Interview

The Rates: A. G. Cook’s underrated artists are all about BTS-loving K-pop and live coding

We ask an artist to share the three musicians they think have gone under-appreciated, and three new names who they hope will avoid a similar fate

A. G. Cook hasn’t stopped moving this year. You get that from just reading what he’s been up to: the production work on Charli XCX’s lockdown opus How I’m Feeling Now, collaborations with Sigur Rós’s Jónsi, constructing virtual festivals like Appleville, releasing a seven-part solo debut album called 7G, and following it up just a month later in September with Apple. But his upbeat attitude on talking about the next thing shines through in conversation. “It’s cool to go hard, do it all in one block and be immersed in it,” he says, Zooming from Montana after just finishing work on Appleville. “My head’s definitely in that space.”

The growth of the livestream concert since March has been notable, but it makes sense that it would be PC Music pushing the form to its limits. Appleville showcased many stars of Hyperpop, while giving underground talent like Astra King and GRRL the spotlight. But its many shifts in format made it a truly multi-sensory experience.

“When you see a good live show, it breaks a ceiling,” Cook says. “You know what the form is, you’ve got these people on stage but then the exciting moment is when they break that set-up and there’s another level on top of that. The answer for me has been more pre-recorded elements and less live simply so you can up the production value and break the rules. I think the technology will probably catch up. Zoom isn’t built for this. This is like the prototype version where we’re waiting for tech companies to do something interesting.”

I tell him that one of the most enjoyable things about Appleville was not being able to tell what was pre-recorded and what wasn’t. That guesswork is part of the fun.

“It’s very much in the ethos of PC Music stuff,” he says. “It’s something I’m really interested in even with completely static music – the difference between something being raw or slick, amateur or professional, and the notion of ‘live’. It’s a great word, actually – the perfect word for it. Like, LIFE. ‘MTV: Live’.”

The traditional response to finding out footage has been pre-recorded, though, is often anger, I say – like you’ve being tricked. Like when autotune first started becoming prominent, although that’s sort of disappearing and people are appreciating it more.

“I think it’s people being more exposed to music technology in general,” says Cook. “Even lip-syncing on Tik Tok – at the most amateur level, everyone’s dabbled in these super accessible tools.”

Like this, our conversation flits from giddy thought to thought, but it’s showcasing other artists and highlighting PC Music as a communal force that prompts the most excitement from A. G. Cook, as I ask him to tell me about his selects for this month’s Rates. We started with his three new artists.

Astra King

A. G.: I found Astra pretty randomly. I think she left a comment on one of my posts. I don’t usually interact with that many comments. It was something technically specific and made me think this person has an insight into something. I looked at her music and it was K-Pop covers, and that’s mostly what’s still on her Spotify. She was really a BTS fan or part of that whole movement. I knew about K-pop superficially and that the fanbase have this certain rep. I really resonated listening to her covers so it opened things up for me.

S: And she covered your song ‘Silver’ at Appleville as well.

A. G.: Yeah, and that was the first song where I tried to be amusingly open in the lyrics. It’s almost too much. With Astra, it was inspired by PC stuff but not in a way that a lot of stuff has been. Not in the sound design, or the superficial elements of PC. It took the core element about weird songwriting and the sense of someone sitting on their computer. Even the way she did her vocal production, and her voice feeling intentional. I could hear all that stuff even in her covers. It reminded me of how I listen to music. It was cool to hear it from another perspective. It was satisfying to hear those and to be justified in knowing it links to all these other elements of performance.

S: Covers have been a big part of what you’ve done recently as well. What draws you to that?

A. G.: I think music has become my favourite art form simply because it’s so referential. Whenever you hear music you’re judging it based on everything you’ve heard up to that point. It’s this funny linear abstract thing that only survives because of its roots in other things.

In this world copyright is so aggressive that a one second sample can get you into all sorts of trouble, but if you cover an entire song you’re fine. I did that instrumentally with ‘Windowlicker’ because it cracked me up as a sort of exercise. That was connected to something I’d always do; if I liked something I’d want to break it down and see how it was made.

S: The history of covers is interesting. In the early days it was mostly record labels trying to rip off their competitors by recording a hit song before it could be distributed.

A. G.: Yeah, the legal grey area has always been fascinating to me. That was an era where writing and performing music was separate. You wouldn’t have that many bands who wrote their own stuff; that wasn’t really the point. Those early vinyl pressings, they had to re-perform to get more pressings. And what could be more pop music than rerecording a popular song?

