Dan Deacon at the controls (“photo by Zardoz, as interpreted by James Petz“)
A NEW STAGE
Experimental pop musician/joybringer Dan Deacon on his new tent, his new album and his new live approach
by Jay Babcock
(April 3, 2009)
From Dan Deacon’s page on the Wham City site:
“Hi. I’m Dan Deacon. Before moving to Baltimore I went to college and grad school at the Conservatory of Music at SUNY Purchase. For the past four years I have been touring a collection of pieces for voice, electronics and audience. In my spare time I enjoying booking shows at various weird places in Baltimore. I’m looking forward to touring less and finishing up a series of pieces for large ensemble. The future surrounds us. Let us begin.”
Dan Deacon has just begun his North American tour following the release of his second album. Released last week by the essential Carpark record label, Bromst an ebullient, anthemic, densely stacked minimalist rave monster recorded with “real” instruments, including a player piano. Bromst is bonkers in the best way: I hear Eno vocals, Koyaanisqatsi-era Philip Glass, Terry Riley, gamelan, Spike Jones, vintage video games, put-your-hand-in-the-air-and-knock-on-that-door techno, organized surges, simple chord progressions embedded in layers of drums and piano notes. (Stream Bromst songs at dan deacon myspace.)
Bromst is a unique album made by a uniquely multi-gifted artist: a class clown from music composition class, a populist intellectual with a fiercely whimsical streak, a serious composer who can elevate an on-the-edge-of-danger dance party into mass communion through charisma, imaginative group gameplaying and a certain fearlessness. If you haven’t witnessed Deacon live, check out the two youtubes included in the text below; in one, audience members sing from sheet music in a basement party; in the second…well, to write about it would be to reduce it. Goosebumps, baby! I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a performing artist so adept in creating group public joy without pandering—or one whose abilities, interests and ethic are so perfectly attuned to what the times call for.
There’s a lot more to say about what Deacon is up to, and why it’s so vital and inspiring. (A good place to start is this extremely perceptive thinkpiece by Rjyan Kidwell; also check out C & D’s interview in Arthur No. 27 with Deacon and director Jimmy Joe Roche about their “Ultimate Reality” film, available here.) I wanna wait to get my thoughts together on all of this til next week, though, cuz this weekend I am venturing for the first time to psychedelic Baltimore to see Deacon and his new 14-piece ensemble perform Saturday night as part of the 6th Annual Transmodern Festival.
But there’s no reason not to post the following conversation now, conducted by phone at 11am on consecutive days in February from two secret locations in Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood (thanks Geoff, thanks Jack). Dan was waking up in Baltimore. The first day, midway through an answer to my second question, he confided, “I’m having a weird allergic reaction. The whole right side of my body is swelled up and I can’t open my eye all the way.” But I thought he was talking perfect sense and he was up for it, so we kept on rolling. The following is a condensation from those two conversations; any mistakes in transcription are mine, and will be corrected…
Arthur: That’s a great, evocative album cover. How did you come up with it?
Dan Deacon: I was camping with my dad this summer and one morning I woke up early, because you tend to wake up early when you’re camping, and the light was coming through the tent and it just looked really nice. I started thinking about tents, as a structure, as a place in which to live, and being a very old, old thing. I thought, I’d love to make a tent, an old fancy European-looking tent that you’d see in a movie like Lord of the Rings, where they have that kind of encampment set-up and some of them are just shitty tents, shantytowns, and then there’s the beautiful one. I realized I knew nothing about making a tent, I know nothing about construction, or sewing, so I designed it on paper first, then started to build it. It became this nightmarish project, but I’m really glad I did it. It’s 10 foot x 10 foot x 10 foot, it’s a hexagon-shaped tent, so it’s ten feet between opposite points of the hexagon, then ten feet straight up. I also wanted something [for the album cover] that could exist in reality, so if I used it in the live show, the audience could have some sort of connectivity to it, which a lot of what the record is about—about interconnectivity and feeling attached to things that otherwise feel abstract or you have no attachment for.
