“Everything’s kind of awful to be honest”: Oneohtrix Point Never talks re-appropriation and growing up a teenage Tarantino freak
I forget which release it was, but I remember hearing one of Daniel Lopatin’s early Oneohtrix Point Never cassettes back in ’07 or ‘08 and realizing quickly that he was nailing something very specific that so many musicians fail to do.
It was something about the melodic content, and much less about the well-publicized nature of the synthesizer sounds used or the fact that you could link it back to Tangerine Dream or whoever else. Since then, Oneohtrix’s music has gone through a series of careful transitions, some successful and some not. His 2011 album Replica reframed his sound by stripping away the characteristic synthesizer footprints and adding an oddly familiar, dusty haze, and it worked. It’s somewhat brave then that on new full-length R Plus Seven Lopatin has ripped up the template yet again and seemingly started from scratch.
Icy, clean and decidedly sparse, the album is his most focused to date and stands as one of the year’s most rewarding listens. It’s not rooted in nostalgia, but smartly re-appropriates sounds and ideas we can just about remember – good and bad. I wanted to talk to him about people’s perception of his approach, and how it’s changed over the years as he’s developed his very distinct and increasingly recognizable musical language, and I caught him at a good time. After a day of interviews, he explains “I think I’m getting better and better, so you’re getting the best, you’re getting the Kobe beef version.”
Excited at the prospect of well-massaged information, I begin by asking Lopatin about his shifting sound over the years, and what he thinks about his own progression from album to album. “In the past I was working with these very vertically dense ideas, and I kind of flipped that axis over to the side, so it was a big open plane with very acute musical objects on it. There’s lot of space, and that space is rhythm really. For the first time for me, [I had] a clear view of how I wanted to use rhythm that didn’t feel like drums. “
This concept is nowhere near as complicated as it sounds, and Lopatin clarifies quickly, explaining that the process was really far more of a traditionalist approach. “I really just started in front of the keyboard just writing melodies, so I wasn’t really following any kind of through-line using non-musical stuff and then layering music over it, which I think at this point for me feels a little bit tedious and redundant. Here I was, like let’s just start with a song, let’s get it all in MIDI so it’s super malleable and let’s start really focusing on every little moment. And let’s just give each moment space and give it attention so that it’s a thing, so it’s not just kind of throwing shit at the wall and seeing what sticks.”
I ask if this was where the PR’s much-touted pop songwriting angle comes from, and explain that when I listen to the record, while I can hear little snippets of pop making their way into the mix, it almost sounds more buried than on any of his previous recordings. “To me that’s kind of a more of a truthful account of how I experience music. I’ve been saying as an example when you get a compact disc and Madonna’s on it or whatever, it wants you to basically put the blinders on and escape and just be in that, but what’s really actually happening is that you have to load the disc, there’s mechanical things happening that are in the sound environment, there’s your own thoughts, you’re revisiting some embarrassing thing you said two hours ago which creates a dip in the concentration of the musical experience, there’s these kind of incongruous forces, and what I try to do is, in an abstract way is culturally represent that whole thing.” He concludes “It’s buried deeper because I’m trying to give a candid account of what I really, actually think that music sounds like.”
Even though the motifs might be obscured, each sound on the album is clearer than we’ve been allowed to hear before and free of the usual swathes of reverb and saturation. It allows us to experience the full effect of Lopatin’s palette of clunky sound module patches and FM synth presets, but what is it about these sounds that he finds so alluring? “I like the materiality of those sounds because to me they’re coded sounds. They’re historic sounds. So when I use them they kind of manipulate me in a way, they ask me to play them in a certain way, a historic, gestural thing. For example this happens with guitars too so it’s not really unique, but like, if you put a Wurlitzer and a Fender Rhodes in front of me and you asked me to play the same thing on two instruments I’ll probably play them slightly different, because one has this slightly Steely Dan Aja code and one has this like dirty Ray Charles vibe right?”
“I’m very easily manipulated by those kind of histories, so when I worked with those sounds on R Plus 7 the first stage was to be manipulated by them, and to listen and try and characterize the tension between what I can do with them or what they can do to me. So it’s kind of trying to characterize the whole push and pull of these sounds. What I like about them in particular is that, I guess as a student of electronic music in general I just find them fascinating and magical and everything about them at times there’s something crass about them that interests me, sometimes it’s something lurid, sometimes it’s something very physical, almost sculptural where I can kind of grasp their properties, physical properties. They just have a certain pre-loaded depth to them that is to me an interesting starting point.”
This explanation leads me to ask what might have influenced the stark usage of world music sounds – from the koto in ‘He She’ to the kalimba in ‘Americans’. “The track ‘Americans’ in particular, I remember watching Battlestar Galactica, the new one – pretty solid show – I got pretty deep into it and I started focusing in on the score and the sound design of the show and I realized that the thing that happens a lot on commercial science fiction television in general is that they don’t know how to easily characterize alien civilization so they use world music instead. So the capitalist vision of alien life is basically the reductive, canned world instrument. And to me that’s an acutely American position. I got into this idea, and that piece to me is more or less satirical.”
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