Combining art, ’80s music clichés, advertising strategies and analog synthesizers, Oneohtrix Point Never, aka Daniel Lopatin, creates experimental ambient music. But he doesn’t consider himself a musician. Instead, Lopatin looks at sound as a more malleable substance (think auditory clay or paint) and sculpts ornate textures of sound that are at once intellectually stimulating and aesthetically challenging. His new album, Replica, continues to investigate his signature daydream aesthetic. Sound collages draw the listener inward to a spaced-out frame of mind, as drone, pastoral accompaniments, and peculiar samples act as landmarks.
Replica is Lopatin’s most accessible album to date, and is a major leap forward for an already ambitious artist. The unreleased album has already sold out of its first pressing before its release date. People are starting to take note of this self-described lonely collage guy, including, strangely, Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo, who recently initiated a creative relationship with Lopatin via Twitter.
In addition to Replica, Lopatin has recently started his own label, Software, and he is set to release a zine Cool Drool later this year. He has also composed a soundtrack for Tao Lin’s upcoming film, Small Crowd Gathers to Watch Me Cry.
I spoke to Lopatin over the phone earlier this month. His esoteric philosophy on music and culture is balanced with a populist leaning and love for comedy. His is definitely a mind worth listening to.
Tauni Malmgren I wanted to ask you a little bit about your musical style. You’re a musician, of course, but you have also been described as a curator. When I first heard your music I had the impression that you were this audio/sound collector. How do you feel about these descriptions?
Daniel Lopatin I definitely don’t think of myself as a musician in the Webster’s Dictionarydefinition of the word because I don’t really write music, and I don’t really read music, although I learned a little bit of harmony from growing up with a piano teacher; my mother was a piano teacher. I’m mostly just working in a more painterly way with sound. It needs to be musical on my own terms for it to be good because I don’t like sound art or think sound art is interesting or good usually. As a method of making a distinction of non-musical experimental music, I don’t really feel like a sound artist. I don’t really participate in what they do, and they don’t really take notice to what I do, so I feel like I am somewhere in between. I’m more of a populist and less in any kind of academic tradition, but I definitely lift ideas from avant-garde music, sound art, stuff like that, but I don’t think I make necessarily very experimental music.
TM So would you say it’s sounds that you are naturally drawn to or is it more like social situations?
DL Social situations is a good way to put it. I am interested in semiotics and clichés. I don’t know if you like comedy or know about The State or Michael Showalter. He made Wet Hot American Summer.
TM That was a good movie.
DL Yeah, it’s really good. He also made this other movie years ago that nobody really noticed but was also really good called The Baxter. He is also a person that is within a medium, but makes films about the medium. You can enjoy it as just a good film and it’s funny, but he is also into clichés and using clichés to create an awareness of what makes us feel certain ways or what manipulates us within film. I kind of feel like I do that too, in a way, but with music where I like to use music historical clichés and make something different with it.
TM You seem to carve down sound into a very basic form and then re-complicate it into your own context. To paraphrase something that you once said, you were really intrigued with taking minimalism and making it psychedelic in order to experience what you call sacred time. I was wondering if you could expand on that.
DL Yeah, just in the way that, again, a lot of my knowledge is from comedy or film because that’s what I like. Psychedelic time or sacred time is just my way of describing what happens when you are either super manipulated, super distracted, or in a trance state via the experience of being sucked into someone else’s experience or reality. It also happens when you are making out with somebody or when you are in love with somebody. It’s a very similar thing because it ceases to be about you, but it’s totally about you, and you can stop being the mirror image of yourself. You actually have access to this other part of yourself through someone else. So when you are watching a really good movie, or you’re making out, or you’re really into somebody, or you’re swept into a state …
TM You’re not really thinking about yourself anymore.
DL Exactly, but by virtue of that you are. It comes back. You open up, and you are able to discover your thoughts freely without a lot of structure or a lot of dogma.
TM Just kind of letting intuition take over.
DL Yeah, it’s a good feeling. So with minimalism, I feel like it’s an interesting model. It’s an interesting mode to consider music in. There are a lot of composers that did interesting things with it, but it got put through this meat-mincer of the seriousness of new music, modern classical music, whatever you want to call it. It’s distracting. I wanted to take these basic components and make something that was more human readable, for people like me that don’t really want to deal with the specific history or specific talking points of the genre. Just starting over.
TM Do you want to distract people with your music or are you trying to just highlight that it happens?
