I like Dan Deacon – a lot. His debut full-length, Spiderman of the Rings, tickled my synapses like an electroshocked feather duster and its predecessor Bromst is currently perched atop my provisional 2009 hitlist (I know, it's only May). So, when the opportunity arose to cross conversational swords with the Baltimore-based electroneer I snapped at it, gator-style. What ensued was, for sure, the most intriguing interview I've ever had the pleasure to conduct. The 500 word feature can be found in the latest issue of Tank, but I thought the transcript was so arresting it needed to be aired.
So here you go, my favourite interview ever with one hell of an artist. It's a bit of a long one, mind you, so you might need a brew for company...
Hi Dan how are you?
DD: I’m at home in Baltimore. Things are good.
How are things coming along with the new record?
DD: It’s good and being reproduced and manufactured. It should be out on March 24th.
Have you found there’s been much pressure at all?
DD: Yeah [laughs heartily]. Not in a bad way but on the last record it seemed like no one really knew who I was, so it seemed like there was very little hype round the record before it came out. After the Pitchfork review that was when all the press started happening and I’m finding it a little different having people know who I am now with this record. It’s exciting.
Are you comfortable with that?
DD: The main thing that’s been weighing me down has been interviews to be honest. I feel like every day I have like three or four hours of interviews scheduled. It’s not really what I enjoy doing the most. I’m not a narcissist and trying to explain the record in a unique and innovative way every day can be a bit of tiresome process.
Hmmm...It’s not looking good for my next few questions then!
DD: [Laughs] I mean I understand the importance of it, and I’ve been reading a lot of interviews to see how other artists have handled it. I don’t want to take a hostile approach to the press. I realise that would be selfish, foolish, naive and ignorant. I’m really just looking to being on tour and getting into it.
I’m a big fan of discovery and I guess the press helps people to discover, well most of them. Do you know what I’m trying to say.
Erm...I guess so
DD: I don’t really know what I’m talking about, forget that. [laughs].
Okay, well I’ll just carry on reeling out the questions then.... So how have you approached the release of this record?
DD: The main thing is that I wanted it to be more contrasted than the last record. Spiderman of the rings was one level of intensity and I wanted this record to have more sections that would highlight the intensity. I feel like if something plateaus it loses its initial impact and I wanted this one to have more of a dynamic, with regards to the density and the intensity level in the general feel of the sound.
Is it a dramatic shift?
DD: I don’t think it’s shifted away, it’s more an evolution. I can’t imagine that people will turn this one on and go “I can’t believe this is Dan Deacon. What the fuck?!”. It’s definitely a more mature, more composed album than the last.
So are you more comfortable in a recording environment or a live environment?
DD: I dunno. I mean I used to feel a lot more comfortable in the live environment but since the shows have grown I’ve become more comfortable in the recording environment. For a long period I was just touring and put all my energy into the presentation of work, rather than the creation of work. And, of course, the shows have changed since I first started. Before it was a show with about 100 people but now multiple thousands of people are there.
How does that feel?
DD: It feels weird. It puts it into an entirely different context and it becomes an entirely different show. I have to take a lot of thought and consideration into how to present it that context. I mean, its fun to play to that many people but at the same time I don’t want it to [tails off]. Like, I just did this show in New York that was really aggressive; it just didn’t translate very well.
With such big crowds now are you still able to retain the interaction you previously had with crowds like the last time I saw you in Edinburgh?
DD: Yeah but it’s difficult to interact with a huge crowd. I remember that show in Edinburgh being a really small crowd for that tour. It was really refreshing and fun; you could see the back of the room. It was easy to make eye contact with everyone there and when I play on the floor to 2000 people there’s only like seven people you can see.
You know there are so many contexts in which a show can exist in and I try and take it on a show by show basis, where you have less absolutes. It’s more like one system will work in one setting and another will work better with a different system. So some shows I’ll play on the floor and some shows I’ll play on the stage.
Is that something you’ll assess when you arrive at the venue then?
DD: Yeah, it’s difficult to predict ahead of time unless it’s some big festival then you’ll know what’s right or wrong.
Are you at all bothered that people may find your live shows more alluring than your records?
DD: This is the first record that I’ve made thinking that more people will hear it. With Spiderman of The Rings I wasn’t sure how many people would hear it so I was pretty sure that more people would go to shows than buy records. It was the first record I’d made that was in stores, all the rest I sold at shows. So, clearly by that nature, more people saw the songs live than actually heard them recorded and Spiderman of the Rings was written for a live show format, whereas Bromst was written for both. It’s much more of a balanced record, I think.
I hear you’ll be taking a band on the road to promote Bromst. Is this true?
DD: Yeah, I’ll be going out with the ensemble in the US and Europe.
Do you prefer that to working on your own?
