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The most distant human-made object from Earth is the space probe Voyager 1, launched by NASA in 1977. The device is currently hovering outside our solar system’s heliosphere, the bubble of solar wind that separates us from the galactic plasma of interstellar space. On board there is a golden vinyl record: a time capsule containing photographs of our planet, human and other lifeforms, as well as basic maths and biology, orchestral music by Beethoven, and greetings in languages from Aramaic to Korean.
Now that Voyager 1 has left the heliosphere, it will be 40,000 years before it comes within comparable range of another star. The last of its scientific instruments will run out of power in 2025, making it little more than an unplayed mixtape floating in the void. And yet, even if intelligent life one day picks up this civilizational self-portrait, it probably won’t seem as weird or timely as the arrival of 7G, the 49-track debut from songwriter, producer, and PC Music label boss A. G. Cook, which seemed to drop down from outer space in August this year.
7G is a transmission from elsewhere: two hours and thirty-nine minutes of chaotic drums, celestial synths, and transfigured voices, an epic of synthetic textures and quantified emotion sheathed in chrome silver artwork that coils upward like a deep sea cable — or perhaps like that shiny monolith that appeared then vanished in the Utah desert. Like NASA’s vinyl, it is a carefully curated archive, with seven “discs” that correspond to the seven elements — drums, guitar, supersaw, piano, nord, spoken word, and extreme vocals — that form the spine of all Cook’s compositions. It’s an open dropbox: a toolkit enabling listeners to reverse engineer Apple, the 10-track record Cook had initially planned as his debut, which came out the following month.
“It’s funny to think about it the other way round, actually,” Cook told me via Zoom during a short stop in LA — the city he moved to in 2019 before the plague arrived and he wound up locked down with his girlfriend, the musician Alaska Reid, in her home state of Montana.
“Maybe that would seem like the smarter strategy — the primer before the deep dive? I’m happy with how it worked out, though, frantically giving people all this context before the more formal release. I still don’t really feel like I’ve crossed a line in the sand where it’s like, ‘Oh, now I’m an artist,’ you know? I knew I didn’t want to make a producer album, but I don’t think there’s much of a separation now anyway.”
Cook is both a practitioner and a theorist of contemporary pop, citing influences from Kraftwerk to automated music pioneer Conlon Nancarrow. The counterintuitive rollout of 7G and Apple reflects the interplay between “casual” and “hardcore” streams — official singles with music videos, for example, as opposed to mixtapes, compilations, or extended editions primed specifically for Bandcamp. It’s a platform-oriented methodology in which the fullest picture of an artist is revealed in a series of Easter eggs that reward the time invested.
“I think we’re going to see a lot more experimentation between the contrasting streams,” Cook says. “I think the truth of any artist is somewhere in between the two.”
It’s not the first move Cook has made which wound up looking prescient in retrospect. Since 2013, his PC Music label has functioned as a cultural accelerator: compressing styles and tempos into energetic bursts, embracing the digital and post-human, and launching the careers of affiliates including Sophie, Tommy Cash, Hannah Diamond, and Caroline Polachek. The label repurposes the excess baggage of pop culture; its branding, kawaii aesthetics, and nostalgic futurism, a response to the McLuhanite reality that both you and Beyoncé will be absorbed via the same feeds. Although the algorithms are more brutally rigged now, the DIY logic of Personal Computer Music still stands: don’t wait to be told you are a pop star, make yourself one.
“I don’t think PC artists had to push it that much,” Cook says. “I think we just tried to be quite honest. Clearly, the Internet’s happening and accelerating a lot of things. I think Instagram or TikTok have plateaued things differently now, but back then you’d be checking out an artist’s website, going to their URL, and then maybe listening to their stuff on SoundCloud. That was the battleground. It was actually relatively easy to seem a lot more professional than you were.”
The label’s presiding interest lies in the ways that identity is formed, which in the platform era inevitably tied them to corporations many in music felt the need to disavow. To some, the PC Music project looked a little too upbeat at a time when the outside, or underground, or independent ecosystem was being enclosed. Their refusal to distinguish between high and low, record sales or sponsorship, Burial or Britney, placed them at the center of a mini culture war.
“The music scene in London around 2012 was pretty hostile to what a lot of us were doing individually. I remember doing club nights that weren’t particularly successful, where people would be like, ‘I kinda liked that one track, but why did you play that kitsch thing? Why did you mix into that Top 40 crap?’”
