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Why Oneohtrix Point Never Wrote ‘Nightmare Ballads’ in an Egg-Shaped House for ‘Age Of’

The in-demand electronic experimentalist on forming a band and recording an imaginary soundtrack to ‘Toys.’

Oneohtrix Point Never

Onohtrix Point Never is releasing his ninth album, 'Age Of.'

Atiba Jefferson

Brooklyn’s Oneohtrix Point Never, the acclaimed sound sculptor born Daniel Lopatin, has spent the past few years combining his visceral, mutated electronic noise with a small cadre of boundary-pushing auteurs: David Byrne, FKA Twigs, Anohni, footwork producer DJ Earl and – most notably – directors Josh and Benny Safdie for the soundtrack to Good Time.

“I can take an average of a sort of reaction to [working with me], and the average is this: ‘Dan, that part is amazing. Can you just, like, stop fucking around and just loop it, ad infinitum so I can write something important over that?,'” he says.

“And I went, ‘Oh, yeah. That’s how music works.'”

That thinking helped inform his ninth album, Age Of, an album that features a handful of “ballads” like “Babylon” and first single “Black Snow,” both which sound like a VR-twisted take on traditional song form – possibly the most accessible music he’s made to date. The album is also his first to feature collaborators, including James Blake, Anohni, Prurient, Kelsey Lu and drummer Eli Keszler. For the first time, Lopatin will be touring with a full band, which includes Keszler alongside keyboardists Kelly Moran and Aaron David Ross. And in May, he will stage a monumental cross-discipline “concert-scape” at New York’s Park Avenue Armory.

Rolling Stone caught up with Lopatin to talk about his new direction and its nerve-shattering recording in an egg-shaped South Central Massachusetts Airbnb.

You were telling me about rehearsing with your new band.
It’s kind of a Beefheart situation where the band is very good at comprehending the music I wrote in the vacuum – MIDI and piano roll – and I have no idea what I’ve done. I was basically in like a sort of quasi-blacked out state of obsession of just stacking and moving around MIDI notes. … It’s clearly composed music, but I’m not able to recreate it in a continuous manner sitting down at an instrument. But they can. So, it like becomes this weird Beefheart thing where I’m sitting around like, “Wow. What? I did that?” They’re like, “Yeah, dude.”

Can you play any instrument traditionally?
I’m like soft Ray Manzarek. I think of the keyboard as almost like a bass or a lead.

So, you’re a pretty good one-handed piano player?
Very good one-handed piano player. Essentially, I can do anything musically I can think of in nonlinear musical time. … But when it comes down to like sitting there and being like, “Then there’s this part,” I become like a deer in headlights.

When was the last time you were in a band?
I was in a grunge band in middle school with Joel Ford who I later did this recording with called Ford & Lopatin. We had a band called the Grainers. In our 12-year-old minds, this was like a double entendre for like being annoying and being a delicious donut. I got kicked out of the band for playing bass incorrectly. Like, I was playing it like a guitar. I was just so like twee and British, even as like the little 12-year-old boy. I was playing it like it was a Medieval instrument.

How long were you in that band?
I was in that band for about a summer and then … but then, wait, we come back together years later. So I go off and woodshed on keyboards and I become a master sound effects expert. But I also, like, learned how to shred the blues scale and shred pentatonic stuff, so then I come back and it’s high school and I’m like, “Listen to Herbie Hancock Sextant.” We reunite in high school under the guise of being a hard Seventies electric-jazz quartet.

With the same name?
The same exact name [laughs]. It made no sense. I was in a band in college called the Debras in Western Mass. We wrote a couple very like New Order, Joy Division type songs. … I was never really good at being in a band. … I was unfortunately just a little bit too selfish. … And I always thought of music as more of kind of like this opportunity to create a world or a feeling. I wasn’t always totally interested solely in music as a sort of visceral expression of people in unison and synchronized, a federated expression of a group of people. I loved it as a wallflower, as a fan, but when I was in it, I always felt like I wasn’t built for it. Then I watch like the Replacements SNL performance or something like that and I’m like moved to tears.

