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20 December 2020

Daniel Lopatin on making music in the “unbelievable psychic peril” of a pandemic

The electronic producer Oneohtrix Point Never on isolation, the “cloaked insults” of reviews, and what Mark Fisher got right about time.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

No topic is too intellectual or too banal for Daniel Lopatin. When we spoke over Zoom on the day after Thanksgiving, he was just as willing to discuss different schools of psychoanalysis (“As a good Jungian…”) as he was his opinions on Thanksgiving dinner (“I don’t eat meat any more, but when I did, I felt that the dryness and the boringness of turkey was fundamental to the contrast with the mushy other stuff. I think turkey gets a bad rap”). 

This mingling of the high and the low – the serious and the playful, the profound and the trivial – is key to Lopatin’s musical output, too. The son of Russian-Jewish emigrants, Lopatin was born in Massachusetts in 1982 and grew up playing his father’s Roland Juno-60 synthesiser, now his trademark instrument. As Oneohtrix Point Never, a name that plays on 106.7, the dial setting of the Boston radio station he listened to in his youth, Lopatin has established himself as a pioneering force of electronica, graduating from synth-based recordings to sample-heavy, patchwork quilt-like works that play with kitsch and nostalgia. Whether his latest project is chamber pop, EDM or a film score, his music always remains heavily sculpted, as though carved with a fine chisel.

While the pandemic forced most of us to learn how to work in a way we never had before, for Lopatin, who started out writing music on a computer in his bedroom, lockdown meant a return to an earlier mode of creativity. Lopatin spent lockdown in his apartment in Queens, New York, where he lives alone, working on Magic Oneohtrix Point Never, his ninth studio album as OPN, which was released on Warp in October. In the mid-Noughties, when he was first making music, Lopatin was “extremely online”, he said, spending time on message boards and MySpace in order to forge a community of collaborators and fans. “All of that stuff is totally second nature to me, so [lockdown] wasn’t a particularly uncomfortable situation to find myself in,” he said, “but it was definitely one that I thought I had grown out of a little bit.”

[see also: Joni Mitchell: “I know what I want and I’m not afraid to stand up for it”]

He couldn’t get into a studio, so communicated with the album’s collaborators – who include Abel Tesfaye (aka the Weeknd), the American singer Caroline Polachek and the Venezuelan producer Arca – via text and Dropbox. “The challenge for me was how do I make a really very interesting, very texturally rich hi-fi record in a lo-fi environment? It has a frenetic, immediate, unfolding quality to it, because I’m responsible for it and I’m on my own, in a way, even with collaborators. It was an isolating, alienating experience, having to do it all myself.”

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That alienation is audible to Lopatin, who described the album as “a very futuristic record which is struggling to rise above the alienation”. But upon its release, critics claimed it was his most “accessible” yet. “I don’t hear that at all. I’m very confused by that rhetoric,” he said, describing the term as a “cloaked insult”, though not without turning the tables: “From a Jungian perspective, I think cloaked insults always say much more about the person giving them than they do about the thing.”

The “unbelievable psychic peril” of the pandemic turned Magic Oneohtrix Point Never into Lopatin’s “requiem”, he said, an opportunity to “reflect a little bit” on his career thus far, “to sum everything up, as if it’s the last one”. He laughed. “I mean, I don’t mean to seem morbid, but I am a little bit.”

The origins of this self-referential project took him back to his namesake, giving the title of this record a double allusion. Its structure is based around the logic of radio day parts, which start in the morning and end overnight. The end of one song is woven into the beginning of the next with glitchy, spliced samples of old all-American ads and DJ sign-offs. “Somehow the music we grew up listening to doesn’t relate to our adult reality and our new dreams,” says one presenter, eerily, in the second of the four “Cross Talk” interludes that divide the album. If this structure sounds formulaic, Lopatin insists the concept “didn’t lock me into any kind of aesthetic or even accessibility parameters. I do whatever I want.”

Lopatin avoided film and TV this year “because there were people touching in it and I didn’t want to see the stuff that I couldn’t experience – crowds of people and no masks”. Instead, he started listening to radio again, including London-based NTS and Elara Radio, an online station set up by his collaborators, the filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie. As a medium, traditional radio feels nostalgic, an intimate form inviting its listeners to tune in simultaneously, summoning a far more collective experience than modern-day music streaming or TV on-demand offers. 

This makes radio a neat reference point for Lopatin, who plays with listeners’ understanding of time by reaching sonically into the past via sampling, while shaping those sounds with a space-like futurism. And in 2020, a year in which time seemed more elastic than ever before, Lopatin had even more to play with than usual. “I call it time-dilation, when it seems like time is stretched or compressed in weird ways.” He referenced the cultural theorist Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, in which Fisher writes of time as, in Lopatin’s words, “a material thing”, one that “you need to log, that you need to keep track of, because it’s yours, ultimately”. But as a musician he, too, has the power to distort time. “Music is this wonderful way to deal with the weirdness of time: what happens if we hear [a melody] too many times? What if we don’t hear it enough times? What if we interrupt it in this bizarre way, so it begins to paint a picture of not just music but of time, and the interpersonal experience of time?”

[see also: Taylor Swift’s Evermore is Folklore’s darker, colder sister record]

He offered the example of listening to a pop track on CD: “When you’re listening to a Madonna song, you’re not just listening to a Madonna song, you’re phenomenologically experiencing the Madonna song,” he said. “Unconsciously, part of the listening of that Madonna song is loading the CD on to the tray, the sound of the tray, things that are happening outside your window, an itch or a scratch on your body… Your thoughts drift away and you experience some kind of fragmentation where you’re both listening to Madonna, but also having some kind of personal ideation. And then before you know it, 13 minutes have gone by. But what constituted those 13 minutes? It wasn’t 13 minutes, as we know. It was a kind of gelatinous personal time-dilated experience of 13 minutes.”

Lopatin’s talent for warping time through music – disfiguring pace and building momentum – is particularly well showcased in his soundtrack work for the Safdie brothers’ films Good Time, a 2017 crime thriller starring Robert Pattinson as a bank robber, and in Uncut Gems (2019), featuring Adam Sandler as a jeweller and gambling addict in New York City’s Diamond District. When Lopatin makes music as OPN, he is in control, working not only as the artist, but also as the producer. Writing a score for someone else’s film is a different role altogether, but it is this change of dynamic that entices Lopatin, who described himself as having a “libidinous interest in the idea of the auteur”.

“Someone else is driving it forward and when you believe in the project, then you’re on board: you’re there on this pirate ship going into an unknown thing with them,” he said. “I like the deferential kind of dynamic, especially because I don’t necessarily find that in other areas of my life. Maybe it’s some kind of sado-masochistic thing. It’s like I do a film to get tortured a little bit.”

This soundtrack work, alongside high-profile collaborations with the likes of Anohni, James Blake and FKA Twigs, has brought Lopatin’s otherwise niche electronica to a wider audience. But Lopatin doesn’t see this extra work as diluting his primary OPN brand; rather, it serves to energise it.

“To me, it’s like you have to do as much as possible. You have to see, alchemically, what your work is like in as many scenarios as possible. If you insist on being boundaried and private, I think you might often be making the same work over and over. And that’s OK, but not for me.”

[see also: Albums of the year]

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