Bradford Cox has spent the past half-decade building one of the most acclaimed bodies of work in indie rock. A prolific songwriter, Cox has released dozens of songs on his own as Atlas Sound, and many more as the frontman of Deerhunter. Parallax, his latest album as Atlas Sound, hits stores tomorrow. The disc, which contrasts some of his most pop-oriented tunes to date alongside more abstract digressions, was recorded earlier this year before the singer suffered a nervous breakdown while on tour with Deerhunter. In this conversation with Rolling Stone, Cox opens up about his creative process and laments a lack of queerness in contemporary rock.
The last time I saw you play live, it was a Deerhunter show at Webster Hall, and you were dressed up in the teen idol look that you have on the cover of Parallax. What inspired this look?
It’s nothing more than a junk-shop version, a thrift store version of Ricky Nelson or something, but emaciated. It’s nothing new. I’d been really yearning for there to be some icons in music, in the kind of music I’m interested in lately, because it’s fucking dismal, what’s going on right now.
In terms of charismatic figures?
Hetero-centric, boring, scruffy 20 year-olds are ruining the fucking face of rock and roll, you know? There are no Patti Smiths or Joey Ramones, or Lou Reeds, even. Well, but Lou Reed is fucking playing with Metallica, whatever. There needs to be some vital something, and I mean, I’d like to try to be that, if possible, if I may be so bold.
Queerness. Homo-eroticism, boyhood.
In the Eighties, there were a fair number of, if not out, but queer artists who actually became rock stars. But it’s very hard to come up with many people in the past decade or so who fit that niche.
I’ll raise my hand.
Why do you think this has been absent from a lot of music?
I think that the world seems to be in some sort of conservative, cultural, retroactive, retrograde… I don’t know. It’s not that I think being queer is something someone should aspire to. People should just be themselves. I just don’t see a lot of selves, I just see a lot of… I don’t know, I just don’t want to be hateful. I don’t see a lot I can relate to. I’d be real disappointed if I was 17 or 16 or 15 or 12 or 11, you know?
So when you were that age, which wasn’t all that long ago, who inspired you?
Joey Ramone, Patti Smith, Lou Reed’s image, whether it was fucking real or not, I don’t know. The B-52s, Elvis, the Everly Brothers. Not exactly the queerest thing in the world.
Is there something in the music that you’re making, particularly on Parallax, that you’ve been trying to push to the foreground of what you do?
Sexuality? I don’t hide anything, but I also don’t really highlight anything either. For a long time I just said I was asexual, but now I just realized that… I’m still, I guess… I mean, I’m queer. I just sort of, don’t really have a very big self-esteem, so asexuality is sort of like a comfort zone where you don’t get rejected. So maybe that stuff is bubbling up, I don’t know. I don’t intend my music to be about that. I intend my music to be kind of cosmic.
You’re very prolific. How do you work to curate your own body of work? When do you know that a song like “Mona Lisa,” which you had released as a demo on your blog, was something you should go back and rework?
Oh man, it’s kind of like my bedroom, you know? It’s just a mess. It’s just all this shit everywhere. But like, there’ll be one thing in the corner of the room, one object, in a pile of objects, it just sort of gets seen more. You know what I mean? My body of work, I guess, is just a lot of strips and scraps and stuff. “Mona Lisa,” it’s not even a song that means that much to me. I can’t explain why. It fit in that part of the album. I needed something. I feel like “Modern Aquatic Nightsongs” is a pretty desperate and dark expression of something. It really goes into this abyss, you know, at the end of that song, and I’m just like I don’t want to go from one abyss into like, the “Doldrums,” which is another abyss. The idea is to just sit there and throw out life rafts every once in a while.
When you have all of these songs, how do you form connections with one instead of another?
Well, the same process that the audience does. I’m basically the audience for my own music. Because I don’t write things consciously. I don’t set out to write things, it’s all automatic writing, like the music and the chords and the lyrics and everything. So when I listen to it, I’m sort of analyzing it the same way that somebody who gets the record and listens to it for the first time. Certain things stick out to them, certain things stick out to me when I’m listening to my own stuff, you know?
When you’re working with Andrew VanWyngarden from MGMT on “Mona Lisa,” or with your bandmates in Deerhunter, do they help you edit?
I usually sequence things in my mind. I’m really big on narratives. Sometimes I can be a little bit difficult with it, like Halcyon Digest, I understand the problem a lot of people had with the sequencing of that album.
If I handed a bunch of songs to a record label and said “Hey, here’s 12 new songs. Sequence them, make an album, do the artwork for me,” it would be totally different. It would be top-loaded, start out catchy. I’m just not interested in that. The records that have always struck me are ones that I hated the first time I heard them. I was listening to Lou Reed’s The Blue Mask with my friend yesterday and enjoying it, and all of a sudden this song comes on, “I love women, I love all kinds of women, women, women,” and I’m just like “Fuck!” and I literally ripped the needle off the record, I was just like, “Fuck this shit.”
