A. G. Cook talks new album 'Britpop'

Interview A. G. Cook: Blurred Lines

With a third project that takes the idea of ‘Britpop’ and subverts it into his own three-part reimagining of the word, A. G. Cook is further consolidating his own distinct musical universe.

I think there’s a funny zeitgeist to Britpop,” says British producer A. G. Cook. The founder of game-changing record label PC Music, and the erudite forefather of modern hyperpop, Cook is dialling in from London to discuss the new project he’s named after the ‘90s’ most swaggering genre. Perhaps unsurprisingly given his past, the record itself, however, is intentionally nothing like its namesake; less informed by guitar anthems than the springy, subversive offshoots of the musical collective he’s spent the last decade interlinked with. It’s a far cry from Oasis and Blur, but one where he dons the genre’s bold imagery to re-conceptualise his own work as just as quintessentially British and deserving of history and weight. The record is not “within the lineage of Britpop,” he explains, “but in a lineage of underground artists playing with universal symbols.”

Cook has the intellectual presence typical of many modern musical vanguards. Earphones plugged in, with his arms wrapped around his knees, behind him flashes a pixelated, fisheye graphic from a virtual DJ set the week prior. He talks eloquently about production, technology and the metaphysics of pop, with an obvious infatuation for both its history and future. This third project is designed to play with both of these timelines, creating an alternate timeline where his futuristic hyperpop reigns.

Over 24 tracks and three discs, on ‘Britpop’ Cook traverses a pseudo-history of his work within PC Music and beyond – each disc a “mini album”, representing its past, present and future. “Disc One is heavily electronic, the present is [about] songwriting, and the future is all over the place,” he says. The origin of ‘Britpop’ in fact predates 2020’s pair of swiftly-dropped albums ‘7G’ and ‘Apple’. Locked down in the US during the pandemic, Cook found himself quarantined in a foreign place that rabidly and unselfconsciously consumed the UK’s historic symbols; an experience that made him start to look at his own idea of Britishness.

“[In the US] you’d see ancient heraldry on top of a ranch,” he recalls. “You’d look at the cowboy aesthetic and [see parallels] to the Knights of the Round Table. You’d see John Steinbeck’s written his own version of King Arthur’s story [The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights], and Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. I’ve never felt nationalistic, but there’s this historical connection and tension between the US and UK perspectives.”

Meanwhile, Cook and his frequent collaborators – the late Scottish producer SOPHIE and Charli XCX (who features on the record’s title track) chief among them – had already led their own musical charge across the Atlantic. “PC Music does fall loosely into this lineage of the British Invasion,” Cook says, referring to their popularity in the States. “Charli’s voice is pure Britpop in terms of personality and attitude.”

Equal parts buoyant and saccharine pop, off-piste acoustic medieval tapestry, and experimental electronica, the resulting project never settles in one thing nor the other. It’s esoteric and playful, held together by its author’s view of what British pop at its core could mean. “When I found the ‘Britpop’ title, I was surprised by how much more leverage it gave my ideas,” he says. “It’s a lot of fun to reference something while constantly side-stepping it, and there’s a similar ethos in my work. It uses concepts but not in too heavy handed a way. You’d think after doing a 49-track and a 10-track album [‘7G’ and ‘Apple’, respectively] that I’d be scraping the barrel, but it didn’t feel like that.”

A. G. Cook talks new album 'Britpop' A. G. Cook talks new album 'Britpop'

“I try to ask, ‘what’s the most interesting thing that can happpen in a world where, actually, a lot of things aren’t that interesting anymore?’”

Within ‘Britpop’’s cartoonishly experimental borders lie throwbacks to PC Music’s pioneers and frequent collaborators such as the aforementioned SOPHIE, whose work ushered in a new wave of experimental British underground pop. “Her work defies scale. It’s the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey – a sculptural thing that lands and levels everything around it up,” eulogises Cook. “The wider peer group – let alone with a figure like SOPHIE, who was such a laser beam – has a more complex and interesting legacy than I could have anticipated. I became invested in the historical weight [of PC Music], which is more than I would have assumed it could do in ten years.”

Indeed, the record’s third ‘future’ disc is a testament to the bold decisions made by Cook’s collective. On it, he plays with ambiguity, warping the dimensions of each track, suggesting a version of Britpop that’s more abstract than concrete; more future than nostalgia. “‘Britpop’ claims that the future can be one of many things, or more than one thing, but we don’t really know,” he says. “It’s me looking at the things I enjoy but that could make me uncomfortable, and therefore might be a window [to something else].”

