London-born, LA-based producer A. G. Cook is reshaping the face of pop music as we know it. In 2013, the artist founded the now-internet-notorious record label and art collective, PC Music, known for its associated acts like Hannah Diamond, QT and Danny L Harle, and its characteristic hyperpop sound. Cook’s own sound is no less idiosyncratic. It is often maximalist, glitchy and extraterrestrially electronic, sometimes acoustic, earnest and pared-down, but always unmistakeably his own.
2020’s “been an extreme year to do anything,” he says. For most of us, that means reading a few more books or baking more bread. For Cook, that means producing albums for Charli XCX and Jónsi, performing in Minecraft concerts and Apple Guild’s Battle of the Bands, releasing the heptagonal behemoth, 7G, a seven-disc, 49-track ode to all things Cook, and a couple of weeks later releasing Apple, his second album – just in-case one debut album wasn’t enough. Cook chats with us about this intense dedication to his craft, as well as how to build community in a digital era, audibly augment Sia’s Chandelier and traverse the limitless soundscape of pop.
While most of the world seems to be going to shit, what felt right about now to step out from behind the production desk and release your own albums?
I’d actually been planning my releases for a while – I had this idea that 2020 might be a good year for it, just based on having finished so many albums for other artists over the last few years. Obviously it’s been an extreme year to do anything, but a lot of the ideas that I’d been thinking about for my releases involved digital media, escapism, community building and just trying to transcend the physical world in some form. My own listening habits also evolved during quarantine. Suddenly, I had time to digest much longer pieces of music, and that definitely gave me the confidence to present something substantial.
For me, PC Music takes the most consumerist, commercial aspects of pop and distils them down into the collective’s heavily produced, almost at times sickly-sweet hyperpop vision. Do you find it meta that hyperpop is gradually becoming part of the new mainstream? Or has this always PC Music’s aim?
I’m interested in those definitions, but I don’t know if I see things in such a literal way. For me, pop is such an open term and has included some extremely adventurous and hyper music over the decades. In my mind, PC Music has simply been more transparent about appreciating those moments in mainstream music and offering multiple perspectives – rather than seeing the entire genre as a guilty pleasure that has nothing to do with underground music.
You’re Charli XCX’s current Creative Director and have produced her four most recent albums. You two seem to share a symbiotic relationship, with each person bringing different creative attributes to the table. How do you think you’ve helped each other progress as artists?
Working with Charli has been a massive and really rewarding part of my life. I think it’s enabled us both to become much more fearless about how we present our work, to take risks and be more confident about our identities. It’s funny because my first year working with Charli was defined by me being her ‘creative director’ mainly to help bridge the gap that existed in 2016 between Fancy, Sucker and Vroom Vroom.
Her label was attempting to narrow down how she presented herself in a way that ended up being quite confusing. My main input was to just encourage Charli to embrace her XCX brand, make logos and build a world around it, while also embracing her own quite down-to-earth personality. Basically, a double-edged approach that totally avoided the label conversation! But there was still the issue of which songs to release, and after a year of working mostly on visuals, it was obvious that a prolific songwriter like Charli needed to release her work in a more accelerated and transparent way. That’s what led us to the first mixtape, Number 1 Angel, which was done without her label’s knowledge and sort of became my symbolic resignation as ‘creative director’, and an evolution into something more genuinely collaborative.
In 7G, you cover Taylor Swift, Smashing Pumpkins, Sia and Beethoven, and your 2017 cover of Aphex Twin’s Windowlicker is legendary. In our current technoculture, where creative property is so readily available and accessible through the Internet, what does it mean to cover a song to you? How do you think your cover relates to the original?
I always enjoy covering songs and learning from other songs. From a creative property perspective, covers are an amazing grey area where you can legally do your own version of someone else’s composition as long as you credit them and don’t change any of the lyrics, which is a huge difference to all the legal processes involved in sampling.
I’m quite a forensic listener, even with songs I enjoy. For example, I was always amazed by Sia’s Chandelier, how it really sounds like she might be swinging from a chandelier. I was always just wondering if there would be a way of making it sound even more over the top. In my version, I have the key drop when the chorus hits, and my voice is obviously struggling with the vocal range more than Sia, so for me, it expresses the peril and uncertainty of the original song in a particularly heightened way!
Something like my Windowlicker cover came from a very specific situation where I was playing at Field Day festival in London and my set time coincided directly with the beginning of Aphex Twin’s set. I also realised that the stage I was playing was directly outside the entrance of his stage, so I couldn’t resist doing an Aphex Twin covers set and even projecting a mashup of our logos to confuse people.
I kinda grew up with Windowlicker, so even though it’s a very complex and layered track, I sort of felt comfortable with all the sounds and switch-ups. I only had a couple of days to put it together, so it was quite laborious, but also felt in line with the lightheartedness that I hear in a lot of Aphex’s stuff. I think in both Windowlicker, Chandelier, and possibly all my covers, I’m trying to connect with some essential aspect of that artists’ work and reflect on how it’s influenced me.
