"Fuck you," a voice playfully flares, thrusting almost like a lance from the phone receiver now held safely six inches away.
There's no actual malice intended. This "fuck you" could easily be a "shut up!" or "no way!" except that's not how Bradford Cox rolls. Cox, guitarist/vocalist of Atlanta five-piece Deerhunter, has just heard I might know something about microphones. And Cox has a microphone situation.
What the situation is isn't important. Chat long enough with Cox, who's a little on the ADD edge, and you realize if it's not one situation, it's another. The physical stuff is nothing a little duct tape and swearing can't fix. Without duct tape, panic, and adrenaline, also Xanax and Lexapro, there would have been no Cryptograms, Deerhunter's two-years-in-the-making Kranky Records debut that recalls prime spatial diffusion and collusion à la Spaceman 3, Flying Saucer Attack, Grizzly Bear, Joe Meek, NEU!, Brian Eno, Underworld, and Tetris.
Cryptograms is the sound of a reedy post-punk band exorcising—and exercising—its opalescent ghosts. At its most agitated it could be the exploratory soundtrack to a more erudite Deliverance. Just don't say they jam.
"Despite what a lot of people like to say, I don't consider us to be a 'psychedelic' band, because in that culture drugs are happy and recreational," Cox says. "[Cryptograms is] more alternated chemical states due to necessity.
"The first side is about, well, 'Am I a failure? Is this thing on?' Feedback," he continues. "And the second side is like, 'Yeah it was on. Chillax.' The second side is therapy for the first side. The first is fucked up and the second is adjusted but creeped out. Maybe it's a little scared of itself and overcompensating. Or maybe it's just manic and the drugs are working."
That was the actual situation of Deerhunter's bipolar recording, split between fricative moils and blunted ebbs and bouts with pneumonia and depression. And then there are the philosophical circumstances, where things turn out to be part Situationist in the classical sense.
The Situationist International was a post-WWII group of political and artistic agitators whose methods were adopted by punks and culture-jammers as a means of recontextualizing media. And boy did Situationists love them some dialectical statements:
"We want structures that serve people, not people serving structures." "The walls have ears. Your ears have walls." "Live without dead time."
These are just some of the anonymous graffiti slogans found in late '60s Paris. Batting references and absurdities back and forth in our rapid-fire interview, Cox churns out similar mantras like a pro.
"I don't like being limited... except I do like being forced to rearrange." "If Bowie said that in the '70s he made 'plastic soul,' then I'm making 'titanium ennui,' with a matte finish." "It's the Xanax era, when everyone tries to maximize their experience. They are wealthier and more impoverished than they have ever been."
Cox has always been fascinated by overlaps and their extremes. As a "precocious kid" growing up in Athens, Georgia, he fell under the tutelage, so to speak, of John Fernandes from lo-fi collagists Olivia Tremor Control. Fernandes worked at Wuxtry Records, and would give Cox lists of albums to check out, including cascades of repeating patterns from Steve Reich and Morton Feldman. Doo-wop, with its vocal layering, is another Cox favorite. Subsequently, contrasts—and especially explorations in the "gray, nondescript, shapeless fears" between—characterize Cox and Cryptograms.
The foundations of the Deerhunter sound are in a physical space equally askew as the mental one. The band's genesis can be traced to a triangular, reverb-prone room of cafeteria tile and duct-taped four-tracks, Wurlitzers, tube amps, plus maybe Pro Tools on a MacBook Pro, all in the rear of a rickety furniture warehouse off the quaint downtown Marietta, Georgia, square. Here Deerhunter explored the fringes of their fascinations and coined the sound "Notown," an adhesion of "no wave" and "Motown" in honor of the urban legend that Hitsville USA was pursing a contract with the Fall circa 1982's Hex Education Hour. It's in accepting the existence of tense conflictions—finding the value in trash culture, making the most out of limitations—where Deerhunter thrives.
"I like the Germs at the Whiskey a Go-Go playing with barely one chord, but also Stereolab where they spend two years figuring out palates and arranging snare patterns," Cox reflects. "I can appreciate the epic, evocative scope of an artisan like [Spanish filmmaker] Almodóvar, and the way you can empathize with both his weak and strong characters, but I can also be into Harmony Korine [responsible for gritty sketches such as Kids and Gummo]."
"You shouldn't reject where you come from, act above it, act dehumanized to the world around you," Cox concludes. "But you also shouldn't be afraid to move on to new things, make shit happen under any circumstances."
Cryptograms is not immediately welcoming, but it is rewarding. Deerhunter is not a staid consumable. And, in essence, Cox is his own head coach, patting himself on the ass to twist words and guitar wires, and throwing out a mischievous "fuck you" or two as Deerhunter helps him to not get caught up in the shit life hands out.