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A. G. Cook’s fresh horizons

With his PC Music label, Cook became one of the most influential figures in shaping the pop trends of the past decade. With the label on hiatus, and a new base in LA, he now presents ‘Britpop’, a mammoth triple album that interrogates ideas of Britishness and sees him tackle his past, present and future.

By Will Richards

A. G. Cook
(Picture: Sinna Nasseri)

Roman roads. Charli XCX. Mark Twain. Tolkein. The Wild West. These are only a handful of the things that cross A. G. Cook’s mind in a single response to a question about his brilliantly ambitious new album, Britpop. To the enigmatic producer and co-founder of independent record label PC Music, it all fits together though, similarly to how he’s been making hands-in-the-air hits out of seemingly ill-fitting ingredients for a decade.

As a pioneer of the hyper-modern British pop scene of the past decade, Cook has played a vital role in pushing pop forwards and redefining what it can look like. On Britpop, he rewrites his past, present and future.

The idea of the album first came to Cook when he found himself in a rural town in Montana during the pandemic. He was living in the hometown of his partner, singer Alaska Reid, but was the only British person in the entire place. “It was the longest time I’d ever spent away from the UK,” says the now-LA-based Cook over Zoom from his new home, “and I felt like a bit of an alien.”

Both the free time that the pandemic offered and his unusual location led Cook to think of home, and especially ideas of Britishness abroad. “I started to think that there could be something really solid to base new music on, and not just do it in terms of Britpop as a Blur vs. Oasis thing,” he muses. “Even though that does interest me too.”

Cook admits that he has enjoyed evoking a “confusing era” of Britain in his music — referencing his own permanent Beatles-esque haircut — and saw Britpop as a way of “thinking about whatever Britain was in this pseudo-fictional way as well as a biographical way”.

The album comes at a time when many millennial Brits of Cook’s generation are quick to distance themselves from ideas of Britishness, with a positive national identity viewed by many younger people as being synonymous with a slow but steady slide into fascism, Brexit and the ascent of the right.

“At one point, I was worried if it was too Brexit-y,” Cook laughs of the album’s title and concept, going on to ban the use of red, white and blue in its artwork and related visual material. “Britpop is an interesting title, because both parts of the word have a controversial definition,” he says. “People can’t agree on Britishness, even as a word. Then you have pop, which is also hard to define. Now there’s not as much of a unified mainstream, is pop just what’s popular?”

From what could be seen as a throwaway, tongue-in-cheek title, Cook fell down a rabbit hole into creating a fully encompassing thesis on modern Britishness, set inside a 24-song album that feels like his magnum opus.

A. G. Cook
(Picture: Sinna Nasseri)

Ideas of both Britishness and pop music have been tied to A. G. Cook for his entire career. Emerging in the early 2010s as the head of the PC Music label, Cook sat at the forefront of a revolution in British pop music, pioneering a maximalist version of the genre, with hedonism at its core. Almost exclusively referred to as “futuristic” and adjacent to the influential hyper-pop sound, it spawned generational voices like SOPHIE and took other already established stars such as Charli XCX and Carly Rae Jepsen under its wing.

In 2024, PC Music’s footprint can still be felt all across the pop world (its affiliate Danny L Harle is a prominent producer on Dua Lipa’s new album) even if the label itself announced a hiatus last year. In the summer of 2023, Cook marked a decade of PC Music by announcing that the label would cease releasing new music as of this year, instead focusing only on archival releases.

“The core concept of Personal Computer Music and the friends on the label is still a world that feels really vivid to me,” says Cook. “It’s not a case of me getting bored of the manifesto of it. It was a case of me zooming out and realising that there was a chance to not just have it end in the same ambiguous way that a lot of labels do. I’m not interested in PC being upsold, but wanted to make a really bold move. Running an indie label is the opposite of printing money, and you have to invest in the culture of it. I thought the ideal way for it to exist was to acknowledge that we achieved way more than I thought we could in those 10 years, and now to be a guardian of that stuff.”

