Search The Line of Best Fit
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Travels in the space-time continuum

06 May 2024, 09:00
Original Photography by Brennan Bucannan

Set design by Taylor Dallas

A. G. Cook warps reality to divine truths of pop’s past, present and future, discovers Sophie Leigh Walker as she meets the visionary producer ahead of the release of third album Britpop.

The year is 1066. England is in historical confusion, a contested land emerging from Roman ruin. Britain won’t emerge for another seven centuries, and Britpop – a stitch in this sprawling tapestry of time – is beyond human conception.

As the crown of the English realm was about to be battled for between King and Conqueror, a streak of light scarred the night sky. For King Harold II, he interpreted what we now understand to be Halley’s Comet as a bad omen, but for William the Conqueror, it was interpreted to be a sign from heaven of his imminent victory. Others believed it to be the end of the world. Harbingers of the future have been misunderstood throughout history, praised as equally as they are feared, and more irrevocably bound to the past than we realise.

The arrival of Alexander Guy Cook and his culture-disrupting label PC Music might have been hell-born or heaven-sent, but regardless of which you believe, the objective truth is we can forever define pop music in terms of before and after its decade of influence. 21st-century pop culture can feel devoid of a grand narrative, yet the birth of PC Music in the early 2010s felt like a dizzying broadcast of a future we were promised and a confrontation of an uncomfortable present: surface polished to a high, manufactured gloss; internet-accelerated while still feeling estranged on its own disconnected orbit.


PC Music has become an adjective in its own right. It’s pop saturated to oblivion with cavity-inducing autotune sweetness, a sound that is jarring to the ear, the far-side of strange, and yet an open-armed embrace of the guiltiest pleasures of the '90s from happy hardcore to Eurodance. Matched with lyrical cliches too asinine to be sincere and yet delivered with enough hairbrush-singing passion to make you question if it just might be, the label’s extended universe was interrogated, mistrusted – and adored.

If PC Music was once synonymous with the future, then I am speaking to A. G. Cook, its unlikely prophet, at a strange moment. In 2023, the label marked its tenth anniversary by announcing that it would cease to release new music, sharing only archival projects and special reissues. There is an interesting dissonance that a label that seemed to exist beyond us is now consigned to the past. Yet rather than being “of its time”, the influence of PC Music is ever-renewing.

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If you trace back the DNA of big-league pop music, you will find Cook and his collective of sonic outcasts at the source. Fellow producer and close friend Danny L Harle is the architect behind some of the most enticing creations of Dua Lipa, Caroline Polachek and Lil Uzi Vert, while PC Music associate SOPHIE produced the hell-raising “Bitch I’m Madonna'' and earned a Grammy nomination for her revolutionary debut album OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES. As for Cook himself, the epicentre of it all, his fingerprints can be found on Beyonce’s Renaissance, the solo work of Sigur Rós vocalist Jónsi, and Charli XCX’s imperial records as her creative director. PC Music has become a foundational reference for the likes of 100 gecs, who pioneered hyperpop’s ‘second wave’, reverberating through to the pandemic-warped teenage pop stars swapping stage names for online usernames.

You might imagine Cook as a figure who is a reflection of his own self-invented chaos. The truth is perhaps more PC Music, actually: to embody the subversion of those expectations, a double-double bluff. Strikingly tall with specs, wearing his girlfriend Alaska Reid’s merch under his sweater, he can pass through the world as detectably or invisibly as he wishes to be. He is generous with his thoughts, tumbling into rabbit holes as he frames the micro on a macro scale; drawn to curious metaphors and “silly” ideas, it all offers a glimpse into the inner-whirring of one of pop’s greatest mental hard drives.


Cook is so often a dream weaver for others, yet in 2020, he started mining for his own essence. A. G. Cook the singer, A. G. Cook the superstar: an active voice rather than a passive facilitator. His debut arrived in the form of the sprawling, 49-track odyssey 7G – a scrapbook of experiments and half-pursued ideas to offer a window into his dizzying creative process – followed by its more concise, yet no less dislocating, twin album Apple.

Now, with the arrival of his third album, Britpop, Cook is in an arm’s race of ambition with no one but himself. Staggering in scope and scale, even by his own standards, it challenges the interactions between the past, present and future – divided into three discs – and, courageously, mines those depths for their personal implications. Though nothing, of course, is so clear cut if he is at the centre of it. “I’m interested in things that have a strange complexity to them anyway,” he tells me. “What I love about music is the feeling that anything can happen. But you have to experience it in a linear way, right? It’s not like looking at a painting, or whatever. You really have to experience it. Music is an exercise in time, however you slice it.”

