You definitely cannot see me in this picture (photo by Rebecca Smeyne)
May 16, 2007
My brother Jim hates Dan Deacon. Jim just moved back to New York after a couple of years in Baltimore, and Deacon seems to play about five shows a day in Baltimore, so Jim ended up seeing Deacon a whole bunch of times before moving. Here’s what Jim told me about Deacon’s show, loosely paraphrased: “He tells some stupid long-ass story about, like, ‘I had a dream where I walked into Spider-Man’s dickhole,’ and all these fucking MICA kids go nuts.” (MICA is the Maryland Institute College of the Arts; native Baltimoreans love to hate on MICA kids.) I’d somehow never seen Deacon before last night; I went to at least a few shows that had Deacon on the bill before I moved from Baltimore to New York, but he always played before I showed up or while I was upstairs drinking or whatever. In some ways, I still haven’t seen him, since I didn’t catch more than a few disconnected glimpses last night. Deacon plays shows on the floor rather than on the stage, singing over a CD backing track and fiddling with an array of homemade electronics while the crowd surrounds him. If you stand maybe forty feet away from Deacon, you won’t see him at all, even if you’re as tall as me. What you’ll see is a cluster of people at the center of the circle losing their shit and a few concentric circles of diminishing enthusiasm further back. At any given moment, at least half the people in the crowd are standing on their tiptoes and trying to see what’s going on. What you’ll hear won’t be much different from the music on Deacon’s new album Spiderman of the Rings (he does, after all, sing over a CD) interspersed with stage-patter that grinds self-conscious performance-art weirdness with pop-culture-addled ADD standup comedy (no stories about Spider-Man’s dickhole last night, but they would’ve fit just fine).
In the past week, Deacon has found himself the subject of a sudden and unexpected explosion of hype. On one day (last Thursday), he showed up in a New York Times article about DIY show-spaces and received a glowing Pitchfork review. He went from not mentioned at all to top ten, a rare feat for such a fucking weird performer. Deacon is a former music-composition student who makes absurdly peppy and cheap electronic music. Twinkling Casio blurps wobble over strobing drum-machines while Deacon feeds his vocals through tons of distorto-filters, speeding them up and slowing them down and chopping them to pieces until he sounds like a gang of alien toddlers hopped up on Slurpees. There are plenty of hooks to be found in this mess, and there’s also plenty of white noise. Parts of the album (“Snake Mistakes”, “Crystal Cat”) are almost unbelievably catchy and likable; other parts (“Woody Woodpecker,” “Big Milk”) are almost unbelievably irritating. The album’s centerpiece, the 8-bit chipmunk-Boredoms hymn “Wham City,” manages to be both, layering a giddy mantra-like gang-chant over a delicately plinking synth and then running it into the ground for twelve minutes.
“Wham City” is named after the collective-run performance-loft where Deacon used to live. Wham City is in an enormous converted-warehouse hulk, and my brother used to live in a different apartment in the same building. The building is a really nasty fucking place. The one time I stayed the night at Jim’s apartment, we stumbled in drunk at 4 a.m. to see gallons of water cascading down from the ceiling; the people upstairs had apparently accidentally lit their couch on fire and set off the building’s sprinkler system. Jim moved out of the building shortly after one of his roommates used his own shit to write a complete sentence on the apartment’s wall. But Deacon’s “Wham City” doesn’t mention any wall-shit. Instead, he paints the place as a surreal utopian fantasia: “There is a mountain of snow up past the big land / We have a castle enclosed, there is a fountain.” Last night, he handed out lyric-sheets before playing the song so we could all sing along. In a place like Baltimore, where everyone is broke and you can’t walk ten steps outside your door without stepping on shards of car-window glass, you kind of have to make your own surreal utopian fantasias. Deacon isn’t the first Baltimore dude with a noise-rock backgrounds to use cheap electronics and make spazzy electro-pop. He comes from a long line: Cex, Human Host, honorary Baltimoreans Grand Buffet, plenty of others. In a fucking disgusting place like that warehouse, the sort of jittery ecstatic release that these guys specialize in makes a whole lot more sense than the tortured histrionics of most indie-rock. And that’s why I’m really happy to see Deacon riding this surge of goodwill even though I only really like about half of his album. Anytime someone turns grim grey concrete into smeary neon plastic, I’m on board.
Deacon is still more party-starter than performer; last night, he vocally bugged out every time his vocoder stopped working, which was often. Still, it was fun to see a big roomful of people treating his turbo-bloops like the party music he almost certainly wanted it to be. Deacon was a last-minute addition to last night’s show at Studio B, a free party for something called the Bicycle Film Festival, and things like 11th-hour venue-changes and torrential downpours conspired to keep the room from being as full as it once might’ve been. But it was still a free show with three bands I’ve been wanting to see for a while, all of whom twist noise and pop together in exciting ways. I don’t want to say too much about Parts & Labor since I know their drummer (Christopher Weingarten, another rock critic), but I like the way that band buries hooky indie-rock under layers of warm, comforting buzz-hum noise. I was cold and damp and tired enough to leave before headliners Gang Gang Dance, but that band’s blend of psychedelic disco and formless fuzz has made them one of my favorite live bands in the city. If worlds continue to collide like that, the future holds a lot of fun nights out.