S: It’s interesting how songwriting and performance used to be a separate thing. Songwriting and production also used to be very separate, but now more people are doing their own production. PC Music has been a big proponent of that.

A. G.: I like to think that we’re very actively trying to do that… I like the idea of everyone playing different roles.

Cecile Believe

A. G.: Cecile is a very big part of the things she’s been on. It’s not a casual featured vocal, it’s someone willing to push the envelope and sing and write in such a daring way. It’s huge leaps – not just virtuosic, but raw… willing to fall off a cliff if needed at that moment.

I was really into her debut album. That’s also completely self-produced. She’s playing loads of roles – singer, producer, vocal engineer. You really hear it fused together on that album. It’s not like someone else would have arranged it like that. When we worked together, ‘Show Me What’ came together in a day. She’s really fast with lyrics as well – she’s sort of living in it. I knew it would be an important track. I wanted to make sure it was a collaborative release, and it’s credited differently.

S: It stands out on the tracklist

A. G.: Other people that I’d gotten vocals from, like Hannah Diamond, happened in an ambient way or I’d be working with them anyway. Other moments benefited from not being features as well. On a track like ‘All Right’, you know who’s singing but you don’t.

S: That guesswork is a surprise and a nice wink for people who are in the know as well.

A. G.: With this one it was so clearly living in the Cecile Believe universe. But the intensity of her vocal, I can see how it brought out a lot of the intensity in SOPHIE’s music as well. It gives you the confidence to do intense production because you know her voice will always be on top of that.

S: And if Cecile was living in an era where you’d have to go to a producer, it probably wouldn’t sound like that. Women especially are led away from messy elements in those scenarios, but she combines messiness and that more traditional pop elegance.

Even in her press, she’s still not been given the same level of credit as a dude who is a producer and singer. I saw this on Caroline Polachek’s album rollout too. It barely gets a mention that she’s one of the main producers of the album.

S: I remember this exact thing happening with FKA Twigs on her debut. We’ve been talking about it for so long!

A. G.: Cecile is someone who’s trying to be very overt about the tools, right? It’s almost like someone like her has to be that overt for it to get noticed. It’s ridiculous.

GRRL

S: GRRL is someone I’ve been following for a while, as a reference to find club music and dive into the history. Their knowledge seems so deep.

A. G.: They did an amazing set for 7 by 7 where I just gave them the brief of “drums only, and I know that your stuff is drums only but EVEN MORE drums only than the drums only stuff”, and they really rose to that. Like you were saying, it’s respectful to context, but you can tell there’s a hyperactive thing underneath it. There’s this interesting juxtaposition.

They’re doing a form of world-building without trying. It’s not imposing. It’ll have this specific vibe, so then you’ll listen to the stuff they’re referencing. It’s also mixed in with HYPEBEAST and video game stuff and done with a bit of irony thrown in, or A LOT of irony thrown in.

S: I’ve been going back to MARATHON a lot. I love how it sounds very ’90s dance but somehow also futuristic. That idea of futurism is very tied to nostalgia, and whatever the past’s idea of the future is.

A. G.: Almost nothing gets dated faster than someone trying to make a futuristic composition. That’s always fascinating. I love the sense of anachronism you get with visions of the future and the occasional accidental one that was accurate. It’s a complete lottery. I know that PC music is often labelled as being futuristic, and I’m not against that either. There’s just something innately funny about trying to be futuristic that I enjoy.

S: Yeah, you’re clearly having a joke with it.

A. G.: The endless punchline for me is that we’re doing it in the present. Everything we’re doing now is contemporary, using tools from right now. Occasionally there’s some people like Lil Data who’s doing live coding, or SOPHIE who’s pushing sound design incredibly hard. But I’m not inventing new tools. I’m just using the tools that exist and trying to push the limits. I would contrast that with some stuff that I equally like, like Holly Herndon’s Platform and the AI Spore – they’re creating a conceptual infrastructure to talk about media synthesis and AI. It’s almost got an Emperor’s New Clothes thing around it but in a pro-nudity way. All this stuff is right here! It’s here guys! Let’s not fool ourselves by thinking that culture is any more limited than it is.

Goodiepal

S: Conceptualisation was something I was wanting to speak to you about in relation to Goodiepal. He was a hacker, an academic, made installations. It was very theory based.

A. G.: That transition was slick.

S:
Thank you.

A. G.: This side of the coin was a lot more difficult. The list for new acts could go on forever, but I found I had to look inward a bit more choosing these next three older acts. But, yeah that’s one of the reasons I was thinking about him. Goodiepal is an interesting artist because if people are ever like, ‘oh PC Music is so conceptual’, then I don’t know anyone who’s a more truly radical example than Goodiepal.

