Oneohtrix Point Never interview

If you stand in the right place at the right angle in the postindustrial city of Troy, New York, you'll see a huge, shiny form sitting on top of a hill. The building—the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, or EMPAC—was designed by Davis Brody Bond, an architecture firm responsible for the 9/11 Memorial and a redesign of the National Monument, at a cost of $200 million. From downtown, it appears to hover over Troy's half-deserted storefronts and old brick row houses like some kind of inquisitive spaceship.
“Could you be more allegorical?” Dan Lopatin asks, surveying the skyline of church steeples and smokestacks from a picture window in one of EMPAC’s break rooms, noting that we literally look downon the city as we talk—a stark metaphor for the contrast between progress and regress, rich and poor, the collegial, futuristic atmosphere of EMPAC and the day-to-day struggles of Troy. (To answer his question: Probably not.)
Lopatin is here—along with the video artist Nate Boyce and composer/engineer Paul Corley—to rehearse for a tour supporting his new album as Oneohtrix Point NeverR Plus Seven. (EMPAC, which is on the campus of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, has invited him for a weeklong residency, punctuated by a performance.) Rehearsals are happening in the main auditorium, a rounded chamber paneled with western red cedar that sits inside the building’s glass frame like a giant wooden egg. It seats 1,200 people, and in Corley’s offhand opinion is one of the best rooms for electronic music in North America. (Corley, who has worked on immaculately detailed albums for artists like Tim Hecker and Ben Frost, might know.)
“When we first got in,” Lopatin says, “I clapped”—a way for him to test whether or not a short, staccato sound would get muddied by the natural reverberations of the room. “Nothing,” he says excitedly, karate chopping the air.
The Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center in Troy, New York. Photos by Mike Powell.
For someone completing a residency at an experimental-media center on the campus of an engineering school, Lopatin’s attitude is rigorously informal. Communicating with Corley from the stage, he talks in terms like “smear,” “limp,” and “Steelers bass,” as in, “Sorry Paul, but I’m going to put a little more Steelers bass in there at the end”—a mnemonic referring to the black-and-yellow cables he uses for his bass channels. Corley—a placid, squinting man with a swoop of reddish-blonde hair—somehow not only knows what Lopatin means when he says these things, but how to translate them into a language computers can understand. Even when Lopatin drifts into heady, quasi-academic territory, he fires his ideas off with the enthusiasm of a teenager gearing up for a bitchin’ party. At one point, he describes his goal of reconciling the “abstruse” world of sound art with “something you have on while you’re taking a shower, or whatever,” tapping rapidly on a glass tabletop with his index finger, saying, “I just want those things to function together in this awesome dialectical wheel that just goes, and it’s fucking crazy.”
Days start slow. Lopatin, Boyce and Corley spend the mornings handling separate business, convening at EMPAC in the early afternoon and working in the hall until after midnight. They drive downhill to Uncle Sam’s Good Natural Products for juice and burritos—where Boyce tells me about the exhilarating benefits of sublingual B vitamins—then drive back uphill again. When someone needs coffee, they get coffee.
Because the music at hand is pre-recorded, rehearsals aren’t about getting the performance right, at least not in the way that a bass player might need to rehearse nailing a transition with a drummer. Instead, the time is spent shaping and streamlining, editing out parts that carry well on record but sound cluttered in the hall, foregrounding central ideas and backgrounding ones that seem less gripping in the context of a live performance. Corley sits near the back of the hall, offering comments on balance, occasionally fixing technical problems with the quiet, feigned exasperation of someone secretly happy to be the one who knows how to get things working again. R Plus Seven—a glossy, alien, and surprisingly playful album that sounds nothing like its predecessor, 2011’s Replica—isn’t out yet and, in this windowless room, it's already transforming, sometimes to the point of being unrecognizable.
The egg-like EMPAC auditorium. Photos by Mike Powell.
The goal is to give the sound a balance between directness and abstraction. Describing his experience on the festival circuit, Lopatin says, “I feel like I better understand the tropes and guises of EDM now,” a comment rooted more in fascination than cynicism: He wants to figure out how much of someone’s attention he can capture while still making music that is essentially brainy. During rehearsals at EMPAC, a tough, skeletal R Plus Seven track called “Zebra” morphs into something approaching real-live house music. Booming drums fill the hall. It is the first time I have ever considered the possibility of anyone dancing to Oneohtrix Point Never. Lopatin falls into a brief trance, but soon pulls back and stops the track. He and Corley agree: Things have gotten too literal. “Now it’s just playing with you, like a song” Lopatin says, pacing across the stage. "I hate that.”
Part of his reason for collaborating with a video manipulator like Boyce is to push shows into the realm of spectacle while keeping the content above the level of what he calls “rhythm visualized,” referring to a lowest-common-denominator scenario where what you see is basically just a bunch of colored lights flashing to the beat. Boyce’s bank of digital objects and environments are abstract, but flirt with familiar forms: a sandy, desert-like void, a cow skull made of pinkish steel, some kind of alien kitchenware passing through a spongy membrane. Watching them stretch, spin, pulse, and swell on the 60-foot screen at EMPAC is like witnessing the live birth of digital babies, an experience by turns uncanny and classically sublime.
Like Lopatin’s music, though, Boyce’s projections aren’t afraid to be funny. During “Russian Mind”—an older track recomposed by Lopatin and beefed up by Corley—he experiments with two high-speed slideshows against a backdrop of gray-black storm clouds. One is of Czech glassware; another is of “irregular polygons named after New England towns.” The result looks like someone rushing through a boardroom presentation during the final seconds before the apocalypse. Everyone grins. Soon, they go downhill for pizza and a beer.
Watching the digital objects
stretch, spin, pulse, and swell
on EMPAC’s 60-foot screen
is like witnessing the live
birth of digital babies.

