This year, many pop albums came to us a surprise. One of the biggest ones has been for sure Charli XCX’s How I’m Feeling Now, the first quarantine-album of the year (and probably also the best). Behind the production was her long-time creative director A. G. Cook who is also the founder of genre-bending British label PC Music. For some producers it would have been enough to put out such a prolific work this year not for Cook, however. In late August, he dropped his seven-disc spanning 49-track debut album 7G just to announce another album the following week. But who is the person behind THE hippest producer in town right now?
For seven years, the London-born producer has shaped the sound of modern pop music through artists like Charli XCX, who made mainstream-friendly and rather simple pop music in the early 2010s. That was until she released the Vroom Vroom EP in 2016 with help of SOPHIE, Hannah Diamond, and Cook. Since then, Charli XCX has been on the forefront of genre-pushing progressive mainstream pop. Cook has been working as her creative director leading the production of her later released mixtapes and albums. Alongside these projects, he has also worked on the forthcoming new solo album of Sigur Rós‘ leader Jónsi.
Since 2007, Cook has established himself as a producer constantly pushing the boundaries of popular music by channelling different musical styles from K-Pop and Trance to bubblegum pop. After having released more remixes than own singles, 7G and Apple are Cooks first attempts at a solo career as a musician and not as a producer. With just these the two solo albums he has achieved what other artists need years to. He doesn’t only shape the future of computer-made pop but also steps into the indie music world by with using analogue instruments – especially the guitar.
I’ve been following the evolution of PC Music and A. G. Cook for a long time and listened to the entire 7G several times. Ahead of the release of Apple, I spoke with A. G. Cook via Zoom. This talk resulted in a lengthy Q&A on Cook’s own projects, the future of pop music, the PC Music fanbase, and avoiding the middle ground. Although he hasn’t given that many interviews throughout most of his career Cook was eager to chat and to discuss different aspects of pop music and production styles.
Where are you spending this weird time?
I’m staying in Montana at the house of my girlfriend’s parents. Everything going on seems a little surreal here, it is sort of low-key but odd. Preparing the whole release thing from here has been nice though.
Has staying there helped you with working on the releases?
Yeah, pretty much. I used to come here to write sometimes. But I also don’t want to get too American, being somewhere this bizarre somehow makes me feel much more British. I feel lucky to be home in Montana. It is strange, time and space have dilated a lot for everybody and everything has been very quick and slow and weird. Lockdown has been good for the 7G album. I was able to take tiny bits of my old work and make something new – like accidental time travel.
How can we imagine your working process on both albums? You’ve announced 7G already two years ago, but I imagine you added some work during the quarantine.
I planned on having two debut albums. The one called Apple was finished about a year ago and was the last thing I finished before I left the UK to move to L.A. I spent time with the guy who mixed it and we did it in a formal way – ten-track type of structure. 7G was definitely solidified by quarantine. I wanted to do it in seven mixes anyway but it started feeling more like an album. I like bending that category a little bit.
Would you consider 7G an album for more for longterm PC Music fans and Apple for the people who just started getting into your stuff?
I guess so – like any album that’s over two hours. Although, I think they go well together because there’s a lot of shared material and references. The seven instruments that make up 7G are also part of Apple and just knowing the track order, there are nods for people who have been following my music for a long time. I’m pragmatic in what material ends up on the record and I sometimes sit on stuff for a long time. That reflection is a way of deciding what is A.G. Cook and what is not. Both versions are formed by friends and feedback.
“Even the way I hear music is a bit aggressive”
I feel like you’re referencing and sampling yourself a lot in your own work and PC Music in general, especially on 7G.
Yes definitely and it happens with Charli stuff too. The first track of her self-titled album, Next Level Charli, was based on this deep edit from one of my DJ sets and I’m covering Official, a song that I helped to write, on 7G. When you listen to music, it is a meta experience because there are so many versions, remixes, edits, and influences. My most prolific work was for a long time doing remixes by enjoying other people’s material and thinking what would be my ideal version of this? I always tried to engage with the artist’s voice. Usually, I leave the entire vocal intact and then do something around it rather than just adding drums and then chop my favorite bit. Even the way I hear music is usually a bit aggressive.
What makes a good pop song for you? Does it have to be unique or can it be fully referential?
