those melodic ideas. I really wanted to work with a palette that combined these sort of synthetic chamber music aspects and kind of obliquely set them against these other things that might seem at odds in some way.
STEREOGUM: It’s interesting how malleable this music is. As opposed to more traditional rock music — which generally has lyrics that you can either directly relate to or not — the kind of music you make is so much more emotionally amorphous. For example, I listened to this record on a day when I was really stressed out and then again a couple of days later when I was more relaxed. I was just like, “Wow, my feelings about this are so different today.” Perhaps this is a totally trite observation, but part of what has always appealed to me about your music is that it really allows for a wide swath of interpretation — it really allows you to project your own feelings onto it in a way that a lot of other music, at least for me, doesn’t. Are you surprised by the way people react to your work?
LOPATIN: No, I guess not. I find there’s not often a very consistent way that it manifests itself. So it’s interesting that what people generally tell me is unique, much like what you were saying. So it’s a control for me because I know, or I tend to think I know, what the music does. My friends will talk to me about it and I’ll be like, “Oh it’s so interesting that you noticed this one really oblique detail, like it bothered you so much, or you liked it so much or you wished it would happen more,” — that is really interesting.
Music that is considered minimalism — or post-minimalism music in general — things of that nature or that come from that tradition, or even drone, or non-western music, have a more subtle and more open-ended verticality to them that allows for your own mind and body to be involved. What I think I’ve made here is a record that to me is very serial, I think it’s very concrete in a way. I just want to create a room and decorate it with musical objects. And I want those objects to be naked and stable in a way, but when you touch the wall maybe your hand goes through it. Or maybe you look away and when you look back, certain things have shifted around, or whatever. So there’s surrealism in it, but to me it’s surrealism with very static and very clear things. That’s what I intended to do, but it’s exciting that it still manages to be open. That’s cool.
STEREOGUM: What will the rest of this year be like for you? Will you tour a lot for this record?
LOPATIN: I don’t know. I know that I’m going to do a couple weeks here, and a couple weeks there. Mostly Europe. I really wanted to give myself a little bit of an easy Fall, so I can be careful and really develop this record into a live show that’s distinctly different so I ‘m not running into a huge shitstorm of monotony. That’s what I did after Replica and I think it burned me out really hard and burned people out really hard, so I’m kind of approaching with caution.
STEREOGUM: do you think you’ll do more film work?
LOPATIN: I’d like to. I talked to someone earlier today and they brought that up and I realized that it is something that I would absolutely love to continue to do. I was very careful and kind of held back on doing work like that until the opportunity to work with Brian and Sofia happened, because it was a very kind of unique situation. Film work can be anything from just really hard and stressful and you’re subjected to really weird deadlines to really draconian and weird and disconnected. You’re working in service of the thing, and that can be really amazing for everyone involved, or be kind of just a waste of time. I’m trying to be cautiously optimistic about things like that in the future and just wait for things that are interesting.
Oneohtrix Point Never’s R Plus Seven is out 8/1 on Warp Records