Deerhunter Under the Influence of Dennis Cooper
I’m very excited to write the first installment of what will be a new, recurring series I’m starting called Under the Influence. The idea is that I will discuss a writer or book that have been strongly influenced by a band or a piece of music, or a musician or album that has been strongly influenced by a writer or piece of writing. At least, that’s where this series stands as of now. Who knows? In the future it might be cool to look at a movie with bookish influences or a book with cinematic influences or a song with movie references or – or – or… Anyway, I’m malleable and prone to suggestion.
This first piece will discuss the influence of Dennis Cooper on Atlanta-based rock band Deerhunter, specifically during 2007-2008 release of long play Cryptograms and the Fluorescent Grey EP.
Deerhunter have always been about layering, about building towards something. Early on, they built on distorted guitar squall and delay pedals, washing their sound out with the ethos of the shoegazers but the energy of a hardcore band. Now they build their songs with drum machines and clean guitar tones, which I love almost as much. Their new album Fading Frontier, from what I’ve heard thus far, is gorgeous. But nonetheless, they are a band that begin with a kernel, a riff, a drumbeat, a rudimentary bass line, then build and build and build on it to a climax. The beginning of Cryptograms starts off with the wordless Intro, the band sounds like they are deep in a Georgia swamp, the water still thick on their guitars, droplets shaking off as they exit at twilight. The singer, Bradford Cox, moans some indiscernible call out to us over top of (or underneath?) the tape loops and guitar, and we are instantly pulled into the insular world of the album and, whether we know it or not, down into our own body.
This is the masterful achievement of Deerhunter and Dennis Cooper and where, in an abstract sense, the two connect. Both artists are acutely aware they are building or creating something that speaks its own language, something that pulls you deep out of our American ennui, our mutually agreed upon sense of reality and throws us headfirst into somewhere else that feels vaguely familiar, that we don’t often notice. By the time Intro is over we are stoned on the music, complete entranced by the loops and sonic textures that each time Bradford sings, “My greatest fear….” on track two, we fear ours might be the same. As the song gradually builds, the tension heightens and we feel our body begin to vibrate and are plucked out of our couch or desk or whatever our passive gesturing might be and instinctively find ourselves buried deep inside the music and our own bodies.
The band seems to be acutely aware of this buried, labyrinth-like quality of the music. In the last verse of the title track of the album, Bradford sings: my greatest fear/I can’t decode/a cryptogram/whose seeds were sown/my last few months/I irised out/my vision blurred/there was no sound.
A cryptogram is not only a great metaphor for the album and experience of this record, but it is also the most apparent earmark of the Dennis Cooper influence. The buried, labyrinth like-quality of the music, the lyrical preoccupation with the body and the explicitly visceral/physical qualities the two together produce, seem to me, to be where this influence reaches its strongest head.
Of course, Cox had vocally stated Cooper’s influence around this time, touting his name around in interviews and stating that the song Octet from the album was directly influenced by the book cover for Closer (lyrics: I was a corpse that spiraled out/I was a corpse that spiraled out into phantom hallways…)
The lyrics in Cryptograms companion-EP, Fluorescent Grey, (both are now sold together as a double vinyl) also bears this strong Cooper influence. Although a bit more straightforward musically, the lyrics still reflect a cryptic and buried narrative riddled with corporeal references: why do I dream so often of/his body when/ his body will decay/his flesh will be fluorescent grey?
This preoccupation with not only the body but decomposition, with the degenerative, juxtaposes with the music which constantly pushes us forward, constantly forces us down into our own bodies and to confront and become aware of them.
In 2010 Deerhunter put out Halcyon Digest. The album has a song entitled Helicopter that makes direct reference to a short story by Cooper involving a young, Russian male prostitute who, may or may not have been thrown out of a helicopter to his death. In the lyrics, Cox imagines the boys final thoughts before being tossed out of the flying machine.
Cox seems to use Cooper’s work almost as a blueprint; his influence can be seen not only in Deerhunter but in his solo project, Atlas Sound. Cooper can be found in the sonic blips, deep in the eye of the layered guitar storms conjured with loopers and delay pedals, and standing in the lyrical wings. Cooper himself was never shy about admitting or discussing musical influences on his prose, I’ve heard him reference Sonic Youth or the Jesus and Mary Chain and discuss trying to achieve that sort of dense and layered prose as they do with their instruments, so it’s really no surprise a band like Deerhunter cite someone like Cooper in return. It’s part of an ongoing tradition. What makes this pairing interesting is each artist’s interest in subversion, how each eschew tradition, whether in narrative or song structure, for more of a visceral tone or feeling.