Bradford Cox, the "asexual" front man for Atlanta-based psych-punk band Deerhunter, was one of 2007's most controversial, intriguing breakout musicians. Now the gaunt provocateur -- who last year frequently performed on stage in housedresses, his face covered in fake blood -- has released Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel (Kranky), under the pseudonym Atlas Sound. In an exclusive interview with Out, Cox talks about his dreamy, therapeutic first solo album, his suspended adolescence, and growing up gay in the South.
Out: First off, I want to talk about the new record. I read that when you write, you generally try to think of an album as a whole concept, as opposed to its individual songs. Did you take that approach with Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel?
Bradford Cox: Yeah, thats exactly the approach I took. The title was just a bizarre thing I pulled out of a dream. It was like I was walking, and then there were picketers. They were protesting something, and I just remember one of them holding up a sign that said, Let the blind lead those we can see but cannot feel.
Do you actually see words in your dreams?
Yeah, I have a notebook by my bed, and I just wrote it down. The concept of the album is letting the disadvantaged and the people with flaws give those without flaws perspective on their own flaws. Does that make sense?
Let the blind lead those who can see but cannot feel is kind of like you are able to see, but you might not know the right direction to go in. But somebody who cant see might -- just by instinct -- lead you that way. Those who can see but cannot feel are advantaged but dont appreciate or recognize it. To strip it all down, its like sad, downtrodden people have a lot more perspective to give than your average happy, hetero, bourgeois, white hipster kid.
So what do you think of the hipster collective? You seem as if youre shunning it, as if you dont want to be considered a hipster.
Nobody does, but they all like the clothes.
Do you think being a hipster is mainly about the fashion?
With a lot of hipsters, theres a reduction of value. Its stripping things of their value, commodifying or reproducing them. But Im not an elitist, and I refuse to criticize the way culture works. Ill go into Urban Outfitters, and if I see a jacket I like Ill buy it.
So you dont necessarily have a set of rules.
Yeah, that could be something a lot of people would criticize -- that I dont have any rules. You have to try as hard as possible to be yourself and youll avoid the hipster trap. Maintain your identity. Wear whatever you want and listen to whatever you want. If somebody thinks our records -- Deerhunter or Atlas Sound -- are something theyre supposed to listen to, I urge them to turn it off.
But your music has been generally well received.
Well, theres also been a huge backlash. A lot of people are just like, Why does this deserve attention? Why should I like this? Well, if you dont like it, dont listen to it. Thats what I think of when I think of hipsters -- people who just listen to music based on its rating. They just want to subscribe to the culture thats current and relevant. Theyre just striving for relevance.
I read that for Deerhunters next album youre going to strive for this 60s Phil Spector sound.
I want to make a record thats free of modernism. I look around, and I think everything has become so oversaturated with information. Everybody is so fucking smart and so elitist. Its new escapism for me. I want to go back to a time when people just made singles to make singles. Like pop 45s.
The Atlas Sound album -- your solo album -- seems a bit more accessible than Deerhunters Cryptograms, which is very psychedelic and dark. Theres always something new to discover in that album.
The album was made as a puzzle, even for the band. I listen to it sometimes, and Im just kind of creeped out. We didnt question any of our instincts. Its a difficult record.
If you could go back in time, would you tailor it a bit? Make nips and tucks?
No. Never. Part of me has this subconscious urge, like when youre getting your picture taken. You dont want to wake up in the morning youre getting your picture taken and be all broken out, you know? But the zits are here right now. They should be part of the photo. The mistakes are on the album; they should be there. I think what really attracts a lot of our fans is the flaws, the fallibility. Especially what they see in me. I think they see a really frail person. Im kind of in a state of suspended adolescence. Thats why I decided to write this record. I wanted to make healing music, a record somebody could listen to all the way through and feel like they went through a bad period of time and came out of it.
So are the tracks placed in chronological order, as if you're telling a story from start to finish?
It is chronological. Id just wake up one morning and record a song. Thats kind of how dreams operate and how I felt making the record. I think the first half is a little stuffed with more accessible songs. I was very depressed in the middle, and it created this kind of black hole of misery. Then I tried to bring it up again at the end. So it does have a dynamic arc.
I feel like there is momentum on the album, but its also suffocating, intense, and very dark. Do you feel like youve mellowed out, that youre not in that dark period you were in before?
No, but I can go back there tomorrow. Im beginning to feel like Ive kind of avoided doing the things that would probably help me be more stable. I stay in certain types of relationships that arent healthy.
Why do you do this?
Probably insecurity and just feeling trapped. I mean, the album is dedicated to [my friend and band mate] Lockett [Pundt]. We live together, were in a band together, and its a very difficult situation.
But you also have this interesting relationship with the Black Lips lead singer, Cole Alexander.
Yeah, but that relationship was more of a ridiculous, manic, nonsexual obsession with each other.
But you do make out?
Yeah. I can put it to you very simply: All the boys Ive ever been attracted to have been straight, emotionally confused, codependent, and available.
I wouldnt say sexually because thats too much information. I could tell you details, but I think thats kind of tacky. Its kiss and tell.
You identify yourself as gay?
How would you if you had to choose a category?
Asexuality. I understand now what I used to make fun of about Morrissey.
I was going to say its a very Morrissey-esque response.