I also briefly met him. I think it was his cycling around Europe phase. I was already making music as Dux Content with my friend Dan [Danny L Harle]. We had a lot of failed club nights where people really didn’t take us seriously. We had this ambitious one that Goodiepal agreed to play at – it was gonna be renaissance instruments, Goodiepal and robotics, but multiple club organisers completely turned us down. It probably sounded like some sort of awful steampunk show or something.

The philosophical and prankster level I agree with him on is that this talk of computers and the future is another classic human reflection on things. It exposes our own conservative views of ourselves. If you’re going to call out computer music as being pretentious, then you should probably call out yourself. It’s such a feedback loop. He’s someone who’s made his life that. He embodies it.

S: When I think of an electronic prankster, I think mysterious and not at all sharing, but his stuff is surprisingly accessible.

A. G.: At his live show, he’ll be giving a lecture and you might think it’s trolling, but he’s very earnestly going, ‘if you’re the kind of person who’s turned up to this concert, then I have something that I want to just talk to you about.’ It’s intimate with the real people he’s interacting with.

Max Tundra

A. G.: So, Max had this mainstream moment, but it wasn’t attached to any sort of movement. He was completely his own island. That’s sort of why it’s been obscured a bit again. Thinking about it in a self-centred way, it made me appreciate that I was part of a movement because it gave it a body. If you look retrospectively to his releases, they are incredible. It’s clearly been assembled by the person who’s singing. He’s not a trained vocalist but he’s still singing and is very musical.

S: And it’s got an amazing down to earth sense of humour even though it’s musically quite alien.

A. G.: It’s very British as well. I’ve seen promo pics of him with a mug of tea. His takes in interviews are very humble and British in a funny way. I never fully stopped listening to it. It ticks more of the boxes than your average influence.

S: As soon as I heard him singing, the thick British enunciated voice stuck out to me, and I realised you don’t often hear that, especially done completely straight faced.

A. G.: The whole accent thing is something that I’ve been trying to be aware of. I’m inconsistent, if anything. I’ve tried to play with that and have different variations. I was aware growing up that my accent broke some rules, and I irritated friends with how I pronounced certain words.

S: I got that moving from Liverpool to Scotland. Certain words like ‘werds’, stick out. I did some vocal coaching as part of a journalism course and it was a mess.

A. G.: I was aware of your accent – regional hybrid British accents are super cool and sort of rare. On certain PC Music tracks I’d use friends that have these unusual accents. Max Tundra is one of the pioneers of that done so flatly. It’s not just the accent, it’s the confidence to doing it so plainly.

He’s retroactively become part of the PC-affiliated world, especially as it’s getting other terms like Hyperpop. I find it satisfying to work with people who’ve made music after PC music. It’s nice knowing you’re part of this timeline. Hopefully he feels the same.

DJ Paypal

A. G.: Even though the DJ name is sort of ridiculous, the DJ part is very real. I hadn’t seen tempo changes done with so much humour or personality. It’s influenced stuff I’ve done, even having other aliases, like the DJ Lifeline release.

S: I always associated ‘Sold Out’ with PC music when it came out.

A. G.: People do know that release, but I don’t know if he has quite enough credit for influencing a whole wave of Soundcloud era music. He knew how to make a Soundcloud mix feel like DJing.

S: The best mixes are when you’ve noticed something they’ve done that’s been obscured, like they’ve just winked at you. You’ve got this intimate communication with someone, and that’s something that’s thriving with PC music.

Those things become thought-provoking. We’ve had that with the Appleville Discord – these world-building games then become genuine conversations. It’s something that I’ve been trying to invest my time in because I don’t think it fully exists on Twitter or Instagram.

S: A lot of the people you’ve mentioned are people who you now work with.

A. G.: We’re very online people who are interested in how that connects to the real world. These tools are great but it gets more interesting when you bother to interact. I found SOPHIE on Soundcloud and it turned out we were living in the same city. People who I would probably have inevitably run into, I jumped ahead about because I’d bothered to reach out. It tends to go well if you just go for it. It was maybe a motivation for making the music interesting, and gave me the confidence to do a collective.

I’m still learning a lot about Discord but I’ve been impressed by how easy it is to customise. You can go on the OPN Discord and it’s got a very particular vibe, and then you go to the Arca Discord and it’s got a Selfie Channel, and all these people showing their work, the Mutant energy. I wanted Appleguild to be a time-limited thing that’s as intense as those spaces.

Photography by Alaska Read & Julian Buchan

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