Halcyon Digest, Deerhunter's fifth album, comes when the band's profile is peaking, having toured with artists like Nine Inch Nails and Spoon over the last couple of years, and sold more than 50,000 copies of their last album Microcastle in the U.S. alone. It comes as no surprise they felt it was time to leave Kranky, the small-scale indie label that nurtured them, and sign a worldwide deal with 4AD, the legendary indie label that helped launch the careers of Cocteau Twins, Pixies and TV On The Radio. Cox too has become one of indie rock's more recognizable personalities, both as the mouthpiece for Deerhunter but also his own thriving solo project, Atlas Sound. He modelled for a Converse ad campaign along with M.I.A., Pharrell Williams, Julian Casablancas and Karen O, whom he also helped record the Where The Wild Things Are score.
Since their inception, Deerhunter have been one of the more prolific, reliable and inventive bands going. Formed by Cox and drummer Moses Archuleta in 2001, their desire was to fuse "lulling hypnotic states induced by ambient and minimalist music with the klang and propulsion of garage rock." At the time, Cox was already known around his Atlanta neighbourhood as a friend of the Black Lips, having drummed on and helped record their second album. As a child, he had made home recordings using two tape decks, a project he would eventually dub Atlas Sound, after the name of his recording device.
The first Deerhunter album, Turn It Up Faggot, showcased a band (also including guitarist Colin Mee and bassist Josh Fauver) that hadn't found their sound yet. Recorded shortly after original bassist Justin Bosworth died from a skateboarding accident (he only appeared on the band's split seven-inch for Die Slaughterhaus), Deerhunter's debut was ominous and convulsive post-punk that Cox has publicly disowned. However, by adding Lockett Pundt on guitar, Deerhunter's scope expanded to the point where anything was possible.
The biggest turning point, Cox feels, was when the band signed to Kranky, a label that specializes in the experimental and avant-garde sector of independent music. "Kranky gave us a chance to get out there when not a lot of other people paid any attention to us," he says. "And it was very ballsy. I don't think Kranky has ever [signed] anything in their long career with money signs in their eyes. I'm certain they didn't expect to have any significant success with Deerhunter. I think it was like, 'We like this record. If you wanna put it out we'll put it out.' I had to insist that they hire a press person."
Their first album for Kranky, Cryptograms, followed in 2007 and exhibited a confident band unafraid to take risks. The album was a schizophrenic synthesis of psychedelia, shoegaze, Krautrock and ambient immersed in swampy production that made them ubiquitous on year-end lists. Despite the success, they opted not to slow down. It only took four months to deliver a follow-up, the exceptional EP, Fluorescent Grey, which kick-started a consistent stream of releases from Deerhunter and Cox's side-project, Atlas Sound. Not long after, both acts signed to 4AD outside of North America.
Microcastle followed in October 2008, and was significant for a number of reasons. A second full-length titled Weird Era Cont. was included as a hidden CD, but an online leak forced Cox to reveal the intended surprise. Secret or not, the bonus disc proved to be just as good as the main attraction. Creatively, Microcastle and Weird Era Cont. were more cohesive than the segregated Cryptograms, but not companions. The most obvious transition was in how Deerhunter cut back on their excessive pedal use. At the time, Cox told Exclaim!, "I can give you an artsy fartsy answer, which would be like, 'Yeah, it was a chance to open a new book,' but honestly, I was just really tired of lugging around a lot of equipment.Rainwater Cassette Exchange saw that the band had an entry in their discography for 2009.
Halcyon Digest is without question their most accessible album yet. But just as their transition from the fluid, hypnotic guitar jams of Cryptograms to the more focused, '60s-inspired creep rock of Microcastle was an adjustment for listeners, Halcyon Digest takes a little longer to digest. Housing some of the band's most beguiling songs to date, as a whole the album is primarily focused on evoking a quixotic condition. The propulsive garage rock jams have been replaced by placid, and at times, beatific compositions that place a heavier emphasis on exploring more electronic and acoustic textures.
Cox says their spontaneity in the studio continues to bring out something new in the band. "I think that the most interesting things happen when they're the least practiced and the least postured," he explains. "The more you relax and let music just ― ugh, it sounds so hippie-ish and cheap ― but the more you just let it happen and try your best to be a good musician and listen to each other, usually it turns out okay. I enjoy the more immediate, mistake-oriented music."
One example Cox is more than happy to discuss is the saxophone cameo that comes in on the song "Coronado." One mention of it and he goes off like a kid at show-and-tell. "I wanted that sax on there because I was listening to the Stones' Exile On Main Street reissue a lot," he says. "I began to see a pattern forming. Saxophones are becoming this thing. That's why we did it early. Next year everyone's gonna have a saxophone on their record because saxophones are just cool. This is gonna sound random and cutesy, but I've always had this fantasy of having a dog named Saxophone. Saxophone is one of my favourite words."
