Bradford Cox’s Lonely Planet
Atlas Sound's 'Parallax' boldly goes into the deepest reaches of its leader's heart, but he still feels like a space oddity
Last week, Deerhunter frontman Bradford Cox shared Parallax, the Atlanta psych-smith’s third full-length as Atlas Sound. While the disc is more polished and confident than anything he’s released on his own to date, it remains a work of confounding, paradoxical beauty — and Cox remains a tortured soul who tells us this is “the loneliest record I’ve ever made.” Cox opened up about the status of his blog and the state of his heart when SPIN rang him at home in Georgia:
Parallax feels very different from what you’ve done on your own.
I mean if I could go back, I would change a lot of things. I can’t listen to Logos. I can’t listen to any of my records, frankly. The only recorded thing I can listen to by any of my projects is “Desire Lines.” And I got overruled on the production of that song. I get told to fuck off and I played my guitar part the way [Deerhunter guitarist Lockett Pundt] told me to play. During the whole process I kept thinking, “This is going to sound like a ’90s rock song, like heavy rock.” And when the whole thing was done I was like, “This sounds perfect.” And in retrospect, it’s the only song that I can consistently listen to by any project. I don’t even have a copy of that first Atlas Sound record.
I was listening to Parallax again this morning and during the last 10 to 20 seconds of “Terra Incognita,” something strange occurred to me.
I think I’m going to like this.
That’s not meant to scare you.
No, I’m not scared, I’m actually erect.
I realized during those few seconds that I hadn’t been hearing what you were really trying to express.
And is that not possible to communicate within the context of Deerhunter?
Deerhunter is my family and my brothers. There’s a lot of push and pull and it’s everything an American rock group should be, you know? I don’t see why I get all this attention. Moses [Archuleta, Deerhunter drummer] is the fucking root. Lockett and Moses together are the fucking driving force behind the group. Lockett and I are like two different kinds of wind blowing around this giant tree, swaying around it, but it’s always rooted. Are you saying you understand the loneliness more in Atlas Sound? Does it sound lonelier?
It does. This morning I was wondering, “What is it that he’s trying to do?”
Well, that’s something that everyone needs to ask themselves. What is it that we all want to accomplish? We’re all trying to find love.
How lovable do you think Atlas Sound songs are?
I don’t feel like I’m a very lovable person and obviously I’m the face of my songs so, I don’t know. I wouldn’t love me. Maybe I wouldn’t know what to make of me. I understand my taste and why I’m lonely. I wouldn’t know what to make of me if I wasn’t me, though.
Well, was that what you set out to do? When did you realize that this was a feeling that binds Atlas Sound songs together?
I guess in a way it’s me trying to comfort myself. Atlas Sound has been around a lot longer than Deerhunter. I mean, fuck it man, we can stop calling it Atlas Sound and call it Bradford. You know, me, whatever, my name. I gave it a name because when I was young, in high school, I was really into Swell Maps and I wanted a name, you know? I’ve been making music by myself for I don’t know how long, trying to reach some serotonin rush in finding the magic combination of chords and things. And yeah, psychologically, it’s just thumb-sucking. I’m trying to create and fill a void. Fill an empty, unsatisfied area of my life.
But has it evolved over the years, from thumb-suck to conduit to something else?
Well, people listen to it now, you know? It’s released, it’s public. It’s in a public domain whereas in the past it was a personal blankie. Cassettes, boxes of them. Making stuff in the garage and shit like when you’re a kid. Now it’s a fucking career. I get flown all over the place to do this shit and I’m very grateful for it, but am I anymore satisfied? Yes, I’m always satisfied with music and the way music makes me feel. Am I more satisfied as a human being with needs for emotional contact with humans and intimacy, that kind of shit? No. I’m fucked up, you know? If anything, I’ve been turned into an alien: I don’t have a home. I mean I’ve lived in the same room since I was 19. it’s just where I come and crash land after being on tour for three years or something. I don’t know anybody. I know my bandmates. They’re my brothers. I know my family. I love them.
Those 10-20 seconds of “Terra Incognita” felt like a deep, deep void.
Everybody says things like “It’s so gorgeous.” Or “Hey, I don’t really like that song that much.” I mean it’s like, yeah, it could be nonsense or it could be the sound of complete and total emptiness, which is shocking.
