STOLEN GOODS: Cox (second from left) watched his leaked work stream freely into the world and out of his control.
The first time I saw Deerhunter was two years ago at Emo’s in Austin, as part of SxSW. I should say that any memory that survives that fest’s four-day gauntlet of Tecate, Patron, BBQ, and subcultural oversaturation is beating impressive odds. But Deerhunter’s set wasn’t just memorable, it was haunting.
As guitars sprayed from delay pedals in squalls so loud you could feel your sunburn, Josh Fauver’s sturdy, insistent bass provided the only surface upon which to get your sea legs. Moses Archuleta’s drums moved from pulsing kicks to washes of crash. Front and center was Bradford Cox, howling into a mic halfway down his throat, draped in an oversized T-shirt scrawled with “Bad to the Bone” and raising his thin arms (he has Marfan syndrome) over his head like antennae pulling in some otherworldly signal. “This is our last show,” he muttered during a pause between songs. “I mean, look at me — I’m dying!”
To my left, a friend, enraptured, clutching the strap of his bag; to my right, another friend, horrified, feverishly texting her escape plan. Meanwhile, Cox was stepping out of his jeans and revealing a lovely floral sundress that had been stuffed down his pant legs. “I’ll see you at the hotel,” said the friend to my right.
Most of us stuck around, blown away by the thunder, Cox’s overprocessed baying, the mix of reckless abandon and studied control, and the similar disconnect between their unabashed spectacle and their effortlessly upheld mystique. It was an odd brand of exhibitionism that hid more than it showed. You could practically feel the Hilton’s Wi-Fi signal beckoning the mass of stunned bloggers back to its lobby to report to the world what they had just experienced.
“I’m not executing a skill when I’m playing music,” Cox says over the phone from Atlanta. As a kid who grew up in the ivy-strung suburb of Marietta, he largely found on his own — in avant-garde art books and Eno records borrowed from his local library — the music that would lead to Deerhunter (and his equally prolific solo project Atlas Sound). He began making “genius works of art” — as he tenderly calls them — at the age of 11 or 12, and his self-starting, bedroom-bound approach to his curious vision (a pop-infused amalgam of kraut, shoegaze, ambient, and doo-wop) has produced one of the most eagerly consumed catalogues in indie rock today.
Maybe a bit too eagerly. The lush pop and æthereal soundscapes of Deerhunter’s latest, Microcastle (Kranky), along with a small EP titled Weird Era Cont. and an entire Atlas Sound album titled Logos, were collectively leaked en masse this summer when overzealous bloghounds cracked his (unprotected) Mediafire folder. Cox’s experience watching this work stream freely into the world and out of his control left him somewhere between flattered and flipping out.
“I don’t resent my audience — I just resent people who steal shit,” he says. “I’m not Lars Ulrich yelling at kids for using Napster, but I’m not gonna take this shit sitting down: people shouldn’t leak other people’s albums.” The most unfortunate side effect of this type of digital pillaging is that artists like Cox, whose dud-to-diamond ratio tilts heavily toward the latter, might tighten their valves a bit, growing ever more tentative as more and more demand more and more.