[Oneohtrix Point Never's Daniel Lopatin; photo by David Black]
By Emilie Friedlander
One unseasonably warm October morning in Brooklyn, Oneohtrix Point Never’s Dan Lopatin opens the front door of a three-story brick walk-up on a busy thoroughfare in Greenpoint. The 29-year-old Boston area transplant is wearing a black Celtics cap and a green Carhartt jacket. He speaks with the sing-song drawl of a proud stoner, and appears to be freshly woken up. I am here to chat with him about his solo album, Replica-- his fifth since 2009, and his first since becoming a co-founder, with Joel Ford, of Software Records, a subsidiary of Brooklyn label Mexican Summer.
In many ways, Replica is his sparsest, warmest-sounding, and most tightly constructed work to date, offsetting his signature, Juno 60 drone cumuli with a focus on the looped sample as a compositional building block. Lopatin's repetition-based arrangements-- masterminded with the help of childhood friend Al Carson, Mexican Summer’s in-house producer-- are more likely to evoke jazz, ‘90s IDM, and J Dilla than the retro-futurist, ‘70s and ‘80s synth ephemera that his fans have come to expect.
Sample-wise, Replica culls primarily from a DVD compilation of American daytime television commercials from the ‘80s and ‘90s, with a particular emphasis on the melodic, rhythmic, and psychic surprises that can arise when you play a single sound bite on repeat. During our conversation, he brings me over to his computer and clicks play on a sound file labeled “Dinner Conversation”: mostly dead air, but with occasional eruptions of smacking lips, clicking tongues, “ooohs,” ahhhs,” “mmms,” and other non-verbal intimations of gustatory delight.
This a commercial for this Nestle coffee-- “almost kind of a fake, high-end coffee, and they were giving the impression of elegance in the commercial,” Dan explains. He has removed every bit of the soundtrack that was designed to be heard-- in other words, the commercial’s intended message-- and isolated traces of what he described as the advertisement’s “subconscious”: not the scripted spectacle which attempts to make us crave Nestle, but its unruly, awkward, and even blushingly libidinous inner life. “It's not meant to be like, 'I'm fucking with advertising, man!'” Dan exclaims, his eyebrows rising as far as the brim of his hat. “I don't feel that at all. It's revealing that we're not in a perfect system though we want to be. We want to believe that we're efficient and perfect, but things are totally out of control and chaotic, like the way we speak and the way we think.”
AZ: Just to set the record straight: what is the correct pronunciation of Oneohtrix?
AZ: The last time we spoke, you and Joel had just announced the new label. How has working in the Mexican Summer/Kemado studio, which was a rock studio originally, influenced the way you record?
Dan: That's a better question for Al, or Joel, who are really more hands-on than me. But, it taught me that just because you have a studio doesn't mean you have to use every single damn thing in it. I think the initial excitement of Software was, "Oh my god, we have all this amazing stuff! What do we do?" By the time I got around to doing Replica, I’d really delved into the things that I appreciated about the space: the piano, the Wurlitzer, and tape. Just keeping it really simple, and warm-- focusing on the more intangible things about sound, as opposed to the fancy schmancy gizmos and gadgets.
AZ: I can definitely feel that warmth coming through on this record. In the notes you e-mailed me last week, you also mentioned biomorphism...
Dan: Totally. A lot of that for me is just noticing cadences in conversation, especially with the human voice, which has become the most inspiring thing to me in recent memory-- as important to me as the synthesizers. Those two things, for me, most powerfully describe what reality sounds like, musically. It's that kind of personification of sound: zeroing in on cadences and natural rhythms and melismatic sounds as being sad or rounded, [noticing] how things as having an apparent emotional quality. I've just been thinking about basic musical components and then applying that to conversation, street sounds, sounds of machinery, pieces of the jingles. A lot of it was the pockets of audio in between these tiny blips from the intended message of the commercial, because that was so rhythmic and texturally rich. Finding those in-between things, and those expressive vocal releases-- like a sigh or satisfied expressions after people eat or drink something. You can hear that on "Sleep Dealer." It's from a name brand soda commercial.
AZ: So more than a particular genre, style, or era, would you say you were attracted to sounds of quotidian life?
Dan: Yeah, exactly. It ended up being the ‘80s and ‘90s, because that's what I had, but that was very helpful, because there's already an electronic music aspect to it, and there's also the conservative nature of commercials in the United States. I get really fixated on the electronic music renaissance of the ‘80s. Moving forward, something kind of dipped off when sampling became more important than synthesizing and things got realistic again. It's like how back in the ‘50s, things sounded like instruments, whereas in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, things didn't sound like instruments, but totally science fiction.
[Photo by David Black]
AZ: I was really impressed by your use of the piano on Replica. How would you describe your relationship with that instrument, as opposed to the synth?
