Going Home With Oneohtrix Point Never
Daniel Lopatin made an album that’s as scary as puberty. His teenage self would be proud.
To get to Winthrop, Massachusetts, by car from New York City, you have to drive through a series of long highway tunnels. If it happens to be pouring rain, like it is the early October morning that I make the trek, coasting through these artificially lit passageways can be a rather surreal experience, offering a brief, silent reprieve from the storm’s dull drone. In a way, it feels like the perfect setting to listen to Garden of Delete, the new album by digital composer Daniel Lopatin, who releases music as Oneohtrix Point Never. The record, a meticulous collage of mutilated samples and computer-generated voices, careens between uncanny familiarity and total alienness. And on this particular day, playing through an archaic iPod radio transmitter that keeps cutting out, that combination sounds almost maliciously disorienting. For the last several miles of the drive—music pulsing, rain pounding—I feel like I’m inside someone else’s dream.
By the time I arrive, the rain has almost stopped. I find Daniel Lopatin hunched over on Winthrop Beach, his hands crammed into the pockets of a baggy beige parka. The bearded, broad-framed 33-year-old is visibly damp, but he’s also grinning. “Those are the Five Sisters,” he says, pointing to a row of wave breakers 100 yards from shore, carefully positioned to protect beachfront property from brutal sea swells. The structures are calming to look at, and Lopatin sounds proud when he tells me about them. Although he currently lives in Brooklyn, Lopatin is really from right here, a blue-collar beach town barely outside Boston. He lived nearby, in a white house with green trim, until 1994—the year he turned 12.
Before this trip, I knew that Garden of Delete—Lopatin’s seventh full-length as Oneohtrix Point Never, and second for British electronic label Warp—was thematically connected to the vague concept of “puberty.” I also knew that he was partially inspired by the harsh edges of ’90s alternative rock from his eight-date stint as the opener on Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden’s joint tour last summer. So we agreed it’d be nice to meet here for this story, where Lopatin spent his childhood years—a time when misanthropic guitar music was more important than the internet, and just before the chemical jolt of adolescence changed everything for him. “I have a magical association with this place, but few actual memories,” Lopatin says. Behind him, the sky and ocean turn the same sinister shade of gray. “I don’t really consider myself to be a nostalgic person, but this town—it does it for me.”
Lopatin is the youngest son of two Russian immigrants. His father was a full-time hardware engineer and part-time bar musician, and his mom was a programmer and piano teacher. Since they both worked long hours to make ends meet, Lopatin spent most of his early years bumming around the senior citizen housing community where his grandparents lived, which is a short drive—or BMX bike ride—from the town beach. “This is gonna be a depressing place,” Lopatin warns as we pull into the complex. He’s not wrong: it’s a cramped network of small apartments with even smaller yards, linked by loopy little half-roads. “I used to frolic around here like a little weirdo,” he says when we stop near apartment #8, his grandparents’ old unit. There’s a bike in a deserted cul-de-sac and droopy flowers growing in a window box. “I rolled down that hill once,” Lopatin says, pointing to a grassy plot behind a chain-link fence. “When you’re a kid, you just want to roll down something. You don’t even stop to think that there might be rocks that are gonna stab you.”
You might not guess it from the cryptic, somewhat irreverent public presence he has maintained as Oneohtrix Point Never, but Lopatin is a pretty cheery dude. Today, his buoyancy might have something to do with our deep dive into a few of his most carefree days. “Before puberty, it seems like I was more or less smiling a lot,” he tells me. “I was really outgoing and wanted to have a happy life.” With his parents off working, he spent a lot of time around his older sister, Alla, before she split for college when he was 10. “She had this shrine to all her favorite rock bands, made from pictures she had cut out from SPIN and Rolling Stone,” he says. She listened to Primus religiously and started a Faith No More cover band with a few of her friends. “That was the vibe of this town in the early ’90s,” Lopatin says, “like, being way into Les Claypool’s chops and stuff.”
In middle school, after getting rejected from his pals’ grunge band for not knowing how to hold a bass guitar, Lopatin would discover “geekier music,” including his father’s old jazz fusion cassette tapes. “I was a failed grunge kid who was too nerdy to totally get down with rock,” he admits. He hoarded esoteric sounds in those lonely early teen years the way other kids collected baseball cards, a habit that more than likely informed the abstract, amorphous instrumentals that Oneohtrix Point Never is best known for producing. But for the tracks on Garden of Delete, which are some of his most straight-up song-like, Lopatin digs into the arena-sized hard rock and nu metal that peripherally soundtracked his youth—the same intrinsically cathartic guitar music his sister would blast; the same songs his middle-school peers would listen to on their Discmans. “I was trying to figure out what kind of music I liked at the precise moment my body was going through this complete evolutionary shock,” Lopatin explains. “A lot of the time it was just influenced by what other people liked. I was thinking about that weird sense of myself that was so vulnerable; nothing was really stable.”