While he sprinkled the release of solo singles throughout the early-to-mid-2010s, Cook was most prominently seen collaborating with others in the PC Music universe and beyond. He took seven years to release his first studio album, 2020’s 7G. “I was very much avoiding the canonical album, the ‘A. G. Cook sound’,” he says now, before realising that he had a “vantage point” to do so with 7G. A second album, Apple, followed just a month later.

Though many focused on the hyper-Britishness of the vocals on much of PC Music’s output, it was a sound that was first taken in by those over the pond. “There was some support in London, but a lot of the early club nights in 2011 or 2012, people would say, ‘This is not dance music; this is not pop music,’” Cook remembers. “People in New York and LA would take it more at face value. Lots of PC-affiliated artists have had this funny connection to US culture and embracing it in a more straight-on way.”

He adds, “The UK is in this weird world of reliving the same thing over and over, and just hallucinating new ideas. I think PC Music continues that in a funny way, and my take on that and the work I do is perceivably British, let alone considering the accents. It’s a funny moment to really dig into that idea, even if I’m not doing ‘Vindaloo’ or anything,” he laughs of Fat Les’s beery football anthem from 1998.

A. G. Cook
(Picture: Sinna Nasseri)

As with all his work with PC Music, Britpop exists in the in-between spaces of these binary ideas and asks more open questions than it provides answers. It is split into three parts: Past, Present and Future. Though it wasn’t written chronologically, with work on each part then influencing and changing the others, it does serve as an overview of Cook’s history and where he wants to go next.

The Past section of the album is, predictably, the most traditionally A. G. Cook in its sound. Full of bubbling, plastic-y beats straight from the PC Music canon, it’s spearheaded by the deliciously instant and catchy Charli XCX-featuring title track. Most striking though is opening track ‘Silver Thread Golden Needle’, a swirling 10-minute monster of intense leftfield noise that distils his wonky sound and alluring appeal perfectly.

Britpop then turns on a sixpence into the Present section, a strikingly lo-fi collection of songs mostly written on guitar and almost entirely absent of the electronic chaos that has been his bread and butter until now. “It’s got this really present feel to the songwriting,” he says of the second part of the collection, which begins with the soft swing of the gorgeous ‘Serenade’. Even more stripped back is the lightly Auto-Tuned slow jam ‘Nice to Meet You’ and nakedly honest ‘Green Man’.

After working with incomparable vocalists from Caroline Polachek to Sigur Rós lead singer Jónsi, Cook struggled with the limitations of working with his own voice, but Britpop shows him to have beautifully understated and dextrous vocals. These are best shown on ‘Serenade’ and the swirling ‘The Weave’.

Cook describes discs one and two of Britpop as “intentionally tight” and able to hold their own as standalone records. Disc three then honours the opaque nature of the future and presents a “grab bag of things that confused me slightly,” says Cook. “It’s songs I would have trouble categorising even by my own standards.”

The final disc begins with the sparkling ‘Soulbreaker’, which bridges the gap between the gargantuan slabs of synth from Past and the tender songwriting of Present. From there, the Future disc takes Cook to the thumping synth pop of ‘Emerald’, and the ambient haze of ‘Butterfly Craft’ and ‘Pink Mask’. If the final part of the album is deliberately vague and scattergun in its predictions of what might come next, the cheekily titled closer ‘Out of Time’ — a seven-minute rager of the hardest beats on the album — at least shows that Cook isn’t promising a future of soft guitar strums and no dance anthems.

A. G. Cook
(Picture: Sinna Nasseri)

To promote Britpop, Cook launched a TikTok account which he told fans would only be live for a month before being scrubbed from the internet, in an attempt to add something refreshingly ephemeral and gripping to the endless digital dustbin.

