Sometimes interviewing a musician is like pulling teeth, and other times a single question spawns a 2,000 soliloquy. Dan Deacon must have been in a giving mood when I rang him on the eve of launching his largest tour ever, which touches down in New Orleans at 7 p.m. tonight in Tulane University's Freeman Auditorium. (And if you haven't picked up his new album Bromst, you totally should it's a Blade Runner for the ears.)
Were you aware the show was moved from the Candle Factory to Tulane?
Yeah, that's the main drawback with trying to play alt spaces. If you want to book them well enough in advance, you run the risk of them not existing by the time (you play).
Youre bringing a veritable orchestra on tour.
There are 20 people total in the bus. Electronics and percussion, a couple pieces with strings.
How are you preparing?
Right now Im making this concoction with peanut butter, honey and cocoa powder.
[Laughs] An essential part of the prep?
In all honesty, we leave tomorrow and I havent packed at all. Musically were prepared, but logistically Well be OK.
How are you sorting out traveling and lodging?
As they come. Thats sort of how we roll. We did a tour in the fall, the Baltimore Round Robin Tour. That was 60 people, and I think a really good crash course on how to deal with a large-scale tour. It seems like stuff just comes together. We have a school bus that runs on veggie oil. The guy who modified it is a good friend. Hell be driving the bus, so in case any mechanical problems arise he can fix the bus. We have the drive times worked out. Sleeping each of the bands has been touring long enough, weve got friends everywhere. Not, Weve got friends everywhere! But I think weve got a lock on places to sleep. Were always open to sleep at peoples houses. We dont want really want to stay in hotels. Thats not part of the economy that we want to support. I guess this would be a good time to say if you can put us up for the night, obviously well put you on the guest list. And if you can bring five gallons of waste oil, vegetable oil, well put you on the list.
Whats the alternative? Dumpster diving?
Mainly Chinese food restaurants. They seem to be the most down for it, and they have a lot of it.
Are you pleased with albums live translation?
Im really looking forward to it. We leave tomorrow (April 1), one more rehearsal tomorrow night, then the first show.
I have no expectations. I have many fears.
Give me your best case/worst case scenarios.
Best case is that were really tight, it sounds good, the audience reacts properly. Worst case is the exact opposite.
Are you doing a traditional stage setup for this tour?
Not exactly certain. My first tour ever was seven days, and all the places we played didnt have stages. So I just started playing on the floor by default. The second tour was a mixture of places; some had stages and some didnt. And I was like, Man, it seems like the places without stages, the shows worked so much better. Thats when I sort of fell in love with that idea. The main purpose was communicating with the audience. At that time the shows were really small. A good show would be like 50 people, and a regular show would be five to 10.
Theres a quote from you about blurring the line between performers and audience.
I think thats something that happens quite a bit in the underground or DIY scene. The show is about the entire experience: the gathering of people, the space that its in, the bands that are performing. The atmosphere is very pivotal to the shows success. So I definitely need to take the audience into consideration in the parameter of the performance.
Is that possible with the new setup?
I think anything is possible; I just dont know to what capacity its going to be the most appropriate. I definitely want to be able to communicate with the audience as best as possible, and Im not sure if that means always playing on the floor. It made sense at the time, and it made sense for awhile. I think I rode the idea for about as far as it could be taken by playing on the floor at a festival like Coachella. A lot of bands get in this position where they need to figure it out; a lot of bands play on the floor to deliberately have it be so it cant get super huge. But I dont want to exclude anybody from the experience.
Your itinerary is interesting, a mix of churches, theaters, clubs and warehouses. How involved are you in the booking process?
I have a good relationship with (the booking agent) Sam. Were close friends, and he definitely knows what I want artistically. Well work on a route together. I just love making tour routes! I dont know why, but its like my favorite thing to do. After I did my first tour, I just sat down and I was like, This is the ultimate route! Then we tried it, and I was like, No, now this is the ultimate route! [Laughs] I dont think there really is an ultimate route. Wed go through the tours and Id be like, These are the venues I know in these cities; if these are available Id really love to play them. Its [whatever] would be the best for the show. A lot of the places I know were really small DIY spots. I do want to advertise; I do want people to know. I dont want it to be like, Unless youre in the know Im not into esotericism or esoteric knowledge; I think knowledge and information should be readily available. But I also understand the importance of secrecy within the DIY, quote-unquote illegal music scene.
