Dan Deacon Q&A

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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).

You’re 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 I’m 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 haven’t packed at all. Musically we’re prepared, but logistically … We’ll be OK.

How are you sorting out traveling and lodging?

As they come. That’s 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. He’ll 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, we’ve got friends everywhere. Not, “We’ve got friends everywhere!” … But I think we’ve got a lock on places to sleep. We’re always open to sleep at people’s houses. We don’t want really want to stay in hotels. That’s 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 we’ll put you on the guest list. And if you can bring five gallons of waste oil, vegetable oil, we’ll put you on the list.

What’s 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 album’s live translation?

I’m really looking forward to it. We leave tomorrow (April 1), one more rehearsal tomorrow night, then the first show.

Expectations? Fears?

I have no expectations. I have many fears.

Give me your best case/worst case scenarios.

Best case is that we’re 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 didn’t 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 didn’t. And I was like, “Man, it seems like the places without stages, the shows worked so much better.” That’s 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.

There’s a quote from you about blurring the line between performers and audience.

I think that’s 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 it’s in, the bands that are performing. The atmosphere is very pivotal to the show’s 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 don’t know to what capacity it’s going to be the most appropriate. I definitely want to be able to communicate with the audience as best as possible, and I’m 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 can’t get super huge. But I don’t 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. We’re close friends, and he definitely knows what I want artistically. We’ll work on a route together. I just love making tour routes! I don’t know why, but it’s 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 don’t think there really is an ultimate route. We’d go through the tours and I’d be like, “These are the venues I know in these cities; if these are available I’d really love to play them.” It’s [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 don’t want it to be like, “Unless you’re in the know …” I’m 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.

There’s 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. I’m not sure I necessarily agree, but I can see where they’re 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 weren’t really doing anything wrong. And I think SOTR reflects that “Who gives a shit?” sort of attitude. Like, “Let’s throw a party, it’ll be awesome, who cares if those people think it’s 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 doesn’t fit into that party vibe that I’m talking about. (Singer on “Wet Wings”?) That’s from a cassette that an ex-girlfriend got at a thrift store. It was just labeled “Folk Songs.” I think it’s in the Smithsonian Folkways Anthology. The first time I heard it I was like, “I’d 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. We’d have a network of cars that would drive out to Trader Joe’s 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. I’m overly romanticizing this. My house is very close to the prison, and I’m staring at the prison. [Laughs] Obviously I’m exaggerating; it’s 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 didn’t do anything wrong.” Yeah, the place was dirty, and there were holes in the walls and shit. But if we didn’t get evicted, we would have fixed that up. If we weren’t forced to leave, it would’ve been fine.

This was 2007?

Yeah. Started thinking, “It’s fucking crazy. We live in this arts district that promotes these things. The city knows we’re doing this. There’s articles in the Baltimore Sun. City officials come to the shows. Everything about it is recognized, but all of a sudden it’s illegal. Why is it illegal? What are we doing that’s 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 it’s 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, “I’m 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 don’t 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.” We’re both young artists and it’s 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 don’t you come in — I’m cooking some really tasty and healthy food. Why don’t you try that too?” That’s how I think of SOTR. It’s like hors d’oeuvres.  I really like the record, I stand behind it, I’m 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 don’t 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, I’m obviously not a kid. I can go to jail, I have to pay taxes … if I choose to. “I’m 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 that’s something American culture doesn’t do; it tries to stretch youth out until it’s old and stale and you no longer want it. I don’t think 30 is the new 20; I think 30 is 30, and 30 is just as awesome as 20. There’s no reason it shouldn’t be. I guess that’s 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 it’s brand new and when it’s old, but not really so much when it’s in between. I just think that’s ridiculous. I guess this is still sort of redundant; I’m 27. But I just want to get in that mindset now, because it’s going to change regardless. You’re not going to stop time, you’re not going to stop anything. All you’re going to do is hinder your ability to appreciate what you currently have. I think that’s one of the main problems: People always look forward to what’s coming or wish they had what they had before. You don’t really sit down and appreciate the current time. I know I do that, so maybe I’m just talking about myself. It’s something I’m 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 didn’t know anybody here. Like, “I did a lot of solo show at Purchase, why don’t 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! Let’s go on tour, let’s lose hundreds of dollars each, we’ll play to no one, but we’ll rehearse for months to get it down.” [Laughs] Don’t live beyond my means. I could sit at home all day and write pieces for orchestra, but they’ll never get heard; I could write these songs and I can take them on tour right now. That doesn’t 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, it’s 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. That’s what changed everything.” I was like, “No way, really?” And he was fucking right, man. It’s like I got indoctrinated into a weird — I guess it’s like what Rolling Stone was in the past. A lot of people look to that. I don’t 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, “We’re going to need to get a cashbox. We’re actually getting paid to do shows. This is fucking crazy!” That’s 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. We’re 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 hadn’t 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 don’t want to keep writing music that’s 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. That’s what I should be doing, it’s what I went to school for, and let’s do it.”

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