I first encountered A. G. Cook in January 2013 at a gig at Power Lunches in Dalston. He was on the bill as a DJ, but after a last-minute cancellation by one of the bands he was persuaded to do his first and, to date, only live show. His frantic solo karaoke performance stood out that night and I have followed him from behind my keyboard since then. Earlier this month he launched PC Music. I chatted with A. G. Cook on Facebook about this new project and the exclusive mix he has made for Tank LIVE.
Sohrab Golsorkhi-Ainslie: You’ve just started a new label. What’s the thinking behind that?
A. G. Cook: I've always enjoyed playing a bit of an A&R role, not just through finding new music but also by embracing the major label concept of "artistic development". I particularly enjoy recording people who don't normally make music and treating them as if they're a major label artist. Often we end up developing a really strong musical and visual identity, which is still kinda personal and idiosyncratic. Working with all these different personalities and styles has become a core part of how I think about music, to the extent where, for me, it's becoming a style in itself. So starting a label isn't just a way of releasing all this stuff, but it's also a way of operating as a larger structure that can still be categorised and understood. The label's called PC Music, which alludes to how the computer is a really crucial tool, not just for making electronic music but for making amateur music that is also potentially very slick, where the difference between bedroom and professional studio production can be very ambiguous.
SG-A: And what about some of the other projects you are involved with, such as LOGO and Gamsonite?
AGC: LOGO does all kinds of stuff, but ultimately it's about creating content with the same aspirational energy and high level of presentation that is found in the best commercial imagery. I did a LOGO project for Illamasqua makeup, which exists as a huge webpage (illamasqua.logo.ec). The aesthetic is based on Japanese "Gyaru" fashion magazines such as Koakuma Ageha, which are visually extreme even by Japanese standards. I thought this could be translated into quite a unique online experience, with layers of huge pictures and unexpected transitions. It's accompanied by a mix I made, which occupied the really vibrant, girly and intense world that I had in mind for the site. Doing the Illamasqua project as part of LOGO gave the whole site a richness that I couldn't have achieved on my own. All the main images were a result of a photoshoot with a proper makeup artist, and the glossy photography was done by Hannah DiAmond, who's since become a hyperreal imagery virtuoso. I was given a lot of freedom to present everything in my own way, and as well as directing the shoot and making the mix, I was also responsible for writing the HTML of the page itself, so there's a lot of unity. Future LOGO projects that I'm working on are hopefully going to exploit the Internet's capacity for immersion even further.
Gamsonite was a pseudo-label that documented many of my initial musical collaborations. It's quite a fun collection of stuff, and it was great for my own development, but it's pretty hard to understand if viewed as it is. So it was basically a prototype for PC Music.
SG-A: Can you tell me what to expect from your mix?
AGC: I'm speaking as I'm making it, but there's going to be a lot of original content and a few quite extreme remixes. I think it's going to be kinda stupid and kinda sexy. Lots of Top 40 style hooks but with too much going on behind them. I think mixes can be a fun opportunity to produce an album's worth of music, but then to structure it in a much more urgent, schizophrenic way.
SG-A: Tell me a bit about your approach to making new music? Where do you tend to start?
AGC: Recently I've been starting tracks in a very raw way, getting chords and melodies down using very plain sounds, basically the most boring string, flute and piano sounds my computer has. This lets me focus on coming up with interesting material before I get lost in production or sound design. Most of the time I'm just clicking everything in one note at a time, though my brain's really adapted to that way of thinking so it feels completely natural. Once I'm working on something I like the whole process to become really open. It's so easy to try different things and take risks if you're using a computer. Surprising, incongruous elements always have a strong musical effect, so successful experiments usually end up defining the track. There are also so many expectations involved in how we process music - based on what has happened in the track so far, the direction you think the chords are going in, and of course genre expectations. I'll usually be playing around with these, creating a sort of dialogue with myself and what I've done so far.
SG-A: How does that process change, if at all, when you make tracks for other people?
AGC: The basic process is the same. Usually I'll present them with a fairly elaborate demo, then we'll work together on the lyrics and try to record the vocals immediately. It's also fun seeing how far I can make those sessions become part of the track itself. For instance I often end up chopping up and sampling the vocals so much that they become part of the instrumental, or part of the rhythm and production as well as just the melody. It's not a new or original trick, it's in everything from UK garage to David Guetta, but I like to think that it can still be taken further.
SG-A: Besides UK garage and David Guetta, what else influences you?
AGC: Yeah, those are both pretty big references for me! I'm relatively up to date with chart music. I like keeping track of the mega-producers who have been responsible for endless hits over the last decade or two – Max Martin is probably my favourite, I'm usually drawn to his tracks whether they're for Britney Spears, Taylor Swift or Cher Lloyd. Also producers like Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis who worked on great New Edition and Janet Jackson albums and then gradually evolved their sound to make songs like "U Remind Me" for Usher. I listen to quite a lot of RnB; I really like Cassie – some of her tracks epitomise the minimal, synthetic, almost robotic potential of commercial music, something which can sound crap when it's done badly, but can also become a sort of perfect, untouchable product when done in the right way. I always find any kind of "extreme" pop music interesting. One of my favourite albums is Cupid and Psyche 85 by Scritti Politti, which was a conscious decision to take pop music and make it as shiny and detailed as possible – it's a really beautiful balance of great hooks, rhythms and sounds. There's so much other stuff that has been influential: J-Pop, K-Pop, Nightcore, Ark Music Factory, Hudson Mohawke and Nadsroic, Frank Zappa's Synclavier stuff, Jumpstyle. Recently I've been really into Ukraine's Eurovision 2013 entry, "Gravity" by Zlata Ognevich. It's the same few chords throughout, but they keep moving them around to create different sections – it just feels like it's infinitely escalating, really clever.
