We talk to the party-hard-producer-gone-serious-composer about his latest album, “American”. We also cover politics, aesthetic fascism and the price of his un-intentionally hipster glasses.
I first met Dan Deacon five years ago in the back room of a tiny club in Brighton & Hove. Having developed a reputation for producing weirdly addictive numbers with titles like “ Big Big Big Big Big”, he'd taken leave of Wham City, the obscure Baltimore art collective also home to the superb Ed Schrader's Music Beat among others, to embark on his first UK tour. Packed into a room containing nothing but a small fridge and, thanks to our respective choice of lunch (fried mushrooms on my part, a vegan curry on his), a fair quantity of methane, the conversation mirrored the surreal subject matter of the songs he'd been writing up till then, ranging from the worst types of mistake a snake could possibly make to the difficulty of gaining respect from sea creatures. Then he went into the main room of the club and did something I'd never seen anyone do before.
If you haven't witnessed a Dan Deacon live performance you're missing out on one of the most singularly engaging musical performances you can imagine. That night began with a rendition of “Under The Sea” from The Little Mermaid, which segued into an epic countdown which required everyone to hold a stranger's gaze for the best part of ten minutes. Then there was an explosion of motion and by the end, well, we'd all lost a lot of fluids.
A lot has changed since then. Granted, Deacon still lives in Baltimore (“ it’s certainly not as fucked up!” he chuckles, when asked if it's changed much) and his live show is as energetic and unpredictable as ever, but musically things have developed a great deal – songs about Woody Woodpecker and restaurants made of bees are decidedly out. His most recent album, “America”, is his most ambitious work yet, featuring a raft of acoustic instruments alongside his trademark layers of relentless electronics and finishing with a beguiling four-part suite about his country of birth. It's still fun of course, but you get the sense Deacon has tired of being predominantly known as a party-starter and wants to communicate something more complex through his music. There's certainly no talk of snake mistakes in today's interview, and when I ask if he agrees that his music has become more serious in recent years, he responds in agreement: “ Um, yeah, I think there’s less of an absurdist/nihilist mindset. Yes, I’d say that’s true”, before going on to explain why.
"The main reason I started working with electronics was because they are limitless – but that in itself is a limitation"
“ I think the experiences of the last five years, since I started touring heavily and sort of finding my sound and, you know, seeing the world, made me not such a wisher of the apocalypse and lover of the ideas of nihilism. Also, I did still wanna keep writing and playing music and it’s nice to evolve. I feel like when artists just try to replicate what they’ve done in the past, [their songs] just become commodities rather than creations.”
One of the most obvious sonic indications of his evolution is the increased use of acoustic instruments on his last two records. They sit snugly alongside the usual electronic elements, but I suggest it must've been quite a challenge to slide them in so seamlessly.
“ Um...no! [laughs] I can't answer that without sounding like a dickhead, um...normally when I'm writing the thing I focus on the most is timbre, the textures of the sound. With this record I knew that I didn't want to replace any of the timbres with synthetic timbres – everything that I would want to be acoustic we would do acoustically. Rather than try to replicate the timbre of a violin, we would use a violin and we would use the parameters of that instrument. Because I write music that's so rooted in density, you need to have different timbres to stick out. If everything's the same, you know like a fuzzed out wash of sound, you lose it. There needs to be clean sounds, there needs to be rough square-wave sounds and there needs to be, you know, impact.”
“ The timbral choices I don't think were the challenging bit, it was more writing for the voices, to have them shine in their way. Like, I'm so used to synths, especially soft synths, the challenge I had was working within the limitations that the instruments themselves have and that the players have, and that's what I had the most fun doing. The main reason I started working with electronics was because they are limitless – but that in itself is a limitation. One of the things that makes writing for acoustic instruments so interesting is that you have to work within, you know, these strict parameters and push to expand them, and also make something new within those rules.”
