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"Everything's kind of awful to be honest": Oneohtrix Point Never on reappropriation and growing up a teenage Tarantino fanatic

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’m trying to give a candid account of what I really, actually think that music sounds like.”

 

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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These particular tracks certainly remind me of soundtracks, but the kind you would have found accompanying a low budget, made-for-TV documentary or Anime show in the late ’80s or early ’90s. “Exactly, and the idea of music on a schedule or music on a deadline is to me very funny. It’s like [U.S. cable porn channel] Skinemax, you know, soft porn, it has this built in idea of something erotic, and yet it’s a nerd’s understanding of erotic. And you know even the names of the presets are often like completely contingent on the engineer’s contextual cluelessness, there’s a lot of strangely misogynistic names of presets in the Korg M1, the preset folder that I was staring at every day. So yeah, there’s quite a bit of satire on this album in the sense that we’re talking about.” This mischievous streak appears to be a recurring theme – when I ask if R Plus Seven could be considered a concept album, Lopatin reveals “it’s more meant to feel like one than actually be one … like who has ever actually listened to The Dark Side of the Moon and actually thought they knew what, like honestly really knew what the fuck the record was about or whatever, including Pink Floyd. It’s a joke.”

It feels almost as if Lopatin has a desire to take maligned genres, be it new age, smooth jazz, world music or as he mentions, porn soundtracks, and give them a chance to flourish in a different way. Does he do this as a challenge or if the usage is simply aesthetic? “It’s a sort of game, so in that way it’s a challenge. It’s a game I play. It’s also admitting that I manipulate it because there are these brief momentary lapses in my intellect into which I’m completely seduced, in pockets by Jazz Café Volume 4 or whatever I’ve downloaded on Pirate Bay to cut up. And so I try to characterize it. The thing that’s lurid about it or the thing that’s crass and ultimately kind of dangerous about it are the same.” Music, I say, we’re told to think is awful. “It’s not; everything’s kind of awful to be honest. So you know, there’s part of me that has been and will always be an appropriation artist, I don’t think it’s too much of a debate. I enjoy that aspect of what I do. Also I was a kid who at age 13 saw Pulp Fiction and all of my passwords, my Hotmail password was Quentin, I was completely obsessed with Tarantino. Seriously the way that his films conveyed the love of film itself and not just making pictures, there was this kind of hidden language in them.”

 

“Who has ever listened to The Dark Side of the Moon and actually thought they knew what the fuck the record was about?”

 

I wonder whether this at all relates to the mainstream obsession with all things retro, from Disclosure’s vintage house revivalism to Jack White’s hoary rock? Does Lopatin lump himself in with this sort of nostalgia? “My take is that to me, all of that history is subject to becoming a sort of abstract materiality to use for whatever it is I do, intuitively. What I don’t like about music that has this retro aesthetic is that it’s just simply sad that whatever’s happening now isn’t what was happening then, so that sadness is weird. I’m not sentimental for the past so I don’t really understand entirely what the nostalgia is really about – a sadness or a histrionic sense of the past that’s dishonest whereas I’m trying to make an illusion in the sense that, I’m trying to take the past and make it an abstract material that I can then start from scratch and work with, you know. And I just need it because I need material, I need stuff, I need paint.”

Lopatin hasn’t only used these ideas on his own solo material, in 2012 he produced a number of tracks for art-rockers Clinic, resulting in their albums Free Reign and Free Reign II. Does he want to engage in this kind of work again? “You know I’d really love to. I loved it, I especially love working with vocalists, it’s so cool. I had never really listened to These New Puritans and I listened to the new record, my girlfriend put it on, and for the first time since, forever, I rarely have this thought, I thought “oh God I really wish I could produce these guys.” I was just sitting there thinking “I would love a shot at this band.” But it’s kind of an athletic thing on some degree because it’s a different side of me and I can only feel like I’m in a more generous, more giving state when I do these kind of things and it really takes quite a bit of energy to understand the band first of all, and to honestly to get out of the band what they really want, not what they think they want. When you take it seriously it’s quite intense, so I don’t think it will be happening any time soon, unless stars align and there’s a real mutual interest. It’s much scarier to be in service, you feel a certain obligation to the project that with my own work I can be a little more kamikaze about. So I would love to, but it’s gotta be the right situation for everybody.” So he wouldn’t just get involved with any old pop artist? “No, absolutely not.”

Earlier this year, Sofia Copolla’s latest feature film Bling Ring was revealed to contain collaborations between Lopatin and Copolla’s usual musical supervisor Brian Rietzell. With Lopatin’s self-confessed interest in film well documented, I was curious how the collaboration came into being. “Brian Reitzell reached out to me kind of just to talk about music for a while. I visited him a couple of times in LA and he’s a really welcoming guy, and it started on a friend level just to see if we could make stuff together. Sofia didn’t really intend on there being a score, so Brian was just like “trust me let’s do this anyway because I think we could do something pretty good,” so we gave it a shot and she liked it. But we didn’t know for sure that we were doing it when we were doing it. We were basically just throwing shit at the wall a little bit. But it was cool and he helped me wrap my head around how to do those kind of things because I really was quite naïve going into it you know. It’s one thing to think that “I’m a fan of film and I make music” so you put the two together, and it’s just simply not that way.“

 

“Unless Duncan Jones is knocking at my door I will not be soundtracking any science fiction films. It just seems like the most tedious and brutal concept for me.”

 

Is it something he is planning on doing more of? “If presented with a psychological thriller in the vein of Sleeping With The Enemy I would consider it.” And that’s all? “Really. Unless Duncan Jones is knocking at my door I will not be soundtracking any science fiction films. It just seems like the most tedious and brutal concept for me musically, because I like to work with a more direct kind of film, and I’d like to work closer to a director than usually is allowed for most film scores, because there are a lot of gatekeepers between the directors and the score. There are editors; there are producers – 99% of the time that’s not for me. I need to really work in a passionate and collaborative way to feel like it’s worth doing. It’s an extremely long-winded thing and most likely it’ll be a long time before I do that again.”

Since cinema has clearly had such a profound influence on Lopatin’s output over the years, I felt like concluding by finding out his favourite VHS movie. “It would be La Haine, which translates as The Hate. I wore it down, I just got a copy I brought up from my childhood home and I put it on my shelf because I realized that that VHS was played more than any other that I ever owned, so I thought “fuck this means something, I should probably not just throw it in a musty box.” It’s next to Johnny Suede, the old Tom DeCillo film, and next to that is probably Terminator and Terminator 2 back to back. The Hate is my all time favourite VHS tape.”

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