You know that No Age album cover, Weirdo Rippers [see below, left], painted on that building? When you see that in real life and see it back on the album you feel a connection to that album. And there’s the Elliot Smith album cover [for Figure 8, see below, right] with the murals. I like the tangibility of those album covers, those being actual things, but I wanted something that was…mobile. It was supposed to be a series of pictures taken in different locations, but it took me so long to build the tent that by the time the artwork was due we only had the time to take that one. It was taken on a farm in Western Maryland.
Arthur: I like you shot it after dark, not in the sunlight.
Dan Deacon: We started in the day but they really tended to look the best at night. I really like the way trees look at night. I guess there is another band, Department of Eagles [see below, left], that unbeknownst to me had their record cover [taken in a forest at night]. It’s also been compared to a Phish album cover [see below, right], which I don’t think it looks anything like, but I am PUMPED for the comparison.
Arthur: I saw you debut a large ensemble in Brooklyn late last year to perform some of Bromst. It seemed like you were having some trouble. Is the album performable by a live ensemble, or…?
Dan Deacon: Oh yes, definitely. I went through the parts and split them up into the fewest number of playable parts, where the parts could be played by the fewest number. You know, dividing the parts up into the least complicated but still fewest number of parts. That gets a little tricky. A lot of the pieces I’d written on computer thinking I’d never really have this album released, I’d never have this be realized. It was this conceptual album: ‘Well you know, one day, it would be amazing if this was played by people and could be realized in its proper setting of a large audience in a big room with a loud P.A. and proper sound but that’s obviously never going to happen, so well I should still write it anyway because I like the way the music sounds and it gives me a sense of fulfillment, and that’s why I make music, I don’t make music for any reason of practicality, so why would I make it practical dadda dadda.’
I started writing Bromst around the same time as Spiderman of the Rings [Deacon’s debut 2007 album] . And I didn’t think that what would happen with that would happen with that. I didn’t think Spiderman of the Rings would have such an appeal, I didn’t think it would be discovered by this new audience or anything. It opened up a lot of doors and so this album Bromst became a somewhat practical idea.
Before that, when I was writing it, I was like, I don’t have to worry about if this piece requires four drummers, if I have seven percussion hits at the same time. Yes, I realize that it needs at least four hands and three feet or something like that, that it’s going to require at least three people, etc. Does that matter? Should I NOT write a piece that needs three drummers, if that’s completely impractical? I still wanted to keep writing it as if that didn’t matter. And I think that was good. If I started writing it thinking, Oh well this is going to be hard to get all of these people together and daddadadda… I just didn’t think about it because it still seemed somewhat of a pipe dream, something that was not obtainable. Then it began to be more and more of a reality, more and more something that could happen. After we finished recording it I was like, Well if we recorded it this way and this way is the way that I want it to sound, why would I go through all this trouble to record it live and then just show up at shows [with a DAT and iPod] again. It doesn’t make any sense.
Above: “From the show at the Diamond Star house on 7-6-07. Sound might be bad, since I was standing right next to a speaker.” video: rustandcyanide
Dan Deacon (cont.): I started doing the live show as a solo act out of necessity. My desire was never, Ah! I want to be a solo electronic performer. At school, that was the only thing I did because that was the only thing I could do. I didn’t live in Baltimore yet, I didn’t know any performers, I was dirt broke, I was totally poor. I could only afford to tour by myself.
So, I started to feel the same way with those pieces, but in the opposite way. Before, my thinking was that anything that I couldn’t do live, I could put it on the CDs or the tapes or the iPod, which it ultimately ended up on. And, okay I need to do all this vocal manipulation, I need to do all the Vocoding, I need to do the sine wave processing and I need to do some of the beat processing. And I practiced that, seeing what I could do: well, if I play this it doesn’t really add anything, it’s not really interesting to see me play the bassline while I sing, I’d just rather be able to dance and get the audience involved. So, I took that mindset and inversed it.
