The Magic Trick
Daniel Lopatin, aka Oneohtrix Point Never, is one of the most enthralling figures in contemporary electronic music. Having worked alongside David Byrne, Anohni, and James Blake over the past few years, he has cultivated a fascination with aligning the fringes of music with the popular and seeking out the 'image of music' - as he explains Best Fit's Oliver Kemp.
"Keep this one in good shape. It’s the 2012 models that apparently have the best display... graphic designers rave about it."
Strange that my conversation with Daniel Lopatin, on a scorching London afternoon, should begin with talking about my laptop, given the visual relevance of the devices to the artwork of his new album Age Of.
Jim Shaw's 2017 painting The Great Whatsit captured Lopatin’s imagination when visiting Shaw’s exhibition in New York, finding his oeuvre to portray a "calming suburban presence". It feels like an inconsistency to refer to Shaw’s painting as "calm", considering the connotations of destructive human consumption and technological deification, but somehow it frames an artist full to the brim with thoughts, ideas, and approaches. I don’t get bombarded with any kind of anti-capitalist or aggressive political agenda when talking to him about Age Of, which is refreshing considering how that concept could so closely be applied to his new material, but what I find is a musician keen to talk candidly about his artistic process, the origins of music, and the grey areas of form.
"It’s just 2018 laziness to approach Age Of as if it doesn’t have those riddles..."
Our time together takes place just days after his triumphant MYRIAD show at the Barbican, and I naturally felt compelled to find out as much about the show as possible - but Lopatin’s active mind led our conversation through many different thoughts, exploring - fittingly - myriad topics. He is a particularly forthcoming artist - keen to talk about his work and processes, but also having learnt from past experiences not to give too much away. Since the early days of his pseudonymous Chuck Person’s EccoJams Vol. 1, which in no small way kickstarted the internet-focused subgenre of vaporwave, all the way up to 2015’s belligerent Garden Of Delete, there has been an air of mystery to the music of Oneohtrix Point Never. Almost like a Fabergé egg or an intricate puzzle, his music delights on an obsessive level, with die-hard fans committed to unearthing the secrets it hints at.
But he’s not willing to make it as easy this time around.
"What is funny to me is that with Garden Of Delete it might feel like it's some sort of crypt of ideas," Lopatin says. "I was actually so helpful with introducing those ideas myself: 'now you're invited into this haunted house and things will come out of the wall here'. That’s not cryptic to me, that’s really heavy-handedly conceptual. Fine. I actually really love that kind of stuff. By virtue of not being specific, people think Age Of is somehow removed from the things I usually do. Completely false. It’s just 2018 laziness to approach Age Of as if it doesn’t have those riddles... the entire thing is just strewn with it. So, I’ve no longer made it my responsibility to help people as much through that process on an album."
"There’s a few very basic things I’m willing to say that are nuts and bolts of what I was exposed to; beyond that, what's the point?" Lopatin asks. "You're just doing a considerable injustice to yourself. People will inevitably pigeonhole you anyway, now you're going help them do that?"
This is particularly interesting when you consider the lofty concept of his new record Age Of. The music represents what Lopatin refers to as four "epochs", based on the Strauss-Howe generational theory. These four 'epochs' are as follows: Age of Ecco, Age of Harvest, Age of Excess, and Age of Bondage. The concept is concrete - it's described as loosely a "theorised recurring generation cycle in American history" - but Daniel seems keen to talk about it in broad brushstrokes, allowing the idea to speak for itself.
"I'm not trying to solve the puzzle of satisfying everyone’s ideas of who I am."
"I realised my wanting to help [people understand] is a complete result of all kinds of traumas, and from my upbringing, and from the need to satiate everyone in life - which is not a perfect way to be. Why would I do that in my music? When did that become my job? I really wanted to put the kibosh on that. The record was such an un-peeling of my pathology - I didn’t have a plan at all. And I love that about it so much, it's just so finally free of all of these things that were trapping me before. It's not that I feel like the other records are somehow incomplete, but when I hear them I hear a person that was tentative to be a composer. And as the records move closer and closer to Age Of I’m getting more free to write music, not just edit music. With Age Of, I just allowed myself to write and go with the writing and not force it."
The freedom Lopatin talks of is evident across the album - especially in his vocal presence, which came as quite as a surprise to a lot of people, being more foregrounded than ever before, but is described as a "natural" element by the Massachusetts-born artist. His digitally processed voice on "Black Snow", "Babylon", and "The Station" deepens the intimacy of the record, whilst potentially opening his music up to a broader audience - but has this focus on vocals changed his process of writing at all?
