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The Infinite Loop of Molting History: A Conversation with Oneohtrix Point Never

on November 12, 2015, 12:00am

When Daniel Lopatin set out to record his latest album as Oneohtrix Point Never, he set up shop in an underground studio, completely sealed away from light and fresh air. It was almost like a Cold War bunker; like the protagonist of a classic sci-fi story, Lopatin spent his time down there only to dream up the chaos and destruction going on up above, imagining what new world awaited him once he resurfaced. That imagination reveals itself in Garden of Delete, a dystopian vision that takes a sidelong look at the wreckage and raises a roguish eyebrow.

Our initial news post about G.O.D. was titled “Oneohtrix Point Never Talks to an Alien and Announces a New Album,” and that’s just the start of the story behind the album. At turns funny and tragic, the intense, polyvalent web of details includes Twitter accounts attributed to “characters” that influenced the album (including a teen alien named Ezra), a fake band with fake songs in a fake genre, Web 1.0 sites, and buried MIDI files. It all amounts to the closest the release of a brilliant experimental album has gotten to an Alternate Reality Game in a long time. A quick Google search reveals that plenty of wanderers fell down the G.O.D. rabbit hole, trying to piece together the fragments and dredge up more secrets from all the ephemera.

On the eve of the album’s release, we spoke with Lopatin about the roots of Garden of Delete, its perhaps coincidental religious references, and its relationship with technology. If that sounds too heady, the soft-spoken yet passionate Lopatin also opened up about sci-fi literature, the potential existence of aliens, and the cultural significance of Rush.

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Your music has always felt like entering into a new world, but this album’s rollout has almost been an alternate reality game. The enveloping experience extends beyond the music. Was that something you’ve always had in mind, or was it a recent development?

It was kind of a new idea. You finish a record and then you sit there for five months, waiting for it to come out. I have a label. They have things they need to do to promote the record. I never really had to experience that until R Plus Seven. Having gone through that, it was the first time around where I was like, “Oh yeah, I can just do what I want.” I was just trying to do something with that time instead of just sitting here anxiously waiting for the record to come out. Five months is a really long time to sit around and wait. It’s just tedious. You just get sick of this thing you’ve made. I thought I’d use that opportunity since I was inevitably going to have to sit down with the label and figure out ways to promote the record. I would rather just take all of those things as an opportunity to do meaningful work and explore things peripherally around the record that seem like fun things to explore for myself and hope that those ideas are interesting for people that are fans of OPN anyway.

It’s not about trying to make new fans or create some kind of buzz. That’s not my job. It’s the job of the label to do all that. But I’m very excited to communicate with people that are already interested and understand some of the intricacies and history of the way I like to do things. They get the payoff of all the idiosyncratic detail I put into it.

How closely have you been following the progress of people discovering all of those idiosyncrasies? All the hidden links, references, and info inside the PR campaign for the album, and then the multiple Twitter accounts? Has that been fun for you?

Yeah, I try to keep an eye out on what’s going on on Twitter. It’s not just me, either, really. It’s a small group of us that are tweeting as these various entities and contributing to these various websites. It’s also a group project for me and a bunch of my best friends. It’s fun to see at times, like, “Oh, I didn’t do that. Wait. What?” In that way, I get to enjoy it too. It’s fun to have things occur in this process that I wasn’t even planning to use.

For me, listening to R Plus Seven was meditative, a very internal, personal experience. This album really opens up into something much more social. Does that change reflect your creative experience?

Yeah, I think partially it was kind of circumstantial or environmental. I made [R Plus Seven] at home. The whole record, to me, is infused with this domesticity and a calm, a tranquility that was the result of having my wife around the whole time. She’s creative, and she’s also influencing things. When there are people around when you’re making something, whether it’s strangers living above or below you, or someone you know very intimately like your significant other, there can be this element of, “The scientist is observing the experiment, and that’s changing the experiment.”

So I moved into this space, which is actually where I am right now. It’s this studio, a B room actually, an editing room in the basement of this building in Brooklyn. I recorded this record in isolation — unhinged, uninhibited. In a lot of ways, it’s antagonized by the space. I wasn’t really getting light or natural air. I think some of that antagonism made its way onto the record for sure. As far as it being a more social record, that was just something I wanted to do in general. Just be less introverted in the way I was thinking, about everything in my life.

It’s interesting to know that there are multiple people behind the Twitter accounts. When you’re digging really deep into the mythology you’ve created here, if it’s orchestrated by multiple people, it seems like it can even further blur the record’s feeling of disconnected pieces of identity, or disconnected pieces of reality. And then they’re all interacting and retweeting random people, and it becomes even more like the project is a living, breathing thing that interacts with people of its own volition. Do you find creation by committee particularly fruitful or interesting?

