Who Is…Oneohtrix Point Never

Marissa G. Muller

By Marissa G. Muller

on 11.22.11 in Who Is...?s

File under: Retro-futurist transmissions hovering between the AM frequencies on your analog radio

For fans of: Brian Eno, Tangerine Dream, Tim Hecker, and Emeralds

From: Brooklyn via Massachussetts

Personae: Daniel Lopatin


Oneohtrix Point Never

Despite his stoner demeanor, Oneohtrix Point Never’s Daniel Lopatin is as thoughtful in conversation as he is on tape. His abstract synthpop outfit’s sixth full-length, Replica, is built from snippets of ’80s commercials, gauzy loops and an almost-scientific curiosity about what music is. Though he says they’re mostly improvised, Lopatin’s instrumental meditations feel deliberate. Using DVD compilations of old ads as opposed to user-directed YouTube searches for specific words, Lopatin sought out to create Replica from a place of total objectivity. His plucking of certain phrases and sounds from the videos comes from a place of “curatorial attachment,” rather than nostalgia. The approach makes sense: Lopatin studied indexing and archiving during his graduate school practicum in library science.

There isn’t a ton of conventional warmth or intimacy on Replica, largely because of its shadowy melodies and lack of vocals, but Lopatin has an ironic sense of humor that manifests itself in a few odd moments across the LP, as well as in real life. eMusic’s Marissa G. Muller caught up with Lopatin to talk about his stoner high school jam band, his need to watch sports while he records, and how his library science studies inform his music.

I read that your first gig was in a jam band called The Grainers with Al Carlson (of the label Mexican Summer) and Joel (Ford, who co-runs Software with Lopatin). What did you like about playing in that format, and was there any conceptual or technical overlap between that and OPN?

Your question is so beyond the level of sophistication of that juvenile band, it’s blowing my mind right now. We can’t even talk about that band in a real way. We were, like, 16 years old, the goofiest, nerdiest kids. One of our parents has a VHS of us playing at the high school theatre and I would just implode if I had to watch it. It just sounds like bad Carlos Santana.

Were you into jam bands in high school?

Kind of? Not to pin it on them, or throw them under the bus, but [Al and Joel] were the ones into Phish when we were growing up and I didn’t really get it. I liked aspects of it, and the jazzier shit and fusion shit. So, there was overlap, but at age 15 my brain hadn’t yet even gripped the possibilities of music.

It was kind of sad that in our suburban microcosm the closest that we could get to feeling like we were musically free was through jam bands. Unfortunately, that was the vibe of the town where we grew up. There was no punk. There was very little cultural variation and there were theatre kids and fake hippie kids. That was where I grew up and I had to grow up and figure out what else was going on.

Would you ever consider covering [your old band's song] “Nugget”?

You’re fucking with me so hard right now. No, I would never cover “Nugget,” ever. It’s so fucking bad. It’s the worst thing you’ll ever hear, just garbage

You went to graduate school to study library science — do you ever think about returning to it somewhere down the road?

Yeah, I would love to be an archivist. I was in grad school from 2008-2010, got my archival certificate, and I had a practicum; that was my last job. I wanted to work in the public library, but that was around the beginning of the recession, and there weren’t a lot of jobs.

I’ve been very lucky to have music be my work, but it definitely wasn’t planned that way. It started taking off in my last semester of grad school. During finals, I was making plans to leave for tour and was going to go back to school after a series of short tours, but when they ended I started getting more and more gigs. If and when there’s a circumstance where I can’t do music, I would try for a career in archives. The thing is, it’s difficult too, because it’s really exclusive, and if you haven’t done it for a while, it’s hard to just jump into it. There’s a lot involved. But, yeah, I would love to work in a library.

Is there any technical overlap between that career and your process in music?

Archivists have to follow very specific, formal encoding procedures and there’s a lot of boring stuff that I don’t do at all. So, not in procedure but in spirit I work in an archival manner with that approach. I like categorization, indexing, putting things into folders.

That kind of organization comes across in Replica, because each sound feels intentional. How many of your compositions are planned and how many are improvised?

