In one breath, Daniel Lopatin is telling me that his new album, Age Of, was inspired by singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan, Bruce Cockburn, and Paul Simon. A minute later, he’s talking about the influence of the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU), an obscure 90s philosophy collective whose writings on techno culture have had a far bigger impact on art than their radical underground origins might suggest. Anybody familiar with Lopatin’s work as Oneohtrix Point Never could tell you that these seemingly contradictory ideas are, in fact, perfectly compatible – over the past decade, he’s used the flotsam of high and low culture as raw materials for his boundary-pushing experimental electronic music.
Lopatin’s last album, 2015’s Garden of Delete, was inspired by his time touring with Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden, embracing the heavy energy of those bands to explore the angst and trauma of his own teenage years. It was accompanied by a wild promotional campaign that involved cryptic web posts, mutagenic slime, and an acne-riddled alien teenager named Ezra. Age Of, by comparison, is more sedate, full of harpsichords, pianos, and most revealingly, human voices – including Lopatin’s own. It was made in bursts over a two-year period, during which time Lopatin was also producing for other musicians (ANOHNI, FKA twigs, Iggy Pop, and David Byrne amongst them) and soundtracking films like the Safdie brothers’ Good Time. During that time, Lopatin recognised the potential of bringing other artists into the world of Oneohtrix Point Never, and accordingly Age Of features James Blake, Kelsey Lu, and Prurient in its credits.
While finalising the record, Lopatin decamped to a house in the Massachusetts suburbs – a strange piece of architecture with no right angles, where his workspace faced out onto a glass window. “I had this cliche,” Lopatin says. “What do bands do when they need creative bursts? They head to a house, or they head to the woods. It made laugh, like, ‘Oh my god, that’s so stupid – I should try that!’” By day, it was idyllic, looking out onto hedgehogs and birds. By night, insects would bump against the glass, and he felt like he was being watched, a “Straw Dogs scenario” that highlighted Age Of’s tonal extremities. To distract himself, he watched films, and started formulating an apocalyptic, AI-based mythology around Age Of.
Late last week, Oneohtrix Point Never released the video for “Black Snow”, which not only features Lopatin’s own singing voice, but is also the first music video he’s directed himself. We called him up while he was preparing for an upcoming concert-cum-art installation at Red Bull Music Festival New York (he promises a show that uses sight, sculpture and smell) to talk about the themes of Age Of, humanity enacting its own destruction, and a collaboration with Usher that never came to be.
Can you explain the ‘Myriad’ mythology that’s behind this album?
Oneohtrix Point Never: Last summer, I was finalising the album in this very strange house alone in the suburbs. I was watching movies, and I got really obsessed with 2001. I started putting together a vague sketch for a story, a kind of libretto for an opera that involved an inverted 2001 scenario. Instead of aliens bequeathing a primitive sapien or ape with the ability to communicate, I imagined the opposite. It’s the end of the universe, and the only thing left is these AI who are gods. They have all the answers, and what they want is to actually be dumb, like us. They loiter like teenagers in a cemetery at night, and they hang out near this dead earth and they run these heuristic tests on it. They’re able to extract from it, to take this average of our experiences based on the sum of our recorded output – and the average is the music you would hear in this opera. It’s this epochal cycle, this four-part cycle that explains our repeated idiocy through time – the ways in which we always enact our own demise, over and over and over.
I know you used a lot of strange vocal effects on Garden of Delete. Why did you start using human voices on Age Of?
Oneohtrix Point Never: I wanted to be a little bit more explicit about it being my voice on this one, but I can’t really think of any good reason for that. There have been moments in the past where I’ve done that. I always think of this one song that’s part of the Rifts anthology of early stuff I did – it’s kind of a Syd Barrett-sounding song called ‘I Know It’s Taking Pictures From Another Plane (Inside Your Sun)’, this egregiously long title. My friend played it for me in a car about a year ago, just to fuck with me, and I was like, ‘Oh, it’s kind of good?’ I think I was spurred on by working with a lot of singers and being in awe of their abilities. Certainly my vocal range is a tiny little box, but I don’t mind. I’ve always been obsessed with the grain of the human voice. It’s the ultimate instrument, there’s this whole level of virtuosity and poetry, a sort of athleticism, of controlling your voice.
When I was on tour with ANOHNI (Lopatin co-produced her album HOPELESSNESS), Usher was at the first show. He asked to speak with me, like, ‘Hey, why don’t you demo some stuff with me?’ So I got into this whole thing of listening to peak Jermaine Dupri-era stuff and thinking about just how incredible Usher’s voice was. But at the same time, when I was demoing for him, I wanted to imagine him augmenting my topline, so I had to embarrassingly create that topline. And then once I did, I kind of loved how bad – well, not bad (laughs) – but how ‘me’ it was. It wasn’t virtuosity, it was something more interesting than that, in a way. It was an important thing for me to do because (after so many collaborations) I wanted to get back into doing stuff for myself.
And that didn’t go anywhere?
Oneohtrix Point Never: No, no, it didn’t go anywhere. There were a lot of things like that, just a constant flow of trying (things out). Some things would work really well and some things wouldn’t work so well, but it didn’t matter because it was kind of an awakening for me, where I was really, really interested in what someone else might get from my sense of melody, or my sense of arrangement, or my opinions of the best way to do something.
How did you wind up working with ANOHNI, James Blake, and Kelsey Lu?