Within the title itself, Britpop, lies a tension - and that’s textbook A. G. Its two components, ‘Britain’ and ‘Pop’, are products of our cultural imagination, totally imaginary devices that resist any easy or comfortable definition. The term might conjure ideas of boys with middle partings, parkas and that dress, when an island colonised pop culture with arrogance and optimism, but Cook’s Britpop is, quite literally, otherworldly. Its artwork is an uncanny distortion of the Union Jack rendered in pink and green, a potential ‘then’.

For the past few years, he has been both exhaustingly busy and geographically unmoored. He made a home in the “scarily infinite” Los Angeles, and spent a year in his girlfriend’s hometown in Montana falling in love and feeling sick in among its vertiginous mountains and vast rural landscape. “Los Angeles is unpredictable,” he reflects. “I love London, too, but its music scene is a lot more rigid. Though early PC stuff had its fan base here, it reached a point of cultural acceptance in the US much earlier.”

He started to question why that might be, the cultural character and differences between two places which are so entrenched, so enormous, that we barely have the language to grapple with them. “It’s funny, the American relish around history versus the British nonchalance and overconfidence,” he says. “When I’ve looked into Britpop, it’s not just about the 90s or my own understanding of things – it’s about anachronisms and the funny details, especially with British history, that go so far back that we can barely understand it. It becomes fantasy, a sort of theatre, or a pantomime.” Not unlike pop itself.

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The music video for “Soulbreaker” is an articulation of this idea, a loose exploration of psychogeography. Directed and animated by Swedish artist Gustaf Holtenäs, the visuals traverse a dizzying scale of time marked 1000 AD / 2000 AD / 3000 AD in the space of four minutes. It’s decidedly unreal, existing deep within the uncanny valley where heraldic symbols of this alternative Britain collide with renderings of the future – it all happens so quickly, so all-at-once, it’s almost sickening to think about. It lives on Disc 3, the ‘Future’, and yet the track itself is a reinvention of a demo for Apple, built from the past and lavished with classical piano, choral vocals and floor-filling EDM flourishes.

“It’s just more than we can perceive. It’s like, actually funny,” smiles Cook, charmed by Herculean ideas as if they were planted purely for his own delight. He tells me of a book he came across, Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World (“which has no relation to hyperpop, obviously”.) He explains, “It’s about how we go about looking at something like climate change, because it’s so vast and so complicated. Is it an object? Is it not? How do we handle it? All of our discussions around it are on a very basic level, because it’s already too large for us to grapple with.” What we call ‘the world’ – a place that revolves around human beings and is defined by what we see and feel – is simply too small to cope with reality anymore. As we contend with massive global forces completely defying our physical perceptions, the Covid-19 pandemic being but another, our idea of the world falls away like a flimsy movie set.

“I relish all of that stuff, in a way,” says Cook. “It’s my constant interest in the uncanny and things that are paradoxes and extremes, avoiding the middle ground. Even my live show, now, is built from such extreme dynamics that it feels like it could fall apart – but it doesn’t, hopefully. I think, for me, that’s what keeps most art forms interesting. Especially music: without that tension, even if it’s really well done, without the feeling that it could mean something else, is immediately pretty boring to me. I’m not drawn to anything that feels too solid or too confident in being a particular genre, by instinct. That’s why I’m eternally figuring out things in my own way, studying things, because it keeps me interested in music, actually. It keeps me in a dialogue with something that goes beyond what sounds cool.”

For that reason, Britpop, in the most concise of terms, is a “warping of time”. There is no better track to illustrate this than the first he released from the album, “Silver Needle Golden Thread”. Released on New Year’s Day and stretching into ten minutes, it walks through time with its transitions, where one riff will morph into another; a sound expands and then turns into something else. “It’s synthesised so that it can be, at times, quite a smooth journey and then suddenly flip. I think that’s something you can only do in a slightly longer track where you can be hypnotised by the transitions. It’s never a simple thing of getting louder and quieter – it sort of morphs and fakes you out. Even as it reaches the final section, it’s not a drop. I mean, people get quite annoyed, honestly. At some shows, they think I’m trying to piss the audience off with some thesis against drops. But I like when things can come to conclusions without feeling fully resolved. I’m not drawn to things that are so obvious.”

"A lot of my music, although not fully self-aware, is at least in dialogue with itself or questioning something."

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The artwork for “Silver Needle Golden Thread” is an example of Cook’s quiet subversions. It’s a hybrid of the chrome aesthetics he pursued with 7G and something unfathomably ancient: the Sutton Hoo helmet. Buried around the years 620-625 AD, the Anglo-Saxon headwear was found during the excavation of a ship-burial in Suffolk. Before they managed to assemble it, the landmark historical discovery resembled something more like a nightmare – a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. The archaeology reference presents itself once again in the video for “Soulbreaker”. Cook alludes, “Maybe seeing something broken up could be just as dramatic as the final version of it.”

