So… what is pop music?
You’ve undoubtedly heard the term before, but… what actually is pop music? Is a pop song determined based on its format? On its lyrics? On how relatable and dance-able it is? I mean, is “pop” even a genre? Or is it just a qualifying description of songs from other genres that get really popular? How do we define this nebulous thing that plays such a crucial role in our mass culture?
Ultimately, it probably doesn’t matter. Music is music and if it’s good, it’s good. But, nevertheless, this conversation has been brought into center stage with the explosion of “hyperpop” over the past year. An exciting, bombastic and iconoclastic genre — if it can even be called a “genre” — hyperpop draws on every-day symbolism and the cliches of “popular music” to craft something which is maximalist, impressionistic and, well, incredibly entertaining. With saw synths, auto-tuned vocals, glitch-inspired percussion and a distinctive late-capitalism-dystopia vibe, the sound captures the sense of catharsis and anxiety which seems to have become so prevalent in our modern world. But — perhaps most impressively — it manages to do this while remaining genuinely fun. In 2019, the genre stepped into the spotlight with the release of 100 gecs’ masterpiece, 1000 gecs, and the creation of the official Spotify hyperpop playlist. Yet, that explosion didn’t happen overnight — hyperpop itself has been simmering beneath the surface of popular music for the better part of a decade, thanks to one person: A. G. Cook.
The 30-year-old, English producer and songwriter has been making waves since 2013 when he founded the cult-adored record label, PC Music. As label-head, Cook oversaw much of the production work and began executing his visions of deconstructing pop music. Providing an invaluable platform for this new sound to develop, PC Music fostered a roster so unique and inimitable that the genre itself was referred to as “PC Music” for a period of time. With his label’s clout behind him, Cook began working with some of the bigger names in pop music — namely, Charli XCX. Serving as her creative director, he began to really push these more abstract concepts into the mainstream perception of what “pop music” is. In addition, Cook has proven himself to be highly prolific, earning upwards of 50 credits on songs by folks like SOPHIE (a longtime collaborator of Cook’s), Oneohtrix Point Never, 100 gecs, QT, Tommy Cash, Jónsi, Hannah Diamond, Caroline Polachek, Christine and the Queens, David Guetta, Skrillex and more.
Now, in 2020, Cook is taking this to the next level by debuting himself as a solo artist. On August 12, he released 7G, a sprawling, 49-song, 7-disc, “producer album” opus which shows off the versatility and ingenuity of his production talents. Focusing each of the 7 discs on a specific element of his process — drums, guitar, supersaw, piano, nord, spoken word and extreme vocals — the record is almost like a manifesto of Cook and the vision he’s executing.
Then, just a few weeks later on September 18, Cook followed up 7G with Apple, a more traditional pop record with a strong influence from “classic songwriters” and Americana (Cook cites Shania Twain as his biggest influence during the record-making process). Stepping back from the maximalism that is usually associated with the style, Apple presents a new way to think about what “hyperpop” can be. Honestly, it presents a new way to think about what “music” can be. Between the record’s tear-jerker ballads, saw-clad dance tracks and alternate-universe Twain-esque pop cuts, Apple is a profound statement, proclaiming the artistic relevancy of an entire generation.
Last month, American Songwriter caught up with Cook to discuss all of this. Throughout our conversation, Cook demonstrated the depth to which he thinks about his craft and the passion with which he approaches it. Insightful and well-worded, he represents a new type of music-maker, one whose capabilities are endless and whose story is just beginning.
You were quoted as saying that “classic songwriting is one of the core aspects of Apple” — what is “classic songwriting” to you? How did you approach applying those concepts to your work?
Yeah, it’s a really interesting category — I’m kind of glad to be interviewed by you guys for that reason. I spent a lot of time in America over the past few years, which makes me feel even more British, I think. But, it’s also allowed me to understand it all more. On a really basic level, I’m pretty interested in the notion of “concise songwriting” for the purpose of pop music — or however that’s defined. I don’t think “pop” is a very useful word right now in terms of defining things. There’s a kind of pop classicism of Britney, Gaga, and even Charli to some extent, that people are still really into. But, pop music is also all the stuff going on on TikTok. Plus, hip-hop has kind of dominated charts in a very cool way.