That juvenile instability, and the rock aesthetics Lopatin associates with it, manifest on Garden of Delete in various ways. The first single, “I Bite Through It,” features passages of rapid-fire, neck-breaking thrash. Lopatin says the funeral-paced “Animals” was his attempt at penning a grunge-era “heroin jam,” and the finished product, though completely deranged, is probably the closest thing to a conventionally structured pop artifact that he has ever released. The vocaloid hook, delivered amidst staggered synth arpeggios, is both scary and sad: We sit on the side and watch the animals/ I try not to laugh ’cause I know it’s the end of us. “They’re the most nihilistic lyrics ever,” Lopatin tells me. “Just the idea of laughing at caged animals, cracking up because everything’s so fucking sad.” Then there’s “Sticky Drama,” a polyrhythmic earworm named after a vicious, now-inactive gossip website that was run by a morally bankrupt pornographer. Lopatin says it’s technically about the shock of ejaculating for the first time, but it’s written more like an absurd love song (Sticky drama is the girl for me/ She’s so sticky from the memories), a sort of self-aware version of the thinly veiled innuendos that tend to populate mainstream rock songs. Lopatin is 33 years old, is happily in a committed, long-term relationship, and has a reputation for mostly straight-faced, left-of-center electronic music. Now, for some reason, he’s making demented pop songs about masturbation.
Although Boston’s only a 20-minute drive away, 15 if you book it, Winthrop feels like its own little world. Downtown is a cluster of unflashy businesses, few of which appear to be thriving: Italian bakeries, package stores, a freakishly large number of hair salons. “This is where I did all my wheeling and dealing,” Lopatin says, laughing, as he leads me along the mostly deserted brick sidewalks. There’s hardly any recognizable chain stores, which is sort of disorienting. The town hall seems to be under construction. “Total Robert Zemeckis vibes,” Lopatin says as we pass it, a reference to the filmmaker responsible for the fake small town from Back to the Future with a broken clock tower at its center. Walking around, it occasionally feels more like a carefully constructed simulation of a quaint New England suburb than the real deal, and with the exception of a few boarded-up shops—like the video rental store Lopatin used to frequent—Winthrop looks almost identical to the fading version that exists in his memory. “This town is stuck between being really beautiful and really wretched,” Lopatin tells me. “It doesn’t, like, accept change.”
Lopatin chose Winthrop as the official hometown for Kaoss Edge, the made-up “cybergrunge” band that he claims as a recent influence. “I created this shitty alternate universe that overlaps with my own,” he says. “It’s something you do when you’re in, like, 6th grade. I sound like an idiot when I talk about it.” According to the fictional backstory Lopatin unveiled via blog posts and tweets and a densely coded PDF in the final weeks of summer 2015, Kaoss Edge’s lead singer, Flow Kranium, hurled himself off the reed-covered cliffs at the end of Golden Drive, the street Lopatin’s grandparents used to live on. On September 2nd, two weeks after Lopatin announced Garden of Delete, Kaoss Edge tweeted: “GLAD TO BE BACK IN THE ZIT GEIST JUST WISH @FlowKranium was here to see this.”
At the time of this writing, Kaoss Edge has 1,955 real-life Twitter followers, but their biggest fan is still a 13-year-old alien named Ezra, another one of Lopatin’s inventions. According to Ezra’s blogspot—which is crammed with amateur music journalism, including a back-dated review of Oneothrix Point Never’s 2013 album, R Plus Seven, which he describes as “just a little too artsy”—he has a dog named Void and drinks a discontinued soft drink called Krisis, which I imagine is something like the notoriously banned soda Surge. “His planet sends him to Earth and he has to learn to be a teenager,” Lopatin explains. “He’s basically a composite picture of things that he gleans from other teenagers, but it doesn’t really add up. He’s grotesque in that way, a combination of clichés and stereotypes. But there’s also things about him that are directly pertinent to my life.”
Lopatin came up with Ezra and the whole convoluted Kaoss Edge universe after he finished Garden of Delete in late June 2015 and realized he had months before its November release. But there’s something deeper and more self-reflective fueling the project than just boredom. Ezra is this totally depressive character; he can’t touch anyone, or else he makes them enter some sort of gnarly regressive puberty that eventually kills them. Puberty made Lopatin feel somewhat tragic, too. “I was looking through my old stuff this morning, and I wrote this diary entry and it was like, ‘I am the King of Almost,’” he says. “It was totally about liking a girl and hoping she’d like me back or something, and how it almost works out all the time. I was perpetually this B-minus kid vacillating between eagerness and depression. I wasn’t a bad kid, and I definitely wasn’t aggressive, but I was a sad kid.”
