Dirty Projectors' Big Empty

The wide open spaces of Swing Lo Magellan

It's a cloudy spring night in May of 2009, and every music editor I have ever corresponded with is shoehorned into the Housing Works bookstore on Crosby Street to stand shoulder to shoulder with a who's who of New York musical iconoclasts, ranging from M.I.A. and St. Vincent's Annie Clark to David Byrne and Four Tet's Kieran Hebden. All of us vie for a glimpse of the venue's tiny stage, where Björk—clad in a royal blue dress—has joined the Dirty Projectors' frontline of singers: Amber Coffman, Angel Deradoorian, and Haley Dekle. To the side is Nat Baldwin on upright bass, and just at the edge of the spotlight is the lone constant of Dirty Projectors, Dave Longstreth.

The night contrasts the steep ascent that lies ahead for the Brooklyn band. Within the month, they will release their stunning fifth album, Bitte Orca, to ravenous adulation. Opportunities to collaborate with David Byrne and the Los Angeles Philharmonic will arise. The Mariah Carey–meets–Malian guitar single "Stillness Is the Move," featuring Coffman's astounding r&b melismata, will be deemed Hot 97–worthy by Stereogum; eventually Beyoncé's sister, Solange, will take her own crack at it. By year's end, New York will proclaim that every twentysomething musician living in North Brooklyn "wants to be Dave Longstreth." But on this night, the intricate, precocious, and thorny band sounds casual and relaxed, the girls' hocketed vocals hewing closer to the dulcet tones of the Andrews Sisters than Meredith Monk. A newfound sense of space in this song suite, quickly written out by Longstreth, hints at what might come.

Dave Longstreth is seated in a fifth-floor room in the Wythe Hotel in a white T-shirt and slacks. It is June 2012, and his once-spiky brown hair now hangs past his jawline; his bangs are pulled behind his ears. The lone item out of place in the white room is his button-down shirt, which is strewn across the back of a chair on this muggy day. Longstreth is in the midst of a two-day marathon of interview sessions to discuss Swing Lo Magellan (Domino), the band's strongest and most resplendent album to date, subtly referred to in the one-sheet as "an album of songwriting."

Up and away: Dirty Projectors
Jason Frank Rothenberg
Up and away: Dirty Projectors

"The song is a marriage of sound and words, but within that, there's a feeling that arises from that that you can't encapsulate verbally," Longstreth explains to me, each hand depicting the two elements as he brings them together in front of his chest. "It feels both bold and vulnerable because it's in the song now, and everyone can hear it. In a way, there's very little to talk about." At that, he laughs. "Me saying this on interview number 57."

Calling Swing Lo Magellan an album about songwriting feels disingenuous. Yet strangely, wondrously, stunningly, that's sorta what it boils down to—though even with Longstreth at his simplest, things are never quite that simple. Born in Southbury, Connecticut, it was through his older brother Jake that Dave learned about '90s indie-rock bands like Fugazi and Pavement. When Jake went off to college, he left behind his Tascam four-track recorder, which his younger brother soon co-opted. Soon after, Longstreth enrolled at Yale for music and dealt with freshman alienation by holing up in his dorm room. "I really hated college, particularly the first year," he says. "There weren't many people that I wanted to befriend. And what I did the first year was just write songs and record them. Just being obsessed with music, I started to figure out what my voice as a writer was."

He dropped out and relocated to Portland to release his debut album, The Graceful Fallen Mango, returned to Yale to finish his degree, and with each subsequent Dirty Projectors release further refined and complicated its sonic conceits. Albums were erected around dreaming sheep, "Cortez the Killer," the Eagles' Don Henley, or an empty cassette of Black Flag's Damaged. Longstreth's voice vacillated between murmuring minstrel, castrati yip, and Chet Baker croon, colored in by female vocals; he helmed a 10-piece orchestra then chopped it up via sampler; he strummed his acoustic guitar like dada night at Café Wha? and then like King Sunny Adé gone hardcore shredder. He juxtaposed all of the above and says in hindsight such albums were "this process of layering and adding and taking things away, of counterintuitive thought."

All of which set the stage for Bitte Orca. "Bitte Orca was an emblem of the touring band that we had become," Longstreth explains. "And it was engineered to be like a caricature—almost a cartoon—of a live rock band, because a rock band in 2010 has to be a cartoon of a rock band." Not that you would conflate the Dirty Projectors with Gorillaz or Yo Gabba Gabba!, though Longstreth seemed similarly obsessed with an iridescent color palette. The core of the album foregrounded the voices of Coffman, Deradoorian, and Dekle, and in subsequent band photo shoots, he angled his lanky frame as if to hide behind them, the field hand rather than landowner: "I'm not very interested in myself, per se."

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