It feels bizarre — surreal, even — to consider that A. G. Cook might have a ‘debut album’. The producer and songwriter, best known as a co-founder of the influential and, at one point in time, internet-infamous art collective PC Music, has had such a significant hand in shaping the past few years’ most strange and exciting pop music that it almost feels like he should be beyond the traditional metrics and milestones used by artists. As a producer for artists like Hannah Diamond and Charli XCX, he has written a handful of classic, jaw-dropping pop tracks; as an influence on artists like 100 gecs, he has inadvertently changed culture profoundly, providing the aesthetic blueprint for a band currently defining the Gen Z musical palette.
Still, it’s a boon that Apple, Cook’s official debut after years of releasing exciting, strange solo singles, exists. A tight, strangely structured collection of pop songs — that is, Cook’s own version of pop songs, the version that often sounds like it was cooked up in the deformed pink and green house in the Cat In The Hat film — Apple gives Cook space to chew on ideas that have excited him his whole career. Opening with Cook singing over acoustic guitar and often featuring his own voice melting seamlessly into those of his collaborators, Apple is striking and strange, a meditation on notions of authenticity and auteurism from an artist who, from the beginning, has subverted those concepts without even really trying.
Speaking over Zoom one Tuesday evening from Montana, where he’s waiting out the pandemic with his girlfriend and collaborator, musician Alaska Reid, Cook — exuberant and quick-talking, eloquent and considerate with the way he considers his own career and pop as a whole — seems unfazed by this new, more visible phase of his life. “I've always had this experience as part of PC Music, where I had a sort of producer role, but everyone's producer role is also a bit of a performance role,” he says. Despite donning a shiny shirt and putting his face in the videos, Cook says, it’s still an extension of the lines he’s blurred in the past — moments when he would, say, stop a DJ set to perform a song on the piano. “Even when I'm doing something like “Oh Yeah,” that's really overt [performance,] it's still a bit like, ‘Oh, isn't that producer like, dancing now? What’s going on?’ That’s the tone and the personality that I want to evoke with it rather than it being like, ‘I've crossed the line. I'm never going back.’
The FADER: What was your upbringing like?
A. G. Cook: It was funny because it wasn't particularly musical, but both my parents are slightly avant garde architects. I was surrounded by books on it, and they did a lot of teaching and I was an only child, so I was always taken to all these lectures and exhibitions and funny meetings. Not just regular architectural stuff — borderline robotics, a building you could wear, neon green rooms and stuff like that. I was really heavily exposed to that kind of stuff, which I think was super formative. It set a really high bar for what was normal or day to day and what was considered art or anything like that.
I really only got into music as a late teenager from trying to socialize, play in bands with friends. I was a slightly more nerdy guy who was better at GarageBand or something. So I was like, 'Okay, I'll record this.' And it was kind of genreless as well, because I wasn't even coming to it from a particularly trendy music angle. I was just very into putting things together and visuals and stuff. That's how I suddenly realized I was actually really into music technology. I had quite a funny upbringing. It was very dense, all this stuff, that I then somehow applied to music, right at the end of my upbringing.
Your work has always touched on these ideas of digital worlds, concepts which are much more sinister now than they were even five or six years ago. How do you think the cultural conception of those spaces shapes how you see computer music now?
I think there's been a coming to terms with how commodified the internet is, as opposed to the early interpretation of it as a completely free universe where people can shape their own niche cultures. I think that still exists in a way. It’s hard to really take seriously that binary between dystopian and utopian. It's often the same aspects [of the internet] that trigger both of those things, and I think that's just very much part of human behavior. We can take any kind of advance as something that can also have all these negative effects as well as bringing people together.
