Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox: “If You’re Not Afraid of Failure … You’ll Never Die”


“This isn’t our usual room,” says Bradford Cox as I plop down on the couch in the penthouse of the Ace Hotel for the band’s day-long press junket. He’s wearing a worn t-shirt, the eyeliner from the previous night’s performance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon still on his face. He knowingly smiles, and explains how they always stay next door, and that they often hear questionable noises from beyond the walls. Then he just comes out with it.

“This is the sex room,” he laughs. “There’s probably semen everywhere in here.”

But is he telling the truth? Do they really hear sex noises all-the-time? Or is he just feeding another interviewer another line of bullshit because he’s entertaining himself? Well, who knows, really. And such is the main question that surrounds Cox.

Since his band Deerhunter’s inception, Cox’s popularity as an eccentric oddball has become known and well-documented. A recent Pitchfork feature examines how he “never stops performing.” He publicly hates on Morrissey. In early 2012, he responded to a heckler’s request at a show to play “My Sharona” by playing it for an hour (and then he called Pitchfork and ranted for 27 minutes about what happened). Hell, just look to the Fallon performance for another example: Wearing a wig with blood smeared across his body, his hand wrapped in a bandage made to look like he’d lost his finger, the lanky musician pounded his guitar for about half the song, and then walked off stage as his band finished.

Sitting in this hotel room, Cox’s demeanor is friendly, but uneasy. Joined by other members of the band (“If I have to work, they have to work”), he talks about his frustrations with the economy and culture at-large. Everyone in the room seems to walk on eggshells around him, carefully trying to not set him off. At one moment, a band member adjusts my recorder so it can pick up sound better, and Cox snaps, before flipping it into a sarcastic joke about his helpfulness. Later, he’ll shout at others in the room for typing on their computer.

But this all must be working, at least creatively. Next week, Deerhunter release their sixth LP Monomania. It’s a swirling, fuzzed out rock album, and in earnest, one that might be the band’s finest. Cox chatted with us about the development of the record, the politics of the band, and how the word “punk” has been hijacked.

What questions have you been asked today?
Bradford Cox: Oh, I don’t answer that question. This is the first interview I’ve ever done.

Ha, fair enough. Have you seen the Tilda Swinton exhibit at MOMA?
BC: Tilda Swinton?

Yeah. Tilda Swinton, sleeping in a glass box.
BC:It’s an actual, her actual real person?

Moses Archuleta: Yeah, but there’s no schedule. And there’s no artist’s statement about it or anything. There’s just a glass box and occasionally she shows up and takes a nap. And then when she wakes up she just leaves.

What do you think about that?
BC: See, that’s the kind of thing I think is just… I love it, it’s great, it’s just, amazing.

Why do you think you’re so attracted to in that idea?
BC: Well, describing that is very… you know, it’s really, really cool.

M: It’s nice that there’s no artist’s statement.

BC: When you can do something that excites the mind, and exhilarates the senses…

M: Especially something that simple.

BC: Moses is correct, one hundred percent. The simplicity is key there. It’s reminds me of old school. The old guard of surrealism.

Just sleeping in a glass box.
BC: I mean it’s almost saying that her presence has enough weight, that to just put herself on display, sleeping, you know, it’s well maybe she just–I like Tilda Swinton in general, who doesn’t?

How do you feel about Monomania?
BC: The thing that I’m most proud of is the relationship with the band and how it’s improved. It’s almost like a family. It’s the band I’ve always wanted to be in, which it wasn’t for along time.

When did it become the band you wanted to be in?
BC: Well, that’s an expected question, and I can answer it, but it’s going to be misinterpreted. I would say with the joining of Josh and Frankie, and maybe even before with… Moses can answer this question.

M: We figured some things out, and it personally helped all of our relationships get better. You see guys, and they’re great to have around. The band’s morale: It’s the highest its ever been.

How do you feel like that’s played into the music?
BC: Well, on this album I’m more like a director than anything else. I dabble in the graphic arts end of this album, of the packaging. I dabble in the mic-ing of the drums. It’s less of me being a counter guitarist to Lockett [Pundt]’s guitar, and it’s more a director’s perspective. One thing you need for a film or record or whatever to work is for everybody to have a shared vision. Everybody has to be able to make sacrifices–especially sacrifices of ego. I make them all the time too. You just have to say, “What’s best for the project?” There’s just no ego in this group. It’s something that a lot of people probably, just, can’t fathom. There’s no drug problem in this group. There’s no alcohol problem in this group. There’s no sex problem in this group. There’s no jealousy or rage. These are hidden pathologies. I mean, I can’t speak for everyone, but I love what I’m doing. I love being up there. I love sharing the stage. It’s an equal manner with these guys, and everybody on stage feels equal.

