A.G. Cook’s chaotic pop collective were SoundCloud sensations on a mission to turn the music industry inside out
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It’s January 24, 2014. SOPHIE and A. G. Cook are playing in the basement of Dalston’s Power Lunches, one of London’s best small venues and one which, like many great clubs in the capital, will later close down. The room is heaving, though I’m not sure how many people are actually inside, as the venue’s walls are covered in floor-to-ceiling mirrors that make the space feel like it goes on forever. Besides, I can barely see an inch in front of my face – a smoke machine has been pumping fog onto the dancefloor since doors opened, and a pink strobe light is flashing directly into my eyeline. There’s definitely a vibe here tonight, and the room explodes when SOPHIE plays. Pop vocals are pitched up by a million semitones, synth melodies feel like they were stretched out of plastic, tracks rush and the bass drops with the intensity of collapsing scaffolding. I leave the venue feeling like my brain has been turned inside out.
When the PC Music label and collective first appeared in London’s electronic music scene, they felt totally out-of-step with what was going on around them. Founded by Alex ‘A. G.’ Cook around six months before that Power Lunches show, PC Music’s dizzying mash-up of trashy pop, hardstyle tempos, trance melodies, happy hardcore euphoria, twisted grime, Korean and Japanese pop hookiness, Rustie and HudMo-style elation, 80s MIDI pop, and trippy elevator music felt as bold and inventive as the most avant-garde music, but as immediately gratifying as the most mainstream pop song. “A network of younger producers and DJs are not particularly inclined towards the more po-faced and straight-laced tastes and traditions, be they the screwface macho mainline of the old UK hardcore continuum or the leagues of frowning analogue avants or the Right and Proper Preservation of House,” wrote musicologist and Infinite Music author Adam Harper in Electronic Beats at the time. “They’d rather have the even more euphoric, poppy, often faster-paced melodic hardcore with pitched-up vocals… and a pinch of weirdness thrown in.”
Today, PC Music has outgrown its origins in the UK scene. SOPHIE – a close associate of PC Music, but never technically signed to the label – has worked with Madonna and Lady Gaga, and was nominated for a Grammy for her debut album Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides. A. G. Cook is now Charli XCX’s creative director, and was a producer on Number 1 Angel, Pop 2, and Charli. Other stars from the label have released big projects too: Hannah Diamond recently put out her debut album Reflections, while Danny L Harle co-produced Caroline Polachek’s sublime Pang. What’s more, ‘PC Music’ has become its own subgenre, a catchword for a certain type of sleek, colourful, unusual electronic pop. They were one of the most influential labels of the 2010s, inspiring DIY musicians, mainstream pop stars, EDM festival headliners, and SoundCloud rappers alike.
“PC Music was the first wave of taking shit that was lowbrow and making it highbrow, without being too cool for school,” says electronic musician Skrillex. “It was so artful, but also disruptive, and it spoke to the weirdos.”
A. G. Cook started PC Music back in June 2013, around the time he was graduating from his Music Computing course at Goldsmiths, University of London. In one of his first interviews, he cited Tim & Eric, Ryan Trecartin, Max Martin, and Scritti Politti as major influences, and he brought these idiosyncratic tastes to the music he was making, both on his own, and as one half of Dux Content with Daniel ‘Danny L’ Harle, an old school friend he’d reconnected with at university. Cook had experimented with running a collective before via the short-lived Gamsonite label, but it was an unfinished research project he’d started called ‘Personal Computer Music’ that lit the fuse for his next move. “I was trying to think about how you could make music on the computer that had personality, or felt very intimate or uncanny,” Cook recalls today. “I was burned out on studying, and wanted to test these ideas in the real world.”
In PC Music’s earliest days, Cook was cast as something of a svengali figure. Not only did he produce much of the label’s music, he also took on an A&R role that encompassed management and artist development. Instead of searching for aspiring singers to voice the tracks he was writing, Cook would record his friends instead, treating these non-vocalists as if they were major label stars. “Anyone who has a strong personality could be a valid pop vocalist,” says Cook of PC Music’s early approach to recording. “If they’ve got something funny to say, or an interesting take on something, that cuts it for me. I was fascinated with the idea of vocals in general. I ended up preferring tracks where there was this distance between how slick the vocal was versus the instrumental. Or where you remove all the breaths, and that feels really strange. Or you amplify all the breaths, and make that part of the music. It’s one of the reasons it sounds fun and bonkers.”