I'm still quite optimistic in a sense — I've been really interested lately in communities like Discord. For some of the Apple rollout we have this thing called Apple Guild that's a Discord server. In the run up to that, for example, I was seeing Arca’s Discord server — her community there is so specific — the chat rooms have such specific functions and the music has such a tone. Around the same time, I was looking at that unofficial [or] semiofficial Oneohtrix Point Never Discord, and how that's a completely different vibe in terms of the images and functions that people are sharing. It’s interesting because it feels very different to the style of dialogue going on on Twitter, maybe even Instagram, where you've got these defined platforms where to get ahead you have to say something pretty nuts or controversial to then generate steam. On these Discord servers, even in the experience I've had lately with it, there’s a lot more ownership in terms of the community and what people are posting, and there's a lot more people trying to help each other out. Things can get very automatically dystopian, but there's probably a way of redefining it, of making tools slightly better, making the roles slightly more intentional. I think there is hope for [things like Discord] being a slightly more utopian version of digital culture because there's no real turning back. It's not like we can just complain about it.
When you started the label, did you have any idea of how you yourself wanted to be seen beyond the music?
I was aware of how formal the alias A. G. Cook was. I always liked that it sounded like a writing credit or something, when I had other friends who had slightly flashier names. I released my own stuff on PC, in between pieces fairly early on, but I sort of knew that it wouldn't be a full artist project for a while, and that I really wanted to collaborate with people, figure out very particular sound worlds for them. Obviously some of my sound would come through or whatever, but I really wanted that to be my focus — a producer who would then occasionally break those rules, almost to highlight that it was such a producer project. Maybe I'd have a DJ set where I suddenly went to a piano and sung “Superstar” before it was released, and then got back to producing. I still definitely like it being a hybrid project, almost reminding people that anyone can record themselves, or that a bedroom thing and a professional pop music session are really similar.
There’s always been almost as much interest in the theory and cultural grounding of your music as much as like the actual music. How much are you actually interested in that discursive side of it all?
My goal, even talking to friends who make music that's similar in some ways, we really hope that the music does contain a lot of stuff or can speak for itself theoretically, in some way. I think that [theoretical] layer is really interesting and definitely a strong part of it, but my nightmare would be to post a track and then immediately follow it up with a paragraph about what I was trying to do in the track — that, for me, defeats the point. I think it actually strengthens the music that it's so provocative and there's so much loaded into the tracks and that it might make people discuss accelerationism or disruption or those kind of things. I think the main thing that I try to be aware of doing is to be quite transparent about what platform we're using, or what we're doing or you know. If we're doing — like we did back in the day, a collaboration with Red Bull — we're gonna not just hide it under the little banner, put the fridge on stage, we're going to be like, 'Okay, this is where music's at right now, it's sponsored by things like Red Bull. We have our own energy drink, by the way, but also I'm wearing a Red Bull motocross.’
I'd never want to do something that was conceptual and didn't have a music element. With QT [a performance art project conceptualised by Cook, SOPHIE, and artist Hayden Dunham, and released with XL Recordings] it was her song, “Hey QT,” that actually says the most about it, either lyrically or musically. I'm definitely interested in theoretical stuff — I love certain quite straightforward things like that book, Song Machine, about the LA pop factory. I remember a few of us were all kind of excited about that in a way, and my university course was literally called music computing, and was a very literal introduction to all those things. I remember reading a lot of different 20th century texts, especially ones on man versus machine and early computer music, and that kind of thing. It all actually made me just want to test stuff out in the real world, test any of my own ideas, less as theories, but more as like, ‘Okay, if I just make some of this music that I have as a response to this [concept], I think that will explain more, or be more interesting for me, than to like write a counter essay.
At the same time, I've been really interested in some of the stuff I've seen Holly Herndon talk about to do with interdependence, and where things are going with machine learning and media synthesis. I think that suits her work very well, to actually explain what something like Spawn is, or to talk about it. But I think something like PC Music, where it's really talking about pop music — not anti-pop music, but what pop isn't, as well — and talking about personalities, I think it's it's actually quite important to not lead with the theory, to actually just try to influence things with people's rollouts and their campaigns, their imagery and their shows. It’s felt stronger to me to do that kind of thing, rather than present it as something that's a little bit untouchable.
“Mass audience is really vital, and I wouldn’t want to replace streaming with a platform that doesn’t even interact with any kind of mainstream.” — A. G. Cook
You mention always wanting to be transparent about the platform. How do you feel about streaming’s position in that equation?