But, what I think is enduring about the notion of writing pop music on any level is just the concision — being concise, things being under three minutes, having this sort of structure that plays with people’s expectations through a verse, chorus, bridge, all of that stuff. Something that I’ve always been really into — along with a lot of my friends that I work with, even though we don’t always talk about it explicitly — is the slightly formal craft of songwriting. I think I’ve always tried to think about that.
Even though my sound palette is pretty electronic and kind of all over the place, I do tend to start my songs in a kind of skeletal way, where I have the main chords and the melody really down. The thing that annoys me the most is when I have a really elaborate sound design piece built around bare bones that I never really liked in the first place. That really ruins a song for me sometimes. I don’t even care how well it’s been put together or produced if the actual song doesn’t survive very well. Even in some of the stranger instrumental pieces I have, I still like to think of things as having a vocal element even if there isn’t an actual “vocal” part. There might be a synth which has a kind of human vocal quality or a slight chop where you hear a tiny bit of someone’s voice and it becomes some kind of abstract topline. I really think it suffers when you don’t think about some level of songwriting.
Apple itself is fairly concise for an album. It definitely has the most upfront vocals I’ve done for myself. For me, that’s kind of amusing. It’s an attempt to avoid it being a sort of “producer album” in a sense. I’m trying to really make it quite personal and playful. I usually write lyrics right at the end — I’m not one of those people who sort of has texts and does that. But, I think I tried to use what I can from my understanding of songwriting almost as a genre to drive a lot of this stuff.
To me, that’s one of the most exciting elements of your music. It might not have the same sonic atmosphere as a traditional Americana track, but it does genuinely have that “classic songwriter” ethos.
I’ve been pretty directly inspired by the strands of Americana that have sometimes defied that category. Shania Twain is a really good example. She is very true to it, but at the time that it was borderline blasphemous on some level. But, that’s sorta what gave it all its charisma. She has such a slick mix of vocals and production — she pushed it forward. I mean, it turned into full-on pop music, but a pop person would still be like, “Oh yeah Shania Twain is country,” you know?
I think that most projects or artists that do that kind of genre-hopping and boundary-pushing are not only the most interesting but they end up defining what both of those things are. Someone like Shania Twain defines what pop is and what Americana and country are by actually jumping between those. To actually break those rules, you sorta have to build them up a bit. I definitely think about that quite a lot.
Who were some of your other influences for Apple? How do you approach integrating all these various, eclectic influences into your sound?
My main thing has been to avoid the middle ground. All the music that I’m most attracted to is either what you would kind of call “mainstream” or it’s pretty much on that “avant-garde” level. For my generation in particular, there’s sort of a “golden age of blogs” from the late 2000s or whenever where it was super easy — this was before streaming — to get someone’s entire discography. So, accessing all this music at the same time was influential. Maybe even more so now with “playlist culture,” you have the opportunity to develop a really eclectic taste. Even now, if I’m on a drive somewhere, it’s totally plausible that we’d listen to some Aphex Twin followed by Dolly Parton and even see some similarities between the two.
In terms of unconventional influences, I still do listen to a lot of electronic stuff. But, I’ll also listen to someone like Dolly Parton, who has so many different phases. With artists like that, it’s not like I’m going to like all of their stuff, but they tried so many things out that there’ll be really interesting pockets. Dolly’s album White Limozeen, for example, is really over the top. Some of the arrangements on the really fast tracks from that, for me, sort of relate to a whole bunch of other examples of slightly accelerated pop music. I wouldn’t make a direct comparison between something like White Limozeen and Vroom Vroom by Charli XCX because they do sound different, but they’re both looking at vehicles, indulgence and exuberance and using their own genres to play with that. You have the sort of songs and the palette and the tempo that keep going back to the same concept, even if it’s something as simple as a fun car or something.
