The last time I talked with Dan Lopatin—who records vast synthesizer music as Oneohtrix Point Never—I told him about Rousseau's life. How he made full-blooded images of a real place without ever going there. How, maybe, he managed to say so much about the jungle because he never saw it. The chat took place on the internet, which is where most of our conversations take place, which is appropriate—his music and video art literally couldn't exist without the internet and internet-era modes of communication. He seems driven and inspired by the alienation—or at least the decentralized and non-physical nature—of online life. His first response to Rousseau: "OMGGOMG."
"It's an impression of those SORTS of impressions," he went on in ecstatic, semi-complete sentences. "The European man depicting Africa from within the zoo. In France. It's not actually ABOUT tigers. It's about that man. Do u follow?" He later said that this is what Returnal—his new album on Editions Mego—was all about. "I really feel like [Rousseau] in a way—these projections, simulations, and impressions are more interesting to me than the thing itself."
His albums—a melodic but densely textured collage of synth drones, arpeggios and submerged samples—have become a kind of cornerstone for the current American trend in what you could call "gentle noise": deep, machine-based music growing out of a network of tiny, short-run labels and makeshift venues. Music equally indebted to the religious austerity of Popul Vuh and Jon Hassel's imaginary anthropologies as the earthy, hands-on approach of the American noise scene. A variation on cosmic punk.
It's music that sounds like it's trying to conjure a place, but it's unclear where the place is. "My studio overlooks the Verizon distribution HQ in Bushwick," he explains. Bushwick is a neighborhood in northeast Brooklyn—a kind of strange mix of Hispanic families and hipsters living side-by-side in brick townhouses and apartment buildings, fringed by an industrial district whose warehouses are gradually being converted for loft-like residences. "In the distance is a school, and behind that are [housing] project towers. The Verizon parking-lot fence is barbed and brutal-looking. East Germany style." And yet, in his room, Lopatin makes music that sounds lush, wild, and immersive. We asked him how.
Every time I've seen you play, you're using a [Roland] Juno-60. Is that your bedrock?
It was my dad's. He bought it in 1983, when I was one year old. He bought the Juno because he couldn't afford the Yamaha DX-7, which was like the pop synth at the time.
And you just inherited it at some point?
Yeah, I really loved it as a child—it looked like a cockpit dashboard. I think it made me resent the Samick piano upstairs. Like, the Juno was in the dark, in a cold basement under a plastic sheet, and the Samick was upstairs and it signified MOM BEATDOWNS. She was my teacher, strict Russian-style, but she let me quit piano, so she wasn't really that strict. Anyway, I started using the Juno in high school. I was in a jam band with my best friends. We wanted to sound like Herbie Hancock Thrust.
What were you called?
OK, go on.
Yeah, I love the idea of sticking to one primary instrument.
It's your Lucille. [B.B. King's signature guitar.]
Yes. I think I can attest a lot of my happiness with my own music to the fact that I'm in a marriage with this one machine. For better or worse, I "get" it, and that closeness and history yields a lot of interesting results—but also, people get used to it and it starts sounding like OPN instead of a Juno, which I think is also kind of interesting.
Just that what used to be a "Juno" sound might now be an "OPN" sound to kids who are getting into this music? That transference of identity?
Yeah. A Marxist critique of OPN would be like, "He's grafting his image and personality (capitalism) onto the synth (product)."
Well, what's the OPN reading of OPN in that sense? I mean, do you believe in something more equitable or romantic when you think of your relationship with machines?
Oh, totally. Judy [the Juno] is my friend. She gives me awesome presents, and I give her back rubs.
Did you name her, or did your dad?
I did. He's a cool guy, but he's far more utilitarian than I about this shit. All his sounds emulated accordions and whatnot.
He didn't let the machine do what the machine does best—he didn't let it not be a real-world acoustic instrument.
I guess not, but it's pretty far out to use an analog synth to strive towards emulation of "the natural." Enter the uncanny valley.
Ha, right. Let's talk about computers, because I don't know what degree you use them to either in editing or sound synthesis.
Judy is used for lead voices. She's the narrator, and when she's not narrating, she's generating lots of environmental data, like the shape of the landscape. But it's just data, and I need to sculpt it to actually turn it into the landscape, which involves sampling and resampling and stretching shit out and imaging it. That's all done with a sound editor called GoldWave. But yeah, lots of slicing and dicing. In parallel to the editing, I'm arranging in a multitracker—Multiquence. Both things happen at the same time.
Do you use the computer to generate any of your sounds per se, or is it strictly a way for you to edit and arrange?
Not really. I use YouTube a lot. I use some other synths. But I don't use any sound-generating software.
I was going to ask about your samples, which you seem to use more and more in your live sets recently. When did you start incorporating that into OPN?
