Welcome to the Machine: A Conversation with Oneohtrix Point Never
Experimental electronic music maven Daniel Lopatin discusses OPN's new 'R Plus Seven'
The facts are simple — Daniel Lopatin was raised in Boston suburbs and began recording as Oneohtrix Point Never after moving to Brooklyn in 2008 — but the music is not. OPN has always sounded like it came from a place far beyond this earthly coil. From his project’s very beginnings, jamming with little more than a synthesizer and a loop pedal, Lopatin honed a unique ability to imbue recordings with a sense of the otherworldly. As time has passed, and his methodology has moved from free-form exploration toward more careful composition, his knack for gorgeously uncanny soundscaping has only become more pronounced. 2011’s twitchy sample patchwork Replica proved to be the record that moved him, at least a little, outside the experimental music pigeonhole. The effort certainly caught the ear of Sofia Coppola, who hired Lopatin to help score June’s The Bling Ring. That trajectory should continue apace with the enigmatically emotional R Plus Seven, due out October 1 on Warp.
The 31-year-old Lopatin called SPIN from his Brooklyn apartment to chat about the upcoming album.
R Plus Seven seems to have taken a bit longer than past records. How long have you been at work on this one?
I made Replica in a couple of weeks after settling in on the general idea. This one was more like a jigsaw puzzle. I started over a year-and-a-half ago. It came together in pieces and then there were three really focused months over the winter leading up to a trip to Iceland where I finished it. It took quite a long time.
I made the whole thing in my apartment in a pretty confined studio space between the area where my kitchen is and my bed. At some point we got super-biased and decided that we had to move somewhere else. [OPN collaborator] Paul [Corley] records for [Icelandic indie label] Bedroom Community and was their lead engineer for a long time. He said, “Yo, you should talk to [Bedroom Community founder] Valgeir [Sigurðsson]. I think he’d really like this album and it’d be a really cool place to mix and get out of your apartment.” So we went there in the dead of winter and finished it off.
So you moved because you didn’t want to keep recording in a familiar environment?
I hate sequels. It’s just weird. I think I’d rather look back on records and say, “I didn’t get stuck spinning my wheels.” I felt like I could be really internal and private in the way that I used to make records, which I was leaning toward, but at the same time I had this incredible luxury of having Paul come over everyday and help me. It was the best of both worlds. It felt like I was doing something new and challenging. It forced me to think in a different way.
What was the process of making the record like?
I wanted to start from melodies, working at the keyboard first, and then I developed ideas for the structure around that. With something like Replica, the structure made itself clear and developed through this latticework of samples that I’d try to follow. This way is more like the classic songwriting approach, like “What is my brain telling me today?” Everything started from the most basic functional musical wallpaper. A lot of the time I was having these small fits of anxiety thinking, “Oh fuck, this sounds like Dreamcast music!” There were things I used to get away from that, more procedural processes. They weren’t particularly complex, but there were a lot of steps. I found myself inspired by the second person voice of text-based adventure games and interactive fiction. There’s a lot of stuff like “You walk into a cave,” or “get this object.” You’re trying to figure out this puzzle by semantically inducing forward movement. I really wanted to make this fantasy computer-music record.
Is it fair to say that despite the material moving more towards traditional songwriting, your process is still pretty abstract?
It’s not really how a musician works, it’s more like how an archivist works. I enjoy that personally, but it’s strangely obtuse when it comes to writing songs. I had to just write melodies. I wasn’t following found material to suggest melodies to me, so in that way it’s very traditional. It’s so awkward, I had to wait to be inspired. It was such a cheesy process.
When Replica came out you expressed some frustration with what had preceded it, and Replica was a reaction against that earlier material. Do you feel like this new album is a similar kind of reaction?
Not really with my own work, but there is a certain antagonism to the electronic music du jour. I’d been on tour a lot in Europe and the main electronic music in Europe at the time that I was doing Replica was this sort of smoke-and-mirrors reverb heavy stuff. It was based on what Burial had already done years ago, and I was hearing it every night, over and over. I wanted to make a really colorful and bright and naked record that was still emotionally complex. A turning point for me was hearing Lindstrøm’s last record. I thought it was one of the best records I’d heard in a while. It has this proggy aspect to it, but it was just Lindstrøm going at it in his studio. It was so free and so untethered even though you can clearly hear all of the things he loved in it. There’s an extremely rich history of electronic music weaved in, and there’s such a joy. I wanted to do something like that.
So R Plus Seven is more of a reflection of you?
I think so. I wanted to feel free to think around things in a horizontal way. Say you’re in this room and it has this wallpaper and furniture and then you turn away and turn back five seconds later and it’s the same room, but it has different things in it. That’s a more honest way of portraying how my brain works. I had to figure out a way to characterize the way I actually think about music and the way that I feel it and hear it in my head.
That room metaphor is a pretty extended one. Do you find it helpful to think about your music visually like that?
Yeah, it’s a really interesting exercise for me. It helps me organize my ideas. Everyone has an imaginative way of dealing with music when they’re making it, but scoring a film where you’re thinking about movement and behavior and visual rhythms all yielded new things about music that I hadn’t considered. Before it was a little vague. This record is a little more clear in a way. Things exist. They’re decisions, rather than chance interactions.
When you’re juggling these ideas about your songs, do you ever have to stop and ensure that what you’re working on sounds like Oneohtrix Point Never?
I have a really simple test: If I’m not addicted on some level to the music I’m making or if it’s not giving me chills, why would I force it on other people? There was a huge phase of this record where I thought I was just making generic music. I really had to listen to myself and say “This, I love.” If I rush, or if I do something for the fuck of it, I feel like I’ve let other people down. I’m not about punishing people with obligatory music.