It’s definitely hard to justify the financial fallout of it. As someone who has used streaming to listen to stuff, I have discovered artists through it, and I'm also quite a big fan of anachronism — suddenly hopping from some Led Zeppelin track to some Happy Hardcore track, the fact that [streaming makes the disconnect] so tangible. I think, inevitably, some things will shift because it's not fully sustainable, and I don't expect it to be static.
It’s also made me feel uneasy — you do a whole [album rollout] and it just gets condensed or broken apart into playlists. Our response has been to do our own playlist that then has random stuff that you also find and download, or like trying to do a very weird playlist and then also trying to do album releases that interact with streaming, but then also hopefully transcend that a bit.
I think a lot of the criticism of streaming is not just valid, but really necessary. But I've also wondered about how [much] I use it too, and the idea of stepping back from that is funny as well. It's like a monster that's been created in some sense. I think it's been crazy that so many people are really getting into music and enjoying music through it too. I'd hate to just be like, ‘Oh, everything should be this other model that doesn't even involve the mainstream’. I think the idea of mass audience is really vital, and I wouldn't want to [replace streaming with] platforms that don't even interact with any kind of mainstream whatsoever, because I think that's as monolithic as it can be. I think [streaming has] actually proven to [make music] slightly more diverse than you'd think in terms of what songs randomly blow up and the direction of it, so I wouldn't patronize the notion of this sort of mass audience. I think that's been surprising in itself. In a weird way, it's given a lot of personality to the mainstream as opposed to chart music before it — that kind of homogenized Top 40. I don’t know, it’s definitely a battleground. I think some of the same criticisms that would apply to streaming would also apply to the old Top 40 and old radio and all those things. All that stuff shapes music so much, and not always in a terrible way. I think inevitably, it'll be disrupted more.
The use of vocals on Apple is fascinating, the way your voice will blend so seamlessly into the voice of Caroline Polachek or Ö or Hannah Diamond without making a distinct point of it. Where did that element come from?
It's something I've always enjoyed doing — I've always recorded people around me and friends of mine and there will be fragments of people in other people's songs. For someone who's so into vocal effects, different voices singing the same thing is, like, the ultimate original vocal effect. I love the idea of it being used in these really fragmented, subtle ways, and I think it suited the lyrics sometimes [for the sentiment] to feel slightly pluralistic and strange. It’s just a really nice way of it being quite uncanny, where you feel sort of lost in a particular vocal sound and then it sort of reinforces another way and then maybe my backing vocals will be processed in a way that then reflects or echoes that other person's voice. So you get this really nice feedback loop going. The ultimate, inevitable version of vocal effects. That's kind of why I didn't want to have featured vocals on this — that's a fun thing to do in its own right, but it's not really the function I wanted to be highlighting with vocals on this.
Why do you want to reach that uncanny place?
The ambiguous and the uncanny is almost the most real space for a lot of things, especially with something as abstract as music. If I'm talking about the binary of electronic music versus acoustic music — well, it's all electronic-ish, because it's all computerized. That uncanny recording of acoustic instruments that could then [sound] electronic [—Ed. Note: An example of this would be something like the piano in Arca's &&&&&, or the strings in Kate Bush's Hounds of Love—] that's actually a more real snapshot, I think, of where we're at with sound.
[A similar binary is] authenticity versus something being fake — I was always joking about people saying that Adele and Ed Sheeran are more real, more authentic, than, say, Katy Perry or Beyoncé. It’s all clearly just different types of branding, and actually the ambiguity that slips through this uncanniness — like, ‘Oh, well, that was actually maybe a bit of the real them that slipped through’ — that's actually the commonality of so many artists’ projects. You sometimes don't know: is it a real breakdown that someone's going through? Or is that still part of their brand and how that's documented? I think the way that things are presented and documented, that slight ambiguity or uncanniness is actually just getting closer to an approximation of what’s true or genuine. On a similar level too, they just actually sound musically more interesting to me, those hiccups, those moments where something either is authentic or not, or electronic or acoustic, and you don’t know which. [When] people are using computers, I think that's what inevitably happens, and what sounds really nice.