Oneohtrix Point Never Makes Popular Art Music for Our Anxious Times

Photo: Blake Wood

A muscular, tattooed guy in a black T-shirt with a weird neckline is telling me about cologne. I didn’t ask for this, but I’m getting it because it’s in the ad that plays before the music video for Oneohtrix Point Never’s “Black Snow.” Through a subscription service, the guy tells me, I can sample designer colognes until I find the perfect one — and not those dinky samples with like one spritz in them, either.

We’ve all experienced start-up spam like this. A company has an idea, buys some YouTube pre-roll or a promoted tweet, and ambushes you with an invention that will absolutely change the way you live your life. The only difference is that this particular ad feels shockingly un-self aware. Internet-based advertising has long been interested in projecting the image of superiority, but this one feels like a fragment of a late-night infomercial. It’s a fitting commercial to see before the “Black Snow” video, which features bright orange barrels of radioactive waste, toxic smoke, ominous looking garbage bags, and a demon creature that’s sort of orchestrating the whole thing. The video is creepy and gross in the same way that pretty much every ’80s David Cronenberg movie is creepy and gross: There’s a sweaty sheen over everything. Even though the song is calm, it feels anxious. It looks like how the last couple years America have felt.

As the first single from Oneohtrix Point Never’s new album Age Of, “Black Snow” is the culmination of a steady move toward a sound that could be described as “pop-adjacent.” Daniel Lopatin, the man behind OPN, began his career making ambient music that skewed toward the cosmic. Though each of his eight albums (nine if you count the Good Time soundtrack) approach sound from different angles, the connective tissue between them is how they take ideas — musical or otherwise — at face value. No genre is too corny to interpolate. Subcultures exist to be revered, not made fun of. Your musical history is as valid as your musical present. When you look at the last few decades of popular art through that lens, everything starts to seem pure — even a commercial for a cologne subscription service.

Lopatin’s last album, 2015’s Garden of Delete, was an aggressive, fractured take on the rage of youth, filtered through a modern sensibility. It was noise music for private moments pointed outward at a stadium-sized audience, and it was a major turning point. In the years between Garden and Age Of, which is out today, Lopatin produced and toured with the singer Anohni, he collaborated with FKA Twigs and David Byrne, and he provided the frantic synth score for Good Time, a movie that cast New York as a lurid city full of bad people who were too bad to do good, even when they tried their best.

All of that leads to Age Of, an album that sometimes sounds like prog rock and sometimes like jazz made by a bunch of stoned robots who are living through an apocalypse. At points, Age Of is pop country; at others, it is basically mutant R&B. In the lead up to its release, Age Of was accompanied by MYRIAD, a live performance at the Park Avenue Armory as part of the Red Bull Music Festival New York. Flanked by a band, Lopatin performed live versions of the material from the album in a cavernous room that pulsed as if it were alive.

Vulture spoke with Lopatin over the phone about his new record, toxic waste, and the terror of living in the wilderness.

I don’t know if you remember, but I interviewed you in 2011, and you told a story about a kid at a show who told you that your music reminded him—
It reminded him of Tool. I remember this. The fact that my music could remind him of Tool and remind somebody else of Gavin Bryars or whatever, that’s the point. I’m not interested in making anything that only reminds them of me. I always feel excited when people reveal something like that to me, because they’re telling me more than just, “Hey, I like your music.” They’re actually saying something about their personality, their life, and what they’re interested in.

You exist in this kind of “art music” world where enjoying Tool might be frowned upon by a lot of your peers.
When I assembled an OPN band for the first time, I was specifically creating a prog band that I can’t actually keep up with. It kind of has this Captain Beefheart thing going on. I’m making music that I don’t practically or theoretically even really understand how it works. Now I have this added layer of working with musicians that do understand how it works, and they can accentuate and articulate all of this prog-y stuff that’s already there.

Your 2014 tour with Nine Inch Nails seems like a major turning point. You suddenly had to contend with what huge audiences thought of your music. Did that change the way you approached creating songs?
I really do think so, yeah. I think of Age Of as basically a little bit looser and freer. Considering how conceptual MYRIAD is, Age Of is really not. I really, really wanted to take a break from — I would be so obsessed with some idea, some sort of conceptual trigger that would get me motivated to make a record. All the music would just be ensconced by all this conceptual stuff that ended up being a distraction. For awhile, I was actually really upset about that situation.

Something changed — I don’t know what exactly — but I think that basically my life changed a little bit. I was finding myself being a little bit more loose and free about stuff. Also, collaborating with people and seeing the perspective on my musical tendencies in the studio. When it was time to go make another record, I was like, “I’ll go off and do this privately, but it’s not really that kind of record because I’m not in that part of my life when I’m holed up with my own thoughts and making this really cryptic labyrinth of personal mythology.”

When did you start to work on this album?
I think I reached a critical boiling point with doing stuff for other people. I went on tour with Anohni as a member of Anohni’s live ensemble. That was really, really fun and really interesting and I was enthusiastic to play out live, but not my own music. I was having a really good time, but I was also posted up in hotel rooms all the time. I was writing really simple little songs, not really worrying about the production so much. Then I started working with [FKA] Twigs a lot, and there was three or four different one to two month long sessions that we were having in either London or New York. Obviously, [doing the score for] Good Time was really time intensive. Even the Twigs thing led to David Byrne because he was working in Twigs’s studio. Things would just happen.

