Bradford Cox Wonders If You’ll Even Listen To Deerhunter’s New Album From Start To Finish
The indie icon talks free speech, Imagine Dragons, and 'Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?'
For someone who can be so verbose, Bradford Cox is the first person to admit he doesn’t have all the answers — at this point, he’s not even pretending to.
“I’ve retreated from figuring out anything,” he states plainly during a conversation last month at a suite atop Manhattan’s Ace Hotel. “I’ve decided the best solution is just to give up on any kind of illusions of having control over anything.”
Don’t mistake this for apathy, though: The eighth album from his perpetually shape-shifting rock outfit Deerhunter, Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?, moves away from the often-autobiographical nature of the band’s previous releases to zoom out on current events and humanistic concerns. To wit: The tragic death of British politician Jo Cox — who was murdered in 2016 by Thomas Mair, a 52-year-old man with a history of mental illness and far-right viewpoints — served as direct inspiration for the album’s chiming “No One’s Sleeping.”
“It could’ve been written about a lot of these violent acts against people — these injustices,” Cox explains. “It was written from a place of indignant shock. It’s strange, because she was murdered by someone who was mentally ill. It just makes you wonder if mental illness is becoming normalized to a degree that ideas from the most radical groups are infecting the mentally ill, like a virus.”
Recorded in the artists’ haven of Marfa, Texas and featuring songs that were written recently and works-in-progress that date back to the Microcastle and Halycon Digest days (“For the record, it sounds better than both of those records, too,” he proclaims in typically Cox-y fashion), Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? features contributions from garage-rock wizard Tim Presley of White Fence and singer/songwriter Cate Le Bon, the latter of which shares production credits with Ben H. Allen (Animal Collective, Neon Indian), studio assistant Ben Etter, and Deerhunter themselves.
“When I think about a record, I view myself as a director of a film — I want to get it done under budget and on time,” Cox proclaims while discussing the collaborative effort the record represents. “Having other people can sometimes decentralize the responsibility. I don’t generally look for collaborators in that capacity, but Cate was someone who I just loved so dearly that it seemed worth a shot.”
Anyone who’s ever spoken with Cox for more than let’s say 15 minutes at a time knows that being in-conversation with him is its own adventure. One question can bring a dozen answers, with uncharacteristic reticence giving way to warts-and-all explanations of his innermost ways of thinking. Sometimes, the experience can prove a bit exhausting, as I documented in my profile of him and Deerhunter around the time of 2013’s raw, raucous Monomania; fittingly, our hour-long chat — which touched on subjects ranging from climate change and harpsichords to the state of indie and his feelings about said profile — was at turns fascinating and befuddling, more proof that a decade-plus into his career, Cox continues to be one of indie rock’s most outspoken and surprising personalities.
STEREOGUM: I was thinking a lot about climate change while listening to this record.
COX: It’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about too.
STEREOGUM: I also think a lot about how we’re going to be dead when the worst is happening.
COX: Do you plan on having children?
STEREOGUM: Yeah, but there’s that thing of —
COX: Delivering them into the void. But then again, our parents and their parents — especially coming back from World War II, and the threat of nuclear annihilation — they must’ve thought, “I can’t have children. The future is so bleak.” The hope is that, if there’s any optimism to be found, humanity will wake up and change direction in terms of its consumption — or more likely, some big tech company will come up with a way to invert climate change through some kind of science. To me, it’s unnatural, and therefore a bit eerie.
STEREOGUM: I think about that when people talk about free speech restriction on social media. “What should Twitter allow to be said and not said?” I often ask myself, “How did we get to the point where we’re asking corporations to make these decisions for us?”
COX: Well, they’re privately owned companies. They have every right to determine what’s said and not said. As far as I’m concerned, if they prevent people from spreading ignorance and disrupt an ignorant conversation, I’m nothing but pleased. I’d love to say “Free speech for all!,” but I don’t agree with that, frankly. I despise intolerance. I despise bigotry with all of the emotion I have left in me. I don’t wish harm upon anyone, but I don’t think having your Instagram or Twitter account suspended is “harm.”
In a real revolutionary time, these people would be subject to violence or death. They should be thankful that their punishment for betraying humanity is — I would say — that is a light sentence. And, to be clear, I’m categorically against violence. I despise violence. When I think of great injustices throughout history, it’s so hard to think about the bombing of a church in Alabama during the Civil Rights movement — those girls that died — or the concentration camps, or the horror that Palestinians face today, or the horror that Syrians are subjected to. It’s hard not to wish incredible violence against the perpetrators of that kind of indecency — which is a horrible word to use, because it’s so much more vulgar. Violence begets violence, as they say.