A record label is a system for getting things out into the world, but it’s also a gang, a guild, a support network that offers a kind of anonymity in a promotion economy which ties everything to individuals. It also makes a scene look much bigger than it is.
“I found these early snippets of Sophie on SoundCloud and realized she was in London, too, and that she’d also had similar experiences of DJing and getting really negative reactions with people not getting it at all. I had a gut feeling that if we were a hybrid between a collective and a label — just having that umbrella and presenting it really confidently, having websites and all that — people would understand and respect it a little bit more.”
From the perspective of 2020, it seems obvious that PC Music would eventually be vindicated because they were smart yet anti-elitist, original in their experiments with live streams, aliases, and untested funding models. In 2015 they used Red Bull sponsorship to organize a label showcase — packaged to resemble the launch of a fake TV network — at which they stocked a fictional energy drink, QT, that was also the name of one of their artists. They blurred the line with net art and stretched the performative aspects of musicianship in a way that seemed weird to some but has been normalized by the rapid amalgamation of music and VR technology in an even weirder year.
Aside from Apple and 7G, 2020 has brought the launch of Cook-produced albums by Jónsi, Alaska Reid, and Charli XCX. Last week, Variety awarded how i’m feeling now “Innovator of the Year” as a real-time, auto-documentary collaboration built from crowd-sourced lyrics, home studios, and terrible Wi-Fi on the American prairie. “For the first couple of weeks, I was actually going up to a corner of the kitchen and leaving my computer there to download gigabytes of stuff overnight. It actually gave it a nice structure, like, ‘Okay, I’ve gotten things how I like it now ... here’s my version,’ though we did swap out the Wi-Fi a few weeks in because it was too much.”
For millennials, this incremental throw and catch might summon memories of Give Up by The Postal Service, an album produced in a distributed fashion (via post) that has aged well, says Cook, because it represented “a specific type of experimentalism that was also trying to be accessible.” The album’s best-known track, “Such Great Heights,” was one of many performed in a virtual battle of the bands Cook led this summer, culminating with a performance during Appleville, an online festival that coincided with the 10-track’s release.
“I was born in 1990, so I did experience a bit of that early Internet when it was sort of a utopian thing,” Cook says. “I wouldn’t say I’m optimistic about tech companies and stuff, but it’s funny how this weird ooze manages to find different pockets. It’s a moving goal post. Like, there’s things happening on Discord suddenly where people aren’t just attacking each other but asking questions and accepting funny challenges.”
Some level of fatigue will of course set in; so much is missing. “But other things become possible that would be hard to get in an IRL club scenario, like Amnesia Scanner playing next to Clairo.” It also brings the world outside the club into it — as Caroline Polachek did in spiritual communion with the geese of London’s Hyde Park for the 7-part stream celebrating 7G’s launch, a moment of interspecies transcendence better than anything on NASA’s golden disc.
Where PC Music offered an abrasive commentary on a way of life under siege, 7G is at home in the present. It’s not a proposal for something radically different but an instinctive act by an artist who thinks critically about music culture. Beyond any formal statement, it’s a beautiful compilation: a laptop opera built from first and last songs, each of which hopes to sing something sad about the passage of time — a bit like Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs, except now there’s 49 of them, and time doesn’t pass anymore.
In the context of the pandemic, Cook’s cover of The Smashing Pumpkins’ 1993 rock ballad “Today” sounds ironic, like a time-stretched echo daunting us from near-Earth orbit. At the same time, the baroque keyboards in “Waldhammer,” lifted directly from Beethoven, reveal the breadth of the 30-year-old Cook’s ambition, taking us further in space and time to the outer limits of the solar system where the German composer’s music sits on a satellite 13 billion miles from home.
If Cook has one obvious talent beyond music, it’s generating the feeling that anything is possible. In a year when new horizons seemed to close down as soon as they arose, a feeling of possibility and everyday abundance became more precious than ever. Next Saturday, PC Music will host a festive stream – Pop Carol – with all proceeds being donated to the food bank charity The Trussell Trust “Even though parts of this year are really bleak,” he says, “the motivation for me has been to kind of find these really interesting and surprising communal moments. Sometimes it’s purely about music, sometimes it’s about a good cause, but each time it’s trying to elevate things in some way.”