Ezra can pretty easily be read as a comic manifestation of Lopatin’s adolescent identity, a way for someone who’s admittedly “not naturally predisposed to memoir” to reveal small pieces of his inner life. “I knew my whole life that I had to make ends meet or I would be ashamed of myself,” he says. “I had a lot of pressure from my parents. So that’s where my vision comes from. It’s not to be a great artist, it’s always to be like, ‘Dad, look, I didn’t let you down.’” In Ezra, Lopatin has personified the voice inside his head that keeps him from half-assing anything, the voice that calls him out when he’s being too indulgent. “[Garden of Delete] is basically me trying to live up to Ezra’s standards for what’s real,” he explains. “Every record I make, I think: Am I doing something worthwhile? Is this music that I would obsess over if it wasn’t mine? Because if not, I should hang it up. This is a schizophrenic way of keeping me striving toward that.”
“Every record I make, I think: Am I doing something worthwhile? Is this music that I would obsess over if it wasn’t mine? Because if not, I should hang it up.”
Across seven albums under the Oneohtrix Point Never umbrella, Lopatin has explored sounds ranging from droning ambience to vaporwave fuckery. He released one full-length and two 12-inches of glistening electro-pop with Joel Ford, as Ford & Lopatin. He’s scored two feature-length films, including the The Bling Ring, which was directed by Sofia Coppola and debuted at Cannes in 2013. But there’s an exciting, almost childlike energy buzzing around Garden of Delete that’s difficult to put my finger on. Its imaginary Behind the Music backstory seems like the product of a fully grown human who wants to remind themselves of the power of make-believe.
The following afternoon, Lopatin and I stop at a barbecue restaurant in Winthrop. We sit by the window, looking out on an intersection, when a bunch of tweens start to appear in droves, likely cutting through town after middle school let out. Most are in groups of three or four: boys in bulky sports apparel, giggling girls with carefully straightened hair. We spot one girl with DIY-dyed pink hair, ripped jeans with patches, and heavy black eye makeup—a completely faithful take on the classic mall-goth aesthetic. She’s walking by herself. “In a small town, being different like that is not fun,” Lopatin says when she walks past. “It’s like—to quote Rush—conform or be cast out.” Lopatin orders a beer. It comes in a Boston Celtics-branded pint glass, and he takes a picture with his iPhone. On the restaurant’s radio, “Sweet Child of Mine” starts playing faintly. “I’m having this weird thing,” Lopatin tells me between sips. “I don’t want to leave Winthrop.”
A few days after the trip, I visit Lopatin’s basement studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. When I arrive, he’s busy prepping for his upcoming live sets, drawing up preliminary digital sketches of how the new songs will translate on stage. Even though all of the singing on the record was either computer-generated or sampled, he’s leaving space for vocals, marking his first attempt to sing live since he was writing “fake Strokes songs” in his dorm room at Hampshire, a liberal college in Western Mass. Though plainly decorated, the square-shaped studio is littered with unmistakable Lopatin touches: a black skull mask above the widescreen monitor, horror novels stacked by the door, a fossilized insect paperweight on the desk. He keeps the overhead lights low and changes the colored backlight to match his mood. “Once the [overhead] lights come on, it feels like you’re in a room that has walls,” Lopatin explains as he cycles through the rainbow of options, the room’s energy shifting slightly with each new color. “But this feels a little bit more mystical. It’s usually this weird kind of ’90s blue.”
After finding the studio through his manager in January of 2015, Lopatin spent the next several months grinding on Garden of Delete for 10, 12, 14 hours a day. “I previously had this all in my apartment,” he says of the gear surrounding us. “R Plus Seven had this weird air of domesticity about it because I’d just roll out of bed and work. My girlfriend would be there, and I’d want to impress her. It’s a very polite record, even though it’s insane.” The new album’s hormonal, subconscious-baring mood is more aligned with the hypnotically lit basement cave it was conceived in, where typically defined boundaries—day and night, work and pleasure, fact and fiction—don’t really seem to exist. “This album has so much personality,” Lopatin says. “I really got into my time here, on my own, letting all of my deeply buried psychic inclinations come out.”
For the next couple of hours, Lopatin rummages through his hard drive, pulling up early iterations of Garden of Delete tracks, plus some half-baked ideas that were scrapped, like a demo of a romantic-sounding “slowgaze” track he tried to sell to the huge-voiced South London singer Katy B, and an “experiment in different aggressive textures” titled “Maze Wars.” We occasionally pause to watch YouTube clips of brutal Nightmare on Elm Street kills, listen to déjà vu-inducing trance songs from the early-’00s, or admire the explosive cover art of a PlayStation game called Twisted Metal 2. “There’s usually a lot of tabs open,” Lopatin explains. “Weird searches going, YouTube—that’s like another instrument.”
