Music

On ‘Age Of,’ Oneohtrix Point Never Cements His Status As One Of Music’s Greatest Shapeshifters

Atiba Jefferson

The RX is Uproxx Music’s stamp of approval for the best albums, songs, and music stories throughout the year. Inclusion in this category is the highest distinction we can bestow, and signals the most important music being released throughout the year. The RX is the music you need, right now.

Oneohtrix Point Never, the main guise of electronic musician Dan Lopatin, makes albums that are mutations on mutations. In the past, he’s incorporated krautrock and IDM in his early work, disjointed alternative rock in Garden Of Delete, and loves himself a good piano ballad he can skew, as is the case with his Iggy Pop collaboration “The Beautiful And The Damned.” It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that one of his favorite films is Terminator 2, which he calls “biblical.” Lopatin is a shapeshifter at his core, the T-1000 of electronic.

His latest record, Age Of, which came out last month on Warp, takes on a lot of forms in its 43 minutes. Based on Lopatin’s concept of an AI reminiscing on humanity in an age distant from ours, it begins with harpsichord, making you think he’s turned to pastoral pop, but quickly shifts. “Black Snow,” the album’s leadoff single, is dour and apocalyptic, a “Morning Dew” for our time. Songs will end abruptly, pleasant voices will blend hellish screams on a dime, as is the case with “Babylon.” It would all sound seemingly random to those less initiated with his work, but his career has proven him to be deceptively deliberate.

“Now there’s basically no music that’s not made by Skynet,” he says of “The Station,” a song that originally began as something he wrote for Usher, and is still tangentially some alien R&B. Even so, Age Of features the most outside collaborators of any of his albums, including singer Anonhi, noise genius Prurient, (aka Dominick Fernow, who Lopatin called “a chaos agent” who brings the “current anxiety we’re feeling as a society collapsing in on itself”), and additional production from James Blake. Our lives are ruled by algorithms, and Lopatin not only bends them to his will with his music, he emphasizes the humans subjected to them.

Recently I chatted with Lopatin about how Brian Wilson’s idea of “teenage symphonies to God” is the ideal for music, why simulation theory might be played out in 2018, and, obviously, Terminator 2.

How is Terminator 2 biblical? Does it relate to the record at all?

I think that T2 is prescient in technological issues that we’re facing in our time. What is machine consciousness mean for our continued survival? That film addresses it in a really direct and rapturous way: It’s taking a hardline stance on what machine consciousness would mean for us but also the nature of reality and being able to manipulate reality and affect change in a determinate universe. The ability to change, shapeshift to modify your identity, character, or persona, your appearance — it gets at something really ancient about appearances and forms, but I’ve always really been into thinking about music this way and being about it as a composer. I’m not devoted to any style or any lifestyle or any kind of methodology. For me, music was just a sort of alchemical opportunity to just bounce crazy things off of each other and see what happens. So of course, I can get down with the morphing aspect of Terminator.

Did this shape Age Of centering on an AI reminiscing on humanity?

A little bit. I had all these songs and they were interrelated, but they were kind of different sides of my personality, and I thought it would be fun to break up the album into these ages of the homo sapiens, the ages of the time when we affected our home nature beyond an irreversible manner. We’ve inhabited it, we’ve embodied it with our tools and our manipulations and our abuses and it can never really go back to whatever platonic ideal we have might considered it to have originated.

I had watched 2001 [A Space Odyssey] and having it watched it many times before, I never picked up on this compressed evolutionary timeline that happens in the film where apes are bequeathed the ability evolve through use of violence and technology. I thought it would be funny to imagine 2001 inverted as a sort of opera. Essentially it’s the story of these hyper-evolved beings that came from us, but they’ve done everything they can. They’re at the entropy point, they’re at the complete meltdown heat death of the universe, and they’re just frozen, just loitering, dreaming of their ancestors and what it might be like to not be able to understand the universe, to not understand reality or how it works.

They basically generate for themselves this music box of earth that sings a song to them of what it is we like to do, and because it’s all algorithmic, because they’re an AI and they run these incredibly complex processes to try and understand reality, they just get this weird average of all our trials and tribulations and desires and stuff. It ends up telling them this story of this Babylonian striving where we build on top of history without knowing where it is we came from. We just continue these bizarre things without any idea where we’re building towards and we just topple and start again and topple and start again with no reference where we’re going.

“Babylon” is one of the more serene songs on here. Is it an optimistic song?

A little bit, but it’s a funny song because I’m a little bit torn in two on it. It’s a song I’m singing to New York City, and if New York City is the love interest in a ballad, then I’m saying “you’re not that bad. I know that you are changing and I know there’s Starbucks on every corner” and everything else we can get into about what New York’s become. There is something else happening here that when I come back to New York from being abroad or going home, I feel like I’m at home. It’s extremely honest about the situation that I decide to live in a city like this: It’s a place that’s compromised and maybe all places are compromised, but I’ve lived here for a decade and I’m trying to figure out what it is about this place that I can’t break free of completely.

If you had to pinpoint it, what about New York feels like home?

As like, a shapeshifter, I love the fact that in New York, you can reinvent yourself every three blocks. You can change your entire outfit, you could pick up 17 different bad or good habits. Any number of things that you can think of are pretty much at your disposal if you want to go there. I love that about New York, it creates this insane staging area for everybody’s dreams and everybody’s motivations, and everyone’s so livewire and crazy. On the other hand, I like that people leave each other alone here and everyone’s a freak or not a freak, whatever they are, it’s ok. As long as you’re not encroaching on anyone’s territory or slowing them down, you’re good. And if you just be like water, you can be whatever you want, and I think it’s so inspiring.

