Daniel Lopatin on the idiosyncrasies of his creative process, the life cycle of counterculture, and how he remains enchanted with art
As he worked on his most recent album Again, Daniel Lopatin spent a lot of time thinking about what he could have done differently—not because he was unhappy with where he ended up, but because the record reimagines his artistic history: facilitating a conversation between the young adult he once was, and the critically-acclaimed composer, producer, and electronic musician he has become.
Creating a dialogue between past and present is, in a sense, Lopatin’s specialty. His genre-bending experimental compositions, released under the moniker Oneohtrix Point Never, often reanimate cultural relics like mashed-up radio broadcasts and TV infomercials to create an evocative portrait of the contemporary subconscious and the media that shapes it. His influence has loomed large in the avant-garde music community for over a decade, and in recent years, he has parlayed this niche acclaim into mainstream success—writing scores for Safdie brothers flicks Good Time and Uncut Gems, serving as the musical director of the Weeknd’s Super Bowl halftime show, and collaborating with the likes of Charli XCX, FKA Twigs, Caroline Polachek, and Rosalía.
Lopatin has become, as Amanda Petrusch observes, “the person pop stars call when their records are getting rote and predictable”: an expert in the art of reinvention, who has himself undergone numerous creative metamorphoses over the years. “I give myself a lot of freedom to continue to transform, and that’s really the only guiding principle that I’ve had for myself,” he tells Document. “There is no limit to what you can do, other than what feels honest when you’re doing it.”
In a conversation coinciding with the release of Lopatin’s new music video “Nightmare Paint,” Daniel Lopatin joins Document to discuss the process behind Again, how he remains enchanted with art, and why he can’t stop watching Twin Peaks.
“I give myself a lot of freedom to continue to transform, and that’s really the only guiding principle that I’ve had for myself.”
Camille Sojit Pejcha: You’ve described your latest album, Again, as an imagined collaboration between you and your younger self. If you could pass on one message to this other self, what would it be?
Daniel Lopatin: It’s funny that you ask that, because [when I was] recording the album I would make these voice memos for myself—not from me to my past self, but the other way around. It was like an incursion, a voice message from who I was to who I am now, being like, What the fuck are you doing?
I did it in the car while I was driving back and forth between my place and the city, and it felt like some kind of weird psychological experiment. It was very strange because I was doing it at night. I would be chanting, invoking this Lynchian Lost Highway sort of thing. I thought it was like, an art project, but it actually freaked me out.
Camille: What did your past self have to say?
Daniel: There was a lot of questioning myself. My past self would be like, ‘Is this what you wanted to do, motherfucker?’ But some of it was just past me being like, ‘Hey, I could really use some help understanding how to use this MSQ-700 sequencer. I thought maybe you would know since you’re a highfalutin Mr. Electronic Music Guy in the future. Can you just please fucking call me back?’
Camille: Did it feel like deranged self-therapy?
Daniel: I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Camille: It’s intriguing that you went from the younger self to the present, not the other way around.
Daniel: I’ve always found it interesting to go back to the origin of the [artistic] impulse… To create deeply from the heart, especially with the excitement of youth. I don’t consider myself to be a disenchanted person. I’ve been jaded, but enchantment is so central to everything I do—not just music, but also what a good life means to me. I don’t think I’ve ever allowed myself to feel bored. I’ve never betrayed myself in that way. But the enchantment of youth, that’s different. As you get further along [in your career]—ironically, as you get better at creating—you can become rigid and take for granted the mysteries. It’s part of growing older. But it’s a trade-off.
Camille: How do you conceive the role of memory in your work?
Daniel: In this record, I wanted to investigate [the past] in a speculative way—to imagine that through these other choices, I could have ended up in a different place. I think I’ve always been a little bit uncomfortable with having to commit to one thing. I give myself a lot of freedom to continue to transform, and that’s really the only guiding principle that I’ve had for myself. If you listen to my earliest recordings, they sound completely different than anything else I’ve ever done. But I can also hear this kind of gooey inner core that is exactly what I’ve always been.
I get a lot of people saying ‘Your music is so nostalgic,’ but I don’t agree. I’m interested in memory, in archives, and in preserving things, [but] I’ve never wanted to go back to the past to capture something better than where I am now.
Camille: I’m curious to hear your opinion on AI-generated music, which I know you experimented with on this album. How are you thinking about it, both in terms of creative potential and current limitations?
Daniel: I think on the record, maybe five percent of what you’re hearing can be directly attributed to AI, [because] when I was generating these results based on the beginning of one of my songs or a fragment of a demo, it would spit out mostly just garbage—just completely unusable. But I found myself titillated by it. I was either laughing, or I was gassed at how terrifying it was. It sounded like music that was possessed by a demon—just truly terrifying music that made no sense. And I can’t help but fuck with that! I’m already in that world, trying to reanimate garbage and dead things and all this kind of stuff… I’m already in the world of magic. And here’s this early, beta version of a Dr. Frankenstein creation that I have access to. Of course I’m going to use it! I think there’s a lot of fear, [with] people looking at AI as another thing to be freaked out by. But so many things have the potential to be scary—that’s the world we live in.
