‘People think I hate pop’: super-producer AG Cook on working with Beyoncé and honouring his friend Sophie

Estimated read time 9 min read

Everything about AG Cook is exhausting. As a producer of elasticated outre pop his output is as varied as it is frenetic, taking in everything from bass-rattling electronic workouts for cultural behemoths such as Beyoncé to celestial dreamscapes for underground newcomers, via collaborations with Caroline Polachek and longterm partner in crime, Charli XCX. Having initially steered clear of solo albums to focus on running his divisive yet hugely influential label PC Music, Cook’s debut, 2020’s 7G, featured 49 tracks and more than two hours of music ranging from face-melting dance experiments to a lo-fi Sia cover. Apple, a more streamlined, but no less polarising followup arrived a month later.

His hard drive somehow still not yet full, Cook is now back with his third album Britpop, a three-part, 24-song opus split into Past, Present and Future sections. As part of its promotion he’s been busy creating TikToks and launching his own parody website Witchfork, billed as “the least trusted voice in music”. “It’s obviously embracing some troll behaviour, which has always been a bit of a thread for me personally,” he laughs.

If this all sounds like a lot of work, it makes more sense when you meet its creator. Across our hour-long video call Cook barely stops talking, with tangents taking in everything from Brexit to S Club 7’s 00s TV shows (“I’m very familiar with their version of media and reality,” he says with genuine enthusiasm). A simple question like, “Where are you now?” (short version: he’s in LA, but frequently returns to his home town of London) quickly unspools into a lengthy answer about his position in the pop cosmos.

“I work with people who are involved in pop music at a high level and they see me as a weirdo who’s ready to inject some strange thing,” he says, his kinetic energy making his shoulder-length hair bob about excitedly. “Then I work with my friends who are doing club nights and they see me as the mainstream guy who has experience working with bigger artists. So for someone on that fault line, LA is a really interesting place. I can dip into different things and push my own perspective.”

That position in the pop cosmos was assured by PC Music. Launched in 2013, the label covered the pop landscape – then dominated by beige stars such as Ed Sheeran and Emeli Sandé – in metallic neon. Cook oversaw, and often co-produced, the output of fellow oddballs such as Danny L Harle, GFOTY and Hannah Diamond, creating a synthetic, saccharine sound that was combined with stylised visual presentation to match. Unironically referencing so-called “guilty pleasures” of the past (90s German happy hardcore outfit Scooter, for example) while giving a taste of an unexplored future, its output was influential, helping to define and platform the burgeoning genre of hyperpop, while spreading its tentacles across pop via major label acts such as Charli XCX and Dua Lipa.

At first, though, people were suspicious. In a world of authenticity and battles over “real music”, PC Music’s artists were accused of being fake. “The UK was very worried that we all secretly hated pop music, or that we’d enter the room just to take the piss,” Cook says. “That was the undertone. Whereas a lot of PC Music and affiliated artists were let into interesting places in the US: actual writing rooms, in with other producers on artist projects.”

The argument over legitimacy feels less relevant in a pop landscape that has been flattened by the rise of streaming, with genres blended together and the pop versus indie debate all but nullified. With less to stand in opposition to, perhaps it made sense for Cook to shutter PC Music in 2023, its 10th year in operation (it will now be dedicated to special reissues). The announcement was accompanied by a special 100-minute-long playlist featuring the likes of label signees and professional noise merchants EasyFun and Umru. “I saw it as the most PC Music thing to do … To put out an emblematic statement with old and new music and start planting the seeds of some collaborations with other organisations, even on a museum level, or an artist level, or on a gig level.”

PC Music showcase in Austin, 2015View image in fullscreen

In any case, Cook doesn’t really have time to be a label head any more. He’s been heavily involved in Charli XCX’s forthcoming album Brat, continuing a creative relationship that started in 2017, plus he’s keen to do more ad-hoc production for pop’s biggest megastars – even if it means working in some quite unusual conditions. His involvement in Beyoncé’s album Renaissance certainly was that: done remotely, it involved him being asked to sign an NDA (which ultimately never materialised) and then not knowing whether his contribution to the track All Up in Your Mind would even be used until days before the album’s release: “It was fascinating, and it led to me being Grammy nominated, but it was really a window into something from a very strange vantage point.”

