I’m walking Dirty Projectors band leader Dave Longstreth back to his car. Our interview is over. “Do people ever come up and talk to you at shows?” I ask.
“No, not really.”
“Maybe it’s because they think you’re crazy.”
“That must get annoying.”
Thirty seconds later, we are dallying in front of his coupe. “I really love Kelly Clarkson,” he tells me. “I mean, Kelly Clarkson and the idea of a pop figure being rebellious, to me, is sort of about 1991—really, the fall of 1991. There was this amazing moment when Nirvana overtook Paula Abdul’s ‘Rush Rush.’ And then, of course, Paula Abdul was a judge on American Idol when Kelly Clarkson won—or did she lose? I can’t remember.” He gives me a stare like: Do you get me? I give him a stare that says: I do, I promise. He shakes his reverie. “Anyway, I was thinking about these dichotomies when we were recording the album [the Projectors’ forthcoming Rise Above]—like how in 1981 you could be listening to Black Flag or Cyndi Lauper, this African-influenced pop music. I think we wanted to bring those feelings closer together.”
Nobody should use the word “crazy”; it’s stupid and arbitrary. But now I see why interviewers batter Longstreth with silly leading questions. His perspective is magnetic—it’s controlled, eloquent insanity. You ask him nutty questions because you’re primed for nutty answers. It’s offensive. Still, I am standing on a street corner, and we are thinking about Kelly Clarkson. Hard.
In the past five years, Longstreth has cycled through more than 20 musicians for Dirty Projectors tours and records—the parade behind the Pied Piper. This is a result of his self-imposed radicalism: Though it’s unmistakably his brain being smeared over each Dirty Projectors record, Longstreth insists on a different format every time. His earliest recordings, 2003’s The Glad Fact and 2004’s Slaves’ Graves and Ballads, were erratic folk albums backed by lush, sometimes dissonant orchestration (he spent two years at Yale as a composition student before suffocating). In their latest incarnation, Dirty Projectors are the closest they’ve ever been to a traditional rock quartet, which is to say there’s drums, bass, two guitars, and some traces of Led Zeppelin. But they’re a tough band to classify, because none of the elements of their sound blend—contemporary classical harmonies, West African dance music (and its American facsimiles), jittery interludes of flute and feedback. Longstreth’s voice is melismatic and shrill, sort of like an overstimulated goat. He shares close, ridiculously complicated harmonies with bassist Angel Deradoorian and guitarist Amber Coffman. They all share close, ridiculously complicated guitar interplay. The music moves—it flies—but the parts rarely synch together in a way that sounds settled.
“I guess when I was in school, I was really interested in the different colors instruments could convey,” he says. “Then I started becoming more interested in rhythm—I started thinking horizontally rather than vertically. I wanted to have symmetry in what we’re doing vocally, and symmetry in what we’re doing instrumentally, but less correlation between the vocals and the instruments.” It’s extremely expressive music, but “letting go” isn’t really an option when you’re shepherding polyrhythms every four seconds. Longstreth’s sense of playfulness is severe. He tells me the quartet is a “more recognizable format, so it’ll seem more transparent to people.” This is like arguing that more people would eat fire if it came in a bag.
Lyrically, he has written about becoming a flock of finches he once saw outside of a McDonald’s in New Haven, Connecticut (with the help of his grandfather’s jacket). He has also written about Aztec mythology, a guy named Don Henley, and the summer he heard reggaetón for the first time. Rise Above is a (nearly) song-by-song reimagining of Black Flag’s nihilistic, golden-era hardcore totem Damaged. (Longstreth forgot a couple of songs and opted out of doing “TV Party” because “there was an episode of Friends where they sang it. I figured its cultural recontexualization had already been taken care of.”) Supposedly, he found the cassette cover at his parents’ house, but it didn’t have the tape inside. Because he loved the album growing up—he’s 25 now, and first heard it when he was 12—he decided to try to recapture his impressions musically. They sound precious little like Black Flag; he hadn’t gone back to the original record until recently. “It was kind of like looking down at your shadow and seeing that it’s shaped like a huge giraffe or something, instead of just an elongated version of your own body,” he says. When I ask what Damaged means to him, he accidentally sums up how some might hear Dirty Projectors: “It’s disfigured individualism that protests the absurdity of the world. It’s a sacred ‘no.’ ”
And when I ask him why he moved to New York, he laughs and says the same thing most people end up saying: “I guess I don’t really know. Well, that’s not true—I mean, almost everyone I know ended up here.” We both recently attended Whartscape, a two-day festival of undergrounds arts and music in Baltimore. Dirty Projectors were one of a handful of Brooklyn bands to play. Set in relief to the locals, they seemed ascetic, focused to the point of being cross-eyed. They didn’t smile and they weren’t wearing neon. But we talk about how profoundly rad it would be to have a set-up like the Baltimoreans seem to have there: cheap rent, plenty of room, places to make noise. Longstreth moved away from both Portland and Providence, meccas for kids without careers. He floats on odd jobs. “I had this idea that I would just tour and then come back to New York and have a normal life,” he says. “But I guess it’s not that simple.” Simplicity can be a hindrance: I don’t remind him that he was the one who daydreamt about being a flock of finches outside a McDonald’s.
The Dirty Projectors play Mercury Lounge September 28, mercuryloungenyc.com