Bradford Cox is sitting at a small table in his room on the top floor of the Ace Hotel in New York City. The lights are off, it’s a gray winter day, and the woolly space is gloomy. He lives in Georgia, but he has stayed in this exact room many times when he’s had business in the city, which is often as the lead of the enduringly beloved band Deerhunter and with his solo project, Atlas Sound. He continues to book this accommodation not because he particularly loves it—“I don’t like anything about it”—but because he feels a sense of loyalty to it. He has, at times, pinned the plain white walls with watercolors he has painted and African masks, but the outwardly unremarkable setup also possesses an aura of personal nostalgia for him: He recorded some of Atlas Sound’s Parallax album here and this is where he slept after first performing on David Letterman with Deerhunter back in 2011 when he was, as he describes it, a kid. “I’m not a person who changes things often,” he says when asked why he has remained faithful to such a dreary lodging.
It is both true and not true that he is a person who does not change: As the long-beating heart of Deerhunter—which has a new album with the unsettling title Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?—he has been an unflinchingly reliable creator of piercing, hypnotic rock music across eight albums since 2005. But there’s something about Cox that has continued to surprise. As the years go by, his albums have seemed to map the complicated evolutions and revolutions of his inner psyche. Though he says lyrics come to him in a kind of trance that he can’t control, he has written vivid music about moods and eras of alienation and obsession and anger and loneliness. Both with his art and his prickly persona—in our brief time together, he genuinely seems uninterested in the politeness that most of us use to get by in life—he has become something of an oracle to a devoted fanbase.
Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? conjures a world of robotic and environmental dystopia. It is strangely comforting in its despair, doing what music is uniquely capable of doing, which is to remind us that we are not alone in our heartbreak, in this case, the heartbreak of an apocalypse that at moments feels inevitable in these strange times. It nods to America’s current various late capitalist crises—“In the country there’s much duress,” he sings on “No One’s Sleeping,” a song title which itself nods to our political age of anxiety—and on the last song, he sings of mildew spreading across the land like spiderwebs. But he also seems generously interested in providing a balm, through images of pastoral beauty and even hope. On first listen, I had the distinct feeling of hearing ideas absolutely essential to my life that I didn’t even know I needed to hear.
Cox is an imposing figure, due in part to Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects connective tissue and can cause people to grow tall and thin with long limbs. Today, he is wearing an outfit that makes him look like an Etonian schoolboy (he describes his current clothes as “Bryan Ferry–looking” and “all wrong”): a shrunken ball cap, a blazer, a pink shirt with a tie, pants too short on his formidable legs, and backless leather slippers. He sometimes wears dresses on stage and is openly queer, but also publicly asexual. When he speaks, he projects his voice like a bullhorn for emphasis, and he can be combative in conversation if he does not like a question. But at other times he is profound, almost prophetic in his answers, the rare person who doesn’t seem to have any impulse other than to tell the truth. Like the music he makes and this odd hotel room he is devoted to, Cox isn’t always easy, but there’s something there that makes it all worthwhile.
The album has a foreboding title but the music itself is warm, as though you are welcoming us to a safe place.
“I don’t know that I’m inviting anyone to anything pleasant.”
But the first line on the first song—“Come on down from that cloud, and cast your fears aside”—is pretty hopeful, no?
“Narrators are unreliable.”
Are you inviting us to somewhere unpleasant then?
What’s the unpleasant?
“A Deerhunter album. I’m a fatalist, bleak voice. You can shoot a funeral in the sunshine, and sunshine is quite cheerful, but it’s still a funeral.”
What are your particular anxieties about the world right now?
“The death of culture. I think culture is becoming irretrievably damaged. I can spend an hour explaining it and it’s hard for me with my attention deficit disorder—which is symptomatic of this age—to put it into quick words. Certainly nothing capsule-sized for an interview. But culture is at a very low point. There is a commercial impetus for art to be made now and I’m just not seeing much art for art’s sake. Art for art’s sake is where a lot of the unconscious gets exposed. The high points of culture are generally when people give up because things are at a low and then they say, ‘Well, I’m just going to do this without a reason.'”
Why do you make art?
“For the sake of making art. Certainly not to make money.”
Have you made money?
“Oh, lots. Now, at this point, I’ve settled into my own house, I own it outright, I don’t have a [mortgage], so I basically just live without the fear of losing relevancy. If I become irrelevant, well, I’m perfectly fine with it. I have a lot of books I intend to catch up on reading. I make a record when I think that I have a good record to make. That’s why we’ve never made a bad record because we’ve never made one out of necessity.”
What do you like about this new record you’ve made?
“I think it’s challenging yet rewarding. We worked really hard on it. I listen to other music and I’m like, This is not very challenging. I apply this kind of empirical thing: Is it challenging? Does it have its own world that it’s coming from? Does it need to be made? Is it necessary?”
How do you know when an album is finished?
“How I know that it is right is that I am no longer filled with ideas for changes. [This album] is excellent. I wouldn’t change a thing about it. Not a single thing.”
Do you have a routine when it comes to creative work?
“I work when I have the energy. When I’m tired, I go away. I go to the Goodwill. It’s a real good way to clear my mind. I like to be at the Goodwill.”
