Deerhunter have been one of indie rock's most consistently original bands for a decade, but to hear singer-guitarist Bradford Cox tell it, there's a lot of blind chance in what they do. "If you say, 'Sit down and write a Deerhunter song,' it's not easy," he tells me over the phone. "It's almost always an accident. If you get too obsessive, you start shutting down the unconscious."
That openness to serendipity became particularly important while Deerhunter were working on their seventh album, Fading Frontier, out today. "When you put out seven albums — and that's just Deerhunter, I've put out a lot more music than that — you do say, 'Oh, am I just repeating myself?'" he says. "It's easy to keep up the same frequency of output, until you start to feel old and you start to feel less inspired. I had to wait for things to make themselves obvious."
After 2013's Monomania, Cox says, "There were two years where I sort of floated. Sometimes I was depressed, sometimes very happy and content. I didn't feel the need to say a lot." Eventually he arrived at a place of radical creative freedom. "My concept for this album was to avoid dogma," he says. "Stop thinking that you write your music. It's a very arrogant concept. It's like trying to exert dominance over nature. The fact is, you're a moron." The fool he's addressing is himself. "I play guitar; I play drums; I play bass. But I don't control where ideas come from."
"I don't feel that I control my music at all, and when I try to control it, it's like pushing a puppy that's not ready to be trained."
Strong words, but Cox is just warming up. "I don't feel that I control my music at all, and when I try to control it, it's like pushing a puppy that's not ready to be trained," he continues. "It's just going to revolt against you and frustrate you. Ultimately, the only kind of music I'm interested in — the only authentic music — is music that cannot be controlled. And I'm not just talking about experimental or avant-garde music. Get out a Rolling Stone list of the greatest songs of all time: I don't hear a lot of ownership. I don't hear a lot of real-estate agents arguing over property lines. I hear great moments of inspiration that came out of nowhere."
Before recording Fading Frontier, Cox made the choice to leave behind Brooklyn, where Deerhunter recorded Monomania and several of its earlier triumphs, and record with producer Ben H. Allen in the band's hometown of Atlanta. "We needed a change of air — just a little more circulation of the blood and the spirit," Cox says. "I wanted to stay close at home and feel more relaxed."
Last December, while working on the LP, he was hospitalized after being hit by a car while he was walking his dog — but he warns against any attempt to tie this incident to the narrative of the album. "It's a great story. It's a great press release. The label will love you. But it's not true," he says. "Most of the songs were already done. Some of these songs are many years old."
Cox says that he wrote and recorded the slow, atmospheric "Leather and Wood" well before the band's 2007 breakthrough, Cryptograms. "That song was recorded in my closet, maybe in 2005 or '06," he says, explaining that his bandmates added minimal overdubs to that demo for Fading Frontier. "We were going to re-record it, but it was just pointless."
The one place where he addresses the accident directly is in the final verse of the groovy, upbeat "Breaker" — a song he says he considered leaving off the album — singing, "Jack-knifed on a side-street crossing/I'm still alive, and that's something/And when I die, there will be nothing to say/Except I tried not to waste another day." "I wrote that verse in the studio," Cox tells me. "When I listen to how people hear the song, it seems a little confessional and autobiographical and reflective. It's really intense. I thought I was doing something a little more out of control. But that's the thing: Who cares what I think?"
The best story Cox tells me about Fading Frontier has to do with "All the Same," the first song on the album. The track is classic Deerhunter, its shoegazing guitars saturated in rippling light. Buried in the album's liner notes is a credit to Simon Halliday — the head of Deerhunter's label, 4AD — for playing a Remington shotgun on the song. Is that a joke? "No, it's percussion," Cox says, before unspooling a long shaggy-dog story by way of explanation. It starts "a couple of Christmases ago," when his father bought him a shotgun. "I hate violence — I have no interest in hunting — but it's a great thing to go out and shoot clay ducks. I bought my dad the same shotgun. It was a deal: We'll go to the shooting range and shoot skeets. It's fun."
Not long after he acquired the weapon, though, things took a turn toward the eerie. "Immediately, I was disturbed by the actual object," he says. "I found it to be very monolithic. So I hid it away in my closet and never looked at it." That was that, until one fateful night. "My dog woke up, and all his fur was standing up. He was very agitated. You know how dogs get, with their magnetic sixth sense of dog-psychic energy? 'There's something wrong,' the dog said to me with his fur and his barks. 'There's something out there.' Normally, I'm like, 'Whatever, go back to sleep.' But I had this sudden feeling: 'There's something weird here.' I went and grabbed the shotgun — unloaded, of course — from my closet, and I walked out into the backyard where the dog was leading me. I said, 'Who the fuck is out there?' Like Dirty Harry or something. And I cocked the shotgun."
Cox never found out what had triggered his dog's protective instincts. ("It was probably a rabbit or a raccoon or something," he shrugs.) But he discovered something else that night: He loved the sound the shotgun made when it was cocked. Like, really loved it. "Have you ever gotten into a really nice car and you close the door?" he says. "It doesn't sound like when you close the door on my Volvo — bang, clack. It's almost like a bassy thud. Very substantial-sounding. That's what this thing had."
Later, when Halliday paid a visit to the studio where Deerhunter were working in Atlanta, inspiration struck. "I thought it would be funny to have the president of the record label play a shotgun on the first song," Cox says. "So I found some real expensive fucking mic, I got the shotgun, and I said, 'Okay, stand in front of this mic, and on every fourth measure, I want you to cock this shotgun.'" He cites a few influences that he had in mind — the percussion accents found on recordings by David Bowie and Roxy Music, the gunshot effect on M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes," the cash register ka-ching on Pink Floyd's "Money." "And it's very humorous," he says. "I did find there to be humor in it. But I don't want my antics to overshadow the music."
So, during the mixing process, he decided to play down the jarringly loud cocking sound. "Everybody was sort of confused," Cox says. "They said, 'It doesn't sound like a shotgun anymore.' And I'm like, 'That's OK.' That's kind of my point." He pauses for a brief moment: He's hit on something important here. "It's a good example of doing whatever the fuck you feel like in the moment — but making sure it really contributes to the quality of the song," he adds. "I don't believe in gimmicks and hijinks."