I’m drinking Tecate in a room on the 11th floor of the Ace Hotel. It’s early April, and I’m here to interview the band Deerhunter. There are about a dozen of us writers here, along with two publicists and a few others—friends of the band, I guess. Four of the five members of Deerhunter—Lockett Pundt, Moses Archuleta, Frankie Broyles, and Josh Mckay—sit on a couch against the back wall. Bradford Cox, the band’s frontman, is lounging on a divan in the center of the room.
It’s around 7 p.m. The band has been in interviews all day—this last “group interview” is meant to accommodate the overflow of interested press. The atmosphere in here is awkward. The guys against the back wall seem exhausted, and they’re not saying much. Cox, on the other hand, can’t stop talking. We in the press corps don’t ask questions, exactly; instead, each of us in turn will engage Cox in a kind of standoffish repartee. There’s a weird mixture of defiance and deference in the tone of voice we all use—like we’re back in high school and Cox is the cool kid we’re trying to impress.
The previous night, the band appeared on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and played the title track from their new record, Monomania, which was released in May. Cox, wearing a wig, looked kind of like Dee Dee Ramone. On his left hand was a bandage, bloodied and made to look like his index and middle fingers had been lopped off. I’d watched the performance online earlier that day, and the first thing I’d done when I arrived was check to see if his fingers were really missing.
We’ve been in this room for over two hours. I join in the questioning, get a few circuitous answers. I have a recorder with me, but when I listen to the tape afterwards there’s nothing on there that’s really worth using—and given the weary mood in the room, it doesn’t seem fair to consider anything that’s said as being on the record. Cox spends a lot of time talking about the movie Spring Breakers. He gets a text message from Cole Alexander from the band Black Lips. He responds to a question about Vampire Weekend. Nothing that wouldn’t pass for background chatter at a trendy bar.
There is one question I wanted to ask, though. It’s a dopey question, and I’m far too timid to ask it, but it’s the only question that came to mind when I was preparing for the interview, and in the time since, listening to the new record or thinking back on times I’ve seen Deerhunter live, the question has continued to reassert itself. It’s been in the back of my mind all the time I’ve been in this uncomfortable hotel room, one of a dozen bloggers sipping lukewarm beer and failing to justify our reasons for being here. Looking from the tired band on the couch to Cox, perched on his divan, all I want to ask is, “So—are you guys rock stars?”
Deerhunter rose to prominence in the latter half of the ‘00s as part of a lively garage rock scene in Atlanta, Georgia. That decade had begun with bands like the Strokes (New York) and the White Stripes (Detroit) being hailed worldwide as the saviors of rock. Down South, the stakes were lower. The music scene in Atlanta was lackluster. It suffered from comparisons to the scene in nearby Athens, the one-time home to R.E.M., the B-52s, and the Elephant 6 collective, to name a few. Athens was the weird, cool college town; Atlanta the sprawling, suburban mess. The capital had hip-hop artists like Outkast, but there was nothing in the rock arena until Deerhunter, together with bands like Black Lips, the Coathangers, and—at least spiritually—King Khan and the Shrines (the latter more by association, since they weren’t an Atlanta band) began to grow in popularity.
Deerhunter didn’t register as a garage rock group as immediately as Black Lips or the Coathangers did. The latter two played wild shows, with jagged guitars and bratty vocals prominently featured. By contrast, early Deerhunter shows were almost pensive affairs, the band using effects pedals to build long stretches of ambient sound. Cox was an awkward presence on stage, his highly-processed vocals lost in the wash of sound. Only in Moses Archuleta’s drumming—straightforward, sparse—could you see the link to the other bands.
Still, Deerhunter captured something about its environment. On Cryptograms, an ambient stretch of songs fills the record’s middle section. It sounds like nothing so much as the haze that rises from hot pavement. The record captures the delirium of summer in the asphalt-blasted Atlanta suburbs: driving endlessly along wide expanses of road; the sun assaulting you on multiple fronts, bearing down from above and reflecting off the chrome grills of hundreds of SUVs. The heat is extreme. Go inside anywhere, however, and you’re met with a disorienting blast of air conditioning that freezes the sweat on your skin and throws you back out into the inferno searching for relief.
I grew up in the Atlanta suburbs but moved to Athens in 2006, the year before Deerhunter released Cryptograms. I considered myself firmly on the Athens side of the Athens/Atlanta divide, however much that kind of thing mattered. The Atlanta scene was centered around downtown venues I’d not been able to get into as a high schooler. I felt a kinship with Deerhunter, though. Bradford Cox was from Roswell, a suburb just 15 minutes north of where I grew up, and even farther away from downtown—he was even more of a suburban kid than I was.