M: It’s been about working on the music as much as possible. Making the record and the whole process around it. Rehearsing and everything, it’s just like Bradford–

BC: Their support of my ideas gives me an infinite license. If I’m fighting for a vision that not everybody loves–I just want everyone to really love what we’re making. I’m not saying that wasn’t the case in the past. But, frankly speaking, there was negative energy constantly haunting the group. It was cynicism, it was forced nonchalance. And it’s gone. The season changed, and it was a long winter. Deerhunter had a very long winter. And now we are lucky enough to have a new spring. Honestly, it’s like being young again. Last night on [Jimmy Fallon] felt like back when we first started. It was really interesting and fun, and there was a lot of humor. I loved watching the playback because I felt like everybody did seriously receive equal attention. Obviously the singer’s going to receive a little more camera time, I mean that’s just, everyone on that stage made that performance amazing.

That performance felt like something we haven’t seen in awhile. Monomania sounds very much of the moment, but it’s also fucking rock ‘n’ roll.
BC: There’s a lot about culture right now that’s similar to periods that have created punk, surrealism, these different movements, you know? There’s also a lot of apathy, and there’s a lot of posturing. There’s a lot of desire to do the easiest thing you can do, and to do the thing that’s proven and tried. And to also just sell whatever you can because there’s this illusion that the economy dips and rises–it’s, you know, it’s this illusion. Everybody’s being played like a violin.

What do you mean?
BC: Well, I’ll tell you. It’s a sort of abstract concepts, but I mean, in my life I can live for nothing. I can. I didn’t come from money. None of us really came from money. We know how to live cheap. I don’t have to sell records to eat. I was just as happy delivering Chinese food or working in a sign shop. That’s something people really need to understand. I think the rest of the group would say the same thing. I mean it’s not that we’re not grateful for what we do. What I mean to say is that–and this is where it gets a little abstract–there’s no need for so much ambition that you begin to speak with such, and act with such a motive.

M: We’re recalculating. We’re flying through it. The same automatic thing.

BC: It has a lot to do with technology and the comfort zones that people grow up with. I think if you know how to live cheaply and make your art your focus, dips in the economy and bourgeois culture and decadent culture, they don’t really affect you.

Expand on that.
You know, corporate interests. I’m not anti-corporate, I’m not a liberal, I’m not–I’m apolitical for the most part, but it’s impossible not to understand that giant capital interests need to create peaks and dips and valleys. And what that does is that affects culture. Look at punk. Punk came out of poverty and political unease. What we have right now–the political unease is omnipresent–is basically privileged people trying to yell over each other about how they know the direction that things need to take. The impoverished and the perverts and the derelicts and a lot of common people and addicts’ needs are very muted right now. They’re more entertained by the shit show and there’s not enough culture being made on that level. A lot of culture’s being manufactured by these grandiose interests and consumed. It just seems such a grand-level thing. They’ve made it really attractive by taking control of the graphics and the aesthetics of underground movements throughout history. They’ve all been collected and collated into magazines and books that you can go and purchase and understand and graffiti marking guerilla economics. Bankers buying Arthur Russell CD’s.

So, how does that–
BC: I don’t know what I’m talking about. I’m staring at a bunch of rich-looking buildings. And then I think about the young groups. And mainly I just think they want nicer stuff. And we were like that, everybody wants to have these, like, commodities. What does it mean, you know? What’s the fucking point?

Do you feel misunderstood in your music?
BC: Well, I mean, I don’t know that I understand myself, so. Half the time I’m talking I’m just like, “I see where I’m going with this.” I start off a sentence, and I’m like, “Comcast is really just making it uncomfortable for a punk to thrive.”

Punk is such a word, it’s such a concept you can sell, you know? It’s like a t-shirt: punk. But what it means really is a deliberation of the ugly or the decrepit, and a base of like the ornamental. That’s wild, I love it.

I want to give one logical answer. This is not pretension. I’m genuinely trying to answer things in a normal way. I’m so spacey. Eye liner is seeping into my bloodstream.

You’ve called yourself an entertainer in all aspects of music, from performing to interviews.
BC: Oh, definitely. I think we all view ourselves as showbiz entertainers. Even with all these questions when I talk about politics. I am apolitical, but I have these fits of fancy where I talk about, go off on some, esoteric cultist political nonsense. It’s all entertainment. I just consider that all a kind of legalese to excuse any of my behavior.

But isn’t that problematic if you’re talking about cultures being controlled? Shouldn’t you be doing something that’s not in the name of entertainment?
BC:: Well, activism, to me, let’s just put it this way: if you’re not afraid of failure and you’re not selling anything, you’ll never die.

Okay. Alright.
BC: It was very nice to talk to you. I hope I wasn’t intimidating.

You weren’t.
BC: It’s all an act.

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