What does Bradford Cox want and will he ever get it? This was the question that plagued me after spending nearly two hours sitting on the floor of a hotel room listening to him wax philosophical on topics as diverse as Gucci Mane and gay marriage (Note: he’s not really in support of either, but it's complicated). The notorious behavior of the Deerhunter frontman has been confusing and fascinating journalists, audiences—and even his publicist— for the greater part of a decade. We agreed to attend Cox’s elaborately private, highly exclusive, and semi-annoying press conference expecting more antics. Surprisingly, I found myself spellbound by Bradford Cox. He seems to enjoy his own bizarreness as much as he’s trapped in it, grappling with the very real boundary between sharing his passion for art, culture, and music, and maintaining some personal privacy.
Cox shares characteristics with other figures flirting with art and sensationalist spectacles—he references Tiny Tim in his Pitchfork interview and his stunts and sound bring to mind fellow fringe musician Ariel Pink. Even the anti-media stance he perpetuates in the press junket for their fifth studio album Monomania signals a break with norms—in an industry that encourages playing nice Cox is all petulance and preening. Between mocking journalists for recording and writing down his quotes and comparing the press cycle for his music to an economic orgy, Cox ensured that his position on media was firmly cemented by finally comparing his previous interviews of the day to psychological rape.
Ostensibly, the press conference was with Deerhunter, but as most things related to the band, it ended up being all about Cox. Taking place in Manhattan’s hip Ace Hotel, journalists were grouped in chairs around Cox reclining on the lime green colored chaise—the rest of the band sat on a nearby couch, mostly mute aside from laughter or stock responses if Cox called on them. To say the environment in the room was hostile would almost be an understatement—none of the journalists seemed to be interacting, most seemed intent on impressing Cox with their questions, maintaining a certain level of “cool” around the musician. I’d never met or seen Bradford Cox before, but it was immediately apparent that everyone in the room was orbiting around this figure. As the type of artist that falls outside of society’s stricture, his struggles with music, sexuality, love, life and pain suddenly felt all too real. His candor was compelling, at times forced, other times he casually deflected any meaningful inquiries into his own art.
Both the textured rock of Deerhunter and his abstract, spindly side project Atlas Sound wander through loneliness and fuzzy nostalgia, both examine emptiness, loss and pain. But if these elements are present in Cox’s music, they’re far more apparent in his public persona and presence.
Cox’s tediousness is belied by a very self-aware sense of instability, and he continuously references the “very bad time in his life” that the songs for Monomania were born from. He refused to address specifics (what the song “T.H.M” is about, for instance) but the sadness in his eyes says it all, Cox has always been an outsider it seems. In the past, Bradford repeatedly addresses his own insecurities: he hates the sound of his own voice, he’s been burned, the media portrays him wrongly, and people are intimidated. He has a genetic disorder known as Marfan syndrome that makes him impossibly gangly, long thin limbs and a tiny torso, and he cites this perceived ugliness or physical difference as another feature that separates him from the well-groomed ranks of today’s hoodie-and-tee clad indie rock legions. Notoriously deviant, Bradford seems to relish his perceived weirdness, but is also confused by it.
“People will debate how stupid and pretentious it is that I constantly refer to stuff that I do as avant-garde,” he said. “But honestly, the avant-garde is stale. We’re not even trying to achieve anything.” As a cultural critic, Cox alternates between grating and brilliant, whiny and poignant, his personal and emotional struggles are inexplicably tied to the music he puts forth. Both the textured rock of Deerhunter and his abstract, spindly side project Atlas Sound wander through loneliness and fuzzy nostalgia, both examine emptiness, loss and pain. But if these elements are present in Cox’s music, they’re far more apparent in his public persona and presence. As he decried the downfall of the avant-garde from his perch on the chaise lounge, I pushed him on that point, if the avant-garde is past, what does he think is next?