It’s constantly challenging, but intriguingly attractive. Like that mysterious piece of formless art that you just want to take a better look at.
You might find him producing commissioned pieces for the Tate and soundtracking Sofia Copolla movies but Oneohtrix Point Never is an uncompromising artist that we need at a time like this. He is as every bit openminded in person as he is in his music and in every release will always keep you guessing.
On the eve of his eighth album release, titled Garden of Delete, Oneohtrix Point Never lifts up his hood to share with us his thoughts on many aspects of his life and career, from his parents opinion of his music, to the worrying embrace of culture in Russia and his open hatred for stadium rock act U2. If his music was an interview this would be it, this is the synergy of chaos and pop at its best.
This may sound a bit weird but as a pop culture-science magazine we would rather get to know you as a person and understand the philosophy behind your work.
That’s actually a complete fuckin’ relief for me.
So, away from the music, how would you describe yourself and your background? Let’s say you’re on tinder.
I haven’t been single for so long that I’m kind of confused about who I am. You know, you just don’t think about it when you’re in a relationship. And I’m busy with shit too. Even when I see pictures of myself I’m like, “fuck, there I am. Wearing the same clothes I’ve been wearing since I was sixteen.” I forget that.
My parents always treated me like I was adopted because I was born in America and they had this extreme struggle that I was never a part of. And they made me know that. They were always like, “you’re the spoiled American kid in this family.” But the kids I went to school with probably thought I was a complete freak. I wasn’t overly materialistic. I didn’t have many toys. These are all just symptoms of being part of an immigrant family. And a timidity, a lack of adventurousness. I think because my parents had gone on this massive adventure, when they settled everything was just about trying to keep things working. You know, my parents were Jews in Russia, so that was already pretty traumatic.
"The kids I went to school with probably thought I was a complete freak."
Oneohtrix Point Never
Have you toured in Russia?
Yeah. Their politics are so insane right now. There was a lot of automatic weapons in clear view, all the time. I played this small show in Moscow and there was probably like forty kids total. They all waited until the very end while I packed everything up, and of course I thought it was all about me. I was like, “this is so cool, they’re waiting around to talk to me.” No, they were waiting for the show promoters to finish so that they can all leave together because it’s safer.
We left at like one in the morning. It’s the middle of winter, icy as fuck and scary and foggy. There were a lot of young girls in this crew. The promoter explained it to me, he said, “some of us know each other better than others but typically when we do an event like this we all move off together.” That’s something that would never fuckin’ happen anywhere else.
I know that you’re a fan of science fiction. And I find elements of philosophy in your work as well. Is this something you think about when you’re writing music?
I read an essay that Brian Eno wrote years ago. It was called ‘Generating and Organising Variety in the Arts’, and this essay just stuck with me forever because the very basic idea in it is this: we should look at biology and evolutionary theory because it should be suggestive of how we work as artists. The point of the artist is to generate as much variety as possible just as it’s the point of the universe to generate, through entropy, as much variety as possible.
That always sticks with me because I feel like anything less than that, and you’re falling into line, you’re making harmless stuff, you’re basically just there to regurgitate something that has already happened. You’re believing too much in one idea and the work is too totemic.
The other thing that’s related is this guy Manuel DeLanda. He’s fuckin’ awesome. He was a film maker in the early eighties in New York but he became an expert in Gilles Deleuze. But he’s more than that. He’s an incredible thinker in his own right. One of the things he talked about was this idea that’s related to materialism. It’s a very simple illustration of how little we understand objects around us. The example he uses is Mount Everest. So he’s like, okay Mount Everest, everyone knows what it is because it’s epic, it’s a fuckin’ mountain and it looks like it never changes. We can rely on it to be a mountain. Every day it’s a mountain. But if we just removed ourselves from this limited incremental understanding of objects around us and saw it on a cosmological time scale it would appear to us to be the most unstable, frightening thing. And we could never call that thing that we saw a mountain.
So that’s a perfect allegory for our own weird limitations and ignorance I think. We want to so badly believe that this thing is a thing. But it’s kind of not.
Music seems to be heading into this claustrophobic abyss at the moment because everyone is scared that they won’t get heard if they don’t conform. Everything is becoming gentrified and I think music is as well. That’s not to say there’s no challenging and confronting music out there but it’s avenues of getting heard are becoming weaker. So for that very reason, the music you make is important. It’s a mixture of form and chaos.
Structure is everything to me. The form is the key.
You’re really into structure and melody and pop and there’s a strong foundation of that. But you layer it with this chaos sometimes. Maybe you can delve into that?
Alright, look, basically I’m trying to be as generous and honest as I can about the way I’m perceiving shit. Music is never just music. Its silence, noise, structure, all the things you have to encounter when you listen. Let’s really think about it. The opening of the CD, the tray coming out and going back in, the machine noise, your shitty thoughts and anxieties that create cognitive dissonance and distract you. So the challenge is, how do I show that? What’s an honest way to depict that?
That’s how I work. Instead of making lifestyle choice music, you know, like this is fuckin’ chillwave, this is brostep, this is jangle pop. Those are all weirdly decisive choices made by people who just want to do that one thing. It’s not a multiverse for them. A punk will say, “this is the music that best suits my outfit and the things I do.” I’ve never been that person. I’ve never been a person who needs music to facilitate a series of lifestyle choices.