Deconstruction has always been an intrinsic part of his music. “I think a lot of my music, although not fully self-aware, is at least in dialogue with itself or questioning something. Maybe a section of one track might relate to another down the line – it’s not trying to hide its different parts. It’s almost like when you see a fire engine: it’s not trying to be one slick, compact thing; you can actually see the nozzles and all the buttons. Someone could easily design a fire engine that looks like an iMac where it’s just faceless and slick, but I love things that have functions when you observe them. It’s quite a weird metaphor for it, but I like my music to do that as well: have these pieces that are all smoothed over into a perfect piece of dance music. And if that means it fails as a piece of dance music, that’s fine. That’s another side mission.”

Cook was drawn to making his own solo music to test something, pursuing a line of enquiry that is almost scientific. Britpop, he tells me, carries “lots of the little principles of personal computing music which I doubled down on with Apple and 7G, while ultimately making less of an error in trying to do everything at once.” He feels that his music is often in conversation with itself. “Some people might think it’s all meta, and it’s actually not. It’s all very instinctive, and I think that’s a nice part of the idea of a ‘conversation’. It’s not scripted, and it’s all very emergent. I think all my favourite things I’ve done or things I really like have that quality. I can be interested in most music, in some way, because I’m quite an aggressive listener. There’s always something in there, even if it’s quite banal, because music itself operates on so many levels. I think that’s what drew me to music as a time-based thing: the fact that it is inherently chatty.”

Cook excavates the past, both philosophically and personally on Britpop. What unites the tracks on Disc 1 is a reimagined, and “idealised” version of the producer he was when he began PC Music in 2013. “I don’t see myself as someone who is nostalgic, though,” he says. “I mean, everyone is to some degree, but I’m always so glad to be working on new music because I don’t feel that everything has been summed up by a moment in time. The way nostalgia fits into my work is to put it into a sound where everything feels quite modernist and precise, and there will be this one clearly retro element that sounds like the wrong person has just walked into a bar. I believe there’s still an endless list of stuff to do and explore,” he continues. “I’m still quite idealistic and optimistic; I don’t think we’re just circling around the drain and all entropic. I think people really want new stuff, but I also think we’ve never been so tempted or so intertwined with the recent past of popular culture. We’re in this era where I think the performance, theatre and personality of things is really important.”

The tricks up Cook’s sleeve on Britpop might appear as unlikely ones. Disc 2, the ‘Present’, is a departure and real tonal shift from what you have come to expect from his sound. There’s his voice, there are lyrics – and there’s guitars. He takes all the shades of rock through a hall of mirrors, from the prog-rock distortions of “Greatly” to melodic grunge of “Bewitched”. It’s another avenue of ‘what if’ brought into the realm of possibility.

Lyrics, Cook admits, don’t come too easily to him. “I mean, it’s really like getting blood from a stone. It’s kind of horrible,” he laughs. “I’m interested in this tension between being a music producer and singing in the first place. It’s quite funny. There are many people who can sing a top line much better than me, but it’s not really about that. There’s a certain kind of awkwardness, isolation, alienation, or something a bit like that, which my voice can be a good vehicle for, maybe.”

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But there are two tracks on Disc 2 that stand out, in his mind, as effortless. “The ones that are the strongest are almost like a snapshot where the music and lyrics were written in one go, and then recorded in the same day,” he reflects. The first is “Nice To Meet You”, and the other is “Without”. In both - or perhaps in everything - there are shades of SOPHIE. The Scottish musician and producer accidentally fell to her death after climbing onto a rooftop in Athens to watch the full moon. Her music magnetised critical acclaim, redefining the parameters of what pop could be capable of, while also being a figure who resonated deeply with the trans community as a woman who represented the thrill of self-invention through her visibility. She was also one of Cook’s closest friends

“Without” features a subtle melodic nod to SOPHIE’s breakout single, “BIPP”. Taking on the colours of shoegaze and grunge, it’s a tender token of devotion – and grief – which rarely surfaces in Cook’s work. It creeps in so quietly, so unexpectedly, like loss so often does. “So, um, that makes it pretty obvious,” he says, bringing it up himself without my asking as if to get it over with. “People use the word ‘tribute’, you know, which I think is sort of a funny word. I feel that there are tributes to SOPHIE all over my work, and I actually see her fingerprints as much on ‘Silver Thread Golden Needle’ and a lot of the instrumental tracks as I do on something like ‘Without’.”

