Oneohtrix Point Never Takes on the Visual Realm

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Dan Lopatin is dealing with “a mountain of random shit” in his studio, searching through piles of gear for cables he’ll need for tomorrow’s studio session with the Weeknd. The New York producer-composer had recently debuted “Myriad,” a multimedia concert he likes to refer to as “OPN on Ice,” at New York’s Park Avenue Armory. The live show repurposes the music from the new Oneohtrix Point Never studio album, Age Of, an eerie collection of pop-leaning songs, which has been widely praised as both accessible and avant-garde. Clarity is something that Lopatin seems more interested in these days. In the past, he says, he used to develop convoluted narratives around an album, in part to satisfy a desire to be a media artist rather than just a musician. While there is an alien backstory to the epochal telling of human development in “Myriad”—it is an OPN production, after all—there’s plenty to be gleaned from the music without that as a guide. Over a Skype call from his studio, he explains that his new outlook was in part a reaction to the trend in experimental music and fine art to “over-encrypt everything,” which he found really scary. “I thought it was an anxious or nervous reaction to things happening politically in the world that are ugly, but that doesn’t mean we need to copy those tendencies.”

While Lopatin began OPN as an insular project that sunk its mainstream radio references beneath layers of synths, he has since grown toward the light. Over the past few years, he’s worked with pop innovators FKA twigs and Anohni, and with Iggy Pop on the score he wrote for the Safdie brothers’ breakthrough film Good Time, which earned him the Best Soundtrack Award at Cannes last year. Lopatin treads a line between being an archaeologist and a trash collector in his approach to sound, and that’s no doubt one of the reasons so many artists and directors come to him. Age Of marked the first time, however, that he’d invited other musicians into the OPN world. “I wasn’t a willing collaborator in that way before. I wasn’t willing to open up my music and just let it be what it will become once it’s sand in other people’s hands.” He likes the result. “To me, if it’s the last OPN album, it’s the perfect one to end it on. I don’t know if it will be, but it’s a record that is finally not hiding behind other things.”

I would argue that, pre-2013, your work was more concerned with psychic space, but post-2013, it seems more interested in mise-en-scène. What are your thoughts on that?
„I remember very specifically with Russian Mind being like, This is like a Stanislaw Lem paperback novel. I don’t have to worry about the plot, I just have to keep reminding myself of how it feels to read an Eastern Bloc sci-fi—what it feels like, that’s all that matters. That’s what you mean by the psychic space, I think.

I think Replica is the perfect bridge over to other stuff, because it’s like I’m fully dedicating myself to a conceptual threshold. Before that, I don’t see the albums as having a really cohesive structure. There would be crazy drone tracks, stuff that sounds like Brad Fiede Terminator soundtrack stuff, a weird psych song—just a whole lot of stuff that I was curious about trying and not over-formalizing. Then I became really obsessed with the specificity of, like, Okay, why this sound? Why this sound here? Really treating sound as a thing that is a precious commodity, this rarefied thing. You want every single moment to have its specificity and to have its world. I really stand by that. Age Of is much more direct than previous albums: more characterization, more voices. The radio had such an important role in OPN’s beginnings, both conceptually and sonically, but cinema feels like more of a reference now.“

Could you talk a little about the video you directed for the single “Black Snow”?
„It’s so funny, because there are a million different interpretations of it. To me, it’s so obviously just about me, but people are saying it’s a devil; there are all sorts of things. This is why these very overabundant symbolic decisions affect people: What does red skin and a mangled face mean? I made an early cut of the video and I showed it to Nate [Boyce, OPN’s longtime visual collaborator] and he said, ‚Oh, dude, this is so clearly autobiographical. The accumulation of yellow trash bags is exactly the scene outside your studio.‘

And there are other [autobiographical] things [in the video]. There’s the Newtown Creek spill in Greenpoint. I’ve lived here for 10 years, and there’s this running thing of nobody understands what it is, where it is exactly, everyone’s in denial about it. Rents continue to go up in this one neighborhood in Brooklyn where there’s potentially a toxic waste spill, which is seriously the most Simpsons thing ever. But it hasn’t stopped me either, so that’s the neurotic part of it.“

It’s difficult to not process a video like “Black Snow” through the lens of the horror story of contemporary politics and mass complicity in oppressive systems.
„No, and it’s there, it’s so obviously there. I got really into Marcel Marceau, the mime artist, and that’s partially what Puppet, the character in the video, is doing, referring to some Marcel Marceau stuff I saw. But what you’re saying is exactly right, because, look my choice has always been to extrapolate from some sort of deeply personal thing outwards. And then from there, work with tropes, which is a form of mime. Tropes are a way to universalize.