"I’m trying to be as generous and honest as I can about the way I’m perceiving shit. Music is never just music. Its silence, noise, structure, all the things you have to encounter when you listen."
But hold on, because it seems like a whole lifestyle is being created out of your music.
That could be. But I’m not controlling that or trying to influence it. That’s not my job.
What do your parents think of your music?
With this new one, my mum was like, “usually I need to imagine something in my mind like a movie to get into your music. But this time I could just listen to this stuff as songs.” So that was nice to hear. She’s a piano teacher so she gets it. That was rewarding because it was an indication to me that I had actually written songs.
My favourite work that you’ve done, which I’ve heard is your least favourite, is the Ford & Lopatin stuff.
Yeah, I didn’t like it.
I DJ’d a lot back in Berlin and I used to rock ‘Joey Rogers’ out every time I played.
That’s a good tune! I’m not saying there’s not good songs on that album but I think I was trying too hard to make things more idiosyncratic than they needed to be. I wish that record was more. . . just good songs without all that other shit. There’s weird stuff, and then there’s song, and they’re kind of on top of each other. It seems to me instead of being an integrated stew, it’s like a fuckin’ casserole.
"I’m bothered when people need music to be a piece of IKEA furniture. The most boring shit in the world to me is U2, because it’s neither bad enough to hate nor interesting enough to remember. It’s nothing."
Oneohtrix Point Never
Going back to the gentrification of music, people seem to need tags and metatags. They want to feel secure, they want to feel comfortable and warm and like everything’s not chaotic. And what your music does is give them chaos. Can you talk a bit about that?
I don’t want that comfortable feeling from art. A chair is designed. You can imagine a body in it. Abstract sculpture is not designed, it’s not a chair. What body can you imagine in an Anthony Caro sculpture? You can’t, it’s like some alien thing. It gives me so much pleasure because it’s not designed and not practical. I’m bothered when people need music to be a piece of IKEA furniture. The most boring shit in the world to me is U2, because it’s neither bad enough to hate nor interesting enough to remember. It’s nothing. And I don’t think music should be that. It shouldn’t be a warm blanket.
I’m going to throw a bunch of references at you and I want you to tell me what you think. Tim Story, Nick Nicely, Fatima al Qadiri, Emeralds, early Boards of Canada, Electric Light Orchestra, Disaster Piece, Architecture, Patrick Cassidy, Akufen, Gummy Bears (the cartoon), Miracle Mile, Wendy Carlos, Tim and Eric, Suzanne Ciani and Macintosh Plus.
It’s insane that you brought up Nick Nicely. Is he Australian? Is he dead? Anyway that record is incredible. I love Nick Nicely. I like that you mentioned architecture in there because music is impressionistic. It should engage you on every perceptive level. Macintosh Plus is like the ambassador of vaporwave, she’s great. But I need to take a day to have like a vaporwave rundown.
I had never actually heard of vaporwave as a genre until today. This is how it’s defined on Wiki, “Vaporwave sometimes serves as both a critique and parody of consumerist society, 80’s yuppie culture and new age music, while acoustically and aesthetically showcasing a curious nostalgic fascination with their artefacts.” And you’re listed as the guy at the top of that vaporwave food chain.
Well I asked for it because I remember when I did Eccojams, in interviews I was like, “this is not a big deal, they’re very easy to make, this is how you do it: Just listen to music, have taste, figure out what you like in something that’s bad and loop it, slow it down and put a bunch of delay on it. Or do whatever the fuck you want but just repeat forms that you like and take them back away from the world of shittiness and make them fun.
Oh and I met a vaporwave leaker! This could be the best rom-com ever. Well I didn’t meet her, I talked to her over skype or whatever. Here’s what happened. I’m in a movie. I’m watching this David Foster Wallace biopic and my phone starts blowing up with messages from my friend Todd. He’s like, “dude your record leaked, this girl has it, you should probably talk to her.” So I leave the movie and I’m emailing with this girl and I’m suicidal, I’m just thinking this sucks so bad. The record hadn’t even been announced. I’m like, “let me call you,” and she says, “I don’t have a phone, I didn’t pay my phone bill.” So I’m there in the hallway of the movie theatre and the people who work there are worried about me because I left the movie, they’re asking me if I’m alright, I probably look flustered. Anyway I get her on the phone and she says, “So I leak stuff, that’s what I do. And someone sent me your record on a message board…”
Long story short she explains to me that this dude doesn’t really know what he’s doing but he happened upon a Dropbox with tons of records. He didn’t know how to leak but he wanted to impress her or something so he found her and gave it to her. And she happened to be this huge ambassador for vaporwave and actually a vaporwave artist herself in Kentucky, and she’s like, “dude I would never leak your record, please don’t kill yourself, don’t worry, and I loved it.” So I started referring to her as my angel of mercy. You know, she was holding this thing that could deeply damage my whole fuckin’ life.
It would be the best rom-com right? A leaker meets. . . or a musician meets this girl who. . . well, whatever.
Yeah, you would meet and fall in love and move to Kentucky.
Right, and then it gets boring. And the rest of the movie’s shit.
Garden of Delete is released on Warp Records, November 13th.