Daniel Lopatin on his most ambitious LP yet and working with everyone from David Byrne to Anohni
Frantic activity is not really something new in the world of Oneohtrix Point Never. For a little over 10 years now, Daniel Lopatin has been crafting shape-shifting, experimental electronic music in which ideas and sounds collide with and careen around each other, often favoring an aesthetic built on disparate traditions and textures jarring up against one another. In recent years, his unique ear has garnered him more and more attention, in turn yielding a series of interesting collaborations and his celebrated score for the 2017 film Good Time. Things were constantly moving and growing for Oneohtrix, and yet Lopatin also had time to craft his latest opus, Age Of, and plot ambitious shows called MYRIAD through which to unveil the album.
When I first meet Lopatin, the initial MYRIAD shows are days away. There are a lot moving pieces in play right now, a lot of that frantic activity before scaling the Oneohtrix sound to fill the entirety of the cavernous space at the Park Avenue Armory, an actual old armory on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. You wouldn’t guess that it’s a frenzied week from sitting across from Lopatin, or even that he’s deep in the mechanisms of an album rollout. Hanging out in his Greenpoint apartment building’s large common room, harshly bright and hot courtesy of a vivid May sun pouring through skylights above, Lopatin seems pretty chilled out. A conversation with him is a far-reaching affair; though calm on the outside, his mind seems hyperactive, leaping from musing upon his early engagement with the internet in a more pure era of exploration well before fake news and Trump on Twitter, to his bemusement at people’s adherence to strict genre conventions, or to his affinity for sci-fi.
The latter topic is a relevant one in particular. MYRIAD and Age Of emerged out of a similar period of time, the former sort of retroactively informing the themes of the latter, which had actually begun as a more free-flowing project without an overarching conceptual conceit. MYRIAD, on the other hand, originated when Lopatin was approached about putting together a pitch for Red Bull Music Festival, an annual takeover hitting NYC and featuring special, often one-off collaborations or multimedia performances in less likely venues than your standard indie gig. The skeleton key for Lopatin’s concept was re-watching 2001: A Space Odyssey last summer during his writing retreat for Age Of, and finding all these new threads viewing it alone, older, after the strangeness of recent years.
In response, Lopatin imagined a loose interpretation of 2001, re-calibrated for the context of OPN. “You’re at the total entropy moment of time and these aliens, they’re essentially sentimental for us, because they’re obsessed with what it might be like to not have an answer the way we did,” he explains, calling his idea an inversion of 2001. “That was enough right there. The Armory is this volumetric allegory for space, for a finite universe, because it has walls, with Red Bull signs on them. Imagine if you reach the end of time and you just see a Red Bull logo.”
Though he can add a little joke to it, about an energy drink brand’s logo resting as the end-game secret to the cosmos, there’s definitely a lot of impressionistic and heady notions behind MYRIAD, a show Lopatin will later announce further installments of in other cities. Working with his longtime collaborator Nate Boyce, a video artist and sculptor, Lopatin dreamt up the notion of a “concertscape” — “Basically, a way of amping up a concert and amping down an opera and meeting somewhere in between, with thematically linked set design and music, lighting, choreography, dance.” Lopatin divined meanings in the name after the fact, deciding it stood for “My Record = Internet Addiction Disorder,” but also stumbling on the concept of home by referring to it as “My Riad.”
There’s symbolism in each aspect of the MYRIAD show, lights representing higher intelligence, the stage itself connecting to that concept of home. The way Lopatin looks at it, the stage stands in as a memory of Earth, with he and his ensemble “puppets that play out this dream.”
The latter strain is an appropriate context in which to hear the music of Age Of. A space voyage in of itself, Age Of is a nearly unclassifiable collection that melts together ethereal electronic, soothing New Age, corroded noise, warbly synth-indie balladry, and proggy intricacies. In the lead-up to its release, there was talk of the influence of classical and early music on Age Of both thematically and structurally. A memory of Earth, of older human traditions. To Lopatin, it’s a statement that delves into an aspect always present in his music, parsing fragments of history.