However, behind the scenes, nostalgia and legacy feature heavily in the narrative of the record. In June 2023, following their tenth anniversary, PC Music announced it would cease releasing new music; the Soundcloud-born collective, renowned for its underground resistance to the mainstream, would pivot instead to archival projects. “The internet has just changed so much [over the last ten years]; we all exist in an internet soup,” Cook muses by way of reasoning. “I was sensing that the best thing PC Music could do would be to really consolidate itself, and put a line in the sand.”

Disc One of ‘Britpop’ captures this closed chapter with a collection of flamboyant and subversive exaggerations of pop, imbued with a raving spirit, and cementing the validity of PC Music’s legacy as hyperpop pioneers. “I’m having fun with the notion that early PC stuff was called ‘the future of music’,” Cook says. “You can look at early TikTok hits and see a pretty clear DNA: it’s a very surface-level version of it, but you can see a lot of things don’t necessarily share the attitude or thinking of PC Music.” Later, Disc Two is a “smooth transition” into Cook’s interest in acoustics, lore and mythologies, that’s loosely similar sonically to the efforts of Thy Slaughter – his 2023 collaborative outfit with British producer Easyfun. His reason for the record’s structure? “Anyone making stuff now is much more in conversation with time.”

In an era of heavy throwback sampling, awareness of a “flattened sense of pop music decades” only enhanced his attraction to time as a playlisting method. Genreless collections – see British legacy compilation records like ‘Now That’s What I Call Music!’ – appealed to Cook, both as a means of time-stamping an era and opening new, less tribal avenues for music consumption. “There’s tons of new stuff all the time, but in terms of how we talk about [past, present and future music], and wider consciousnesses, we are all made to be time travellers,” he suggests. “I try to take stock of the wider picture and ask, ‘OK, what’s the most interesting thing that can happen now, in a world where, actually, a lot of things aren’t that interesting anymore?’”

“PC Music has a more complex and interesting legacy than I could have anticipated.”

'Britpop’ manages this by balancing both a “genuine sincerity and real exploration of sound” with a humorous sense of world-building that never takes itself too seriously. He’s releasing it via his newborn label New Alias (“When it comes to naming things, I enjoy being quite literal…”), which in itself remains shrouded in an expected amount of playful secrecy. “I can’t elaborate on it too much, but the general idea is that it’s about being very aware, conscious and intentional – not just about the music you’re putting out, but also how you’re presenting it. Maybe artists will transcend their names. You know that feeling when you find a new piece of work that may have another alias, and you ask, ‘Is this that other person?’ That kind of mysteriousness and puzzle-solving is going to be a really crucial part of music over the next few years. New Alias is about framing artists in different ways.”

It’s the next stage in a career that’s already established Cook as one of pop’s true innovators – a sentiment Charli evidently shares: she enlisted him to remix recent single ‘von dutch’, the latest in a long line of collaborations. The mutual appreciation is returned tenfold. “Charli is still so ambitious,” he says, musing on her legacy and impact. “She’s so interesting. It’s a testament to being genuinely passionate about the craft – to be genuinely listening, making and performing.” On ‘Britpop’ cut ‘Lucifer’, a darkly bubblegum entry, Charli and Cook reunite to strike expected alt-pop gold. “It has a clear chorus, but then the verse is a sampled chorus from something [unreleased]. You’re like, ‘Oh, is this a pop song? But what is the outro doing? What are the verses doing?’ It’s made up of stuff that’s ambiguous.”

As for A. G. Cook himself, his record’s extensive, three-part discography marks yet another attempt to reformat how British pop as a whole works. For him, pop music exists as a creative device that transcends its name, with ideas extending far beyond the boundaries of a singular project. Motifs, symbols and “clear DNA” reappear to build worlds that are recogniseable but ever in flux. Cook cites the work of Caroline Polachek as an example. “If someone asked me, do I prefer ‘Pang’ or ‘Desire, I Want To Turn Into You’,” he questions, “I’d say, ‘Well, the real album exists somewhere between those two things’. It’s a combined world. It’s like Twin Peaks, where we all understand the atmosphere and its cultural impact without knowing the full mythos.”

That intriguing sense of never fully revealing it all is clearly something Cook also subscribes to. When asked for his vision of ‘Britpop’, his answer is open and boundless. “[The record] opens people to different extremes, and maybe makes people think a bit differently about things being literal. Things can be slightly mythical,” he says. “Or maybe it’s just music that’s enjoyable, and the enjoyment there [is that it is] slightly difficult to categorise.

“I think this feeling of something being idiosyncratic, or unique and weird and special, is what ‘Britpop’ is trying to explore. It became fun to reference and exploit what Britpop is. And it’s a clearly labelled entrance. Anyone who engages with, like, 100 minutes of it will hopefully find something.”

‘Britpop’ is out now via New Alias.

Tags: AG Cook, From The Magazine, Features, Interviews

As featured in the May 2024 issue of DIY, out now.

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