“TikTok has managed to destabilise something that was already quite unstable anyway,” he says of the app’s impact on the music industry. “I’m not a native user of TikTok, but I’m interested by this chaotic influence on a noise becoming a hook. The Addison Rae remix of Charli’s [‘Von Dutch’] has ended up having the screaming part as the viral hook. That’s almost a parody of what a TikTok sound or ‘moment’ can be. I’m not always completely inspired by the music industry, but I’m involved in some underdog way, and couldn’t resist trying to pry open some of the weak links in this stuff.”

He also launched the spoof website ‘Witchfork’, featuring articles such as “Why Caroline Polachek would rather have talons”, and hosted a livestreamed Witchfork Music Festival. It shows an artist removed from the music industry mainstream, but simultaneously wanting to be involved in the conversation. “I exist in my own weird niche, and it’s interesting working out how this music can survive up against all these huge new artists launching,” he says. “I can’t resist being in dialogue with the music industry.”

As a reaction to how he believes the music industry has “decided to archive itself quite haphazardly”, Cook is also currently deep in the process of archiving the PC Music catalogue. “I’m very aware of things being precarious, and this is me as a music fan not wanting to have to trawl the web for a deleted download of some track that was important to me. I care about it in a practical way, and we’re being told that it’s all fine even if there isn’t a tangible way to get this stuff. People say that you can find anything online, but have you ever tried to actually Google anything that you know about? Chances are there’s a crappy JPEG and a brief description. It’s sad that everyone has to put so much effort into doing it themselves, but the ecosystem is terribly organised. That was a big motivator for it.”

A. G. Cook
A. G. Cook performing live at The Underworld in London (Picture: Henry Redcliffe)

The next time I meet Cook, he is in the middle of the second of three residencies to launch Britpop. The residencies began in Los Angeles with a three-night run at the Viper Room, before hitting London for a trio of gigs at Camden punk institution The Underworld. It then ended with another three gigs at New York DIY venue Trans-Pecos, leaning further into the rock-orientated energy of Britpop and taking Cook outside of his traditional comfort zone.

“Having an album in three parts lends itself to a live show with this many dynamics,” Cook tells me from a pub opposite The Underworld before the third and final show at the venue. “With the way that streaming has evolved, I want to do whatever I can to transcend that.” At the show later that night, these opposing forces are strikingly apparent. The gig begins with a giant slab of industrial electronic noise, which then abruptly stops, and Cook straps on an electric guitar to croon his way through highlights from Present on the new album.

It also feels like his arrival as a star in his own right. Often seen behind a mixing desk or in the shadows at a PC Music showcase, these new live gigs have Cook jovially joking with the crowd between songs and making gags at his own expense. During the songs, he dances with abandon through a beefed-up remix of ‘Britpop’ and has lighters in the air for the gorgeous and stripped-back ‘Being Harsh’. Though the crowd are most energetic and fervent for the set’s more electronic parts, they also warm to Cook’s softer, guitar-based persona, enjoying the personable and chatty feel of the gig. If Britpop as an album is him repositioning himself at the end of the PC Music era, this is the real-life manifestation.

A. G. Cook
A. G. Cook performing live at The Underworld in London (Picture: Henry Redcliffe)

Though the collection of new songs is already a rich and extensive world across its 24 tracks, Cook is set to enhance and extend the universe on a series of supplementary music, featuring remixes and new versions of tracks from the album. “I like having the ability of re-doing a disc two [Present] song in the style of disc one [Past] or three [Future]. These categories make that idea quite irresistible to me,” he smiles.

“I’ve always felt really deeply about avoiding the middle ground,” says Cook, visibly excited about the prospect of a singer-songwriter fan digging Present and then finding themselves surprisingly drawn to Past’s club music or vice versa. “It’s so interesting to provoke someone into listening to something they didn’t think they would like, and I love when things are repelling but interesting enough to make you come back to them. There’s such a deluge of music now, and things can only really exist if they have some distance or friction. Otherwise, it’s just another drop in the ocean.”