“Every song on the album, even though they were loose, did have this corollary of music as a memory,” he says. “Music as this amalgam of things that break down and chip away at the solid understanding of genre or whatever.” (Upon its release, we named Age Of Album Of The Week as well as ranking it as one of the best albums of 2018 so far.)
This is the kind of philosophical bent that you can easily get Lopatin talking on for a while, really broad ideas of music and art and how we perceive them through time. He’s baffled but fascinated by genre conventions, and argues that who knows how the art of today will be heard hundreds of years from now as the result of “temporal hammering away,” the same as there is this allure and mystery to us in the 21st century if we revisit blurry, early flickers of polyphonic music.
“It’s possible that even though we’re better at recording history now, we’re equally just as bad,” he says. That’s what Age Of sounds like: pieces of detritus pulled from distant pasts and futures, ancient human and post-human, histories overlapping and inscrutable from one another as if from the perspective of an archaeologist in the next millennium’s civilization.
Some of this, inevitably comes from Lopatin’s age. Born in the early ’80s, he grew up in a different era, an era in which he could own physical talismans like old Replacements tapes. And yet he was coming of age as the internet became a more mainstream force, in its early days of intriguing, endless possibilities.
“I’m so into this idea that the internet was this reservoir of mythologies and histories, and the architecture of it being linked pages that create hard connections and bridges between ideas that shouldn’t be linked,” he reflects. His music often sounds this way, too, work that has the ability to build those bridges between, say, apocalyptic sci-fi and video game sonics and academic notions of media consumption.
The son of Russian immigrants, Lopatin is also very much the product of his household. Growing up in the Soviet Union, his father became a self-taught musician by way of whatever cherished Western music he could get his hands on, the likes of the Doors or Ray Charles. His mother, on the other hand, is a musicologist able to step away from that raw passion and intellectualize the form. Though Lopatin defines himself as being a sharp 50/50 split of the two, he does allow that in the past he may have leaned more towards his mother’s disposition, and this time it was all about chasing his dad’s ethos. After a couple years of working on other people’s music or crafting music to accompany other people’s art, the prospect of a new OPN album was a wide-open free-for-all, and he threw himself into it in search of a more exploratory and personal project.
To do so, he decamped to Massachusetts. This has already become a foundational part of Age Of‘s narrative. For five or six weeks, Lopatin lived in a glass house that was all curves, no right angles, and open to the bucolic surroundings right outside. In the daytime, it felt like being in a fishbowl; at night, he couldn’t see out but could hear the thud of giant bugs crashing into the glass, as if creatures in a horror movie scraping against the thinly protective barriers around him.
Though he opened up Age Of to a lot more collaboration than in the past, he still had this phase, the solo “dungeon” time, to make the foundations of the album. While there, he came up with the “nightmare ballads” of the album’s darker side; he came up with the music that necessitated he use his voice more, for its mixture of autobiographical strains collaged with found ideas.
Lopatin had just found that house on Airbnb. But its number? That turned out to be 106. As much as science and theory could govern Oneohtrix, there is always something mystic about it, too.
A few days later at the Armory, that characteristic is on full display. Age Of is a trippy endeavor on its own, but live it takes on a different, transporting kind of lushness alongside older OPN material organized into a four-part song cycle. And as difficult as it can be to pinpoint Lopatin’s music on its own, the show further smears borders. It, at times, sounds like avant-garde classical music; at times the most oceanic electronic music; at times like New Age dreamscapes with something sinister lurking deep within.
It’s uncommon that an artist gets to use a space as another aspect of the show — there’s only so much variety between club after club. The Armory, in its truly gigantic and shadowy expanse, allows Lopatin to blow his music up into a different kind of widescreen, enveloping approach. He and his band sit at keyboards in front of a tall, fractured screen; lights constantly change the atmosphere of the room; alien sculptures are suspended from the ceiling and, occasionally, are made to seem as if they’re emitting guttural noise themselves. The one part it turns out Lopatin wasn’t allowed to incorporate: At a certain juncture, he had been planning on even utilizing smells in the MYRIAD show, but apparently the Armory wasn’t so into that.