If Cook’s approach was to present these non-artists like they were already the most famous pop stars on the planet, then audiences responded in kind. I remember watching Hannah Diamond play her first ever live show at the Edition Hotel in central London in April 2014, where she presented herself on-stage like a Y2K-era hit singer, dressed in a boob tube and flares and miming her songs into a cordless mic. The crowd gave her the sort of rapturous response usually reserved for bona fide icons, because in the topsy-turvy PC Music galaxy, Hannah Diamond was an icon. The label didn’t market their artists through carefully planned interviews, live sessions, radio playlist placements, and tours – instead, they bestowed prestige upon them with high quality photo shoots usually reserved for glossy fashion spreads and ‘feat’ credits on each other’s songs that were more commonly found in mainstream pop and rap. “The attitude that anyone can make music on a laptop with friends, make one hyper-sleek portrait, and declare themselves a pop star was massively influential on contemporary music,” says Caroline Polachek. “Except it was genuinely cheeky when PC Music did it, ’cause it was a marketing-themed game, and not game-themed marketing.”
“Anyone who has a strong personality could be a valid pop vocalist. If they’ve got something funny to say, or an interesting take on something, that cuts it for me” – A. G. Cook
No one would have suspended their disbelief about these artists if they didn’t look the part, and PC Music’s visual identity was as much a part of its initial appeal as the music. They were a DIY label – they didn’t have management or PR representation for a long time after they started – but where most DIY artists tended to use imagery as lo-fi as their music, Cook embraced smooth CGI renderings that matched their sleekly produced, high fidelity pop. The Guardian summed up the label’s aesthetic by describing “promo pics that make its artists look like X Factor contestants from 2054” and an art style that was “somewhere between an edition of Just 17 and a shopping centre in Shibuya”. PC Music didn’t invent this art style (other collectives operating around the same time, like DIS, were mining similar territory), but they were perhaps the first to create a multimedia package around it. “The idea of tying a personality and a product with that imagery does feel very PC,” Cook says, “but individually, there are all these different sources for it.”
It helped that Hannah Diamond knew how to create an iconic image. A former fashion and styling student, and the co-founder and photo director of the online publication LOGO Magazine, Diamond crafted her hyperreal look herself, even doing her own retouching. There was definitely more to the label’s aesthetic than just this style of imagery, but photos of Hannah Diamond wearing a powder pink North Face jacket or looking forlorn in large hoop earrings helped define PC Music’s identity at the start.
This wouldn’t have mattered if the music didn’t work on its own merits. Between 2014 and 2015, PC Music was acting like a SAW-style hit factory, putting out an assembly line of new releases almost every week. It was a smart way to introduce listeners to its gang: the aforementioned Cook, Harle, and Diamond, as well as Kane West (real name Gus Lobban, one-third of the indie-pop trio Kero Kero Bonito and studying in the year below Cook at Goldsmiths), electro-punk singer GFOTY, or Girlfriend of the Year (school friend Polly-Louisa Salmon), songwriter and producer easyFun (Finn Keane), algo-raver Lil Data (Jack Armitage), Anglo-Polish experimental artist felicita (Dominik Dvorak), as well as any number of additional aliases like Life Sim or Thy Slaughter. It reminded me of collectives like Ed Banger and Odd Future, a group of individuals with different approaches who are all still bound by a shared aesthetic.
I was always amazed by the sheer breadth of ideas on display during this period, and how much fun you could tell the artists had making this music. PC Music was often described as “the future of pop”, and while people like A. G. Cook, Danny L Harle, and Finn Keane were enormously gifted songwriters (as weird as a song like “Attachment” might be, it was clearly written by someone with a grasp of melodic pop technique), ‘pop’ only told part of the story. DJ Warlord’s abrasive rave music was a far cry from Kane West’s genuinely funky take on Chicago house, while GFOTY’s noisy electronic tracks were hardly comparable to Life Sim’s gorgeous trance melodies. The constant trickle of new releases was exciting in a way that the current flood-the-marketplace model of Spotify drops isn’t, as you never really knew what to expect. “I love the idea that the monthly drop could be a new artist, or these different genres coming out one week after the next,” Cook says. “The regular artist drops of the Spotify and major labels I do find boring. It’s more about keeping the stats high. I find myself losing my excitement for certain artists.”
PC Music’s mixes were perhaps the best representation of how diverse its sound could be, combining things usually discarded as trashy – whether dance music subcultures that never entered the critical canon, like happy hardcore, or once-mainstream sounds that were otherwise written off as novelty, like Europop – alongside bootleg remixes of pop, rap, and grime tracks. These mixes proved to be surprisingly influential. “PC Music’s mixes... would definitely be one of my biggest influences, especially the early mixes,” 100 gecs’ Laura Les told Mixmag earlier this year. “Their music has just always felt like the perfect representation of freedom in the age of the internet.” EDM star Porter Robinson expressed a similar sentiment to The FADER, describing the impact they had on his Virtual Self project: “I remember listening to a mix on their SoundCloud three years ago, before it was so focused on pop, that incorporated elements of hardstyle, jumpstyle, and trance. It was the first time I felt like somebody was looking back on those sounds in a way that was referential.”
