Inside Out with Atlas Sound
- Words: Joe Colly
When Deerhunter emerged early in 2007 with Cryptograms–their second album but first real statement as a band–they immediately distanced themselves from a pack of increasingly similar-sounding indie rock acts.
Deerhunter was part of a new strand of primitivist Atlanta rock that mined the depths of ’60s pop and garage rock, but they stood apart even from their contemporaries, folding elements of ambient music, noise, and drone-rock into their music to create a novel brand of esoteric psychedelia. What’s more, Deerhunter had a bright star in frontman Bradford Cox, a gangly, sometimes outrageous stage entertainer who shocked, occasionally offended, and steadily captivated audiences throughout 2007.
Cox, whose gentle affability belies his confrontational onstage persona, was born in Athens, Georgia but spent his adolescence in the suburb of Marietta. The affluent town–a breeding ground for ultra-conservative Republicans like Bob Barr and Newt Gingrich–was an odd fit. An artistic, effeminate soul, Cox suffers from Marfan Syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes victims to develop disproportionately long limbs and cardiovascular problems; by his own admission, he was “kind of a sickly kid.” Cox also felt out of place with the culture in Marietta. “I had a lot of friends but felt disconnected from them,” he says. “My friends’ parents all knew I was different, fucked up or whatever, but sort of turned a blind eye to it.” So he grew up with a lingering sense of subversion–“a quiet rebellion,” he calls it–that surfaces in the material Cox creates for Deerhunter and his solo project, Atlas Sound.
After dropping out of high school, Cox stayed behind in Marietta with other “outcast-y, loser-y kids, just sitting around smoking pot, doing nothing,” he says. In 2001, despite having “zero interest” in the band, he was dragged to a Black Lips show. Cox felt an immediate kinship with the group and would develop an intense friendship with its singer, Cole Alexander. Cox already had an interest in the Athens alternative rock scene–and the proto-garage sound that inspired it–and admired Black Lips for “combining that with this really psychotic noise element, really degenerate-sounding.” And, he adds, “They’re undeniably fucked up. We immediately bonded because of that. I knew they weren’t full of shit.” The two bands would grow together in a treacherous Atlanta scene full of “heroin [and] outsider kids,” and would share in debilitating lows (including the deaths of bandmembers) before eventually becoming hotly tipped on the indie rock circuit.
His relationship with Alexander is one of the few things Cox is slightly hesitant to speak about. He describes the friendship as “complicated” and “co-dependent” but tenses up a bit when pressed for details. “Cole and I bonded to such a bizarre extent,” he says. “We literally were not apart from each other for months at a time. There was a lot that was ‘almost’ about it.” At some point, the two drifted apart, but they continue to inspire one another through a shared aesthetic and approach to creating music.
That style, “a primitive [one], an immediacy,” Cox puts it, is obvious in both bands’ work. In the case of Deerhunter, this primal aggression is seamlessly combined with a beauty and vulnerability that it seems at odds with–this intriguing mixture of power and decay made Cryptograms and its follow-up EP, Fluorescent Grey, some of the finest guitar-driven music of the past several years.
A hyper-prolific songwriter, Cox recorded continuously while touring for Cryptograms, dreaming up a batch of tender material that wasn’t quite right “for a five-piece rock band,” he says. Initially recorded as 4-track demos, many of the songs were posted on the band’s well-visited blog before his label, Kranky, set him up with a laptop to lay down the ideas properly. The resulting tracks became Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel.
Cannot Feel–his first official release as Atlas Sound–an album of gorgeously textured, deteriorating dream-pop.
Let the Blind… is essentially a bedroom recording–its songs retain a spur-of-the-moment quality because Cox’s approach to creating tunes isn’t based on conventional composition. Rather than conceiving an idea for a piece, writing it, and recording it, he instead seeks to capture a feeling. “I’m not a songwriter in the traditional sense,” he explains. “I have no ability to sit at a piano and ‘craft’ a song. It’s more about what’s happening in a room.” When asked to explain his intentions for Let the Blind…, he quickly counters, “There’s never any intention. Everything on the Atlas Sound record is just…recorded. I never do second takes, I never clean up anything. It’s kind of documentary-style.” One might think this stream-of-consciousness methodology would leave tremendous room for error, but in Cox’s skilled hands, tracks like the dazzling “River Card” and garage-pop number “Ativan” sound as if he’s been shaping them for years.
While Cox makes it clear he didn’t set out to make Let the Blind… an ambient record, the album is noticeably more atmospheric than his work with Deerhunter and markedly softer–if not outright prettier. He agrees, describing the record as “less masculine” and “more asexual,” and notes that the influence of electronic music is much more apparent. “I’m just as much influenced by Markus Guentner or Wolfgang Voigt as I am the ’60s pop song,” he offers. That’s clear on “Quarantined,” the record’s most buoyant track, and “On Guard,” both of which pulsate with the repetitive thump of minimal techno. Early electro is a clear inspiration as well–the work of Kraftwerk, Todd Dockstader, and Raymond Scott all had a hand in sculpting the album’s feel, says Cox.
Speaking reverently about Kraftwerk’s improvisational third record Ralf & Florian, which he describes as “perfect,” Cox stumbles onto something potentially profound about his own work. “I’ve always been really interested in creating ambient music and repetitive electronic music but with organic or acoustic instruments that have certain limitations or flaws. I think that just sounds more interesting,” he says. Tossing the comment aside and quickly moving on to a new topic, Cox doesn’t stop to ponder that he’s probably just pinpointed what makes his new album so exceptional–he simply forges ahead to the next idea.
Bradford Cox’s track-by-track notes on the new Atlas Sound record.
A Ghost Story
“In the background are treated hammered dulcimers soaked in enough reverb that they almost have a vocal quality.”
“This is a song about losing your ability to express your emotions as you get older. It was inspired by my reaction to the death of my aunt.”
“This song was inspired by an article I read about Russian children living with AIDS.”
“Based on a short story from a book of Puerto Rican fiction I found at a thrift store.”
“A lullaby about social anxiety.”
“When I first met my best friend Lockett in high school, it was right before Thanksgiving break. The next day my family took a trip to the beach. It was freezing, grey, and depressing and my parents fought the whole time. Thinking about my new friend kept me feeling good, and made everything seem charged with excitement.”
Cold as Ice
“I came home one night and Lockett was in his room playing guitar. I recorded a few segments and looped them. It has a heavy African feel to me.”
“This is one of those songs that was entirely made in, like, one hour. I can barely remember anything about it, except programming the drums.”
“The most emotional and embarrassing thing I have ever made. I left it on to function as the album’s major flaw.”
Ready Set Glow
“I wanted to make a hymn or a vesper with strobe lights.”
“A Christmas carol about a teenage prostitute walking home from an abusive episode.”
“Just for fun. A printout of a garage-pop song from a ‘new computer perspective.’”
“A sad song about benzos and failed relationships and spring reverb.”
Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel
“See, it was all only a dream...”
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