A. G. Cook recently got his fishing license. He’d be the first to tell you that he sucks at it, but let’s be realistic: how else are you going to spend your time when you’re quarantined in the American northwest during an international pandemic?
Since lockdown began, Cook has been living in the state of Montana – where his girlfriend, the musician Alaska Reid, grew up – quietly adding “outdoorsman” to his polymathic list of roles. So far, that list also includes record producer, “Creative Director” for artists like Charli XCX and Jónsi, founder of the once-notorious electronic label PC Music and, as of the last few months, actual popstar.
On the 30th of July, Cook announced the release of 7G, a seven-disc, 49-track album that spans just over two-and-a-half hours. The record dropped quietly, in a midweek slot on the 12th of August, and on its own might have simply been seen as the move of a producer’s producer – 7G was Cook’s first full-length record under his own name, sure, but its long-form nature meant it could easily have been taken as the release of a bunch of historic material for the heads to pore over at their leisure. A week later, however, news came that Cook would be releasing another full-length, the much more concise Apple, on the 18th of September.
Accompanying the Apple announcement was a video for the guitar-led single “Oh Yeah”. The clip features Cook – in a liquid-effect satin shirt, looking for all the world like a teen magician – performing deliberately in front of the camera. It was his first music video in his seven-year long career, and signalled the beginning of a new era: the era of A .G. Cook the artist.
As a Brit whose experience of the US is limited to New York City and Disney World Florida, I need some cues if I’m going to understand what Cook’s Montana-based lockdown has been like. Via a Zoom call (Friday night for me, Friday morning for him in LA, where he’s staying for a few days), he clutches for a reference.
“Have you seen pictures of Kanye’s Wyoming stuff?” he asks.
“Yes,” I say, visualising the lush countryside and sweeping mountain ranges that I’ve seen on Kim Kardashian’s Instagram.
“It’s the other side of those mountains,” Cook explains, as his face – framed by dark curly hair and dominated by round glasses – bobs across the window. “It’s just above Wyoming. You have these small towns here and there. A lot of them used to be a gold rush or copper rush place. You have these weird settlements that are sometimes really elaborate, and, like, a railway. Tons of crazy mountains. You have to take bear spray if you go on a hike.” He pauses. “The bears are just out there.”
In between dodging bears and learning to fish, Cook has been working on his album rollouts against an enviable natural landscape. As the head of PC Music, he holds the process of releasing the music in almost as much regard as the material itself, and notes that he had always planned for his own music to come out around this time, even pre-coronavirus.
“Apple as an album was finished about a year ago,” Cook says. He explains that he wanted the record to be “tight and formal,” inspired by Charli XCX’s ten-track masterpiece Pop 2, which he executive produced in 2017. “I was kind of into that number, or even shorter. It puts a good weight onto the tracks that you’re with, and it’s a challenge to think about that. I wanted it to be quite a planned rollout.”
Apple, the album artwork for which looks like the front of a can of Monster Energy, essentially moves between two ends of a spectrum. On one side, there’s the expected smoke-‘n’-lasers, exemplified by tracks like recent single “Xxoplex,” which sounds like the dark underbelly of a foam party (only with a choral interlude, naturally). On the other, characterised by “Oh Yeah” and “Beautiful Superstar”, there’s more of a softness, which feels influenced by emo music, the Americana inherent to Cook’s current environment, and singer songwriters of the 1990s and 2000s (he cites Shania Twain and the “cheeky” style of her music’s production as a specific inspiration). As the record progresses, these elements merge together: ““Oh Yeah,” then “Xxoplex,” are the two poles of it, and then you hear hybrids of that as you go through. I think that’s something that a lot of people have done in a sense,” Cook says. “I’m just very transparent about it and push it a little bit further, but any album that’s good tends to have these really nice switch ups, otherwise it’s just annoying.”
When he’d completed Apple, Cook revisited his own archive, where he’d squirrelled away hundreds of songs, and realised there was more he could do. “I obviously had all this other material, because that’s what happens if you make loads of music and don’t release anything under your own name,” he tells me, laughing. “A lot of those songs accidentally became like funny diary entries, because I’d return to things, re-add a bit, do it between other things.”
Those diary entries eventually became 7G, which is essentially an in-depth reflection of A. G. Cook’s entire oeuvre and sound up until now, and feels like a love letter to the sheer scale of possibilities represented by the loose genre of pop music. To give you an idea, highlights from its 159-minute runtime include but are not limited to:
– A song which could well be the soundtrack of a Peach-themed level of Mario Kart (“Gemstone Break”).
– A (Sandy) Alex G soundalike (“Being Harsh”).
– “Illuminated Biker Gang,” a.k.a. an immediate entry into the canon of “music you would hear on the dodgems.”
– “The End Has No End,” which is constructed entirely of Cook’s own vocal takes at various pitches alongside a drum machine, and in another life might have been a Girls Aloud song.
