A.G. Cook is fascinated with binaries. His music over the past seven years, as the mythic head of the experimental pop label PC Music, doesn’t just revel in binaries — it pushes them until they break. “I feel like a lot of those discussions are pretty inaccurate and kind of funny,” he says. “Saying that, like, Adele is more authentic than Lady Gaga … that’s random. They’re interesting ‘cause they’re presenting themselves in different ways, but each one is as thought about as a rollout. There’s no way it’s not two brands that have the same mix of real and fake.”
Looking at the pop landscape with that sort of X-ray vision has helped Cook become pop’s preeminent futurist. Reviewing PC Music’s first compilation in 2015, Rolling Stone wrote, “The songs are only as good as the concept, which wears thin fast.” Yet over the course of the rest of the decade, PC Music developed into one of music’s most important labels, synonymous with a style of glitchy, hyperactive, candy-coated pop. Cook’s project began on the fringes, with a close-knit group including producers like Danny L Harle and Sophie and singers like Hannah Diamond and GFOTY. He eventually brought Charli XCX into the fold and helmed her last four projects, from her 2017 mixtape Number 1 Angel to this year’s quarantine album how i’m feeling now, as executive producer and creative director. Through their prolific partnership, Cook developed one of the definitive sounds of the 2010s.
This year, Cook has stepped farther out on his own than ever before, releasing his first albums under his own name. He dropped 7G, a monstrous set of 49 tracks across seven discs, on August 12, and released Apple, a more conventional — if not traditional — ten-track affair, on September 18. (Two weeks later, he has a third project out: Shiver, the album he executive-produced for Sigur Rós leader Jónsi.) “Not knowing what kind of weird year it would be, I had a sense that 2020 would be an appropriate time,” Cook says on a call from Montana, where he’s holed up during the pandemic to work. He’s visibly jumpy and excited, doing his first proper press cycle after nearly a decade in the industry.
7G and Apple toy with those same binaries Cook has spent his career thinking about. The titles recall technology and reality alike; heartfelt acoustic tracks sit backed up to dissonant barrages of electronics; even the formats themselves evoke gonzo maximalism and a more buttoned-up refinery. “It actually feels ideal for me to have two debut albums,” he says. “It felt very in tune with how I think about releases in general. This notion of contrast is something that I think we’re going to find more and more.” Ahead of the release of Apple, Cook talked to Vulture about the elements that define his sound and style, contrasts and all.
At the beginning of his career, Cook “banned instruments” from his music. “I wouldn’t even touch a guitar,” he says. But he didn’t just lean into electronic production, he dove in, making highly edited tracks with glossy bubblegum synths like GFOTY’s “Bobby” or Hannah Diamond’s “Pink and Blue” and “Every Night.” Regardless of the songs’ lyrical content, the very style was in conversation with technology and the internet — thanks in part, of course, to being released on a label cheekily called PC Music. Later songs like Charli XCX’s “Femmebot” more directly addressed Cook and his performers’ relationship to technology. Cook went into Apple “wanting to define my take on PC music literally as ‘personal computer music,’” he says. “The funny blend of authenticity and the realness, the unrealness. I think it’s a really blurred line, especially when you’re editing yourself on a computer.” That influenced Apple’s palette of instruments: drums, guitar, SuperSaw synth, piano, Nord keyboard, spoken word, and extreme vocals, which also organize the seven discs of 7G. He began to look at an instrument like the guitar, which he’d played before his PC Music days, as its own piece of technology. “It became interesting to me again once I’d gone completely around the loop on it,” he says. “You have the really slick, clean acoustic, and then the synth that sounds like a guitar, and then the distorted. I think there’s that range for each little instrument, even with the synths being really clean and then noisy.”
A DIY aesthetic
Cook admits he’s not a singer. Yet he’s never been afraid to sing on his music, from his early 2016 standout “Superstar” to nearly every Apple track. “‘Superstar’ felt like a big shift for me in a sense, and how I wanted to convey that kind of vocal style, the mix of slick and amateur,” he says. “Having figured that out, I think it was inevitable that I’d have more songs that looked at different sides of that, and I started to have a clearer picture.” (A live acoustic performance of “Superstar” appears on the guitar disc of 7G.) For Apple’s lead single, “Oh Yeah,” he was interested in Shania Twain’s vocal style and John “Mutt” Lange’s “perfect” production on her music. “I’m traveling a much bigger difference, shall we say, between the beginning and end of it,” he says. “I think even if you put tons of effects on a vocal, the personality still comes through.” That ethos extends to his work with other singers — Diamond and GFOTY stood out on PC Music for their untrained vocals. “I remember when I first started making music, a couple of my friends were always looking for the right kind of professional vocalist,” Cook says. “That’s never something I was really drawn to. I was like, It’ll have so much more of a distinctive fingerprint if it’s just some friend who has a good vibe, and we can make the music work around that.”
