Are PC Music the most exciting movement in electronic music, or the most idiotic? Do its members exist in real space, or are they digital phantasms? Are they joking, or dead serious? What does it all mean?
These and other questions have mushroomed since Londoner A. G. Cook founded the label in 2013, populating Soundcloud with a succession of sparkling, immaculate dance-pop compositions. The songs are credited to a varied group of artists, from lost Spice Girl Hannah Diamond to snarling club queen GFOTY to sugar-crusted producer Danny L. Harle to Cook himself. Together, the PC Music catalog is a highly sophisticated delivery system for beats and melodies aimed directly at listeners' pleasure centers, made fascinating by the mystery surrounding its creators.
Lately, the curtain has begun to rise. Many of PC Music's key figures performed in the flesh at one of SXSW's most thoroughly fun showcases this March, headlined by their similarly secretive fellow-traveler Sophie (a close PC associate who often stylizes his name in all caps). And on May 8th, they took another step into the light with Pop Cube, a multimedia extravaganza at Brooklyn's BRIC House art gallery, presented by Red Bull Music Academy. There were lights and cameras for a supposed reality-TV network, a real red carpet, synapse-frying video displays, gigantic inflatable props, bars stocked with Red Bull and liquor and live performances from Sophie and the PC Music crew. The party coincided with the news that QT, breakthrough star of the Cook-Sophie co-production "Hey QT," was debuting a potable version of her previously imaginary QT energy drink for $20 a pop.
Walking out of Pop Cube, attendees felt somewhere between delighted and dazed by the all-out spectacle they'd just witnessed. That was all part of Cook's plan to evoke "overloaded," "saturated" feelings. "We wanted to put the quality and quantity meters all the way up, forcing a reaction," says Cook. "That's the way I think about my live show, as well," adds Sophie. "It's completely overriding your cognitive process and becoming a directly centered physical thing."
Three days after Pop Cube, Cook and Sophie are in the back room of a quiet bar in Williamsburg, nursing pint glasses of water with assorted satellite members of the PC Music family hanging around nearby. The mop-topped, bespectacled Cook has an easy grin and a voluble, enthusiastic manner. Sophie speaks more deliberately, with an air of slightly intimidating intelligence, his curly reddish hair falling into his grey-green eyes. It's the two musicians' first joint interview and the first time Sophie has agreed to an in-person conversation with any journalist. "I just don't think it's interesting to say, 'This is me, and this is where I grew up,'" says Sophie. "I'd rather put the ideas at the front than the individual." They spoke for nearly an hour about pop music, gender, corporate ties and much more. Read on for an edited transcript of the conversation.
How did the two of you start working together?
Cook: I met Sophie by chance. I had a fragment of his music, and he heard a side thing that I did. This was before either of us released stuff properly. I emailed him, and it was very much like, "Wow, no one else in London is doing this kind of music." Everyone else was in this quite serious, bass-y, U.K. club scene, and we were both into pop music. So I realized I wasn't alone. That was two or three years ago. Then I started to meet a few other people in London and suddenly discovered that there was a group of people who were all interested in this way of moving forward. That was a real excitement for me.
You make it sound like PC Music came together very organically, which isn't necessarily what people would think.
Sophie: One thing that really interests me is that despite the way it's perceived by people as being something very synthetic and artificial, it's actually impossible to do something completely synthetic. You have got to have a real person. No matter how you've organized things, you always have to interact with the real world and real people. That's been consistent in the stuff that we've done.
Cook: It's funny. We started off with this shared idea, but from really different sides. Sophie, you were trying to see if you could make stuff very synthetically, like in a lab – very, very designed. And I also like that sound, but I was seeing how much personality I could shove in there. With GFOTY and Hannah Diamond, I was trying to make sure their vocals and their attitude from song to song were soaked in personality. The personality is the hook.
Sophie: In the real world, truth is stranger than fiction. If you try to create a synthetic personality, it's always going to be flat and two-dimensional next to something real. A real personality has so many contradictory facets to it – and a lot more depth.
