Interview: Dan Deacon is here to party
The energetic, spirited and chaotic Dan Deacon heads over to Sydney Festival for a rare solo performance this month. The Baltimore electronic (experi)mentalist has a live show that is not to be missed, as he celebrates creative connections with punters using seriously large-scale audience participation. Courtney Dabb grabbed a few minutes with him to find out more:
Hi Dan, Thanks for taking the time out to speak with us at Something You Said. You are coming to town for the Sydney Festival. Do you vary your performances depending on if it is a festival show or stand-alone show?
There are certain things I do a little differently but for the most part the macro structure is the same. I try to treat everything like it is a party.
Your live shows are simply some of the best I have ever seen. You plonk your DJ desk right in the middle of the room, invite everyone to gather around as closely as possible, hand out lyric sheets so they can sing along, create conga dance lines that go from the venue, out onto the street and back in again. What is it that makes you want to be so immersed in the crowd and have such full-on crowd participation?
Well, the audience to me is the performance. You can’t have an audience without a performance. You can go to see a show and a band could be playing terribly but if the audience is good and gets into the show, the show is great. Inversely, you can go to a show and the band is playing amazingly but the audience is lacklustre, it is remembered as a lacklustre show by the band. I feel like there is a lot of energy given from the audience and if you can utilise it as a part of the performance and re-contextualise it, it changes the way the performance can go and what you can do. It is another element of the piece.
A band may think of the audience as one group, one collective and an audience don’t think of themselves that way. An audience is a group of individuals that happen to be in the same room, so when you play with that idea, you go back and forth between it and you create a piece where you are oscillating between individual and collective. I feel like it changes the way people think about their surroundings and themselves and for things to exist and happen that couldn’t otherwise happen.
You can turn quiet punters from stone soldiers into throbbing, smiling, dance junkies in a matter of minutes. Is this what you have always wanted to see in the people that come watch you or was it a case of when you were watching live music and going to gigs that the bands and crowds were so robotic and dull that you thought ‘I am going to do the opposite and get everyone involved’?
No. It’s more that I like to have fun and going to bands where you’re in the theatre or dancing around or just standing there. It depends on the performance which, I feel like… with my music… opens itself up to a lot of movement. I like to see the performance as being not just the performance of the music but the performance dialogue between me and the audience. I think about it differently and it makes sense and it’s fun.
I remember seeing Jon Spencer Blues Explosion for the first time and thinking ‘wow this is how every live show should be’. Were you inspired by certain artists and their live shows when you were developing your style?
Yeah, I remember seeing this band Arab on Radar and it was the first time I saw a band bring their own lights. They were just like these five yellow lights. They turned off all the other lights in the room in this warehouse and it just blew my mind. It was amazing, and I think a lot of bands in that early 2000’s American noise scene were really about creating these immersive environments with sound and lights or the performance, be it with their instruments or their bodies. That really influenced the way I thought about performance, what it meant to be in a performance space and how you want to use as much of the space as possible; how you want to create a lasting impact in an environment where people might go to shows all the time or at festivals where they might see ten bands and they have the lead singer stand on the drum kit or the monitor edge to get the photo taken and shit like that. How do you create something that hasn’t been seen in 2014 or 2015 and how do you create an environment you can’t recreate on YouTube? One that you have to be there to experience? That’s what I would say I try to focus my work on.
Your live set-up is as cramped as it is colourful. What equipment do you use for your live shows?
Well in the last couple of months I have been focusing mainly on using MIDI controllers, I’ve been using MIDI controllers with this company called Faderfox and I’ve been trying to do as much in the box or programmed MIDI as possible (that’s external specs) but mainly due to my table, controllers. That’s how I made my last record, by MIDI controlling either pianos or synthesizers, samplers and I’m sticking with that for my live set.
In addition to this, you now have an app that people can download for the show, taking crowd participation to a new level.
I probably won’t be using the app in Australia, I haven’t used it on the last tour. I did mainly in 2012 and I now do it for experimental shows. The reason being is because I am in the process of developing a piece for it but it is not yet completed.
And what was the inspiration behind that?
Well, when you think about how you have about 500 people, you have at least 250 smart phones, probably more and each one of those phones is a speaker and a light and a screen and a microphone and a supercomputer. If you can utilise all those together, you have a multi-point light and sound system. You know what, maybe I should do it! I keep saying I won’t but maybe I’ll add it to the set, I haven’t done it in a long time it could be fun. I like your idea, maybe we’ll do it… maybe we won’t (laughs).