I’ve been re-watching Twin Peaks very seriously, on a nerdy level I don’t even want you to know about.
Camille: You brought it up! [Laughs] Do you have fan theories?
Daniel: You have a show created by two distinctly different types of thinkers: David Lynch and [co-creator] Mark Frost, who doesn’t get enough credit for his creativity, because Lynch—being who he is—is such a magnanimous and incredible artist. But they work beautifully together, they’re on some Lennon and McCartney shit. And once you understand the Venn diagram of their contributions, the show becomes even more interesting. There’s a theory that Twin Peaks is a meta-fiction about a cosmic war between the god of film and the god of television. And in season three, you see this kind of twisted abject birth of Bob and Laura coming out of the mouth of this demon… There are these gods [creating] these archetypal forces that need each other. That’s my long-winded way of saying [that] just because something may become scary, or just because something has the potential to annihilate us—whether existentially or physically—that doesn’t mean that we should repress it, because it’s going to come up anyway. Even if there’s some danger there. Especially if there’s some danger there.
If I’m going to ride with Freud about any one thing, it’s gonna be the return of the repressed. I think that idea is really powerful—that when you push things away, when you act cowardly, you don’t face your demons, you bury things, then you pay the price for them later. I want to make things. I want to use them. I want to get to know them. I want to dance with them, even if there’s some danger there. Especially if there’s some danger there.
Camille: So you feel drawn to AI—like you couldn’t ignore it, even if it was dangerous. What are you afraid of?
Daniel: What do I fear? Lots of things in my day-to-day life. Creatively, I’m afraid of betraying my instincts and my impulses, while also trying to be weary of how being impulsive can get you in a whole lot of trouble. It’s a fine line. But music is the world in which I get to experiment with and express those things that I’m thinking about in all different facets of my life. There is no limit to what you can do, other than what feels honest when you’re doing it.
“Just because something has the potential to annihilate us—whether existentially or physically—that doesn’t mean that we should repress it… Even if there’s some danger there. Especially if there’s some danger there.”
Camille: You’ve undergone many transformations throughout your career, yet have also had a very dedicated fanbase from the very beginning. Can you describe how you conceive and manage audience expectations as your work evolves?
Daniel: [As a creator] you have this dichotomy of loving the fans because they keep the fire alive, but also loathing them for having expectations of you and or misunderstanding the thing that you’re doing. They’re saying, ‘I like this part of your career but not this,’ or ‘You were so great before you became successful,’ or ‘Now it’s too much of this, and not enough of that.’ ‘It’s too refined.’ ‘It’s too complex.’ ‘It’s better when it’s simple.’ ‘It’s too simple.’ ‘It was better when it was complex.’ None of it makes sense, because it’s all different. This record is like, Okay, if you wanna speculate on what parts of my past are more interesting than others, I’m gonna do the exact same thing. It’s a very demented kind of fan service.
Camille: And do you think the process of doing that—of pushing back against expectation, or almost parodying it—has led you back to your musical self?
Daniel: Yes. It’s like a dance. There would be no ultra-nihilistic, grayscale Twin Peaks season three if so many people hadn’t desired the colorful, vibrant world of season one. That dark and beautiful idea is born out of these other desires. It’s hard not to roll your eyes at some of the things that people want, but that doesn’t mean that they’re wrong. This schizophrenic landscape of feedback is actually wonderful because it yielded this record. It’s something that only happens 15 years into your career. It means that I’m still here. But I don’t have to agree with everyone!
Camille: You’re really into Twin Peaks, and this collaboration between Frost and Lynch, at the same time when you’re facilitating this dialogue between your past self and future self. Do you see a parallel between these dynamics?
Daniel: Definitely. I was shocked at how much I empathized with a piece of art. I felt a deep kinship with both Frost and Lynch. They represent two important creative instincts—and there’s this kind of self-reflective mode to the show, a layer of self-awareness that isn’t just froggy and technical, it’s spiritual.
Camille: Connecting that idea with AI, what do you see as the relationship between spirituality and technology?
Daniel: First of all, we have to define technology. Is it the apple in the Garden of Eden? Is it knowledge? Is technology techne, like the Greeks? On the one hand, somebody like Marshall McLuhan was like, ‘The medium is the message.’ The tool defines the spirit of the time. We’re living in a very intense period for techne as an archetype. It’s so overinflated that it’s hard to resist McLuhan’s proposal, but my instinct is that the tool emerges from desire, and desire emerges from a soul. It was just an extension of some very ancient impulse to know thyself. And the tool is an appendage—nothing but a reflection of the desire of its creator. I don’t know… Ask me in 20 years.