He admits to harbouring some ambition to write an entirely acoustic album in the future, perhaps even one entirely performed by himself, although he's keen to stipulate that “ at this point in time I don’t want to make a record that has any deliberate limitations”. Yet while he still tweaks his trustworthy electronic set-up from time to time, he's not rushing to alter it completely.
“On this last tour I added a more sophisticated oscillator set-up. I use three moogerfoogers as a little modular synth and run them through a pitch quantizer so I can play scales rather than just sweeps… but that’s basically it. It’s pretty much just an instrument at this point where it goes through the pitch-shift, then there’s the phrase modulator and the delay – that’s sort of my signal chain and I’m so used to working with that. I’m definitely thinking about switching it up but it’d be like, you know, removing the frets of the guitar and then adding buttons to it, it would change the instrument entirely.”
Deacon's inclination to challenge himself has resulted in an increasingly sophisticated sound. It's tempting to imagine that he looks back at early releases like “Acorn Master” and the brilliantly bizarre “Twacky Cats” as products of youthful exuberance rather than works of equivalent value to “America”, but Deacon doesn't feel like he's yet in the position where he can judge.
“Well it’s always hard to look back at the past objectively. It was very important to me at the time and obviously it shapes where I am today. I don’t know if I’d go back and make all of the same choices but I’m sure five years from now I’ll say the same thing about right now. So yeah, I don’t consider anything to be more or less important.
I’m sure, like, over a much longer period of time I’ll have the ability to look back and be like, ‘well this was a highlight of my career, this was a good decision, this was a poor decision, this was a wrong turn’. I mean, in the scope of the music industry or the pop world I’ve been around for a while but in regards to my own actual life I’ve only really been doing this for about ten years, and I’ve only seriously been doing it for five years. And whether people listen to it or not I’m going to continue to make music. To me it’s exciting how it’s developed and the opportunities that I’ve had, and I’m looking forward to next year and the things that are gonna unfold.
In regards to the importance of the past I mean, yeah, definitely it’s important. I wouldn’t change major elements of anything. I think the macro-structure of the way things have fallen I’m very happy with. I’m glad I grew organically in the underground and had a sense of DIY and making it on my own, before the press got involved and before things became ‘buzz’. Many bands, I think, lose [out on] that period of struggle. I’d have no idea of what it’d be like otherwise, since it didn’t just fall onto a plate, but some of my fondest memories are the shows where there were like four people and we would drive for twelve hours hoping we would make it to the next show before we ran out of gas. That’s how I cut my teeth and I wouldn’t change that for the world.”
"The main thing I’m concerned about are the civil rights issues and the food rights issues"
Running out of gas, at least, is no longer a problem - his tour bus now runs on vegetable oil.
“We don't buy any of it, we salvage it from restaurants that let us take it. We have a second vehicle behind us, a pick-up truck that we fill with containers of it. We came across this diesel school bus that was very cheap and just started thinking about how it would make sense. It helps us to remove our dependence on gas stations on tour, which I think is always a bummer: going out on tour and just giving so much money to oil companies. And it just saves a lot of money and makes us feel like we're contributing in some way to the, you know, greater good.”
The greater good is something he's increasingly more concerned about too. Having previously been more “nihilistic” in his attitudes, seeing little point in the democratic process, he now sees political participation as a prerequisite for criticising those in power. However, it's unlikely he was celebrating with too much abandon when Obama secured his second term, seeing the presidential race as little more than a sideshow to the public referendums which saw some states voting in favour of gay marriage and marijuana legalisation.
“The main thing I’m concerned about are the civil rights issues and the food rights issues. I’m certainly not a fan of Romney and I’m not really a fan of Obama; if I had to choose between those two evils I’d pick Obama, but it’s sort of like saying ‘would you rather I stab you with this knife or shoot you with this gun?’. So I’d go with knife. Also, up in California they’re talking about proposition 37, about the mandatory labelling of genetically modified foods, something that’s very important to me and if I had the right to vote on it in my state I would definitely do so.