Leonard Cohen is another great example of an artist who’s had many different phases like that. Are you a fan of his? I could see the I’m Your Man album being particularly up your alley.
I’ve been recommended to listen to Leonard Cohen a lot, but I haven’t gotten around to it. I actually heard an amazing record of some live show he did that was really obscure and interesting. But, I’m always a little worried to go for things that are very lyric-focused. For me, that’s the kind of music that takes the longest to get into, just because of how my brain works. It’s funny, though, I’m always arguing with people about Bob Dylan. I always had a hard time with it. But, then I listened to his stuff while literally reading the lyrics and it was like an audiobook or something. I mean, I totally got it.
For me, music that I’ve had an aversion to initially, I end up coming around to. Again, it’s all about avoiding that middle ground. I remember first hearing Captain Beefheart and just thinking, “Whatever.” But, I was so mesmerized by how strange it was that I would come back to it way more than I’d come back to anything else I was listening to. Now, I see myself as a fan. I can feel the circle slowly grinding on Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, that kind of thing. What’s initially quite abrasive to me is almost like how I felt about listening to heavy metal or something, which I’m now into.
I also have a bunch of friends who are really into Joni Mitchell, not just the Blue album, but the other one with “Coyote” on it and the stuff where it starts to get pretty weird and pretty interesting. I’m kind of a weird listener, I guess, but I’ll be hearing something by Joni Mitchell with her super raw but really skilled vocals and, for me, there’s an analog there for modern vocal production. Her stuff sounds comped even though it isn’t. Even just syllable specific, I think, “Wow how is this just a live take.” Then there are people I’ve worked with like Caroline Polachek who is obviously influenced by Joni Mitchell and has the actual genetic ability or training to make the most of that. Sometimes getting someone like Caroline on my songs — or writing with her even — it’s really fun to connect those things. That’s why I think I’m more drawn to Joni’s stuff even though it’s lyrical. The vocal is so musical and has that kind of vocal-instrument blurring that I was referencing before.
So, now this sound you’ve been working with for your entire career is expanding at a rapid rate. How do you feel about that?
I’m sort of glad that there have been multiple generations of this. I don’t know if it’s as much of a “sound” as it is an ethos. From the beginning of PC, I never really had a dogma or a very strict A&R solution to anything. I was always really happy when someone had their own personal take on it, as long as it had this sort of expressive quality and took some risks. I think that’s more of the core of how you’d describe a lot of those artists, rather than, for example, a particular bass sound that makes it this or that. Obviously, that includes being more receptive to harsh drums or crazier sections and vocal production and things like that, but I think it comes from a place of freedom where anything could happen. It could still be pop music or it could still be concise and thoughtful.
It’s about breaking down the binary between real and fake, acoustic and electronic. In the current era those things don’t hold up very well anyway. Everything is done on a computer, even if it’s a completely acoustic thing. Everyone’s involved on some level of branding on various socials regardless of if they’re the most “authentic” artist or not. Everyone’s kind of going through all these different filters and having their own transparent responses to it. I think it felt kind of inevitable that there would be other people who would listen to PC, be inspired and then make something completely different, but would have some of that same energy. I’ve worked with a bunch of those people as well, so it’s been a really fun revolving door. I’ll work together on a Charli thing or with Dylan Brady from 100 gecs. It was just very natural and I think it’s been a really nice thing for me to experience. It’s definitely given me a bit of confidence to do these debut albums.
How do you feel about some of the labels — like “hyperpop” — that have been employed to try to describe it?
I don’t mind the name hyperpop — I think tags are sort of useful. I know “bubblegum bass” was thrown around, so at least hyperpop is a little more open. But, I was finding it really fun that “PC Music” as a label name was also mixed up with the genre name. I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all — some of the most iconic PC Music releases haven’t even necessarily come out on PC Music. That feels like a very ideal outcome in some ways.