So, why did you to want to form a band for this record?
The music sounded so band-y. When I was making the record, I was in this house in central Mass and I was just kind of under the influence of a lot of orchestra-of-one records of Stevie Wonder, Todd Rundgren. You can hear sort of slipperiness coming from the idea that Stevie’s on all the instruments and he’s not particularly, like, incredible at drums. He sounds so good because it’s that direct feed from his mind. …The DNA of the record are these slippery sound-on-sound experiments meant to sound like an orchestra of me. So, when it’s time to actually do the music, I didn’t think like standing there with a laptop and being like, “What’s up guys?” It’s just not that kind of music.

Vocal tracks like “Black Snow” and “Babylon” are a different type of song for you.
I really wanted to make some ballads that were like plans for me to express something poetically. … I was thinking about words a lot and just like wanting that to be in focus and not having all this distraction.

I did this thing where basically I came back to New York from tour and I was like, “Let’s do this thing that all composers or bands do where they’re like, ‘I’m out of here. Let’s go to the woods! Let’s make an album in the woods,'” and it just seemed like such a stupid cliche to me and I was like, “OK, I have to feel this. I have to feel this feeling.” So I did. I’m just, like, in this weird suburban town in a very strange home. This alien egg glass house. It’s an anomaly on this cul de sac surrounded by ranch houses.

Where is this?
In South Central Massachusetts on the Connecticut border. I went out there to be in this house because I thought it would be insane to be in a house with basically no edges, really contoured, really circular, and I was like, “That’s definitely going to … to do something … to me.” There was this weird dynamic in this house where during the day I was pretty happy because often the neighbors at the bottom of the hill were outside, the kids were playing. … There was animals and there was wildlife and birds to look at outside the window while I was writing. Then at night, because I was alone, it just became a living nightmare every day to get to the morning to when it would be sane again. Because at night glass is terrifying. There’s moths and all this shit hitting the window, fucking bump bump ba-bump ba-bump and you feel like you’re being surveilled and you can’t see out, but you can imagine that anyone could see in. And everyone’s asleep, except for this one illuminated alien egg. This one illuminated alien egg with this guy sitting there with headphones writing music, and it was terrifying.

I got there and I said, “OK, I want to be as close to the glass as possible.” So, I moved the dining room table forward, and so when you move the dining room table forward, the chandelier that hangs above the center of the table is now, like, above where I’m sitting. So, there was always this eminent danger of, like, smashing my head against this weird … it looked like it was laden with scepters in a circle and I would stand up and I would often like smash my head into this thing and the chains were shaking and I was alone so I was like, “Dude. I’m gonna bleed to death alone in this house one night.” So, built-in idyllic cliché or stereotype, it was immediately augmented. So I wanted to make these weird, little nightmare ballads. It was just the appropriate music for the time.

So, you’re kind of Black Lodge Bon Iver?
That’s a very Rolling Stone comment, but I’ll take it.

How did working on the Good Time soundtrack change your life?
Well, I was lucky because I feel like the Safdie brothers are similar to me personality-wise, so that when we worked, it didn’t feel like there was an enormous amount of effort to try to come to a consensus of understanding about how this is gonna go. There weren’t cue sheets, there was nothing. There was like hanging out, geeking out about stuff that we were excited about … partying, becoming friends, and making the film as punchy and as insane as we wanted it to be. It was fun.

Life after Good Time is just, in a sense, exciting because now I have all these fun toys, gizmos and gadgets, like a film agent and all this other stuff that comes with the territory. … One of the songs on the album is called “Toys 2.” … What it is is my proof of concept for how I would score a Pixar film. I made that because I don’t think anyone, none of my agents believed me. The first conversation we had, it was like, “I want to do children’s film, animated film. I want to do it very badly and I understand it’s extremely competitive and without a serious dossier or a portfolio, getting into that scenario is very difficult. However, just play them this piece and if they understand it the way I do, I will get the job. And we’ll have a very good time because everyone would have wanted the same thing.”

