"Everyone shits. Honestly. And everyone has fucked up things they hide. I show mine with a sense of humor."
So wrote Bradford Cox in a blog post last year, and his words —particularly that last sentence — hold the key to Deerhunter, the Atlanta noise-rock quintet that he fronts.
But first, a bit of exposition: After quietly releasing a (sort of) self-titled debut album in 2004, Deerhunter — Cox, guitarist Lockett Pundt, bassist Josh Fauver, drummer Moses Archuleta and then-guitarist Colin Mee — emerged from the Atlanta underground in January 2007 with an excellent second album, titled Cryptograms, and spent much of last year as a controversy magnet. Reports began surfacing of wild performances in which Cox, who suffers from Marfan syndrome and thus is abnormally tall and skinny, would walk about the stage wearing a sundress, with fake blood smeared on his face, swallowing the microphone and generally creeping everyone out. This got the act tagged as "confrontational."
In April last year, the band released a followup EP, Fluorescent Grey, and as the music press, led by the oft-despised Pitchfork, began to trumpet the group louder and louder, attention turned to the blog the group had started keeping, which began humbly enough but which quickly became a place for Cox to record his deepest, darkest, weirdest thoughts. In the space of one week, he wrote poetry about his bandmates' excrement and posted a series of homoerotic fantasies along with pornographic pictures of underage-looking boys. This led to a maelstrom of chatter in the blogosphere, much of it negative, which led Cox to post the blog entry cited above, in which he cited the influence of Dennis Cooper, who is known for his often twisted and violent homoerotic novels, and defended himself against charges of using child pornography by mentioning his own history of sexual abuse as a child.
By August, the cycle of hype and backlash had proved too much for guitarist Mee, who left the band. Cox took over Mee's guitar duties for any remaining fall dates, but last November he announced an indefinite hiatus for the act, leading many to wonder if that meant the end for Deerhunter.
The hiatus turned out to be relatively short-lived, but it gave the bandmembers a chance to rest and work on their third album, Microcastle, and provided Cox the opportunity to finish Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel, the debut album of his solo project, Atlas Sound, which was released this past February. This past April, Deerhunter debuted Microcastle in its entirety at a show in Brooklyn, and the following month, the group announced the arrival of a new member, guitarist Whitney Petty, and a tour opening for Nine Inch Nails.
Which brings us to the present moment. When we caught up with Cox last week, he and his bandmates were in Atlanta, having just played what he described as "one of the loudest shows we've ever played" at their tour manager's boutique/art gallery. This is noteworthy, because based on some videos from their performances this summer, Cox seems to have toned down the theatrics, opting to dress in more, uh, normal clothes and play guitar. Is this a reaction to all the backlash?
"It just depends on the mood, you know?" Cox points out. "There just really hasn't been anything to stimulate me to have a more wild show. I don't force things.... I think it's really contrived to just prance around on stage just for attention. That's not what my point was in the beginning. My point was to create a specific atmosphere, and I just haven't really felt stimulated that way lately."
Just the same, Deerhunter has its hands full warming up for NIN — though Nails fans have been "very polite," Cox says. "I mean, if I was there to see Nine Inch Nails, I wouldn't really be that concerned with the opening band.... I don't take it personally." He's also not sure how much this opportunity is a sign of success for them. "It's just from Trent Reznor's generosity, and hearing our music and liking it," he stresses. "It's not like it's any indication of how things are in general."
On that front, Microcastle, which is now available on iTunes and which will be physically released on October 28 via Kranky, provides a much better indication of where Deerhunter is now. The group's first album (nominally titled Deerhunter, but with the phrase Turn It Up, Faggot on the album's spine), which Cox has declared a "total failure," was noisy and aggressive but somewhat unformed. Cryptograms, meanwhile, was an almost literally schizophrenic album, divided into two halves, the first darker and more muscular, the second more ambient and accessible. Recorded several months apart from each other, the two parts revealed a sound that was informed by everything from kraut rock and minimalism to post-punk to shoegaze and dream pop. By turns menacing and hypnotic, it was the sound of a band in a stage of awkward but precocious adolescence.
Cryptograms' followup, Fluorescent Grey, consisted of four of the outfit's lightest, tightest songs yet, which shifted Deerhunter in a slightly poppier direction. When Cox and company posted a few songs from Microcastle on MySpace earlier this summer, they indicated a continuation of that shift, a transition toward a sound more rooted in the noisy pop of the Jesus and Mary Chain as well as the '50s and '60s bands that inspired them, an impression that Cox confirms. That's not to say, however, that it was the typical move from noise to pop that many bands make.
Microcastle "is more about being detached," Cox explains. "It's less visceral, it's less automatic; it's more of a record that was written, produced. Cryptograms was more like an event." But don't expect Deerhunter to stay in this mode for very long. When asked if he's found a sweet spot, Cox says, "No, it's got to keep changing. I don't believe in stability."
In the past, Cox has asserted that there's not enough psychosis in modern pop — something that he strived for on the new album despite the notably poppier vibe that distinguishes Microcastle from past efforts. "I think it's way more psychotic," he declares. "I think it's more sociopathic. I think it's more kind of a trick on the eye, or the ears. I don't think it's what it appears to be, and I think if you hear the last song, 'Twilight at Carbon Lake' —what I tried to accomplish there was exactly, like, a schizophrenic sort of doo-wop.
"Psychosis is a lot more subtle than a guy running around being like, 'I'm crazy, I'm crazy,'" he adds. "Psychosis is a person alone in their bedroom, I don't know, cutting themselves, or privately counting individual grains of sand.... It takes more subtle forms."
Microcastle (which will include a bonus disc titled Weird Era Cont. that got leaked the very day we spoke with him) also finds Cox stepping back just a bit, ceding the mike to guitarist Pundt, who is also his best friend, on two songs, "Agoraphobia" and "Neither of Us, Uncertainly." This, he admits, was at least partially motivated by a desire to take the focus off himself.
"I don't like being the center of attention," he confesses, "contrary to what everybody believes."