Gathered on Carlos Giffoni's No Fun label as Rifts, and reissued as a deluxe five-piece LP last year, Lopatin's early work as Oneohtrix Point Never was among the finest to emerge from the US synth underground in the late '00s. But since then, a desire to escape "lowest common denominator" analyses of his music has led him to seek out pastures new—first with 2011's Replica, and then with a string of intriguing projects, including a split EP with Rene Hell, an LP with Tim Hecker, and Reliquary House, an audiovisual project with Nate Boyce,.
R Plus Seven is the latest stage in this metamorphosis, and its release on Warp makes it Lopatin's most visible work to date. But rather than consolidate his sound into its most marketable elements, he has radically overhauled it. Gone are the plangent tones of his beloved Juno 60 synth, and the playful sample mosaics of Replica. Instead, R Plus Seven is, in his words, an "old-fashioned" record. The grandiose choirs and organs, digi-saxophones and double basses may seem gauche at first, but, in the best Oneohtrix tradition, repeat listens reveal an undertow of devastating sincerity.
R Plus Seven sounds very rigorously composed—more so than your early work, which felt quite improvisatory. Did you take a very different approach with this record?
I've made vertically dense music in the past, and I more or less decided to do a record where I would flip that axis over this way [horizontally] and just excavate. So now I have a plane—a horizontal plane with very particular musical objects, in almost like a tableaux format. The objects themselves are very simple, but what they are doing, for me anyway, has an opportunity to be very complex. Also, that created more interesting opportunities for rhythm and micro-placement of things, and working with MIDI a lot.
The other thing that happened here: with Replica I just followed the through-line of samples that I intuitively thought were lurid or sensual for whatever reason, and they would suggest melodies. So I didn't really have to think—I'd arrange these things in such a manner, and just stack around them. This record is much more old-fashioned in a way. Now I sit at a piano and think, "Well, what do I have to say?" Then there's this translation firewall between my thought and my expression of it, because I'm not a skilled piano player. So I have to deal with that.
Are there no samples on the record at all—it's all software patches and MIDI?
There are, but they kind of happened in reaction to structures created by writing little songs and then microscopically zooming in and moving notes around or changing their characteristics. Or using the MIDI from a motif for a song, and then throwing in procedural content to be triggered by that MIDI. So an example might be: I created all these scripts with text, and then chromatically spread them on a keyboard. And then used MIDI that I already had from the song to randomly trigger whatever happened to be sitting on [the keyboard].
When you say scripts, do you mean spoken word?
Spoken word, yes. Recordings of text-to-speech programmes performing these scripts that I had created by cobbling together stuff from interactive fiction manuals, walkthroughs, a Bruno Latour PDF that I'd found, a Wikipedia entry on George Perec's Life A User's Manual—whatever was happening at the time. Often what ended up on the record was so removed from the original compiling process that it's almost like, "Why the fuck did I do all that?" But it's for that one moment when this woman says "cliché" before the next section or whatever. It was really cool—I almost wish I'd worked more with those texts. But I think there'll be time for that.
Presumably those strategies are a way of surprising yourself, of discovering something in your material that you wouldn't have found otherwise?
Yeah. I'm kind of a split the difference guy with all this stuff. I really admire purely experimental, purely procedural work. But that's not me, for a number of reasons. But I'm also not like Bob Dylan or whatever, sitting there being like, this is my...
Heart and soul?
Yeah, exactly. So some kind of smash and grab combination of those two things feels honest to me, feels closer to who I am. And if I'm honest about it then I'm pretty informal about both aspects of it.
The sounds that you used on the record—MIDI sounds, choirs, strings and so forth. What was your thinking behind using that sound palette?
I like to be manipulated by the sounds I'm using, and then struggle to find some sort of commonality with those things—some kind of incongruous relationship with those things. I want to be overtaken by a thing that's draconian in what it wants you to feel. When I play a pipe organ or have this like Hollywood choir at my disposal, it's going to tap into some kind of cliché matrix of ideas in my mind, and allow me to wrestle with it. So I was like, "Fuck it, it's so easy and too comfortable to do this Juno shit, because I'm just like fucking Merlin with it at this point. It's just old hat. I don't want to be fucking Merlin—I want to be Merlined."
Is this the first record of yours with no Juno at all?
Yeah, even Replica had a bit.
Whereas the Juno-led, new age-y sound is now widely accepted as beautiful, this kind of MIDI palette is really on the frontier of taste. Many listeners may instinctually react to it with disgust. Where you aware of that risk?
Yeah. I like the idea of crass things. But it's not a fucking wink at the audience; it's more like, "Let's deal with characterising our struggle with crass things." If I stopped at simply the satire implied by a certain preset or whatever, personally I'd find it very unsatisfying. Instead it's like, "OK, here's this deeply historicised material. Let's see where it bends and where it breaks. Let's see if it wins, or I win. Let's characterise that fight."
