Music

Mapping the Subconscious

The Secret World of Atlas Sound

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When I call Bradford Cox at his home in Atlanta, it's a full 15 minutes before we start talking about his first release as Atlas Sound. He's gracious and apologetic, but puts me on hold to seal the deal on a Korg microsynth he found on craigslist. When he gets back on the line, he tells me how he's compulsively purchasing instruments, even though he's "totally broke," but then his psychiatrist calls and I'm back on hold. Ten minutes pass and he returns, promising the interview won't be interrupted again—"unless my mom calls."

And so, unwittingly, Cox spills his guts on the three impulses that have earmarked his nascent musical career: the rigorously creative, the sensationally psychotic, and the nakedly vulnerable. Last year, his band, Deerhunter, issued two of the year's most visceral records: the LP Cryptograms and the EP Fluorescent Grey. Fusing to-the-point garage rock with hallucinatory atmospherics, the band sculpted a sound that reeled from violently manic to feather soft. But much of the attention the band received had nothing to do with the music. The band became as famous for dead-end recording sessions, emotional meltdowns, and Cox's provocative live persona—which has seen him perform in sundresses and smeared with fake blood. But talking to Cox, a gentler, more introspective voice emerges.

"I'm not really happy in my personal life and I'd rather just go off and be on my own, alone in the woods or something, and record," he admits. "Obviously, when you record something, you're recording it for an audience. I'm not trying to make all these basement tapes that nobody's ever going to hear. But I want to get to the point where I can record music and have it be heard and appreciated by a receptive audience—without having to beg, writhe around on the ground, or make a freak show just to get people to listen."

A similarly personal sentiment haunts Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See but Cannot Feel, his first release as Atlas Sound, a solitary recording project he claims he began at age 10. Untouched by other contributors and given to indulging idiosyncratic experiments, the album is the sonic equivalent of an interior monologue, in which flashes of clarity bubble up from a nebula of subconscious thought. There is straightforward pop in "River Card" and "Ativan," his paean to anti-anxiety meds, but the majority of the album is dedicated to ambient excursions that approximate emotion rather than adhere to any conventional structure.

"I've never considered myself to be a traditional songwriter," he explains. "I consider myself to be a collagist. It's not about the process; it's about the product."

Given that aesthetic sensibility, the prospect of translating the material to a live setting seemed unlikely. But Cox has assembled a band, which includes Portlanders Adam Forkner (White Rainbow) and Honey Owens (Valet), to do just that. According to him, the live presentation streamlines the recorded versions by downplaying the electronic elements and upping the garage rock quotient. Of course, that assessment likely simplifies the combination of such far-out source material with some of Portland's most exploratory musicians. No wonder Cox has dubbed the full-band arrangements as "psychedelic grunge mysticism."

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