You recorded Parallax this summer. Is it strange that it’s taking so long to reach people?
It is, especially because a lot of stuff has happened to me personally, which I don’t really care to go into. In between the making of this record and where I’m at now, it’s hard for me to put myself back. I want to be able to go back to that place so that I can fully express all the ideas that were present when I was making the record. But now, it seems a little bit faded. I might as well have recorded the record ten years ago. I don’t feel the same way. I was really comfortable and lonely simultaneously when I made this record.
That sounds kind of peaceful.
Yeah, people keep referring to confidence and stuff. I felt like an alien that was okay with distance.
Is that why you worked with the photographer Mick Rock for the cover of Parallax? He worked with David Bowie on similar themes.
I really don’t mean to play up the Bowie thing. Because I’m not Bowie. I mean, I relate to a lot of the anxiety I think Bowie went through as a person. But Bowie was a very sexual and very… I’m not that.
There’s a similar resonance between what you’re projecting on this record and the Bowie of The Man Who Fell to Earth.
Yeah, that’s exactly what the record is. I mean it is. I guess it’s my revision of that mythos. With my own bullshit emotional baggage shoved in there.
Are you working on a new record right now?
I’m writing for the next Deerhunter record. I’m trying to. I’ve got a lot of personal stuff that’s absorbed all of my consciousness. Specifically, a personal thing. A confusion. A confusion!
When you go through periods like this where you’re just kind of absorbed in a personal thing, how does that effect your writing?
Well, I never have before. I’ve been nothing but the guy on stage that you see on the Internet. I think everything started to happen when I was in Australia and gave an interview on the radio and they filmed it and I was just going through a really hard time. And then everybody made fun of me and was like, “Oh, look at this whiney cocksucker.”
What were you talking about in that interview?
Being unsatisfied and maybe I was trying to talk about being lonely or something. They made it out that I was some whiney rock star. My incredibly glamorous life is not enough to keep me from whining. You know, people say “Man, I’d kill to be doing what he’s doing, and he’s complaining?” I’m so grateful for all the things I get to do. I’m very happy with whatever amount of success I’ve had. But it doesn’t keep you warm at night. And, I started to get really worn down. And then they say, “You’ve got to do more, you’ve got to go here, you’ve got to go there. Be ready to get picked up at the airport tomorrow.”
It’s all about parallax, man. Five years for one person is 20 for another, you know? It’s like, if a car is coming towards you down a highway and you’re going towards it, it’s like this distortion of how fast things go by. And I guess my time as a musician has gone by so fast that I realized that I have no personal life. The other guys in Deerhunter, they all found things. And I just have monomania. I always will. I’m obsessive about one thing, that there’s one thing that’s going to make me happy and it’s making music, or there’s one thing that’s going to make me happy and it’s this person. The music seemed to be the one thing that kept me going and then I was just bound to have this nervous breakdown. And it wasn’t super-dramatic, like in some sort of typical, rock star way or something. It was more pathetic and I sort of had a nervous breakdown in this hotel lobby in London.
After Parallax was recorded, I was forced to go back and do more Deerhunter shows. And I didn’t want to, necessarily, because my mind was in the zone of the new songs. And I had to go back to the Halcyon Digest and Deerhunter songs. There’s nothing in the world I love more than my family, my brothers, the band, the Deerhunter boys. They are absolutely my family. I’ve already been around the planet, like, three time, this year. It’s great for frequent flier miles, but it’s hard on the mind and body, and I just lost it. And when you don’t have someone to call at home. I mean, your mom and your dad, your family is one thing. But it’s not the same. When you don’t feel like there’s somebody that misses you. I am the man that fell to earth in some ways. I don’t have a connection to anyone, besides my family, who love me very much.
Do you think maybe that you’re getting something out of performing that’s kind of a substitute for what you might not be getting from a particular person?
Absolutely. Yes. For sure. Completely. But it doesn’t work. I wouldn’t give it up for anybody. I’ll be lonely for the rest of my life if I have to. This sounds so fucking 1972 or some shit, but I would sacrifice my own needs for rock and roll. Because I believe in it, and I don’t care what that sounds like. If it sounds like a pretense or some sort of megalomania or some fucking nonsense rock cliché – if you know what it feels like, you’ll understand, and if you don’t, you can write me off, because I don’t really give a fuck. But anyone who knows what it’s like to be naked in front of thousands of people and, like, go into a trance. I go into such trances that I’ve busted my teeth out onstage, shoving a microphone into my mouth. And I didn’t feel anything. It’s intense.