Maturity is a loaded term. Describing an album as more “mature” than previous efforts often implies that the artist has grown tame. When it comes to Deerhunter’s new album, Fading Frontier, I called up producer Ben H. Allen III to discuss why he prefers the term “evolution” over “maturity” and to get a sense of what it’s like to work with Bradford Cox and company in the studio.
Atlanta born and based, Allen, who produces, mixes and writes under the MakeRecordsNotBombs umbrella, has made records for Belle & Sebastian, Kaiser Chiefs, Gnarls Barkley, Washed Out and more. His relationship with Deerhunter began in 2010 when he produced the band’s album, Halcyon Digest, a watershed in the band’s evolution due to its streamlined sound and production.
From Halcyon Digest onward, the core of the band has consisted of Cox, Lockett Pundt on guitar, Moses Archuleta on percussion, and Josh McKay on bass. However, the band has utilized a wealth of talented musicians in the studio including Frankie Broyles on 2013’s Monomania and Broadcast’s James Cargill on Fading Frontier.
The two-year break between Monomania and Fading Frontier was due in part to Cox’s recovery period, both emotionally and physically, after being struck by a car in late 2014. Cox explains the seriousness of the accident in a recent interview with Pitchfork, claiming that it “erased all illusions,” and led to a serious bout with depression.
When Cox was feeling well enough to focus his creative energy on Fading Frontier, Deerhunter turned back to Allen. Though he and Cox had many dinner conversations about the new album, it took a while for ideas to materialize into studio sessions. However, as soon as they started tracking, recording was finished within a month. Allen assures me this didn’t mean recording was without hurdles. “There’s not a lot of trying something and then holding on to it thinking, ‘maybe we’ll come back to it later.’ It’s more like making sure something is right the first time even if we have to do it 100 different ways.”
Part of this obsessive desire for perfection is the result of Allen and Cox’s similar personalities. “We both have very alpha dog personalities,” Allen explains, “and in the studio there can be a lot of fireworks around that.” Allen and Cox have found ways to use the creative tension in a positive way, resulting in an ebb and flow of leadership in the studio. “There’s always conflict involved when making art, “he explains,
but “when making a record feels kind of dangerous, that’s also when it feels right.”
While Fading Frontier is not a simple record, there is a sonic openness which was teased, but never fully realized in the brittle garage rock of Monomania. The new album is filled with Cox and Pundt’s interpretations of 1960s pop music tropes, but Deerhunter retains its trademark infusion of unusual sounds and harmonies. The surrealist twists familiar to Deerhunter fans are more muted here than on Microcastle or Halcyon Digest, and the lack of musical clutter is amplified by Allen’s pop-centric production. The resulting catchiness makes the nine song record feel much shorter than the 37 minute run-time.
Enter said descriptions of Fading Frontier as a “more mature “ album than previous records. Deerhunter has existed for a decade now, and while their legacy as purveyors of the weird has been firmly cemented, Allen believes the idea of maturity is incomplete. “When you have made a lot of records and you have a long career as Deerhunter does, at some point you change as human beings. I don’t know if that’s growing up, it’s just evolution.”
If Cox’s driven attitude in the studio is any indicator, Deerhunter is not even close to reaching a creative plateau. “Bradford is completely, totally devoted to his art. He’s going to have that same level of intensity about the music no matter what,” Allen says. In addition, Cox is never one to do the same thing twice. “I would be very concerned if they did a garage record. That wouldn’t make any sense because they’ve already got that,” he points out.
Allen won’t pinpoint a favorite moment within Fading Frontier because his main focus, like every good producer, is the entire body of work. However, he does believe that “Breaker” is the key to understanding Deerhunter’s evolution on Fading Frontier. The glittery, sun-soaked song is one of the most immediate tracks on the album, and that immediacy is of critical importance. Allen elaborates, “It’s really the crux of the record, in that it is really different for Deerhunter, and it is still a familiar classic type of feeling.” The intersection of the weird with the classic has always been an element on every Deerhunter record, but on Fading Frontier the point of contact is magnified so it is visible to both longtime fans as well as those new to Deerhunter. The ability of “Breaker” and the rest of the album to be digested by every type of listener is important to Allen. In his succinct fashion, he sums it all up, “If you like good songs, you’re going to like this record.”