In A.G. Cook’s music, nothing is stable. Computerized beats bounce along steadily, then suddenly skid rapidly ahead or stretch like virtual taffy. Earnest vocals get giddily pitch-shifted and skewed by distortion and effects. Tunes suddenly change key; mixes turn themselves inside out; realistic acoustic instruments begin to wow and flutter. Any semblance of predictability gets upended by human whim, as if, sooner or later, some ghost in the machine can’t resist twirling all the knobs.
Cook, 30, is the founder of PC Music, a loose collective — songwriters, producers, singers, graphic designers, stray pseudonyms — that materialized in 2013 with a free online trove of perky, warped electronic tracks: songs that seemed to both compete with and mock the expertise of mainstream pop hitmakers and electronic dance music specialists. Although PC Music includes an assortment of auteurs, most of its prodigious output has been succinct, glossy, packed with melodic and sonic hooks and cheerfully deranged. Initial reactions varied widely; PC Music was greeted as a movement, a travesty, a put-on, a subversion and a guilty pleasure.
“I talk to pop people and they go, ‘Oh, you’re that experimental guy,’” Cook said via FaceTime from Montana, where he has been living and recording during the pandemic. “And I talk to the experimental people who are like, ‘Oh, you’re the pop dude.’”
Cook relishes working in the in-between. “In my mind, I’ve inevitably gone towards where there is a blurriness between whether it’s a slick production or if it’s a bedroom thing,” he said. “Everyone has a laptop or an iPad or something. It’s the folk instrument of our era — it’s just everywhere. And you hear the person behind the electronic device.”
After releasing a few songs under his own name in PC Music’s early days, Cook remained largely behind the scenes as a producer and songwriter. But now, after years of collaborations, he is stepping forward for a solo career with a double debut release: two albums in two months.
“7G,” which came out Aug. 12, is a producer’s sketchbook and showcase and a hard-drive inventory: seven discs, each with seven tracks and each built around an instrument — piano, guitar — or an ingredient, like “extreme vocals.” It includes new songs with lyrics, shape-shifting instrumentals and Cook’s remakes of material from, among others, the Strokes, Sia, Blur, Smashing Pumpkins, Beethoven and Tommy James and the Shondells — just a glimpse of his eclecticism.
Then, while listeners were still sorting through the two-and-a-half hours of “7G,” Cook announced that on Sept. 18, he will release “Apple,” a one-disc album that juxtaposes and infuses more-or-less introspective songs with vertiginous electronics.
For Cook, any distinction between natural and artificial is obsolete. “People in music tend to use opposites,” he said. “Either genre opposites, or this sense of authentic or inauthentic, or electronic or acoustic. For me a lot of those opposites actually are really operating on the same level. The 20th-century conversation was man versus machine — it’s this modernist binary. I think it’s funny how bits of that still linger in conversations about technology and music. But actually, on a musical level, that binary is completely dissolved.”
Cook and his PC Music cohorts have frequently played around with the word “pop,” but he is still reluctant to define it. “The only definition that is consistent is packaging it to be approachable or consumable,” he said. “It’s just the idea of limiting something to three minutes or less, or the main idea of the song being at the beginning and then there being one flip of it, or that a noise could be a hook, and then it has to be all hooky. So it’s not just music that is popular. Maybe it’s music that’s trying to be popular. It has that kind of energy to it per se.”
The pop landscape has shifted around him in recent years, as the jolting, surreal transitions of PC Music tracks have made their way into the home-studio productions of hitmakers like Billie Eilish. On Saturday, Cook will be joined on a livestream by some kindred category-bending musicians, including the bedroom-pop songwriter Clairo and the quick-change, genre-splicing group 100 gecs. “The pop machine has changed so much,” Cook said. “If anything, it’s become more similar to what we were naturally doing.”
While the PC Music stable has continued to pump out its meta-pop projects, Cook has also been applying his skills to nominally mainstream pop as the main producer for Charli XCX on her albums and mixtapes since 2016. With Charli XCX, Cook works quickly and spontaneously; she once texted him suggesting they make an album in one day, and they wrote and recorded nine songs. (They didn’t release it, but some songs survived for later projects.)
“He doesn’t think about, like, will somebody like this? Is this pop enough? Is this weird enough? Is this whatever?,” she said in a call from Los Angeles. “He just creates. And sometimes he makes really pop decisions, and sometimes he makes really avant-garde decisions. But I wouldn’t say he’s trying deliberately to do either. He’s just going with what he feels.”
Cook took on a different task producing an album for Jonsi, the singer and songwriter who leads Sigur Ros, the cinematic rock band from Iceland. For “Shiver,” which is due Oct. 2, Jonsi had a collection of songs that he had been working on for years on his own, with countless overdubs. Cook helped him decide what to keep, what to subtract, and what to completely restructure.
“Both of his parents are architects,” Jonsi said via FaceTime from Los Angeles. “He has that producer’s structural architectural mind, to be behind the helm of making a song. You feel that he’s always looking at the overall picture.”
Cook’s own albums, like the rest of his output, are the result of both impulse and philosophical deliberation. “PC Music — I always took the name of it quite literally,” Cook said. “I thought that at some point, I can’t just keep thinking about personal computer music without doing my own A.G. Cook stuff. I’m bringing my own voice and performance into it, using that awkwardness, playing with the mix between singer-songwriter and producer and how those connect.”
For “7G,” he gave himself numerical targets and narrowed down his favorite studio tools; along with guitar, piano and drums, one of the seven discs features “Supersaw,” a waveform that creates rough, bassy, buzzing tones often used in electronic dance music. “Apple” might seem to be merely a computer joke — from PC Music to Apple — but Cook chose the title after considerable deliberation.
“At first I was only using ‘Apple’ as an example of what I thought would be an ideal album name could be,” he said. “Something that is super simple and kind of primary school, but then has endless connotations, a ridiculous number. Obviously Apple computing, but also the Beatles’ label, New York, the Bible, a million fairy tales. It was just fun to pick an almost random object and see how much depth was in there.”
Near the end of “Apple,” there’s a song called “Haunted” that starts out almost folky, with guitar picking and a vocal of random syllables. It sounds like a songwriter with an emerging melody, feeling it out note by tentative note. That’s what it was, Cook said — an early scratch vocal — but that’s not where the song stays. Before it ends, it’s transformed into a multi-tracked, computer-tuned chorale, still wordless but thoroughly processed. To Cook’s ear, it’s all equally natural: human and machine, searching for a song’s essence.
“It felt kind of inevitable,” he said.
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