I think “hyperpop” is funny too because I wonder: what element of pop is it keeping? The better the genre does the more it should just be “pop,” rather than “hyperpop,” but then you fall into that pop classicism thing of, “Oh it’s not pop because it’s not this or that.” You see that in a lot of genres — maybe the future of that is that we’re just going to have more of these hilariously named micro-genres.
I mean, you look at something like “Old Town Road.” Everyone got it, but the genre conversation was completely confusing. Plus, that whole track is sampling Nine-Inch Nails anyway, so where does that leave you? I think it’s just a sign of how eclectic things are. I think it’s probably cool for people to own and argue over certain genres, but my gut feeling is that the spirit of it will not only continue, but will maybe go beyond hyperpop. I mean, this also started with a bunch of things that were way before hyperpop — going back to funny things in the ‘80s like Scritti Politti or things like Kraftwerk and the way they portrayed themselves. It’s sort of the same line and it changes as we go through different eras, but it’s the same thing about presentation, about whether they’re an underdog or part of the mainstream. I think they’re quite similar, spiritually.
Yeah, or like Frank Zappa.
Yeah, exactly! People love or hate Zappa, but I was reading the other day that when he started his label, he started two at the same time. One was called “Bizarre” and the other was called “Straight,” and I can really relate to that. It feels like a very PC Music thing to do even though, obviously, it’s completely anachronistic. It’s a kind of ethos that I think is a genuinely creative reaction to the structures that exist.
It’s cool too how there’s a parallel of inspiration there — just how Zappa fostered a circle of artists who all influenced each other, PC Music has sorta created a platform for all of these new, innovative artists to exchange ideas and expand the conversation.
We have that with each other too, for sure. When I was first making music seriously — or even not seriously — I was more on the MIDI songwriting side. I was just getting things down and mainly using presets, maybe combining them in a good way, but I wasn’t deeply involved with sound design. Then, I met someone like SOPHIE and her work was pretty mind-blowing. But, that also meant that when we were collaborating, I could just focus on my bit and she could focus on her bit. I’d have these MIDI patterns laid out and she’d have these sounds already made like amazing kick drums and other things. We just put them together in a sort of Power Rangers move. I was obviously learning a lot through that, but I didn’t have to think about it quite as much.
Since then, as I’ve developed, I’ve been getting really deep into all of that stuff too. Sound designing allows room for personality. Even a strange noise can technically be a hook in a pop song. I mean, it happens even more now though things like TikTok. It’s always been really fun to just make everything connected in that sense. I feel like there’s still a lot that each of us individually haven’t figured out, but there are so many different options firing off. I think that the main thing is just trying to be intentional and confident with it. For me, I don’t always see music as this sort of shiny polished thing. I’ll play with distortion and, like, the internal laptop microphone. But, then on the same track, you might have a very slick vocal take. So, I think it’s all about the confidence.
Speaking of which — you are quite a technically proficient and innovative artist. What were some pieces of gear that informed the record-making process for Apple?
A lot of stuff! I’ve worked on it in different phases, so I would get into one technique and then sort of rinse it and move it. But there were a few things that were enduring. One quite interesting oppositional thing was a plug-in called Strummed Acoustic. You just press one key — maybe two if you want the minor variation — and it gives you a perfectly recorded strummed acoustic guitar with all these strumming patterns and options. You can feed it all these funny chords. I mean, this poor person had to somehow record just gigabytes and gigabytes of this and they’re all exactly the same dynamic across all the different strumming patterns, it’s pretty incredible. So, I got really into that for a moment. I was sort of getting back into playing guitar a little bit — which I’d kind of avoided for a while — but, I was mesmerized by the weird uncanniness of that sampling tool. It isn’t like another sampler where it’s just a sound because it has a performance in the sample. I was pushing myself to write these really quick songs and try and arrange them with that. “Oh Yeah” came completely from my infatuation with Strummed Acoustic. I also added other layers that sort of ripped off the liveness of it. It’s just so clean. I mean, I could never get an acoustic guitar sounding like Strummed Acoustic. So, that was really fascinating for me because of the weird playability.
