Deerhunter - "Spring Hall Convert" (from Cryptograms)
“I think awkwardness is our one and only engaging quality.” This comes from Bradford Cox, the front man of Atlanta five-piece Deerhunter.
Cryptograms, the band’s second LP, will be released by Kranky on January 29. Something about it feels anomalous in the context of both the mellow, mildly academic label’s back catalog and indie music generally, and this is exciting. While there are few unprocessed sounds on the album’s 12 tracks, it’s thoroughly rooted in pop – more importantly, it engages with pop in a broad way rarely heard since we began to create a genre definition for indie. It’s pop that lives in symbiosis with feedback and structures songs around mistakes.
It might be easier to suggest an influence from Brian Eno’s pop records and The Jesus & Mary Chain – both of which are pretty surface-level and avowed by the band – but it would also be absurdly incomplete. Getting at what Cryptograms actually feels like calls up a haunted house version of high school (this is how Cox describes the novel Closer by his favorite writer, Dennis Cooper) and swimming in strangers’ pools at night. You know, teenage suburban boy things.
Cox’s diet-of-Butterfingers and holey Chucks vibe belies the intensity with which he pursues songwriting. “Lockett [Pundt, guitar] and I have been playing together since whenever,” he says. “I started doing 4-track stuff on my own in high school, and it’s still how I write music. It’s random. I don't usually work on just one song, but instead I record eight songs in like 20 minutes, and then sort out what’s worth keeping later. All of my energy goes into recording songs, so I have like 12 new songs to bring to the band each week.”
It’s incredible, then, that the band’s untitled debut record was released in 2004. Cox describes it as a “premature statement,” and it took the band a year to get back into the studio to begin recording Cryptograms. The initial sessions yielded nothing, and Cox remembers himself “freaking out. I was completely emotionally and physically wasted. I'd sit down in front of the piano and roll the tape and just play a really sparse plinky thing and then everyone would just be like ‘what the fuck are we supposed to play over that?’ It was terrible. I had not learned to detach and keep big pictures in mind.”
Upon returning to the same studio in rural Georgia that had been the site of the initial meltdown, the band recorded Cryptograms in two days. Cox explains his approach to recording in a way that partially explains why the band’s ‘mature’ statement took two attempts: “What I basically do is set everything up, like create tension or push things in a certain direction and then bitch everyone out when it doesn’t turn out that way. I'm kind of like a pretentious middle-school Eno wannabe in that sense.”
Despite this, using “front man” to describe Cox is an uncomfortable fit. Cryptograms oscillates between pop patterns and drones on something like a song-to-song basis. The transition from “Red Ink” (a slowly eddying drone drawing on Cox’s voice and accordion and bell playing, with treatments by drummer Moses Archuleta) to a four-song stretch of the album’s poppiest songs feels like a serious negotiation between sensibilities.
Despite the give-and-take that marks the album's flow, the weirdly archaic title of "front man" may be the only designation that works. Cox’s appearance is the focus of their polarizing performances (see the “actual testimony” from Deerhunter show attendees posted on their MySpace page for anecdotes about Cox’s pink slip-clad antics), while his voice, and multi-instrumental interventions are the focus of their recordings.
“I don’t write all of the music,” Cox explains, “but I control the final output.” Archuleta, Josh Fauver, Colin Mee, and Pundt play everything from synth pads to Hammond organ on the album, but are primarily responsible for drums, bass, and guitars, respectively.
Cox seems amused rather than put out by what people tend to read into Deerhunter. A lot of people, he says, “think we’re like hipster vegans, which is really funny to me. That, or they assume I'm a heroin addict just from how I look. People I know that are junkies never get that.”
Similarly, attempts at parsing them musically through the influences we ascribe them fall short. Deerhunter’s a band that has its Loveless moments but mostly has this long-limbed musical intelligence that draws things together in an uncomfortably satisfying way. Kind of like a big skateboarding bruise on your hip that turns a new color each day and whose throbbing is a pleasant distraction from Geography class or whatever.
“I’m really into people who invented their own languages, people who had nothing they were mimicking aesthetically,” says Cox. The artists he admires most are those who, “like Wu-Tang or The Velvet Underground or Dead C or Suicide…might be used in a class on ‘How Not To Be Successful.’”
Though the band’s sounds are mostly mediated by effects pedals and treatments, even the disorienting, untraceable sounds of an ambient track like “White Ink” are collaged carefully and spontaneously enough to prepare the space needed for the kraut-footed stomp of “Lake Somerset.” “There are times when our music takes on this clarity,” Cox says, “and there are even times when it becomes something totally pop and not at all clouded, but that’s what you get when you are in a group of people collaborating on a sound. I, personally, am much more moved by the crackle and hiss and the lulling nature of like heavy fuzz. Like The Jesus and Mary Chain, it’s just white noise layered over Shangri-La’s songs.”
There’s a certain kind of classicism at work throughout Cryptograms. While they’re not copying the masters, Deerhunter is far from trying to be the vanguard. It’s indicative of the openness of the musical climate in 2007 that we can talk about “folk” without the qualifier “freak” and that rock bands no longer need token no-wave gestures to avoid irony. While those in the criticism camps might be more and more receptive to Deerhunter’s approach as the year progresses, the band still feel like outcasts in their hometown (though they have a close relationship to The Black Lips) and seem to frequently bum out audiences, not least on a recent tour with Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
“Somebody said to me recently that we were like the Todd Solondz of garage rock,” Cox says. “We’re always controversial, whether we intend to be or not. I’ve always noticed how polarized kids are with us: they either freak out and come up to me and talk about taking ecstasy in a Ford Taurus with their best friend and want to know all this stuff about the effects pedals we use or they write us death threats.”
This is perfectly fine with Cox, and it’s a reaction he seems to court. He says indie culture is nothing more than “a bunch of attractive straight people patting themselves on the back about how ‘open-minded’ they are” but digs equally into the alienating machismo of CD-R noise dude culture. “I just don’t relate to that shit at all,” Cox says, “I just don’t think it’s productive energy. A thousand bands that sound exactly alike. I feel like I’m constantly trying to posture myself against this image of indie liberal socialist queer-friendly environmental yadda yadda.”
Cox’s beef is with eliteism rather than any specific subculture. And, as endearing and refreshing as their awkwardness is in the face of clinical, effective indie bands that communicate not affect but rather the idea of having feelings, Cox recognizes the limitations of the approach: “The thing about that awkwardness is it prevents us from achieving what we're really aiming for sonically and aesthetically from even enjoying the kind of social side of it.”
Deerhunter have given themselves a lot of room to flesh out their lanky frames on Cryptograms. If the dosage of panic-driven, propulsive ambient jams on the album is any indication, outgrowing their awkwardness will be a pretty great thing. The band’s plans for 2007 include trying to play more shows to spread out the songs from Cryptograms and upcoming releases a little more. Cox also wants “to teach the band a bunch of new songs I've got. I have like 12 albums written; I have literally hundreds of tapes lying around. I want to do a new record very soon after this one.”
By Brandon Bussolini