acclaimed indie provocateurs make an unexpected, but not unwelcome, foray into
pristine pop. Frontman Bradford Cox explains.
BY JOHN SCHACHT
Bradford Cox wasn’t exactly born to blend in. He’s afflicted
with the deforming disease Marfan’s syndrome, is prone to “pornographic
honesty” on his blog, and is inclined to cross-dress for Deerhunter’s raucous
live shows. But after accidentally blog-leaking two albums of unmastered new
material in 2008 and lambasting fans for their perceived disloyalty in
disseminating them, the blowback chastened Cox.
Hints of a quieter, gentler Cox were already in the air,
judging from 2008 Album of the Year-candidate Microcastle, an era-hopping sonic playground
dominated by rolling waves of psychedelic reverb and offset with tidy pop songs
of pulsing bass and coruscating guitar. Now, with Atlanta
neighbor Ben Allen (Gnarls Barkley, Animal Collective) producing, Halcyon Digest, released by venerable UK label 4AD, blends
new elements into Deerhunter’s already lush template while emphasizing its pop
Psych-pop vibes insinuate into the sunny thrum of bells and
jangly guitars on “Memory Boy,” as well as the more autumnal melody and
processed beats of “Helicopter,” while “Coronado” and “Revival” share a glam
pop feel (in dark and light shades, respectively). Previous echoes of Jesus
& Mary Chain narco-pop are confidently indulged with epic guitar fuzz on
“Don’t Cry” and “Fountain Stairs,” and Cox’s blend of skeletal instrumentation
and bedroom computer-muck takes a John Lennon (post Beatles) turn with dreamy
nostalgia like “Sailing” and “Basement Scene.” (The former’s meandering verses
are the album’s weakest link.)
“Desire Lines,” guitarist Lockett Pundt’s sole composition
here, opts for a harder-edged Swervedriver sound culminating in a three-minute
outro of guitar glory, and Cox’s trippier inclinations bookend the record.
Disc-opener “Earthquake” builds on an insistent backward-masked beat that has a
feline bass figure coiling through it, its rhythms buffeted by a sirocco of
synthesizers that surge and hiss. On “He Would Have Laughed,” tribal
polyrhythms form scaffolding for repetitive guitar and keyboard lines that
build into rich crescendos until an open-ended coda answers the song’s existential
questions with an emphatic “shut your mouth.”
Cox says these songs are about the way people edit their memories
to construct versions they can live with. Acknowledging that suggests he’s
reached the maturity he’s often lamented never attaining. Halcyon Digest says Deerhunter has been there a while now.
Cox discuss the band’s new record, his influences, and the golden days of flyer
BLURT: If Microcastle was intentionally less autobiographical than Cryptograms, where does the new record blend into that spectrum?
COX: I think it’s easy for me to slip in and out of an
autobiographical mode of songwriting because I honestly just let the words
write themselves and there is never any premeditation whatsoever. So a song
like “Earthquake” can be totally based on a real memory for a second and then
go off on this weird tangent about someone’s train of thought as they are dying
of hypothermia. It’s all just a big psycho trance collage.
What was the inspiration behind the striking liner
notes’ look? How did that, and photographer George Mitchell’s work, fit
the “halcyon memories only” aesthetic of the album?
There is not really a “halcyon memories only”
aesthetic. In fact most of the album contradicts that by being, in hindsight,
pretty dark. The graphics just happen naturally for me. I have worked with
typography since I was about 12 and I just like piecing things together like
that. I think (Deerhunter drummer) Moses (Archuleta) originally suggested a
stark black and white theme with the artwork. He had a Swedish or Belgian
photographer’s work in mind. I saw George’s photograph and it just worked. It
had an immediate connection to the music, especially songs like “Basement
You asked fans to come up with their own posters
for Halcyon Digest — how has the old
school flyer idea played out?
I was very pleased at the response and how everyone who
participated approached it. Someone made a mosaic giant poster type thing and
covered the side of a building with it. There were pictures from all over the
Why did you turn to Ben Allen for these sessions, and did
it play out differently than the idea you had going in?
Ben lives right down the street from me and it was important
for us to work at home. I am very happy with the way the album turned out.
The new one seems
to have absorbed some of that great, hazy 4AD sound. What, if anything, would
you say influenced Halcyon Digest?
Without sounding arrogant I can’t really name many
influences for this album. All I was listening to around the time most of these
songs were written was Neil Young and it doesn’t sound like him really. I love
4AD of course and am indebted to so many of those albums, but I wasn’t going
for a 4AD sound or any sound really this time around.
[Photo Credit: Drew Vanderbilt]