Bradford Cox is one of the last few provocateurs left in indie rock. Though he likely wouldn’t fashion himself as a “provocateur” and his distaste for the term “indie rock” has been well-documented, the Deerhunter lead singer has never shied away from sharing his attention-grabbing opinions, but underlying it all is a genuine interest in big-picture ideas. Interviewing Cox is like participating in a mentally exhausting chess match with a jaded, skilled player, and his desire for an equally competent opponent is evident. It’s not hard to understand Cox’s default cynicism and general pessimism—towards the press, the streaming-driven music industry and a populace that’s too addicted to their phones to engage in the real world or too distracted to solve its problems—all of which is captured in Deerhunter’s new album, Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?
This is the longest we’ve had to wait for a new Deerhunter record with their last album, Fading Frontier, dropping in 2015, but a lot has happened since then. Last year, their former bassist Josh Fauver, who had been a member of the group up until 2012, passed away, and over the past few years, various band members have been busy raising children. Throughout their near two decade-long career, the Atlanta band has dabbled in avant-garde recordings as well as more approachable rock music, and Fading Frontier represented a pivot to the latter, though it still contained the strange ambient flourishes we’ve come to expect from Deerhunter. Their new LP and eighth studio album, Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?, sweeps away any remaining traces of autobiographical writing and directs its focus towards humanity’s current predicament—all through a spacey sound and science-fiction-like lyrical bent. The album was co-produced by Cate Le Bon and according to Cox, it was her music’s “starkness and ugly beauty” that left its mark on this record.
When I call Cox for our interview, he’s shopping at a Goodwill thrift store, which he visits multiple times a day. “I found a 1930’s art deco porcelain vase and a pair of trousers from the ’40s,” says Cox. “I go to three or four Goodwills a day. It’s my hobby. I’m kind of a hoarder. It just accumulates. My kitchen counter is just a museum of fantastic objects. Everyone should realize our world has produced so much stuff and it’s so much more fun finding new ways to wear old things. It’s so much more fun than going to Target or some hideous, god forbid, H&M or something. Why would you choose that? Why would you choose new garbage?” His thrifting hobby is the kind of stark rejection of modern life, which is increasingly mediated through the internet and filled with widespread greed and violence, that Cox also relays in his music. The opening harpsichord of “Death in Midsummer” is full of mirth and Cox even proclaims, “Cast your fears aside,” but then the lyrics take a turn for the worst (“Walk around and you’ll see what’s fading”). If you aren’t paying attention to the lyrics on this record, you might miss its entire dystopian premise. The last half of “No One’s Sleeping” has some of the most euphoric keyboard riffs you’ll ever hear, but the song’s subject doesn’t actually warrant a triumphant shout of hurrah. In the track’s beginning half, Cox sings, “In the country there’s much duress / Violence has taken hold,” and the keyboard passage that follows signifies a glorious, soothing surrender to the doom has engulfed humanity.
“I find the record to be unrelentingly bleak,” says Cox. “To the point where I almost feel bad about it when I play if for my parents. There’s a weird feeling of ‘Sorry dad.’” The album cover is a black and white etching by German artist Peter Ackermann, and in it, you can literally see the foggy despair that’s devoured humankind. Rather than Cox seeking out this piece of art for the album cover, the Ackermann piece literally fell at his feet. Cox explains, “I had laryngitis in the studio in Los Angeles and I called my doctor and I said ‘What am I going to do, I’m on a very strict deadline and I don’t know what to do. I can’t sing. I’m in a quite precarious situation.’ [The doctor said,] ‘Well, you’re going to have to definitely, completely rest your voice,’ so he sent me out of the studio and I went to a really good book store in Los Angeles. This book fell off the shelf, I was trying to reach for something else and I went down to get it and it fell open to a page. This is a true story. It’s happened numerous times so people start to question whether or not I’m mythologizing because it’s a very similar story of how I stumbled upon the cover of Halcyon Digest. I think it’s all part of improvisation. The Peter Ackermann book I never heard of. It was an incredibly difficult process tracking it down because the book was entirely in German, so I had to get to label to help me contact his estate. I would not stop. I was like, ‘This is the album cover.’ I just can’t imagine another cover.”
The album’s futuristic sound isn’t a mistake. You won’t hear the garage rock tendencies of their past work, particularly in songs like the contorted “Detournement” or the eerie “Tarnung.” In the liner notes, you’ll find the phrase, “Nostalgia is toxic,” scrolled under the track title, “Futurism.” “What I would specifically speak against is the kind of attitude that the best has already happened,” says Cox. “I mean I certainly think the worst is where we are. There’s a lot of people, especially when you look at cultural criticism, you see a lot of people that act as if the best thing we could do now is to create a reproduction of what’s happened in the past. As an artist, I find that incredibly discouraging. If the greatest thing I could hope to do is create something that barely competes with much more important work from the past, I’d rather just pick another profession.”
