Strictly Commercial: Oneohtrix Point Never on the Found Sound of ‘Replica’
Daniel Lopatin chats about his passions: synths and Cocoa Krispies ads
This week, Oneohtrix Point Never mastermind Daniel Lopatin will release Replica, his finest full-length under that particular guise. It’s a dense, dystopian, sometimes disorienting fantasia of loops and dronescapes the synth purist crafted after sifting through hours of old television commercials for sound. Listen to the full record while reading SPIN’s recent chat with Lopatin about Cocoa Krispies and amazing synths:
I’ve always been curious as to why, if at all, you’ve sort of gravitated toward and worked with the equipment you have so intensely.
I have a Roland Juno 60 and I have an Akai AX-60. The Juno is something I’ve had for a really long time. It’s the first thing I learned how to create sound with, and I know it really well. The comfort with it is just ridiculous. I just know every feature of it so well, I can kind of do whatever I want with it. It’s a limited instrument, you can’t do that much. But I feel like its my Lucille, you know? It’s like when you have something you know so well, you have an intimate knowledge or an intimate relationship with it, so you don’t need it to be super powerful. But it is kind of powerful in other ways. It’s really rich, and it latches really nicely.
Well I’m really interested in the way an ear can learn to discern different synth sounds just like it would from say, a guitar. It’s harder to pick up those nuances.
Definitely. There are qualities to the oscillators or the filters that make them sound unique. Like, an Oberheim filter will not sound like a Moog filter, which will not sound like a Roland filter, even though they can all be analog filters from the same era, the late ’80s. But they each have their own unique circuitry. The science and engineering that makes it sound unique is beyond me. It’s kind of like cars, I guess. I remember when I was a kid my dad used to take me around to look at cars. This was 1992 and he was buying a Toyota Camry. At the time he didn’t know what he was going to buy. Because he’d be making a big purchase he’d look at every car that would pass by. It became like a game, because I was ten, and I developed this weird knowledge bank of recognizing cars by the shape. Like the hatch on the back, or the model style. So it’s the same thing with synths. You just kind of use your ear. Like the Juno chorus is really infamous. It’s really crystal-y and intense. The high is kind of light, kind of bright, and it’s really recognizable. And the lows on the Juno 60 are really measurable. Like the squarewave sound I use on the Juno 60 that you hear on that track “Replica,” this album’s title track, kind of sounds like electrical buzzing. The low-end, the squarewave sound, has this sort of non-musical sound to it, like the hum of an electrical current. It’s a matter of just listening a lot. Like guitars or keyboards or cars or refrigerator models.
But when you sit down to write, because this music can seem so free-form at times, do you already have very precise textures and sounds in mind?
I often don’t know and don’t want to know how I want a song to sound. A lot of what happened with this record was people were like, “Oh, you took sounds from YouTubes,” or whatever. And I was like, “No, I didn’t take sounds from YouTube, because I didn’t want to input into a search query what I wanted to hear.” So when I got all these commercials, I just ripped the audio. I didn’t watch them. I would just listen. And when things would strike me as being harmonically intense at that moment I’d sample it, and cut it up, and throw it in a folder on my desktop. A lot of the time I’ll have a bunch of different music players open, like Winamp and iTunes and my audio editor open just so I can hear three things in tandem without having to open up Pro Tools and start a song and doing all this shit. There’s this whole routine you have to go through to work in these super intense environments like Pro Tools that kill any sort of sketching process for me. Just raw listening and sketching. Before I even get to that point, I’m just listening to sounds in tandem and seeing what sounds good together, kind of taxonomizing sounds and putting them in different folders. In that stage it doesn’t rely on rhythm that much. I like to sketch and I like to listen to sounds and I like to find relationships between sounds I like. A lot of it is not centered around writing a song, but kind of grouping ideas. I just like to find relationships, I guess.
Spending so much time with the record, you can hear the interaction between every element.
Once I can boil things down to like 10 to 16 sounds or samples or loops that I really like that need to be fleshed out, then a song begins to emerge. I really wanted the record to be an electronic song cycle. There’s no singing but I wanted it to feel like vignettes that are recognizable and hummable, instead of just letting things glide ambiently. A lot of my older work is layered improvisations, but it was expansive. I was talking to a friend of mine at a show last night. He was like, “Yeah, I didn’t like your set. You changed things too quickly and there’s no sense of expansiveness.” And he remembered my music being expansive and drawn out, and that being gone. So I was like, “Oh, cool.” That’s actually a compliment for me, because I’ve been trying to tweak those things so there’s like a miniature thing going on. I want to get as many good ideas and as much vibe into a shorter blast of time. Like audio snacks.
Why rein it in?