DL Kind of highlight that it happens, but it’s a weird, ongoing thing for me because I don’t know. For instance, I don’t like highly manipulative film. It bothers me. I don’t want to necessarily be manipulated, but in other ways I do want to be manipulated. It depends on the political message or the overall feeling or brand of something that makes me feel manipulated either in a good or bad way. I’m trying to make things that are manipulative in interesting ways and that are kind of open and not bracketed experiences that make people feel a certain way. I want to manipulate them subtly just to open the door, and then they can have whatever they need to have happen. I don’t know if I do that successfully. Sometime I feel that I might, and other times I feel like I could do better.
TM Is that the sweet spot you talk about? You talk about getting to a sweet spot in your music.
DL That’s totally the sweet spot. Pop music does that really well, too. It manipulates really well, but its intent does not alway line up necessarily with good things for me. I want to be open about how manipulative art is, basically. I think what people are really talking about is just taste when they make distinctions between popular modes of music and unpopular modes of music. I think that it just serves the purpose of them just feeding their own idea of what makes them different. But I think somebody like Dr. Luke who makes Ke$ha songs and that other song, “Teenage Dream.” I think he essentially doing the same work that a semiotics person would do. They’re taking music historical cliché, and they’re using it to make you feel a certain way. That’s kind of what I want to be doing all the time. I just don’t want to necessarily manipulate in the same way. Does that makes sense? I know it’s kind of weird.
TM You use the sweet spot not only as auditory pleasure, but you have different goals in mind doing that.
DL In an interview I want to talk about those things maybe even specifically because I know that your audience is an art-comprehending audience, so I can speak in a certain mode and be comfortable. The other part of it is I don’t know how important it necessarily is. I want to be open about what I’m thinking of, but I don’t necessarily think it is always important for people, this reading of my music.
Today I put a video of mine up in a magazine called Accelerator. I posted it on their site, and they said, “you should smoke a blunt when you watch this video.” That’s a reductive thing that works. But sometimes, that’s just another way to not talk about anything and just be like, You should smoke pot and listen to it. That’s fine too, but it’s boring for me in an interview.
TM If we could talk a little bit about collaboration. You’re a self-described populist, yet at the same time your music is cerebral and introspective. What draws you to collaborating with other artists?
DL I guess the outcome or potential. I don’t know. It’s funny because I don’t necessarily seek out collaborations. The people that seem to have interest in what I do … it’s exciting for me because it has potential. I always question why people would like [my music]. If there is a good chemistry, if there is a conversation, it’s really amazing because I tend to work a lot by myself. An opportunity to stay as open as possible and allow things to be awkward is really healthy for me. It just feels really good, and it’s fun.
TM Rivers Cuomo reached out to you on Twitter. He wants to work with you. What was that like? What was your initial response, and what did he say?
DL I didn’t think it was him because why would that happen. But then it was him.
TM (laughter) What a surprise.
DL It was cool. I had a Weezer T-shirt that I wore during soccer practice in middle school, and he is a big soccer aficionado, he played soccer. It’s a coincidence but it created this nice circle for me where I could feel comfortable. He was just a nice guy, a really interesting guy. He’s a genuine person. I was confused because I was like, Why would you want to work with this lonely collage guy. Then I figured out that he did want to work with me. It was cool because he just looked at this whole thing as a holistic entity. He was just like, This whole blob of information you’re putting out into the world appeals to me.
TM What’s happening with this collaboration now?
DL We are just kind of discussing ideas and talking a lot over email and phone and sending little bits of stuff back and forth, so I don’t really know yet. We are just kind of getting to know each other.
It’s really fun. I feel a kinship towards him. He’s confusing in a lot of ways. People think that he just makes songs in different styles to be cheeky or whatever, but he is dead serious about understanding the mechanics of certain things to the point where he is an amazing pop scientist. I’m looking forward to that element coming out in him. Kind of imbuing what we do with a sense of pop perfection. It’s just crazy.
TM You guys are doing experiments together.
DL Totally, but we’re a little sloppy. He’s seasoned. It feels like he is a sensor or somebody that would shoot an arrow a long distance and hit a target in the center. He is this weird, streamlined machine of pop perfection. I want to know what that feels like.
TM How often do you collaborate with your girlfriend, electronic musician Laurel Halo?
DL We don’t really collaborate on music that much, but it’s mostly because we are respectively super busy and don’t live together. I usually end up collaborating with people that I live with. That’s how Ford & Lopatin happened basically because we were roommates. If Laurel and I become roommates then I bet we would make a lot of music together. That would be cool.
