My first encounter with the music of Oneohtrix Point Never came during a screening of Good Time three years ago. This film, directed by the Safdie Brothers and starring Robert Pattinson as you’ve never seem him before, is nothing like its title suggests; a deep dark dive into the underbelly of New York that doesn’t let up once throughout its entire, anxiety-riddled runtime. The music is suitably abrasive, and mixed into the film at an incredibly, almost obnoxiously high level. I remember this fact well because my girlfriend eventually turned to me, told me it’s way too loud, and waited outside the cinema for the rest of the film…
It was a great introduction into the complexities of this producer, who creates music that is both beautiful and ugly, confrontational yet oddly seductive. Utterly uncompromising, his cinematic soundscapes don’t tell us what to feel, instead searching for a way to make electronic music feel fresh. In fact, the music feels almost alive, as if mapping musical expression upon an unpredictable, sentient alien life form.
Not particularly danceable but hardly able to be characterised as electro or home listening either, Oneohtrix Point Never bridges the gap between serious arthouse composition, unvarnished 1980s nostalgia, almost jokey, strange sounds, and deeply profound inquiry into human nature. He displays how the power of music — especially experimental electronic music — as compared to any other art form, lies in how well it can work in the abstract. The music of Oneohtrix Point Never oscillates between moments of transcendence and terror, perpetually holding our fascination due to its exploration of sound for its own magical sake. Pushing the limits of what the synthesiser is capable of doing, Oneohtrix Point Never is to electronic music what Terry Riley was to the classical genre; a relentless innovator unafraid to court controversy and ridicule in pursuit of higher musical expression.
Exercises in Abstraction
Born Daniel Lopatin, he is the children of Russian immigrants to Wayland, Massachusetts, 20 miles from Boston. Hie own father played as a semi-professional keyboardist in Leningrad for the Flying Dutchman, and also toured Russian bars in Boston, while his mother was a music teacher; making it seem inevitable that he would dabble with music himself. Lopatin’s first experiments would include playing around with his father’s jazz fusion and Stevie Wonder tapes, before settling on a new age, ambient and drone mix that would be his early trademark sound. At Hampshire College, he played his first live shows, with a sampler, tape decks and his father’s synthesiser; a Roland Juno-60. His father had stored a bunch of accordion sounds on there, but Lopatin erased all of these to make way for his own tracks. But while his father was initially upset about such a betrayal, he eventually accepted, probably realising the immense talent that his son had.
People didn’t really get the music. At all. As he told The New Yorker, he “was basically, like blacklisted from shows” in and around the liberal elite Hampshire College. Misunderstood in Boston, he himself emigrated to a far more understanding place: Brooklyn, New York. He brought with him a variety of different influences, included 70s comic trance, 80s new age, Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk, Terry Riley, Legowelt and Double Leopards, plus the weird ephemera he grew up with as a child in the 80s and 90s.
He released music under a number of different names, including Infinity Window and Astronaut, but came across the name Oneohtrix Point Never as a play upon the name of Boston FM Radio Magic 106.7. It was also here in his Bushwick apartment that he would compose his first three acclaimed mixtapes: the musically similar Betrayed in the Octagon, Zones Without People and Russian Mind. They were collected in 2009 on the compilation album Rifts. The music — featuring synth sounds stretched, distorted and pulled into strange and odd directions, arpeggiated riffs that sound on the edge of dissolving, and an overall sense of both transcendence and loss — established him as one of ambient and noise music’s best artists. Along with Tim Hecker, whom he collaborated with on the album Instrumental Tourist, Oneohtrix Point Never is obsessed with the possibilities of decay: stretching out a synth sound, and finding out just how far it can go.
Explaining his use of abstraction, he told Consequence of Sound: “I just tend to categorize things going on around me and things going on in my life in allegorical ways. I try to abstract things or stretch them out to understand them more, or freeze them to understand them more….my purpose is to give a truthful account of the way that I perceive the world through music… it’s this incongruous thing with weird ratios and strange patterns.”