They’re planned in the sense that I categorize different sounds in folders on my computer. I’ll have the name of a track, and then a hierarchy inside of it, with things like “the rhythm section,” “vocals,” “beat sounds” or “pads” — those are just metaphoric, cut-up samples. There’s something about those samples that represent conventional instrumentation or conventional pop music, but it’s just an approximation. I’ll guess that those things will work together — and sometimes they’ll work together, sometimes they won’t — then I’ll move everything into a real-life sampler and perform samples of the different parts and try to repeat everything to my best ability. Improvisation is a huge part of what I do.

The piano bits on Replica sound like inverted jazz, particularly “Power of Persuasion.” What has your relationship with jazz been like?

I love ECM records from the ’70s and ’80s and that jazz sound Jack DeJohnette, David Holland, Jan Garbarek, John Abercrombie, stuff like that. ["Power of Persuasion"] was my approximation of really mellow, laid back Scandinavian ECM jazz, but it ended up sounding slightly different. It became more uptown or American jazz.

You switch off between the piano and synths on this LP. What advantages does the piano have over a synthesizer?

Piano is very pure and beautiful. It’s an instrument that requires you to put your body into it in a way that a synthesizer doesn’t. There’s all kinds of different ways that keyboards or synthesizers will mimic the sensitivity or the velocity and physicality of the piano, but at the end of the day, the piano is the most physical way to play. That’s what makes it so amazing, and so difficult, as an instrument: It demands that your personality be in it.

The piano seems inherently warmer than synths, too, and that feels heightened on the LP amidst all of the disconnect. Are you aware of when it pops up, and do you bring that warmer presence into a song at a certain moment?

The piano is a way to cut to my melodic ideas more directly without a lot of other additions. I agree that the piano is inherently warmer but this piano isn’t; it sounds beautiful, but we ran it through tapes and we made it into what it is. What interests me is where things are striated and where things are smooth, how things match up.

Would you ever consider making a piano album?

I don’t think I’m talented enough to do an all-piano record [laughs]. It took me so long just to wrap my head around that one piano track that an all-piano record would probably take me three years. There’s a lot of overdubbing and multi-tracking and cutting and trickery that goes into what I do, even when I use the piano, so I don’t know what I could offer.

That’s been done already and done much better than me. The Bill Evans record, Conversations With Myself, is one of my favorite records ever and it’s just all overdubbed piano. I feel like that would be my only way in: I would just be ripping off Conversations With Myself.

Which of the commercial snippets used in Replica was your favorite?

I didn’t even watch the commercials, I just listened to the audio. There was one commercial that gave the impression of this upper class, aristocratic “good life” with mood lighting, a couple by the fire, but it was really just a commercial for coffee. The message was, “drink this cup of coffee and you’ll have this refined life.” The dialogue was between this woman and man while they were sipping coffee and gazing into each other’s eyes, and I listened to that to try to get the sound of them sipping, exhaling and the end with them laughing and giggling and tried to do something interesting with those gestures [in "Sleep Dealer"].

You moved from the bedroom to the studio for this recording. How important is your environment to your work?

Moving in the studio was circumstantial. I wanted to make a record that was more hi-fi, and I couldn’t have done that at home. My older recordings were really dance heavy, and dynamically that just wasn’t there. I wanted to make a record that was really contemporary and heavy on the bass and rounded-out, and really powerful and big-sounding. I couldn’t really do that at home, so it was a luxury that I got to record in the studio and make a high-fidelity version.

When I’m recording a lot of the time I need to be horizontal, laying down and listening to stuff, so I need to have a good couch. The lighting needs to adjustable, and not fluorescent, like day and night. And I need there to be as many screens and monitors around as possible, so I can put sports on. Like, if the playoffs are on or the NBA; that’s really important. Just having basketball on makes me feel really comfortable. We made the recording at the very beginning of baseball season, and I’m not a huge baseball fan but Fenway Park home games are really meditative so having sports on is really helpful.

Ideally, how would listeners experience Replica?

It’s not up to me. I get a lot of feedback when I’m playing shows, people come up to me and they’ll say, “I really love such-and-such release. We always listen to it when we’re falling asleep at night,” or “I like listening to this when I’m cooking.” To me, that’s really great because it’s not up to me to dictate how people experience music. They bought it and made the decision to interact with it any way they want and that’s beautiful to me. If they just want to listen to one track on their iPod that’s cool, if they want to listen to the whole thing with a group that’s cool too. I enjoy the fact that people use music in different ways.