Dead band members, armed robbery, comas, confused sexuality, ‘poop journals’, self-loathing, child abuse, genetic disorders, nervous breakdowns and walkouts – this is the context that framed Deerhunter’s output in 2007. The music may have been good enough to stand on its own but, whether the listener was interested or not, it came with side stories.
Speaking to frontman Bradford Cox a year ago, it was clear that his music was so closely related to his personal life that to talk to him about one was to become unavoidably tangled up in the other. “I’ve been going through severe depression,” he said at the time. “I was taken off Lexapro and put on Prozac. I’ve been going to therapy, trying to deal with stuff from my adolescence and childhood. I’m like everyone else but I just do it in an extroverted way, which I think can be helpful. People are always trying to second-guess my intentions and think that I’m trying to be shocking – and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t approach this band from the beginning as an experiment – but ultimately I’m just a dorky loser who does what he does, randomly.” It wasn’t attention seeking, he maintained, just someone trying to figure himself out in public.
The band’s blog became the perfect medium for Cox, not only as a place to engage directly with fans but also as an outlet for his prolific output. The singer’s sleepless nights often saw him uploading whole EPs of fresh material as soon as they had been recorded. Requested cover versions, mixtapes and even songs inspired by individual fans all supplemented a stream of introspective and often harrowing reflections. It seemed to provoke voyeurism and vitriol in equal measure, compelling people to log on just to see what would happen next. Eventually guitarist Colin Mee left the band, claiming that the increased levels of attention overshadowed the music.
Since then, things appeared to settle down for Deerhunter. The blog posts dwindled and work began on Microcastle, the follow-up to the scattershot charms of 2007’s Cryptograms. Cox intended this to be a “classic American record” that would speak to the disaffected youth of America and criticise the zeitgeist which so troubled him. Whether those ambitions could be realised or not, he didn’t want its reception to be influenced by anything outside the music.
Then, at the end of May, I found Cox slumped on the ground outside his hotel in Barcelona. The new album had just leaked five months early and Cox was inconsolable. People flocked to his blog, the goldfish bowl the 26-year-old had imprisoned himself in, to wait for a reaction…but nothing came. Instead Cox simply retreated to work on a new Deerhunter album to be released as bonus material. But this too was leaked, along with an unreleased solo album and a collection of childhood photos. Both fans and critics alike were compulsively drawn towards a precedent-setting transparency that was now being taken for granted. Cox, meanwhile, had learned through a mixture of regret and backlash that he no longer wanted to participate.
So when I sit down with the singer once again, I realise that mentioning we have met before is like reminding a recovering addict of an association they are desperate to avoid. Weary and embittered, he shuts down immediately. “I don’t have anything to say about the past,” he repeats, letting it become a mantra. “I don’t ever talk about personal things anymore. It’s making me uncomfortable even thinking about that now.”
It transpires that Cox originally requested that there be no interviews to promote Microcastle. He would rather sever that connection and pretend that nothing ever happened. Our interview, he feels, should not be an opportunity to explain this transformation but merely a chance to offer the odd quote about guitar tunings and effects pedals. In other words, he’s over-compensating for what he now considers to be a string of mistakes, desperately trying to re-assert control over a momentum that has become “too fast.”
Growing up in a conservative Christian household in Atlanta, Bradford Cox was diagnosed with Marfan syndrome as a teenager – a genetic condition that required him to receive several operations. While the other kids were out discovering girls, drugs and cars, Bradford spent his 16th summer in intensive care. But one teenage ritual he didn’t miss out on was self-discovery through music. He would imitate Iggy Pop by singing into a hairbrush in front of the mirror, dress up in his mother’s clothes in a touch of “hero worship” for Kurt Cobain, and deliver Chinese food just so he could spend all his earnings on new albums. What he connected to the most, though, were the demo versions of songs included on b-sides, the ones that made him feel as if these artists were just like him: recording music alone in their bedrooms. One night, while being sick out of his friend’s car window to the sounds of My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, he had an epiphany about the power of music. He imagined what it would be like if a musician opened a direct line of communication – not as a ploy for celebrity, but as a means of giving the listener whatever they want, whether it be an answered question or an MP3 to download.
But having been made to feel “like a hamster on a wheel,” Cox has declared the experiment over. “I don’t feel like participating in that relationship anymore. I feel like it was damaged a little bit. I made that exploration and then I discovered the end of it, the flaw. I mean I’m not a cry baby. I have every right to do whatever I like and I don’t feel like I have to explain it to anybody. But to have my music and personal stuff leaked was a really humiliating and irritating experience…through my own mistake or not.”