Oneohtrix Point Never | Chuck Person’s Eccojams Vol. 1
The power of 80s music, in all its forms, especially after Rifts was released, has held a huge fascination with Daniel Lopatin; not just the music of synth bands and movie soundtracks, but the strange, more ephemeral synth fabrics of that decade, including commercials, weird VHS load-up sounds, and forgotten arcade games. And whether it’s in his work on Eccojams, or as one part of the duo Ford & Lopatin (formerly known as Games) — made in collaboration with Joel Ford from Tiger City — he can easily let go and release something that is a self-evidently fun exploration of that time.
But what makes his contradictions between seriousness and foolery even more fascinating is the ways one side-project of his has proved more influential than any his mainstream albums. 2011’s Eccojams Vol. 1 — recorded under the alias Chuck Person — helped, along with Floral Shoppe by Macintosh Plus, to give birth to the entire Vaporwave movement. By taking popular tracks from artists like Toto, Heart and Fleetwood Mac, isolating certain excerpts, and looping them with extra echo and pitch shifting, a new, ultra-ironic genre was born.
He was definitely ahead of the curve when it came to being on YouTube, his video for “nobody here” — a chopped up, endlessly repetitive rework of the words “nobody here” from Chris De Burgh’s “Lady in Red” set to a computer graphic named “Rainbow Road” — was released on his early seminal YouTube channel Sunset Corp helping to establish the highly important aesthetic that would go along with the genre. The result is both touching, slightly pointless, and yet oddly listenable. Now the original Eccojams mixtape has become something of a cult item, selling for 100s of dollars. As he said about the genre: “I do these “echo jam” videos where I just loop stuff like a phrase from a pop song and repurpose it and put echo on it. It’s like really Neanderthal sampling. Not flashy.” Perhaps its popularity is done to the fact that its quite easy to replicate this music — even I could take an 80s song and repeat a certain phrase over and over again and approximate something like vaporware in under an hour— as opposed to the far more dense, and complex, work on his other albums.
It is music that doesn’t seem all that serious. As he writes himself, “Frameworks of taste rely on dumb and great things to exist in concert with one another” — elegantly touching upon the ways in which nearly all his music straddles the line between trolling and seriousness, beauty and disgust. But if you properly watch his iconic Memory Vague DVD, available on YouTube — which itself contains a lot of visuals that could be considered hallmarks of the vaporware genre on YouTube— a lot of this music is accompanied by a weirdly affecting montage of children’s clips, computer simulations and abstract VHS waves. It shows that the limitless future imagined in the 1980s never really came to pass; but perhaps it could still be discovered within music itself.
Like many producers, Oneohtrix Point Never is a science-fiction fanatic. He put his name out there for the scoring of Blade Runner 2049 (imagine how awesome that would’ve been), but Benjamin Wallfisch and later Hans Zimmer were picked instead. In an interview with The Quietus he lists his influences as Ender’s Game, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, as well as classics Japanese anime such as Perfect Blue, Akira and Ghost in the Shell. When stating what interests him about science-fiction he says: “I mostly just want new sensations, like whether it’s an idea about the origins of our civilisation as characterised by a cryptic obelisk, or the palpable texture of a xenomorph, or the pleasure of gore, or the more quiet horror of Lem’s sentient ocean. The thing that bonds all of my favourite art and music and whatever is their capacity to suggest a universe liberated from platitudes and instead filled with strange and interesting things.”
By imagining his music as a sentient, alien being, one can start to understand its non-programmatic flow, unable to be pigeonholed into a standard structure. As he says: “It’s all about believing in the fluidity of materials and the resultant affective relationships they create, and then allowing those to dictate musical flow.” In this respect, his music can be seen as science-fiction in its most abstract form; letting loose from conventional structures in favour of the genre’s more experimental and ethereal aspects. Robert Christgau sums it up best when he writes in his review of Replica that: “Chugging, grinding, crackling, swelling, bubbling, babbling, these tracks don’t sound like part of the natural world, but they certainly sound cognizant of the natural world. And although I may be missing some of their formal interrelationships, I swear they behave as one thing.”
