Culture / Music

How artist Oneohtrix Point Never found meaning in the medium

Oneohtrix Point Never

Over the course of nearly 15 years and some dozen full length recordings, Dan Lopatin has crafted luminous worlds through his work as Oneohtrix Point Never. Starting way out in the fringes in Brooklyn’s noise scene, with the freedom to explore and evolve he has gradually if unintentionally, inched his way towards the mainstream, getting so far as composing award-winning soundtracks for the Safdie Brothers and producing for the likes of The Weeknd, David Byrne and FKA Twigs. Seemingly sans compromise, it’s safe to say Lopatin has sent ripples of influence throughout every stratum of music along the way; Oneohtrix Point Never’s rainbow of gauzy electronic nostalgia is practically in a league all of its own.

In 2020 his focus sharpened on the release of the quasi-self-titled Magic Oneohtrix Point Never. As with anything Oneohtrix Point Never, it isn’t quite what it seems at first. Touted as a self-titled record, it’s not quite, and far from the traditional soul-expose, Lopatin playfully twists the form into another fantasy entirely.

Recorded during New York’s first phase of lockdown, largely in his bedroom in his Greenpoint apartment, Magic Oneohtrix Point Never is a paean to the radio. In the past, Lopatin’s taste for nostalgia has recontextualised sounds from video game music, advertising and television, chintzy new age and alt-rock, but on Magic Oneohtrix Point Never it’s his fetish for the golden age of the wireless that feeds through his inimitable kaleidoscope of memory re-enactment. “It’s not so much a nostalgic interest in the radio as much as it is a ‘medium is the message’ kind of thing,” he says. “What the radio as a technology does for my consciousness is interesting. I just heard Claire Denis is making a film that’s radio-themed with Juliette Binoche, and she said you can hear people thinking on the radio, and that’s what’s so weird about it. What it does in terms of time and space, it links disconnected, alienated listeners in this really interesting way. It’s eminent, very present and it’s kind of chaotic in the sense that you can just jump around and hear things that might surprise you or things that you don’t want to hear at all. It’s a very contained format that says a lot about lots of things that I’m interested in I guess.” How that manifests is a record coloured with dabs of analogue machinery at work, station idents, warbled DJ soundbites, 80s soft balladry and the sound of the radio dial spinning across the spectrum.

While the sounds on Oneohtrix Point Never’s records go way off-piste, Lopatin’s approach to crafting them is traditional albeit with a twist. His reverence for the classic tenets of the album format includes the exalted self-titled suite, and he relishes in the chance to play with that. “I always thought the idea of a self-titled record is egregiously narcissistic and that if I ever made one it damn well better have collaborators on it, and also have this bizarre sense of autobiography that would render it largely fictitious” he says. “So, I had this moment in quarantine where I was thinking about the origins of the name Oneohtrix Point Never and how it was related to this soft rock radio station (Magic 106.7), and how if I did a self-titled record I couldn’t really live with myself if it was something that didn’t deal with that mythology. It just felt like it was an opportunity to have fun with that. Once that galvanised I was very comfortable with finishing the record, or at least calling it a record. It suddenly felt like a conceptually cohesive thing.”

Hitting on the concept was crucial, giving Lopatin a framework within which to conjure a dream. “For me putting out records, they need to feel like records in the traditional sense of what is great about a book or a novel – chapters that are interconnected that make sense next to one another that reveal a bigger picture once you stand back from it. I didn’t have a reason to make a record until I had the eponymous origin story thing down, because then I was writing a book and not just a bunch of short stories.”

A key factor in Lopatin’s ongoing tenure at the forefront of contemporary electronic music is his continual stretching of boundaries, as he pushes well beyond the breakers of trends and scenes. In supporting his drive for mapping new territory, it’s a testament to the trust placed in him by his team (and fans) who’ve gone along for the ride. “Unless I’ve missed a memo I can basically do whatever I want, so what I do is exemplary of that freedom. I’ve never felt like I’ve made any kind of concessions or compromises with the records that way,” Lopatin says. More reticent than rock star – his consistent march down a dedicated path is matched by that of his fans. “Although I’m not a person that’s necessarily that titillated by attention, so maybe psychologically that impacts things, you almost want to double down on your own idiosyncratic beliefs as an artist when you feel like more and more people are aware of you. That said, I know my core nucleus fan base is paying a lot of attention and beyond that I don’t think there’s that many people that are interested in OPN that don’t really feel it. It’s not like a cultural event that way, it’s a very idiosyncratic project. So, I appreciate that it’s gained popularity and I certainly hope that for my sake that it doesn’t become some kind of bloated fake thing, but I don’t think it ever will because it seems to be a very organic and slow thing that’s been developing over the course of a decade in a way that I really appreciate and feel grateful for.”

Further proof of Lopatin’s preference for timely resonance over strategic cunning, Magic Oneohtrix Point Never was released at the tail end of 2020, a year in which most held on rolling any major dice until this year. “I really, really wanted to put it out, against the better judgement of all kinds of people I was talking to, my friends, people that I work with or whatever,” he explains. “‘It feels like a big record, why don’t you wait so that people can digest it and you can tour and all that stuff.’” But I was like “No, that very reason is why we should put it out now!” To me it was a beautiful thing to share now and I was willing to risk the throes of “Oh this isn’t going to be great from a marketing perspective”. That’s the least of people’s worries right now. That I could put it out and that Warp was down for that was great for me, it might not have been a great thing to do strategically but existentially it felt right, it helped me and from the feedback I get from fans I think they’re grateful there was a record to look forward to and hear while the world was burning down.”

At the end of the day, everything from Oneohtrix Point Never’s reimagining of scorned genres, to his playful testing of music business practices and his empathy with his listeners all stems from Lopatin’s beginnings as a genuinely curious, nerdy music listener who named his project for a soft rock radio station. “For me my interest in music started primarily as a fan, not necessarily as an aspiring composer or music student or any of that, I just liked listening,” he says. “All I can do as a human being is share my personal story, it’s just my own thing, what I grew up with. Every generation has its own way of dealing with the trauma of change.” In 2021 Oneohtrix Point Never’s music represents a perfectly warped coping mechanism.


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Image: Film stills from Lost But Never Alone (Official Video). Directed by Josh & Benny Safdie.