I find the definition of pop music pretty hard to keep up. There is this sort of a pop classicism like Britney, Gaga, some pieces of Charli. But I prefer the much more general definition of pop as in popular music. The idea of being referential is one of the classic tricks but you have to be precise even when sampling. Take for example Coldplay sampling Kraftwerk. It resonates on one level and immediately makes it potentially more popular.
But what’s your unique take on the future of pop culture music? With your own work and PC Music, it seems as if you’re constantly pushing things forward.
I think it’s funny because with PC as a label I don’t feel that dogmatic about it, especially when friends’ releases. As long as they have their own personal vision that ticks a box. But there is a certain freedom in people being able to make music. Today, everyone is recording themselves in some way and I think everyone understands the freedom of that. It’s not like we’re in an old studio with the band anymore.
You also try to channel indie music on the records and it somehow reminds me of Alex G.
Obviously, there has been some resurgence towards guitar music. For me, what’s really interesting is that it is such a loaded instrument with so many connotations. It’s so old as well, it’s kind of funny how the culture kept up with it. On Apple you have these really clean guitars, for example, the one on Oh Yeah, samples someone strumming. That’s one type of guitar, but there’s also the electric guitars, massive guitar production, synthesizers that can perfectly simulate plucked instruments and strings.
Is it an ambition of yours to try out the possibilities and limitations of both analogue and digital instruments or software?
Yeah, I wouldn’t make many distinctions between any of it. You can record your voice naturally or you can sample it, similar my interpretation of a piano can be a little bit real, chopped or 80s-like. People do understand those different instruments in some way and there’s some people who think it’s very visceral with vocals. So they obviously have strong opinions, but they easily know the difference between acoustic and electric guitar. It becomes a nice recurring metaphor for me that what I feel is actually very real in terms of even defining anything or those kind of the binaries of real and fake.
Aside from your own work, do you have a favorite artist who inspires you?
It’s funny, I got into music pretty late. I was into visuals and I was one of those producers who recorded people via Garage Band, because I was good with that and not because I was into music at all. When I was 17 or 18 it really clicked for me when I realized that a lot of the pop music from back then, like the Max Martin productions starting the first wave of Nicki Minaj, Katy Perry, was so well constructed and had so much thought to it. At the same time I was getting into avant-garde stuff, computer music, but I also liked Stravinsky back then. In my mind, there were all these parallels and I really liked how anachronistic it can be. The era of blogspot media downloads opened up a lot of possibilities as well. People have entire discographies online and I remember getting into the whole Kraftwerk discography in one go. I mashed it all up, listening to Captain Beefheart, Animal Collective, Ariel Pink at the same time. It became a soup of things.
There’s a lot of people also referring to the time around 2007 as the best era of pop culture.
I’m not nostalgic, I think the current era is just as interesting. I think people weren’t fully aware of the song machine that was behind all of it then. They only started to understand the LA songwriting scene, where you have the top line of producers, the mixers, the beatmakers. It’s good how people understand it but back then it felt super-pure because you wouldn’t think of Max Martin that much. You would have these very like iconic artists who were selling tons of records somehow and it just felt very monolithic and undeniable in a way. That is not necessarily a good thing but it clearly made it feel like a golden era.
There’s this facebook group called Electronic Avantgarde Posting, they share a mutual interest in PC Music, Arca and SOPHIE releases.
I think I’ve always been interested in avoiding the middle ground. I’d be happy to be called straight-up pop music even though I’m not. I’m pretty happy to be called avant-garde, even though I’m not by my old school definition. But these things are loose. You can listen to SOPHIE and Arca and clearly tell that there’s a lot of different influences from all sorts of things and that it is boundary-pushing. Even the term electronic as a precursor to it is a bit funny. All the things start crumbling if you look at it closer.
How do you stay connected with your fans ahead of the release of Apple’?
I wasn’t planning tons of live stuff, compared to other people. I wouldn’t have been extensively touring, it would have had a digital vibe anyway. What I like about the PC Music fanbase is that you have a lot of very prolific selves, doing their own music projects that’s what’s so fun about it for me, and that’s a nice reason to stay engaged. With the Zoom, you see people do their own creative takes. And that’s a good motivator to not overthink too much.
A. G. Cook‘s second debut Apple will be released on 19th September via P.C. Music. Last weekend, he organized the Zoom Festival Appleville with artists such as Charli XCX, Clairo or Dorian Electra.