As the label started to find fans online, it also piqued the intrigue of the music press. PC Music’s conceptual ideas – lyrics about personal identity in the digital age back when this was more of a novelty and less of a banality, the winking use of advertising and marketing jargon, etc. – were catnip for critics in an era where internet writing veered towards cultural opinion pieces and first-person essays. As Pitchfork wrote, the label posed “a set of critical questions about pop culture, accelerationism, hyperrealism, digital communities, gender, identity, and consumerism”, and for a while it felt as if a new thinkpiece discussing one or all of these themes in relation to PC Music was popping up every other week.
“The attitude that anyone can make music on a laptop with friends, make one hyper-sleek portrait, and declare themselves a pop star was massively influential... Except it was genuinely cheeky when PC Music did it, ’cause it was a marketing-themed game, and not game-themed marketing” – Caroline Polachek
PC Music had no manifesto, and at first, few of its artists really gave interviews, leaving the label’s intentions up for interpretation. No one could conclusively say what PC Music ‘meant’, but this didn’t stop its harshest critics declaring that it embodied “ironic detachment”, was just “dicking around with incredibly vague ‘concepts’ that require the listener to sink six layers into a web of irony”, or was making “pure, contemptuous parody”. PC Music was divisive, for sure, but such divisiveness was expected given Cook’s own artistic outlook. “I always tend to avoid the middle ground – I really like pop music, or something very avant-garde, but when it’s too in-between and too tasteful, I find that boring,” he says. The ‘irony’ critique feels a little outdated today, given how almost all music fandoms incorporate some degree of irony – you can find meme pages for even the most serious custodians of techno. Cook adds that a lot of people might have just conflated one artist’s intentions with another. “Some people would be doing stuff that was a little bit satirical, like Girlfriend of the Year,” he says. “And then someone like Hannah Diamond’s stuff is very sincere and actually a real expression. Some people just wouldn’t even believe that.”
While there was definitely humour in the music, it wasn’t a joke. It was too good to be. When A. G. Cook and Danny L Harle were writing Dux Content’s “Voice of an Angel”, they decided to create about ten hooks and layer them on top of one another; the song was also in a complex 15/8 time signature, rather than the typical 4/4. It’s a funny concept, but it requires a commitment and technical dexterity to make this actually sound good. The same goes for a lot of other PC Music tracks. Get past its initial weirdness, and “Keri Baby” swings with all the funk of a Dr. Dre production. Listen to a pitched-down version of QT’s “Hey QT” and you’ll hear a fairly straightforward dance-pop song. No one writes music like this if they truly hold pop music in disdain.
Gus Lobban, whose Western Beats EP as Kane West remains one of my favourite PC Music releases, says that they were just responding to what they grew up with. “Rave references and textural semantics didn’t mean anything to a generation with N64s underneath their family TVs,” he says. “We found more meaning in things like General MIDI, chart pop production, and homemade websites – the kitsch digital products that constructed our addictive, complex hyperreality. Deep down, I think we shared an attitude to our era. Our generation responds to art that’s dazzling, funny, and tragic all at once, like a pensioner’s Geocities page, or the S Club 7 CD singles we enjoyed when we were seven. In other words, like life has been as long as we can remember it.”
As time went on, these criticisms became moot. For starters, PC Music was becoming too popular for this to matter: SOPHIE’s “Lemonade” ended up in an actual McDonald’s advert for frozen lemonade, and Kim Kardashian was channelling Hannah Diamond’s QT photography in a campaign for the Hype Energy drink. “It obviously ended up on a bunch of moodboards,” Cook says. Plus, PC Music could hardly be accused of mocking pop music when it was actively working within the pop music industry – the more attention the group received, the more the traditional labels wanted to work with them. As much as PC Music presented itself as a pseudo-major label, Cook’s goal was always “to really get close to actual labels and artists. At the same time, we didn’t really know what that entailed. So we were also lost in the metaphor.”
