“Why do they always compare me to a Spice Girl?” Hannah Diamond laughs. “Is it because I’m British and like tracksuits?”
Nestled in a corner of the Williamsburg café Devoción, Diamond is flipping through the New York Times, admiring the photos of her friends that are scattered across the "Arts" section. They document last weekend’s Pop Cube, a Red Bull–sponsored showcase that introduced New York to the elusive, outré, and somewhat controversial British label PC Music — of which Diamond is one of the shining stars. (Other affiliated acts include neon-brite producer SOPHIE and the pop cheerleader QT.) One of the more high-profile events of the monthlong Red Bull Music Academy Festival, Pop Cube included its very own red carpet, a rather conceptual presentation for QT’s eponymous energy drink, and a pop-up TV studio where fans could interact with their favorite PC Music “stars.” “I wish I could do it again and just be a spectator,” Diamond sighs, looking at the pictures. “I wish I could have seen everything. I had a security guard blocking me the whole way through!”
We’re soon joined by A. G. Cook, the tall, lanky, bespectacled Brit who started the label in 2013 with the unabashedly postmodern intention of “recording people who don’t normally make music and treating them as if they’re a major-label artist.” “The label is called PC Music,” he explained in an interview with TANK magazine last year, “which alludes to how the computer is a really crucial tool, not just for making electronic music but for making amateur music that is also potentially very slick, where the difference between bedroom and professional studio production can be very ambiguous.”
Earlier this month, the label put out its first compilation, the glossy, spring-wound, and hypercaffeinated PC Music Volume 1. Like everything they’ve done, the compilation has been polarizing: Critics of PC Music dismiss it as being too cerebral and disjointed to qualify as actual pop music, and a few of the compilation’s tracks (like the Lipgloss Twins’ skittish “Wannabe” and GFOTY’s hyperactive “Don’t Wanna / Let’s Do It”) feel more like conceptual art projects than club bangers. But the music that Diamond and Cook make together ranks among the label’s best, with songs like the infectious “Every Night” and the shimmering “Keri Baby” striking the perfect balance between the familiar and weird.
2015 finds the label at an interesting crossroads — will they remain an underground curiosity or move into the realm of actual pop stardom? So far, SOPHIE has the group’s highest profile; he worked with Madonna on her latest album, Rebel Heart, and at Pop Cube he debuted a few new tracks that feature Charli XCX. But as they explain in this interview, Diamond and Cook seem more interested in keeping PC Music a DIY affair. For now, at least, they’re just trying to hold on and enjoy the ride. “I really need to start a scrapbook for this kind of stuff,” Diamond sighs, leafing through the newspaper. “I usually just post photos on my Tumblr, but I’m always afraid that one day they’ll just disappear.”
Your label has always seemed, especially to people in the States, pretty mysterious and elusive. Doesn’t an event as public as Pop Cube eradicate some of that mystery?
A. G. Cook: You know, at some point, maybe a year ago, we were labeled as, like, “completely mysterious.” And I was always arguing, “Yeah, we’re mysterious, but we like communicating a lot, too. We’re not sending people to a web page that’s like a black screen and one MP3. We’re giving a lot of visual clues and a lot of artwork.
Hannah Diamond: It’s quite funny, because although we were mysterious about it and it was open to be read a lot of different ways, there was a level on which it was very simple. The visuals we were doing for my stuff, it was so straightforward. “Hannah likes pink, she loves diamonds.” You know what I mean?
There was something sort of surreal about Pop Cube — QT was hawking a fictitious energy drink at an event sponsored by an actual energy drink. How did Red Bull feel about that?
Cook: They were actually pretty good about it. At a very early point — and because it’s such a big company — they were like, “Oh, someone here might be not into it.” We knew from the beginning that we couldn’t be, like, handing out QT at the bar instead of Red Bull. That was clearly a no. But we told them we have to have her there, and we can’t have her without the drink. But some of the people at Red Bull Music Academy were really into it, really enjoyed the brand confusion aspect.
How did you feel about the Red Bull product placement in general?
Cook: Red Bull do so much in music, and it’s kind of shocking, in a way, how big they are in music at this point. So I think if you’re going to do something with them, you’ve got to just fully embrace it. I think if you’re going to do something like that, you might as well go full Red Bull. I think it suits us, obviously, exceptionally well. But even if we had to fight through with the QT stuff a little bit, it makes all the elements stronger if you’re not in denial about it.
Going back to that idea of mystery, has it been a challenge to keep that going while playing live? I mean, you used to hear rumors that Hannah and QT weren’t real people.
Diamond: Yeah, it’s different. The more that we perform live, the more that people can see how we interact with a crowd. I think people are starting to realize that we’re way more real than they first thought we were! I suppose, as well, the aesthetic we’ve developed has a tendency to seem not real because it is so shiny and glossy. But for me it’s just coming from this genuine, pure interest in fashion images and things like that.