That track was written during a bleak Montana winter which felt unending. In the months following her death, Cook wrote an open letter simply titled SOPHIE, a beautifully-written collection of thoughts and memories on his friend and her legacy as an artist. “She was such an erudite, layered person anyway, and I was so lucky to have such a vantage point to see that in our friendship,” he shares. “I was like, ‘Someone has to do something’ – someone had to share who she was, a real person with a real personality, while also acknowledging how she meant something very symbolic to many people. She had a self-awareness of that, too, and there was a whole journey around that. It had to be done, even though it was very difficult. When I look at the date it was published, it felt like an incredibly long period of time because I was trying to process it all and write this thing… It was just weird. I was doing very little else.”

“Without”, in some ways, was Cook’s private means of expressing his loss that he wasn’t obligated to share unless he decided to. “As much as that song is technically not about SOPHIE, it’s as much about the process of me trying to write something like that and the tension of trying to let go while accepting the impossibility of fully resolving it. In the end, you’re left with a sort of grey area where you’d let go, but not.”

It captures the changing nature of grief, and how a person who existed in our lives in the past can find ways of manifesting in our present and future. “It’s the only bit of respite in what is still quite awful, really,” he says. “It’s ultimately still very tragic. The people you’re close to do exist as these voices and suggestions. I’ve had really specific experiences where I’ve cracked some kind of synthesis thing for myself, but then I have a flashback to SOPHIE just casually doing that. I wouldn’t have unlocked that memory unless I’d not been digging into this very technical thing we shared. We have more memories we can’t remember, and then something as simple as a smell can bring something back – it’s stranger still when that thing is a piece of software.”

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He compares her work to the 2001: A Space Odyssey obelisk. “You know, it descends and then suddenly monkeys can use hammers,” he smiles. “The work she did is so strong and so genuinely futuristic, that the more you look back on it the more you realise it’s absolutely not nostalgic. The really bittersweet thing is how ambitious she was consistently, and how other people could look at her work and be like, ‘Wow, that’s incredible, unrepeatable,’ or whatever, and she would’ve looked at it and said, ‘I can do better than this’. She said that all the time, and always had radical ideas around that.”

Legacy isn’t something Cook considers often. True to the spirit of his own creativity, his gaze is always fixed firmly on what’s next. He challenges the idea that PC Music was of the future. “I think PC Music was genuinely very just very good at not ignoring the present,” he says. He reflects on how the Red Bull Music Academy was the patron of that era of music, but when other artists ignored that, “we just couldn’t resist talking about it”. It gave rise to “Hey QT”, the metanarrative collaboration between Cook, SOPHIE vocalist Harriet Pittard, and visual artist and performer Hayden Dunham to promote a fictional energy drink. “It was contemporary – and confidently so – which gives an air of the future.”

He recalls the hostility to their music in its earliest years: the empty bars and rejection common to himself, SOPHIE and Harle. “The fact it took off to any degree is still shocking to me,” he smiles. “You see that in everything from science fiction to technology. Sometimes, when things emerge that are ahead of their time, people don’t give a fuck – then they look back, and realise. I think PC Music maybe sometimes does that, but I think a lot of the time, it’s brutally honest about what’s going on right here right now, and playing with that rather than ignoring it.”

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Now, he considers his role at PC Music to be that of a “historian” or “curator”. The scene, he is determined, is not over: it has just taken on a life of its own. “Rather than being responsible for our roster, getting us up on streaming and doing PR cycles among all the other work I do, I realised the best use of this platform would be to acknowledge our decade of work and lift up some of its obscure parts which are really, really important,” he says.

The label also represents an alternative approach to releasing music which he feels is often neglected in conversations around its legacy. “We’d give pretty much an unknown artist a video budget, even if it was a small one, from day one,” Cook explains. “We wanted to give confidence to the artists involved as much as possible with whatever budget we could. It was essentially run as a non-profit - and in a way, I could have organised it better - but if one of my records did well, I would use that on budget for another project. I wanted the most weird and obscure releases to have the same landing as some of the clearly-crafted ones. Labels are very strictly run on who’s doing statistically the best and will just guillotine the ones who, in their eyes, are dragging the rest down, but it was never once like that [with PC Music]. It feels like a victory, to me, that I could show that it was a broader attitude than just sped-up vocals and bubblegum bass.”

Cook says something about PC Music which speaks for more than that. It speaks for himself, for Britpop, for SOPHIE, for where we are, where we’ve been and where we’re heading: “This doesn’t feel like the time to sit back and reminisce. Nothing feels conclusive: it’s all very much unpredictable.”

Britpop is released on 10 May via New Alias

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