With a progression towards these looser arrangements and more prominent use of synthesizers, pedals and even sax, you wouldn't be alone in thinking Halcyon Digest is as much the successor to the more experimental sounds of Atlas Sound's 2009 album Logos than anything previously credited to Deerhunter. (The closing track "He Would Have Laughed," an inadvertent tribute to Cox's late friend Jay Reatard, is perhaps the strongest example.) Cox's songs under the Atlas Sound moniker are heavily layered, amorphous compositions that lack the cohesive structures of Deerhunter's work. Even the sales sheet for the album openly acknowledges the similarity. But Cox will waste no time correcting you and even make you feel a little bad about the suggestion that his side-project influenced his bandmates.
"I'm the main songwriter in Deerhunter and I'm the main songwriter in Atlas Sound. I'm also singing and I'm using the same equipment," he curtly replies. "I guess the school of rock version is that the side-project is supposed to be something different and give another angle than the main project. Don't people think Noah [Lennox]'s stuff with Animal Collective sounds a lot like Panda Bear?
"Every fall I want to put out a record because I like listening to records in the fall," he continues. "I remember in high school and college, when records came out in the fall and I was really interested in checking them out. If someone in the band was having a baby or something [Halcyon Digest] would have been an Atlas Sound album, though I would have approached it a bit differently. The difference between Deerhunter and Atlas Sound has more to do with scheduling than anything else. There are songs that are just Atlas Sound songs and there are songs that are just Deerhunter songs, but Logos could have been a Deerhunter album. If I had to say this album was most like anything I'd say Weird Era Cont."
Cox definitely sees the direct link between his two bands, but he's also quite protective of Deerhunter. "The one thing that does bother me is I feel Atlas Sound underplays the rest of the band's role. I feel like Lockett is very underappreciated," he explains. (Pundt's solo side-project Lotus Plaza released a debut album on Kranky last year.) "I do Atlas Sound to be on my own. I've been doing some interviews and I'm aware that when reviews start coming out for this record, they'll say 'Deerhunter sound like Atlas Sound.' If that is not the most absolute way to state the obvious thing I've ever heard then I don't know what is."
Although Cox pleads solidarity to his bandmates, as Deerhunter's main singer, songwriter, blogger and talking head, he's clearly the focal point. Yet one mention of his role as a de facto leader and he gives a resounding "ugh." (Talk to him long enough and you can predict which questions he'll reply to with a sigh or an "ugh.")
"I don't think anybody would, but if anybody did have this concept of me being an attention-grabber they should just talk to the rest of the band because I think that's the opposite," he explains. "I'm all about camaraderie."
Yet it's definitely Bradford that has made Deerhunter such an alluring act to follow. The early gigs supporting Cryptograms found him taking the stage donning dresses and wigs, dousing himself in blood, and on one occasion, receiving what looked to be a blowjob from an audience member. At the time, warts-and-all access to his life was as easy as heading over to the deerhuntertheband.blogspot.com. Aside from giving away new, unreleased songs at an almost-daily rate, he would also post disturbingly candid, self-reflective musings about things like his band's faecal matter, inappropriate underage boyfriend fantasies and references to his troubled childhood, which was plagued with sexual abuse and constant health problems. (Cox suffers from Marfan syndrome, an inherited connective tissue disorder marked by height, long limbs and thin fingers.)
He drew criticism for his controversial statements and it all reached a boiling point. Near the release of Microcastle, both Weird Era Cont. and an unfinished version of Atlas Sound's Logos were leaked by a fan that accessed the file-sharing account Cox was using to post his MP3s. His response to the incident, he's said, was impulsive and regrettable. ("You've ruined Christmas," was one of his comments.) Despite the fact that his actions made him one of indie rock's most sound-bitten individuals, Cox says he's through with the drama. "I think you can pretty much expect me to be more low-key in general," he says. "I'm a little bit older, I'm not gallivanting like I once did. I kind of like the idea of not talking so much ― about anything."
The sporadic blogs these days, mostly either YouTube clips or "Micromix" digital compilations, are slim pickings and hardly the prolific, all-you-can-eat buffet Cox offered before his Mediafire account was encroached. Cox says he learned his lesson. "My attitude isn't down, I'm just mellower. Some people take it the wrong way and have become furious, saying, 'What happened? You used to give us free music.' People expect me to give them songs from my hard drive. That's not very common. I don't intend to let anybody down but I'm not a song machine.
"I make music all the time, it's my entire life," he continues. "I feel I have a special relationship with my audience. I respect them as much as they respect me. But I'm a lot less interested in computers right now. So it's a lot less immediate, like 'I'm gonna record this on a computer and then export it.' I'll give out free music when I have some to give."
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