I just hope that the youth realise that the election is more than just this fake theatre of these two rich people vying to be the most powerful rich person, ‘cos I think that’s how a lot of people see it. In Maryland, the state I live in, there’s this issue on the ballot where they’re trying to overturn the rights for marriage equality which I think would be a huge mistake, and they’re also trying to overturn certain immigration rights. All of these things are on the ballot, but they’re so overshadowed by the Obama/Romney campaign. It’s a bit of a distraction, and I think that’s why it’s actually there.”
Back onto music, we start talking about live performance. One of the most pleasing sights at a Dan Deacon gig is watching people who would normally cringe themselves into oblivion at the prospect of interacting with complete strangers actually abandoning their inhibitions and getting involved. However, surely some people must refuse point blank to join in...
“People love asking that question! [laughs] Um, I mean the majority of people are obviously there to experience and to partake in the experience. And I don’t, you know, expect, and certainly don’t require, everyone to do anything, and certain aspects of what we do require people to not do it. If everyone did it, it would not work. There needs to be that population that refuses or just wishes to spectate, do you know what I mean? I mean sometimes people do all of them, and those are insane nights. Like the last show in Amsterdam, [I tried] to bring everyone outside and literally every single person went outside and that was…crazy. It was awesome. And certain things involve, you know, the audience making a choice, and they look at someone who didn’t make that choice and wonder how, and that’s why I say ‘let’s have the collective celebrate the individual’. Normally I say, ‘let’s find someone who’s not doing this and point directly at that person’, and often people will start booing that person and I’ll be like, ‘no you psychopaths, they just made a different decision, that’s what life is about’. That’s what I’m saying, if we all made the same decision it would be terrible, so let us, the collective, celebrate the individual.
A lot of the show goes back and forth between realising that at all moments of time you’re simultaneously an individual and you’re also simultaneously in a collective, the collective being - you know, your town or your country or your culture or your political beliefs or whatever. And it’s impossible to ever make a decision exclusively as one or the other. And at times they fight against each other; your individuality is in direct defiance to a collective. And often the greater good of the collective outweighs that of the individual and vice versa, and being a solo artist that exists within an art collective I had these issues constantly, as do other members of the collective. So in answer to your question, there are people that don’t do it and I love them for it.”
The other extreme, of course, is that people get a little too involved.
“I almost prefer to play during the day because people aren’t fucked up. I like when the audience is cognitive about what they’re doing, especially since I put choice upon them and they need to make decisions. Also, the audience is the focal point of the performance, so if the audience is completely inebriated…imagine going to see band and they’re so fucked up they can’t stand, and now you’re watching an audience that's so fucked up they can’t stand. Obviously most of the time that’s not the case, but it only takes one dickhead to ruin a party.”
Of course, these days Deacon's reputation affords him venues where the audience don't have to stand, such as the John Cage tribute at Carnegie Hall he took part in. These events provide a unique challenge for a musician used to performing in the centre of a writhing human flesh-mess, and it's one that he relishes.
“[Seated shows require] a different approach because movement of the audience itself is often difficult. But I still like to think of the entire concert hall as a performance space, and think of ways to re-contextualise the space and utilise the audience. Those are almost my favourite shows as you can work with very small sounds. When people are seated in a concert hall, most of the time they’re quiet and you can work with very delicate and small sounds. In a rock club or a dance club there’s an ambient level of noise, people talking or serving drinks. When you work in an environment where people have a reverence towards it, where if someone was to be talking on the phone people would be like ‘what the fuck is wrong with you?!’, it makes it easier for me to work with a completely different set of rules. I enjoy it very much.”
Talking of different sets of rules, it was at this point that I brought up Tracey Thorn, who a few days previous had angrily publicised a poorly-judged PlayGround question about physical looks and the music industry, claiming that a man would never be asked the same thing. While Deacon sympathises with her, his own experiences lead him to contradict that claim in a rant both acerbic and saddening.