Cook: It’s so inevitable because everyone’s moving away from these musical symbols of authenticity, like the acoustic guitar. We’re moving away from that kind of stuff. Everyone’s really comfortable with people making music in Garage Band and listening to things via streaming. There’s a move away from what we’ve used to define authenticity. And I think we’re particularly easy targets because we’re just so comfortable with our music being the way it is and not singing a certain type of way where you have to growl or something. We’re not attracted to that aesthetic.
Your music seems to have a lot of nostalgia for the mainstream pop music of the late ’90s and early 2000s. Is that what you listened to growing up?
Diamond: I’ve gone through stages, but always behind everything is pop. When I was younger I really loved ’N Sync, and I’ve always had an interest in stuff like that. Maybe more so about pop music as a culture phenomenon [than] just as a musical genre, but I’ve always loved that whole package. Then I’ve had other phases; I was really into trance at one point. And then one time when I was really into rock music, which was a really weird stage in my life. [Laughs.] But always behind everything has been pop.
Cook: I didn’t really properly listen to music until I was like 15 or 16, anyway. I don’t know. I picked up a hell of a lot from adverts and TV. Jingles, that kind of stuff. Then I just hit 16 and started listening to everything. Especially that specific era, of the naughties, it was like blogs were not tied down at all — people could post anything. And just the idea of that, the access to that kind of eclecticism. That in itself made music interesting to me. I liked rock and pop, but I had phases when I was listening to classical music, too.
Who are some of your favorite pop stars right now?
Diamond: I really like Charli XCX. I think what she’s doing is really good — she’s all about fitting a really big idea into a smaller package. Her “Break the Rules” video, it was the kind of stuff I was listening to when I was younger and really into pop music. You can see there was a really clear vision behind the track and what it meant to her.
Cook: I’m still really following Nicki Minaj. I’m always curious about what she’s doing. Top 40 in the U.K. is really weird right now. It’s kind of all over the place.
Diamond: A lot of it is kind of like music that moms would listen to.
Cook: Which is what’s happened to democracy there as well! Young people don’t vote, young people don’t pay for tracks. So they don’t get to affect the Top 40.
Diamond: I mostly listen to American pop. I really love Carly Rae Jepsen. I love her new songs.
Cook: The new songs are great. Inappropriate use of Tom Hanks, but it’s fine. [Laughs.] Why not? Whenever you’re in America, the way people talk about dance music and the whole EDM angle is just so different from the U.K. It’s not clubbing here, really. It’s something else. It immediately becomes a stage show. They go straight from being a bedroom DJ to … Miami Ultra! I love that trajectory. Whereas in Europe and the U.K., if you’re a DJ you, like, swap records and do small club nights and then slightly bigger club nights, and then eventually you’re Tiësto somehow. And then you’ve got these artists who sort of fall between the pop and EDM worlds. Pitbull is a great example of that. He’s basically like an EDM emcee.
One of my few theories of Pitbull [Hannah laughs knowingly] is that there’s a strong connection with Rene, the guy from Aqua. If you think about the way they’re interjecting into the song — it’s the male part that’s pitched way down from the higher-pitched female singer. And that’s kind of Pitbull’s function! Plus the hairstyle, and his whole look. I think Pitbull is really fitting that role.
There’s a definite embrace of girliness to PC Music. What draws each of you to that aesthetic?
Cook: We’re all united by being interested in that, but in pretty different ways. And it’s a little bit of a Zeitgeist right now, really — ideas about gender. But I think artists have different approaches. Someone like SOPHIE is clearly very consciously playing around with that.
Diamond: But at the same time, his music is actually very hard and aggressive. The sounds he uses are often not girly. The vocals are, but I think SOPHIE is a really interesting hybrid between something that’s really hard and aggressive but also has that feminine energy.
Cook: And then GFOTY is a totally different version of that. Her persona is that she hates other girls, or is like, “Screw them, I want to be with my boyfriend. Or ten other boyfriends. Whatever.” But she has a big female fan base because she’s so aggressive.
Diamond: I think that girls relate to her. She actually voices these pure anxieties that girls have but never actually say.
Are you surprised by how much attention you guys have been getting?
Cook: How arrogant should we sound here? [Laughs.] I would say the speed of it is impressive.
Diamond: I was really shocked! I was obviously having a lot of fun making tracks with Alex. And then I remember for the first song, it had, like, a thousand plays in a day, and that blew my mind. But then a few months down the line we did “Every Night” and it had 100,000. That blew my mind totally!
Cook: They’re just more ready for something to be very bright and colorful in America. It fits the landscape better. I think people in London will like something in a cult way first. But in America, if anything’s good, it can be mainstream.
SOPHIE worked with Madonna recently, on the single “Bitch I’m Madonna.” Is that something the rest of you aspire to, working with artists on that level?
Cook: I’m interested on one level, but I have been getting so much more satisfaction so far trying to build something from the ground up. It’s tempting if you’ve got even the smallest clout to move to L.A. and spend ages there, in those studios with like 25 rooms. But I’m much more excited to try and stay in London and build something there. Basically build enough of a PC Studio that people want to come to us. Like, a visiting musician is in London, and they think, Oh, I have to go to the PC Music space!