It conjures that feeling like you don’t know where something begins and ends.
Well, that’s quite ironic since the line before it is, “I want to be able to see the beginning and end.” I’m walking to the top of this Indian mound which exists about 45 miles from my room — the Etowah Indian mound built by the Etowah River — and I climbed to the top of it. I wanted to gain perspective, like when you try to get to a point where you get a higher view of something. Your goal is to be able to see where something begins and ends. We need there to be a beginning and end to feel comfortable, you know? That’s what’s really dark when you get your own insignificance. I mean to a certain extent that’s what we’re talking about: insignificance. Too bad you’re not writing a college thesis. A college professor would really get off on this.
When I made that 15 seconds of music, I was lost in it. And the vocal harmony that came in, the very high-pitched vocal, that was honestly an animal. I don’t even know how to describe it. It sounds silly, like a coyote or something. It was very primitive. That wasn’t part of the demo, that was improvised. Everything was fucking improvised. When I made that afterwards, I had to walk around for a while. I told Lockett when I made that song, “That was the most important thing I’ve ever written.” Because I got lost in it and it was sort of a labyrinth and this doesn’t always happen. One day it can mean something and the next it can mean something very different. The original image in my mind was the Trail of Tears. People can rip it apart, they can say it’s the most pretentious, egotistical crap they’ve ever heard. But it’s about being alone on top of a mountain and having a perspective: the view of everything, the relationship, of the things that formed you and destroyed you. The beginning and end and realizing that your perspective isn’t limited because it goes beyond what you can see. And then ultimately it makes you realize you are completely insignificant. The song makes me feel insignificant.
How did you recover from making this record?
After I made this record I had to go on tour with Deerhunter and I didn’t necessarily want to and it wasn’t because of Deerhunter, it was exhaustion. This record was very exhausting to make, even though it was comfortable and detached. It is the loneliest record that I’ve ever made. To get out of this headspace and go to Deerhunter, this communal thing, it was really a mindfuck and I definitely had a nervous breakdown in a hotel in London. And when I say nervous breakdown I don’t mean like, “rock star drug binge.” I literally must have been dehydrated and exhausted because I just started sobbing and I collapsed and these people tried to help me and I just started screaming at them. I just started screaming, “I’m so tired!” And I had a fever. I must have had some virus, I don’t know, I was babbling and had a weak immune system. I felt like that was it, like maybe one of the lowest lows that I could ever feel. And then I came home after that and I got dropped: The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Man Who Fell Into His Fucking Bedroom, you know, with nobody to relate to about it. My parents are happy for me. They don’t want to hear that I’m depressed. They want to hear that I’m happy, they want to hear that I’m okay. I came home and I was really vulnerable and I thought I met someone that I thought I was connected to and it’s a bizarre thing. It didn’t work out necessarily.
And that doesn’t happen often?
Not even through music?
Well, what do you mean specifically?
Well, I suppose music can sometimes act as a pretty strong intermediary.
Yeah, but someone can be attracted to your music but that doesn’t mean they love you.
Yeah. But I don’t mean the music you make.
Totally, but you know, I’m old enough now to realize that the beauty of adolescence is that there’s this endless road of possibility that’s definitely romanticized by those moments in music. Then, when you get older, you know your needs can’t be satisfied by a Swell Maps song. Though it would be so nice if they could because music is the best boyfriend, girlfriend, whatever-you-want-to-call-it that I’ve ever had. I’m just saying it’s the only thing that’s ever loved me unconditionally. Well, besides my parents and family, it’s the only thing that loves you unconditionally.
I feel like your initial response, though, is one that can only come from someone who’s received a certain amount of attention and adulation from an audience. Yours has grown a lot recently and what you said reminds me a little bit of a video clip that I saw of you in a van a couple of years ago: You were recalling a conversation with your mother and trying to sort of explain to her how famous you’ve become, that you were like Barbra Streisand to the Pitchfork generation.
That was me being sarcastic. I thought I was being funny, kind of mocking the interview. I was being, for lack of a better word, a dick.
But I thought that was kind of accurate in a few ways. You have become something of a rock star over the past few years.