Oneohtrix Point Never ‘Replica’ and ‘Returnal’ — Experiments in Sound
Returnal, released in 2010, was his big follow-up to Rifts. Mixed with programs such as Goldwave and Multiquence, it uses instruments such as the Akai AX60, the classic Roland Juno-60, Roland MSQ-7000 and the Korg Electribe. Beginning with the all out assault of “Nil Admirari”, before allowing us breathing room with the blissed-out searching synth of “Describing Bodies” — the album is a great demonstration of the depth and range of this artist; constantly straddling the line between sonic assault and audial contemplation. Resident Advisor, known for their authoritive views on the electronic music world, called it a “lock for record of the year” noting its forebears of Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, Jean Michel Jarre, Popol Vuh’s work with Werner Herzog and Edward Artemiev’s soundtracks for Tarkovsky. Heady praise indeed, although Oneohtrix Point Never — ever the critic and deep thinker himself — compared the textures of the synth-heavy record to French post-impressionist painter Henri Rousseau, particularly because, as he told The Village Voice, “he didn’t really like or appreciate nature… so I’m painting these pictures not of the actual world, but of us watching the world.”
But while Returnal, released the same year as Eccojams, saw a refinement of the noise and synth-heavy music that made Oneohtrix Point Never a star, Replica in 2011, saw the musician take a new, more melodic tone, inspired by the possibilities of the micro-sampling aesthetic of vaporwave. Aided by this use of micro-sampling, almost all taken from late-night 1980s commercials, it was inspired by the Plunderphonics genre; one characterised by the use of collage and perhaps best represented by James Ferrraro’s iconic Far Side Virtual album. There is a more poppy sense to his music here, but pop music in a very different sense to what was dominating the charts at the time (and one has to remember how bad pop music was between 2008-2012). As he says in the New Yorker, he enjoys “destroying the narrative of pop music but keeping the feeling. Or keeping the melodic gesture of pop music but making it meditative.”
With the album accompanied by a skull artwork, it is as if the producer is suggesting that this world is basically dead and buried. The concept is even more fascinating: as he told Pitchfork, “These samples I’m using are the last remnants of society in a post-apocalyptic world, and the survivors think they’re putting together a replica of what society used to be like, but they’re getting it totally wrong. Like someone getting artifacts wrong for a museum in the future. I’m so obsessed with what will happen 10,000 years from now that I wanted to create a situation where I could simulate that on my own terms.” For aspiring producers, he shows that finding sounds for your music doesn’t necessarily mean plundering vinyls or buying sample packs; instead one can buy DVDs of commercial compilations from the 80s and early 90s and repurposing their strangest sounds into something quite different. As he says “it’s amazing what’s happening in between the phrasings of the pitch– these strange pauses and little incidental sounds. So those sounds were my drums, and the voice-over would be my singer.”
Further Innovations — ‘R Plus Seven’ and ‘Garden of Delete’
For his follow-up R Plus Seven in 2013, Lopatin ditched his characteristic Roland Juno-60 synthesiser and moved towards MIDI instruments and presets, synth patches and VSTs. A self-proclaimed “calm” record inspired by the artwork of American artist Takeshi Murata, he told The Skinny that the album came from “thinking of sounds as these acute choices that are grouped together, that create a sense of place, a cultural sense of contrast […] a way of giving inanimate objects a kind of secret life”.
The album — quite different to Oneohtrix Point Never’s previous work and probably my favourite of all his albums— feels like world-music and part of a natural universe, even if it is composed on a computer. It is a remarkably beautiful, transcendent work of art, like going to another planet yet finding an ancient culture embedded within it, with its own forms of musical expression quite different to ours. This would be his first album with Warp records, putting him alongside Labelmates such as Aphex Twin and Flying Lotus, and easily establishing him as their contemporary.
If R Plus Seven took Oneohtrix Point Never’s music into a different sonic texture, characterised by airy synths, and satisfying melodic patterns, his bizarre follow-up Garden of Delete went in a completely different direction. The genesis of the album came from his supporting rock bands Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden on their joint tour. Playing drone music to arena rock crowds, he found himself rediscovering the 90s grunge music of his self-confessed tortured adolescence. Feeling particularly nihilistic, he rented a windowless studio basement to create his new sounds in. The resultant album, as he told The Verge, really sounds like a place where no air came in, a conflation of “really aggressive music with sugary pop progressions”, taking in genres such as metal, grunge, top 40 EDM radio, industrial and trance and making something which cannot easily be fit into any of these genres alone.