This is, of course, just the beginning, the birth of Age Of and the predecessor to a series of like-minded performances. Yet at the same time, it feels like an important culmination. That Lopatin has taken Oneohtrix into new territory, the celestial spaces it was always seeking. And once you’ve reached that sort of goal, the parameters need to be reset. There can be that nagging, recurring question: What next?
A couple weeks later, Lopatin and I meet again in Barcelona. He’s bringing a more stripped-down version of Oneohtrix’s current live setup to the beloved Primavera Sound festival, a version of the show that is less ambitious due to the inherent impossibility of reproducing MYRIAD in an open field, but one that is no less expansive musically. It’s the afternoon; the sun beats down on us once more, this time as we sit underneath the fragile shadow of an umbrella backstage, as festival-goers who may have never left since last night dance on a nearby beach to throbbing techno. Later on, Oneohtrix will take the stage in the cooler midnight hour, but for now Lopatin and I locate another moment amidst his constant movement to talk of all the unexpected permutations his project has undergone in recent years, and the yet-to-be-determined but perhaps even more unexpected mutations that could still occur.
For years, Oneohtrix existed in a specific space — a project cultishly adored by electronic nerds, critically respected, but still a niche concern in the grand scheme of things. Yet over the last several years, his name began to pop up more and more. As Lopatin sees it, the turning point was his last album, 2015’s Garden Of Delete. “There was new interest in my music, at least as a producer,” he recalls. This was not something he had set out to do, necessarily; he hadn’t harbored an ambition of taking his idiosyncratic vision into the worlds of all these other artists. But opportunity after opportunity began to arrive.
One of the more recent examples was working with an art-rock legend like David Byrne on his own 2018 release, American Utopia. In a lot of circumstances, Lopatin finds that the collaborations require a perpetual internal dialogue, him trying to figure out what the artist in question wants from him. “There was constant refining and chipping away and trying to decrypt someone else’s desire,” he describes. Working with Byrne, on the other hand, was pretty loose despite the pressure.
“There was a lot of nerves with [Byrne],” he says of his initial moments trying to wrap his head around working with the guy who used to front Talking Heads. “The thing is, it very quickly goes away because he’s an optimist. He’s more of a ‘yes’ than a ‘no’ kind of person. It’s easy to get caught up in that excitement.”
Byrne was one of the more high-profile, legacy-type artists Lopatin has crossed paths with, and along the way there have been others who perhaps made more sense, artists with a shared sensibility to Lopatin in their quest to create forward-thinking, genre-obliterating electronic-based music. He recorded and played with Anohni, who in turn appeared on Age Of. (Her performance on “Same” is one of the album’s ghostliest, most haunting moments, like Medieval chant music coming apart in a black hole.) Another kindred spirit turned out to be FKA Twigs.
“Twigs approached me and had very specific goals as an artist,” Lopatin remembers. “She has a complete sense of what she wants to do.” Relating the amusing tale of the first time they met, Lopatin recalls some degree of intimidation when he initially walked in to find Twigs sitting, legs planted with one elbow resting on her knee and the other cocked up in the air as her hand rested on her other knee. Like a challenge. “So tough, so fucking cool,” he says, still in awe after having just mimed her pose from that day. “And I swear, she just goes ‘Show me what you got.’” As a child of the ’90s, Lopatin sat down at the piano and first tried out some G-funk chords; he and Twigs discovered they had some shared DNA, a common “lexicon.”
There have been moments that were from way farther out of left field. Recently, Lopatin’s discussed working on demos with Usher. Still perplexed at how it all really came about, Lopatin says Usher came to one of Anohni’s shows and had actually singled out one of the strangest passages in the set, a two minute noise interlude; he wanted that kind of sound for his next album, so he asked to meet Lopatin.
