A. G. Cook sits in bright green forrest with his laptop.

Nelke Roose

25 Sep 2020

Interview: A. G. Cook on His Two Debut Albums and Charli XCX

Music producer, singer, songwriter, creative director of Charli XCX, and now proud creator of two debut albums, ‘7G’ and ‘Apple’. Those are all the impressive boxes A. G. Cook can check off. Besides that, A. G. Cook is founder of the art collective and label PC Music, which stands for a surreal version of over-the-top pop that’s often futuristic, offbeat, has synthetic textures and pitch-shifted feminine vocals. Let’s get to know this musical mastermind. 

You’re finally stepping out of the spotlight of being just a producer. What is it like releasing your own music?

It’s not a totally different world. As a producer, I try to get really into the personality of everyone I work with, I make their personality come through in the sound design and everything. To then start my own music, I have to force myself to redefine my take on producing music, on how I personally contribute to the music, you know?

But even the act of producing and recording feels like a contemporary thing, like a lot of people can relate to it. I normally mess around with audio, and creating an album is like a really extended version of that. In PC, we throw in a lot of contrast like electronic versus acoustic, and by stepping into the spotlight a bit more, it made me prove there’s not so much of a difference between those two anyway.

You’ve helped to create other artists’ albums but now, you’re doing it for yourself and people already know your name and your music. Does that make you nervous?

The original reason why I have the alias A. G. Cook was to see it as a formal writing credit. I imagined myself working with different artists and didn’t want to put music out under my name because I didn’t want to explicitly have a sound of mine that they’d be referring to on album collaborations with others. I wanted to still be very flexible, it helped to be open to remixes because it showed I could still take on other sounds.

To be honest, I felt more nervous with my “Superstar” single, which came out already a few years ago. Back then, I thought: “Okay I’m going to sing this song in a funny way, and I’ll do it live a few times”, but I wondered about how long I should keep it. I had some bits overproduced, some bits underproduced, and deciding to stick to my guns in that was more nerve-wracking.

But with the release of my two debut albums, it feels a lot more natural, more well-rounded. I’m actually happy that I didn’t do an album in the first few years of my career because then I would have had a very funny idea about what it should have been. In other words, it would have felt more like those producers’ albums you sometimes have. But now, without even overthinking it, my debuts naturally feel more like artist albums. To keep true to myself, I made 7G versus Apple. Apple is condensed and very artist-focused, but then I also made 7G that has a lot of very producers’ moments, without those two contaminating each other too much.

Let’s talk about 7G because it’s a 7 CD compilation with 49 songs. You put 49 songs on this album, which is a different process than putting 10 songs on an album. How did you decide the song order? 

Yeah, it’s funny, I finished my shorter album, Apple, first. Around a year ago, I had a pretty file version of it. When I was reflecting on Apple, I was definitely intrigued by the choices I made in terms of the sound palette and the instruments. I had a very particular different guitar treatment, and a particular version of recorded vocals. I felt like it would be good to expand on that and make people understand it was a very intentional choice.

By dividing 7G into 7 discs, it was really about the instruments and it became the ideal way of organizing it in my own head. I couldn’t have ever done a 14-track album and know the organization in advance at all, it would just have been mad for me to keep track of it all, but somehow it became manageable because I knew there were different instrument palettes on the different versions. I know it’s overwhelming for a listener, but you have these self-contained moments, so it was just a logical continuation.

Besides creating your albums, you run a music label called PC Music. What does your smaller, independent label do differently, compared to the big labels?

When it started in 2013 and even before when I was just playing with the idea of the label, it already represented a kind of survival within the London music scene. We did DJ sets with friends at club nights and we’d already be making this kind of music in our style. At the time, there was a lot of good music in London, but it was all very dark like dubstep, heavy, … that kind of thing. So, even us, to be doing anything on the fringe of those scenes is like super kitsch. Like, everyone wondered: “What are you guys even doing?” We had a really strange take on pop. Even friends who liked us as people were unsure of our typical PC sound.

But through it being such a clash, I got to meet people around. So that is how I met SOPHIE. I was like: “Oh my god, are you also in the city doing something weird?” We formed these friendships based on us being the odd one out. We found other old friends who were on the same page and we added visuals to the mix as well. For example, we collaborated with Hannah Diamond, who does a lot of visual stuff, imagery.

As a label manager, you are always looking for new artists or new acts. What’s a good source for finding new acts?

Initially, we found people through shows and sometimes through helping friends carry line-ups. I feel like that was a big part of the more random signings, I guess. And more recently, we found artists through people themselves: I just heard their music online, and I felt they would fit. Sometimes it’s even just through demos. For example, Planet 1999 sent me a full demo; we released the exact thing, we didn’t even change the track order. We’ve worked a lot with them, even collaborated on a project for Charli XCX.

We either take people on who need help in terms of presentation, or people who I generally resonate with and want to work with on different projects. Right now, I’m meeting people through Zoom concerts, and I love the realization of: “Wow their set was incredible” when someone suddenly plays a lot of their own music that I didn’t know. Hearing an unfinished new piece of music from someone gets me excited. They don’t have to sound like stuff PC released in the past because when I find someone who has a whole catalog of music that they haven’t released and are not even confident about, that reminds me of the original ethos of our label.

One of the artists you work with very often is Charli XCX. When did you find a musical soulmate in her?

I’ve been following Charli’s early career because she went to art school with a few people I knew. She did one year of art school there, and some of my friends who took the same courses as her were like: “There’s this girl who is kind of a pop star, you’d be interested” and so I followed her and I really liked even the first single. But still, our paths never crossed.

Luckily then, our friend SOPHIE did the “Vroom Vroom” stuff. I got very attentionally involved in, more on the SOPHIE side, so I still hadn’t met Charli herself. We had these funny ideas of what each other would be like. Eventually, I ended up going to her housewarming with SOPHIE and met her in a very normal way. That’s when I realized we were pretty similar. She was expecting me to be a mythical guy who wouldn’t say very much. We actually immediately started talking about music.

How did you two start to work with each other?

When we met, Charli’s label had no idea what to do with “Vroom Vroom”. They did the music video but didn’t know how that related to fans, in their mind it was crazy. From doing a few writing sessions together, we ended up talking a lot about other people’s music and funny things like that. We managed to get to a really honest place quickly, that’s a really enduring thing of how we worked together. In our recording, we try to cast fast, live energy somehow. And even in the production, even when the process goes slower sometimes, the goal is still to capture that crazy energy wherever she can, and it will be amazing. The melodies and lyrics come quickly and then she performs in a great way.

We have a similar perspective and give each other confidence to just work without worrying too much. We’ve even had funny sessions where we’ve both written for David Guetta. I was shocked by how the last album came together, quarantine-wise. I felt like my memory’s really scrambled because it went so quickly. We still surprise ourselves; it was a lot of trust to be able to do something like that. We were just face-timing Charli about how to set up a microphone and so. It was just a fun thing because we have experienced it together, and it was just a cool way of doing things. But, of course, I miss working in the same space.

Photos by Alaska Reid and A. G. Cook

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