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Dan Deacon is one of several big name musicians playing a free concert in Union Square tomorrow at 4 p.m. We spoke to him recently about why Occupy Wall Street resonates with him and why he considers himself a political artist.
Village Voice: You’re playing a free show in Union Square for May Day, along with Das Racist, Tom Morello, Immortal Technique, and Bobby Sanabria. How did you get involved?
Dan Deacon: Someone sent me an email.
Cool. Great interview! Thanks!
No, the main reason I wanted to be a part of it is because during the peak of the Occupy movement last year I was recording the entire time. I was in Baltimore, so I never made it up to New York, I never made it down to Occupy Baltimore, and I felt like a huge shit-head about it the whole time. I was very excited for winter to end, to get more involved because I knew I’d have a lot of time and I’d be able to be less of an armchair activist and more actually in the mix. So when I got the offer it was something I had to do.
How do you think about your role as an artist in a political project like this?
I think the role of music is important. If you look at back at the contemporary history of American protesting, if you look at the late 60s and how important music was, I think there was a conscious effort on behalf of the US government and the recording industry to really suppress political music and protest music, to take it out of the sphere of popularity and make it almost lame to be political in your music. That’s still true today. You don’t see the same level of top musicians speaking out very politically very often, and if they do it’s a soundbite or a throw-away line in an interview.
But look at how powerful a force John Lennon was. They tried to deport him, and they assassinated him, because music has this revolutionary potential. It’s one of the main ways you can reach a lot of people who have very different political views. It’s something that can be political, but without politics, if that makes any sense.
It’s easier to paint a really simple point and drive it home with music, easier than it is with words. Because it’s music! It’s beautiful. How can you argue with beautiful music? Wow, that’s not going to translate well in print. That quote right there is actually going to prove my point!
If you look at protest music from the 1980s, it was way different. Springsteen’s protest songs weren’t really treated as political in the media. Even though they were super popular, they were instantly coopted.
You’re saying it was de-fanged further down the cultural pipeline.
Yeah. And since then, other than Rage Against the Machine, I can’t think of bands that were overtly political, and went out there and really tried to get a political message across.
So where do you put yourself in that context?
Lyrically, most of my stuff is pretty obscure, because of the modulation and pitch-shifting and processing and shit. But you go back to the first record, it’s got a very… I don’t want to say anti-human, but an anti-growth sort of mindset, an extreme naturalist point of view. And then most of the lyrics on Bromst are about Monsanto, and shit like that.
So when you think of yourself as a political artist, how much of that is something that’s coming from the lyrics and the records, and how much is it about how you perform and how you deploy that music?
The main thing is the performance. When I perform I try to create an atmosphere of community and shift the focus onto how the audience can be seen as one group of people that can work together. That’s why I do a lot of audience participation and interaction, getting different people to steer the performance or just have it focused on the group itself. The main thing for me is trying to show the power that individuals can have within a group and the power that a group can have working as one mass.
That seems like a pretty tight fit with a lot of the horizontalism and direct participation that’s been so central to Occupy Wall Street.
Definitely. When I first started making music, just out of college. I had moved to Baltimore, I had accepted that i would always be poor. I had so much student loan debt. My mom passed away when I was in high school, and my dad was always away on business because he was the only worker.
I went to college for music—what worse decision could you ever make? By the time I had finished, I realized that for every dollar I had borrowed I would owe at least two. And that just blew my mind—especially the fact that they had given me student loans when I was 17. I was like, “What are you, fucking crazy? You’re giving a 17-year-old loans?” They would call my phone and say “You’re very hard to reach,” and I’d say, “Well, I only have a land-line and you don’t leave messages.” And they’d be like “Well, when do you think you’re going to pay these loans back?” and I’d be like “Never! I’m never going to be able to pay these loans back. Are you crazy?” And they’d be like “Well, don’t you think that’s a little irresponsible?” And I’d say “Don’t you think it was a little irresponsible lending a 17-year-old kid thousands of dollars? Are you insane?”