Would you say you’ve been a shapeshifter in music?

Yeah, I think so. For me, any other sort of approach is sorta irresponsible, like it doesn’t feel like it’s really me. You know Brian Wilson’s “teenage symphonies to God,” that whole vibe? I like “teenage symphonies to God,” that’s the only genre I like. If you’re “teenage symphony to God,” I’m in. If you’re not, I’m probably not into it. That just means there needs to be something really vital. The teenage part of it is about honesty and just about feeling what you’re gonna feel.

Symphony is an interesting word because symphony is f*cked up historically, like only really specific people have access to it, but the teenage part makes it cool. Somebody like Brian Wilson, his dreams of music were so much greater than his abilities or his circumstances, which were tough being abused by your dad and everything. He just dreamed so big, and the music he made was so idiosyncratic and so specific to the music of his mind. Nobody else could have ever made that, and so that’s my criteria for good music is how honest are you being to your ambitions, to your vision of music that’s yours alone.

Something I notice in your work, too, it’s unified in its disunity. In Age Of, not all the songs sound the same and even with the themes there’s not a logical flow, but it’s still coherent.

Exactly. I see it as different sides of a tesseract that have the same kind of gravity, have the same DNA, have the same kind of thrust, have the same pathology, but stylistically things kind of shifted. Your perspectives get altered and textures change. It’s a record where time doesn’t really function the way that most everybody reliably wants time to function. People that have a problem with the disunity of my record are fundamentally not thinking about it the way I think about it.

Since we’re always on the brink of disaster, was this the perfect time to put out “Black Snow?”

There’s a really funny comment on Twitter that’s like, and I’m paraphrasing here, “I don’t know it was your intent or not, but every time I hear ‘Black Snow,’ I imagine the armageddon annihilation scene in T2 but sitting on a bus on your way to work.” There’s just a level of absurdity and ennui to the sound of the song that contrasts in an interesting way with the content of the lyrics that’s funny.

There’s this other song — this dude has this one record that Numero Group reissued, his name is Jim Schoenfeld, he was on the Buffalo Sabres. Being a professional hockey player in the ’70s certainly was much different than what you think of like the life of a pro athlete today. These were more or less normal people doing their thing. This dude made an incredible album, so weird and psychedelic, and so genuine, and he’s got this song called “Today.”

There’s this song about not the end of the world but essentially the beginning of the world, but it has a similar kind of “holy sh*t, I shouldn’t be thinking about all of the time immemorial, I really shouldn’t be thinking about the universe, but I’m gonna. Here’s what I have to say about it.” I love those kinds of songs. And that does really go back to the Brian Wilson thing, I just like the vision of a dude on the Buffalo Sabres writing a song about the nature of reality. I wish everybody was as lit, was as livewire.

I can’t imagine that happening now because a lot of unconventional sounds have been absorbed into the mainstream whether we want to acknowledge it or not, but in 2018, if a hockey player made a song about the beginning of time? Not the weirdest thing that would happen.

I don’t know if you follow basketball, [but] Kyrie Irving is this NBA superstar who keeps exacerbating this talk of whether or not he thinks the earth is flat. And there’s this other dude J.J. Redick on the Sixers that has a podcast that literally had a team meeting about simulation theory and explained simulation theory to his teammates and he was like “it brought up a lot of questions like ‘can there be a God if we live in this simulation?’” On the one hand, this is amazing, everyone is so insane right now, but on the other hand it’s not amazing at all because the world is most definitely not fucking flat. There needs to be a tether because you can see what happens when people are hungry to create meaning in their lives, but don’t know where to go get it and get all kinds of wrong information.

Simulation theory isn’t as cool as it used to be since more people picked up on it. Every time someone on Twitter goes “wow, this simulation is crazy” or whatever, it’s like, no, the world is pretty f*cked up. There’s no way around it.

Absolutely. Simulation theory is also just a modern take on a Judeo-Christian reality. There is somebody in the sky who’s holding the puppet strings and I’m not in charge and oh isn’t that eerie. But really what you’re saying is “Mommy, thank you. I needed reassurance that we’re not alone in a free-fall, in complete entropy.” It seems like it’s a workaround for people that don’t really have a sort of sincere, genuine belief tethered to go in a way that people who are religious — you can think whatever you want but that gives their lives meaning.

They live through communities assembled around systems of belief that give themselves purpose that often times, that’s a helpful thing. And the fact that there’s this groundswell of belief around simulation theory is just frightening to me — this is basically a lack of community, a lack of education, a lack of God in whatever form you want it, that leads you create this sort of belief that you’re just wanting to make sense so badly because nothing makes sense.

Talking about community then, is it important that this record has a lot of outside contributors, that’s it’s collaborative?

Yeah, it really was because I got so tired of just answering to myself only and not letting anything else in. Over the last couple years, the reality of my life was I wasn’t alone rotting in some dungeon studio. I pulled myself out of really bad habits, and I felt like I grew as a human being. It didn’t feel honest to go make an 0PN record and just pretend like those things weren’t factors. I think of lot of longtime 0PN fans really get that and appreciate that and are growing too, and moving through their life and going through their evolution as well and can probably relate to that.

And there’s probably also a contingency of people that are irritated and just want me to be chained to my Juno-60 in a windowless room eating Trader Joe’s burritos for the rest of my life and that will make them perfectly happy. That’s not reality. My music needs to reflect how it is I’m living my life on some very basic fundamental level. So that’s all very natural to me. If it’s unnatural for other people, I don’t know, that’s their problem.

Age Of is out now on Warp Records. Buy it here.

×