TM You also have a new label, Software. How and when did Software come about?
DL Software came about when last summer we were talking to a few different labels about putting out records. All of the labels were really generous, but none of them were down the street, had a studio, and were willing to let us work out of the studio and have more ownership. That was a really appealing thing, so it’s through this label Mexican Summer. They let us have our own imprint and studio to work out of.
TM What are some of your visions for the label?
DL It’s such a work in progress it’s hard to think about an overall company goal, but I want to be able to say something. Right now I just want to make sure every artist that is putting out releases gets treated really well, gets copies, gets paid on time. It’s a new thing for me because I can be such a princess about my stuff. I’m reminded that it can be extremely stressful on somebody. I just want to have a label that’s fair and puts out good music that people enjoy and feel like they’re getting something from people who care.
TM Are there any other artists on your label besides yourself?
DL Right now its myself; Joel Ford from Ford & Lopatin’s solo thing called Airbird; Harmonizer, which is a group from Burlington, VT with one of the guys who runs NNA which is a good label; and Greg Davis who has put out records on Cranky and Car Park. We are going to be doing other releases shortly with Carlos Giffoni who runs No Fun, Slava from Brooklyn who is a really talented dance music producer, and a bunch of other releases that we’re working on, but it’s very slow so far. We are taking our time and making sure every release looks and sounds good. It’s going to be much more active next year than it is right now.
TM Is Replica, your upcoming album, the first record on Software?
DL No, there’s been a few. It’s the second full-length record on the label.
TM How does it feel to have all these beginnings in your life? The first time you’re putting out your own record on your own label … This is a time of beginnings for you.
DL It feels good. Mostly I feel like, not to be cheesy or whatever, but Replica is the biggest new beginning out of all of those because I feel like the records prior to it were this particular sound that I was refining and building up to a point of being in danger of repeating myself if I kept doing it. I started over in a way. For the past year I have been trying to find a way to do things differently for myself. That feels the scariest but the most rewarding. I didn’t get stuck. I was so scared of the clichés of becoming a derivative of yourself. I feel like I still have new ideas and things that I want to try. That’s an exciting feeling for me: not feeling tapped out artistically.
TM Your parents were both musicians. Can you hear traces of them in your new album?
DL Yeah, definitely. I learned basic harmony from my mom, so all of my ideas of what sounds good together come from either what she taught me, what I heard her playing, or what I can pick up by ear from listening to music, so that’s always there. Although if you ask her she’ll be like, Whatever, you should have worked harder and learned piano, which is cool. She’s kind of right.
TM You have been playing your father’s synthesizer throughout your whole body of work. You named this keyboard Judy apparently, and she has been with you for a long time. How is she doing?
DL Judy’s fine. She’s had some problems.
TM Uh-oh. (laughter)
DL She’s had some health problems. It’s like schizophrenia actually. When it was humid outside, she would start making these strange sounds when I wasn’t even playing. I recorded one of her schizophrenic freak-outs. It was really emotional! (laughter) It’s almost like hearing her for the first time communicating to me without my involvement. It’s this atonal, crazy music. It’s just so sad, and it just sounds like she is suffering.
TM Poor Judy!
DL I know! I felt really bad, so I keep her out of the humid weather now, and I don’t take her around too much because it is difficult for her to get around.
TM That’s a lot of pressure for such an old lady.
DL She is an old lady! How old is she? She’s almost my age or a little older. She’s 31 or something. That’s like dog years for synthesizers. She’s doing okay though.
TM Good, I’m glad to hear it. You have once said, “We are primed to be cyber-anthropologists.” Looking through your selection for our mixtape, it seems to be just that: cyber-anthropology. All the videos seem to be societal observations. Some of the videos scared me. Some of them were funny. The sound test even made me laugh thinking of it in the context of trance music. What was your approach to this? Are these the kind of videos you watch every day?
DL Yeah, those are the only ten videos I’ve ever seen. I’ve never watched anything else. If you go to my Youtube account its just those ten videos that are all favorited.
TM Watched a million times each.
DL Yeah, that’s all I’m allowed to watch. I can’t watch anything else or Laurel gets mad at me. Which video scared you? Was it Blood on the Dance Floor?
TM Yeah, that one was really creepy to me. I would start to like the music a little and then be like, I shouldn’t be liking this!
DL See? Exactly. That’s exactly how I felt. That’s how everyone feels when they watch it. It’s really weird. See, that’s what I mean. It’s highly manipulative in a way that is not positive.