STEREOGUM: It’s interesting to look at how the conversations in popular culture have changed in the 10 years since Cryptograms was released.
COX: Cryptograms was narcissistic. It was introverted, and I’ve slowly gone from being introverted to extroverted — to the point where nothing I’m writing is autobiographical. I’m not there.
STEREOGUM: Is that a conscious choice?
COX: As you know from talking to me for years now, I never make any conscious decisions. I just do what I do and figure it out later. Your guess as to what it all means is as good as mine. But I don’t see myself in this material. I’m speaking in every song as a sort of character. For example — nobody’s asked me about it, but one thing I’d ask me if I was a journalist is: If “No One’s Sleeping” is about such a horrible incident, why is it so upbeat? Why are the lyrics so simply put, like a child’s rhyme? I can’t answer that question, although I would ask it of myself. It almost seems like I’m writing an uptempo number about a horrible … it could be misconstrued as disrespectful.
STEREOGUM: This has been the longest amount of time passed between Deerhunter records.
COX: I don’t even think about it. Time’s speeding up. It doesn’t even feel like that much time has passed.
STEREOGUM: What’s the last five years of your life been like?
COX: Very ascetic, as always. Nothing’s changed — thankfully. The things that make me happy — my family, my dog — they’re still hanging in there. There’s been times of great upheaval and drama and sadness, of course — we just lost Josh Fauver, who I had recently reconnected with. We were very much on great terms. I knew [long pause] actually, that’s all I’ll say about that.
If someone’s wondering “Why so long?” a lot of it has to do with the members of the group and their personal lives — raising kids, things like that. Two children take up a lot of time. I’m not really interested in solo projects at this point. I’d almost rather write a novel, or do visual art, or make a film, if I was gonna do something like that. Right now, I’m inspired to make group records.
STEREOGUM: You recorded this record in Marfa, Texas — a town that has a history of artists working there.
COX: Marfa had its inspirations. A lot of them were more natural than cultural — the plains, the vast emptiness of it. There’s something both prehistoric and post-apocalyptic about the landscape. A life after humans, or before — it’s hard to put your finger on. I was very fascinated by the James Dean effect, because that’s where he made his last film. It’s got a haunted vibe. There’s a play about it that Robert Altman adapted into a film, Come Back To The Five And Dime, Jimmy Dean. Cher’s fantastic in it. I enjoy the art aspect of Marfa, but I’m more interested in small towns — in Europe, in America, on the Japanese countryside. They’re very intriguing to me. Cities are easy to understand — “This is what they eat,” “This is what kind of music they make.” Small towns have more of a mystery.
STEREOGUM: What have you been consuming as far as music and other art forms?
COX: I was very influenced by contemporary harpsichord music — a lot of Spanish composers, Genoveva Gálvez. A lot of people hear the harpsichord and think about baroque pop, and I strongly put my hand up at that. “No, no, no, no.” I enjoy the actual acoustics and temper of that instrument — the velocity, the rhythmic pushback. It’s not a liquid instrument, it’s very hard. It’s not a psychedelic instrument, and I hate psychedelic music. People always used to call Cryptograms psychedelic, and I would go, “No — it’s concrète.” It’s not pink and warm and fuzzy. It’s bloodstained and visceral.
But, yes, the harpsichord I was very interested in. Prokofiev. I was listening to a lot of Stravinsky. I know, a lot of pretentious answers. Thelonius Monk was someone I was listening to a lot. How that influenced the record, your guess is good as mine. Charles Ives was a huge influence. We covered one of his songs on Double Dream Of Spring. Certainly not a lot of contemporary influences. Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know” and “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” — those were huge influences on “Plains.” I was inspired by her vocal performance, but in no way did I try to sing — she’s not someone you can imitate. I was very influenced by that sound, and I don’t mean it in a retro-nostalgic way — what’s inside the sound. I didn’t want any kind of retro.
“I hate psychedelic music. People always used to call ‘Cryptograms’ psychedelic, and I would go, ‘No’ … It’s not pink and warm and fuzzy. It’s bloodstained and visceral.”
STEREOGUM: In the album notes, you wrote, “Nostalgia is toxic.”
COX: Maybe the reason why I feel it’s so toxic is a reaction to my own work.
STEREOGUM: Nostalgia has also become one of the more dominant forces in popular culture this decade.
COX: That’s a symptom of nothing valid being said now.
STEREOGUM: Where do you see Deerhunter and your work standing in the current musical climate?
