Deerhunter – Hunter’s Licence
July 5, 2009 § Leave a comment
Published: The Big Issue #330, June 2009.
Bradford Cox – the skeletal (and flamboyant) frontman of Atlanta rockers Deerhunter – looms large in his band’s eccentric, and increasingly successful, brand of pop.
It doesn’t take long for a theme to emerge in our conversation, and it’s a sticky one. Squawking into his mobile phone on a steamy afternoon in his hometown of Atlanta, Georgia, frightfully tall, bone-skinny Deerhunter front man Bradford Cox is in the mood for, err, arousal.
“I want to know what gives you the hard-on, you know?” he jibes. “It’s all about erections back here.”
“It’s like a prostitution thing I’ve got going – journalist after journalist,” he quips at another point, letting loose a mad, high-pitched cackle on the afternoon traffic. “I have to get you to come in like 45 seconds.”
The manic personality, the overt sexuality, the almost fearsome exuberance; they’re all key strands of what has become one of music’s most visceral, brutal and oddly beautiful experiences.
Since forming in 2001, Deerhunter have fashioned a sound that doesn’t lend itself to academic analysis. The quartet’s swirl of earth-shattering noise, intoxicating ambience, masterful pop hooks and melodies is all about the senses. It touches, it envelops, it engulfs; the site of a gaunt, 6’4 Cox prowling the stage in little more than a glittering frock only adds to the overload.
“You can never control music,” says the 26-year-old, who is on a break from touring the group’s acclaimed third record Microcastle. “It controls you. You’re a slave to what happens once the tape’s rolling.”
“I’m really interested in collages and junk shops and thrift stores,” he continues. “And it’s the same with music – it’s all about these discarded bits laying around, like drums, bass, a little bit of tape noise, whatever.”
There are far more layers to Deerhunter’s ambient noise than Cox’s assertions suggest. Born with Marfan syndrome (a genetic condition that affects connective tissue and gives him unusually long and thin limbs), Cox has always sensed otherness. His cross-dressing stage antics seem a calculated play on this.
He describes his initial attraction to music as purely “mechanical”. Rather than taking his lead from charismatic front men and lightning-fingered lead guitarists, he got his kicks out of the working bits and pieces. “Man, I was just into guitars, photographs on the covers, drums, the sound when you plug into an amp, the look microphones that kind of stuff,” he says.
“I’ve never been one for personalities; I was never attracted to front man type stuff.”
Deerhunter’s creative trajectory has been equally unconventional. Rising out of the same Atlanta underground scene that produced the crazed punk-isms of Black Lips, Deerhunter’s early years were riddled with personal turbulence. Their abrasive 2004 debut Turn It Up Faggot – a slur regularly levelled at the band in their early days, according Cox – came in the wake of tragedy, after the group’s original bassist Justin Bosworth died from head injuries suffered in skateboarding accident. The record’s storm of mess-strewn, droned noise and pummelling rhythm mirrored the anger and turmoil of grief expressed in Cox’s liner notes.
Nonetheless, Cox refutes any suggestion of autobiography. “Everything I’ve done has been completely stream-of-consciousness,” he says flatly. “It’s totally anti-composition and in terms of the words…you mumble into the microphone and then walk into the control room and it just sounds like you’re saying this or that and you just write it that way.”
It’s hard to believe. The band’s second album Cryptograms (2007) was nothing if not studied. With new member Josh Fauver joining Cox, drummer Moses Archuleta and guitarist Lockett Pundt, with the band paired back the noise to introduce layer upon layer of subtle textural differences. Flashes of dissonance were tempered by the relative calm of much of the record’s instrumental material.
The widescreen psychedelic tropes of last year’s opus Microcastle, have the group sounding like a fully-fledged experimental pop band, replete with a clutch of catchy, minor key melodies and opaque, shoe-gaze dynamics.
But for Cox, the record doesn’t signify a great change of tack. “I have no idea how we ended up being a pop band,” he laughs. “There’s kind of a blurring that occurs between everything, like pop and noise and ambience and I don’t really know where it begins and ends.”
“Like Christian Fennesz did that kind of perverted electronic cover of the Beach Boys track ‘Don’t Talk, Put Your Head on My Shoulder’ – which is one of my favourite pop songs of all time – and he just reinterpreted that classic pop song into computer noise. It just shows you that there’s hardly any difference between the two, and I just find that arousing.”
Indeed, for Cox – his frock-wearing onstage persona included – music is purely of the moment. It is senses, synapses and stimulation. “Half of it is a trance and then the other half of it is the critical response to the trance, and it gets to be this third entity that’s not even related to reality.”
That said, his ambitions for his performances are simple enough. “Our shows aren’t some religious explosion of light – I mean they can be, any rock show can be – but we’re just trying to perform to the best of our ability and make people happy and get people off,” he says.
“My number one goal is to be of use to people and to give them something they can enjoy, even for just a moment.”
By Dan Rule
Deerhunter tour Australia from June 11
Microcastle is out now through 4AD/Remote Control