"I honestly didn’t really think about it," Lopatin explains. "I just thought 'this feels really natural'. I was spending a lot of time with my friend Shaun Trujillo, who's an old collaborator of mine going back to college, and we always come up with random things to do, we hadn't written like that in a long time. We started writing a lot; these were metered poems that were easy to imagine in songs. And we were reading a lot and pulling from all kinds of things we were interested in and watching tonnes of films and just having fun. So it felt totally natural to try it, and I had done it before - just never as clearly or as fluently. I mean, there's a song on Rifts where I do vocal stuff."
It would be easy to rest on the laurels of Age Of’s concept to explain the meaning behind these tracks, but as ever, Lopatin surprises. One of the most beautiful cuts on the album, vocal-led second track "Babylon", is described as a "cybernetic country song", which is a wonderful description of a track with such a personal back story.
"That's the best song on the record, and I understand that everyone will have their opinions - and people who love certain aspects of my personality or R Plus Seven will love "Toys 2" the most, and if you love Garden Of Delete you’ll love "We'll Take It" the most. That’s fine. But for me, 'Babylon' is a complete song," says Lopatin.
"I had a very dear friend of mine in high school, a really talented baseball player that got injured, and he was in a lot of pain a lot of the time and started playing guitar and he was misdiagnosed for a bunch of stuff, overmedicated for a bunch of stuff, in pain, but writing songs without any prior training of having ever picked up an instrument. I learnt so much about music from him and from our friendship. He was the person that played me Darkness On The Edge Of Town as a kid, sat me down and said 'listen to this man, listen to him explaining about the way he sees things,' and for my entire adult life I’ve never forgotten these nights that we spent driving around in his automobile listening to records and talking about music.
"'Babylon' was me writing a song in the style of my friend, and for me its very personal and the lyrics are important to me and I don't think of it as something that needs to live up to some expectations of music, it’s just what I needed to do! Sure, I understand the recalcitrance of listening to a cybernetic country song. It’s not for everyone! But I'm not trying to solve the puzzle of satisfying everyone’s ideas of who I am."
Springsteen is perhaps a surprising reference, considering the creeping dystopian imagery of 0PN's music or the more challenging nature of his musical palette, but Lopatin seems keen to reset some of the obvious abbreviations of his artistry.
"A lot of it is narratives that are strengthening the Wikipedia arc of your career, things that are talked about over and over and mirrored in other articles or reviews or summaries of a career. Y'know, for 0PN, it's always 'Dad's jazz fusion tapes plus Metroid equals 0PN. I mean that's one timeline, but then there's also '16-year-old meets best friend Dan who listens to Being There and Darkness On The Edge Of Town and Don’t Tell A Soul'. When you love music you kind of want to do everything; you want make a western, you want to make a sci-fi. Whether it works out or not, when you’re excited by music in general and not genre or lifestyle you don’t really feel like you have a choice. It’s not this pre-programmed thing; that part is not the magic trick."
His recent show, MYRIAD, at the Barbican in London, began life as a performance piece at the Park Armory in New York City over a period of two days. During this time, audiences witnessed a multi-dimensional concert complete with carefully planned lighting, 3D-generated images projected onto large trapezoid and rectangular screens, and the music of Age Of lengthened into his four 'epochs' - he calls this entire experience a "concertscape".
"It feels good to make a multi-disciplinary show because as a fan of music I would hate to go to concerts all the time and feel like there's something that needs to be addressed," he says. "I tried to imagine myself in the audience of these things and ask myself, 'what would genuinely get you excited to go out and see live music?' When you work in music there’s a natural process of disenchantment. But I also feel like with my friends who aren't in the music industry, they feel like concerts feel similar - they're seeing the same things over and over. Really bad lights, zero thought put into colour..."
I suggest that perhaps the focus on extraneous detail is quite uncommon on the gigging circuit, to which Lopatin nods vehemently.
"What we want is to create a kind of uniform plane of meaning when your eyes move from the video to the lights or vice versa. We want the colours to be really fused so you're ensconced in this kind of living thing which is big. And the way to make it big is to be very thoughtful about what's on screen and what the lighting is like at that particular moment. You have to address everything on almost a minute-to-minute basis."
"I needed to conduct and I needed to quietly conform, and unify my thoughts through these 'sentinels'..."