There was this point last summer where I was like, “Okay, I have like 25 unfinished demos that I’ve been accumulating.” Songs that I’d written for other people that I selfishly got sick of waiting for them to materialize. I found an Airbnb in Massachusetts that was this really architectural thing in the middle of the suburbs, surrounded by ranch houses. [It had] no corners. I thought, “Okay, I’m just going rent this place. It’s going to be inspiring.” I went into it with a built-in pessimism because I’m such a fan of certain traditional rock narratives. There’s always this point in a band’s career where they’ll leave the city to go to a house and record their own stuff, you know?

Yeah, it’s a classic rock music trope.
Part of me was like, I’m going out to experience this cliché. But it actually was really inspiring. I moved the dining room table forward and sat underneath the glass lighting fixture. It looked like a medieval crown. I just thought that was so funny — me sitting underneath this guillotine that could potentially come down and smash my body. The way that I would imagine my summer was like, I was a cartoon character sitting underneath the guillotine composing great harpsichord music. It was so amusing to me, but then there was this other aspect of it, which was at night it was kind of frightening. At night it’s just dead silent. I have my headphones on, so it’s just this impending doom of what’s behind you. And I’m constantly watching shitty midnight movies. That was scary. You’re in this house on the hill where everyone can peer inside.

There’s this song on the album called “Warning,” which very specifically deals with some of the parameters of the room. I was like, If somebody’s behind me and they’re going to slit my throat, I’m gonna see them in the reflection of the glass. There’s this other thing that happens at night in the suburbs in a glass house that’s illuminated, which is that moths are just constantly flying into the glass. So all night, it’s just doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo. All these fucking moths are killing themselves flying toward the light. It also would create this grotesque tableau in front of the dead insects. “Warning” is really about that. Dominick [Fernow] even sings on it — I told him all this, and he wrote lyrics. The lyrics are “in the glass house it’s disgusting, warning, warning, warning.”

That reminds me of a story you told about Iggy Pop singing the scene he was watching in Good Time. It’s interesting that multiple people you’ve worked with have approached writing lyrics for abstract music with very literal lyrics.
You can learn a lot about yourself from staring into things that have nothing to do with you. That’s something that I hadn’t really thought about so much in the past musically, but I have been lately. There’s a lot of stuff [in Age Of] that I didn’t realize was blatantly coming from general weird neurotic tendencies I had, or anxiety I had.

There’s this insane accumulation of trash bags outside my studio all the time. It’s not normal. I’m sure if I invited my parents over to the studio next week and go, hey, this is where I work. They’d go, this is a dump! There’s this whole thing about radiation and waste and some carcinogenic hazardous materials in general as a thing. The most insane thing to me is that Greenpoint [Brooklyn] continues to be a place to play. The overabundance of water keeps things growing in this area where there may be a serious health concern underneath the soil. To me, that’s like America in a nutshell.

But of course, I didn’t map all of this stuff out. I think I’m drawn to certain things because I don’t fully understand them until they’re caricatures, so I can think of them as a TV trope. If I imagine them that way, I get insight into aspects of my psyche that otherwise I don’t really have access to.

Did that happen with the Good Time score? You were creating music that had to correspond to a piece of art that obviously existed and wasn’t directly connected to your psyche. It was also a major departure for you, sonically.
I was asked to basically revisit an earlier period of my life [and music career] on that score, but I got really excited about the idea. I thought, “What if I make it, knowing what I know now about [music production]. Knowing that I could do this or that trick or whatever, what would I make?”

And then the very next thing you did was Age Of, which features your vocals prominently for the first time.
There’s a lot of personal stuff in these lyrics and I felt it was a little bit insincere to then have some sort of disembodied vocal type thing singing them. I was just like, “What is that?” Like, if your point is to create a pure, externalized character, some kind of surrogate, then yeah, you use those things and you feel good about them, but if the point is to try to just share something that’s coming from you, then why would you add these extra mitigations in-between that experience? Isn’t that just kind of self-sabotage? I definitely waned to use auto-tune. I’m aesthetically into the sort of cyber quality of auto-tune, but it needs to be clear in function. It needs to have my grain of voice, my body. My me in it.

When Glenn Branca died, I was thinking about how he was this pillar of the New York avant garde music scene, but so much of the music he made was actually really accessible, with a clear emotional core. How he got there was kind of out there, but the result was, I think, relatable. When I listened to Age Of for the first time. I got a similar feeling.
A lot of that stuff is … it brings back bad feelings from middle school for me. It’s like, “am I a theater kid or am I going to be in rocket club or am I going to play soccer or what?” I kind of hate all of that shit. Because I’ve just never been fully — maybe it’s my fault because I also don’t identify with any kind of idiomatic approach to music — when I was first making music, it was largely instrumental, improvised, and to get gigs I needed the help of people that were also making that kind of music. But they were really recalcitrant to have me, for the most part. There was a lot of blowback. Because I was perceived as being somehow impure.

A few years later the internet pretty much obliterated all genre lines anyway.
Exactly. That’s what’s so good about pop music. That’s what’s so good about the internet. And that’s what’s so good about music in general. I turn on the radio and it’s just completely bereft of individuality. It’s horrible. There’s all kinds of things that suck, but it also gives the opportunity for contrast. It gives the opportunity for interesting iconoclastic moments to arrive that makes a big group of people think.

Oneohtrix Point Never Makes Art Music for Our Anxious Times