SG-A: You've been talking a lot about extremes, layering things on top of one another, a sort of aural schizophrenia, and this seems to be reflected in the visuals you create as well. Where is this is coming from?
AGC: When I was really young I insisted on only reading instruction manuals. I wasn't trying to understand exactly how everything worked, it's just that I was really into the idea of "complexity". I was born in 1990, which was definitely the right time for that kind of attitude. I was very aware of the Internet and I was using computers in a serious way from quite an early age. Neopets taught me how to write HTML (the tutorials are still there), and aged 10 I was already using Photoshop to design websites that I'd never get round to making. At the same time I was still very childish and really into Disney, especially Mickey Mouse. Video games were the ideal meeting point between these two sides of my personality, and even though I don't really play them anymore they were key to my audiovisual development, probably even key to my cultural expectations. It was a while before this became a conscious musical or artistic approach. I think this started to happen a few years ago when I began making music with my friend Dan under the name Dux Content. We went to school together in our early teens, but then we started hanging out again when we were a bit older and we realised that we were using the same software to do very similar things. We shared so many ideas that I think we both felt more comfortable taking a slightly conceptual approach. From then on music became much more of a craft – we weren't attached to any specific genre but we became very aware of music production as a potentially virtuosic activity. Tracks would often start as some kind of conversation or challenge and then we'd take turns programming everything, so making a super dense track with loads of layers became a slightly less exhausting exercise. Once I'd made a few tracks with Dan that I felt were satisfyingly high-level I had more energy to try that kind of stuff out on my own, or apply the same aesthetic to visual and web work. I have a real affinity with the intense creative worlds of people like Ryan Trecartin and Tim and Eric, or cultural "prototypes" like Max Headroom and Pee Wee Herman, but it's all related to the playful approach towards technology and complexity that I had as a child. As I continue to make work, I'm becoming increasingly aware of the child-like energy and optimism that is behind most of my interests, though I'm also making an effort to involve myself in the real, almost corporate world. I think it's an irresistible combination that might lead to something unique or at least interesting.
SG-A: The complexity of pop music and commercial imagery is often hidden behind a layer of "slickness", whereas in your work there is a deliberate overwhelming complexity that is familiar yet at times difficult to navigate. Is this contrast something you consciously seek?
AGC: What interests me about pop music and commercial imagery in the first place is that it has the potential to be overwhelming, extravagant and banal all at the same time. Not only that, but mixing "high culture" with pop culture has lost its radical edge to the extent that it's more or less mainstream. Challenging something's commercial nature is a commercial tactic in itself, and authenticity is a tricky currency that is often swayed by branding and advertising. I have nothing against this, and many people respond to this kind of stuff in a sophisticated way. Though it means that there is room for a subtler and possibly more compelling way of engaging with these ideas, where shock value and direct irony is replaced with ambiguity and uncanniness. My work's constant use of instantly gratifying elements such as kitsch imagery, catchy hooks, synthetic colours and fun sound effects feels inevitable, it's almost a compulsion rather than a choice. Saying that, I try to be thoughtful as to how and why I'm using these things, and I think my over-the-top use of structure and layout is a result of this. It's also what makes the work feel ambiguous. It's sort of communicating something, but there's all this extra stuff going on. By the time you try to figure out what it's about, you've entered a sort of immersive world of ideas and references. Making it difficult to navigate not only adds to this effect, but it's also a way of giving it the overwhelming, extravagant and banal potential of commercial work. It's a particular style of craftsmanship that I could perhaps afford to ignore if I ever ended up doing large-scale commercial work, but it's definitely a way of making a bigger impact with limited resources, like a virtuoso playing on a simple instrument or an outsider artist obsessively using a tiny object to make an enormous piece. Maybe it gives my work a kind of manic individual quality, despite the fact that it's also basically a slick collage.
SG-A: Which brings me to my last question. Do you have a vision for what you would like to be doing in the future?
AGC: I don't plan things too much. For me it's much more about keeping momentum going with everything that's happening right now. I like toying around with ideas about "the future", though it's always just a roundabout and much more fun way of talking about the present. I guess I could say that I'd like to be producing tracks for Beyoncé one day, but that's only because I'm really into that sort of music right now, and ideally I'd be doing that right now if I could. My tastes and opinions sometimes flip in quite surprising ways: often when my immediate reaction to something is hatred it'll only be a while before I'm quite into it, or even mesmerised by it to some extent. So next time you check up on me I might be interning for Fatboy Slim, or if you leave it a really long time I might be doing street art on small bits of cardboard or something – that's if everything goes well.
Time's Up (Remix) - A. G. Cook
Untitled - A. G. Cook
Promenade/Ice Cave/The Birds Latch (A. G. Cook Edit) - Disclosure
Untitled - A. G. Cook
時空間超越 √ ライブラリィ - MOSAIC.WAV
The Vic-E Interpretation (Interlude) - TLC
Cbat (Sweded) - Teknian
Not Love - Cassie
Yonard - Hudson Mohawke
Guess Wot? - Mr Traumatik
Games (A. G. Cook Remix) - Chuckii Booker
Fourth Garden Flow (EP Edit) - Carl Brown
Nightspeeder feat. William - Dux Kidz
Rescue Her - Lil Gash
Exotica (Penguindog55 Remix) - Mr Zolon Ain't Nobody Like You - Hudson Mohawke, Robin Hannibal & Myele Manzanza
Song idea - A. G. Cook
BIPP (A. G. Cook Edit) - SOPHIE
Hardstyle skit Lifestyle - Dux Content
Sez uz slieksna pasacina - Mirdza Zivere
This Kiss (Mathieu Bouthier/A. G. Cook Remix) - Carly Rae Jepsen