The idea for Cook’s new album was formulated while he was living in remote Montana during the pandemic with his American musician girlfriend, Alaska Reid. “I was the only British person there and having that sense of being a bit of an alien,” he explains. He became fascinated with the British references that would still emerge, from the heraldry on a ranch cowboy belt that nodded to “the Arthurian ideal”, to seminal American authors such as Steinbeck “tapping into an imagined version of Britain, or England”. Suddenly geographical and historical boundaries were exploded. “So a way of digging into what an AG Cook album could be was to use this as a strange launching pad, finding this thing that’s slightly too loaded.”

In fact, events back home made him question the title. “There’s Brexit, which is obviously fucked, and even when the Queen died I was like, ‘OK, is this going to be too loaded, what is this?’ And let alone people who are fans of OG Britpop.” (For the record, Cook, who was born in 1990, prefers Blur over Oasis.) But the title was more about exploring semantics than jingoism. “What I liked about Britpop as a word is that both sides of it are paradoxical,” he says. “People can’t agree on what pop is, and then there’s obviously Britain, and this constant ambiguity. You have the UK, Britain, the British Isles, all of these paradoxical territories and the strange history of all of that. It’s an interesting word to hijack.”

For all of Cook’s mastery in conjuring up aural chaos – new songs such as Prismatic and Emerald sound like the noises you might hear if you spilled Sunny Delight on a circuit board – it’s in Britpop’s Present disc, which mainly features guitar and Cook’s delicate, close-mic vocal, that the wizard behind the curtain is revealed. Its most revealing track is Without, a tender ode to the Grammy-nominated producer Sophie, Cook’s close friend and collaborator who died suddenly in 2021. Sophie shared PC Music’s love for synapse-snapping uber-pop, and rather than reflect on their friendship via an all-out sonic assault, Cook chose to make something akin to their early writing sessions, when songs were created over bare-boned backing tracks.

“Without was me trying to re-map out different memories, creating a mental shrine. It was such a strange and difficult time, really, but those things are so important to really process.” He takes a sip of water. “The conclusion was that I was ultimately so lucky to have spent so much time with someone who would resonate from such a different perspective. And obviously changed my life. That song was about processing that.” Lost in thought, he answers a question I haven’t asked. “Sometimes it’s weird when a Sophie song comes on in a club, but a lot of the time I’m just like: ‘This is amazing music to celebrate to.’ The music is so powerful it hasn’t been tarnished by some of the pain I’ve had to go through to even think about it again.”

It is paradoxical in a very AG Cook way for there to be a portion of Britpop given over to the idea of “real” music, AKA a man and his guitar exploring emotions. To the naysayers, the playful electronic music, presented in fun ways, that is his stock in trade is anathema. For Cook growing up, however, it was the only way to grab his attention. An only child, he was obsessed with visual media, often reading instruction manuals, just “fascinated by complexity and these exploded diagrams”. The only music that really cut through came via visually distinct worlds, such as those created by Gorillaz and Daft Punk. Having mastered visual software he then got into GarageBand, which meant he would often record and produce his friends’ bands.

“Friends would be talking about how it wasn’t like this other music, which is authentic, and has someone mastering their instrument,” he laughs. “Anyone involved in PC Music shared the same gripe about guilty pleasures, authenticity, all that stuff.”

Despite all the collaborations with pop megastars and like-minded oddballs, for now the indefatigable Cook’s focus is purely on Britpop and the extended world he’s building via Witchfork (sample news story: “Travis’ Fran Healy Says He Inspired David Beckham’s ‘Hoxton Fin’ Mohawk” by Pat Stool); his social media presence (one TikTok features him morphing into trite British signifiers such as a red bus); and the artwork’s fantastical reimagining of the union jack. It’s all part of where he sees pop going: branching off into diametrically opposed lanes of functionality on one side and theatre on the other. “An unpredictable album, or something that only exists between albums, or the album becomes the entry but the true version is the campaign itself,” he says, eyes widening at the thought of more mischief. “Things that create this x and y axis of: ‘What is going on?!’”

Creating moments of glorious confusion? It’s something AG Cook is still exhaustively perfecting.

Source: theguardian.com

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