"Obviously pop music and fashion have been intertwined since they existed, but the level to which it permeates the underground is just sickening"
“That's not true. That’s not true by the way. I do think that it’s fucked up that he asked her that but I get this all the time. People are like, ‘what’s your secret, you’re an overweight bald dude in the indie scene’. I understand where she’s coming from and obviously I agree with her that women have it much, much harder in this patriarchal society, especially within this entertainment industry which basically objectifies women as often as possible, but the objectification of men within the music scene, you know, it’s still present. I mean, it’s certainly not to the extent that it is with women, but being someone who doesn’t fit into that archetype of what quote-unquote ‘rock stars’ should look like, it is disheartening. Especially when I’ll start reading a record review and the first thing they’ll talk about is the shape of my body. It’s belittling to our entire society. Especially for publications that claim to be, like, beacons of culture, that are like, ‘not only are we talking about the creation of new work but we’re critiquing it and comparing it to the previous, so that you can have an educated understanding of where this work fits within the entire lexicon of contemporary culture, [when] all we really want to tell you about is the clothes that these people wear and, you know, which way you’d like to fuck them’. You know what I mean? That to me is a testament to the basest levels that music journalism has.
I mean, obviously pop music and fashion have been intertwined since they existed, but the level to which it permeates the underground is just sickening. It’s because there’s this wealth fetish – fashion and wealth are certainly one and the same. Even punk fashion was co-opted. Media revolves around advertising and advertising revolves around communicating a sense of desirability and attraction, so they force ideals and mind-sets upon people and create archetypes and idioms. [If you don't subscribe to them], you are a broken cog in their wheel. You need to be replaced. You don’t fit.
It’s also because the internet is no longer this ‘Wild West’. The internet is no longer where people can go and find whatever they want. They now go to these homogenised web sites where things are fitted into forms and boxes, and the indie media has now started to replicate it at a level almost like the Borg. There’s this desire to no longer rebel against the mainstream but to be it, and I think that’s why these statements are happening with such prevalence within indie culture, especially about body issues or people who don’t fit traditional media roles, and it’s crazy.”
He's right of course, and his diatribe reminds me how depressing it was to hear Grimes complaining about being forced to wear revealing outfits during photo-shoots, or the weird focus on Lana Del Ray's lips when she came into the collective consciousness. It makes you question whether it's even possible to maintain a public profile as a young musician and not be subject to some sort of aesthetic fascism. Deacon has simply learned to ignore it.
“I don’t know how to make it not an issue for other people, but there came a point in my career where I was like, fuck it, if that’s what they’re gonna write about who gives a shit? There are certain people who would label me a hipster for wearing the clothes I like to wear and have been wearing my whole life. When I was in college, wearing stuff like I did was certainly not considered hip in any fashion. And suddenly, style changed, looks got co-opted and all of a sudden you’re a hipster. You know what I mean? I started wearing the glasses I wore because I could see the most out of them and they were $25. Now fashion has changed and they’re hundreds of dollars and it’s, ‘thank God I’m not breaking them’. I’ve got nothing against fashion, I think fashion is awesome and important and it predicts the future. It’s the Nazi-like approach to what is or is not the proper form for the human body that is repugnant. And that isn’t fashion, and that isn’t anything but eugenics in art form.”
Of course, musicians like Burial, Holy Other and We Have A Ghost have got around the issue by keeping their identity anonymous, but Deacon doesn't see that as a particularly viable option.
“Ultimately I think we’re still human, and humans for some reason love a cult of personality. They love icons and they like attaching things to a person. So while I’d love to see this anonymous music erupt, I’m sceptical of it.”
Perhaps the problem isn't cults of personality, it's the quality of the personalities we've built cults around. Dan Deacon's music may never become particularly accessible, even if it is getting more “grown-up” as his career progresses, but judging by the amount of people with no knowledge of his repertoire that I've witnessed have the time of their lives after being dragged along to one of his gigs, that may not be a problem. If you've never had the pleasure, take yourself to one of his shows and surrender to the cult of Dan Deacon...