Songs for Imaginative People, Darwin Deez’s sophomore release, is one that signifies a rock-ridden shift of sorts for the eccentric indie-pop performer. The songs of his self-titled debut previously inspired moments of euphoria that were seemingly conjured up for a makeshift dance floor, especially “Constellations,” and “Radar Detector,” the latter serving as an ideal backing track for those early hours of the morning when your buzz has peaked.
When the album dropped on Lucky Number back in February, it became clear Deez was looking to try something new on for size, be it distorted guitars, a genre shake-up or both. As he readies for a spring tour behind it, Deez reflects on the process that went into Imaginative People and the songs he’s getting to know all over again onstage.
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Darwin Deez performs tonight at Bowery Ballroom.
It’s been a bit since we last heard from you, and I know you left New York not too long ago. Where’ve you been and what’ve you been up to?
I lived in New York for eight years, but last year I moved to Asheville and made the album. There’s a lot of art going on there, a lot of music and otherwise.
So, three years in between records — were you writing over the course of three years, or did Songs for Imaginative People come together more recently?
I wasn’t able to really write anything while we were touring behind the first record. Darwin Deez came out in April 2010, and then we toured for like a year and a half pretty intensely. I started the new record in the fall after that, and it took nine months, just writing and recording. We did the whole album in that time. I didn’t really have anything saved up from earlier, and I wasn’t able to write anything on tour, being that there’s a total lack of privacy. Though there’s not a lack of free time, there’s a low conversion rate of productivity when you’re on tour. Ask any musician about that one; It’s a weird paradox. It was all composed in that one year, when I was sitting in Asheville. It was so nice to have some space. I knew it was going to be cheaper than New York, but I rented a three-bedroom house for less than what I was paying to live in my apartment in Manhattan. I recorded everything in the basement. I took a lot of walks. I got in touch with myself more, no censors. It’s crazy and not for lack of trying, but I didn’t make out with a single girl in that whole year. There was just nobody. Everyone was coupled up there. That was really frustrating, actually [laughs]. People came to know me for not drinking or anything. I’d go out to the bars and hang out and stuff, but my friends got to know that my drink was just soda with lime, so that was a thing, and I didn’t have any Internet at my house because that was a big vice for me, TV and Internet. Now, since I’ve been on tour, I’ve made out with a bunch of people and I drink whiskey every night. My real vices are TV, sugar and relationship drama. Those are my addictions [laughs].
Those are pretty universal vices, I think. When we’re talking about ideal settings for writing, would you say that the environment you created for yourself in Asheville was it?
I don’t know — I have to be able to be alone, and I like to do that at home. I definitely want the freedom to make noise 24 hours a day. A lot of times, I don’t get started until 8 pm with composing something. You want to be able to just go when it hits you. So, if you have to worry about not making noise, you don’t want that. Whenever I go to New York City, it’s always social overdrive. I’d see three friends a day and just go from one restaurant to another and it’s great, but I call it social overdrive. In Asheville, it’s kind of the opposite. I think some place where I have plenty of privacy in my home and I can make noise where there’s also a creative community nearby … that would probably improve my happiness and creativity.
What’s your most vivid songwriting memory from your time there?
The last song that I wrote was inspired by a very benign moment with a friend of mine. She was dropping me off in a car, she was an old friend, but it kind of reminded me of how sometimes at the end of the date, you’d be sitting there at the end of your own driveway in someone else’s car, and the car is idling … the way that conversation can go, there’s a tension to it, because of the attraction or whatever, or maybe you’re not sure — is that person in or not? — all that sort of came to me from this old friend there with no vibes or anything, just dropping me off. It was a social thing, but it wasn’t a mind-blowing thing. I don’t think it necessarily has to be a crazy rock party adventure to inspire songs; it just has to be something social.
What was the biggest departure for you with Songs for Imaginative People? I noticed that you’ve got a lot more guitar sounds coming through on this record than the last one.
There were two. One thing was that I brought in the production and I made a conscious effort to have a really unified sound between all the songs on the first album, for a few reasons–I didn’t want to give off the impression that I was confused or going off into different directions. I wanted to say, “Hey World, I’m here!” That was all accomplished by keeping the production to a very strict palette. Having done that, and having been misunderstood and criticized for it, I felt, like, “Well, okay, now I have the freedom and the obligation to expand on that sound.” That’s why I’ll make a ’80s-sounding track and a space blues-sounding track, or something with a rock sound. That was one thing–the expansion of the production palette and arrangements. The other was the expansion of lyrical adventurousness. I started with all the lyrics for these new songs, and that’s something I never did before. It’s totally just a reaction to people enjoying some of my lyrics from the first album. I’ve been making music since I was 11, but that self-titled album we put out was kind of the first time I had a lyrical statement I was standing behind. I didn’t know how that’d go over. There’s a line about falling asleep in a mattress store, and people were really into that, and I just saw that as an open door, because people were digging on that kind of stuff. That’s where my inspiration was. The lyrics are front and center, and there are more of them, and there’s some experimentation that I tried. The sound of it is still me. That place that I come from is still me. It just rocks a little harder.
Would you say you’ve embraced a similar attitude when it comes to your live show? How’s life on the road this time around?
As time goes on, people are actually singing along to the new songs more and more, and from my perspective, that’s the ultimate barometer. Are they singing to it? To whatever extent they are, that’s the extent to which it’s going well. I never played guitar solos before and there are a bunch of them now. I really enjoy that; it’s my favorite part. I get a lot out of that. Any time I get a chance to listen back to a guitar solo I improvised, I enjoy it. It’s a new adventure, and it keeps it really fresh. I’ve been playing some of the songs from the first record since 2007, and they’re “classics” for me. I know that’s what people want to hear and I understand it’s my obligation to give the people what they want. I had a funny thing that came out of my mouth earlier on this tour–I was soloing a lot, and I’m a very stubborn person, and Andy–he’s the voice of reason in the band, he plays guitar for us–he said, “People want to hear more old songs, and they want to see some dancing! Maybe hear a little less guitar solo.” And I was sort of uppity, and I said, “Well, you know, you gotta give the people what you want.” I didn’t mean it that way, but I meant what I said: “You gotta give the people what you want.” I just want to solo right now, and I’m enjoying it, but the set has changed a lot since then. Guitar solos are spread out so that they’re not boring for people (laughs).
What excites you the most about these new songs?
The truth is that I’m most excited to be through this phase, and that I completed this album. I feel that, because these songs are all done, there’s a new phase and a new wave and a new point of interest that I’m going to be starting from for the new songs. There there are some lyrics on this record that I’m really proud of, but mostly, it’s kind of like, but I’m proud that I made an album from start to finish in a nine-month sitting. It’s a goal I had and felt totally daunted by and had never done before, so to be able to pull it off and like the music that came out … I always have to be thinking about where I’m going and what I’m going to do next. What I’m excited about now is making a third record with crowd pleasers and really taking a crack at making the poppiest songs I’ve ever made. That’s where my inspiration is now, whereas before I wanted to show off my intellectual side and get more complex. This time around, I’m excited to be in a new place as a result of finishing that second record. This is where I belong–I belong to making music and being on the road. It’s my home, and I’m happy here.