Daniel Lopatin, the young man behind the spacey and spacious mindscapes of Oneohtrix Point Never, operates out of a cramped bedroom in Bushwick, mostly taken up by vintage synthesizers, rhythm boxes, and assorted sound-processing gizmos, plus a gigantic computer monitor. Every inch of surface area is covered with tchotchkes: a Tupac mug, little sculpted owls, John and Yoko kissing on the sleeve of the “(Just Like) Starting Over” single. Near the computer, a stack of tomes represents upcoming areas of research: a guide to Alchemy & Mysticism, a lavish book on ECM Records, Ray Kurzweil on The Singularity. Most intriguing, though, are the notes posted above his workspace: maxims, self-devised or sampled from thinkers, that are midway between Eno’s Oblique Strategies and those embroidered homilies people once stuck on their kitchen walls.
“Do More With Less (Ephemeralize)” is fairly self-explanatory. The more opaque ” ‘Linear’—Kill Time vs. ‘Sacred’ ” is clarified by the erudite, philosophically minded Lopatin thus: “People think killing time is bad. You should be productive. But when music is at its most sanctified, it’s a total time-kill.” There’s something in Hebrew and Cyrillic that nods to his Russian-Jewish background. But the most revealing of these “little critical reminders” is “N.W.B.,” which stands for “Noise Without Borders.” “Everything is noise,” elaborates Lopatin, whose yellowish hair and reddish beard mesh pleasingly with his off-purple flannel shirt and kindly, dreamy green eyes. “Noise can be sculpted down to become pop; pop can be sculpted down into noise. But it’s also to do with the idea of not having genre affiliations.”
Oneohtrix Point Never emerged from the noise underground, but for a long while, Lopatin felt like an outcast among the outcasts. The ideas he was developing—bringing in euphonious influences from ’70s cosmic trance music and ’80s new age, creating atmospheres of serenity tinged with desolation—went against the grain: “My shit wasn’t popping off at all,” he laughs. This was 2003 through 2005, when Wolf Eyes defined the scene with their rock-and-roll attitude. But Lopatin and a handful of kindred spirits such as Emeralds felt a growing “boredom with noise, a sense we’d done it: We get this emotion.” Around 2006, the scene began to shift slowly in their direction. “We were all talking about Klaus Schulze,” he recalls of the gig where he first bonded with Emeralds, noting also the huge clouds of pot smoke pouring from vans outside the venue, Cambridge, Massachusetts’ Twisted Village. “Drugs!” is his answer, when asked how the noise scene reached its current ethereal ‘n’ tranquil state. “Noise, at the end of the day, is headspace music. Drugs are a big part of getting into that experience, from a playing side, and from a fan/listener perspective, too.”
A flurry of Oneohtrix releases—along with such side projects as Infinity Window, Skyramps, and the KGB Man—made Lopatin a name to watch. But it was last year’s Rifts—a double CD for Carlos Giffoni’s No Fun label pulling together a trilogy of hard-to-find earlier releases—that propelled him to underground-star status. U.K. magazine The Wire anointed Rifts the No. 2 album of 2009; it also sold out its 2,000-unit pressing, making it a blockbuster success in a scene where the majority of releases come out in small runs of anywhere from 30 to 300 copies. Rifts was further disseminated widely on the Web, talked about and listened to with an intensity that sales figures don’t reflect.
Another profile-raising “hit” for Lopatin was “Nobody Here,” a mash-up of Chris de Burgh’s putrid “Lady in Red” and a vintage computer graphic called “Rainbow Road,” credited to his YouTube alias, SunsetCorp, and so far receiving around 30,000 hits. He calls his audio-video collages “echo jams”: They typically combine ’80s sources (a vocal loop from Mirage-era Fleetwood Mac, say, with a sequence from a Japanese or Soviet hi-fi commercial) and slow them down narcotically (an idea inspired by DJ Screw). Lopatin collated his best echo jams on the recent Memory Vague DVD; his ’80s obsession also comes through with the MIDI-funk side project Games, a collaboration with Joel Ford from Brooklyn band Tiger City. (Ford lives in a room at the other end of the Bushwick apartment.) Lopatin plays me a new Games track that sounds like it could be a Michael McDonald song off the Running Scared soundtrack and says, “We want people to be playing this in cars.”
In what is simultaneously another step forward as well as one sideways, the new Oneohtrix album, Returnal, is released this month on the highly respected experimental electronic label Mego. Although Lopatin’s preoccupation with memory is similar to the label’s most renowned artist, Fennesz, sonically Returnal has little in common with Mego’s glitchy past. Yet it’s a departure for Lopatin, too. Several tracks adhere to the classic OPN template established by tunes like “Russian Mind” and “Physical Memory”: rippling arpeggiations, sweet melodies offset by sour dissonance, grid-like structures struggling with cloudy amorphousness. But the most exciting tunes are forays into completely new zones.
Opening with the sculpted distortion-blast of “Nil Admirari” is a fuck-you to those who’ve pegged Lopatin as “that Tangerine Dream guy.” It’s also a concept piece, a painting of a modern household where the outside world’s violence pours in through the cable lines, the domestic haven contaminated by toxic data: “The mom’s sucked into CNN, freaking out about Code Orange terrorist shit, while the kid is in the other room playing Halo 3, inside that weird Mars environment, killing some James Cameron–type predator,” he explains. At the opposite extreme, the title track is an exquisitely mournful ballad redolent of the early solo work of Japan’s David Sylvian. Lopatin’s vocals have featured occasionally before as Enya-esque texture-billow, but never so songfully as here. (Qualities that emerge even more strongly on the forthcoming “Returnal” remix/cover, voiced by Antony Hegarty.)
Finally, most astonishingly, is “‡Preyouandi,” the closing track, a shatteringly alien terrain made largely out of glassy percussion sounds, densely clustered cascades fed through echo and delay. On first listen, I pictured an ice shelf disintegrating, a beautiful, slow-motion catastrophe. This “blues for global warming” interpretation turns out to be completely off-base, but it’s still the sort of music that gets your mind’s eye reeling with fantastical imagery.
Both “Returnal” and “‡Preyouandi” contain textural tints that explicitly echo the hypervisual sounds and visionary concepts of Jon Hassell, who, back in the ’80s, explored what he called “Fourth World Music,” a polyglot sound mixing Western hi-tech and ethnic ritual musics. “I wanted to make a world-music record,” says Lopatin. “But make it hyperreal, refracted through not really being in touch with the world. Everything I know about the world is seen through Nova specials, Jacques Cousteau, and National Geographic.” He explains that the stuff that indirectly influenced Returnal were things like the unnaturally vivid and stylized tableaux you might see in that kind of documentary or magazine article: 100 Sufis praying in a field, say. “So I’m painting these pictures, not of the actual world, but of us watching that world.”