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Usher Loves Him, but He Wants Pixar: Oneohtrix Point Never’s Moment Is Here

The experimental electronic musician has seen his reputation grow significantly in the past year. With a brilliant new album and some influential fans, he’s aiming even higher.

Daniel Lopatin Getty Images/Ringer illustration

About two years ago, Daniel Lopatin was on stage at the Park Avenue Armory—a large, stately Upper East Side venue—playing in the backing band of his sometime collaborator Anohni. Not long after this show, the 35-year-old experimental electronic musician who records under the name Oneohtrix Point Never got an urgent, unexpected missive, the kind most people experience only in dreams: Usher wants to meet you.

“He liked this weird interstitial piece of music that was just in between two awesome songs, where I was basically just freaking the fuck out, just making noise,” Lopatin explains to me on a recent afternoon, still seeming freshly puzzled. An ever-present baseball cap mats down his hair, and he takes frequent swigs from a 1-liter bottle of lemon-lime seltzer. “And Usher was like, ‘Yeah, that was the shit.’ And I was like, ‘Really?’”

The height of Usher’s brief, surreal Oneohtrix Point Never phase came not long after they first met, when Usher posted a short video of himself on social media, “like, listening to Rifts in his Escalade,” Lopatin says. (To Usher’s credit, Rifts is definitely not the most obvious OPN record to start with.) Says Lopatin of his cult 2009 debut album’s surreal cosign from the man who mentored Justin Bieber, “I was pretty much as happy as I’ve ever been in my life.”

Lopatin sent Usher some tracks, and the two communicated intermittently while Usher was putting together his (ultimately quite conventional) 2016 album Hard II Love, but they never made a collaboration happen. There is one song, however, on Oneohtrix Point Never’s beguiling and fantastic new album, Age Of, that began its life as an Usher demo. It’s called “The Station.” Centered on an ominously hypnotic, looped bass line, the track is punctuated by jolts of static and haunted harpsichord riffs, while Lopatin’s voice, creepily transfigured by Vocaloid software, intones such warnings as “The whole station’s gonna burn down.” It sounds like one of the last songs that would play over the radio before the apocalypse. I can imagine no possible reality in which Usher would have recorded and released a version of this song. But also maybe that is kind of the point: Lopatin’s music has always gestured toward uncanny alternate universes, eerily detailed in their design. 2011’s Replica throbs like a 21st-century collective unconscious, a patchwork of sampled fragments from commercial jingles spliced together into something that’s at once familiar and not. Even the moniker he records under sounds like the name of a radio station that exists only in an imagined, oddly benevolent hell.

Usher collabo or not, Age Of still finds Lopatin during the most visible moment of his career. Last year, he composed the tense, warped-VHS score to the critically acclaimed, Robert Pattinson-starring Safdie Brothers movie Good Time, an achievement for which he won the Soundtrack Award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, among other honors. As if to highlight the lovely absurdity of such mainstream accolades, he captioned an Instagram photo of one such trophy as “HOLLYWOOD MYSTICAL MANIA AWARD 5000.” The success gave him more freedom to think big: Lopatin has expressed interest in more film scoring (and after Good Time he acquired an agent to help with that). In the meantime, in between OPN projects, he’s also been producing for the likes of Anhoni, fka twigs, and David Byrne.

Anchored by fluid melodies and more (well, discernable) human voice than has ever appeared on a Oneohtrix Point Never album, Age Of is Lopatin’s most accessible release—which is still grading on a curve. “It’s pretty fucked up,” he admits. “I’m always telling my friends, ‘It’s pop, right? This is my Moby record!’ And they’re like, ‘Dude, you are so out of touch.’”

I ask Lopatin if it’s a conscious impulse he has, to “fuck up” his more straightforward compositions and pop sensibilities, especially in the wake of his recent success. He considers the question deeply. “I’m just a little pessimistic about things that sound too much like one thing,” he finally says. “So fucking it up is not really just to be bratty, it’s just to reinforce a very defined belief of mine that I’m not really one thing.”

I associate Oneohtrix Point Never’s music with dank, nocturnal basements lit by laptop glow; Daniel Lopatin is not someone I ever imagined I’d get sunburnt while interviewing. And yet there we were on a rooftop in Greenpoint on a bright May afternoon, his day of rest between three ambitious, sold-out shows that Lopatin was headlining at—talk about full circle—the Park Avenue Armory. “It’s just a really crazy space to fill with sound,” he says.

Lopatin speaks like someone with a lot of tabs open in his brain. Here is an incomplete list of the things that he mentions having recently been obsessed with: Steven Spielberg, Strauss-Howe generational theory, 2001: A Space Odyssey, “Marcel Marceau, the great French mime,” Pixar, the midcentury film composer Bernard Herrmann, and a government document describing possible post-lingual ways to warn future civilizations about nuclear waste. And yet, none of these enthusiasms are empty signifiers meant to indicate some kind of digital-era eclecticism of influences: When pressed, he has thoughtful and unflinchingly direct things to say about all of them and the ways they connect to Age Of. When I ask why he admires Spielberg, for example, he answers without a pause that he, too, would like to be known for “crafting these really fun but melancholic fantasies for people that are kind of weirdly semi-autobiographical but deal with escapist themes.”

Myriad, the show he was putting on at the Armory, offered him a chance to show people just how grand his vision could get, given the resources. (The bill was footed by Red Bull, which sponsors an annual and generously budgeted avant-garde music and art festival in New York.) Watching Myriad live was the closest I have ever gotten to feeling like I’m inside an Alien movie, and probably the closest I ever hope to come. Eerie, vaguely corpse-like sculptures (the work of OPN collaborator Nate Boyce) hung from the high rafters like a butcher shop’s window offerings; a giant inflatable blob billowed next to the stage. One of the only ideas Lopatin could not pull of in time was the smells: “We had smells picked for every epoch, that we were going to pump through the space. We were going to do very pleasant smells during cacophonous parts of the set to create this weird dissonance.” He shakes his head. “But we couldn’t get the smells in time.”