So at that point in my life I was really just like: “The world was going to end, it doesn’t matter, life sucks so you might as well make it as awesome as possible.” I was really focusing on a very Dionysian lifestyle, just partying, living as cheap as possible. I was living in a warehouse. We would dumpster all our food. There was no future to worry about. The world was going to end in 2012 and we were going to be living in this warehouse and eating garbage and not working and having parties, and the country was fucked, it was taken over by the military, but who cares? Basically I was living like an ignorant idiot.
What was the transition out of that?
I started becoming successful! I had an income, and I started becoming someone who could support my family, help my dad out, and reality quickly swept in. And also, it started getting worse. When i first started writing Spiderman of the Rings it was deep in the Bush era. America just seemed like a crazy crazy place. And when I started writing Bromst, in 2009, it was in that transition period when people thought there would be a change or some hope, people were excited about the nation again.
And when the Occupy movement burst onto the scene it was incredible to see so many people that I thought were blind to these issues being so passionate about it, and showing me that I’ve had blinders on myself. It was important. Just to sit and think about the distribution of wealth, it’s mind-boggling.
You see it those distribution issues in music, too. Any major music festival has these VIP areas that are comfortable and the toilets aren’t disgusting and there are special stages to see the band. That whole mindset needs to be eradicated. That needs to not exist. And that idea has been part of DIY since its inception, but those ideas shouldn’t just be relegated to the realm of punk, it should be everything. Not everyone can be in the front row of a concert, but it isn’t right to let people pay more to do it.
So I’ve been shifting into this pro-America mindset. I’ve been realizing that I need to care about where I’m from in order to go do something and better it. I don’t care about the parking lot outside my house where these dickheads park their cars. I’m not going to go out there and clean it up. But if it was a field, I would probably go out there and clean it up, so I could go out there and lay in it. If I think of my country in the same way, that everything is fucked up so there’s nothing we can do, then that’s exactly what they want, that kind of crippling paralysis.
How do you arrive at this new patriotism?
The way I internalized it first was with the geography. I love the land of this particular region of the world. Being a musician you drive across the country constantly—it’s one of my favorite parts of what I get to do. To see the American desert, and to see the south, and to see a city on the horizon and drive up to it through a huge expanse of nothingness. And then also to see how it’s being destroyed—to see the effects of urban sprawl and mass-farming, and the spread of suburbs, the decaying rot of cities that are being completely ignored.
The American road trip is something that really instills a lot of mixed emotions in a lot of people. You’re driving through these beautiful swaths of land, but you realize you’re on a road that was cut through for trucking out resources. When you have eight hours a day to think about this while you’re sitting on a tour bus, it becomes obvious that something needs to change, and we need to get rid of this corporate influence that’s driving so much of it.
What are you hoping for your performance on May Day?
I hope it’s an afternoon that’s focused on productivity and celebration fof the working class. I hope people actually do start to recognize the unseen heroes that actually produce our comfort, and how the comfort in our society needs to be distributed better.
For my performance, in particular, I want to get across those ideas I was talking about, to shift the focus from looking at the performer to putting it into the audience and showing that one person can make a difference when i pick one person and then when I shift it to a larger crowd piece.
I’m hoping that those kinds of simple actions, especially in this context, can resonate and be seen as something more than just a fun way to party, but to steer your thoughts in regards to these bigger issues.
For me it comes down to the issue of exploitation, and how much of the comfort in our daily lives couldn’t exist without a huge amount of exploitation.
Confronting that issue within the hierarchies of theater and performance—that you are the audience and the many, we’re raised above, you’re watching us—that’s what I’m trying to switch.
I’d guess you’ll have a receptive audience for that message with this crowd.
It could be! But there are also going to be a lot of people there who are very anti-authority, and I can easily be seen as an authoritarian figure. So we’ll see how it goes!
[This interview was edited for length.]