Long story short, I knew that that would be the ultimate [reading on the ‚Black Snow‘ video]. There’s such a blatant difference between me and Gosha [Rubchinskiy]. Did you see the outfits that he made with the radioactivity logos that A$AP Rocky wears at his concerts? There’s a difference between that and ‚Black Snow.‘ The problem of tropes, and the problem with clichés and this constant front-ending of symbols, is that differences get lost, and things lose their potency and their ability to inspire. So I use those things with a personal specificity that comes from my life, knowing that it will inevitably be compressed into the tenor or the mood of what’s going on. That’s why it worked so effectively for me, because these are universally understood fears, these are universally understood anxieties. To talk about them with the insane specificity of an indie rock song, where you spell out in lyrics what it is you’re doing, is not me. I’m not interested in that. But to get to that moment where it becomes universal, I still think you have to access it through your personal thing. Because otherwise, unfortunately, you’re being Gosha. You’re just using the symbol. You have to be willing to look inside yourself and see what is happening if you expect other people to.“

That’s making me think that tropes and clichés are both an open and a closed door, because they are a way in for people but maybe they’re all going to arrive at the same place.
„It’s complicated, but they have been my tools. They’ve been like my hammer. Mark Leckey’s camera and tropes for me are the same thing. In this one video, Mark Leckey says [something like], ‚I don’t understand a sculpture until I’ve taken a picture of it, until I’ve framed it, until it’s flat and boxed off. Now it begins to appear to me as the thing that I can work with, it becomes pliable, it becomes this thing that is mine that I can work with.‘ I can’t work with a sound until I’ve taken a Mark Leckey picture of it, you know. Then it can have all of these new lives: it can be explored, it can be a dialogue, it can be debated, it can be dumb, it can be smart, it can be whatever it needs to be. But whatever it is, it is not one thing. Initially decrypting it and allowing it to exist as a mutable idea is the way for me to do that. So you get to that stuff weirdly through the harsh path sometimes. A trope is conclusive, it says ‚this thing operates on this level.‘ So that, to me, is like a digestive aid. Like, Okay, we’ve universally agreed that this operates this way, and that’s a nice contrast to this void that I’m going to create around it. But I need it. I can’t start from some sort of de-historicized nothing space.“

For your film score work, do you look to the tropes within the film as a way to find the sound palette?
„There are different things that draw people to me as a composer. One director might say, ‚Dan, I really want you to do this synth thing,‘ and be very clear in their references: ‚I love Rifts.‘ So you want to basically buy a modular brick of my brain to do this one thing? I’m probably recalcitrant to go there unless I feel like there’s some way of building on what I started. In the case of Good Time, it was started in a rough patch. I didn’t really want to revisit stuff I had done in the past until I interfaced with the film itself and thought, Okay, wait a second, a way to make sense of why there might be a crazy synth solo with over-the-top arpeggios would be that these are this character’s thoughts. This is how his mind works, this is how his narcissism operates. And that made it so interesting, and not even interesting because it’s not about rationalizing it, it’s about pushing the music forward. If it’s inspiring you to write something new, or to use machines in different ways, then boom.“

The score saved Good Time for me.
„The Safdies are dealing in this area of filmmaking that’s really interesting—this intersection of cinema verité stuff with genre stuff. Often it’s a really weird intersection.“

I just wanted the plot to go somewhere different. They use all these compelling storytelling techniques, but ultimately the end result is the same as it’s ever been. How can we get to new futures if we can’t imagine them, if we keep repeating?
„That’s an important challenge overall right now. In the era of retreads, I completely agree if we’re actually at the shitty, long-tail part of many different contemporary mediums, film is probably being the most important one to focus on, because, from my perspective, it is the great medium of the 20th century. So start there. I often feel that about music too, that we might be done with music as we know it, in a certain way.“

Wait a minute, that’s a big sentence.
„It’s only a hunch. I don’t have a really big theory, but you know how in the ’80s there was this obsession with the ’50s? That feedback loop gets tighter and tighter, and more and more absurd. It’s a sign that we’re musically fatigued. It’s not always good to base these ideas on mainstream radio, but I do because it’s interesting to me. Mainstream radio is really trapped right now. No pun intended. It’s completely exploited itself.“

It’s often the music video that makes the hit song these days, and music video creativity is in an exciting place.
„That’s a good point. Maybe music sonically is so exhausted that it needs even more so the surrogate from other mediums to give itself meaning, which is hilarious and perfectly timed with my own personal development.“

Does that mean you are going to make a film?
„I think so; I think it would be cool. I think I could actually really flex. I couldn’t imagine making a film that wouldn’t be about music—it would have to be, either literally or a musical. But invert it, so instead of music being the surrogate for a story that manipulates you to feel more because you’re so dead, instead invert that whole thing and have the visuals essentially be the surrogate, in a non-manipulative, inspiring way, to imagine new worlds. That’s what it’s about. When I wear the New World Video hat, it’s not because I just simply like Hellraiser that much. It’s because the idea of a film studio called New World, with a logo that’s basically like a Frank Stella sculpture, might give you a hint as to what my priorities are—that’s why I wear that hat. I think that through music, you can get to this really magical thing. Think about Fantasia. Think about a modern-day Fantasia that was just loaded with ideas about today. I just dream of that, I really dream of that. Think about WALL-E. It’s emotional choreography.“

So you’re going to make an animated movie?
„I would love to. This is why I’ve been seeding these ideas. For me, press is just a chance—this is where I get all manipulative—to increase the amount of times the name of my band and Pixar are in a sentence together.“

Isn’t that how all the big collabs happen? Someone shouts someone else out in an interview?
„Shout-out Pixar! Age Of is available now from Warp Records and ‚Myriad‘ premieres in LA on October 22, 2018.“

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