One of the more enigmatic features of MYRIAD is the two mystical, xenomorph-like sculptures, strung up in each top corner of the stage and slowly rotating, revealing something straddling the prehistoric and the alien.
"Originally we wanted to make four of them, one to represent each 'epoch', but we were working in this mode where we're working with this idea of 360-degree rotations of a camera around an object in a CG environment, so we were like 'wait a second, let's just make these weird, two-faced, two-sided sculptures that will gyroscopically enhance by rotating them'. And there's two epochs per sculpture. It's much more interesting to imagine why two of these will be paired. So the first one would come down at the beginning of the show, and then be gestating until the end, to represent epochs one and four, which is very satisfying from a formal perspective. And then the other one would contain the sort of the real meat of the show, meaning epochs two and three where all of this crazy stuff happens. That was the logic there. And the xenomorph thing - it's interesting you say that!"
"The forms that contain multitudes was what we’re interested in - the show’s called MYRIAD so its already there - these things contain objects within objects that are references to the epochs. So the Ecco one has this rabbit, this tortoise with big ears which is kind of cascading. This is a reference to a video we made for Replica years ago where we had a this depressed rabbit that smoked cigarettes from a Russian cartoon; it was kind of like an id. I always think of cartoon characters as 'you either related to them or not' and I'm always excited by cartoon characters that confuse me, like 'who’s relating to this alcoholic Bugs Bunny other than alcoholics?! There are kids watching them!' [In MYRIAD] there's also a rabbit and harp attached to it, and this strange intestinal sac which is kind of a reference to this idea of things being 'contained', which is the definition of an epoch - a container or a clear division of ideas. We really wanted to capture the varying movements of objects, tied together, forced to be sympathetic with one another."
Experiencing MYRIAD at the Barbican, you couldn't help but find yourself dissecting the haunting computer-generated images throughout the show. Something that looked liked a skinned dog with its tongue hanging out of its head; an orc-like creature’s head encased in wooden splints and chains.
"Everyone has a friend or might be the kind of person that has stuff they collect - things that sit around gathering dust, then someone comes over and goes, 'look at this thing from 1956 that I love!' I don’t do that in real life, but I love that as a sort of pathological condition within a show. I'm inviting you into my head and there's various things I could etymologically spell out but it doesn't really matter. So it's kind of like the whole thing is 'look at these things I've encountered, I've dreamt or are on my mind, and lets see if they communicate a story or something true to an audience of people that might not have all of the background information'."
"The origins of music had nothing to do with any kind of tonal system. Before all of that it must have been a kind of visual cinema."
The kinetic, tangible quality of Age Of’s palette is something has been drawing fans in from the first listen - Lopatin made the decision to capitalise on this with MYRIAD, by developing it into a full live performance with musicians Eli Keszler, Kelly Moran, and Aaron David Ross. Lopatin appears to get a lot of joy out of being able to perform alongside his peers as opposed to being lone onstage - the standard setup of many electronic music performances.
"It's intoxicating for me because I have this music, and then I have these world-class musicians that will interpret it in the way they will. All I had to do is slightly recalibrate things or say less. The first time we got together to work on live arrangements, we all sat around my computer and listened to the multitracks of each song and each member of the band would call out the parts they want, and then we'd really have to search around to work out some really bizarre random sound, thinking 'where is that?!'
"I would say that the songs on Age Of, are made from anywhere between 40 to 150 tracks. They aren’t dense tracks but there are tiny bits that are treated very separately, so we were grouping those things and thinking 'oh Eli is really attracted to these sounds', and we'll think about the performance in a certain way. Once everyone called everything out, the dregs that no one wanted to touch got thrown onto backing tracks - there was very little of that left though, maybe little bits and pieces that we didn’t need because of the awesome density of everybody's playing. After that it's just a matter of conducting, and the rehearsals were amazing. Everyone went off, learnt the material, brought their respective parts to the group and then talk about it.
"I would systematically walk between the three stations and have conversations quietly with each person. I didn't feel like each of them needed to hear the other's conversation, I needed to conduct and I needed to quietly conform, unify my thoughts through these 'sentinels', who are so insanely good that I basically had to write a haiku for each song and then it was done. It was effortless. After that it was about making it sound as tight and punchy as possible. At some point I extricated myself from the group, listening to them as a trio and hallucinating it as a Universal Studios ride, no 'we need to push here' or whatever."
