"I've always been a leader of awkward people," Bradford Cox says.
Cox, lead singer (and also guitarist, keyboardist and player of various other stuff) of Atlanta band Deerhunter and solo-project Atlas Sound, is a musician whose personal appearance, live stageshow presentation, music media critiques and band song lyrics all bubble over with a freakshow differentness developed from the experience of adolescent illness and disability. Cox has said as much himself.
Image description: A color photo of Cox against an all-white background. He's sitting, knees bent and arms upraised, facing the camera and smiling. He wears jeans, tennis shoes and a striped sleeveless shirt that reveal long limbs and skinny biceps.
Cox was born with the genetic connective tissue disorder Marfan Syndrome. He's 6'4" and so shockingly thin that his appearance has been the relentless subject of music reviewers' commentary. And he's turned that around and used it for dramatic effect with about as much ease as possible. In an interview with Rodney Carmichael at Creative Loafing, Cox says:
"I hate my body just as much as everybody else comments on it or hates it, you know. I mean, I think most people [hate their bodies]. . . . [Marfan Syndrome] affects your personality, because a lot of your personality is a product of your self-image."But he also says, (and I so love this):
"I'm not trying to exploit myself to provoke people or shock people. But I'm not shy at the same time. So I guess I started realizing what effect it has on people. ... I say 'fuck it' and try to hit the ceiling with everything you do. And if you have something that one person would consider a handicap, I would say, like, just try to make it explode, you know?"What Cox calls hitting the ceiling or exploding is his live band performances. From Seattle Weekly's Andy Beta:
Cox believes Deerhunter's reputation is partially founded on this freak-show allure. "I can just walk onstage and people will be, 'What the fuck?'" he says in between drags on a cigarette. "If anything, I wouldn't mind representing something for people, representing sickliness, fucked-up-ness. . . . At least it comes natural to me. And I'm not Marilyn Manson."From the Phillyist:
[Deerhunter's] stage presence was interesting. There was no banter, but they didn’t need it. The guitarist, who wore a shirt that read “Just Say YES” in the tradition of the famous anti-drug campaign, attacked his instrument with the same intensity as his counterpart, who wore a black and white striped shirt that called to mind the Hamburglar. Lead singer Bradford Cox was wearing a dress. Yes, a Laura-Ashley-minus-the-lace sleeveless number with green and earth tone-colored print. His wig was draped over his face so he appeared to be an apparition of hair, limbs, and grandma’s housedress.
It was one of the oddest concert experiences we’ve had. We were equal parts attracted and repelled. Trying to make sense of it in our mind, we kept coming back to an image of Carrie, doused in a bucket of pig's blood. Horrifying, and yet wouldn’t that warm, viscous liquid be kind of comforting?
That's maybe an apt comparison, since Deerhunter's critically-acclaimed 2007 album Cryptograms is very much about an adolescence spent in hospital. On the band's blog, Cox explains the lyrics of the song "Spring Hall Convert":
So I woke up
In a radio freeze
Occupied by a couple of girls
I knew from
Way back when, where
Oh, I had my face like the ocean
So I’d radiate but
Too much radiation
I walk around like a walker
And like a walker
Always choosing where to go
And where to be
Too much radiation
So long loneliness
So far from home
(When I was sixteen I was hospitalized for extensive surgeries on my chest ribs and back because of marfan's. That entire summer was like completley erased. I was in a coma for a couple of weeks. I got to really understand what its like to not be well. I've always sort of understood, growing up with marfan's, but this was hardcore shit. I wrote this song transposing this high school acid trip where i saw my two best friends back then, Sarah and Chrissy, bathed in this golden spring light in the hallway of my highschool and felt really close to them, like we were sisters. I always felt genderless around them. I actually took a photo of them in that hallway that day which i will find and upload. If the song could be captured visually, this photo would be it. Anyways, I was trying to transpose the concepts of illness (in this case I was writing from the perspective of someone going in and out of conciousness during chemotherapy, and how they would miss their friends, their past experiences, and anything that reminded them of normalcy, or a time before misery. Nostalgia as anesthetic)
And the song "Hazel St.":
There was no connecting my actions with words
In the bright sunlight, the movement of birds
The car ride home, was blinded again
The light would not focus the light would not bend
There’s no use calling I know what you’d say
Over and over it ended today
Worlds lost their meaning and could not explain
Why the subject was always just out of frame
I was sixteen
I lived on Hazel Street
Protect me from the scene
And guide me with your heat
Ice forms in sheets
There melting in the street
(This goes back to the whole sixteenth year of my life spent in a hospital bed thing. I have major issues about it and have recently started going to therapy and am back on antidepressents. Obviously as so many of you have noticed, my body is fucked up. I never really recovered from all that surgery and stuff. This song is kind of like a jack off fantasy about what it would have been like if i had been the person i wanted to be physically (i.e. healthy, cute, whatever...) and lived on Hazel St which is this quaint little street of the town square in downtown Marietta, Georgia.. It's just a fantasy about being normal. Its kind of prefaced with an argument or a conflict or a relationship breakdown, the kind of things that make me fantasize about having been born normal even more.)
Cox's solo-project Atlas Sound's 2008 album, entitled Let The Blind Lead Those Who Cannot See includes the song "Quarantined," with these brief, repeated lyrics:
Quarantined and kept so far away from my friends.Deerhunter's 2008 releases are the (again) critically-acclaimed Microcastle and it's full-length companion Weird Era Cont.
I am waiting to be changed.
Creative Loafing's Carmichael writes:
To his credit, Cox has turned his inherent weakness into a strength. And the result is as vivid as Deerhunter's sound, which is way too hypnotic and eerily transcendant to be overshadowed, even by Cox. On the contrary, the lead singer's physical appearance is the perfect complement to the wonderfully weird music the band makes. Whereas one without the other would only be plain old weird at best.Weird is how I feel about the music. Some of it I really enjoy and other songs seem like mostly noise to me. But I'm interested in seeing if repeated listening will alter that at all.
Check out some YouTube if you like:
Music video for "Strange Lights" from Cryptogram
Music video for "Agoraphobia" from Microcastle
"Spring Hall Convert" and "Hazel St." live in Chicago
"Quarantined" from Let Those Who Are Blind Lead Those Who Cannot See
And other resources about Cox and his bands:
Wiki on Deerhunter
Wiki on Atlas Sound
Deerhunter blog, also Atlas Sound, mainly written by Cox
Rolling Stone magazine bio of Deerhunter