What gives you a sense of meaning in your life?
Besides your work, do you think the world is generally just getting worse?
In what ways?
“The environment is something that bothers me very much. I also don’t think I’m the best person to preach about it. My greatest faults are absentmindedness and laziness. I’m not going to sit here and act like I’m a model citizen. I’m not here to preach at people and tell them what’s wrong.”
You’re just singing about it.
“Well, no, somebody’s singing about it through me.”
“Maybe a character. I can’t tell you. I didn’t write these lyrics.”
Who wrote them?
“The ether. I do automatic writing. It’s the only way I’ve written ever. If I ever write a record not in that method, that will be a news story. I don’t preplan the subjects, the words, the anything, I just start playing music as if I’m playing a concert to myself and I improvise. The words come out of my unconscious. Anything. Sometimes I wonder if it’s like a Ouija board or something because sometimes they make a little bit too much sense. Sometimes I don’t even agree with what it’s saying. You might say, ‘Oh, Bradford feels the same way I do.’ And I might. But it also might be the fact that I’m channeling radiation or electromagnetic anxiety.”
There’s a song on the album in which you put your voice through a vocoder to sound like a robot.
“It’s just an intelligence awakening for the day, like Siri or something. It’s a synthetic narrator.”
Do you find yourself addicted to your phone like so many of us do?
“Not much. When I am taking “me time,” I leave the phone plugged into the charger. I’m not the type of person to have that nervous itch to need to check Instagram. I think maybe that’s one of my biggest fears for our children, the increasing feeling that it’s no longer okay to just sit. One of my favorite things to do is just stare out the window.”
How do you live with dignity in this world when it seems, as you say, like it’s getting sped up and worse?
“I just pay a lot of attention to my dog. I become more reclusive. I create an environment in my home in which the world is doing just fine.”
There’s a pretty bittersweet line on “Futurism”— “Your cage is what you make it. If you decorate it, it goes by faster”—that symbolizes both the appeal and futility of buying cool things for your house to make your life better.
“That’s a good one. Thanks to whoever wrote that line through me. That’s basically how I feel about the future. Your cage is what you make it. I don’t want to sound all despite all my rage, I’m still just a rat in a cage because that’s pretty fucking teenage journal–keeper bullshit. I feel like we’re certainly in the trap of a declining culture. We’re on a sinking ship maybe. It’s not such a negative thing for the world to be destroyed or for societies to destroy themselves. It happened to Rome. It happened to Egypt. It happened to many empires. The garden must wither away so that it can grow back. I’m not some kind of bard. I’m not some kind of sage or religious prophet of any kind. I don’t like that kind of thing. I’m an entertainer.
You’ve said in the past that you are queer but that you are also asexual and a virgin. Are you still?
“Virgin. Asexual. No interest.”
Have you been on a date recently?
“Don’t even know what a date is.”
Do guys ever hit on you?
“I wouldn’t know. There’s no interaction time for that to happen.”
“I don’t go to shows.”
But your own shows. There’s gotta be groupies.
“All of our fans, as far as I know, are very intelligent, sensitive, and interesting people so they don’t come after me for sickening, decadent reasons. If there is one word that you would not associate with Deerhunter or me, it is decadent.”
But you are a bit of a rock star, don’t you think?
“I mean, I don’t know of anyone else who would fit that job description besides me. I’d be glad if someone else came along.”
What makes you a rock star?
“The complete lack or need for validation. The complete lack or need for financial security. I’ve been so poor that I know how to live at any capacity. I’m the closest thing to David Bowie that there is now.”
You love old music but are adamant that you are not nostalgic. What’s the difference?
“It’s sort of saying you studied Goethe in comparative literature or something. Does that mean you’re nostalgic for it? No. Because it happened in the past does not make it irrelevant. [But] to focus your present on the past is a poor decision. It is just the most awful decision. You have to live. You can’t just sit there and rewind. That’s the saddest life in the world. “Oh, my glory days, the golden age, the halcyon days.” None of those days ever happened and if they did happen, they were not anywhere near how you remember them. Woodstock sucked, the ’60s were a nightmare of violence and horror. When people keep asking me if things are getting worse, it’s about as bad as it’s always been, it’s just about how much longer can Earth take it. How much longer can humanity take it.”
Does anything make you feel like a success?
“Receiving letters from people who said that our music made their life livable, bearable. From people who were in very bad situations from all over the world. People in parts of the world that I’m very, very concerned for. There’s many.
Since you’ve been such a public queer figure, do you have a lot of queer kids who write you?
“Oh, lots of queer kids, yes.”
What do they say?
“What you can imagine. It’s private. It’s their private communication they want to send to me. In a general sense, they express a sense of solidarity.”
Do you feel a sense of responsibility to those fans?
“As a human being, I feel responsible to everyone. As an artist, I feel responsible to no one.”
PHOTOGRAPHS ELOISE PARRY
TALENT BRADFORD COX
PRODUCTION HANNAH HUFFMAN
PHOTO ASSISTANT NOAH BLOUGH
SPECIAL THANKS TO MOTORMOUTH MEDIA
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