But then, on the flipside, I would be doing these kind of saw synth, like, supersaw kind of things. You have a saw wave, you detune it and it gives it a really interesting sound. Once you detune it enough, it begins to sound metallic. Once you detune it even more, you basically start to have nice, diatonic chords again, because the notes are widening and widening until they become triads or whatever. So, that was also a kind of “total opposite” approach where I had to get really technical in thinking about how the different oscillators worked and how I could automate all of those so it could go between sounding pretty beautiful to real harsh all within the same instrument track.
Then to push it even farther, I sort of forced myself to learn Reaktor, which is kind of like the complete opposite tool to something like Strummed Acoustic. That was a much longer difficulty curve, but through that I managed to make these very particular synths where each tiny detune would have its own ADSR, you know, attack and release stuff. So, you have these kind of bending metallic sounds. Sometimes I’d use that on the same track as Strummed Acoustic. So, that’s quite a good example of very different approaches that sort of led to different musical things.
There was a bunch more too. I tend to be very in-the-box in general. For a long time, I would just have a microphone, my laptop and speakers. I did discover this one piece of outboard that I was using a lot: the Nord Rack 2. That became pretty interesting, not just because of the exact era of it, but because it was marketing itself as a “virtual analog,” which I didn’t even think of much, but it’s an amazing paradox that I think sums up my own sound pretty well. It’s this strange synth that’s been designed really well. It doesn’t really sound like a computer or plug-in, but then it’s also trying to do things that an analog synth couldn’t quite do and you can sort of hear it. It has its own strange, nice filters, but then you flip one button and it immediately turns from like a normal analog synth to some FM sound. It’s full-frequency and kind of hurts your ear. I found that to be a really nice glue between something like Strummed Acoustic — which was pseudo-real — and something like the supersaws. I think I’m always drawn to those things that present some sort of interesting paradox or challenge.
I also got more into distortion, in general, and I found myself using Boss guitar pedals that I’d run in and out, doing funny things like that. I also used something like iZotope Trash 2. I mean, they’ve modeled all kinds of stuff, so you can get it to sound really digital and you can have all these sort of, almost gated, crackly and completely overdriven sounds. But, you can also convolve it and have these convolution layers that suddenly sound 3D and really hyper and stereo in a way that you don’t really find in a guitar pedal distortion or something. So, it’s just about finding fun ambiguities to push any kind of gear into.
You are incredibly prolific — what does your workflow typically look like?
I don’t draw too much of a distinction between being a producer who also works with friends on their projects and doing my own stuff. But, at some point, I have made a distinction by releasing my own stuff as “A. G. Cook.” In the last few years, I was definitely realizing that I had these songs with my own voice or these demos and things that started to feel quite personal. It just made sense to do it myself in that way. I’d be playing it to different people I work with too, so the process of working with them on their albums also greatly influenced my own stuff. My stuff is definitely influenced by the way I’d work with someone like Jónsi on his album or Charli XCX on hers. I’m quite pragmatic, really, so after a while it started to feel like these sort of funny diary entries. I think I was still trying to do it in a kind of scattered way and eventually I did have to be like, “Okay, I’m actually going to take a few weeks out for myself,” and I sort of ended up doing that a couple of times a year until I felt that it was pretty good. I finished Apple first about a year ago. I got it to a place I was really happy with, but I was thinking about how I ended up with those instruments on it and how it felt very intentional… so, the 7G stuff came out of that. That made me revisit certain old tracks, but it also made me make a bunch of new experiments with the tools that I’d already figured out. So, I’m obviously fairly prolific and can work relatively fast, but I did have to settle down at some point and sort of commit to it being something other people would digest with a really strong perspective.
Watch the music video for “Beautiful Superstar” off Apple by A. G. Cook below: