Bradford Cox: Boy wonder
Deerhunter lead grows inward with solo Atlas Sound release
As the focal point for Deerhunter, Bradford Cox is obsessed with the fountain of youth. From the immature hardcore punk rage of 2005's Deerhunter (unofficially called Turn It Up, Faggot), to the ambient and post-punk teenage reveries of 2007's Cryptograms, Cox has fought a public war against his impending maturity.
Now Cox says he has grown into a man. It's ironic, then, that his first solo album under the name Atlas Sound, Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel, is another meditation on adolescence and mortality. "It may be my last hurrah with the childhood thing," Cox says. "Now I'm ready to be an adult and make an adult record."
In some ways, Bradford Cox still lives the boys' life. He whiles away his days in the attic of a two-story Cabbagetown house he shares with three musicians, including Deerhunter bandmates Colin Mee and Lockett Pundt. Classic LPs such as Patti Smith's Horses and My Bloody Valentine's Loveless hang from the living-room walls. "Patti Smith has always been a hero of mine," Cox says. His bedroom in the attic is messy with books, photographs, vinyl records, guitars and vintage concert posters. There's even a copy of Boys' Life magazine lying on the floor.
But Cox is also a successful musician. Cox says Cryptograms, which came out last January on Kranky Records, has sold close to 30,000 copies. Those are impressive sales for a sometimes-challenging rock band on a small Chicago label.
Deerhunter spent most of 2007 touring the world and causing minor outrages: Cox has appeared on stage in a dress a few times, and once smeared himself in his blood. Those provocations, however, complemented a fantastic live show. With Cox's spectral, reedy-thin presence in the forefront, Deerhunter's music, both grungy and ecstatic, made for revelatory and powerful concert performances.
Adding to the controversy, Cox often decorates his albums with images of young men. The Deerhunter album cover features Cox's close friend Cole Alexander from the Black Lips. Alexander is naked, and the photo of him is a double negative made to look like two men whose penises are touching. Meanwhile, the Atlas Sound album cover is a biblical-looking image of a boy tended to by his parents.
Visuals like these have led some music fans to assume Cox is gay. But he prefers to call himself asexual, saying he doesn't pursue romantic relationships with anyone, male or female. For him, growing older means learning to live alone, not settling down with a life partner and starting a family.
"Twenty-five is the age where, like, certain people would be settling down with a wife, having kids, getting a mortgage and stuff," he says. "And that's not where I'm at. It's never where I'm going to be. So I have to find my own way to be stable and ward off things like loneliness, poverty and feelings of uselessness."
So Cox sits at home and keeps himself busy, working on new projects such as the forthcoming Deerhunter album, which is tentatively titled Microcastle. While the entire Deerhunter band will eventually complete it, Cox assembled the Atlas Sound project himself. He played any instrument he could get his hands on and recorded the results on the Ableton Live computer program.
"When I was working in the studio with Karen O on the Where the Wild Things Are soundtrack, we had a lot of bizarre instruments there," he says. "I made a lot of reference recordings, like, here's a middle C note on a vibraphone. I made a recording of just that middle C, and then I plugged it into this program Ableton Live, and it uses that middle C to make an entire keyboard out of that vibraphone."
"Recent Bedroom," for example, features vibraphone sounds. But the track is so layered with other samples such as Fender jazz bass, electronic percussion and a music box – that only a Hagstrom guitar sound, which is overdubbed twice, stands out amid the clutter.
However, "Recent Bedroom" may be the finest song on the album. Cox sings, "I walked outside/I could not cry." Then he sings, "I don't know why," over and over again as the track runs along like an unbroken string of sobs and tears. It is a deeply affecting song, full of hopelessness and despair.
Let the Blind contains Cox's most haunting and sad songs to date. It throbs with delirious depression, and is bursting with powerful, barely contained emotions. On "Ativan," he sings of having lunch with a girl: "I slept till I woke up, then there was not much, much to do/So I think of you, and I crawl back between the sheets." He sleeps to repress the realization that he can't tell her how he feels. For him, making a song is the best way he can express himself.
Inspired by IDM-electronic producers such as Casino Versus Japan and Wolfgang Voight, Cox sounds murky and blissful, akin to a thick melody soup. In contrast to Cryptograms' tapestry of sounds, which alternated between studious math-rock workouts such as "Lake Somerset" and yearning dream-pop such as "Walk into the Sun," Let the Blind is consistently ambient and melancholy.
"Cryptograms had a lot of filler on it," Cox says. "It was confused. You can tell the band doesn't know what it wants to be. It can't decide whether to play pop songs or ambient songs." He's being too tough on Cryptograms, which, despite its faults, is still a remarkable album. A five-member band made Cryptograms, and its patchwork of sounds reflects that. In comparison, Let the Blind is sonically and thematically pure because it is solely Cox's vision.
Let the Blind will almost certainly bolster Cox's public image as the J.D. Salinger of Atlanta, a bedroom recluse who crafts tender meditations on adolescent anguish. But the truth is far different. He may claim to hang out in his room all the time, but he can often be seen at local nightclubs, taking in a concert. He has plenty of friends, and is a witty and engaging conversationalist who can talk for hours. "I'm a lot more normal than people think," he says.
He says he's been listening to a lot of Everly Brothers lately. He's even been thinking of going to Nashville to record, and laughs at the idea of evolving into a folk and Americana artist – a timeworn cliché for aging punks from Jeff Tweedy and Bob Mould to Cat Power.
"In my social strata, you get older and you want to buy a Les Paul guitar and make a fucking Nashville record," he says. "I wouldn't mind making a record with vocal harmonies and acoustic guitars. I just don't want to make a record that sounds like indie-rock bullshit."
If Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel is truly the last of Cox's albums on childhood, then his next challenge may be to merge the man who confidently navigates the world and hangs out with rock stars with the Peter Pan who petulantly refuses to grow up. One of its tracks, "Quarantined," alludes to Cox's stays at children's hospitals, but it could also be a metaphor for a young man slowly metamorphosing into adulthood: "Quarantined and kept so far away from my friends/I am waiting to be changed."