Deerhunter were supposed to beyond this by now. The formerly experimental indie band’s latest and seventh album ‘Fading Frontier’, released this year, is their most poppy and accessible to date – see the swaggering lead single ‘Snakeskin’ – and, according to the general consensus, heralded a newfound maturity from eccentric 33-year-old singer Bradford Cox.
An unpredictable figure who’s been called both a “lightning rod to controversy” and “controversy magnet”, he has in previous years trolled gig-goers with an hour-long version of ‘My Sharona’ and publicly dissed Taylor Swift. Yet a recent Pitchfork interview seemed to reveal a new, mellower Cox: visiting the singer at his home in Atlanta, writer T. Cole Rachel found that “[he is] more easy going now, and much of his nervous energy has dissipated”. Inkeeping with the theme, NME’s 5/5 review of ‘Fading Frontier’ called the record “the most direct, unflinching album Deerhunter have ever made”.
So, no more weirdness, no more trolling, no more bad behaviour? Fat chance. Deerhunter’s weirdness, in an era of blandly-PR trained musicians, is – along with their eerie, ethereal music – part of what makes them so compelling.
Cox suffers from Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder associated with deformities and heart defects, of which he’s said: “What am I supposed to do? Wear bulky clothes and be a shoegazer and stare at my feet and act all sensitive? That’s not who I am. I’ve never been afraid of being loud. I talk too much. I’m obnoxious.” He went on to explain that he’d long given up on being “good-looking and all that stuff”, concluding: “I don’t want the biggest audience in the world. I just want the audience of the people who can understand me.” Who knows – maybe Bradford Cox has a chip on his shoulder.
And, contrary to the Deerhunter narrative in 2015, that doesn’t seem to be changing.
First, there was a near-meltdown on stage at the Regent Theatre in Los Angeles in October, with Cox complaining about sound issues, handing out potted plants to the crowd and abandoning the set-list to play 30 minutes of sheer noise.
Then, last Friday, Cox played a show at the Orange Peel in Asheville, North Carolina and made the bizarre claim that he had once been assaulted by one of Smashing Pumpkins’ bodyguards after drinking a bottle of water that belonged to the band. Cox said that, after the alleged assault, Corgan told him: “You’re a shitty little insignificant fucking indie rock band, and you were invited… to open for the Smashing Pumpkins.”
Corgan denied it ever happened, threatened to sue and Cox retracted the statement. Now footage has emerged from a Deerhunter show at the Union Transfer in Philadelphia on Monday night, during which Cox played 10-minute, distorted noise-rock version of the Pumpkins’ 1993 grunge anthem ‘Today’. He delivers a spoken-word monologue over the song, saying: “Dear Billy Corgan / I don’t even know you, man / Please don’t sue me”. Brilliantly, he also implores Corgan not to sue for the sake of Cox’s dog, who might “starve” if his owner were to become broke.
The song goes on to call out “clickbait” news stories spun out of the spat (sorry, Bradford) and, at the end, mutters: “Whoever uploads that to YouTube can suck my dick.” These two points suggest that Cox knows exactly what he’s doing, putting on a show, manipulating the media, being the kind of oddball artist that pop culture so desperately needs right now.
He may claim to loathe “clickbait” culture and idiots that film gigs (‘Fading Frontier was preoccupied, along with other themes, with the decline of the music industry) but Cox lives on this shit. He’s as difficult and confrontational as ever and that fact, as much as bangers like ‘Snakeskin’, is what makes him so compelling and essential right now.