Dan Deacon Builds an Army
Jovial Baltimore titan Dan Deacon has made his name with a glowing green skull, a ratty Fred Flintstone T-shirt, and a joyous one-man electronic arsenal combining pulverizing volume, deft rhythmic complexity, and childlike elation—like Steve Reich scoring Looney Toons. His daffy and thunderous 2007 breakthrough, the great-for-parties/terrible-for-hangovers Spiderman of the Rings, is a trip, but his one-man-band live shows are truly unforgettable, sort of a mass orgy of amped-up frivolity, goosed on by strobe lights, pounding beats, goofy between-song banter that often lasts longer than the songs themselves, and various other distractions (dance contests, etc.), all led by Dan from his spot on the venue's floor, right in the middle of the action.
He's decided to mix it up: This week, the Purchase College Conservatory of Music grad will debut his new 16-man live ensemble in Brooklyn, featuring myriad Baltimore peeps, along with folks from NYC experimental powerhouse So Percussion. ("I also made a tent," the release adds.) They'll focus on tracks from his new record, Bromst (due this March), a slightly sweeter, calmer, more thoughtful affair—still great at parties, much better for hangovers. Dan got on the horn in the midst of frantic rehearsals last week to talk it over—here are some excerpts.
So what inspired you to put together this, like, orchestra?
It's sort of how I always used to do things, a few years ago, when I was back at Purchase. Before I became . . . I guess what drove me to become a solo act was working with an ensemble there. But it was a very different structure back then: I was writing more free-improvisation or structured-improvisation, text-based pieces, radical notation not as rhythmically focused as it is now. When I got out of school, I moved to Baltimore. I didn't really know any performers, and it was a lot easier to tour as a solo artist and focus on electronic music, and that's sort of what I did, I guess, for a few years. Around the time I was writing Spiderman of the Rings, I started writing Bromst, which is the next record. I didn't want it to be another just exclusively electronic album—I wanted it to have predominantly live percussion. I wanted it to be sort of like what I used to do, mixed with what I was doing at the time. And here we are.
It's just fun to play music with people. It's sort of why I make the live show the way it is, with the audience participation. Because for the past couple years, I've been playing along with backing tracks and playing on top of those. It's not as freeing. When you're playing with actual people, it's very much a human experience.
So you've been rehearsing—what's that process been like? How long have you been preparing?
I guess we've been rehearsing the drums for two or three weeks now—and the synths, maybe two weeks, a week and a half. Been doing sectionals, just getting the percussionists together or just the skinned drums. The mallet percussion is performed separately, since that's So Percussion and they live in New York.
Oh, I'm just getting this insane ringing in my right ear, like knock me down. Gonna try and yawn and get—there we go. Probably getting tinnitus.
I'm a little—I mean, it's gonna be the first time we're ever performing it in front of people. Which is a pretty daunting experience, 'cause I think it's gonna be kind of a big show. It's our band's first show, and bands' first shows aren't really known for their, like . . .
What's interesting about that is most major tours tend to start in what they perceive as a second-rate city, so they'll be at full power when they get to New York, or get to Chicago. But you're starting in New York City.
And it's not even like it's a tour—this is the only show. It's not even like we're warmin' up! It's just let's get hot! It is a little stressful. I kind of like throwing myself into these crash-and-burn, sword-of-glory-type situations.
Is that part of the fun, the possibility that it could just be catastrophic?
Of course. If everything were predictable and easy, it wouldn't be fun.
Well, I've played Bromst a bunch of times, and it's great—it's really beautiful. It's like an ambient record that's been sped up, and is skipping.
Thank you. Cool. Then it worked.
Was your approach to it different from Spiderman, and the other stuff that you've done?
Yeah. Very much so. When I was writing Spiderman, I wanted it to be very much a pop, party sort of dance record, but not like traditional dance music. And with Bromst, I wanted to get the audience to move at the same level, but for it not to be dance music—for it to be music that you sort of writhed . . you could still dance to it, but not party music. Still music that you would celebrate to and have a good time to, but something with more of a soul to it, more of like a backing, where the pieces grew and built up to something, but not in that Godspeed You! Black Emperor build sort of way. Something that was still very focused on rhythm and percussion and a building of a potential energy that would break into a kinetic energy, but with just a different sort of mindset than Spiderman of the Rings.
Does that change, then, your live shows? Your live shows are of course renowned for the dance contests, and you sort of ranting at the audience, stuff like that. Does your approach to how you play this stuff out change?
I'm not sure. I've been playing the songs for a while now—a lot of the material that I do during those activities is from this album. But I'm wondering how it's gonna change now that it's with the band. As much as you can blast synthetic drums through a PA, there's nothing as powerful as real drums. I think that's gonna definitely change the temperament of the room.
I don't want to just close the book on my old show. I want it to be more of an organic erosion from that, have it grow and come back and fade away. I don't want it to just be like, I'm done with that. Now I am this esoteric dickhead. You know what I mean? I want to be the non-esoteric dickhead and the esoteric dickhead at the same time.
I see also that you made a tent. Why did you make a tent?
Um, I don't know why. I was camping this summer with my dad, and I woke up one morning and the sun was shining in through the tent. It was a new tent, and it was all these different colors of nylon. We didn't use the right rain-cover; we used the rain-cover for a different tent. And from the outside, it looked remarkably different than it did on the inside, because of the way the light was shining through it—it was creating all these different colors and different shades. I'd never thought about a tent as a sculpture or a piece of art before, and I was like, 'I really want to make a tent!' So I made a tent.
How large is this tent?
It's a hexagon shape—it's 10 feet wide and 10 feet high, and I designed a pattern, and I got it printed at this fancy printing place. I think it's gonna look nice. I'm gonna use it at the show.
So, some people will be in the tent.
Uh, no. It's hard to explain.
Well, I'll just take your word for it.
[Laughs.] Yeah, cool.
Everyone can picture that however they choose to picture it.
True. I'm also gonna photograph it for the cover of Bromst. That was its original purpose. I wanted there to be a physicality to the record, beyond just holding it in your hands. If you went to the show, you could be like, 'Oh, that's that tent from the album cover. Why is it here at the show? Why are we doing this activity?' I think it would give people an attachment to the record beyond just hearing it. Plus it ties in to the artwork in a different way, yeah. Blah, blah, blah.
What I like about your shows is that you more or less force people to enjoy themselves, which, as you know, is pretty rare at indie-rock concerts these days. Do you think you're having a positive effect on the concert-going masses?
I hope so. It seems to be affecting the electronic music more. I remember when I played with Diplo—he was saying he'd just played with Girl Talk and he thought it was crazy that so many people were up onstage, then he played with me and was like, 'I can't believe you played on the floor.' And the last time he played in Baltimore, he had people up onstage and he was down on the floor. Obviously, that happens constantly in the underground, but I feel like a lot of bands, when they get larger, forget about how they used to always play on the floor, and how there was no stage. Hopefully, I'm doing something positive. I try to. Who knows? Maybe I'm just a narcissist.
Dan Deacon plays the Brooklyn Masonic Temple December 11 with So Percussion and the Dirty Projectors
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