Dan: I had one as a kid, and I'm not a good piano player. My mom was and she tried to teach me. I didn't take to it very well, but if there's a piano in a room and a way to record it, I do it every time. It's just the most fucking beautiful sound in the world. I used to do that at Hampshire [College] in the practice rooms, with tapes. I would bring multiple handheld tape recorders into those little practice rooms. That’s where I recorded "Grief and Repetition," from Russian Mind. It's my favorite OPN track ever, and was maybe the second thing I ever recorded. It's just cut-up piano.
AZ: The way you cut it up really creates this feeling of rhythmic and harmonic suspension, much in the way jazz does.
Dan: The main [piano] sample on “Replica” almost sounds like every element of a trio. Actually, I wanted all the components to have band-like attributes within the mix. So, the cut-up commercial stuff was often rhythmic-- like the sounds in between phrases, just filled with incidental sound or background ambient room sound. Those were drums for me until we thought of mixing them like drums, and then the MIDI vocal things were like the melody. The muted effect on the bass notes sound like an upright bass, and there's this slight little shuffle of a jazz kick. And none of that happened! It's just the particular way we cut it. I guess I started thinking about things in terms of "How could I use pop or rock metaphorically?" Things that I like lately have been really simple, so I just wanted to keep things minimal and think about nonmusical things musically.
Another point of inspiration for this record... I'm definitely mimetic in my thinking and easily influenced by the people around me. I had never made a record with other people; it was always just me listening to myself. That wasn't the case here; I had Joel and Al. We all grew up together. Al went to Berkley for jazz saxophone and became an engineer. We are all jazz-fusion heads and that's a big part of our friendship. It's definitely a product of being around those two guys and wanting to finally attack that.
AZ: Was Joel helping out as well?
Dan: He was producing, editing, and mixing. He was doing everything. But we all would take turns being the vibes consultant, or vibes manager. Al was so technical and hands-on. He had just discovered and became obsessed with this analog filter called the Sherman Filterbank, so the whole session was his discovery of this one piece of gear and seeing him become good at it all over the record. I would be jamming the sampler and doing whatever I thought the arrangement was, and he would, the whole time, be recording a Sherman Filterbank track, manipulating what I would be doing. So he’s definitely not just an engineer or producer; as far as I'm concerned, he's a musician.
AZ: In your e-mail, you pointed out that "Over time, replicas may become forgeries." Can you explain the album's title?
Dan: I saw that movie [by Wener Herzog], Cave of Forgotten Dreams. There were things going on in that movie that deeply affected me-- particularly the part where they show this cave drawing-- it was so clear and vivid, but it could also have been drawn over, because that was a part of preserving the legacy of these people. So is it something from like 15,000 years ago, or something from 20,000 years ago? When was it drawn over? When you draw over something that already existed, you're never going to maintain the authenticity of the piece, but you're going to give it clarity, and you're going to keep it in the world. I feel like, that's what people do when they're sampling old stuff; they're drawing over it. I had this crappy but awesome Philip K Dick fantasy in my head where, 10,000 years from now, people find these shreds of commercials that are incomplete, because of whatever apocalyptic thing that happened, and then someone recreates them. They think they're creating a replica based on music-historical information, but they're totally wrong. I know it's really stoner, but that hypothetical situation gave me purpose. I was no longer some hoighty-toighty guy making a record, and I thought, “this is my job,” which helped me situate myself.
AZ: I definitely feel like, even in the work that I do, I'm consciously rewriting history at all times based on what resonates with me right now.
Dan: It's this web that is simultaneously about connection and the impossibility of connection. Another thing I was thinking about, sort-of cliche, was this elementary school history lesson about how the Native Americans used every part of the buffalo, and the idea that when we sample reality, we're using every part of culture. It's not that commercials are valuable and the people who made them are artists, but we can't just be this disposable culture that pretends that two years ago didn't exist.
AZ: Is that why you would turn to low culture, like commercials?
Dan: It's just gold mine for clues. It's all about clues and a reflection of what people thought they were at any given time. I think James [Ferraro] does an amazing job of that, in his own way. I feel really close to him, and I feel like we are very similar in that he's perpetually doing this musical anthropological study in reality. I'm very bookish and have my own background and approach to it, but he lives it. It's that kind of thing where the stuff we detest the most is probably the most telling of who we are as a culture.
AZ: It's been a little over two years since Wire writer David Keenen mentioned your work, along with Ferraro’s and Mondanile’s, in his “Hypnagogic Pop” article. Is there anything from the dialogue surrounding that piece that you feel applies to your work today?
Dan: Yeah, just all the friendships. There would be 10 to 15 people in a room somewhere, doing their music and talking, and everyone was discovering the same music at the same time. Those conversations about certain records were really fun, and that carries through today. It's also extremely complicated and depressing in another sense, because everything got super jammed up really fast media-wise. It's weird to see people's ideas and music get smashed into a blurb.
AZ: If you look at the people who are originally mentioned in that article, most of those people have gone on to become career musicians, even alt celebrities: Ariel Pink, Zola Jesus, even Bethany Cosentino from Pocahaunted, who went on to form Best Coast. Keenan hailed "hypnagogic pop" as this post-noise movement, meaning, that noise music was finally opening itself up to the outside world. In retrospect, it seems like it was not just an aesthetic opening up but a pragmatic one as well.
Dan: I got an e-mail once after I was like, "Holy shit, I'm going on my first tour!" I put it on Facebook or something, and Dominick Fernow wrote to me saying, "Congratulations." He had just joined Cold Cave, things were happening for him, and he was like, "Best of luck to you, thank you for having the courage to succeed." It occurred to me that for so many people, it's very hard to feel okay with success, because success is not cool. It supposedly tarnishes your thing; it ruins little pockets of scenes and the self-importance that comes from thinking you're the only people in your town that are doing something. That's what stops a lot of really talented people from sharing their music and turning it into a career.
AZ: If you know that your sounds are getting out to more people than you might originally have expected, does that influence the way that you work?
Dan: Well, not exactly, but I was looking at the opportunities available to me to expand the scope of what I do. I’ve listened to records that were recorded in beautiful, mysterious ways, and I never had access to that. It's the same way that [visual] artists operate: they'll spend a lot of money to make something of a grand proportion because they feel like they need that much canvas to do something. If you're recording at home and you don't have a real infrastructure for a lot of those things, then you're forced to do it one way. If you get an opportunity to do it another way, it's fucking awesome. It's just about whatever resources that are at your disposal at that time. If I don't ever have a studio again then that's fine, but this whole trip has been about utilizing the attention on my project to make the best work that I can possibly make for as long as I can before I get kicked out of the club or whatever. I'm not trying to make anything but what I want to make.
AZ: You said that the new album was like a "proggy" incarnation of your “Eccojams” releases under the Chuck Person moniker. How would you describe an “eccojam” to someone who had never heard one before?
Dan: It's really simple, straightforward, and kind of dumb. I just loop sound bites that have a slice of lyric that, out of context, is like a mantra. And then I just slow it down and put tons of echo on it. It helps me tap into a part of a song that I just want to hear repeatedly without the rest of the shitty song, and it's something lyrically poetic and spiritually important to me. So, I had those things-- that are just floating around on the Internet, and I was just wanting to do those all day. So, I wanted to approach this record with the idea of echo jams that are fully arranged with 0PN instrumentation around it and an arrangement that's more sophisticated than just a dumb loop that I do all the time. The repetition is important, but ultimately the goal is taking that practice and making a heavyweight arrangement out of it.
AZ: Why do think you are drawn to those extra-diegetic sounds on the Nestle commercial?
Dan: Because I like how the semiotics are fucked with. I'm not letting these people be what they want to be. It could be a weird power trip. It's the subconscious of the conscious.
AZ: Or like the subconscious of the presentation or of the moment?
Dan: Yeah. It's not meant to be like, "I'm fucking with advertising, man!" I don't feel that at all. But, I do feel that there's this comedy to it that is undeniable. To me, this is a record that is as comedic as it is tragic; it's like you totally don't ever realize the awkwardness is there. It's an exaggeration of that awkwardness. Once you remove the text, you can focus on the vulnerable, the earnest. I think that's what attracts me to that stuff.
AZ: In the e-mail you sent me, you also included that quote by the aesthetic philosopher Christoph Cox: “Repetition provides a stable backdrop against which alteration-- auditory and visual, temporal and spatial-- is made manifest.” Would you say that your use of samples on Replica stems in some way from this idea of emphasing the grid as a means of breaking free from it?
Dan: Yeah! The idea that repetition lends itself towards subjectivity and freedom excites me. I think that's also why, people that are struggling the most-- that are in the most economically or socially depraved situations-- tend to create the best work. Those restraints, those brackets on your life, generate this obvious urge and inclination to be free, to listen to ourselves. Op Art is just like that: you're hypnotized, and once you accept the initial gimmick moment, you're in a fucking tunnel. You're not worrying about the meaning of the thing anymore, you're just discovering yourself. If you forget to do that and you forget to practice that, you can easily get sucked into your ego and superficial day-to-day shit. Everyone does it-- I do it all the time-- but, the music I've always been attracted to, and therefore the music I want to make, is music that was helpful in the way that it busted you out of that. It reminded you that there were other ways to deal with reality.
Replica is out now on Software