“I guess when you’re a virtuosic musical athlete, when you can do anything you want with your voice, you need a stronger dose to get high,” Lopatin offers. “I understood implicitly why he might be interested. But once you’re actually in the cut, and you’re making a record with a lot of pressure to do certain things for certain audiences or whatever, at a certain point you’re like ‘OK, no thanks.’” His favorite song from that era, “The Station,” wound up on Age Of instead.
Regardless of who he finds himself in the studio with, Lopatin has a way he goes about these things. He doesn’t come with a binder of pre-existing ideas, or as he puts it, an “à la carte menu.” “I’m looking to start something from scratch, made-to-measure,” he says. “When I give someone an idea that may be from something else where I don’t have them in mind, it always feels a little corny. It lacks some kind of human spark.” For him, the process is inevitably different from the more insular confines of Oneohtrix, and he’s always looking for that specific high, that moment when two musicians truly click and discover something together, the thing that will linger with him and bring him back to that moment of ignition.
While it’s indeed difficult to imagine Oneohtrix Point Never being smoothed out enough to fit in with a truly pop archetype, and while the collaborators Lopatin has connected with are themselves avant-garde figures who may be popular but operate at the periphery, there are other ways in which Lopatin’s work may continue to find wider audiences. Last year, Good Time proved to be one of those movies that was, in and of itself, a work of art skirting the edges of the mainstream. But it was a visceral film that generated a ton of good buzz, a lot of which also focused on the score Lopatin provided, a score that felt as crucial to Good Time‘s pacing and arc as the core script.
Film, image: These are obviously big inspirations for Lopatin, and on paper he’s the kind of guy you’d expect to be adept at scores, as well as the kind of guy whose music you might call cinematic itself. Lopatin chafes at both notions. Though he’s interested in scores, he also notes a difficulty underlying that work for him, the need to be abstract and pliable when he considers his music to be “gratuitously structural.” As for the cinematic part, Lopatin finds the word reductive, as if it means his music only works as soundtracks, backdrops. A better way to think of it, in his estimation, is that the music itself is filmic, that it’s doing the same thing as a movie.
And as the latest of those worlds Lopatin has created, Age Of may, for a time, sit at the end of Oneohtrix Point Never’s self-admitted surreal journey from a small New England noise scene to handing demos to Usher. “The thing is, I was basically a failed filmmaker,” he says at one point, describing how he found his way to music somewhat accidentally. Accordingly, he has ambitions in other forms. There are further collaborations to wrap up. He has ideas for other contexts of installation and performance, for films. “There are so many things that interest me more than standing on the stage of my own obsessions,” he says of the traditional touring musician existence.
On the page, that could scan as ungrateful, or as a sort of existential reckoning with his life as an artist. It isn’t so much that as the fact that, coming out of these dynamic couple of years and filtering all those experiences back into Age Of, he feels as if he’s reached a certain summit. That he has said exactly what he set out to say. He put more time and exertion into Age Of than any of his other albums. It shows, and it’s appropriately special to him right now. “Sometimes you do these things and it comes out and you’re unsatisfied for one reason or another,” Lopatin explains. “This is not that. This is the record I was sort of building up to, this is the one I was trying to make.”
As a result, Lopatin doesn’t think there will be another Oneohtrix album for a long time — and the way he delivers those words, it indeed sounds long. “These things need to be epics now,” he asserts of any further Oneohtrix full-lengths. There are other ways in which he could experiment, other ways in which we could hear more music from that world. But with Age Of, it appears he finally turned Oneohtrix Point Never into what he always wanted it to be.
It’s no small thing to figure out what the next horizon is after that. And whenever Lopatin talks about the idea of what follows, he talks of it in those terms, like there has to be stakes, and good reasons, for going back to this place. “The records, to me, are opportunities to make a feature-length film,” he explains. “When you do that, the risk needs to be really high. You need to feel like you’re falling apart. Or else, you’re just going through the motions.”