Rehearsals inside of the EMPAC auditorium. Photo by Mike Powell.
Though all of Lopatin’s albums as Oneohtrix Point Never could be classified as spacey electronic music, his style has evolved at a near-constant rate since releasing Betrayed in the Octagon in 2007. His early recordings—collected in the box set Rifts—are dim, insular pieces of music characterized by handmade cassette loops, percolating keyboard arpeggios played on an old Roland Juno-60 he inherited from his dad, and washes of ambience that sound like third-hand field recordings of weather on other planets.
Returnal, which he released in 2010, had a bigger, cleaner, and more conventionally epic sound. In retrospect, Lopatin knows that album attracted a larger audience to his music but he also feels like it didn’t really represent who he wanted to be as a musician: It was too serious, too emotionally one-note—too obvious. The foggy, loop-based follow-up Replica sounded like a deliberate reaction: Toy-like and repetitive instead of open-ended, made over the course of a few feverish days using micro-samples from old commercials, an album conceived of almost as a game instead of some oceanic chunk of personal expression. “Musty” is the word he uses for it, and he means it as a compliment.
R Plus Seven is another left turn in a series of them. He describes the demos he made for it as “pop songs” with “IDM drums” that he later had to “excavate”—a word he uses repeatedly to suggest that the album is an almost purposefully deconstructed version of itself, left out like a puzzle for the listener to piece back together.
But as a suburban kid who grew up in a punk/noise scene that prides itself in putting amateurs onstage, Lopatin is quick to mention that his music is still mostly the product of intuition. “It’s not like I actually understand the properties of sound,” he says. “I’m not a scientist.” (At dinner one night, the trio wax nostalgic about their first forays into digital art—a conversation that consists mostly of laughter and the acronyms for audio-editing software, and one that I do not understand at all.) “Informally formal,” Lopatin calls the approach. At the end of a long jag about extramusical installations and the digital piles of material he, Corley, and Boyce generated for R Plus Seven under the influence of writing constraints borrowed from both the French math-and-literature group Oulipo and the American Language poets, he slaps the table and smiles. “It’s like, you know how they had Back to the Future and then there was Back to the Future: The Ride?”
We are sitting in the auditorium during a day rehearsal. The mood is calm, focused, sober. Outside of the hall, students are having lunch in EMPAC’s cafeteria. None of them seem to realize that anything is going on inside the egg. At one point, a kid with a shaved head and a backpack wanders in. He doesn’t say who he is or what he’s doing. He doesn’t ask anyone any questions. He just stands there, staring at the screen at the back of the stage while Boyce shuffles through unused material, trying to find something to accompany R Plus Seven’s opening track, “Boring Angel”.
“I’ve got these hair steamers,” Boyce mutters, “Russian hair steamers.” He brings up an image of what looks like an armless person with wheels for feet and fog where its face should be. “Corley, can you kill the house lights?”
Dense organ arpeggios start ricocheting around the room. Panels of strobe lights on either side of the stage flash in staccato. Boyce phases the light from pale red to hot, white blue. Coming from the columns of speakers, the sound is huge, penetrating, almost churchlike. Suddenly, the room is a foreign place.
The kid with the backpack stands frozen in the doorway, his eyes wide, his mouth flat. In the swarm of lights and sound the Russian hair steamer starts to look like some kind of prehistoric obelisk, perfect in a way that objects of our imperfect human devotion usually are. The arpeggios splinter into distortion, and the man with the backpack turns to open the door, but doesn’t. His hand falls and he turns around again, his eyes fixed on the screen.


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