A year ago, some people weren't even sure if Hannah Diamond or GFOTY were real human beings.
Cook: With Hannah Diamond, her visual work was so well put together and so immediately iconic that it freaked people out. Like, "Who is this?" That was a sign that her work was really good. That perfect, glossy world suits her and the music. And with GFOTY, I think what people were surprised by was that her writing and her Twitter were so alarming. "Is this person for real?" You could see that there was a real, wild personality there, and that was another really positive thing. And we would play around with it in the music. [Hannah Diamond's] "Attachment" is about the thing that a lot of people feel now with technology: "How real am I feeling right now? Am I absorbed? Am I a picture or not?" She does her own retouching as well, which is already such a symbolic thing for a female artist. Imagine if Beyoncé did her own retouching.
Sophie: We've just been working on a new track together with Hannah, talking about this idea of why she wants to present these high-gloss images. We talk about several contradictory things, about her taking control of her images and living inside this world.
Is there an element of satire to what you do? Are you making fun of pop music?
Cook: No, I mean, I never set it up in that way. Everything can get interpreted as satire, in that very cynical way. But when we were doing Pop Cube with Red Bull, there was a really good moment quite early on where they wanted to scope out what we were like. Within the first minute, they could tell we weren't pranksters. We take it seriously. This is a big part of our lives. There's no way that satire could be at the core of anything.
Sophie: Why would you bother investing so much of your time and energy in something that's basically laughing at something and not contributing anything? I don't think that's a worthwhile use of your time.
Cook: One of our intentions is to try and push pop music and make it experimental and accessible, and put an interesting noise or personality as well as a good melody. Sometimes people just don't like how it sounds, and they're like "Oh, well, I can't justify this. It must be a joke." But we're really just trying to see if we can make something stick culturally.
Who are your favorite pop artists right now?
Cook: There's a few. Nicki Minaj, she's a really strong artist.
Sophie: Yeah, she is. Sia is a strong artist. But I think you've always got to be critical and try to imagine things that aren't there, as well, and not be satisfied with what is currently there. If you're in complete awe of something, it doesn't push you to try and imagine things around it. It's about elements that are already out there, but imagining how they could be further distilled, concentrated, intensified.
"I think all pop music should be about who can make the loudest, brightest thing. I think that's just as valid as who can be the most raw emotionally." – Sophie
Cook: That's why we're also interesting in creating artists and nurturing them ourselves and working from the ground up. If we were just standard producers, then we'd be satisfied with trying to email instrumentals to Rihanna or something. It's a lot more satisfying to build these things with people that we know.
That said, Sophie, you did work with one of the biggest pop stars on the planet when you helped produce "Bitch I'm Madonna." What was that like?
Sophie: I'll collaborate with anyone, because one day working in the studio with somebody you don't know is a gamble – but it's a gamble always worth taking. I had the opportunity to work on something one day, and I tried my best, just as if I would if I was working with anyone in this room. I said, "Do you want to try some music?" I don't do it in any other way apart from that. Another day at the office [laughs].
Cook: I think it's great that you worked on a track with a lot of attitude.
Sophie: I think all pop music should be about who can make the loudest, brightest thing. That, to me, is an interesting challenge, musically and artistically. And I think it's a very valid challenge – just as valid as who can be the most raw emotionally. I don't know why that is prioritized by a lot of people as something that's more valuable. The challenge I'm interested in being part of is who can use current technology, current images and people, to make the brightest, most intense, engaging thing.
Cook: Pop always has to be so concise, but it also has to be so big at the same time.
What's your creative dynamic like when the two of you work together?
Sophie: I remember when we first sat down and tried to do music together. It was the first time in my life I'd ever had the sensation of being able to sit on the sofa in the back and feel confident that the music was moving in a direction that I liked without me being in control at the computer.
Cook: I was the first person you let touch your laptop.
Sophie: Yeah. That was an important moment for me.