Following Deerhunter’s releases after Cryptograms—there’s 2008’s Microcastle and 2010’s Halcyon Digest, plus Bradford Cox’s solo work as Atlas Sound—it’s easy to trace a broad arc leading to Monomania. The songs have gotten more straightforward, and Cox in particular has grown more charismatic. Deerhunter’s roots show more and more as the band matures, not just garage rock but rock in a broader sense. On the cover of Parallax, the most recent Atlas Sound record, Cox poses with an old-fashioned microphone, his hair slicked back with pomade.
As Cox has become more comfortable as a frontman, his lyrics have also undergone a shift. On early records he could be stunningly vulnerable. Songs like “Ativan” and “Heatherwood” hint at earlier experiences with hospitalization, their lines tense with claustrophobia and forced inertia: “I slept till I threw up,” he sings on “Ativan” by Atlas Sound. Cox puts his anguish on display in a way that feels compulsive; nor does he hide his ambivalent feelings towards the audience he’s opened himself up to. “Crucified on a cross in front of all my closest friends,” he sings on the song “Calvary/Scars” from Deerhunter’s Microcastle. He can’t help revealing too much, but he’s angry with you for staring.
On Monomania, he’s clearly gotten used to the attention—and has learned to have fun with it. The album is filled with Mick Jagger-like bons mots that Cox gleefully growls out. “Oh God, send me an angel,” he croaks on the title track, following with a punch line: “And if you can’t send me an angel, send me something else.” More confessional-sounding lyrics are woven into the fabric of the record, incorporated as seamlessly as the effects on Cox’s voice. On “Punk (La Vie Antérieure),” which closes the album, Cox addresses role-playing outright: “For a year, I was queer,” he sings. And later: “For a month, I was punk.”
It doesn’t seem inaccurate to say that the five guys in Deerhunter are rock stars, even if it’s just within the narrow world of indie music festivals and Pitchfork. The notion suggests a fair degree of posturing, but as Cox’s evolution as frontman and lyricist shows, posturing is part of what makes their music rock music. Cox’s early vulnerability makes it all the more convincing when he plays the tough guy. The taut guitar interplay on Monomania still has traces of Cryptograms’swashouts. From the suburbs to downtown isn’t such a long drive.
In the summer of 2009, when I was 21 years old, my friends and I drove from Athens to Atlanta one night to play a show. We loaded our gear into my Volvo stationwagon. On the drive, we listened to Weird Era Cont., the disc of bonus material that came with Microcastle, released the previous summer. The extra material was leaked before the album’s release, which angered Bradford Cox and caused him to lash out on his blog. Most people felt he overreacted. “Yeah, Bradford’s kind of a drama queen,” was how my friend Rob put it, not unaffectionately. “Operation,” my favorite song on Weird Era, offers these lyrics: “Operation, cover your ears, you’re not gonna like what you’re gonna hear: I hate you, I hate you.”
The show we were playing was in a converted warehouse in Cabbagetown, one of Atlanta’s trendier neighborhoods. The show was some kind of overblown one-night extravaganza. There were droves of volunteers wearing lanyards with the Heineken logo on them. There must have been 20 bands on the bill; we were set to play first. I’d decided to dress specially for the occasion, decking myself out in my idea of Atlanta hipster garb. (My model was Jared Swilley from Black Lips.) I wore an oversized T-shirt printed with a kitschy wolf-howling-at-the-moon motif that I’d borrowed from my girlfriend, plus a flat-billed cap with a glittery skull on it that my roommate had bought at a gas station. I was the only one who got the joke.
We went on at 6:00 sharp. When we started our set I made sure to say we were from Athens. The space was empty except for the few friends we’d brought along, who would afterwards tell us how big we sounded—an easy enough achievement when you’re playing to a huge room with no one in it. After three songs, the sound guy cut us off—he said we’d run out of time. I yelled at him, then later apologized (Athens or Atlanta, this was still the South). We decided to load up our stuff and leave before the event started in earnest.
As we were taking our gear out back through the loading dock, thronged by still more lanyarded crew members, the other guys in the band passed by some friends they knew from high school. They stopped to talk while I pulled the car around. Eventually we got all the stuff put away and drove out of the parking lot. Deerhunter was still playing on the stereo. “Oh, Max was just talking about this record,” said Dan in the front seat—Max was the friend they’d run into. The sun was setting but it was still hot, so we kept the windows down. To hear the music over the sound of the wind, you had to turn the volume up really high. To hear what anyone was saying, you kind of had to yell.
“What was he saying?”
“Max. About the Deerhunter record. What was he saying?”
“Oh, he was just like, ‘Doesn’t anyone get how amazing this is?’”
MARSHALL YARBROUGH is assistant music editor at the Rail. He writes record reviews on his blog, fourslashfour.tumblr.com.