When making the record were you conscious of similarities with James Ferraro's Far Side Virtual, and what's been called vaporwave—people using these glossier textures in a way that is perhaps a commentary or a critique?
I haven't read all the criticism of that stuff so I hesitate to spout off about it. But it wasn't really a factor when I was making it. I really don't know, to be honest—it's something I'd have to think about, and revisit Far Side—which I haven't spent a lot of time with.
The title of the record: it's the fourth in a row now that starts with an "r".
The simple explanation is that it truly was a coincidence for the first few albums. And then Replica—I was so upset because I really wanted to call it Replica, yet it was becoming this thing. And I'm very aware of Conrad Schnitzler. So Replica was me accepting my fate. And R Plus Seven is the grand finale to this very stupid trick. So we'll be moving on now [laughs].
Shit, I can't remember. I think I was just generally in a fucking horrible place at the time of Replica. Terribly anxious all the time.
Was that because of professional pressures?
Yeah, yeah just... a lot of traffic. And then I had an idea. I was like, "You know what, 30-second long commercials, I can scrub through a lot of audio in 30 seconds, there's a lot of variety." Once I had that as an informal structure I could just run with it so hard. Two weeks later it was done, and it felt good. I quite like how much of a break it was from other things.
It probably was somewhat of an antagonistic break because—it's so small, it's so petty—but at the time I was probably thinking, "I'm starting to play myself out with these Juno loops—it's done." And those old recordings, they were very present, they were often one take, stereo one-track recordings of a jam that was cropped to the best part, or occasionally crossfaded between three interesting things. It was just like, this is a moment; it had this action vibe to it. Then at some point I'm doing that, but purposefully, and I was like, "This is just... lame." By Replica I was thinking, "Let's start shifting into a different way of thinking." I was yearning to edit, you know?
Were you aware also of the critical scaffolding that people had erected around your earlier output? The poignant retro-futurism angle, the comparisons to kosmische—was that something you wanted to get away from?
Yeah. It just felt like the lowest common denominator angle on it, and the thing that would most easily graft over to people who might not know what it was but wanted to make some kind of inroad. And I was like, "Really? That's what all of this gets shrunken down into?" Even in a community that really has the time and focus and energy to consider things, it seems that in music especially there's this jargon that gets duplicated. And it was very upsetting to me. Not all of it was wrong, and aspects of it were actually quite enlightening, to me anyway. Like, "Oh, maybe I am just this person on a timeline of events that's dealing with history in this specific way." And it was comforting. But also it reached some sort of threshold that I was not willing to cross.
I wanted to talk about the two records that you put out in between Replica and the new one—the Rene Hell split and the Hecker collaboration. To me, now, they seem kind of transitional, as if you were questing towards what this record is. Would you agree?
Yeah. The Rene Hell split, especially, was just an opportunity to share stuff from a bigger project. I hardly even considered that anyone would think of it as music, because it wasn't [laughs]. It was kind of like showing somebody your tools. Like, "OK, I've been working with Nate Boyce [on Reliquary House], here's things that were more or less developed from this performance." NNA were kind enough to entertain my whims.
Speaking of Reliquary House, how did you find the experience of working in a fine art context?
It leaves me with more questions than answers. I think that music has a very strange relationship with fine arts, a very contentious one. And I think that the two camps are yearning to understand each other but are in that early part of a relationship that is just filled with awkwardness. I'm very lucky that I have Nate, because he is just a real motherfucker. He's sharp and he's really intense. He brings a discipline to things that I don't find a lot in my other projects. I think there's things to accomplish in music that have already been accomplished in the visual arts and prose. There's knives that have been put in the heart of mediums—the James Joyce effect—that have not been put into music. And I hope that before I go I can try to touch at some of the things that interest me about that. But to me it's quite serious and it's quite challenging.
I've often thought that, as much as I love the album format, it's one of those conventions that perhaps needs a knife stuck in it.
Can you see yourself in the future, as with the Rene Hell split, putting out more works in progress, bits and pieces, rather than focussing on albums?
I would like to put a knife in things—on my own terms—and I definitely don't claim to represent any macro-level blade. But I do think that music is weirdly boring. I'm not done with that format, but I would love to do some crazy shit with objects, for sure. But I'm gonna do them on my own, with my own money, and it's scary. Until I have my own space and resources it's very difficult.
The US underground seems mostly oriented towards working with dance forms at the moment, something you've reflected by signing people like Slava and Huerco S. to Software. I wondered if you found that approach inspiring, and if you'd thought about trying it out yourself?
Me? No. I know what bar to walk into. It's like a Western: you don't want to raise any eyebrows when you roll into town. I think I could make corny Ibiza music under some kind of pseudonym and sell it commercially to Vodafone. I know exactly how to do that in Ableton. But I'll let my talented roster of Software artists do their thing. I think what I love about the bands that we sign is that I relate to them but they're wonderfully different from me. Maybe it's that I fetishize what I can't access. The magic of that is so intoxicating.