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Deerhunter’s Golden Years

How Bradford Cox learned to settle down without betraying his inner Bowie

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Bradford Cox of Deerhunter in New York, December 2018.

Daniel Dorsa for Rolling Stone

Bradford Cox was 16 years old when he wrote his autobiography for the first time. “The title was The Burden of Time Is Fucked,” he says. It was more like a zine, really — the product of a lonely, queer, working-class kid in Athens, Georgia, reaching out to a future self. “Very thin,” he adds. “There was nothing to put in the fucking book.”

Since then, Cox has lived a life rich enough to fill several volumes. Deerhunter, the group he’s led since 2001, is one of the great guitar bands of the 21st century, with a catalog full of wild highs, deep sorrows, searing rages, and precisely zero bad albums. Their eighth LP, Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?, continues that streak. With its elegant arrangements and open-ended questions, it’s an intriguingly understated turn from a band known for its intensity. Long after many of their peers have broken up or gone stale, Deerhunter are still out there, playing to big rooms and finding ways to surprise.

On a rainy afternoon in mid-December, Cox is comfortably seated in the front parlor of his home in Atlanta’s Grant Park neighborhood, with his large, friendly rescue mutt, Faulkner, curled up at his feet. Since moving in a few years ago, the 36-year-old singer has furnished this house in the style of a hoarder with exquisite taste.

Every available surface in the parlor is cluttered with candles, lamps, gemstones, sculptures, knick-knacks, records and books — so many books, gorgeous old hardcovers and well-worn paperbacks, including several Southern Gothic classics by Faulkner’s namesake and a copy of Aldous Huxley’s 1931 essay collection Music at Night. It’s the kind of library you dream about if you love to read, which Cox does. “I always wanted books growing up, and I couldn’t have them,” he says. “As you can see, I’m overcompensating.”

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Bradford Cox of Deerhunter in New York, December 2018.

Bradford Cox of Deerhunter in New York, December 2018. Photograph by Daniel Dorsa for Rolling Stone

When his friend Andrew VanWyngarden first saw this place, Cox tells me, the MGMT singer compared it to the sensational nineteenth-century French novel À Rebours (Against Nature), in which a disillusioned nobleman rejects society so he can devote his life to the appreciation of art. “He said, ‘Your life is like the book. You’re a decadent aesthete.'”

Cox prefers to see the quiet life he’s built here as a necessary step back after a decade-plus of livewire performances and confrontational interviews. “I had a very long period of extreme expression, so now I’ve contracted a bit into my shell,” he says. “I’m a reclusive person. Would you leave this house? I’m a middle-aged man. I just want peace and quiet and to be left alone.”

That’s not to say he’s lost his flair for the dramatic. He left the house just last night, he continues, for a screening of one of his favorite films, Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth — another story about an artistic seeker in hiding from the world. “It’s a great movie, and not just because Bowie, my hero, is in it.” He leans forward to make sure I hear the next thing he says: “I’m the closest thing that our age has to a Bowie. Take it or leave it.”

What does he mean by this? He gestures impatiently. “Look around. Our culture has twisted itself into really poor shape.”

Cox walks over to the kitchen, where Cate Le Bon — the Welsh singer-songwriter who co-produced Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? — is stationed at an antique typewriter, working on some lyrics for an EP that she and Cox have to finish recording tonight. He examines the surreal poetry on the page: “Marilyn Monroe was reincarnated as a pane of glass/It was hard to adjust at first/Her whole body now an eye/to be seen and be seen through…”

“I’m a bit concerned about this,” he says. “It’s a little scant, isn’t it?”

Le Bon looks up. “You need more?”

We need more,” Cox says, taking her place at the typewriter. “I’m just going to write down what comes to mind. We’ve got to fill this page up before we go to the studio.”

“I’m the closest thing that our age has to a Bowie. Take it or leave it.”

Later that afternoon, Cox and Le Bon are in the tiny control room of Maze Studios, a short drive from the singer’s house, listening to a rough mix of a song with the working title “Secretary.” Like the rest of the EP, it began when they were artists in residence at the Marfa Myths music festival in West Texas last April. The project slowed down when Cox called in Le Bon as a co-producer on Deerhunter’s album, and now they’re racing to finish what they started in the spring, with a hard deadline of Le Bon’s early-morning flight tomorrow.

Engineer Ben Etter, a genial guy with a mane of shoulder-length curls, looks on encouragingly as Cox and Le Bon listen to their progress. It’s a mesmerizing song, with a spare, chilly lead vocal from Le Bon that leads into a spoken coda from Cox. When it’s over, Cox wants to adjust the level of reverb on his part. “I don’t want it to sound like a podcast,” he says. “It should sound like an Hermès scarf. One you find in a Goodwill.”

Etter cues up another song in which Le Bon sings the refrain “I am a fireman/Putting out fires, man” in a playful lilt, while Cox simultaneously delivers a long, bizarre monologue: “I’ve been putting out fires about 25 years in this county…” (“Totally improvised,” he tells me later. “It was like my mind was an apartment and I had gone out to get groceries. Someone borrowed my throat.”) He asks the engineer to pan his and Le Bon’s vocals to opposite stereo channels, in the style of the Velvet Underground song “The Gift.”

Cox flops onto the couch, near a table with the Grammy Award that Deerhunter producer Ben H. Allen III won for working on Gnarls Barkley’s 2006 debut. He’s dressed head-to-toe in beige tones, as if to camouflage himself — baggy pants, zip-up jacket, baseball cap — and though he’s just getting started on tonight’s session, he already seems weary. “I’m tired of talking,” he says to no one in particular, picking up a copy of Ezra Pound’s Cantos. Le Bon and Etter keep working.