Cox is drawn to bleakness and fascinated by brutalism, and even though he has consistently rejected the idea of conscious songwriting, he is undoubtedly a channeler of that darkness on their latest record. “I remember growing up, my senior year of high school, one of my all-time favorite records is and was Jim O’Rourke’s Insignificance. It’s a fantastic record but could not be any bleaker. It starts bleak and the second song, ironically is called ‘All Downhill From Here.’ It starts bleak. It continues to get bleaker and the end of it is like the climax in the Nicolas Roeg movies. He’s an English director who passed away this year. He made a movie called Insignificance, which the Jim O’Rourke album is actually named after. In the movie, Insignificance, there’s a climax scene that’s just so mind-meltingly bleak, so it’s quite clear what O’Rourke was making an homage to. I continue to make homages to the same grand gestures and utter desolation.” Cox immediately catches himself, “Wow that’s maybe the most pretentious comment I’ve ever made in my life. Congratulations. You just caught a butterfly.”
There are plenty of calming ebbs and flows in this record that give it a distinct lulling quality. You’d think a record about the downfall of the Earth and its inhabitants wouldn’t sound this soothing, but the twinkling harpsichord, ethereal synths and transfixing emphasis on hi-hat, is food for the soul. “What I think is a recurring thing with the record and I think you can find this is true with ‘Nocturne’ as well, it’s a bit like a stunned person telling you, ‘Oh my god I’ve realized it. We’re in deep trouble and we’re near an end and this is getting really bad,’” says Cox. “It’s as if you realize, ‘Best to just surrender to it’ and the second half of ‘No One’s Sleeping’ is very much concerned with expressing a certain kind of ecstasy from relaxing into the apocalypse. Just slowly acclimating to the scalding bath water of the end. It’s not as much that it’s positive or negative. It’s just saying ‘Well all is ruined and all is in vain,’ so it’s certainly not like, ‘Let’s have a party.’ It’s much more internal than that. It’s something along the lines of ‘We’re going down fast so enjoy the ride.’”
The liner notes list Cox’s specific reference points for each of the tracks. “No One’s Sleeping” was inspired by the tragic 2016 death of a British Labour Party MP, Jo Cox, who was stabbed to death by a mentally ill man with Neo-Nazi ties. “Death in Midsummer” derives from a photograph of the Russian Revolution of 1917 with people running away from piled corpses. “What Happens to People” mourns the death of emotions, while “Element” is described as an “elegy for ecology” and contains the lyric, “Curtain call for all those lives spent surviving for that final day.” And though the description under “Nocturne” (“Live stream from the afterlife”) is exactly the kind of black comedy that helps to cope with today’s horrifying news cycle, the sentiment behind the lyrics that mention bombs and disease is clear as day.
The album is also a reaction to what Cox says is a cheapening of today’s culture. There’s an overwhelming amount of content that’s easily accessible to the vast majority of the population, and while some laud this accessibility, Cox is worried about what it’s doing to our attention spans and whether many people are interested in the album format anymore. Asked whether it’s possible to create art now that isn’t disposable, Cox responds, “I think people do it. I don’t know if it’s possible to be recognized in its time. That might be the difficulty. I just read an article by a great writer who I admire named Liz Pelly. She wrote an article that I find very interesting or it’s actually a series of articles about Spotify. It was about clickbait genres, music designed to be successful on Spotify. It’s creating its own economy. Creating its own sense of values. Placing things on playlists. Putting things in front of consumers and competing for their attention. I think it’s very easy to have the feeling of nausea when people are making music for no other reason than a commercial endeavor.”
The album title poses an interesting question and begs even more. If everything has just been a downward spiral, why hasn’t everything already disappeared? Have we reached the point of no return or will there be a rebellion to save humanity? “It’s entirely up to the consumer,” says Cox. “The consumer doesn’t realize how much power they have in the conversation. They think the world is what they wake up to. They don’t realize the world is scrambling around to fill their needs. What I’m wondering is if people realize that this world that we don’t really like, has been specially designed for us, using data that we provide. Maybe the fact is that the world really wants to ‘chill and study.’ The consumer is the only one responsible for the victims of late capitalism. Whenever I hear someone complaining about something using a Marxist or post-structuralist lens, I always think this is all great theoretically and on paper, but the reality is, no company has a desire to do anything but sustain itself. I don’t want to be misinterpreted as a secret admirer of a system that I find to be mostly terrifying, but at the same time, one must acknowledge that there’s a certain brutalist elegance to the way that it all functions, you know?”
That brutalist elegance can be found in the many graceful sonic textures of this record. On Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?, beauty and toxicity are fighting to the death and the Earth finds itself in that very same brawl. The question is, which will win out? “If humanism is sellable, if humanism is the zeitgeist, then it will always win. If hatred becomes sellable, then we have something to worry about. We’re sold exactly what we order. I think we just get a little freaked out when it arrives on our doorstep.”
Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? is out on Jan. 18 via 4AD