Yeah, and also ambiguating ownership is a thing that’s important to me. It’s really cool to look at what happens once it gets out of its control area, out of its staging area. That’s got to be at the heart of a record like this. I try to be as open to the mutability of things, and I guess the ephemerality of things, as possible. Because I actually believe that’s what’s happening on a cosmic level. I believe that’s the cards that we’ve been dealt.

I’ve been finding ways to wrestle with my need to possess things, or control things, or animate things, to bring them to life in some kind of composerly way. Some kind of way that’s away from autonomy. But then there’s also something in me that’s like, “Fuck it. Fuckin’ let it go and accept that there are very complicated trade routes at play in the world right now.” And you kind of have to let it happen.

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The album title reads like a twist on Garden of Eden. Especially when Garden of Delete is pointedly abbreviated as G.O.D. in the press release. But then there’s that twist with technology.

That’s cool.

The internet has always had people describing its potential as idyllic and beautiful and wide open, but there’s always been that severe undercurrent of darkness, emptiness. Is that duality something you see in technology or in the internet? Is it a fallen kingdom?

I don’t know. I definitely have dystopian urges, and I definitely look around and certain philosophical movements have been geared towards this untapped human potential of the internet and technology. And all that is just a joke to me. I find it to be almost a symptom of a melancholia about how unclear, how vague the rules are, how difficult it is for anybody to have any sort of political agency over this thing that is just kind of becoming autonomous. That’s what I think about when I think about artificial intelligence and things like that. For me, the whole thing is just so latent with humor and the grotesque. I don’t see it in a nihilistic way. It doesn’t depress me. I don’t want to run for president or change the world. I see it as an opportunity to do something poetic.

But I’m not a Luddite. I definitely kind of enjoy what’s happening, but at the same time I would enjoy a seat somewhere in the mezzanine to watch the whole thing burn down. I’m just like, “This is a fucking joke.” [laughs] The whole thing is just so splintered, so fragmented that it’s hilarious.

There’s a lot of mystery to this album, both in the music and its release. Is that one way of subverting the everything-on-display, fractured internet culture? Or the idea that we can use the internet as a tool at our disposal, rather than something that just exists? 

Perhaps there’s that happening. It’s funny. I can talk about it generally, as I just did, and feel pretty comfortable with what I said, but when I then try to fold it back into, like, “What did I do?” I don’t really exactly know. If I was being totally honest, I was just working intuitively with the most virile ideas at any moment. Something that actually can make me feel something. I’m balancing a lot of ideas, but really not. Really, I’m just kind of a magnet or something, and it’s like, “This seems like the most potent feeling,” or, “This is a really potent history or a really potent idea or potent message. Let’s see what happens when I synthesize those things together.”

That makes a lot of sense considering how immediately visceral the album is, even compared to your past work. Did it feel different when you were composing things like “I Bite Through It”? Did it feel more visceral or more immediate?

Yeah, I think so. It’s funny — anytime there’s lyrics or there’s this semiotic thing happening, you’re like, “Oh, I want to commit myself to this idea,” even if you’re saying it. It really does inspire you, gives you clear working boundaries around things. So, “I Bite Through It” and “Freaky Eyes” are really funny and get along together because they were two observations I made sitting around with friends, watching movies. There’s this history of paperback horror with embossed covers, and altered eyes are always indicative of mutation or possession. The human form is the same, but if the eyes are different, something’s wrong. They’ll be glowing, or red, or black, or whatever is the color du jour. But that’s what makes the situation like, “Oh, there’s something wrong here — the eyes are the wrong color.”

That’s such a great, strange, and funny thing that humans have decided to repeat over and over in this pulpy art-making practice. And it was just like, “I should make a song about that whole thing.” “I Bite Through It” is also based on a thing like that, like someone chomping away at something, teeth going through, flesh being ripped apart or whatever. That’s really not so far away from when we go nuts on some food when we’re hungry or we devour some meal and we’re in ecstasy of what is a daily ritual for many people. It’s just so immediately grotesque. I would always start with something I really wanted to talk about and just kind of write around in circles, but also think about how I categorically represent a thing like “I Bite Through It”. What does that sound like to me? I’m always obsessed with an allegory, a formal allegory that allows me to make these weird pastiche things that I can cultivate and make into a story. And I did that very explicitly at times on this record.

This might sound like a goofy question, but I’m genuinely curious: Do you believe in aliens?

Aliens from outer space?

Yeah.

I don’t really care about aliens, outside of the idea of people caring about aliens. To me, it all just comes back to the continued grotesque and melancholic history of civilization. All of these things that we draw up just to feel a little bit less alone. It’s just so funny. But on a practical level, I thought of it as a really good metaphor for a kid going through puberty. It’s just the classic way of addressing that explicitly. Let’s just make him an alien. Now he’s extra fucked.