Oneohtrix Point Never: ANOHNI was like, my gateway OPN collaborator, because (years earlier) we had done the 7” rendition of ‘Returnal’ with me on piano and her singing, so I was like, ‘OK, let’s just start with ANOHNI because she’s 100 per cent OPN-approved.’ (laughs)
The other relationships were more spontaneous, but rooted in stuff that was happening in my life. I saw Lu at a concert in New York one night and just couldn’t believe what was happening – just, like, physically, my hair was standing up on its side. I hadn’t had anything like that happen for a very long time in a concert. There were pockets of time when I was in the studio and she rolled through. Originally she meant to bring her cello, but it got bashed up on a plane, so she just turned up, and that was even better, because there was no plan. She jumped on my Yamaha VL1 keyboard and was playing these insane flute and saxophone sounds and making them completely her own.
Prurient is an old friend of mine, going way back to the New England noise scene I was part of in the early 2000s. To me, his voice is his instrument. That texture that he brings was utterly in line with everything that I was thinking about on the record.
With James, it was also spontaneous. I had gotten to a point where the record was nearly finished, but not quite, and I wanted to start talking about arrangement. I really wanted to talk to someone who’s a musician and whose studio work I admire, so I just reached out to James on a whim. I was ecstatic, because his arrangements are just so unique, his music is incredible. It really helped to talk to him because – and I would never compare my singing to his, he literally has the voice of a cherub – but because he understands so clearly how he wants to be recorded, I thought that he would understand certain aspects of what I wanted to do with my own voice. I went out to LA to finish it with him there.
“It’s the end of the universe, and the only thing left is these AI who are gods. They have all the answers, and what they want is to actually be dumb, like us” – Oneohtrix Point Never
You also worked with Eli Keszler, who is quite an unusual percussionist.
Oneohtrix Point Never: I’ve always described his playing as bacterial. He’s able to parallax into very small, very acute, very specific relationships between percussive textures. It’s beyond just being a drummer, he’s a world-building percussionist. Again, he’s somebody I’ve known for a very long time, like Dom (Prurient), going back to the scene in New England and Boston. We were all in the (same) orbit together, but I had never really explicitly worked with him until now.
I noticed in your new ‘Black Snow’ video that there’s a lot of imagery that also appears in the MYRIAD trailer that recently came out – things like radioactive waste, for example. How does the video play into the album and the whole visual universe you’re establishing with it?
Oneohtrix Point Never: I think it all dates back to this conversation I had on tour with ANOHNI. We had just gotten to Spain for her tour and were setting up to rehearse, and as is the case often with ANOHNI, she has bigger problems on her mind than just practising, particularly with the subject matter around HOPELESSNESS – a lot of it had to do with eco disasters that we’ve introduced into the environment and the consequences of our meddling with shit. And I think I was just fed up and wanting to rehearse, and I said some nihilistic shit on the lines of, ‘We’re all gonna be consumed by the sun anyway, who gives a shit?’
She did not take to that kindly. We got into a very serious family moment. She challenged me and urged me to think about what I had said, and to maybe think about what’s happening now in a different way. And I did. So I think that a lot of the compulsive imagery and sketching of the Anthropocene that happens on the record has to do with that conversation, and it has to do with me being honest with myself about now, and that endpoint, and bridging them together in a poetic way.
The code, or acronym of ‘Myriad’, is ‘My Record = Internet Addiction Disorder’. But ‘Myriad’ also means ‘My Ryad’, and a ryad is a home. So there’s a constant parallaxing into those words, that internal private space that everyone strives for in their lives where they can have their own defined sense of the world, and the outside world, that we permeate and we affect. They need each other to make sense of each other. That’s kind of what I’m trying to get to, how I see it, and how I neurotically deal with those thoughts. Because I’m not her (ANOHNI), I don’t see things that way necessarily all the time.
In the ‘Black Snow’ video, what’s going on in a sense is it’s kind of like a self-portrait. I’m analysing my own selfishness. Puppet, the main character, is just trying to do his own shit, to be internal and closed off. But he’s in effect both actualising and actualised by the outside world, which is in turmoil. He has to somehow come to a consensus with himself of how he fits in with that demise.
The MYRIAD trailer also features a lot of apocalyptic imagery, like nuclear bombs, Behold a Pale Horse, and lizard conspiracy stuff. What led you towards these recurring images that appear in online end-of-days communities?
Oneohtrix Point Never: It just amuses me. It makes me laugh – not just that way of thinking, but the way in which people posit it and put it into the world. There’s this endless chain of recurring imagery that seems to frame our demise by our own making. I don’t find it to be epic or traumatic, I find it to be perfectly us. We’re little ego babies. In the Myriad lore, when the AI run these heuristics tests, they’re just getting these things we sent out. And I thought it’d be funny if the things they got back was just this illogical shit to do with our narcissism.
I suppose if you were trying to teach an AI about humankind by feeding it data from the internet, that would have to include Twitter memes, YouTube prank videos, reptile conspiracies, and all these bizarre elements of human thought that don’t totally represent us, but also totally do.
Oneohtrix Point Never: I love this book (Rabelais and His World) by Mikhail Bakhtin, who is a Soviet literary critic. He writes about Gargantua and Pantagruel and says that what’s brilliant about the book is that it reinvigorates and revitalises all the scatological humour and laughter, all the whispers and dirty jokes, that are told in secret – all of the stuff that’s really the meat of life is contained in this book. And history doesn’t contain any of that! History is written in this completed, perverted way by perverted people with perverted amounts of power, about other perverted people with perverted amounts of power. A true assessment by omniscient AI of what we left behind would recognise that that stuff shouldn’t take up more hard drive space than all the other good shit. When you look at an artist like Jon Rafman, for instance, if there’s a modern day François Rabelais, it’s him, because he’s very aware of the folkloric potency of the internet and how that’s actually where vital shit is going on.