Camille: When you’re painting, there’s a constant dialogue between the creative act and the physical result. But with AI, it’s just a pure act from a machine that is functionally blind and can’t exert its taste on the object in a conscious way. It’s quite hit or miss, and sometimes when it misses, it’s kind of poetic in its failure.
Daniel: Yes. I remember when people started using DALL·E, I was like, Oh, this is interesting, because it’s not a visual medium—it’s a poetic medium. It’s the image that’s created, but the source—the origin of the libido, of the creative drive, the objet petit of the whole situation—is the prompt. It’s just a matter of time before one of these fuckers has a show and is clever enough to just put the prompt on the gallery wall without the image.
Camille: I wonder how this will change the importance of taste and curation as a concept. The term ‘curator’ is already so overused.
Daniel: I think the way people are using the word ‘curator’—that’s just practice for the main event. I like to imagine these curators as foremen wearing little hard hats, and automation is like a pilot sitting there, reading a comic book, while the plane lands itself. We’re already there in certain ways, we just don’t like it yet.
Camille: I think it’s still threatening not just on a literal economic level, but because we still identify with this American mythology around the value of labor. It’s essential to our identity.
Daniel: That’s intriguing; I’ve never thought about it that way. I think at some point we’re gonna get into the self-driving car and just be happy that it’s doing what it does, and we’re gonna lose that impulse to want to take over. It’ll be like a point of singularity—a vibe shift or an actual consciousness shift, where the desire to have that kind of control, to work the machine ourselves, will cease. It’s incredible to imagine a time when we will have acquiesced and have that be natural, but there was probably a similar time preceding the acceptance of the motorized vehicle. And now we just jump in the car and go! I mean, if I was really baked, maybe I would get it in the car and be like, Whoa, it’s so strange that we do this on a daily basis. But sociologically, the thing is just a pure extension [of the body]. As humans, our adaptability to technology seems like it only goes in one direction. We just get more and more adaptive.
“The folly of youth, I think, is trying to make some sort of foolproof artistic practice that can’t be co-opted by polite society or hegemony.”
Camille: At the same time, we’re adapting sociologically much faster than our brains and bodies can evolve physically… Ingesting such huge amounts of information all the time in a way we were never designed to do.
I’m curious, have you ever encountered any Corecore content on the internet?
Daniel: No, what is it?
Camille: It’s hard to describe—videos with a lot of cut-together footage of recent or past media, like old live streams, TV infomercials, and memes, set to emotional music. It reminds me a little of Vaporwave, in that it’s pulling from these collective archives: stitching together these seemingly unrelated clips that, together, evoke a sense of melancholy and modernity.
Daniel: You’ve got my attention.
Camille: It’s also a commentary on the -core trend, but one that is hard to define and commercialize. It feels a bit Dadaist that way. I could be overselling this, but I think it’s interesting that there’s some drive to make this. There’s some audience for that weird, modern feeling.
Daniel: You nailed it—there’s an audience for the weirding of reality. And the internet is like one big, meta readymade.
The folly of youth, I think, is trying to make some sort of foolproof artistic practice that can’t be co-opted by polite society or hegemony, [when] it’s the natural progression of the orientation of content or ideas in a capitalist society. I really enjoy the notion of being counter-something. I’m not saying, ‘Oh, don’t be so naive, kids.’ I’m saying thank God younger generations still have that spark in them that says ‘We won’t be that.’ Because I’m old—or I get to be old soon—and when I do that, I get to wither away. I get to lay down and whatever is left of me gets to be digested by maggots, and then flowers will come out of the corpse. From my decaying body, new things will grow.
Camille: You’re talking like you’re on your deathbed. [Laughs]
Daniel: I really shouldn’t! I was reading Philipp Mainländer’s writing before bed, which I don’t recommend—it’s too depressing and goth. He was an Austrian socialist and he had this theory that the world was the decaying corpse of God, and that we were the maggots feeding off of it. It’s the most metal thing I’ve ever heard in my fucking life. I hope you don’t look into it.
Camille: I most definitely will be looking into it.
This conversation about the cycles of culture and the contributions of different generations leads us back to what you were talking about earlier, the enchantment of making art before you’re old and jaded. What would you tell younger generations to help them maintain that sense of enchantment about the creative act, even as they watch their own artistic interventions become co-opted and commercialized?
Daniel: That the story for Corecore doesn’t end at that moment when it becomes some weird, bland, pasteurized version of it that is used in a Rihanna video or something. It comes full circle. And that’s part of the fun: the goalposts are constantly moving and you have to figure out what is actually meaningful and what is pablum. I think that’s a life cycle of counterculture: the beautiful thing is what springs up after something that used to work as an anti-authoritarian intervention no longer does. It’s the act of reinvention.