DD: I’d say at this point I definitely prefer it. It’s a lot of fun to jam with people and there’s nothing that can really compete with live instruments. You can have the greatest kick drum sample in the world but you’re emulating a live kickdrum – why not use a live kickdrum? I understand the importance of synthetic bass drums and synthetic snares, those definitely have their application and purpose, but I want to use as many true sound sources as possible. Having a combination of organic and synthetic sounds is something that really excites me.
So are you going to be playing an instrument yourself?
DD: I would consider the effects board an instrument. I will be playing a digital instrument.
So, how musical accomplished are you? I read that you were inspired by Black Flag and Minutemen - did you start of as a “typical” musician?
DD:I was never really into Black Flag or Minutemen really. I’m not sure where you got that from.
Really? Ah fuck.... Wikipedia strikes again.
DD: [laughs] No, they never shaped my musical output... I started writing music at junior High School with a program called Mini-soft which was a mini programmer and I started experimenting with sound in speed. I was in a Ska-band at that time and I was excited by the shows. The shows were energetic and rambunctious and that’s where I fell in love with that theme. I drifted from the music pretty quickly as it was all too similar for my liking but the atmosphere and energy was unparalleled.
I can definitely see similarities in the way you gee a crowd up.
DD: People in the ska scene didn’t give a shit about what other people thought about them. They just wanted to have fun dancing. That was the first time I had ever seen people dance to music that wasn’t techno or club music. That kind of music didn’t appeal to me. Being a dorky trombone player in Junior High and going to a ska show and seeing a band that played loud, energetic music that had an instrument I could relate to made a big impact on me.
Then I guess around that same time I experimented more with sounds and textures. I didn’t know anything about serialism, tonalism, atonalism, dissonance or harmonies, so I taught myself a lot of stuff and then later figured out at college what it actually was. It was fun a fun period and I was into bands like They Might Be Giants and Devo because they were considered serious bands but they had a lighthearted nature to them. And then getting out of ska and getting into more quirky music I definitely felt that was where I wanted to put my focus into; something that was definitely serious but didn’t want to put a crown upon its head.
Is difficult to retain that exuberance to this day, particularly given what you’ve said about the press. Has this become a job to you?
DD: I consider it a job but it’s a job I really enjoy working. I don’t want to play out the record and be just like [puts on a voice that suggests he weighs 400lbs] “ Now go make me some money record, I’m going to lay on the couch and jerk off all day.” I like talking about the record – it’s something I’m immensely proud of - and I hope that people can find something different in it that they can relate to. I think the importance of the press is definitely there, I just wish I could spread it out more. I feel like a jerk speaking to someone and then a half hour later talking to someone else and saying the exact same thing. I guess that’s my own fault for not giving the record label a proper schedule of my time.
On the other foot, it must be quite nice to hear your fans’ take on your material?
DD: I think that’s part of the beauty of music. It certainly conveys an idea and emotion that can’t exist any other way. It only exists as music. Music takes the aspect of language that’s missing and fills that void. Unless it has a lyrical content, you can’t open the door with music to express feelings of love and loss or exuberance that surpasses the written or spoken word can. And it’s interesting to see how people interpret music because everyone understands it differently; they have their own individual mind and thought. So it’s interesting to see how they take something I perceive one way and they see it another. And that’s why art is so important to people. It’s based entirely on how they perceive it.
Are you concerned at all by people’s reactions?
DD: Yeah, I’m looking forward to people hearing it - I just hope people don’t think it’s going to be Spiderman of the rings 2. Ultimately I’m not worried about it, I’m very proud of it and even if people don’t like it , I’m happy with it so that’s alright with me.
Ultimately, it comes down to you being satisfied with your own work?
DD: It could get the worst reviews in the world but that couldn’t take away the enjoyment I had making
I spoke to Ben Curtis [School Of Seven Bells] recently who said he felt sorry for people who are at home making music on a laptop. Should we feel sorry for you?
DD: No. Not at all. I think that that person likes something different. I just think that a laptop has become as equal a composer as sheet music. For me, making music on my own is an important aspect of my every day life: it’s a very meditative and spiritual process. It’s fun to share that process with people but in the end there’s ideas that I know could only be achieved individually and there’s ideas I know that could only be achieved being in a group. I don’t think that being a solo composer is any better than being a composer that being in a band with other individuals. It’s kind of like saying it’s better to live in Europe than to live in the United States – they’re both good and bad.
I read the message on your MySpace after the review by Ryjam Kidwell and you said you felt like you're on your way to accomplishing something. What is that something? Have you achieved it yet?
DD: You know, I feel like I’m getting there – we’re starting to create a unified community and I feel like we’re getting there. It’s to have people feel more connected to their environment, their environment being the earth and the people around them and not just their friends. Its feeling more connected to everything and to have some sense of responsibility in regards to their choices they make. I feel like Western society has made it easy to put those choices aside and not be concerned with “where did the mug I drink my coffee out of every day come from?”. Not like which store it came from but how it got shipped there, was it made in a factory where people are miserable? Like, what was the necessity of buying a hat: How was it manufactured? Where was it made? It’s looking at it as a line, like a fader that can go back and forth.