It’s a different listening experience. To me, when I sit down and listen to music on YouTube or my headphones or Winamp or whatever, I want to hear songs that are like smack, smack. I won’t sit down and listen to a Global Communications record for 45 minutes to an hour or a Red Hot Chili Peppers record for an hour. But at a show that’s kind of what I want to feel. I want to make a record with those snacks, but one that has the potency. Not necessarily a pop format, but music that sort of teases out those things. Keeping it short is definitely a way to do it.
Was that one of the reasons why you use TV commercials? Because they’re short?
Yeah, totally. I had hours and hours and hours of these commercials. If I used something longer in format like movies, or whatever, you’d just be sitting there, waiting for things to happen for so long. But I’m like really rushy and maybe slightly ADD, so 30-second clips were perfect. I don’t mind going through hours and hours of things, but I needed something that generated tons of variety, and quickly, or else I’d get totally bored. You can just sit there and take it all in, and then there’s another right around the corner.
Did you sort of naturally home in on clips from the ’80s?
Yeah, they’re mostly from the ’80s and ’90s. I got them from this website called Videomercials. It’s this website where people compile commercials for people who want to watch them. I have no idea why they would. But it’s nostalgia. They’re totally mom-and-pop-style shop. He’ll just make you these DVDs, he has different eras and different genres. If you listen to advertisements from the ’50s or ’60s or ’70s there’s not a lot of variety in sound; they’re not as bombastic. There’s just a lot of boring string music and shitty horns. Crappy cheese-doodle music, kids blowing their whistle and shit. And I don’t want that. But it’s not like, “Yeah, I’m trying to do the ’80s thing.” It’s just that during that decade and on into the mid-’90s there were such colorful and interesting sounds, such a variety of sounds coming from the technology at that time. They were pretty inventive with sound in that era. For me it’s like an amazing pool of sound data that I can pull from. I could’ve done something with stuff that’s older, but the sounds don’t really appeal to me. The attitudes don’t appeal to me.
Was there anything a child of the ’80s and ’90s would immediately recognize?
No. I tried to avoid that. I have this whole other folder of stuff that’s stuff I looped just because it sounded amazing, but would’ve been so sketchy to sample. All the cereal commercials: there were amazing cereal jingles, like Cocoa Puffs. Something like, “I’m a monkey and swinging from vine to vine,” I don’t remember what that was.
Yeah, the Honey Combs song! And then like, Ultimate Warrior smashing through the wall and shit. There was tons of Slim Jim stuff. But it wasn’t even jingles. Just the vibe of Ultimate Warrior smashing through the wall. If you just sample the hook of whatever he’s saying, that’s nostalgic. But if you listen to the surrounding weird shit that’s going on between phrases, between narration, between music, then you catch things in stranger, interesting ways. Anything is possible at that point. I wasn’t interested in doing anything political like Matthew Herbert sampling Starbucks, or doing anything nostalgic.
How do you feel about chillwave?
There’s some chillwave I really like. But this whole mopey thing of like, “the past was better and that’s why I’m sad and singing this reverb-laden song and I miss the Polaroids”… it’s just whiny. It’s fair enough to question whether I’m doing things that are nostalgic for the ’80s, because it’s there. But it’s not so much nostalgic as it is a looking at that time as a Renaissance period for sound to me, like the beginning of so many interesting things happening sonically. And I was fascinated with synthesizers. The attitude and the texture and the grain of stuff in that era is what I’m for.
What do you think it is about chillwave that seems to be so inflammatory or polarizing, though?
People forget or are not used to the fact that journalists name things and give names to things. It’s so cool to talk about shoegaze now like it’s a totally acceptable phrase for what it is. I’m sure at the time people were pissed it was being called shoegaze, or whatever, and maybe bands were like “Fuck off,” the way Neon Indian will be like, “Fuck off,” 50 years from now. But it’s perfectly acceptable terminology. It’s a way to describe a vibe. It doesn’t answer any question, it doesn’t solve any riddle but I don’t know why it’s so polarizing. The easiest thing to do is to make fun of something. If you like something too much or you don’t like it at all or you don’t understand it you just make fun of it. I guess it’s unfortunate but also to be expected. People seem to evaluate whole careers on the current moment. Like, during an album cycle, a new album will drop and if you’re a part of the music industry you know that’s part of the cycle, but people see that and think “This is the make-or-break moment for Chillwave Band No. 3.” Everything is intensely scrutinized and compared, and the book is written within two weeks of it leaking. There’s no sense of the expansiveness of time for a lot of people these days. They just live or die by that moment.
I have this fear that, as a result, nothing lasts.