Around 7:30, after a valiant but unsuccessful attempt to get a good bark out of his dog for another song (“Faulkner, speak!”), Cox breaks for dinner and leads us outside to his twilight-bronze Volvo station wagon. “Wanna see my top songs of 2018?” he asks, showing me the Spotify app on his phone. Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know,” his most-played track of the year, blares out in all its perfection as we cruise down dark streets.

BERLIN, GERMANY - JUNE 13: Singer Bradford Cox of the American band Deerhunter performs live on stage during a concert at the Festsaal Kreuzberg on June 13, 2018 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Frank Hoensch/Redferns)

Bradford Cox and Lockett Pundt of Deerhunter perform live on stage during a concert at the Festsaal Kreuzberg on June 13, 2018 in Berlin, Germany. Photo credit: Frank Hoensch/Redferns/Getty Images

After dropping Faulkner off at his house, Cox takes us to a ramen restaurant in an upscale mall. Deerhunter guitarist Lockett Pundt is waiting inside in a stylish teal suede blazer. “I got it on eBay,” Pundt says proudly. “I was like, ‘$15? I’ll give it a shot.'”

There’s a long wait at the ramen place, so we head to a nearby thrift store. Cox and Le Bon wander off among the aisles of second-hand treasures while Pundt stays behind to talk.

One of Cox’s oldest friends and longest-lasting collaborators, the guitarist plays an outsize role in Deerhunter’s public perception, where he’s often cast as the gentle, dreamy counterpoint to the singer’s jagged edges. Tonight, this proves more or less true. While Cox grows increasingly hostile over the course of the evening — at several points accusing me of acting like a narc for asking questions like “What’s the name of this studio?” — Pundt is a reassuring presence.

Unlike his bandmate, for instance, he’s eager to talk about the making of Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? — a months-long odyssey of stop-and-start sessions that took the band to Marfa, El Paso, Los Angeles and back to Atlanta. “We definitely went through some ups and downs of morale, but I’m ecstatic with the end result,” Pundt says. “We pretty much always have a mid-album crisis. Like, literally every time. Perhaps it wouldn’t be a Deerhunter album if we didn’t.”

Overall, he’s quick to add, this is a remarkably stable time for the band. “There’s a maturity that has happened over the years,” he says. “We fought a lot more in the past. Everyone has kind of cooled off.”

Pundt remembers 2013’s glam-punk attack Monomania as the turning point. “That was a fucking intense time,” he says. “I was like, ‘Man, this is not a sustainable vibe.’ I think everyone realized it.” (Cox, who has said he experienced a nervous breakdown around this time, is even blunter in his assessment: “Oh, I was mentally ill,” he says when I ask about Monomania earlier that day. “Completely off my gourd.”)

Even so, there are things Pundt seems to miss about the early phases of Deerhunter’s career. He mentions the four-bedroom Grant Park house that he and Cox, along with several other roommates, shared around the time of 2008’s Microcastle and 2010’s Halcyon Digest. “I’d come home and there was always something happening — someone watching a cool movie, or someone slamming drums real late. It was a free-for-all, all the time.”

Today, Pundt is married with two children, leaving less space for that kind of creative ferment. “The one thing that’s harder for me is writing music,” he says. “As a single dude, I had all day long to get in the mood or whatever. Once I’ve had kids, it’s become more of a time-regimented thing, and I don’t always work so great that way.”

Cox and Le Bon reappear at the front of the thrift store: It’s time to make our way back to dinner. The singer frowns when he hears me asking how old Pundt’s children are.  “See?” he says. “That’s a narc question.”

I’m at the airport the next day when Cox calls me — accidentally, he says. He apologizes for ejecting me from the studio the previous night around 10 p.m., when his work with Le Bon on a handful of unfinished tracks reached a fever pitch. “I mean, there was hooting,” he says.

If he seemed distracted yesterday, Cox continues, it’s only because he’s had an overwhelming few weeks of press obligations for Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? and last-minute studio time with Le Bon. “And,” he says, “I buried my friend.”

It’s his first reference in the many hours we’ve spent together to Josh Fauver, who played bass on Deerhunter’s first five LPs and died at age 39 this past fall, six years after his departure from the band. Few details have been released to the public since Fauver’s death in November, and Cox is reluctant to say much out of respect for his late ex-bandmate’s family. But he’s willing to discuss Fauver’s contributions to Deerhunter, which coincided with the years when the band became known as an uncontainable creative force. “It was this mythological version of the band,” Cox says. “Everyone contributed equally — that’s rare. Josh constantly questioned my decisions, and I came to see that as something valuable.”

When Fauver quit Deerhunter over email in 2012, Cox was hurt. “I don’t like change,” he says. “Superficial changes, aesthetic changes, I like. But not permanent change. I hated it when he quit, and I find his death so unsettling. It’s the most disturbing thing.”

Bradford Cox of Deerhunter in New York, December 2018. Photograph by Daniel Dorsa for Rolling Stone

Bradford Cox of Deerhunter in New York, December 2018. Photograph by Daniel Dorsa for Rolling Stone

He keeps talking, about old movies and his mother and how challenging it can be to reconcile his onstage persona with his home life. “Lockett can come home and be Dad,” he says. “I don’t have that. Maybe that’s the truth of who I am, just a loner at home with his dog.”

Lately he’s been thinking about making another solo album under his Atlas Sound alias, something he hasn’t done since 2011. “All these years, I’ve been saying I don’t have time to make an Atlas Sound record,” he says. “Now I do.”

This reminds him of an old Twilight Zone episode — the one where a man survives a nuclear apocalypse only to find that his glasses have been destroyed, leaving him alone on earth and unable to read his beloved books. “I had an idea for another autobiography,” Cox says, laughing a little sadly. “I’ll call it Time Enough at Last.”

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