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."

"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."

An intense touring itinerary followed. "Tour is such a fragmentary experience, which is why it's so thrilling but also so exhausting. There were these hidden GarageBands that I barely even realized I was making," he recalls. "I went into this folder, and there were all these weird little fragments. Listening to them, I felt a little like Jason Bourne." In between festival dates, Longstreth and girlfriend Coffman found themselves still in tour mode but with more time on their hands. "Amber and I felt there was more energy in staying in travel mode, so we would go on these drives upstate: Ashokan, Phoenicia, Shandaken, the Hudson Valley," he says. "And it's all so fucking cheesy, going antiquing and the like." The two began to explore the wilds further west, and when it came time to write and record songs for the next record, they wound up staying in Delaware County, near the Pepacton Reservoir.

Longstreth is quick to say that Swing Lo Magellan was not simply birthed from the solitude of the wilderness. "The narrative of 'the band goes upstate and unpacks the 12-string' is not the story," he clarifies, whispering the word "Walden" as if verboten. OK, there is no story, but there was a stratagem: Discard the processes that had created the entire oeuvre of the Projectors and start anew. "It's just this contrarian streak in me or whatever, but I love to just let it go and try to just go do the opposite," he says. "And it seemed like the most daring thing that I could do would be to just use simple tools to just make something irreducibly personal and kind of"—he pauses to find the exact word—"true." He says he discarded countless songs that simply re-jiggered Bitte Orca's blueprint until he reached new ground, musically and lyrically. Rather than overanalyze the process of writing, Longstreth admits: "This was much more 'first thought, best thought.'"

Hand claps, harmonized "mmms" and "ooos" suggest that opener "Offspring Are Blank" might be campfire-friendly—at least until the chorus, when Longstreth uncorks his most Guitar Player–satisfying riff. It sets the table for an album that soars from the interpersonal to the biblical to the petrochemical with a sound that is intimate one moment, cloaked in gossamer strings the next, and then suddenly stratospheric. Patty-cake claps alone power "Just From Chevron" while a rubbery, tricky giddyup underpins "See What She's Seeing."

Sonically, the album feels sprightly and buoyant even while its lyrics suggest something baleful just beneath its music: shadows that lengthen from the sky to the ground, a dark and hateful star, cyanide plains, a man dying in ice, a world crooked fucked-up and wrong. Or as Longstreth sings on "Maybe That Was It": "The surface rip and bloom with rot." That portent gets ballasted by Longstreth's sweetest, most heart-on-sleeve songwriting to date: the piano-led "Impregnable Question" and winsome "See What She's Seeing."

"Every song was its own world—like Revolver, where every song possesses its own emotional tone," Longstreth says. "Emptiness in speakers is something that I've been getting more and more into, in cutting something down to its most basic core and just letting that be there." At times, the album recalls not so much the Beatles' groundbreaking 1966 album but something more modest and revelatory: Bob Dylan's 1967 album John Wesley Harding.

Reclusive rather serving as generation's mouthpiece, Longstreth's songs feel similarly enigmatic now, providing no answers for the darkening world about him, only querying deeper. "All these songs are questions, every last one of them." Even the front photo, of Longstreth and Coffman with their upstate neighbor Gary, seems to echo that album's cover. (The band recorded a cover of "As I Went Out One Morning" as a Bitte Orca bonus track.) The title track invokes the great explorer in a manner akin to Dylan's outlaw-folk hero, and in the manner that many of Dylan's lyrics allude to the Bible, Longstreth cites Mark 12:17 on the equally anthemic and shambolic "Unto Caesar." "What I wanted to do with that song was something like Bruce Springsteen's 'Born in the USA,' that reverse sloganeering," Longstreth says. "That song's about learning when to give a shit and what to give a shit about, what to give yourself to."

What Longstreth gives himself to isn't quite revealed in our brief time together, and Swing Lo Magellan doesn't proffer any pat answers either. But after many albums that convoluted intent and favored complexity, Swing Lo Magellan shows a directness previously absent from the Dirty Projectors' discography and is all the more stunning because of it. "For me, I feel like I just want to fall back on this older idea of a song," Longstreth says at the interview's end. "A verse, chorus, bridge, words that you can hold in your hand and take with you." What's in your hands might be the only answer to be had.

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