Let's get to the heart of the matter up front: Is Deerhunter a band, or just another tool for the prolific songsmith Bradford Cox?
"The band dynamic is really strong," says Moses Archuleta, drummer and Cox's co-founder in Atlanta's indie darlings, Deerhunter. "We feel really strongly about the four of us functioning as a unit."
But let's face it: The evidence has sometimes suggested otherwise.
Deerhunter and Best Coast perform Friday, November 5, at the Granada Theater.
The Deerhunter story is an oft-told tale of bands that achieve a degree of success or notoriety. A group of friends form a band post-high school, persevere through the formative years as they hone their craft, establish a style and gain critical traction. One of the members emerges as the focal point of the band, has ever-increasing influence on the direction the band is taking musically and soon seems to overshadow his friends.
What happens next is seldom pretty. But often intriguing.
In the case of Deerhunter, that brighter star is Cox, who between Deerhunter and his solo project Atlas Sound has gushed a BP-sized spill of songs over the past four years. His past onstage antics and high-profile blogging too brought attention, casting a spotlight on the band—a spotlight that was sometimes uncomfortable for the other musicians—and contributing to the downsizing of the band to a four-piece in 2007 with the tense departure of guitarist Colin Mee.
As a result, in the recent past Cox has maintained a much lower public profile, and the band generally shuns the press.
But, though on hiatus for much of 2009, Deerhunter indeed survived.
September saw the release of the band's much-anticipated Halcyon Digest, its fourth full studio album. The album pushes further an ascending arc of music that has matured from hazy shoegaze noise to mature pop.
Cox, clearly, is the one who is bringing the song sketches to the table. But building the finished product is a group effort, Archuleta says. Guitarist Lockett Pundt is a strong songwriter himself, demonstrated with his solo project Lotus Plaza's 2009 release. Besides vocal contributions, his own songwriting sensibilities rein in Cox's. In turn, the songs reference a far broader palette of musical influences, going so far as to include an unexpected saxophone on "Coronado," the second single from the most recent album.
"Bradford spearheaded that with Lockett," explains Archuleta. "We talked about how sax is either good or really bad, and thought we'd try it. We were conjuring Roxy Music and trying to do something really tasteful in that way."
Cox has attributed the sax to time spent listening to the reissued Exile on Main Street.
Archuleta admits things have changed in the way the band works: "Due to circumstances, the songwriting is less collaborative than in the past," he acknowledges. In contrast to past releases Cryptograms and Microcastles, "ideas are coming more from a single source and a lot of the writing is taking place ahead of going into the studio."
There have been other changes. While the band's and Cox's collective psyches on the past records could be described as focused on the fragility of life, this album projects a more celebratory mood, even as the album closes with a song written as a tribute to the band's late friend, Jay Reatard.
Through it all, though, Deerhunter has retained a basic recording and touring ethos that Archuleta characterizes as "marginally professional."
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Or as Archuleta further explains it: "We tried going into the studio with an attitude of more professionalism, but we find it just doesn't work for us. We have to strip attitudes and methods back to the basics to make things happen."
Reviews on the performances leading up to their Dallas appearance at the Granada have been universally excellent, with set lists that pull material from deep in their catalog. Cox has become a fairly dazzling guitarist on stage, and the slow buildup and guitar meltdown of "Desire Lines" from Halcyon Digest creates another opportunity for the band to sweep the audience up in a hazy guitar-driven jam.
Cox's star may be shining bright these days. But so is Deerhunter's. Things, Archuleta says, are good at the moment.
"Now we travel in two vans instead of one," he says. "We have a 'tour manager' who's an old friend, and another friend handling the merch. But it's not as serious as you might think."