A collaborative spirit
PC Music was always a group effort, growing out of Cook’s partnership with Harle as the duo Dux Content. When Charli began working with Cook, her featured artists grew exponentially; 2017’s Pop 2 featured more artists than tracks. 7G and Apple feature vocals across Cook’s circle including Diamond, Polachek, HYD (f.k.a. QT), Tommy Cash, Alaska Reid, and Cecile Believe. “A lot of the people who ended up either on Apple or 7G are people who I was just writing music with, doing other things with, around,” Cook says. He remembers working on part of 7G at electronic composer Oneohtrix Point Never’s studio in New York City, when he was also contributing to Polachek’s album Pang. “I’d be in the middle of something else, and she’d be walking past or something, [and I’d be] like, ‘Do you mind doing this outro?’” he says. “She couldn’t even remember a couple of the tracks — like ‘Alright,’ she had no memory of it.” Charli was absent from the Apple and 7G sessions (“We used all of the stuff we were really amped on in her own projects,” Cook says), but she remains Cook’s strongest collaborator. “I think we give each other a lot of confidence,” he says. “To be with someone who is so, so technically good and then is also willing to try things out and drop things, and it’s not like this kind of cagey genius that I have to worry about — she’s just really talented.”
After PC Music’s breakout 2014, The Fader declared that “Feminine Appropriation Was 2014’s Biggest Electronic Music Trend,” criticizing Cook for “appropriating and objectifying stereotypically feminine identities while obscuring [his] own.” Reflecting on the criticisms today, Cook says, “I think it was quite a simplistic understanding of something that is a lot more sophisticated now.” But it’s hard to deny the link between Cook’s music and femininity — with PC Music artists like GFOTY, short for Girlfriend of the Year, Diamond, and QT even playing with gender in their own work. He remembers PC Music tracks standing out in a London mid-’10s electronic scene. “We’d just be playing the music we liked,” Cook says. “We didn’t really think that much about it, and [we’d] be labeled as kitsch or girly or whatever.” Since 2014, Cook’s style has expanded past synth-pop tracks sung by women, but they remains the root of his work. That said, he insists he doesn’t see his new music as gendered. “I don’t think it sounds that masculine or feminine necessarily,” Cook says. “It’s not something I think of tons in my music. I’ve never really chimed in a super-macho version of EDM or whatever, and I’d say my music sort of quite obviously is, even without me thinking about it — I’m dismantling some of those tropes.”
A PC Music release is visual as much as it is sonic. Early tracks like Diamond’s “Pink and Blue,” Cook notes, didn’t even have music videos, but their images stuck. “When I talk to my friends who do music or talk about releases for the label, I always try and figure out with them, what’s going to be the element of their thing that transcends streaming?” he says. “Everything that really cuts through has something that’s just not all about [the track]. Maybe in the past it would’ve been their live show, like ‘Whoa, they’re crazy!’ or their sound design and the way they’re open about it, or it’s their imagery and how deep that is. It’s how they collaborate with other artists and how they do production.” For QT, a new PC artist in 2014, it involved promoting an energy drink called DrinkQT alongside her song “Hey QT.” In the early days of PC Music, Cook and the label didn’t do many interviews; coupled with the artists’ hyperproduced images, some wondered if the musicians were even real. “It was just very important to communicate visually,” Cook says. “You could have a very iconic SoundCloud, you could have the imagery be pretty tight, without people thinking whether it was a post or not, it would just be the image. I think it lends itself to a lot of that mystery.” Even without as much mystery today, Cook still thinks of releases visually, even his own. “A lot of different PC artists have had sort of very specific color spaces,” he says. “I think the idea of my thing [being] grayscale and then getting all colorful — as the 7G disc did, or as the Apple campaign does — works pretty well as a sort of neutral, central axis.”
If you can’t tell by the titles of Cook’s albums alone, his music is a referential web. “I think that’s probably my favorite thing about music in general: the way we hear it, even just notions of genre and things like that, they don’t make sense out of context,” Cook says. “It’s so much about context and a piece of music having conversations with each other.” Referentiality has been embedded in PC Music since Cook’s earliest days, with stunts like QT’s debut with the DrinkQT energy drink at an event sponsored by Red Bull. Now, Cook’s new projects find him revisiting his old work. On 7G, he recalls the breakout Hannah Diamond track “Every Night” with “DJ Every Night” and covers Charli XCX’s 2019 song “Official,” while Apple’s “Beautiful Superstar” is in conversation with two of his early solo tracks, “Beautiful” and “Superstar.” (Bonus: Apple also includes a cover of “Animals” by Oneohtrix Point Never.) “Everyone’s just building on everyone,” he says.
An experimental attitude
To someone discovering Cook for the first time, the aggressive synths on Apple’s “Xxoplex” would be a jarring shift after the soothing pop of “Oh Yeah.” To someone who has followed Cook for a while, it could be a familiar reprieve after an unfamiliar acoustic song. “I felt pretty committed to it being that confrontational,” Cook says of the album. “I like the feeling that anything could happen in a track or a track order.” He said he sees Apple’s track list as turning through a radio dial; by the end, songs like “Stargon” synthesize the album’s clashing sounds. It’s evocative of Cook’s openness to experiment in his work — from PC Music’s early grab-bag compilations to the sprawl of 7G. He’s still developing his understanding of music-making as he continues trying to tease out contrasts in his music.
“I think I’m finding subtler ways to do that as well, and smarter ways,” Cook says. “Sometimes it’s still very over the top — like, I still have these crazy outros and bridges and stuff, but I’ll also be sneaking that into smaller gestures and different kinds of sound worlds.” He takes an example from 7G. “Extreme vocals to me might have just meant sped-up vocals or chopped-up vocals — and I still use that — but now it could mean an acoustic performance where someone’s just doing something in a really intense way, or it can mean an instrument that sounds like a vocal,” he says. “The framework is quite similar, but I think I’ve found a way that is hopefully more compelling and more open-minded.”