I don’t want to keep doing the same show that costs “pay whatever you want,” or five bucks, or donation-based shows that I was doing in basements and garages and houses and alleyways and warehouses and stuff like that. I want people to get their money’s worth. If I’m playing a venue like the Great American Music Hall, I want to give them a performance that’s worthy of the ticket price and worthy of the venue. I don’t want to just keep trying to turn a space into a basement party. I’ve done that, and it was fun, and I think it was successful, and the audience liked it, enjoyed it. But… I think Spaceballs is an awesome movie, but I wouldn’t go see Spaceballs two or three times a year if it came into Baltimore, I’d want to see something new. I don’t want [the live show] to lose the same peak level of intensity, but I also don’t want it to just be the same performance. If it’s a failure, it’s a failure. If it’s a success, it’s a success. It’s definitely impractical [laughing] but I think it’ll be a lot of fun and I think it will be musically rewarding for me, and for the percentage of the audience that goes to my shows for the music, I think they will really appreciate it. For the percentage of the people that go to the shows for a sense of spectacle, or because they heard it would be cool or something, they might feel a little disenfranchised, but…that’s okay. I think it’s a proper evolution.
Arthur: You’re using actual instruments on the album, but you’re still also using a heavily processed, high-up Chipmunks vocal in there, in addition to more natural vocals. Why?
Dan Deacon: I like to do the voices, as shredded and manipulated, as much as appropriate, as much as possible. I used to do it at an extreme level. But this record is a bit more lyrical so I thought it’d be [good to have some] more clarity. I think it sounds good. I guess to a lot of people it sounds funny or silly because they’re just not used to it, in the same way that any kind of sound can seems silly or stupid. But that age is done.
Arthur: Is playing all-ages important to you? What does it take to do that? Is it a stumbling block in booking shows?
Dan Deacon: No, it’s fine, I guess. The shows we try to keep as cheap as possible while still making it a thing that a large group of people can sustain a living off of. There are 18 people going on this tour, at least, and we wanted to make sure all the shows were $10, which I guess sounds like a lot, but following the decreasing value of the dollar, it is still pretty equivalent to what a cheap punk show costs. I know there are still five-dollar shows everywhere. But, well, we’re playing a large venue with a large overhead and there’s a lot of people and we want to make sure we’re not taking a loss in the same way that the venue or the audience isn’t taking a loss either.
Back to the all-ages question, I think it’s very important because I think it’s important to let the youth be just as educated in pop and contemporary culture and radical and experimental culture as the adults, if not more important. I remember during that period in my life when I was really into going to shows and being part of the music scene, my other friends were as well, and I remember seeing the other kids I went to high school with get really heavy into just drinking and drugs and house parties. Not that there’s anything wrong with house parties but it seemed like they were not really doing anything, they were just passing the time rather than enjoying it.
Arthur: Where did you grow up? What kind of shows were you seeing?
Dan Deacon: I grew up on Long Island. I was going to see music at VFW halls or churches, stuff like that. Ska, punk and the hardcore scene. I was never that into hardcore but I would go to shows because your friends are in the band or you wanted to see the venue or whatever. And I remember when I was a kid wanting to go see shows or bands and not being able to because I was too young. And I was like, Well I’m not going to drink. Is the only reason I can’t go they’re afraid I’m going to get drunk and get their bar shut down? That sucks. Can’t they just trust the youth a little bit? Maybe if they didn’t distrust the youth so much there wouldn’t be this huge problem… That stuck with me. Plus, shows are a lot more fun when there’s young people there. I feel like a lot of shows that are age-restricted, there’s a lot of people there that are like, Oh I’ve been there, I’ve done that, I’ve experienced this. Even if they haven’t. They might even enjoy it, but they might just casually watch instead of getting as involved as much as the youth does. A show of very drastically mixed age groups, it helps everyone get a little more involved.
I’m just not really into the idea of any level of segregation. I don’t understand why age restrictions are so prominent. It’s weird to me that some bands don’t even think about it. Or do think about it, and play shows to the older crowd. I guess cuz they can charge more money for tickets? I guess I can see that side of it, especially as the performer gets old. But I’m 27 and I don’t really feel weird about my age. A lot of people don’t think about getting older in a very positive way, but I’m pretty pumped on it.
Above: Poster for last year’s Round Robin traveling festival, where 60 artists playing in 18 bands performed over two nights in each city
Arthur: My hat’s off to you. In addition to composing the music, you’re doing a mobile operation employing 18 people playing to all-ages audiences, from scratch. That’s pretty amazing.
