Glorious bastards

Deerhunter's path from divisive buzz band to indie royalty
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY  |  September 2, 2009

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Photo: Barry Klipp
NOT HIDING Deerhunter

Few bands could serve as a better case study on the influence of Internet hype on mainstream media and popular acceptance than Deerhunter. Before the band "broke" in early 2007, to a glowing Pitchfork review of their album Cryptograms (released, like all of their albums, on Kranky) praising their "mercilessly corrupted" take on pop music, the Atlanta four-piece were virtual unknowns nationally. Two and a half years later, as Deerhunter head for a September 10 show at Bowdoin College, the band have evolved from controversial noisemakers (on record and off) and matured into one of indie rock's most influential contemporary bands, mimicked by a seemingly endless train of trashy, nihilistic garage-punks.

Things were different in a small club in 2007, though. Cox's mere presence elicited sharp reactions: He has Marfan syndrome, a genetic tissue disorder that causes thin, long limbs and fingers. His frame is skeletal and his arms are dotted with what look like pockmarks — many mistook him for a drug addict. Not self-conscious about his condition, Cox amplified it by wearing sleeveless shirts or (inspired by Kurt Cobain) dresses to concerts. He was also known — thanks to breathless, near-daily blog reports — to smear his face with fake blood and sing with the mic almost entirely in his mouth. These postures, confrontational to those already put off by the group's harsh, abstract live shows, led to then-notorious walkouts and heckling.

Moreover, his band's style wasn't yet in vogue: labeled a psych-rock band early on thanks to their thick ambient squall of electric guitars, Deerhunter's songs are dreamy and drifting, often lacking a hook or chorus. (They're more shoegaze and Sonic Youth than anything else.) Cox's lyrics, certainly inspired by his disease and self-proclaimed outsider status, counter stories of sex and teenage melodrama with constant reminders of the body's ultimate death and decay. The band's songs conflate the two themes: their haze can morph quickly from a nostalgic swirl to a loud, punishing assault. Discussing a typically "savage" show in April 2007, Kelefa Sanneh wrote of the band in the New York Times: "If they had seen the industry-heavy room get a little roomier during their set, they probably would have been amused. . . . In an earlier era, a weird, intense band like Deerhunter might well have remained a secret. Not these days."

On top of this, Cox was, for a while, second only to Kanye West in his bloggy raconteurism, prolifically discussing his bowel movements and writing meta-critical treatises on how he was discussed by the media or by concertgoers. These posts fed the publicity machine, but as what Sanneh calls the "microcycles" of hype and counter-hype died down, the band transitioned into focusing on a prolific and strikingly consistent output.

Fluorescent Grey, an EP released just months after Cryptograms, is an immediate and altogether startling third act to that double-sided album, propulsive enough to make skeptics reconsider the often-meandering band. And both Cox and guitarist Lockett Pundt have put out acclaimed work under solo monikers where they honed influences of shoegaze and Motown under the names Atlas Sound and Lotus Plaza, respectively. (Cox regularly debuts new Atlas Sound tracks on his blog.)

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