Deerhunter Front Man Bradford Cox Dissects Some of Deerhunter’s Best Songs

Photo: Xavi Torrent/WireImage

It’s natural to feel control slipping away when you’re talking on the phone with Deerhunter front man Bradford Cox, and that’s probably a good thing. Offhand comments can lead to 15 unbroken minutes of response, rotating boasts, poignancy, or wry meta-commentary on the whole endeavor of making music, being in a band, and generally living life (“I don’t think Spotify’s going to have a Toxic Watercolors playlist, there’s your pull quote.”) Still, it’s mostly a linear path walking through the career of the band on the day they release their latest album, Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?

Cox was game to reflect on old songs, not for the sake of nostalgia but as more of a clinical, deconstructive exercise, sometimes taking issue with how they were recorded. He has an acute memory for certain things — the exact setup of decorations and microphones in the studio — but rarely has any idea about certain thematic through lines beyond the lives of him and his bandmates. Deerhunter is defined by the sort of dramatic arcs that rock bands don’t seem to have too much anymore: lineup instability, tragedy, chaos as the default. “Everything we’ve done, we’ve suffered to do it. It’s never been easy,” Cox says.

Throughout our nearly two-hour talk, he pogos between the sort of raw, sincere affection for his bandmates, both current and former (particularly ex-bassist Josh Fauver, who died in November and left the band after Halcyon Digest), and the sort of provocations that have defined him across two decades. “In some ways, I wonder, Should we have stopped Deerhunter after Josh Fauver quit? But the reality is, it’s my life. I’ll decide when it’s over,” he says. “I’ll never put out an album I don’t think is perfect and a classic album. I don’t think I’ve put out a single album that’s not a classic album except the first one. If somebody wants to accuse me of being arrogant, I’d say, ‘No shit Sherlock,’ you know. ‘What’s your discography look like?’”

“Cryptograms” (Cryptograms, 2007)

“I’m thankful you skipped the first album,” Cox says partway into talking about the second Deerhunter record. Their debut, Turn It Up Faggot, is the one with a sort of detached relationship from the rest of Deerhunter’s catalogue, unavailable to purchase or stream legally beyond a YouTube rip. “People misunderstand the reason I hate it so much; it’s truly an issue of — and I don’t blame other people; it’s very much to do with my immature decisions about vocals and singing through amplifiers. Because I wanted it to sound like the vocals were just another instrument,” he says.

Cryptograms didn’t exactly forgo this methodology, Cox’s vocals were still buried for long stretches, as the songs alternated between woozy ambient sections and piercing moments of psych-pop clarity in the back half. “Don’t ever use [psych pop], don’t ever use that word with me. I hate psychedelic culture, and I hate that word. To me, it’s just like kryptonite. I view us as an anti-psychedelic band. I view us as fantastic realists.”

“Cryptograms” flirts with the bracing menace Deerhunter would come to perfect, introducing some of their career-long motifs of waking nightmares and feeling consumed by time. Its squall is overpowering, leaning heavily on short looping and a collage of micro-samples. “That’s the biggest regret in my life,” he says of the album’s mixing and preservation. “I would desperately love to remaster that album with clear vocals, but there are no clear vocals to turn up.”

“Fluorescent Grey” (Fluorescent Grey EP, 2007)

If there’s a constant throughout Deerhunter’s career, beyond Cox’s outsize personality, it’s the decaying and disintegration of bodies, the repeated mantras, the way he snaps off final syllables and lets them linger. Everything’s there on “Fluorescent Grey,” from their EP of the same name. Although it was released a few short months after Cryptograms, you can hear the band exploring new possibilities in real time. “I spent at least an hour longer on the vocal than I’d ever done before on that song. As I’ve said, everything else was usually just a first take, live. On that one I remember blaring the vocal, and singing it two octaves and being quite pleased with the effect.”

Deerhunter has slowed their flurry of releases under various aliases and other projects, but short-form and more experimental releases still excite Cox — he just doesn’t think there’s much of an opportunity to make them. “At this time, I’d have a hard time convincing a record label to let us make an EP. As an artist, we shouldn’t let any of these things control us,” he says. No matter, just last year they released Double Dream of Spring, a tour-only experimental cassette whose 300 copies sold out almost instantly.

“Nothing Ever Happened” (Microcastle, 2008)

You can never plan what the calling card will be. “Nothing Ever Happened,” which could balloon into a ten-plus-minute “Marquee Moon” sort of boundless jam in a live setting, lived by one of the great bass lines from Fauver. Microcastle marked the first time Deerhunter toyed with wider approachability while maintaining their adventurous tendencies. Cox has no delusions about this being anything but Deerhunter par excellence. “That was the golden age; unfortunately we’re not in the golden age anymore. We’re in a rust age, but good things still happen,” he says. “You have to acknowledge that was an amazing time to yourself without trying to continue to live in it. I’ll never be that young again.”