That’s pretty recent. I have very little context because I don’t live in New York. I come home to a place where I feel like a nobody. I don’t receive adulation at the grocery. Well, it’s hard to contextualize that. What I will say is this: the adulation and the money, the sold-out shows and all that stuff does not keep you warm at night. I would trade it all for something really simple. Squalor has become something that interests me lately; broken-out windows and cigarette butts on the floor. Because it’s what I used to know so well. I don’t know what it means that I romanticize the time before all this stuff happened. I never expected any adulation from anyone. Ever. I never sent out a demo, I never asked for anybody’s adulation. I always made music and I always expected it to be like any other obscure thing. I don’t know that I ever, anticipated these things. They weren’t a goal of mine. My goal is to be like Swell Maps.
What about that level of success is attractive?
I don’t know that there’s anything attractive about it, but I didn’t see potential in myself, I don’t think of myself as a rock star. Everybody uses this word genius all the time, and it’s just silly. I don’t see myself that way at all. I see myself as someone who can’t even have a simple relationship, I see myself as a fuck up.
But then I see you on the cover of a Parallax looking a bit like Link Wray.
Link Wray was a fuck up! And a hero of mine. Link Wray was an awesome fuck up. I so hope that didn’t seem disrespectful to Link Wray, but yeah, you see me on the cover of the record. I think that record cover image is the loneliest looking record image, you know? It’s lonely, alien. It’s hideous.
Aesthetically, I find myself to be that way.
I think it’s interesting that you always seem to be caught in the middle of a record cycle. You know that a Deerhunter record comes out and not shortly thereafter an Atlas Sound record lands. You’re always there.
Fear of the unknown. What would happen if I had to live life without a record out? If I had to find a way to live out my empty days? Fuck that. I don’t think it would be particularly pretty. I have a bottle of Lexapro under my bed in case that ever happens.
I wonder how comfortable you are being sort of shoehorned into that kind of cycle, though, feeling like this constant stream of creative outlet has to be extracted and packaged for other people. Sometimes, a cache of your songs pop up online, other times it’s a studio recording. Someone told me about a year ago that 4AD had scolded you for diluting your brand. For constantly sharing.
You know what I would say to that? Suck my fucking dick. 4AD knows what’s up with me. They’re my friends. They have the utmost respect for what my music is. They have nothing but integrity. No one tells me what to do with my music. It comes when it comes. Frankly speaking, I am spoiled rotten in terms of creative control. I didn’t stop putting stuff on my blog because 4AD told me to. When I was writing stuff for the blog it was like I was trying to write songs and finish them and put them up in this semi-finished state. I write stuff now and if you’re looking, it’s like the difference between looking at nice sketches that are meant to be oil paintings. And now it’s like scrapbook collages with scribbling and White-Out and paint. Ink spilled on the pages.
I guess there’s also this conception that I gave all this music for free for attention, that it was a marketing thing to establish myself. I don’t have any plans, never have had a plan. Some of the stuff I used to release is like a collage; it’s unlistenable. Half the stuff is really cool. One of my favorite things that I’ve recorded was “My Car,” which is definitely a song about my car and how liberating it is to drive around. How many times has that song been written in rock’n’roll? Probably a lot. I felt like I wrote this song without any attention and it had a beautiful sound and feeling to it and I loved it dearly. That’s what was great about the blog. I guess I could still come back to it. That Bedroom Databank thing that I did last year, maybe I should do that this year for Thanksgiving week, make it like an annual thing. I might do it if it comes to me. I’m not going to force it, I’m not like a novelty song machine.
I definitely write every day and write all the time. But it’s all about context and I was having like a serious manic episode when I was doing the Bedroom Databanks. Obviously: all that stuff, I don’t know how many songs are on there, but they were recorded in real time. Recording it during the day and posting it during the night. I mean like it was going from my guitar to the Internet. And it was liberating and interesting. It was an experiment. I didn’t expect for it to be reviewed. But yeah, nobody controls my output.
It seemed like, from my point of view, that the constraints of a record contract might almost seem like a straitjacket in a way?
Not if you don’t think about it. I never even read the fucking contract. I don’t fucking care. I mean, I have a philosophy in life: You don’t go fucking people over. And in personal relationships, you don’t cheat on people. You don’t two-time people, you don’t fuck people over, you don’t fuck with people and their hearts. In business relationships you don’t take advantage of them when they don’t know, understand what I’m saying? I wouldn’t fuck over my record label or take advantage of them and they wouldn’t take advantage of me. I have a better relationship with my record label than I’ve ever had with a whatever.