PC Music’s first ‘crossover’ moment was “Hey QT”. The song was released by XL Recordings (home to Adele, Radiohead, and more) and recorded by A. G. Cook and SOPHIE, but attributed to ‘QT’ – a fictional pop star whose name stood for Quinn Thomas, who in real life was created and portrayed by performance artist Hayden Dunham, who was promoting a fictional energy drink called DrinkQT, which was then promoted at an event sponsored by the IRL energy drink Red Bull, which then also ended up becoming a real energy drink (look, it’s hard to explain...). SOPHIE and Cook both saw pop potential in the song prior to its release, but weren’t really sure how to navigate the music industry at the time, speaking to labels like Ministry of Sound about maybe releasing it. It was framed as an indie release when it eventually came out. “They were seeing it as a kind of white label, almost, and we were like, ‘No, no, this is for the charts!’ We didn’t really know,” says Cook. “We were very new to it, but we were very much of the belief that you should go hard and see where it goes.”
The fact that PC Music even wanted this music to chart says a lot about why I fell in love with the collective in the first place. I’ve always been obsessed with music that starts life in a genuine underground scene or movement and crosses over into the mainstream on its own terms, taking experimental sounds and new ideas into the popular consciousness with it. The late cultural theorist Mark Fisher once lamented that, with the internet splintering off into micro-communities and individualised marketing, the “circuit between the experimental, the avant-garde, and the popular” had disappeared from contemporary pop culture. “Instead,” he said, “what we have is Experimental™, which is actually well established genres with their own niche markets which have no relation to a mainstream. The mainstream still exists, but in a more unchallenged way than previously.” I don’t know if the mainstream could ever really accommodate PC Music without diluting its ideas, but I certainly wished it could. A. G. Cook did too.
“I always tend to avoid the middle ground – I really like pop music, or something very avant-garde, but when it’s too in-between and too tasteful, I find that boring” – A. G. Cook
“Part of me does want to believe that you can communicate not-too-patronising ideas of something and watch it grow in different directions,” he says. “It makes me happier about the world when you see people responding to something complex in an intuitive way. It’s a big motivation, just to believe those ideas can travel.” For Cook, pop music should always be new on some level. “It’s not like the entire pop song could get away with being like Lipgloss Twins, but you could have one of those sounds in there and it actually would work. I believe that, and I think it obviously has been proven loads of times.”
In October 2015, PC Music signed a deal with Columbia Records UK. Partnering with an actual major label felt like a realisation of all of PC Music’s ambitions, and Columbia quickly set to work re-releasing a new version of Danny L Harle’s “Broken Flowers”, the most obvious pure pop moment to come out of the collective. The track became a minor radio hit – I remember my friend telling me her 18-year-old sister and her mates would all listen to it while getting ready for a night out – and the track eventually got promoted to BBC Radio 1’s A-list, meaning that one of the UK’s most popular radio stations would be playing the song around 25 times per week. Around the same time, A. G. Cook produced two tracks for Li Yuchun, AKA Chris Lee, a massive pop star in China (to get a gauge of just how big, consider that the finale of Super Girl, the TV talent contest she made her name by winning, was watched by 280 million people) but relatively unknown outside of her home country. It looked like PC Music’s major label deal was bearing fruit straight away, with the collective poised to become the globally-facing “future of pop” they were always touted as.
Yet when I went to Beijing to report on Tomorrow’s Party, the art exhibition where Chris Lee was launching the single, PC Music’s former creative director Finn Mactaggart explained that the collaboration was independent from the Columbia deal, and came together through an unlikely set of circumstances rather than any carefully plotted maneuverings. It turned out that what seemed slick on the outside was less straightforward internally.
Cook was smart enough to know that major labels will sign just about anybody so long as they’ve hit a certain threshold of streams, or have the right management, and was sure to not take any deal that would limit the artists’ creative control. Cook says he learned a lot about the industry and marketing from meeting with different record labels, but the head of A&R at Columbia at the time was one of the only people who didn’t just see PC Music as a novelty group, but believed in their actual songwriting talents. After PC Music played a SXSW showcase as a collective, they were offered a JV (Joint Venture) deal, “almost like an A&R role”, Cook says. PC Music could keep releasing music, even without the involvement of the major, and the group could sign any artists they discovered to Columbia. But the nature of signing individual artists got awkward, putting Cook into a “funny A&R territory, where you’re sort of A&Ring your friends, but also wanting to look out for them and get them involved”.