Accompanied by his own sung vocals, which were rendered through the software instrument Chipspeech, the album is obsessed with the power of ooze, of primordial human urges that threaten to overcome our more civilised desires. A truly fascinating record, it is also a difficult one to listen to; put this in the car with your parents, and only the most open-minded of elders will keep the record on. Accompanied by a strange and enigmatic blog post backdated from the early 90s and written from the perspective of a teenage alien blogger named Ezra and a fictional hypergrunge (made-up genre) band named Koass Edge, and this is one of the most bizarre things that the musician has released. Grappling with these sounds, Pitchfork writer Philip Sherburne wrote that “The way Garden of Delete makes us question the assumptions behind all of our high/low binaries is part of its brilliance.“
Oneohtrix Point Never ‘Age Of’ — Pointing in Various Directions
His last studio album, Age Of, released in 2018, saw yet another re-invention, making it hard to say where this producer will be going next. The album features more conventional vocals from Lopatin himself, as well as collaborations with artists such as James Blake, Anohni and Prurient. Perhaps this the strange, mutating record could point a more accessible pop-friendly way forward for the musician. Yet, this album, while flirting with pop melodies and structures, is still choc-a-bloc with strange detours and abruptions; once again turning convention on its head. At times, its use of harpsichord, baroque tunes and chamber-style timbres hints at the possibility of a full-fledged classical record. For an artist so indebted to minimalist maestros such as Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Phillip Glass, Oneohtrix Point Never would be perfectly suited to a completely analog classical record if he so desired. The album is simply full of possibilities of different projects: “The Station” is written for (yes) Usher while “Toys 2” is his imaginary soundtrack for a Pixar film.
This was accompanied by his MYRIAD show, an immersive, ambitious “concertscape” accompanied by a live ensemble, dancers and installation art. As he told Factmag, the idea came about from “splitting the difference between the things that are good about a concert and the things that we like about theater, installation art, things that we might be able to cross pollinate with those ways of working, find something new for ourselves.” In this respect he is less a conventional producer than a stalwart of experimental music and concepts, a modern heir to artists such as Brian Eno, Kraftwerk and Ryuichi Sakamoto. This was followed by the Love in The Time of Lexapro EP, which takes us back to familiar territory, which although satisfying in that classic Oneohtrix Point Never way, breaks little ground for the artist.
If Oneohtrix Point Never’s music has always been cinematic, it would make sense that he would eventually move into the realm of film composing itself. While no director in Hollywood has yet been brave enough to hire Oneohtrix Point Never for a proper big-budget science fiction film (seriously, why isn’t he working on the upcoming Dune?) — his film collaborations show how he can change the timbre of a movie completely. For The Bling Ring, directed by Sofia Coppola, his drone tracks add a certain strange grace to this ostensibly silly story of young girls stealing from the rich and famous. Likewise, he has composed scores for Australian film Partisan and created live soundtracks for Koji Moriomoto’s 1995 anime Magnetic Rose.
But easily his most important has been with the Safdie Brothers. His work with the New York pair has helped push the directing duo from mere indie darlings into seriously important filmmakers. If Good Time — which won the Best Soundtrack award at Cannes — showed the unique ways his cinematic music could transform the feeling of a film from a low-rent thriller into a full on-anxiety attack, in Uncut Gems — which tells the story of a jeweller slash compulsive gambler trying to fight off tens of different, dangerous people trying to collect money off of him — his button-pushing score helps shape one of the best movies of the last decade.