At the time when I said that, with any material object the greater comfort level it gives someone it seems to take that comfort away from someone else who was attached to it. For your shoes to be cheap it makes someone else’s life miserable, like the person who made it in the sweatshop. But it’s beyond that, it’s like every tangible object: the cell phone I’m talking on, the bed I’m sleeping in, the supermarket that I shop in. All of that stuff bears a reflection and it seems like society could go in any direction and we’re walking on a precipice that gets thinner and thinner every day. One side could be a dark age and the other could be an age of enlightenment. The only way I think it’s not going to be a dark age is if people become more conscious of their role in the world and not just turn the lights off because of global warming or not having the water on when using your toothbrush. It has to go beyond that. We’re way too comfortable at this point to passively save the world.
It should be way more about trying to save the world than saving ourselves. It’s about making the world a better place for everyone and not just the comfortable few. I obviously say that here in my home in Baltimore where I have a nice house and have things that I cherish and there’s people out there that don’t. Living in a place like Baltimore it’s really easy to see that. It’s easy to walk outside a warehouse where friends are living and see the immense poverty that’s about.
I know that as a musician it’s difficult to be taken seriously but I think that by making people feel more connected, if a connection is made, people will start to feel less separated from the earth. The way that people talk about humans and nature we’re like observers looking in and that’s not the case. We’re just as much a part of it of everything as everything else. And I think that’s important, even on a base level. In a community every member of a community is just as important as another. Does that make sense?
Yes, completely. So is your music a part of that connectivity?
DD: Well, I want the album to create a sense of excitement and motivation. I want the listener to feel positive about it when they’re done. I don’t want it to be weighted down upon it. There’s parts of the record that are like that. I think Snookered (verify) is the most self reflective song about making mistakes and how you correct them and how you can’t take it back as much as you’d want to. By the end, I’d want it to be something that’s like ‘I accept that’ and the only way to repair what’s happened is to move forward.
But the show, I want it to be something that takes those ideas but puts it into the context of being a large group of people, trying to get them to do something they wouldn’t necessarily do as a group; getting friends and strangers into a mindset that they might not otherwise have. I think that’s the goal and I’ve been slowly achieving that. Hopefully it will go to another level once the idea becomes more refined and less theoretical.
I know that you’ve complained about speaking to journalists a lot but you speak passionately and assuredly when you’ve spoken to me.
DD: That’s because no-one has asked me about that and I’m really glad you did. I’m pretty excited to talk about that. Usually I get a lot of the same questions but that one was really refreshing. And thanks for letting me go on for a while. Sometimes journalists just cut me off mid-flow when I start talking. IT was fun to get the idea out in its entirety.
To be honest, you don’t seem like normal musician. You seem passionate and full of ideas and zeal.
DD: I feel like a lot of the people I work with share that same passion; I don’t really know that many contemporary musicians, I usually just read about them. I know what you mean though; a lot of people just seem to be going through the motions. Like when you go to a large festival and you see bands hanging out in large trailers back stage rather than walking around the site.
That seems to be the antithesis to your musical ideology?
DD: Yeah, especially in the larger shows. You’re told “here’s the VIP area and here’s the back stage”. I mean, fuck that, I want to be where the audience is. I remember one time at a festival me and Bradford [Deerhunter/Atlas Sound] were walking about on the festival grounds and so many people were telling us how great it was that we were out there. We we’re both thinking “Yeah, what the fuck else are we gonna do?” I remember was some guy from a band I don’t want to name who was so shocked that we were out. I mean why not go out there and see what it’s like. The main thing I wanted to see was the bathrooms – they were disgusting. But that’s why me and my friends started running a festival called Whartscape. We were booking bands that seemed to have a similar outlook and with Whrthscape here’s no backstage, there’s no green room and bands were out in the crowd. It has a completely different atmosphere, there s no star or no celebrity aspect to it. That’s what it should always be. It shouldn’t be a hierarchy that divides people through musical talent. I feel like there’s so many talented people out there, it’s not just like the one or two people who get to lick the gold coin of major record labels any more. There’s no need to put on a facade or division look towards music or community. IT should be very much one for all and all for one and not just the ‘look at me, I’m a star’ infrastructure that I hope is eradicated quickly.
I think the boundaries are breaking now with the rise of the internet . People are able to connect with bands on a whole new level.
DD: I think coming up in the DIY scene in Long Island through the Ska scene helped me a lot. I remember when we were playing with big ska bands in the area and we were like ‘oh my god, I can’t believe we’re playing with you guys’. But we were just dorky kids and they were just older dorks. It was sort of like the glass had gone. It felt more comfortable. It’s nice to have someone to look up to and someone to aspire but it’s silly sitting back stage. It’s nice to have a greater connectivity with the audience.
Right that’s time up for me Dan. It was great to speak to you. I hope it wasn’t too tedious for you.
DD: Nah, this one was a lot of fun. I started walking around and I wasn’t lying in bed pounding my head so it was good.