COX: I think we’re underappreciated. I think we’re forced to be this niche group — but I’m very happy with whatever I have, because frankly I don’t think I’d appreciate more attention. I’ve been accused my entire career of loving attention, and it’s always been very amusing to me. Anyone who knows me knows that there’s nothing I love more than being alone. [Gestures around hotel room] I don’t have any guests in this room, except those who have appointments. I’m not going out with friends later tonight — I’m gonna go to a bookstore and browse, go to Academy Records and browse the modern classical section. When I go home, it’s just me and my dog — and I love it. I love being alone. I don’t particularly enjoy attention.
“I think we’re underappreciated. I think we’re forced to be this niche group — but I’m very happy with whatever I have, because frankly I don’t think I’d appreciate more attention.”
So while I say we’re underappreciated, I don’t say it with resentment. It’s actually doing me a favor. If I was more appreciated, I’d be forced to be on tour like some of the groups that are more appreciated. I see their schedules and I say, “Wow.” It’s not that I don’t like working, but I think there’s a certain point where you start seeing why people become heroin addicts, or addicted to benzodiazepines or opiates — or just weed, constantly vaping and living in an altered state because they can’t handle the doldrums of what they’re forced into by their own success.
So I would say I’m exactly at the level of success I want to be at. But I do wish that the people that I think could appreciate the music didn’t have such a hard time of getting to it. Because there’s so much standing in the way. So much information overload. Who do you think will listen to this album from start to finish? Four hundred people in the world? Millions will listen to individual songs, you can see that on Spotify. “Death In Midsummer” almost has a million [listens], and that’s just Spotify. It’s not that people won’t listen to the songs — will they listen to the album? Is there a point? Do I care? I don’t know. I guess I should, because, frankly speaking, I don’t have the greatest attention span. Maybe that’s just a syndrome that we face as a culture.
“I would say I’m exactly at the level of success I want to be at. But I do wish that the people that I think could appreciate the music didn’t have such a hard time of getting to it. Because there’s so much standing in the way. So much information overload. Who do you think will listen to this album from start to finish?”
STEREOGUM: You’re not making art just for product, though.
COX: Right, but I hate the elitism that comes with that distinction. It makes me sound like I think I’m better than — who would you say is making art as a product?
STEREOGUM: Oh, jeez, I don’t know.
COX: Name one. Just name the most popular thing!
STEREOGUM: The last artist I interviewed at this hotel was Toro Y Moi.
COX: Toro?! You’re gonna have to do better than that, man. His music isn’t a product.
STEREOGUM: I don’t know.
COX: The top 10 on Spotify.
STEREOGUM: Twenty One Pilots. Imagine Dragons.
COX: I don’t know any of the things you just said. What did you just say?
STEREOGUM: Twenty One Pilots?
COX: I’ve heard the name Imagine Dragons — I’ve never heard the music — but I’ve never heard of Twenty One Pilots. I refuse to, without having any idea about what they’re doing, consider myself above them in any way. Just because someone doesn’t want to have a fatalistic, bleak tone to everything they do doesn’t mean they aren’t artists. I love British watercolors as much as I love de Kooning, or Cy Twombly. I love noise and abrasiveness and disorientation. Actually, as I get older, I dislike disorientation. I see it more in the context of things like Alzheimer’s. A lot of people would desperately just like to be clear-minded. I want to be at the peak of my wakefulness and conscious clarity — even if it’s painful.
I don’t like talking about the past, but I’ve always had a history of not liking — when I was hit by the car, which I certainly don’t want to talk about during this album cycle, because God knows I had to talk about it forever during the last one, and it got so overblown … it’s just easy to pick on those biographical details. When I got hit by a car, one thing I didn’t talk about is that I never took any pain medication. I had multiple fractures in my pelvis, and I took morphine in the hospital — they don’t ask — but when I got home, I had this bottle of whatever they are. I took one of them, and was totally disoriented, woke up, didn’t know where I was in my own house. I said, “Not taking any more of that.”
I don’t want to be disoriented or confused. I want to be clear-minded. I’ve never been drunk — what I mean to say is, I’ve never been continuously drunk for a period of my life. I can count the times I’ve actually been drunk with half of a hand. What I’m talking about is escapism. I don’t like escapism. That’s all. I find it distasteful. And tacky. I think if people could stop being so escapist, we can have some real culture in the world. The instruments have not abandoned us.
“I can count the times I’ve actually been drunk with half of a hand. I don’t like escapism. I find it distasteful. And tacky. I think if people could stop being so escapist, we can have some real culture in the world.”
STEREOGUM: I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationship between indie-level artists and the music press over the last decade — news stories about social media posts and so on. There was a period of time in which the coverage of your every word was pretty thorough.