The film features a barnstorming performance from Adam Sandler, often relegated — mostly thanks to some of his own terrible, lazy output — as a relic from a different era. This is a man considered to be a kitsch actor, a hallmark of angry tics, someone fixated on their own nostalgia — except when he’s not. When he puts in 100%, what you get is one of the most energetic talents around. Oneohtrix Point Never’s music — also taking elements of kitsch and nostalgia and pushing them into unsettling forms — helps to harness that power, giving Uncut Gems its fury and brilliance. While the soundtrack for Good Time could be said to have that classic Oneohtrix Point Never sound, Uncut Gems features a much fuller pallet — rising choir vocals, Phil Collins-like drums, Kenny G-style saxophone — and a true sense of grace as well as sonic assault on the senses.
Both “Good Time” and “Uncut Gems” are fully immersive filmmaking experiences; and as a result they required music to match it. One hopes, given the strange, yet deeply satisfying roads both films take us on, that this collaboration with the directing duo carries on; as both producers and filmmakers easily bring out the best in each other. In this respect, just as Vangelis transformed Blue Runner and The Bounty through his mystical use of synths, Oneohtrix Point Never could become one of the most important film composers around; if he so desires.
What’s next for Oneohtrix Point Never?
Due to this genre and platform hopping, its hard to say what’s next for the relentlessly inventive composer. Perhaps a mainstream move is upon us. The latest hints in that direction was mainstream is also stressed by his collaborations with the Weeknd for his latest synth-wave inspired album After Hours. After all, The Weeknd provides this template himself; an artist who himself was once a formalist innovator and fascinating charter of unchecked male libido before opting successfully towards a (far duller) pop career. Rather depressingly, OPN’s remix of “Save Your Tears” is his most popular sound on Spotify, even if its the most uninteresting song of his entire career.
Here it’s obvious that Oneohtrix Point Never could choose to jump into the mainstream any time he chooses. But whether he will find himself comfortable there for long is another matter entirely. Other collaborations with artists such as David Byrne, Anohni and FKA Twigs, could also situate him in the producer role; bringing the best out of other artists by expanding their sonic palettes. Nonetheless, if his latest mix, entitled Depressive Danny’s Witches Borscht Vol. 1: Demented Ass Music From Outer Space, for The Safdie Brother’s online radio station, Elera Radio, is anything to go by, the musician seems not to have lost his touch for nostalgia, vaporwave strange 80s sounds, voiceover work, and deep, stretched-out synth sounds.
Containing these paradoxes and hints throughout his musical career, hiding layers within layers, this is not a music producer that can easily be categorised or pigeonholed. This article, although providing an overview of the different sounds and ideas found in the music of Oneohtrix Point Never, cannot touch upon all the side-projects, one-off commissions, music videos, soundtracks and live-recordings created by the producer, who has an inexhaustible amount of music too vast to be compressed into one neat article. Additionally, before each major album — all of which after Rifts are accompanied by copious texts on Wikipedia and extra-textual material, as well as inspiring think-pieces and conceptual frameworks I’ve never even heard of before— he seems to find new inspirations, aesthetic concepts, theoretical underpinnings and musical genres to riff off of each time he heads into the studio for a new album; making it hard to guess exactly what direction he will choose.
Nonetheless, whatever he chooses to do next — whether its more commercial inroads or another abrasive artistic turn — we will be watching the career of this artist very closely. There’s really no one else like him.
Conclusion | If you are a casual listener to his music, we would recommend starting with Rifts, then working through the major studio albums, as well as Eccojams Vol.1 and his soundtrack for Uncut Gems. Also of interest is the Ford & Lopatin/Games album Channel Pressure — replete with 80s pop sounds, future funk vibes and more conventional poppy melodies — which would probably go down easiest with a group of so-called ‘Normie’ friends. If you are a hardcore fan however, the extensive rabbit hole exists right there on the internet; just take a pill and see just how far it goes…
If you are interested in exploring more about the vaporware genre, we have compiled a list of 15 Vaporwave Artists to listen to as well as our complete guide to the genre. Additionally, to learn more about the 80s, the decade that Oneohtrix Point Never takes the most inspiration from, read our essential guide here. If you would like to make music like Oneohtrix Point Never, we would recommend that you build your own home studio to play around in; to learn more we have created the essential guide here! Alternatively, if you want to learn about other electronic artists, check out our profiles and lists here!