The “epochs” refer to the four different “ages” the show (and to some extent the album) is broken into: the Age of Ecco, the Age of Harvest, the Age of Excess, and the Age of Bondage. The structure is loosely based on the cycles of history described in the generational theorists William Strauss and Neil Howe’s book The Fourth Turning, infamously, a favorite book of Steve Bannon. When his album was still in the nebulous stages of creation, Lopatin listened to the audiobook (“it’s shit, but it’s amusing”), and it gave him an idea for its form. “I’m borrowing their psychosis temporarily to give myself a little operatic structure,” he says. “I’m not actually into these sociopolitical breakdowns. It de-individuates people. It takes all the texture away.”

Lopatin’s parents immigrated from Russia in the early ’80s, just before he was born. (“It wasn’t particularly easy to leave in the Soviet era,” he says, “unless you were of some ethnicity or background that wasn’t wanted there. That made it easier for them, slightly, because they’re Jewish.”) They settled in the Boston area partially because of the then-booming tech scene. His mom is a talented software coder who is also a classical trained musician; his dad is an engineer and a more casual musician, “a self-taught restaurant balladeer,” Lopatin says. His older sister was born in Russia and lived there for the first nine years of her life, and being the sole American-born member of an immigrant family made him feel a bit displaced when he was growing up. “You know how there’s always one horse in the stable that’s always sort of drifting off, has no purpose, is sort of just grazing?” he says. “That was me.”

Garden of Delete, the last Oneohtrix Point Never album before Age Of, was a thrashing, perversely poignant ode to isolated adolescence. Coming off a tour where he’d opened for Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden, Lopatin felt compelled to apply his collage-like aesthetic to the angsty sounds of his early teens: The result sounds like a chopped and screwed Pretty Hate Machine. Some of Lopatin’s earlier music has been described as “ambient”; it was a source of pride that the Garden of Delete tour marked the first time he saw people moshing at a Oneohtrix Point Never show.

And yet even at his music’s most abstract, abrasive moments, there’s always some sort of yearning embedded in it—a buried but sincere longing to get back to the garden. Three years later, Lopatin finds the feelings and themes he was exploring on his last record to be hauntingly prescient. “There’s this weird disenfranchised generation of boys that don’t have … there’s basically no labor force for them to have any pride in, so they just turn inward and explode,” he says. “America used to be this place where you could own a car and do stuff. You could buy a house, if you worked. You didn’t have to have a crazy job. There was some kind of basic structure in place where you would be rewarded for your hard work. Once that was eviscerated, all this really toxic shit started coming out. Complete dissolution of community and care. Just really nasty shit.”

When Aphex Twin—one of Lopatin’s musical heroes—performs live, his video engineer sometimes uses a “face-mapping” technology to graft the artist’s face on shots of people in the crowd. Lopatin thinks this is funny, visually, but in a literal sense it is his “worst fucking nightmare.” When he first started performing, in small underground spaces known and frequented by only a particular kind of (white male) music fan, he recalls that he would look out into the crowd and see, with horror, “everybody looked exactly like me.” He worried that, over the long haul, making music for a niche audience would stunt his artistic growth. “I was extrapolating from there like, ‘Dude, you’re gonna be 40. Then you’re gonna be 50. Are you gonna stand in front of a table with a laptop in front of it and all these people who look exactly like you, that will only accept one very particular type of affective scenario in music?’ It was just not me. It’s not my personality, it’s not my friends, it’s not how I live my life. From the get-go I was a little recalcitrant. All my records have this streak of, ‘I’m not in this club, and I’m keeping it that way.’”

Working more recently with other artists has helped him push past his self-imposed boundaries. “Not in a self-deprecating way, but when you’re in the studio with Anohni or twigs, you become pretty aware of your limitations, especially as a singer,” he says. “But then I would have these late-night convos with [twigs] and she’d help me brainstorm ways around crazy shit. It gave me an added fervor to just do this messy pop record.”

“I want to keep things feeling like there’s room for everyone,” he continues. “Not people that like electronic music, but also my cousin, and people who have no idea what it is that I do. Things should be more welcoming like that in general.”

The crowd at Myriad was a testament to this: A friend who went two nights before I did admitted to being a little emotional, having once seen OPN shows in cramped DIY spaces and now seeing Lopatin fill a concert hall full of people who, by and large, probably weren’t aware of his music a few years ago. It was, in a modest way, his Spielberg moment. Still, Lopatin’s utopian vision of a completely egalitarian fan base has not yet come to fruition—though for once I did not mind. An inverse of the usual scenario, dozens of men were queued in line for the bathroom after the show, while I was delighted to walk right into a half-empty ladies’ room.

Perhaps the most optimistic song on Age Of is “Toys 2,” which Lopatin has been calling—quite seriously—his “Pixar proof-of-concept.” It’s elegiac and a little bit fucked up, but it’s also stirring and beautiful; the lead melody sounds ever so slightly like “My Heart Will Go On” if it were played on a child’s toy. “It kind of sounds like a kazoo,” Lopatin points out. “You can’t be dark with a kazoo.”

“I’m just waiting for some Pixar thing,” he says. “But it could be a while.” I suggest that, at the very least, there’s always some sort of nightmare scene in a Pixar movie—maybe he could soundtrack the protagonist’s flashback-to-childhood-trauma scene. “Oh yeah!” he says, excitedly. “Just call me in for a couple of key moments.” It’s a start.