The first artist that PC Music signed as part of the Columbia deal was Danny L Harle, but beyond the specific task of promoting “Broken Flowers” and facilitating “Super Natural”, a wonderful collaboration with Carly Rae Jepsen, it was hard for a major label to contextualise PC Music’s work. Harle wasn’t keen on repeating himself with another UK dance track, QT was always intended to be a one-off project, and nobody wanted to compromise Hannah Diamond’s unique, yet far from radio-friendly, vocal style. “The idea of changing up her sound in a big way felt like the worst thing that could happen,” Cook says. Eventually, he and easyFun started easyFX, a collaboration that would see them write and produce songs which Columbia would then give to emerging vocalists. But major labels are dysfunctional places, and just as the project was getting off the ground, Columbia’s management changed, and PC Music lost its biggest supporters at the label. PC Music and Danny L Harle were dropped, although they did get to keep their master recordings.
“It was a bit of a shock, and felt a little bit apocalyptic, because it was like the same week that Trump got elected,” Cook says. “At the same time, it was kind of like, ‘No, that was one way of doing it. We can still continue doing pretty much what we’re doing.” Still, he admits that “when you’re within the industry, being dropped as an entire label by another major does put you in a weird situation”. But not long after the deal fell through, another door opened – he became Charli XCX’s creative director. “It’s a totally separate story, in a way, but it was the perfect moment. She had so much confidence in the whole label. She was doing stuff with SOPHIE first, but was posting about other people in PC, really believing in it, really amplifying it, talking about it on the red carpet, and funny things like that.”
The current era of PC Music looks very different to how it did five years ago. While original stars like Hannah Diamond, Lil Data, felicita, and Danny L Harle are still closely associated with the label, the group’s roster has also expanded: they’ve put out singles by Estonian rapper Tommy Cash, French dream-pop band Planet 1999, and Swedish electronic pop artist Namasenda, among others. Its artists actually did reach the mainstream – easyFun still ended up co-writing a Rita Ora hit, and A. G. Cook became an unlikely collaborator with David Guetta. Still, we’re unlikely to ever see a PC Music number one. The Max Martin era of ‘pop classicism’ that Cook was first inspired by is over, replaced with what he calls the “hip hop + Ed Sheeran” model. “The mainstream that PC would have influenced, in that kind of thinkpiece ‘future of music’ way, has disappeared,” he says.
Perhaps it’s the post-PC Music landscape that shows how much things have changed. The label has a huge queer fanbase and a younger audience who instinctively understood where they were coming from without having to question whether or not it was sincere. The ‘bubblegum bass’ sub-genre is still active, and there are a lot of other musicians who are taking what A. G. Cook and his friends started and pushing it in new directions. PC Music-inspired groups like 100 gecs are now celebrated by publications that would have perhaps treated them with bemusement or open suspicion in the past, like Pitchfork and The New York Times.
“It’s amazing how PC Music and its sensibilities are standard fixtures of the electronic music landscape now,” says Gus Lobban. “Musical devices and aesthetic gestures rarely given credibility before 2013 are now familiar tropes. I’m reminded of PC Music every time an indie artist whips out a trance supersaw, sets an untrained vocalist against an ambitious pop arrangement, or strikes an airbrushed pose for their artwork. Likewise, SOPHIE getting Recommended by Resident Advisor or Hannah Diamond creating the artwork for a Hyperdub producer feels normal now. Finding artists exploring the same unloved territory that I was exploring helped give me confidence in my own musical identity and inspired me to push my craft harder. Fans of Kero Kero Bonito and PC Music probably already recognise the traits that differentiate us from other leftfield/pop music. It’s an exchange that continues to this day.”
Caroline Polachek gets to the heart of what still drives PC Music today. She recalls her first glimpse of the collective in action when she came to London in 2017 to perform with Danny L Harle at Field Day festival. The label was in the middle of its ‘Month of Mayhem’, an experiment in distribution harking back to the group’s rapidfire of early releases where they put out something new every day for a month. While visiting the studio, she watched A. G. Cook undertake a herculean, completely absurd task: mixing a note-for-note cover of Aphex Twin’s “Windowlicker”. “I was amazed by A. G.’s insane dedication to following through on these ideas, and so fast,” she says. “Hannah Diamond, easyFun, and felicita were around the studios. It clearly wasn’t a label in the conventional sense as much as a collective of friends doing what they wanted on very casual terms and holding each other accountable to their own ambitions. It was so exciting to watch them so openly sharing ideas, working on each others’ projects, and most importantly providing an audience for each other.”
Cook recalls a time when the entire PC Music collective were in Los Angeles together, where he learned that Hannah Diamond’s “Pink and Blue” had become “weirdly infamous” among the songwriter and producer community there, still able to turn people’s brains inside out even years after it was written. He ended up moving to Los Angeles earlier this year, where he started working on a solo record that gets back to the roots of his Personal Computer Music project. “I’m really playing around with voices,” he says. “What is authentic? What is not authentic? How can I still express a really pure version of what I’ve been going for all these years?”