The Uncanny Effect of Being Almost Real: An Interview with Oneohtrix Point Never
In third album as Oneohtrix Point Never, electronic composer Daniel Lopatin works in a palette of sounds that are almost, but not quite recognizable, with structures that are nearly, but not really songs. "I'm interested in things that are on the edge of becoming real," he says. "I was thinking about that a lot."
A whistle. A church organ. A choir of angels. The album R Plus Seven is full of sounds that almost jive with real life experience, but which -- on closer inspection -- depart from the ordinary in subtle, unsettling ways.
"That uncanny effect of being almost real is a really uncomfortable and glorious state for me. I find it disturbing," says Daniel Lopatin, who for the last half dozen years has recorded under the name Oneohtrix Point Never. His latest OPN album is, in some ways, his most grounded and homemade, built out of brief, mostly keyboard-based sounds, recorded at home, and approaching the structures of riff and melody. Yet it is also a deeply odd, somewhat disorienting piece of work, full of staccato, agitated motifs that overlap, contradict and interrupt one another, and woven through with the sound of inhuman voices, unreal instruments and not-quite-right rhythmic underpinnings.
"I wanted to make something that has a beautiful aspect but also a dread or unease. That reaches to be real and almost sentient, but then is not," says Lopatin. "I felt like that was there already a lot of the time, but my job was to exaggerate that and characterize it even further."
Keyboards and Idiosyncrasy
Lopatin had just finished a series of collaborative projects when he began working onR Plus Seven -- a joint album with Tim Hecker, the soundtrack for the Sofia Coppola movie, The Bling Ring, etc. "I wanted to make this album in a quieter, personal way, with less moving pieces, less studio," he says. "Most of it was me working in the area between my kitchen and my bed. I wanted to be really idiosyncratic and get lost in my own little vacuum of ideas about the kind of record I wanted to make, without a ton of outside influence or intervention."
Before, Lopatin had typically started with samples. "In Replica for instance, the structures of the pieces would emerge from following the melodic line of samples, which had their own kind of eco-system. I would put them together, but I would listen to them and respond," he explains.
This time, Lopatin worked mostly on keyboards, hammering out the motifs that defined each piece. "It was almost a more traditional approach. You're sitting there waiting for something to hit you over the head. It's kind of an uncomfortable place for me," he says. "But that's what I wanted. I wanted to start from almost like a song form and then try to find a way to then chip away at this big block of marble into something that feels like it's honest to the way I feel like music should flow."
Lopatin says that the new album is more structured than past work, though perhaps not in any traditional way. "I began with very simple motifs that have a beginning and end and an A section idea and a B section. Working with ideas that lodge in your brain and that you can whistle is, to me, kind of a decision. It's a very acute decision that I made. So it's different in that way than previously."
Distressed Synth Sounds
Because he was working alone and quickly, Lopatin says he relied on a lot of pre-programmed synth sounds as building blocks. The church organ at the beginning and end of the album, for instance, is a MIDI sample. "I just want an unfettered writing process, so that you start with all these simplistic versions of things that you have in mind," he says.
Once he'd gotten the structure of the pieces down, however, he took his material to Iceland to the Greenhouse Studio in Reykjavik for final mixing and production. He also spent some time rubbing the gloss off the pre-programmed sounds. "We basically just isolated things like organs, choirs, all of the ersatz instrumentation and then we re-recorded them, playing through a PA system in the recording room. And just recorded with microphones, Just as playback and then we folded them back in," he says.
Why? "Well, because the sounds came pre-mixed, they were so meaty. They hogged so much bandwidth and basically just created a lot of clutter. It's a very claustrophobic thing. So I had to reverse that process if I wanted to use those sounds," he explains.
Discontinuity and Conflict
R Plus Seven is very different from the tranquil tone-poems of Returnal or even the playful rhythmic intricacies of Replica. It has an abrupt, scene-shifting discontinuity to it, as one set of sounds gives way to another without warning, and as different ideas sometimes jostle for space.
Lopatin himself says it's a departure. "The music I'm comfortable making, historically, has been very dense and vertical. So there's a lot of repetition and it's very filled up. It hits you like a wall," he explains. "What I wanted to do is almost like a surrealist tableau where there are very clear objects in a space. They're in perfect few, but the objects themselves are kind of disturbing and strange. That was a fundamentally different way of thinking.
"A lot of my earlier struggle was how to do that without making music, quote unquote music, because many people can make music better than I can. For me, I was trying to make something that was musical but not exactly music. Not exactly left to right. Not verse-chorus," Lopatin adds.
Lopatin says that he purposely leaves conflict and contradiction in his pieces, because that's how he perceives the world. "To me, there is plasticity and interruption and jagged conversation and an inability to express ideas through language and circumstantial sound. There's where sound fits into a depth of field. There are all these subtleties if you kind of pay attention," he explains. "When I say that I'm not making music but something removed from it, that's what I mean.
"All of those things are part of an eco-system," he continues. "Sometimes they're on their own and they have space to just be. Sometimes they overlap and fold onto one another. Sometimes they interact and there's conversation and there's contrast. But that sort of rotating those ideas and that sense of weirdness is important to me."
Connections With the Visual Arts
The idea of unreal landscapes is not unique to music, and Lopatin has strong connections with like-minded visual artists including Takeshi Murata, Cory Archangel, Jacob Ciocci from Paper Rad, and Lopatin's close collaborator Nate Boyce. "There's a shared aesthetic, though describing that easily right now might be tricky," says Lopatin. "I think we are, in some ways, dealing with the same stuff, which is sort of an ersatz visual medium. What's real and what's not."
Takeshi Murata supplies visual imagery for the video to "Problem Areas", while the album's cover art was made by Murata's colleague Robert Beatty, who reproduced a still from a 1980, nine-minute animated film by a Swiss film maker named Georges Schwizgebel. "There's this idea of the animate life of objects, or things that have this kind of secret life to them, the secret materiality or ways to animate things that are inanimate," says Lopatin, exploring the connection between his own work and that of the visual artists he's aligned with. "Things that are on the edge of becoming real. I was thinking about that a lot."
Lopatin is currently working on adapting his new material for live performance, a process that has always daunted him, but which seems unusually workable now. "I've generally had trouble performing my music. I've never really had a clear understanding of what I could do that was its own thing and worthy of a show. It's been a struggle. I've always felt that I just make records and performing them has felt, at times, a weird impediment. I'm not even sure why I have to do it," he says. However, this time it's different: "Right now, I'm super excited and giving all my focus to it, because this is music that I can perform in a way."
He is busy as well, with his label Software, which will be releasing a few projects next year.
One other thing that's on his plate? Animatronics. He and Nate Boyce are working on some moving, music-making animatronic sculpture together. "Nate's got some basic schematics. He's working with a guy who makes crazy animatronic stuff in horror films. I'm trying to work with my engineer to try and create generative systems that create OPN music -- generating big piles of stuff that sounds like me and then just putting it in a tumbler and seeing how things come out. I don't know. It's complicated and we're pretty much just throwing shit at the wall and seeing what might stick."
Yet despite his current fixation on animatronics, Lopatin says he wishes people would stop calling him a retro-futurist, someone obsessed with nostalgia for a future that never happened. "I think that it's a common misperception because I reference old music, but synthesizers and synthesized music is something that experienced a renaissance during part of the 20th century. It's not necessarily that I'm nostalgic for it. I'm a student. I'm looking at what happened and trying to deal with it. I'm not particularly sentimental either. I'm not good at remembering my childhood. I just don't have very good memory. I don't have a fondness for the past. I just don't really care. I find that it doesn't have much of anything to do with what I'm doing."