Did he or she end up sending that out to any film companies?
I don’t know because I got so sidetracked with my album that I kind of forgot that that’s something I did. You know, like, Robin Williams, he was like, “Don’t use my likeness in any CG stuff after I’m gone.” That was something he made sure to specify in his last will and testament before he went, which I thought was incredible. I thought it was just funny if I homaged that and just did that horribly cliché thing that all electronic musicians do for some reason, which is “make a score to a film that doesn’t exist.” This is like the worst tendency. I don’t understand how no electronic producers or whoever have caught onto the idea that this is the most played-out, worst-idea thing ever. It’s like a complete joke. But I was like, “OK. I’m gonna do it. I’m gonna do it for real. Let’s never have another ‘song to an imaginary score that doesn’t exist moment ever again.'”

Does that mean this is your imaginary score to Toys 2?
This is my imaginary score to Toys 2. And that’s it. I don’t want to hear anybody trying to do it like, “Hey, this is my version of like a record from 1987 for some journey through the desert that I didn’t take while I was like living in Greenpoint.” Like, you don’t live in the desert, man. I know you’re interested in Antarctica and you Google search all these cool images of it, but give it up.

Your music is so highly informed by media and consuming media. And that is the actual reality for a lot of people.
You want someone to be a surrogate for you in terms of how your Internet addiction might manifest itself productively, I am your guy. I’ve made my most horrible inhuman tendencies work for me.

When was the last time you saw Toys?
Oh, God. I don’t even think I saw it the first time I saw it.

This thing you’re doing with the Armory sounds very complicated.
Let me clear it up. It’s not that bad. When I was at that house, I was putting together the record, which is really just like a record. I really wouldn’t call it a concept album or anything like that. However, watched 2001 and I got really excited about doing an OPN opera. I call it a concert-scape because it’s like what a dumb composer from 2018 would need from the opera experience, a “concert-scape.” … I’m watching 2001 and it occurs to me that the entire kind of meta-narrative where there’s this advanced species that bequeaths humans with the ability to evolve and eventually attain total enlightenment would be a lot funnier and more OPN if you inverted it and made it so that these aliens just want to be dumb like us. They just want to be dumb. They can answer, like, anything, they can do anything, except not have answers, and that’s what they fetishize.

So, what they do is they hang out at the end of the universe at this impasse where they really just go create a new universe or do whatever the fuck you do at the end of time if you’re smart. Instead, they just loiter in this graveyard of planets like teenagers at the mall, and they’re like dreaming all day of what it would be like to be as dumb as us. And that’s the sort of, like, meta-narrative presented at the Armory that we use inflatables and sculptures and all these different things to tell this story.

What is the most complicated thing in this production that has been the hardest to realize
Three-hundred pound sculptures that hang from the ceiling like kebabs that secrete ooze, and smells, and by the way, speakers are hung above and below them, like the tomatoes and onions. So, that’s hard.

Have you tested ooze smells?
We’re so behind and we’re gonna do it, but it’s funny how a lot of these things that for me are extremely important, like, “Yo, I need to understand what lavender we’re gonna pump into the room when we’re in the middle of a noise block or whatever,” is like very de-prioritized at the moment for everyone else working on it. They’re like, “Dan, just learn the fucking songs.”

As someone who touches on these types of sounds on his records, how do you feel about the explosion of ASMR in popularity.
People are really desensitized, physically, to the point where they’ve discovered a way to hear, even in a mitigated way, hear more deeply. This is amazing, because it just means there’s a crisis. It means there’s a crisis of sensitivity that you need to make up for with a high dose.

So maybe ASMR is like the response to the loudness wars?
Yeah, the sort of nebulous, the kind of ubiquitous low-res–ing of society, compressing of society, the flattening of experience of mediated experience, of media experience, that needs to now be salvaged, saved. So you need to stick a steroid needle in the neck of it. 

In This Article: Oneohtrix Point Never

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