Yeah. That’s totally a fear of mine, too. I guess it’s just that people need to figure out, like, “I’m going to be okay living my life and letting things unfold,” as they should, instead of like aggrandizing the moment. I feel like my new record is like a clean slate for me, and I feel fresh and that I’m starting over. I think it has more of a direct, 1:1 corollary to my personality and what I want to do artistically. The stuff prior to it feels kind of one-dimensional. I feel like I’m still working it out. While I don’t think this record is perfect or anything, I think it’s me finally doing what I want to be doing.
There’s something about this that’s definitely more direct, though just as enveloping.
It’s stripped-down a lot, but I feel it still has a lot of what I do in it.
That focus on the relationships between varying pieces
Yeah, I’ll cut up a couple things and there’ll be some verbal content, a phrase or something, or some sort of gesture guttural thing, like a sigh or a stutter – something human, something that’s identifiable as a human gesture. A word, or a sound. Then I just like to let these clips loop and phase, doing multiple things like playing at different speeds, then I just let relationships come out. Like, where does this sigh from this one sample meet up with this random “dwink” sound over here? Then you start listening and it’s so evocative. It’s no longer just about each respective phrase, but you’ve created this chain of events that can be iconic or tragic or poetic, and it sounds harmonically intense together. Or you create this weird syncopation that comes out of chants. I’m constantly fishing for those moments of clarity that, assembled in some weird way, come together to say something. That’s why I included the lyrics, or whatever, because I wanted there to be something digestible for people, to hear what I’m hearing when I’m listening. People can listen in so many ways.
When you’re talking about all these different pieces, are you working mostly with sonics in mind, or is there also a way for you to work conceptually sometimes by pairing things together that might not mesh aurally, but in some metaphorical manner instead?
Yeah, exactly. Both things happen, but I’ll listen to whatever is being said, the phrases in a commercial. But I’m not seeing it happen. I’m not four steps ahead, chess-style. I’m not going into it being like, “OK, this is going to be a track about child soldiers in Libya versus spoiled rich kids playing Halo in the suburbs.” That just happens. I get a bunch or sounds together, and relationships start happening and metaphors start coming to mind. But I don’t go in thinking, “There has to be a track on this album about child soldiers.” It’s just a really pleasant surprise that naturally occurs in grouping things together. That said, I wanted to keep certain sounds together. I wanted to put these weird zapping video game sounds in a folder with these children being annoying, or whatever. There’s that, but I didn’t think I was going to be able to make a rhythm out of them.
Did you ever organize yourself into a corner that way?
Totally, it can become superfluous or dumb or super forced sometimes. I’ll take this cheesy shit that sounds like bad drum ‘n bass crap as a sample. Other times I’ll be like “I don’t want to use this one format or this one approach, I just want to sit down and express something without this symbiotic thing going on.” So the title track doesn’t have any samples in it and the final track doesn’t have any samples in it, but I still feel like they’re evocative of things I think about metaphorically. It can get really arduous, or arbitrary at some point. Like, I have these thoughts, or whatever, but that doesn’t mean I have to use it.
Were there times where you ever felt overwhelmed by the source material?
Yeah, totally. There was like a weekend where it was just preparation. I had the studio to myself and I didn’t have songs at all and we were about to start recording and I didn’t have shit. I was like “Fuck, I have three days to figure out what this record is about.” And I just sat there with these ripped DVDs and listened and grouped shit. And even after that process I still had like 20 different folders of stuff that were like songs. I was like, “Fuck, really? Is this really the record I’m making? It could be really shitty.” And most of it was, actually. It got whittled down pretty significantly. Some of the stuff that got thrown out sounded like the Field, or something. Which is cool, because I really like the Field, but I didn’t want to cop that vibe and make a Field record. But I always get really freaked out during the process and it’s weird, man: I just blazed through it. I didn’t watch any of those commercials because I wanted to divorce myself completely from that.
How much did you know about the musicians and composers that were putting together these jingles, though?
I don’t know anything about them, honestly. I’d love to, I just haven’t had the time to sink my teeth into what I did. I know people who are currently working at music houses. I hung out with a friend of mine last night who does jingles and writes video game music. And she invited me over to her studio to show me what they do, and she was like “I literally have 900 gigabytes of different animals sounds!” It’s such an interesting way to approach sound design or music, where everything has very specific intent, you know. I’m fascinated with it. I guess my role is to be a cosmic joker to that process.
Oh, I realized that I fucked up: I think the monkey is actually from Cocoa Krispies. Honey Comb had a bear. Honey Smacks had that frog.
Oh, the Smacks frog was fucked up! It was like racialized, l like this inner-city black frog guy. It wasn’t like explicit, but they racialized that. I remember watching that as a kid and thinking, “this is the robber from the bad part of the city.” He’d break into their apartments and steal their materials and shit.
I remember that so clearly now. These are things we have stored away in our brains.
It’s spooky. It’s really spooky.