You use the phrase “the infinite loop of molting puberty.” And you also talk about “troubled pictures of pop music.” I think it’s really interesting how close you put puberty and pop music there, considering how many theorists have described pop music as a perpetual puberty, just all longing and angst and desire and hormones.

Yeah, yeah, totally. A lot of pop music is weirdly obsessive. Any pop song with a romantic bent, if you actually think about it for a second, in any other context than a song, this would be considered obsessive, stalkerish behavior.

With The Police song [“Every Breath You Take”] being the stereotype.

Exactly. Repeating over and over how badly you want something is indicative of some sort of hyperbolic obsession. There’s all of this stuff going on that, to me, is really amusing in pop music. At times it’s funny how it almost becomes hard to notice how weird it is, really. And, for me, it can become almost traumatizing. Whether I enjoy it or not is completely besides the point. There is either something formally about it that I’ll become obsessed with, or it’ll impregnate my thoughts with whatever competition is spurring it on. It’s just kind of an endless staging area for some weird psychological trauma. I’ll need to pay attention to myself, what I’m reacting to, what I like about it and what I don’t, and then describe it somehow.

I also wanted to know whether the Ezra character was an explicit reference to the Judaeo-Christian Ezra the Scribe, whose name is theorized to be an abbreviation of a word that translates to “God-helps.” Words and writing obviously play into the album, as well as guiding into a new world. 

It wasn’t, but were you the one who wrote that? On the internet somewhere?

Yeah.

I think I took a picture of that and put it on my Instagram because I loved it so much. That’s just the perfect result of all of these asynchronous things. Certain symmetries start coming to life. Certain connections start revealing themselves. Unfortunately, I’m ignorant when it comes to theology and stuff, so I didn’t know that. (Laughs.) But when I read that, I was really excited. That seems so perfect.

It fits so perfectly with the rest of the narrative and the references. I just assumed it was intentional. 

That’s so cool.

Parts of Ezra’s blog posts reminded me of Philip K. Dick, that sort of genuine darkness and anxiety, dystopia, grotesquerie, but also a sense of humor about the apocalypse. Are you a fan of his, or a big sci-fi reader in general?

Yeah, I am. Actually, I really like P.K. Dick’s non-fiction, philosophical writings. There’s a book that collects all of them, and it’s so good. I think probably I was most affected by Ubik. That hit me really hard. At this point, I have to go back and read it again and reassess what’s going on. And Valis was great. It’s sad that his issues were probably heightening the intensity of the formal aspect of his writing style. When I’m reading it, I’m feeling a little like I’m exploiting this guy who was probably not always very happy, probably not very comfortable with the way his life was going. But also, it’s like, of all the people that have had to deal with these things, reading him is just hallucinatory. He makes it possible for you to not have to do those drugs. It’s so crazy. It’s a pretty generous offering to the world. It’s a little sad; he’s kind of like a martyr. I haven’t been reading much lately, but there was a point in my life where I was pretty much just reading P.K. Dick and Burroughs.

Have you ever read Thomas Disch?

No, but someone else has brought him up recently.

He wrote this book called Camp Concentration in the ’80s that I think can be tangential to Dick and has some of the same thrust. It’s about these people who are imprisoned and then forcibly infected with syphilis, which apparently gives them a heightened creativity and intelligence as a side effect but only for the brief amount of time before they die. That idea of torturing people to get the ideas out of them would seem to fit the Dick connection, the way you described him.

That’s awesome. I’ll have to check it out.

One last nerdy question. There are multiple references to Rush throughout the rollout of the album. Are you a Rush fan?

Yeah, I am. I’m still dying to see them live. I haven’t, but I hope it’ll happen one day. When I was touring with Soundgarden and [Nine Inch] Nails, I was thinking about the time in my life when I started going to Sam Goody and buying whatever I wanted. And I remember this distinct time when I went in and traded an R.E.M. CD … it was either Monster or maybe it was Soundgarden’s Superunknown, one of those two. And I returned it, and [the employee] wouldn’t give me my money back, but he was like, “You can go pick out something of the same value.” And I got Rush Counterparts. Which had come out a year previous. I listened to that album, and I got so obsessed with this band. It really triggered the end of me caring about the commercial grunge stuff that was being hard fed at my generation — specifically pubescent boys like me. I remember that Rush was like cold water to the face. I was so done with Stone Temple Pilots and all that shit. It really changed my life. I think a lot of people have that experience with Rush. It’s the beginning of a lot of good creativity and mind expansion. You find Rush and it gives you the ability to see the world as a much bigger, much more interesting place.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people either cite Rush or Zappa as the start of their interest in “weird” music.  

Yeah! I think it’s pretty special.

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