I hope you know that releasing 7G, your 49-track first full-length album, so close to Apple, and all while producing for other artists, looks pretty insane. Where does your seemingly-endless drive to create come from? 
It’s certainly a bit more extreme, but I think there’s already a trend of artists running parallel campaigns, where they have different bodies of work for people who are either more or less familiar with their work. For example, mixtapes vs. albums, or even singles and features vs. compilations, let alone artists changing their content for different platforms, whether it’s streaming, physical releases, live streaming, etc.
In terms of 7G and Apple, I feel like the true ‘debut album’ is maybe somewhere in between both releases. I think by exploding and cross-referencing the two, I somehow got closer to a real snapshot of my work, just edited for consumption in different ways. I’m fairly prolific but I was also planning my debut for quite a while, at least a few years. I wanted to do something focused and memorable so it could communicate something slightly deeper than ‘here’s some new music.’
Juxtaposing sounds are prevalent in your oeuvre. This is obvious in Apple, where Oh Yeah, a mellower, more acoustic song featuring your vocals and guitar gives way to Xxoplex, the album’s heart-attack-inducing club banger. Was this movement between two extremes intentional? Do these contrasts define your sound in any way?
Yes, starting with Oh Yeah and crashing straight into Xxoplex was very intentional! Creating that contrast is a big part of making something feel ‘intentional’ in the first place. The idea was to immediately show listeners both ends of the spectrum, almost as a map for the rest of the album, an x/y axis that things can then be plotted on.
As a concept, Apple seems to extend beyond just the album into an entire virtual experience, including your recent Appleville stream that featured artists like Dorian Electra, 100 Gecs and Charli XCX, as well as your Apple Guild. How important for you is it to consider this broader experience, that includes other artists, when creating?
Appleville and Apple Guild really became the most memorable parts of the Apple campaign for me. My music obviously references other music and collaboration in general, but on a deeper level, I want my work to showcase some of the joy and freedom that music-making can contain. Appleville was about taking artists that I love from different locations and different genres and putting them on a platform where those location and genre differences wouldn’t exist. For me, it had an atmosphere where anything could happen and did sort of remind me of the unpredictability of IRL live shows.
Apple Guild started as a fun, quite light idea, but evolved into a sweet ecosystem that felt more like a Guild than any kind of straightforward social media. Discord is essentially a group of chatrooms that can be highly customised, and we were just encouraging people to engage with each other as creators and characters rather than ‘fans’ in any sense. My own highlight was probably the Battle of the Bands, where we randomly assigned people into bands, with band names and a song they had to cover to win the battle. Not only did people do amazing stuff but I think it really spawned a bunch of new musical partnerships – and this notion that there can be endless collectives within a collective.
Some of Apple’s new songs and their videos, like Oh Yeah and Beautiful Superstar, feel like a newer and more personal side to A. G. that we haven’t seen before, one that places a face to the sound. Was that your intention? Is this how you also see the album?
For me, PC Music always stood for ‘Personal Computer Music,’ and so a proper debut album would always have to look inwards. I enjoy making music that has nothing to do with my image, so it was amusing to finally come to terms with how people see me. You know, nerd chic, long hair, being a slightly awkward but enthusiastic dancer – it was a nice challenge to think about which of those elements could be paired with different aspects of my work.
I think it also helped me think about lyrics, which are a very direct way of matching ideas to someone’s character. The way that some lyrics have a completely different meaning based on who’s singing them, what they look like, and who they might be.
I’m particularly interested to know the creative process behind Beautiful Superstar, the title being a combination of your two debut singles. You recently stated that both songs form the “parameters of my music” and still “haunt me to this day.” What do you mean by this? And is it significant that this more fully-fleshed venture references your beginnings as an artist?
I know a lot of artists who don’t like their early work, and in my case, I put so little music out as A. G. Cook, so both Beautiful and Superstar became things that I was forced to return to again and again. But I actually still stand behind both of those songs, and I’m still reminded of the same energy I had when I worked on them.
Beautiful is quite a chaotic, stream of consciousness track, tying together a bunch of styles and references using a very straightforward vocal hook. Superstar is more dramatic and slightly more composed, but it also follows an unusual song structure. Both of them play with the balance of songwriting and production and sort of destabilising that balance or not taking the art form too seriously. That feeling of a new artist figuring themselves out intuitively is something that I’ve tried to keep hold of.
Lastly, you said before in an interview with Tank Magazine that you dreamed of one day producing for Beyoncé. Are you still trying to manifest that? Or what else can we expect from A. G. in the future?
It’s funny because that Tank Magazine question was asking me about ‘the future’ and I used Beyoncé as an example of a big artist that I was listening to that day. But I’ve never tried to manifest anything like that. I love finding new artists, rising artists, just interesting people who aren’t necessarily established but who challenge my perceptions in some way. I’ll be coming back to A. G. Cook material soon, but it’s important for me to seek out completely different projects before I get too comfortable.