Dan Deacon: It seems like nothing after doing it with 60 people [on last year’s “Round Robin” tour, see flyer above for lineup]. [laughs] That was a really good warm-up. This will be like a walk in the park after that. That was intense. I don’t think we’re going to do that again until maybe 2010, when we get some more time to prep it and digest it, and get it out of our system. Whenever I bring it up to anyone, everyone says they had a great time, the tour ended on a really positive note on all levels but as soon as I sent out the next email to the group being like, So when do we want to do this again, people were like: NEVER! [laughs] It’s the same thing that happened with the first time that we did it and that was just 20 people. I think if I wait another year and a half before I start convincing people that it’s a good idea it will work out that way.
Arthur: Is Bromst all recent compositions, or have you had some of that stuff for a while? I figure you have a backlog of material…
Dan Deacon: It’s combination of new compositions and older stuff. Same thing happened around Spiderman of the Rings, there was a a lot of stuff I liked but was not in direction I was heading in—basically the stuff that I’d been developing for a while while I was touring Spiderman of the Rings, the older first inception of my noise pop party set when I was going to insane harsh noise shows that weren’t anything like me, or folk shows, or stuff like that. I never really played with electronic bands. There were those songs that were really deliberately as simple as possible, very catchy, very noisy on top of that. Those never really got released, like Pizza Horse. I think that’s like the only one that anybody might possibly remember. Not that many people were at the shows. I’d say there’s probably a good five to six hours of music backlog that exists. Some of it’s total shit. I’m probably its only fan. It’d be nice to get those songs out and it’s a shame that they never got released because of I guess either lack of ambition to release them or… At some point, later in school, I was very much against the idea of using CDs as the form. The performance was the thing. The CD doesn’t capture what a performance is. It hardly even captures the music, let alone the energy that surrounds it. Records don’t do that, tapes don’t do that. I would sell CDs at shows, justify selling them, because there was no way to play them live, they could only exist as CDs. This is their proper context. Context became very important to me. That sort of faded away when I got a recording interface. I was like, [delighted] Oh!
Above: “Baltimore-based one-man party machine Dan Deacon contravenes all festival health and safety regulations to create a spectacular human spiral at the Electric Picnic festival in Eire.” (video by newthingsincartons)
Arthur: Your shows are so much fun, but I noticed the last time that I saw you, the sound was very bassy and people in front were mostly big dudes who were very pushy, kind of aggressive. No girls or women, which isn’t cool. It was pretty obvious you weren’t into that situation, either.
Dan Deacon: It never used to be like that up until two years ago. It always used to be mixed. As the show got more aggressive it got a lot more like: bros in the front. I think the main reason people used to dance in the past was that even when the room was at capacity, it made sense. You know, in the past, the only reason they had amplification was to mic the stuff so it could be louder than the drums. Now we have to mic the drums to compete with the amps, and everything gets to this point where the sound levels themselves, even if there are not aggressive tones or undertones in the music, it’s an ASSAULT. So as soon as it becomes heavy at all, it becomes even more assaulting. I remember when we loaded into the Masonic, that show in particular, they still had the building’s original PA in there: four little speakers with one enclosure on each side, four six-inch speakers, probably like 100 watts total, and it was just like, Well this room was obviously not designed when the artificial amplification of bass existed. And you could tell because as soon as bass was present it was just BLLLLLARGGGGGHHHHH. The room was designed to accentuate the sounds that didn’t naturally travel.
The other reason I used to play as loud as possible was because you were forced to participate then. You couldn’t just like talk to your friends if you had to scream into their ears the whole time. If you wanted to talk to your friend, you’d go in the other room, or you’d go outside or you’d shut up and watch the show. But at this point, when there’s like 2000 people in the room, if you make it loud enough so that it’s loud enough for everybody in the room, you’re going to make the whole front row deaf. So at least for me, I’m trying to come with a way for the show to not need to be deafeningly loud but it is still loud. The dynamic element of the songs is very important to me. I just don’t want the show to be aggressive anymore. I don’t like being aggressive, I’m not an aggressive person, I like to dance. I don’t like having to hold the table up to make sure it doesn’t fall down, having to ask people ARE YOU ALRIGHT? as they’re getting shoved up against the barricade. [chuckles] Maybe I’m just a wuss, but…
Arthur: On this tour, with this large ensemble, playing in bigger places, are you still going to have your module, or what do you call it—
Dan Deacon: My gear.
