Darwin Deez is having computer trouble, and it’s stressing him the fuck out. He tugs on the now-trademark long curls that frame his face and adjusts his signature haloesque headband. “I don’t think I’m prepared to do the show,” he says. ”So I’m not going to be happy. But I’ll still do the interview.”
A few hours from that momentary headache, 31-year-old Darwin Smith (stage name Darwin Deez) and his band (also referred to as Darwin Deez) played their first New York City show in over two years to a packed room at Baby’s All Right in Williamsburg. Now Deez will release his third album, Double Down, the follow-up to 2013’s Songs for Imaginative People. Out September 18, it’s a different album than Songs for a lot of reasons. For one, it was written mostly in New York, which he returned to in October 2013 after a stint in Asheville, North Carolina, his home state. In an interview with City Pages, Deez said he “got sick of New York,” calling it “high-stress and expensive…a lot of distraction.” Still, Asheville wasn’t all he hoped it would be, either, especially for a single guy who missed his friends. “I didn’t make out with anyone for an entire year,” he says. “Not for lack of trying.”
Though Deez is of the mind that location doesn’t have a huge impact on his songwriting, he does point to parallels between his upcoming record and his self-titled debut, which was created in New York back in 2010. Both are filled with fresh, catchy, three-minute pop songs; both are “distillation” albums, as opposed to the “experimentation” on Songs. “When you’re here you want to capture people’s attention more,” Deez says. “Outside the city there’s no one’s attention to capture, so you try new things and capture your own.”
While on Songs Deez used a lot of wordplay, he says he’s not sure he did that too well. Double Down is about imagery, specificity — things that are much harder to do and much more effective than tongue-in-cheek puns or the generalized lyrics so prevalent in pop. His voice drops to deadpan, and he starts listing off lyrics from Avril Lavigne (“Hey! Hey! You! You! I don’t like your girlfriend!”), Ellie Goulding (“Love me like you do”), and Demi Lovato (“Gonna give your heart a break…”) to prove his point.
Deez is not under any illusions about pop. He knows it’s about image, or “iconography,” as he calls it. He’s critical of pop music culture, where rich bands can essentially “buy the sound they want” from producers. He still records almost all of his music in his apartment. (It’s also cheap, he admits.)
He’s straightforward about hoping for more lyrical and harmonic ambition from pop musicians. He’s open about the struggle of appealing to radio, too: His choice for lead single from Double Down was the crunchy, upbeat “Last Cigarette,” but he was told songs about cigarettes don’t get airtime, even when the cigarettes are a metaphor.
But though he’s critical of pop, he’s also unpretentious, despite the curls and the headband and the musings on wealth and class warfare. His dream collaboration is to write for Taylor Swift or work with Max Martin, though he concedes, “Taylor Swift doesn’t need my help.” When his attraction to shitty television comes up, he names One Tree Hill as a favorite program, mentioning that his friend and fellow singer-songwriter Michael Grubbs (frontman of Wakey!Wakey!) had a short story arc on the show as a bartender and performer. Grubbs’s music was also featured on the show. “No one’s ever featured my music in a real U.S. television show,” Deez laughs. “So I’ll keep fucking around until they do.”
Songs was seen as a departure from the whimsically awkward, earworm-y indie pop of the debut that gave him hits with millions of Spotify listens, like “Radar Detector” and “Bad Day.” It was maybe an in-between record, songs from a guy in his late twenties figuring out what the hell he’s doing. Now that he’s back in the city where he belongs, Deez’s resulting album is tighter, crisper, though his live show is still peppered with those delightful synchronized dances to Enya and slowed-down Spice Girls. His computer may be broken, but he’s stressed because he actually cares how it’ll affect his performance, this carefully orchestrated, homegrown thing that sells out in a city he hasn’t played for so long.
“I’m fighting this battle that nobody cares about,” Deez laments. “But I believe in it. I love pop music, and it can be so great. But it can also be just meh.”
Double Down comes out September 18 from Lucky Number. Darwin Deez will be back for another show in New York on December 8 at Rough Trade NYC. For ticket information, click here.