The Anthology of Bradford Cox

For most people, a line like “I’m a poor boy from a poor family” evokes Wayne’s World and Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.” Bradford Cox is not most people. When Cox sings the line on “Dream Captain,” a track from Deerhunter’s sixth album, Monomania, it is in reference to Jean Genet’s homoerotic nautical novel Querelle. “It was also,” the formidable frontman tells us when we meet him in New York, “meant to have an Everly Brothers, Ramones simplicity to it, and to sort of piss in the wind.”

Cox’s musical output—both through Deerhunter and his solo project, Atlas Sound—ranges from post-punk noise to a more accessible, carefully contained lo-fi pop. His reputation is that of a music obsessive with little patience for anything or anyone else. “I’m a very decisive person,” Cox admits. “That’s one of my strongest qualities.”

This monomania does not, however, prevent the musician from being friendly and polite when we sit down with him at the Ace Hotel. At the end of our interview, Cox’s Deerhunter bandmates Lockett Plundt, Moses Archuleta, Frankie Broyles, and Josh McKay filter into the room, and they casually joke at each other’s expense.

EMMA BROWN: You’re about to make your film debut in The Dallas Buyer’s Club. How was filming?

BRADFORD COX: How was it? Well, it was interesting. I mean, I don’t know if I have any real aspirations to be an actor. It was just something I was asked to do in sort of a friend way. And I thought, Why not? I feel very strongly about the subject matter— about AIDS and people fighting illnesses, and fighting for survival against bad conditions.

I’m interested in acting as much as I’m interested in gardening. I want to garden, eventually. I want to learn how to do a lot of things. I’ve always wanted to learn how to paint, too. I’d like to try everything, but music is my reason for living.

BROWN: Your obsession with music hasn’t lessened over the years?

COX: Oh, no. I don’t think it will ever be lessened. Because I always move on to something else—and the music that I listen to, that I ingest, is a lot different than what I put out. I’m always becoming obsessed with the next phase of my musical vocabulary. Right now I’m really interested in Cajun music from the ’20s. I’m obsessed with five different things a day. It’s like lightbulbs in a Christmas light chain.

BROWN: How did you get into Cajun music from the ’20s?

COX: Oh, I don’t know, just reading. I read a lot—surveys of vernacular music. A lot of it is the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music, which I’ve loved since I was in high school. They had it at the library and I always thought that was interesting, even when I was into punk and stuff. Just the history of storytelling and the amount of melancholy a lot of old music has.

BROWN: Is there more melancholy in old music than in music today?

COX: I think there’s more experience. There’s less of an individual trying to assert their character and themselves, and their posturing, and there’s more people channeling the songs, and being vessels for the songs. When you listen to the Anthology of American Folk Music, or anything like that—a compilation of garage bands from the Northeast in the early ’60s—you’re not necessarily listening to the band and thinking about the lead singer, or the story of the group, or the context or the mythology of the group. You’re just listening to the song and whether or not it has a hook. In the Harry Smith anthology, you’re listening to what the song represents, what it’s talking about. A lot of Appalachian music has a certain haunted, foggy feel to it; a certain sinister quality. And that transcends who is singing it. I think it’s good if an artist can represent some kind of culture that they either aspire to ignite, or that they themselves experience.

BROWN: Is that something that you do?

COX: Oh, I aspire to. But I’m real critical of myself. I think a lot of what I’ve done is boring indie rock. I didn’t intend it to be that way, but somehow milk gets added to everything, you know?

BROWN: Is that your immediate reaction once you’ve finished a record, or do you only feel that way once some time has passed? 

COX: Usually it takes a while. When I do it, it sounds more punk and raw. Or it will sound louder, or it will sound more shocking. Or mind-boggling. I’ll be trying to figure it out, but once I’ve got it figured out I’ll be like, I know this; I know where this came from. I know what I’m saying here. I think art is most interesting when the intention is not clear.

BROWN: Is it because you have to play your songs over and over again?

COX: Oh, it’s the same story, but you have to figure out a new way to play it. I’ve been listening to the Carter family a lot. How many times did they have to play “Wildwood Flower?”

BROWN: I love that song.

COX: I do, too. But it becomes like a friend that you call on the phone, or a visitor that you welcome. You have to stop thinking of it as a recital. I’m sure there’s plenty of times that mother Maybelle Carter just rolled her eyes and barreled through, going through the motions of singing that song. But, I don’t know if that’s true. Maybe every single time she sang it she thought of old times, or the first times she sang it, or something.

BROWN: Do you tune out when you’re on stage or do your songs bring you back to a particular memory?

COX: Usually I’m not really conscious of what’s going on. I don’t have a lot of memories onstage. At all.

BROWN: Do you ever get stage fright?

COX: Oh no, not at all. I have zero inhibition about performance.

BROWN: What’s the first song that you performed in public?

COX: The first thing I think I ever played in public, aside from singing in church, would have been—and this is a true story— when I was about nine or 10 years old, I was obsessed with Twin Peaks. I went to a Catholic school, in Greenville, Mississippi, called the Washington School and they had a talent show and I played the theme from Twin Peaks on a little tiny Casio keyboard. People politely applauded. I just fell in love with that song and thought it was very heartbreaking.

BROWN: I’m sure none of the other nine- and 10-year-olds had any idea what you were playing.

COX: Yeah, but they did shit that I thought was just as weird. I mean, if you listen to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or something—or a girl, dressed up like she’s in a beauty pageant singing “Jesus Loves Me.” That’s just as surreal. It can be, if the lighting is right.

BROWN: I just mean that I discovered Twin Peaks about two years ago.

COX: We didn’t have MTV, and I was desperate for something. You know, you’re young, you want something off the beaten path. And that was like, surrealism on network TV.

BROWN: Your first show on this tour is at Brown University; do you enjoy playing at colleges?

COX: Yeah! A lot of times it’s really interesting. I like playing at public schools. I like when there’s more of a diverse audience. I’ll play wherever people want to hear my music, and I’ll be glad and grateful for the opportunity, but I’d rather not play for a bunch of white privileged kids. I’m not meaning that in a disrespectful way; you go where people want to hear your music. So if that’s where people want to hear me play, I’m glad to play for them. [But] I’d rather play for an audience where half of them were not into it than one where all of them were pretending to be into it, for fear of being uncultured.

BROWN: Does it bother you that people might think of your music that way?

COX: It doesn’t bother me in a persistent way, but in passing, I’ve occasionally had these thoughts. It’s more of the older audiences, though—audiences my age. I think teenagers just don’t have the persistence to pretend to like something they don’t anymore. I used to do that—make myself like stuff that didn’t immediately appeal to me. When you’re 17 and checking out John Cage records from the library. It’s not like it’s got the hooks of a Ramones record, or a Beach Boys record. But at the same time, you’re like, I know there’s something in here that I’m supposed to understand. And then eventually you find it.