Theres another quote from you about liking to see how far you can take the pop song within your musical vocabulary. Bromst is really impressive, at once dense and accessible, leading a lot of critics to use the phrase, Dan Deacon grows up. Does that irk you?
No. Im not sure I necessarily agree, but I can see where theyre coming from. And their opinion is just as valid as mine. I think the biggest distinction in the records is they reflect the mindset that I had at the particular time I was writing them. When I was writing Spiderman of the Rings, I was living in Wham City. It was a really chaotic and crazy anarchic party environment. We had huge shows and parties as often as we could get away with them. It was a constant influx of roommates and squatters. It was a crazy situation; it seemed like there was no consequence to any of our actions, that we could get away with anything. We werent really doing anything wrong. And I think SOTR reflects that Who gives a shit? sort of attitude. Like, Lets throw a party, itll be awesome, who cares if those people think its stupid, we know it rules. Those people can go to hell. I started some of [Bromst] while I was still in that environment: Woof Woof, Paddling Ghost and Of the Mountains are written in that setting. And Wet Wings, but that doesnt fit into that party vibe that Im talking about. (Singer on Wet Wings?) Thats from a cassette that an ex-girlfriend got at a thrift store. It was just labeled Folk Songs. I think its in the Smithsonian Folkways Anthology. The first time I heard it I was like, Id love to layer this song. Anyway, right around the time SOTR was coming out, we got evicted. Not only did we evicted, I got banned from the building. Wham City got the brunt. The building was called the Copycat, this huge warehouse live-in studios, massive spaces. Lots of people threw crazy parties and shit. We just tended to do them more, and I guess just had a niche following. It was a cool space. But since we advertised the most, we got a lot of the flak for anything that happened there. So when we got evicted we also got like a $6,000 bill. And all of us were completely broke, eating out of the garbage literally in this dumpster collective. Wed have a network of cars that would drive out to Trader Joes or Whole Foods and salvage whatever food was still good but being wasted. The bulk of it was given to Food Not Bombs, and whatever was left was divided up among whoever wanted to get in on it. That was the bulk of what we ate besides corn and beans and peanut butter. Im overly romanticizing this. My house is very close to the prison, and Im staring at the prison. [Laughs] Obviously Im exaggerating; its not like we were covered in rags and sleeping on the streets. But it was a day-to-day operation. Getting this $6,000 bill and getting banned from the building and my girlfriend lived in the building; I had to sneak around I was just thinking, I didnt do anything wrong. Yeah, the place was dirty, and there were holes in the walls and shit. But if we didnt get evicted, we would have fixed that up. If we werent forced to leave, it wouldve been fine.
This was 2007?
Yeah. Started thinking, Its fucking crazy. We live in this arts district that promotes these things. The city knows were doing this. Theres articles in the Baltimore Sun. City officials come to the shows. Everything about it is recognized, but all of a sudden its illegal. Why is it illegal? What are we doing thats so illegal? Then I started thinking about the idea of what we were doing they were parties. And I think parties are very important, the gathering of people and the celebration of the moment is important. But its not the penultimate. After years of that, and after being away from it and reentering it I remember the first tour I did after getting evicted, I was in a very different mindset. I felt like the world and the safety net I was in had crumbled or disappeared. I was playing this really party-based music, and I was like, Im not really in the mood to be partying right now. It felt good, and I liked playing and I liked being there, but at the same time I wanted it to be something more; I wanted it to be beyond an escape. And I never really saw my music before as an escape. A friend of mine, Jimmy Roche, his dad is an artist. Me and Jimmy and were working on a piece, and his dad was like, This looks really good, but it looks like really good candy. Why dont you guys make, like, some food. It pissed us both off so hard at first. But then, right afterward, I was like, That makes total sense. Were both young artists and its really hard to get your name out there, and if you can make a good candy, maybe you can be like, Oh, you like that candy? Why dont you come in Im cooking some really tasty and healthy food. Why dont you try that too? Thats how I think of SOTR. Its like hors doeuvres. I really like the record, I stand behind it, Im just in a different place musically. Different things happened in my life that obviously affected the way I think; the way I think affects the way I write music. They go hand in hand. I hope I would have matured in the three years time since I started working on SOTR and finished Bromst. I hope anybody would. Maturity is important. The other thing I started thinking about was the