On this one track from Zones Without People called "Journey & Format North," I used YouTube sounds of trickling streams and frogs and crickets. I love the spacialization that comes out of matching certain types synthetic timbres with pastoral sounds. It's so fucking psychedelic for me it makes me want to cry.
It's complicated too by the fact that your natural sounds are being sampled for YouTube at some humble bitrate and then heavily compressed and then taken by you via another sampler that may or may not be at top resolution—by which I mean your natural sounds come to you pre-degraded.
Yeah, I mean I'm not out there with a DR680 getting all Nat Geo in the field. I just use a Roland SP-404.
She gives me awesome presents,
and I give her back rubs."
Do you think of YouTube as an instrument?
Well, I was, but post-working with Antony [Hegarty, on a piano-and-voice version of "Returnal"], I'm into the piano again. My mom and dad will be on the next record, you can bet that.
It's interesting because you have YouTube, this very abstract and impersonal thing, next to this synthesizer you've known since you were one year old. It's a divide.
Well, I feel like any analysis of our generation has to start with the idea that we're linkmasters between centralized and decentralized cultures. Before Prodigy, through Prodigy, through Navigator, and now, Tube. What that means is that we're primed to be cyber-anthropologists and make "discoveries," but we still remember a time when we'd go to Newbury Comics and check out the staff picks. It's such an important part of the psychological makeup of our generation. It's just my social and familial reality. It's really heavy for me, but when I step back and look at all of it, it makes perfect sense.
What's the delay box you use for your vocals, and what's your technique with it?
It's really straightforward. It's just a [Electro-Harmonix] Memory Man and some Boss pitch shifter that is 50% dry and 50% up a 5th. I love 5th intervals. Fifths equal Airwolf, but also Steve Reich. It's like a combo of Steve Reich and Airwolf. That really does it for me.
Haha. Well, one thing I always notice about your performances is that there's a lot of physical interaction with your stuff. Is that out of necessity, or is that a preference? I mean, to be able to touch something?
There's a lot of mixing, too. I just use a small Mackie mixer that acts like the mother brain. I have an effects chain that is applied to all the tracks and controlled individually. It's pretty standard—two loopers, one for shorter loops, one for longer ones. A Digitech JamMan and an [Akai E2] Headrush. It's stupid to have two. I just need one really good one, but I have what I have for now.
What are the biggest differences between your live and studio scenarios? I sometimes wonder if seeing OPN live is just seeing your bedroom studio onstage, all access.
Ha! It can be like that. OPN live is the studio starting point, but then there's the post-production staging zone, which is a big part of the sound. Part of my journey to becoming a better live musician is to find ways to stimulate those aspects, like using stereo imaging, or panning channels of raw stuff to create a sense of panorama.
Live, it's about improvising within set buckets and seeing how different loops and samples with different delay times and internal rhythms engage with another. It's like, "let's see what happens this time; I hope I don't mess up too badly," but it's not supposed to feel like a LIVE ROCK JAM.
So your actual equipment setup is that different?
OPN recordings are so heavily doctored, and arrangement with the multitracker is, like, the key to everything. Live, I'm locked out of that process completely.
Tell me about your studio space then.
Typical poor-guy style, everything's in my room. I have Alesis M1 and Active MK2 monitors, an HP PC tower audio interface, and then all the shit you see live, plus some rackmount synths, an old rackmount digital reverb and a few other polysynths. I'm no good with pre's and compressors—I'm pretty lo-fi.
Do you have any non-musical gear that is essential to you when you're working, or on tour?
You know, it's a typical alt-bro bedroom. J.G. Ballard books. Buckminster Fuller tape case.
Cool junk. I try to have a notepad and pen with me for taking notes—you know, manual Twitter. My Celtics hat grounds me, but other than that, not really. I'm less nostalgic than people think.
You said you had other synths—so you and Judy are in an open relationship?
Yeah. But we're more like life partners who have sex once in a while. I use other synths for color. I have this Akai AX-60 for super-harsh analog abstraction. It's also good for monosynth leads. The [Sequential Circuits] Prophet 5 is on its way out, but it's a very good bass and lead machine.
Do you ever think about switching up your gear?
Why mess with a good thing?
Are these trade secrets for you?
No, I don't care. Life is short. Nobody's Mozart. It'd be cool if I could inspire people to check out synthesizers. It's not like I'm a synth scientist or anything—I'm into the idea of using gear to model environments or feelings, almost like the impressionists. My relative lack of know-how when it comes to analog synthesis helps me because I don't approach gear with metaphors in mind. Like, if I run this patch into that patch and modulate the shit out of the LFO, blah blah blah—I just don't get it. I just play with stuff.