Cook: We're both obsessive about music, but the stuff that we do to practice our obsession is quite different. Sophie will spend a lot of time doing sound design, trying to recreate real-world sounds through synthesizers and stuff like that. And the way I'll obsessively spend time is doing loads and loads of chords in the most basic, boring MIDI sounds. And then we both spend a lot of time thinking about hooks and how those connect.
Sophie: It's about using a whole palette of feelings and emotions, the way the best composers do, like Mozart or Beethoven or whatever. Not to compare ourselves, but they're capable of writing the most cheerful melodies and at the same time the most haunting things – and it's actually the same skill. A lot of the best producers that I look up to have that ability.
It's been argued that both of you are appropriating, misusing or objectifying femininity in your music. What's your response?
Cook: I really think it changes from artist to artist. GFOTY's take on femininity is one thing. She'll say she hates other girls and wants to steal their boyfriends – and now she has a whole fan base of girls who look up to her, because she's a really strong personality. And then Hannah Diamond is a much more formal kind of pop star. What I've felt is that because I knew them as people, I wanted that to speak really loudly through the music. I wouldn't have written "Pink and Blue" without Hannah involved. She had to be there for that idea to exist. Similar to all the GFOTY stuff: It's her energy in there, and we build it around that. I think that there is a zeitgeist at the moment about gender identity. You can't really ignore it if you're doing pop music. It's about taking it head-on – doing music that sometimes will feel more feminine, sometimes feel more masculine, and raising questions about what either of those even mean.
Sophie: I've always been on the side of raising those questions and being critical, rather than just falling into saying, "I'm a man, and I'm making man music, and that's my place. I don't have any right to be anywhere else." I'd rather collaborate with my friends who are whatever gender they please, or have very fluid ideas about gender. I don't think that falling into those pre-defined roles helps anything. What do people want exactly, making these accusations? What do they think is a constructive way to play this situation? I view the people that I work with, girls and boys and people who identify as whatever gender they please, as strong individuals. For instance, working with someone like Madonna – Madonna's calling the final shots. The pop star calls the shots. There's no industry head-honcho who's bossing everyone around. It was the same when I met with Miley Cyrus' A&R people. They're scared of her! And it's the same with the people we work with. I can't boss people around.
Sorry, did you just say you met with Miley Cyrus' A&R?
Sophie: Yeah. You know these trips around New York, meeting all of these A&R people. Most of them don't even know who you are.
QT seems to be the breakout star from your world at the moment. Why do you think that is?
Sophie: It's palpable at the events how much the audience love QT as an energy and a personality. And that's nothing to do with our involvement. That's the way that she is, distilled into this music thing. I can't imagine anyone else being able to sustain one song over a year and a half period and have people love her. People dress up like her, and they tell her at concerts, "You mean so much to me. You helped me get through some difficult times." That's something she's been exclusively capable of because of the way that she is.
Her energy drink just went on sale. What does it taste like?
Cook: It tastes quite nice. I drank it before my set.
So it's not just Red Bull in the can?
Cook: No, no! QT has been speaking to drink manufacturers and taste labs and all those kinds of things for over a year now. No assistance from the corporation on that side. It's an independent drink at the moment.
Why did you choose to work with a corporate sponsor for Pop Cube? Was it just so that you could get the resources to do something cool?
Sophie: Well, no. We wanted it to fall outside the feeling of a normal music event – something in between a fashion show, an art museum, and a TV network. To facilitate that sort of thing, we had to have an extra sponsor.
Cook: Even beyond facilitating, it legitimized it in a symbolic way. Red Bull does Formula One as well as these music events. That makes it feel more real, and less of a fantasy. This is the kind of thing that brands do.
Sophie: More and more, you're going to see everything funded by sponsors. Why not utilize those opportunities and bring them to the fore and be honest about the interaction? I don't think that's anything to hide.
As long as we're being honest, there are rumors that Red Bull actually owns PC Music. Care to clear the air?
[Both burst out laughing.]
Sophie: That would be amazing!
Cook: That's hilarious. I think that would be a little too far. I'm just enjoying that PC Music is becoming its own brand, like the next Red Bull.