Im not a Smiths fan, but I understand. When you grow up and all the people youve ever been in love with were in love with you back but unable to really dedicate themselves to it because they also liked girls, its really difficult and starts to make you feel insanely bitter and jealous. I was glad to make this record and dedicate it to Lockett, but lets just say I dont ever look forward to going home after trips like this. Id rather just stay in NYC.
Do you think youre a masochist?
I think everyone is.
You seem so serene in these relationships, or non-relationships, or complicated relationships. Do you think youre fixated on the chase, the impossibility, the quixotic notion of love?
The quixotic notion, exactly. Id rather chase something thats unavailable and be filled with an energy thats my own. I can exploit it by turning it into music. Its like turning oil into gasoline. I refine the basic feelings I have.
Are you still a virgin?
And youre content with that for now?
Do you think youll ever find the one? Do you think the one exists?
I dont. And thats why Ive retreated into aesthetic distractions. Its very clichd and simple, but I dont love and respect myself enough to be able to accept that anybody could like me, and nobody can love you if you dont love yourself. A basic psychological notion.
Do you think youre looking for men who like women?
Im definitely more attracted to boys.
Meaning, who are still in the state of adolescence Im in. I have so many happy gay friends who live with their boyfriends and have the nicest, most therapeutic relationships with each other. Its great for them. [But] I think its a little bit sad, the gay community that Ive explored and known -- how incestuous it is, how everybodys dated everybody. Its not like heterosexual dating, where the sea is wide open. Ive always resented heterosexual culture.
Talk to me about your experience in the gay South. Is there a southern gay sensibility?
What I remember hearing when I was growing up was this mythology of the Athens gene -- thats what I associate with the South. It was like youve been with a boy one week and a girl the next. It was awkward and experimental. And then, it was very much about punk rock. People were trying to be transgressive. They were trying to find something through tearing down all the moral structures theyd been raised by.
Why do you think that was? Do you think it was some kind of retaliation, like they felt stifled growing up?
Not retaliation. I think it was trying to find truth as you get older. Some people try to find truth just fucking as many people as they can. Some people, like me, try to find truth through complete inactivity.
You didnt get very involved in that experimentation and promiscuity growing up in the South?
I was intrigued. I wanted to know the emotional after-effects. Im not really attracted to gay culture in a sensual sense. Im interested in people that are not like me, who are not extroverted and flamboyant. Im interested in finding people that are confused and in need of something.
Wouldnt you say youre confused and in need of something yourself?
I guess I would say that. I would say we are all. Some people do it more quietly than others. I do it very loudly.
So, have you hung up your dresses? Are you done with the crazy stage antics?
For now. [With that], I was never really making a statement. I was always just kind of taking the piss out. People started referring to me as this hideous person, a freak, and my first reaction to that was, Do you want to see how much of a freak I am really? Lets play. Im intrigued by that: Get a persona and destroy it, and then say, Oh, by the way, that persona was meaningless -- that wasnt me. Thats what intrigued me about Bowie.
You dont think that person with the fake blood and dresses is you?
I think thats the kid me, my childhood self throwing a tantrum in its current stifled repressed situation. It was all about the sensation. I dont mean to be sensationalist, but I dont really give a shit if people think thats what it is.
So when you say its all about the sensation, do you mean its more the sensation you get?
The evocative sense. Not causing a stir but evoking something for the audience. I was thinking a lot about the abuse Id gone through as a child, and it was kind of that character -- the abused child. The dress represented my being forced into a feminine role. Not by my parents. Other kids -- neighborhood boys and stuff -- they sexualized me at a very young age.
Do you think you enjoyed playing the feminine role as a child?
I embraced it. In a certain way, my mom and my sister often let me do whatever I wanted. I wanted to wear frilly dresses and high heels and run around the house. That was kind of a big deal when I was growing up because I wanted to go to the grocery store in my dress, and they were like, You can do that around the house, but you cant go out.
Your mother was actually pretty amenable as far as your gender bending was concerned.
There were obviously limits. Its one thing to be interested in experimenting with gender roles at that age. Its another thing to be abused while thats happening. It creates a freeze on your mental development.
But it wasnt your parents who abused you.
My God, no. My parents love me very much and have always supported me no matter what Ive done, which is saying a lot because my dad is a conservative republican Christian.
Do your parents think, Hes crazy on stage, hes going to be crazy off stage?
Theres a big article in The New York Times from when we played at the Mercury Lounge and a photo of me screaming like a lunatic, the mic covered in fake blood, and [Im wearing] the dress, and I remember walking into the kitchen [at my parents house] and [my dad] had it taped to the refrigerator door.
Was he proud of it?
He was very proud of it. He was like, I dont like what youre doing, but Im very proud that youre doing it. Thats pretty amazing. He knows that Im not trying to play games with peoples minds. I get e-mails all the time that are like I dont know that Im gay, and I dont know that Im straight, but Im attracted to this boy and he doesnt like me back. All I can write back is Good luck, you know? I would love to have wisdom, and hopefully someday I will have wisdom, but Im still stuck in the confusion.
Would you say your music is the wisdom you can offer at this point?
Its the best thing I can offer. Its what I try to do -- something therapeutic. I want to create healing music, the kind of records I wanted to hear when I was first infatuated with my best friend and had that love glow -- that feeling that the world is awesome, but then you start realizing that its imperfect. Its what Im trying to capture.
Check out Deerhunter's trippy video for "Strange Lights" here.