Photo: Alaska Reid & Julian Buchan
A.G. Cook & The Art Of A Perfect Pop Song
On the phone, producer and musician A.G. Cook sounds exactly like his pop creations—cheerful, accessible and eager to race off on a tangent to explore the next new shiny idea that comes his way. Smashing Pumpkins, Cher, and Theodor Adorno chime and dance and spiral around each other as he talks about making music that hooks you with a fuzzy bath of odd angles.
Cook's best known as the founder of the PC Music label, and for producing Charli XCX's last string of critically acclaimed albums. He's mostly been content to let other artists headline his upbeat, eclectic, warped productions. But that's all changed this year with the release of his album Apple (out on Sept. 18), preceded by a seven-CD set (!) called 7G of new songs, covers, experiments and irrepressible everything. We talked about pop music, auto-tune, and what it's like being the headliner for the first time.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You've released so much music this year! This seven CD 7G set, the Apple album; the Charli XCX album How I'm Feeling Now. You have a collaboration with Jonsi coming out. How on earth have you managed to do all this?
I actually finished the Apple album about a year ago. And I was just looking for the right way to contextualize it. And then with the 7G stuff, some of it was done kind of recently, but it's really an exploration of all the sounds that went into Apple. It's a time travel look at things I've been exploring since day one, since seven years ago when I was starting to do this full-time.
Obviously I'm fairly prolific and work with different people. But also I just thought it was the most true version of me to be quite saturated and seeing things from many different angles at the same time. That just felt like the right way to do a debut.
Were you influenced by COVID and being forced to bunker down at home?
Elements of 7G for sure have a bit of this sort of COVID headspace. I've noticed that me and friends of mine—just having our time organized so differently meant getting deeper into weirder music or music that would actually take up more of your time.
You know, normally, I'd be like in an Uber hearing music on the radio and engaging with pop music in that way. But now I'm falling into the more eclectic side of streaming or even classical music. Suddenly, that all seems a little more approachable, and you end up enjoying the escapism of these slightly more epic projects.
So I think that also gave me the confidence to release it all at once. Rather than 7G being a big series or something, I tried to rationalizes this as an actual album. Because I think that's how I'm digesting music at the moment.
These are your first full-length releases under your own name. Is that very different than collaborating with others on their album?
Not really. A lot of the people I work with I'm fairly close to. And other people feed into my music too, so their voices appear and disappear even if I'm kind of up front. So I definitely try and keep some of the collaborative vibe.
I'm always writing little songs and recording into my computer and doing that with friends and passing the mic around. I've always had this diary-entry form where I'll come back to a thing that reminds me of something or a song file I started a few years ago and be like, "Oh, this still resonates with me. Maybe I need to look into this properly."
It is you singing on most of these tracks, right? On Apple the songs "Lifeline" and "Oh Yeah," that's your voice?
Yeah. "Lifeline" sort of evolves into Caroline Polachek's vocal by the end. But it's mainly my vocal. In a lot of the songs on both albums you hear me playing with my voice and seeing either how polished I can get it or how raw.
The whole notion of recording your own voice or hearing your own voice back I think is sort of fun. I like the freedom that sometimes I've done loads of work to it, sometimes it's sort of just as it is.
On "Oh Yeah," the vocal is almost ridiculously upfront. It's not meant to be fully humorous, but it's meant to be very human. You can hear my voice sort of trying to catch up with the melodies.
One of the songs I was surprised to see you cover on 7G was the Smashing Pumpkings' "Today."
There's certain kinds of hooks that I'm just drawn to. I always heard the main riff as a Sigur Ros thing. It's got this interesting thing with the chord shifting—the chords barely repeat in that song.
"Jumper" on Apple seemed to pick up some of the melody of "Today." Was that intentional?
"Jumper" was me thinking about that kind of guitar song and how bendy it could be be. There's a guitar solo on there that's actually a vocal, but it's been produced pretty much like a guitar. We were actually putting this guitar sampler through auto-tune and letting it glitch out. We were swapping all the traditional effects that you'd normally have on guitars and vocals basically in that one.
Is pop a particular genre of music, do you think, or is it just whatever is on the pop charts?
I don't know how I feel about pop being used in a really strict genre sense. I've heard this term pop classicism used to describe, Gaga, Carly Rae Jepsen, Taylor Swift and Charli to some extent. And that does represent a sound. But there's also hip-hop dominating the charts, other things through TikTok—all kinds of genres, really. And all of those, to me still feel like pop music.
I think the thing that actually unites pop is the concise approach. Fitting things into three minutes or less, having a song structure that lends itself to being understood really easily, having hooks and different forms of hooks through sounds and noises.
I don't know if it's to do with songwriting, but it's this idea that the whole song is actually communicating one thing through the mood of the music and what the lyrics are doing and the sounds. It's understood in a really fast way. And then ideally, those things are also popular or designed to be popular or become popular.
I've been reading this wonderful book The Dialectic of Pop by Agnés Gayraud, and she talks about how Theodor Adorno just hated the idea that music should be understood quickly or easily.
Me and my friend Finn Keane, we have been very, very slowly compiling a book called How Music Ruined Music. Because throughout the ages and really stretching back to ancient music, every time there's a new development there's this whole wave of like, "Oh, this is gonna ruin music."
And you can go backwards: the mp3 is going to ruin it, apps are going to ruin it, streaming is going to ruin it, recording studios are going to ruin it, labels are going to ruin it. And then back to 12 tone is going to ruin it, orchestras are going to ruin it.
And that kind of keeps me going sometimes because, you know, it sort of tells you how much freedom there is really and how valuable music as an art form is.
One big thing that people say is going to ruin music is auto-tune.
Yeah, that's my favorite example.
It's funny, lately, I've been challenging myself and doing a few things where there's no auto-tune and I'm just trying to capture good takes. But I'm not doing in a purist sense at all.
One of the most interesting things about auto-tune, too, is the way it could have started much earlier.
The track "Believe" by Cher, those producers were the first to crank auto-tune to zero latency, you know. But when they were interviewed they just completely lied to avoid giving the trade secret away. They were like, "Oh, we just use like a really meticulous vocoder and did this and that" and everyone was like, "Okay, fair enough."
But if they had just revealed that [they used auto-tune], you would have had this whole auto-tune wave potentially way earlier, rather than starting with the T-Pain era.
I think it's kind of amazing that the technology was actually around for a while before the style of it really blew up.
But for me, like, so many people now have had experience with apps or GarageBand having auto-tune. So for me auto-tune and that kind of computer recording is like as much of a folk instrument as anything else. I think it's pretty authentic.
I don't really see the binary between real and fake that much when it comes to auto-tune. It's a version of an instrument or a version of the voice. But it definitely didn't ruin music.