whole idea of youth culture, especially within music. How music is so youth dominated, and none of the other arts are. Mainly pop music you dont hear a lot about composers being in their prime in their youth. It takes a while to craft an art, but for some reason pop music is youth based. After we got evicted, I started thinking, well, Im obviously not a kid. I can go to jail, I have to pay taxes if I choose to. Im supposed to pay taxes I guess is the way I should put it. I definitely feel different around college students that I did a few years ago. Something is different. Something has changed. I have gotten older, and I can either become embittered by that like I think a lot of people do or I can embrace it and enjoy it the same way that I enjoyed my youth. I think thats something American culture doesnt do; it tries to stretch youth out until its old and stale and you no longer want it. I dont think 30 is the new 20; I think 30 is 30, and 30 is just as awesome as 20. Theres no reason it shouldnt be. I guess thats where the track Get Older comes from. Maybe this is complete hippie bullshit, but I started thinking, people love trees and they love mountains. What is older than mountains? What could be less awesome than mountains? People love stuff when its brand new and when its old, but not really so much when its in between. I just think thats ridiculous. I guess this is still sort of redundant; Im 27. But I just want to get in that mindset now, because its going to change regardless. Youre not going to stop time, youre not going to stop anything. All youre going to do is hinder your ability to appreciate what you currently have. I think thats one of the main problems: People always look forward to whats coming or wish they had what they had before. You dont really sit down and appreciate the current time. I know I do that, so maybe Im just talking about myself. Its something Im trying to be more aware of: How awesome today is, and the next day will be, and the day behind was. Put them on an equal plane.
What was the impetus to start using live instruments?
Just that I could. When I was in college, I used to write for an ensemble. I went to school for music. The goal was never to be this solo performer party dance guy. When I got out of school, I was like, I have no money. I had just moved to Baltimore and didnt know anybody here. Like, I did a lot of solo show at Purchase, why dont I just write for myself as a performer? I think a lot of composers do that, using the early minimalists as inspiration Terry Riley and Steve Reich. It would be difficult to be like, Fourteen people! Lets go on tour, lets lose hundreds of dollars each, well play to no one, but well rehearse for months to get it down. [Laughs] Dont live beyond my means. I could sit at home all day and write pieces for orchestra, but theyll never get heard; I could write these songs and I can take them on tour right now. That doesnt mean stop writing pieces for orchestra (or) stop thinking about the future of it. But realize that you need to eat every day. I never really thought it would get to this level. I never thought SOTR would be successful. It sort of blew my mind when it did. I remember after it got signed to Carpark and the test pressings got sent out I was friends with Girl Talk before he got big or anything, and he was like, Man, if you get a good review on Pitchfork, its going to change your life. And I was like, What do you mean? He was like, I used to work in a cubicle all day and five people would go to my shows. Then I got Best New Music on Pitchfork. Thats what changed everything. I was like, No way, really? And he was fucking right, man. Its like I got indoctrinated into a weird I guess its like what Rolling Stone was in the past. A lot of people look to that. I dont think they really discover stuff, but I think they see what is getting big and they bring it there quicker. Anyway, when SOTR became, like, popular, I was on tour with Video Hippos, and we were like, Were going to need to get a cashbox. Were actually getting paid to do shows. This is fucking crazy! Thats when I realized, like, This tour is different. The context has changed. I mean, in a positive way I was pumped on it. I realized I needed to start making the show curtailed to larger audiences; I needed to compose with that in mind. Were playing large spaces, not just basements or tiny rooms. I think that started shaping the idea of Bromst as well big and vast and open. After touring the United States a lot, and the first time I ever went to Europe and got to go to Australia, it was crazy, and I started thinking about the scope of the earth. I hadnt been on an airplane before that, and looking out down onto the clouds I just started thinking about the vastness of space and this huge encompassing world. It just sort of changed the way I thought, and I was like, I dont want to keep writing music thats designed for playing parties and basements. It was awesome, I loved doing it, and I would do it again if everything changed back. But right now I have an opportunity to make a different kind of music, and realize it in a very different way with real performers and real instruments and live electronics. Thats what I should be doing, its what I went to school for, and lets do it.