Spiderman of the Rings was a breakout album for you with your single Crystal Cat exploding onto the airwaves. Did you expect the worldwide reaction and acclaim for this?
Nope! In my mind I thought it would be cool if 100 people came out when I went on tour and played. I was happy playing houses and railway stations. While it’s not the weirdest music in the world, it’s certainly not normal by radio or pop music standards. I was really surprised and delighted, it brought me to a lot of places that I never imagined. We’re going back to Australia and I am excited and grateful so many people get behind my music.
By contrast, your America album was a conflicted one whereby you were inspired by the natural beauty of your homeland but in equal measure disturbed by seedy underbelly of America. How do you reconcile these polarities?
The world is a really insane place for a lot of people. The record isn’t like a critique on society as a whole but more of a self-reflection and me focusing on my own neurosis and anxieties.
With the varied landscapes in the States, do you find when you travel to different countries that these same feelings are brought out or that it’s completely different?
I don’t know, I haven’t ever done a road tour of Australia, only travelled by plane. I’ve always wanted to get in a van and cross country but I’ve never done it.
We were in China recently and I was getting the same feelings. You think of how gigantic the earth is and how finite the human impact is. It’s not finite in regards to our life or species or the existence of our species, it’s certainly finite and has lasting repercussions but there’s this saying, a native American quote I use on America that ‘nothing lives long only the earth and the mountains’. Whenever I look at mountains I think of that. You look at these mining techniques that dismantle mountains and to me that is just one of the most insane things. When people look back at the decadence of Rome and orgies where people would eat as much as they could, throw up and eat again… screw all that, people are going to look back and say they took mountains apart and turned them into like stupid little powders to make batteries out of so they could play a game where birds kill pigs. It just seems fucking insane.
You have a new album, Gliss Riffer, coming out in early 2015. What new direction does this album take and does it reflect a new attitude or philosophy?
It’s almost entirely electronic, where my previous records had acoustic instruments woven into accompaniments but I tried to make it as if I was making an acoustic record. This was the first record I engineered by myself in a long time. It was a real fun process for me, to get back behind the desk and make all the fine tuning choices. It was really fun, probably the most fun I’ve had all this year and I miss making it. I look forward to getting back in the studio.
You have been inspired by classical music and have performed orchestral pieces (Fiddlenist Rim and Song of the Winter Solstice) as well as percussion works (So Percussion). Is there a crossover or similarity in the technical composition of electronic music and that of the structure found in classical music which allows you to switch between the two so effortlessly?
Yeah I would say so. Ultimately you are trying to make something you haven’t heard before. The difference with acoustic music is that you have the limitations of the players and limitation of the instruments. The violin can’t go below its lowest note, a computer can go into the realm of sounds so low you can’t even recognise them as sounds. They can go as low or loud as any speaker will allow them to and you can have them last indefinitely without any change in variation. The main thing you want to do is try and create something that sounds musical, something that has spirit to it.
People talk about analogue being warm and soulful, but that’s personal preference. People grew up with analogue and now people are growing up listening to MP3’s through earbuds. I feel like that age of analogue digital is like saying I only like sweet foods and not salty foods. It’s absurd.
When writing acoustic music, especially for an orchestra, you need to leave some space. You can’t have every instrument playing at full volume all at the same time because you are not going to hear all of it, it’s going to get drowned out. There needs to be a different approach to density and that is what I tried to apply with this record.
You try your hand at many different projects and created the film score for Francis Ford Coppola’s movie Twixt. Did you enter this challenge with a different creative process or is it the same as you would apply on your latest album as well as previous?
No I would say it’s different because the last two were co-produced with my friend Chester Gwazda and this one was self-produced. This was the first time I have ever made a record in the studio where I wrote the songs there. Normally I go in there and treat it like a camera, where I document what I have already written, whereas with this record it was a real process of writing in the studio, changing the songs structures, melodies and writing all the vocal parts in the studio. So it was a real different experience for me.
Tackling two different processes in two different ways, when it comes to your film clips, which are always psychedelic and crazy, do you have any preconceived visions of how you want these to be created or is it more a case of following the guidance of the director in that process?
The video for Feel the Lighting was completely the vision of the director and his team and I couldn’t be happier with it but I do plan on getting more involved in making the visual tour of my live set.
Catch Dan Deacon at the Sydney Festival on the 22nd January. Grab tickets now from the Sydney Festival website.
Interview by Courtney Dabb.