It sounds as if this mode of performing could hint at things to come for both Lopatin’s approach and music under the Oneohtrix Point Never banner.
"I really think we've found something - I remember after the first Armory show sitting down with Aaron David Ross, and he said, 'now we know we can literally do anything, what shall we do?' And we joked about how we're like a cybernetic bar band! A bar band will play whatever is required of them to create the right mood. So we were laughing about how funny it would be to do a 'Surf's Up' cover, or let’s write a really weird French coldwave song, and let me get on some of that vocoder stuff I was doing on Garden Of Delete, or holy shit we can do an unplugged, medieval version of [Pink Floyd’s] Animals! So we're all really excited about that."
"I got excited about producers who weren’t on the fringes, reassessing Timabland's work and all kinds of pockets of music that were functional music: dance music, pop music."
Throughout this work on what he goes between calling a "concertscape" and a "hallucinatory lecture", Lopatin had a eureka moment about the origins of music, which serves as a glimpse into his kaleidoscopic show as well as his artistic thought process.
"I had this complete epiphany while we were developing the show in New York, and it had to do with my realisation that the origins of music had nothing to do with any kind of tonal system. Before all of that it must have been a kind of visual cinema, the experience of seeing the suffering of a creature or another human. The sound of suffering was an image, without the image of being in pain, that melisma, that minor turn wouldn't make any sense. So the origin of music is cinematic in nature. It's about returning music back to its origins as an image. The image of music.
"I think that MYRIAD is successful," he continues, "because that's the tenet we stick to no matter how crazy things get. We're always saying, 'we can explain any sound in a dramatic or melodramatic way,' and that isn’t some kind of weird, Hollywood manipulation of effect - it's an opportunity to just excite, the music itself is already latent in it, it already contains images, now I just have to go back and take a pathological index and see what those images were. It's a complete embrace of cinema, and I don't mean that literally, of course."
At this point in his career, Lopatin is in what could be considered his most ‘commercially’ successful period, writing the Good Time score for the Safdie Brothers, and working with David Byrne, Anohni, and James Blake - but on the flipside, one of the collaborators of Age Of is Dominick Fernow, aka noise legend Prurient. Although prolific, his avant-garde output has never placed him among the higher echelons of the charts.
"Something happened in the 2010s which I thought was really interesting, which is that some of the most sonically interesting records started popping up in the pop charts," Lopatin begins.
"All of my friends that were kind of 'zealots of the avant-garde' had this bizarre devotion to being as incompatible, inaccessible, unfriendly and unwelcoming to other people as a tenet of their music. They were making the most boring shit, just shit. I realised at some point that the reason was something pathological. It wasn’t about music or style, it was about a sort of openness or closed-ness to the world, and I got excited about producers who weren’t on the fringes, reassessing Timabland's work and all kinds of pockets of music that were functional music: dance music, pop music. I just stopped listening to experimental music. It would come around here and there but it became totally frivolous to me to imagine making it and... it was just really boring. I started wanting to be even more clear on what it was I was doing, so I could make something that was enjoyable to someone like me, and not enjoyable to someone who decided that the world is something to avoid.”
There is a noticeable ‘vibe’ with that last sentence. Given conversations on elitism in the electronic music scene, I'm keen to ask Daniel what his perspective is on being the kind of artist who might engender 'gatekeeping' in fans.
"I just wonder what they’re really after, more than just music? I just wonder about this lack in their life that they want to keep something so private and actually hide it from other people, making something theirs and not someone else's. I wonder about why someone would feel the need to be that way. And I was embarrassed feeling like I was enabling that sort of behaviour, that I was part of a network of people that thought that way, y'know?
"Look, it's a spectrum, so it's probably good to avoid these sort of wholesale things, like saying 'the avant-garde is super-reductivist, pathologically fucked up and not friendly'. There’s plenty of people who are not, like Prurient for example, and in a way that was kind of a statement for us to get together and work together on Age Of. He is aligned with me on this, we do see things this way.
"It's very bizarre, there's a lot of really fucking bad pop music, so it’s not this hippy shit like, 'oh hey we’re into everything', but let's just not be closed off. To me it's incredible when I speak to friends who are topline writers and songwriters that get absolutely no shine, but they create the mechanics and plumbing of the things people love - I am just in awe of their talent, and the things they are able to do to construct so eloquently something that pulls you in without you even wanting to be pulled in... I mean that is a complete and utter magic to me. An insane magic trick."