COX: I don’t remember any of it. It was probably what people look up on the internet when they meet me and someone says, “Oh, that’s the guy from Deerhunter.” I remember getting mad at you, because I simply thought you were more intelligent than most people. I felt you should’ve gotten me more. It’s not that anything you wrote was dishonest, but you focused on things that I thought were very asinine, like that I didn’t want to drink tap water. The reason behind that is because I’ve gotten sick — not from the tap water itself, but because it’s in a fucking water cooler. I’ve had a lot of illness in my life. I have a low immune system. I feel like I was portrayed as a diva in that article, and I thought that was honestly not the case. It might have appeared that way, but I’d much rather be alone and choose which water I drink myself. But if someone’s gonna be providing me with the water, I’m gonna be specific about what I like. Otherwise, I’ll have diarrhea.
There was a lot of stuff where it seemed like you were making me out to be a clown who forces people to do my bidding, which is complete bullshit. It’s like that woman who writes for Vanity Fair — she wrote about M.I.A., and she focused on her talking about inequality while eating truffle chips. [Sarcastic voice] Wow, that’s important. I don’t want to revisit it, though, because I was actually over it immediately. I thought it was sensational. But if it was entertaining to people … fine. I just don’t like it because, the reality is you’re talking about a period of journalism when people didn’t quote-unquote expect to have their lives under a microscope. And that, to an extent, happened, and I met it halfway in the middle and said, “OK! Here I am! Here’s everything!” Because I’m an entertainer. I like to entertain. But what I will say is this: Because I am a niche artist, so to speak, there is a limited amount of information, and your article about me is very likely to be anthologized in a biography of me, if there ever were to be one — not to be narcissistic and assume there would be, but there’s five about Wilco, for Christ’s sake.
I could take being roasted, but at the same time, I don’t want to be thought of as the only person awake in my band. It’s not true. And if they were tired, it’s probably because you interviewed us on a day where, maybe they had done something the night before, gotten up early — it’s just not accurate, and the thing I don’t like is that I have to watch everything closer now. I get now that people actually read this stuff. The greatest joy in my life was the time when I could say anything and have fun, because I thought, “No one’s gonna read this! I’m an avant-garde character — an eccentric.” And then I realized, “Wow, this stuff has an actual effect on people” — myself included. When I read things taken out of context — anxiety, actual blood pressure, it can physically cause discomfort.
STEREOGUM: What do you think the biggest misconception about you is?
COX: People think that there’s more to me than I’m letting on. “He’s not really a virgin. He doesn’t really practice what he preaches. He’s a dictator, and his bandmates are afraid to stand up to him.” If people want to know why there’s not more Lockett songs on this album, I encourage you to hound Lockett — I’d love it. There’s only ten songs on the fucking album. I would’ve been glad to substitute some of mine. I don’t know which ones. I think the album is 100% perfect.
“People think that there’s more to me than I’m letting on. ‘He’s not really a virgin. He doesn’t really practice what he preaches. He’s a dictator, and his bandmates are afraid to stand up to him.’ If people want to know why there’s not more Lockett songs on this album, I encourage you to hound Lockett — I’d love it.”
The only thing I’d change is to have another Lockett song. It’s very hard when you have two kids and a schedule of stuff. I don’t know how I would write music if I had those days filled like that. But there’s nothing more precious than those kids, they’re amazing and wonderful — not to get too personal. I don’t think he’s made the wrong choice. But he’s made a choice that does interfere with him being able to compete with the amount of material brought to the table. But there’s no resistance from me when it comes to someone else’s input. If Moses doesn’t like the way it sounds, it instantly changes. Nothing happens on a Deerhunter album without me asking Moses and Lockett about what they think. I wouldn’t know what to do.
There’s a reason why I’m here with Deerhunter after all this time. Certainly not for money, for Christ’s sake. What do I have to gain by being in Deerhunter? By continuing this project? I hate the name. Passionately. I hate it. Ugh, God. Try Googling “Deerhunter” — you see all these pictures of innocent animals slaughtered for no reason. I hate violence — why would I want to be in a band called Deerhunter? I didn’t name the band. I can’t change the name of the band.
“What do I have to gain by being in Deerhunter? By continuing this project? I hate the name. Passionately. I hate it.”
STEREOGUM: You could if you wanted.
COX: “Formerly known as Deerhunter.” I didn’t name myself Bradford. I didn’t name myself Cox. I could change my name to Iris Murdoch — is that somebody’s actual name? It just popped in my head. I could change my name to Bill Schmeg, but Bradford Cox will still be attached to me. You can’t change who you are, and Deerhunter is part of who we are. The reason I’m here is because I want to be. And I would never not want to be, because at this point Lockett and Moses are my brothers. They always have been, but after what happened with Josh’s passing, I realize how much they mean to me.
Deerhunter’s Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? is out 1/18 via 4AD. Pre-order it here.