At this point it seems Cox is not prepared to go much further and the interview looks to be all but over. “I hate to be a difficult. I just don’t talk about this stuff anymore. I started realising that every time I did an interview, I wished that I had shut the fuck up. I’m not going to say anything like that now. Those things are over… I mean I’m not trying to be Mr. Rock Star who doesn’t do interviews but I made with my band what I consider to be a classic album strong enough that it doesn’t need me to explain it. Its entrails are a lot less graphic or diseased than they might have been in the past. It’s not as much of a train wreck because none of the songs are autobiographical. None of the songs on Microcastle have anything to do with me.”
After a lengthy argument about the merit of interviews and whether human nature can naturally allow an artist’s work to speak for itself, Cox finally lets his guard down. Seeing him squirm under the weight of self-consciousness, it’s natural to wonder what happened to the uncompromising character that so many people were drawn to in the first place. Eventually, he reluctantly agrees to explain what drove him to such an extreme turnaround. Folding his long, waif-like legs into his chest, he assumes a foetal-like position and rocks gently back and forth on the couch, dropping the façade of bullish self-containment if only to bring closure to the matter.
“You get educated by your own mistakes. I guess I’ve become a little more hardened by ageing and realising that you can’t whine about everything. A lot of people don’t have the opportunity to sit there and masturbate over their feelings 24 hours a day. They have to work for a living. It’s just a rich white American thing to sit there and think about your ego all day. To be constantly analysing myself is not healthy so I just don’t think as much anymore. Sometimes you just have to take a shit, flush the toilet and walk away. I can still have moments where I can think about these kinds of things but, to me, to sit there and do an entire interview based on my psychology just seems like I’m not doing my job. That seems really self-obsessed, stupid, immature and bratty. If I was a fan, I would just roll my eyes.”
When reminded that it was his “pornographic honesty” that warranted a forum of Deerhunter fans following his every move, Cox seems genuinely regretful. “I know and sometimes that creeps me out, to be honest with you. I don’t set boundaries very well. It’s kind of like: Look at me! Don’t look at me! What are you looking at? Look at me, look at me! At first I was interested in everyone’s opinions of my idiosyncratic behaviour or whatever; then other times the whole thing grosses me out. Will people be able to appreciate a record if I don’t create a bunch of drama around it? That’s what I’m trying to figure out.”
If Cox fears that he may be considered more interesting than his work, he needn’t worry. Easily one of the most accomplished albums of the year, Microcastle is a well-produced and wonderfully cohesive whole. At times it’s intoxicatingly comforting; at others it rouses a feeling of invincibility. It expertly synthesises several decades of music, forging its own psychotic path through the canon of rock. In fact there could hardly be a better image for what Deerhunter have attempted to do with this record than the battered Coca-cola bottle top dangling around Cox’s neck: it’s the recycling of American icons (Roy Orbison, The Velvet Underground, Patti Smith, Television, Pavement and The Breeders) into something ornate that represents “the twilight of American culture”.
In that regard, Cox and co. have achieved what they set out to do. Not only is the music good enough to stand alone but it can withstand and transcend any peripheral distraction…But what the frontman fails to realise is that this was never the real issue. Whether provoking indignation, fascination or moral superiority, other people’s excessive behaviour gets us worked up because they reveal something reassuring about ourselves. We only realise what is normal by seeing others go too far; it’s what lets us know that we’re firmly and safely within the protective limits of society.
So not only has Bradford Cox explored the rules of convention for us, but he is the scrawny geek and self-confessed outsider that angst-ridden teenagers everywhere can relate to. Cox, however, is not prepared to be the unlikely poster boy for alienated teens in the way Kurt Cobain was for him; because for one thing, he hasn’t been able to move on from that part of his life. “I have not formed a post-adolescent identity,” he says. “If anything, I feel like my youth has lasted way too long and I’m stuck in it. I still feel 16. I’m very much stuck in a state of static adolescence.”
For that very reason, some might say that Cox is still entitled to exhibit all those distinctive teenage characteristics: the self-contradiction, the naivety, the shirking of responsibility, and, most of all, the mistakes you cringe over for the rest of your life. He just doesn’t want to do it in public anymore. So this is Bradford Cox, officially reinstating the dividing line between him and the music…but reserving the right to change his mind at any given moment.
“There are only a few things in my life that I’m certain of and those don’t change.” He sighs. “So I don’t know if I believe in control. Whether you do or not, everyone’s going to learn their lessons. The great thing about life is that there are so many possibilities. That’s the great thing about adolescence too: you’re kind of swimming with them. Then into adulthood, they pop like bubbles. All the ideas about where you’d be, who you’d be, or who you’d be with all just slowly…” he stops himself short. “But in the end, I’m far too young to be able to deal with that right now.”
From the new issue of Beat Happening. Available in music shops and venues across London.