Arthur: —are you going to have on the floor, or on the stage?
Dan Deacon: I think I’m going to play on stage. I’m trying not to make a big deal about it, send out a myspace bulletin, [in mock pretentious voice] “For six years I’ve been…” I probably will say something before the tour starts, explain why I started playing on the floor. The main reason for playing on the floor was to communicate with the audience, and at this point it’s made it harder to communicate with the audience. It was a way to get people to come up close. Now I have to spend the whole first ten minutes of the show asking people to take a few steps back. It’s gotten to the point where the stage makes sense. When it gets to that number of people, a stage makes sense. I don’t think the stage makes sense for 40 people in a room. I still don’t think it makes sense for 500 people. For me to be alone on the floor, in those rooms, that was fine, that was manageable, the show had a very different direction, a very different focus: the focus wasn’t on the performer, it was on the audience, and if that’s all the audience can see, then it creates this feedback loop. But this is a very structured show. I think it will be an experiment. If it sucks, if I end up hating it, I’ll go back on the floor. Maybe I’ll love it. WHO KNOWS?
Dan Deacon tourdates
All shows with full live ensemble, and with Future Islands and Teeth Mountain opening
April 3rd – Philadelphia, PA @ First Unitarian Church
April 4th – Baltimore, MD @ Floristree
April 5th – Williamsburg, VA @ The Little Theater
April 6th – Asheville, NC @ Orange Peel
April 7th – Knoxville, TN @ Catalyst
April 8th – Birmingham, AL @ Bottletree
April 9th – Athens, GA @ 88/cp
April 10th – Atlanta, GA @ Masquerade
April 11th – Tallahassee, FL @ FSU/Club Downunder
April 13th – New Orleans, LA @ Tulane University
April 15th – Baton Rouge, LA @ Spanish Moon
April 16th – Houston, TX @ Orange Show
April 17th – Austin, TX @ Emos Alternative Lounge Outside
April 18th – Fort Worth, TX @ Fort Worth Modern Art Museum
April 20th – Tempe, AZ @ The Clubhouse
April 21st – San Diego, CA @ Che Cafe
April 22nd – Los Angeles, CA @ Troubadour
April 23rd – San Francisco, CA @ Great American Music Hall
April 24th – Portland, OR @ Wonder Ballroom
April 25th – Seattle, WA @ The Vera Project
April 26th – Vancouver, BC @ Richards on Richards
April 29th – Salt Lake City, UT @ Kilby Court
April 30th – Denver, CO @ Bluebird Theater
May 1st – Kansas City, MO @ Pistol K.C.
May 2nd – Minneapolis, MN @ Triple Rock Social Club (early and late show)
May 4th – Madison, WI @ Majestic Theatre
May 5th – Milwaukee, WI @ Turner Hall Ballroom
May 6th – Urbana, IL @ Canopy Club/Club Void
May 7th – Chicago, IL @ Metro
May 8th – Mount Pleasant, MI @ CMU / The Wesley Foundation
May 9th – Detroit, MI @ Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit
May 10th – Toronto, ON @ The Deleon White Gallery
May 11th – Montreal, QC @ La Sala Rossa
May 12th – South Burlington, VT @ HG Showcase Lounge
May 13th – Cambridge, MA @ Middle East Downstairs
May 14th – Providence, RI @ RISD Market Square (free 11.30 am – 1 pm)
May 15th – Brooklyn, NY @ Danbro Studios
May 16th – New York, NY @ Bowery Ballroom
May 17th – Washington, D.C. @ 9:30 Club
Dan Deacon’s live ensemble for this tour:
Benny Boeldt: keyboard, sampler, synthesizer
Denny Bowen: drum kit
Andrew Burt: guitar, violin
Andrew Bernstein: saxophone, guitar
William Cashion: keyboard
Stephe Cooper: mallets, guitar
Dan Deacon: voice, electronics, keyboard, sampler
Gregg Fox: drum kit, mallets
Justine Frye: cello, mallets
Chester Gwazda: keyboard, sampler, synthesizer
Kate Levitt: percussion
Kevin O’Meara: percussion
Sam Sowyrda: mallets
Gerrit Welmers: keyboard, sampler, synthesizer