Later, he pulls up a PDF of the Garden of Delete CD booklet, which is laid out like some insane Tower Records bargain-bin find: an old photo of Lopatin with shaggy hair, a chicken-scratch tracklist, a heavily doctored Associated Press image of riots in Ukraine, an unsolvable maze. “It’s like rave, it’s like Radiohead, and then it’s like Halloween anarchy,” he says of the design, which he worked on with the artist Andrew Strasser. “None of these things seemingly belong together, but they also do in a way.” Like the songs on Garden of Delete, the accompanying imagery jumbles the real with the hyperreal. The effect of both is simultaneously stimulating and numbing, sensual but also inhuman. In the lyrics section of the booklet, Lopatin points out a few seemingly arbitrary number sequences, meant to represent the patches of garbled gibberish heard on “Sticky Drama” and “Freaky Eyes.” But the numbers aren’t entirely random: they’re all real telephone numbers from Winthrop.
Garden of Delete is impressively realized, which is probably why Lopatin has been so uncharacteristically playful and face-forward this time around: in interviews, on the internet, throughout the multiple-day reporting of this story. “Writing the album, there weren’t particularly fun thoughts in my head,” Lopatin says. “Maybe it was a very strange consequence of making a dark record, but I feel a lot more secure in what I want to say with it, how I want to say it, how I want to present it, how simple or complex I want things to be.” I ask if that feeling of security extends outside of music, and Lopatin laughs. “I’m still learning how to be an adult. In some ways I feel more confident. I know my way around airports. That’s the one thing I’ll be able to teach my children.”
It’s easy to think that a lot of Lopatin’s decisions on Garden of Delete—catchy melodies, some conventional arrangements, the inclusion of a lyric booklet—are indicative of a bid for a new kind of fame, proof that he’s trying to reach people existing far outside of experimental music circles. But Garden of Delete is also abrasive and terrifying, wrought with aggressively melancholic passages that maybe only Lopatin—or an actual pimple-faced teenager—will ever truly understand. Lopatin thinks he’s not cut out for rock-star superstardom, which is maybe why he writes pop songs only to mangle them. “I wish I could tell you that I’m heading toward some event horizon, because I want it so bad,” Lopatin says. “But I’m probably just too fucking weird.” Garden of Delete is definitely weird, but it’s also bold. Though thematically and sonically tied to Lopatin’s foggy past, the effect is largely unsentimental. It captures the rage and the shame and anxiety of growing up—all the messy trauma of puberty—and, with a wink, makes it normal. It’s like staring the insecure 13-year-old alien inside of you straight in the eye, or going back to your old town and realizing the only thing that’s changed is you.
“I wish I could tell you that I’m heading toward some event horizon, because I want it so bad. But I’m probably just too fucking weird.”
Before I leave the studio, I ask Lopatin why—despite a million clues suggesting otherwise, including the stack of vintage Terminator 2 movie trading cards on his desk—he doesn’t consider himself to be a nostalgic person. “Being excited about stuff that already happened, I’m always a little bit humiliated,” he says. “Half the time for me, I reassess something and I’m like, ‘Oh, that actually sucked.’ The past is just materials that I can use. They’re not things that I necessarily long for. I’m not a person who has very clear memories of the past. Going to Winthrop is like a steroid injection for my brain that makes my memories work a little bit. It’s the most potent thing in my life, those weird little memories. I got a real thrill out of being at those outlets at the end of Bartlett Street, or whatever.”
He’s talking about our last day in Winthrop, when I drove around the slightly upscale streets closest to the ocean. Lopatin, riding shotgun, was determined to find a big white house that he admired as a kid, his first memory of an honest-to-god “mansion.” We never found it—maybe it doesn’t even exist—but we did run into an embankment on the edge of the water, a weird lookout nestled between two big houses, just across the harbor from Logan International Airport. “Growing up, I didn’t ever know how close the airport was,” Lopatin told me, as we sat for a while in the same spot where he’d daydreamed years ago, on a stone staircase that descended straight into the Atlantic. Part of me wished we could go back in time and tell kid-aged Lopatin that everything was going to be OK, that he was going to grow up to be Oneohtrix Point Never, an artist who releases music that people all over the world obsess over. “I can’t tell you how many times I was down in these little outlets, yet I never conceptualized that the planes were taking off right there, on a runway that you can pretty much swim to.” Green seawater lapped the stairs underneath us. “I always thought the planes were just up in the sky.”