“Nothing Ever Happened” is another case of Cox quibbling with its recording, and their decision to record bass and drums together instead of a direct signal of each instrument on their own. But he holds it up as a case of the band’s democracy, how important contributions came from all corners. “I think it’s a masterpiece of Josh’s writing; it shows so much of what an incredibly singular bass player he was,” he says. “Why I think I appreciate [bandmates] Josh and Moses [Archuleta] so much is, they didn’t provide me with what I’d have played if I’d been making these albums on my own. They provided a sort of contrast or counterpoint to what I was thinking should be there. I think our albums would’ve sounded a lot more dated had I played the bass and drums on them.”

“Desire Lines” (Halcyon Digest, 2010)

It’s weirdly easy to feel nostalgic for the album that refracted and rejected nostalgia in equal measure. Halcyon Digest wasn’t just the sound of Deerhunter coming to terms with everything that had preceded it and processing their influences, it was also one of the last event LPs of an era when indie rock was thriving. Cox wanted to stay put geographically, situating Halcyon Digest as a southern gothic opus that channeled all of Atlanta’s queer eccentricities. This brought him to Ben Allen, the locally based producer who was hot off the credits of Merriweather Post Pavilion and, uh, Asher Roth’s “I Love College.”

When it came time to record bandmate Lockett Pundt’s sprawling masterpiece “Desire Lines,” Cox considered changing course from what he feared was veering into overproduction. “There was a time during the recording of Halcyon Digest where I thought we’d made a mistake, and I thought Nicolas [Vernhes] really could’ve set up the room so we could just go in there and play the song,” he says. But Allen forced his trust and assured Cox that he should take a step back on this one. “I remember wanting to make ‘Desire Lines’ sound like nothing else that had ever come before, and that was such a stupid goal,” he says. “I didn’t want it to have any kind of reference point in rock history. So you end up doing things like putting filters on the drums, and it just ends up making it sound weak. Sometimes you just have to let a song breathe. Ben taught me that.”

“Leather Jacket II” (Monomania, 2013)

Several months before “visual album” would enter the lexicon, Cox made what he calls his greatest film. Monomania is an incredibly sensory album, the kind that inhabits a kind of grimy, grainy, distinctly American aesthetic like nothing else in Deerhunter’s career. “When I say Monomania is the best Deerhunter album, I’m not talking about the quality of the kind of things that music critics use when they rate or list albums,” he says. “I’m putting it this way: I had a film in my mind and we made it … it’s kind of one extended, long panic attack on LP.”

The immersion extended in all directions — Cox had experienced a “life-altering sort of event” that left him hurt, angry, and confused, and the finished product reflects that. This was distinctly an album of the night, all neon signs, burned leather, and smoky dives. As he tells it, they’d wake up late to start recording at 8 p.m., in a studio decked out with neon lights, African sculpture work, fluorescent tubes, and a fog machine. “This is going to sound incredibly pretentious, and to those people I don’t even have any response,” he says of the process.

Early on the record, Cox reached his stream-of-consciousness apotheosis with “Leather Jacket II,” resulting in dizzying turns of phrase (“I am the queen of bass,” “I threw blood spots across the moon”). It’s caked in enough layers of distortion to sound like a dozen motorcycles accelerating at once. “‘Leather Jacket,’ I couldn’t tell you a goddamn thing. When I was recording the song in the demo, I was playing guitar and screaming into the mic. I mean it’s just a visceral, physical, wrenching … it’s sort of a tape of vomit.”

“Leather and Wood” (Fading Frontier, 2015)

There’s some disconnect in the way Cox remembers Fading Frontier and the way he believes it was received, but it’s probably not what you think. “Breaker”? “My biggest mistake lyrically.” “Living My Life”? “It’s bullshit! … Another mistake lyrically.” He stands by each of these songs from a musical and production standpoint, and, well, everything else on the record wholesale. It’s that narrative of a new-lease-on-life album following Cox’s severe 2014 car accident that irks him, since he’d written it before that happened. Those two tracks were instances where he believes he shoehorned some optimistic lyrics in while they were in the studio, betraying his tried-and-true stream-of-consciousness method. That said, he maintains it’s a perfect album, and one that peddles a sort of false optimism you can pierce through with a deeper stare.

“Leather and Wood” is a strange centerpiece for a record that shimmers and glistens throughout much of its A-side. Here you find more of those hopeful sentiments on a sparse, arresting arrangement. “I believe we will find that elusive peace now / I can’t believe there is no hope,” Cox sings through thick vocal effects. “‘Leather and Wood’ is absolutely one of the most desolate things I’ve ever committed to tape … on Fading Frontier it seems like there are a lot of optimistic lyrics set to very dark music.”

“Death in Midsummer” (Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?, 2019)

On each of Deerhunter’s last two records, you can start to see how Cox’s minor frustrations with his early material have resolved. They’ve moved into pristine, anxious art rock with Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? and feature some of the band’s clearest vocal work. Much of the record’s preoccupied with ephemerality of life and labor and culture, no more than on lead single “Death in Midsummer.” Although these lofty themes are couched in harpsichord, horns, and a brighter disposition, Cox already feels a little misunderstood about his instrumental intentions. “The harpsichord’s not meant to sound pleasant or upbeat, to me it’s an incredibly harsh and brittle instrument. The only thing more harsh and brittle than a direct injection guitar,” he says.

Bradford Cox Dissects Some of Deerhunter’s Best Songs