So for his first trick as an albums artist, A. G. Cook decided that he’d drop one tightly formatted album, and another which allowed him to lay out his vision in the most nuanced possible terms. Doing so made sense from both a personal perspective, and from Cook’s position on the state of the music industry at large. Different mediums, he says, appeal to different parts of an artist’s fanbase: “There’s the hardcore people who really want to get deep, and then there’s the people who might discover you through an affiliated artist on Spotify. More and more artists are going to have these contrasting lanes that kind of work together, and the true artist statement is somewhere in between the mixtape and the album, or the Bandcamp release versus someone’s Spotify single.”
There are various points during my conversation with Cook at which I remember that I’m speaking with someone who is not only a musician himself, but who is also a label boss and music industry savant – someone who is always observing as both music itself and the business around it evolve – and this is one of them. Cook founded PC Music in 2013, and since then has demonstrated an extremely keen understanding of “popular music” and its various generic and economic faces (the “Hey QT” video, released in 2015, infamously promoted a fake energy drink). He’s also been gradually proven right by the last half decade’s emphasis on branding – both personal and otherwise – in music and beyond. “I haven’t had to change my position that much, it’s just that things have got slightly closer to various things I was talking about,” he says now.
Since beginning the label, Cook has become an in-demand producer in his own right, known for his willingness to switch between traditional pop hooks and stranger, more industrial or rave-influenced sounds. He is notably prolific – in recent years he’s gained especial prominence for his work with the similarly hard-working PC-affiliate Charli XCX – but as an artist under his own name (chosen, he says, for its behind-the-scenes feel; “It’s like a writing credit, you know, “A. G. Cook,” ridiculous.”), he’s only ever released a handful of singles. Why did he decide to finally make the jump, and why now, seven years into his career?
“I don’t think there’s that much difference between being a producer and being an artist, but I almost felt that if I just had an album straight out the door that people would just see that too much as “my CV” or the blueprint or something,” he tells me. “And I always wanted to be much more flexible than that. But then also after I’d done a lot of collaborative albums in that way, it makes sense to double down on my own vision of PC Music, which is also quite literal – you know, like personal computer music. I can’t really be championing that without committing to some kind of musical statement.”
It took a while, however, to figure out what exactly that statement should be. After so long working on other people’s music, Cook had a cacophony of different artists’ voices in his mind, and needed to isolate to figure out his own. Ironically, one of the ways in which he was able to do so was via cover versions. On 7G, he covers artists ranging from his friend and collaborator Charli XCX, to Tommy James and The Shondells, via Blur (whose “Beetlebum” he turns into a breathy Selena Gomez soundalike, which later segues into what I called in my notes “a Pussycat Dolls 8-bit dance break”).
“I hear ‘Chandelier’ and I’m like, I kind of like this, and it’s also a bit of a ridiculous song. It’s amazing how Sia is singing in this intense way, and it totally is about swinging off a chandelier. And the drop comes and the vocal soars. And I was thinking for ages: What could make ‘Chandelier’ soar even more? It’s pretty maxed out.”
Obviously, he had a few ideas. “The things I thought of were: what if the key dropped and the vocal was still going? We’d technically be creating an even bigger distance. I was like, ‘That’s funny’. I felt like it was a way that we were engaging with the core of that song and the spirit of what the original was about, while also being different.”
It’s when discussing the minutiae of his work that Cook becomes especially animated, talking at 100 miles an hour, though the actual tone and cadence of his voice puts me in mind of a kind Geography teacher – that is, if kind Geography teachers counted “reimagining songs from Taylor Swift’s 2008 album Fearless via the aural lens of the Nord synthesiser” chief among their interests. Indeed, an important connecting thread between most of the decisions he describes making about his work throughout our interview seems to be that he thought they were “funny” or “ridiculous” at the time.
Thankfully, the inability to play live right now hasn’t dulled Cook’s first ever rollout too much, and when he discusses his current plans, he is of course unfazed by needing to rely on the digital. On Saturday night (the 12th of September), for example, he was joined by co-weirdos 100 gecs, Clairo, Charli XCX, Kero Kero Benito, Hannah Diamond and more, for the virtual festival Appleville, which fans could access via tickets available on PC Music’s Bandcamp page (all money raised by the event will be split between Black Cultural Archives and Mermaids).
“Honestly it’s been really fitting to refit all of the visuals for Zoom, or live streams,” Cook says. “That’s just suited my music pretty well. Doing all the virtual stuff, trying to make these things feel as live as possible, has actually been cooler in the end.” There are, after all, few labels better suited to the events of 2020 than one which has been mixing livestream and pre-record – and at times privileging this format over the live context – since that skeleton crashed Danny L. Harle’s Halloween set in 2014.
As our interview draws to a close, I ask Cook kind of an obnoxious question, hoping for a good soundbite.
“If you could produce for any artist, who would you choose?”
His response doesn’t miss a beat: “This is something that I talk with friends about. My friends are like, “Oh I wish I could produce for so on,” and those kinds of things. But I always want whoever doesn’t exist yet. That’s the most fun thing.”
It serves me right for asking really, but I do also think that sort of gets to the essence of who he is, and what his work is about. Because really, for all of our sakes, I hope that A. G. Cook’s crosshair – or maybe more aptly, these days, his fishing rod – remains aimed where it always has been: squarely at the newest, most fun thing.
Apple will be released on the 18th of September via PC Music.