Dan Deacon: Interview
“I think a lot of people take what they don’t understand and try to relate it to drugs.”
Sometimes breaking your back can bring about a necessary change. Dan Deacon dealt with that when he cancelled his closing tour of Bromst in 2009. After moving to recover his health, he decided to use the extra time to lay low and work on new projects. Among these developments include a comedy tour with his fellow members of Wham City, a few orchestral compositions for the Kitchener Waterloo Symphony in Ontario, and even composing a film score for legendary director Francis Ford Coppola.
With these developments, he was certainly bound to resurface. Appearing at a few shows in Canada and the US in February, Dan Deacon made a two-night stop in San Francisco for the Noise Pop Festival. TMT spoke with him before his second show at the Rickshaw Stop, discussing these developments, as well as the significance of compositional music and the interactive medium. We even brought up a contentious point in recent art history.
Let’s start things by asking: How is your back?
My back is fine. How is your back?
It’s… all right I guess. My shoulder hurts once in a while, though. I ask this because about 18 months ago, you guys stopped touring because of your back. What exactly happened there?
On the tour with Deerhunter and No Age… It was July or August 2009 in Chicago. Earlier, we did a show with the Ensemble at Lollapalooza, and afterward there was a solo set at Logan Square Auditorium. At the end of the night, I was exhausted and really run down, for it was the last night of the tour, two shows in one day. I pulled a suitcase off something five feet high. I thought it was empty, but it was actually filled with 50 pounds of gear. I pulled it off with one hand, and it just swung down, and when it swung back, I felt something pop in my back. I didn’t really think of it other than “Oh, well that hurt.”
But the next day I had this throbbing pain in my leg. It lasted for a while, but then it stopped. Then about, I guess a few months later in October or November, I was on tour with Nuclear Power Pants, and the pain started to return. It gradually grew more and more intense. I didn’t even think it was something in my back, just thought it was a pulled muscle in my leg. And then people thought it was sciatica. I guess initially at some point I had herniated a disc. Then, I just started taking better care of my body, and started seeing a chiropractor, and did the exercises and yoga routines he said to do. I haven’t had any pain or problems since.
That’s good to hear. Now since that point, what have you been up to? We’ll bring up Betwixt Now And Sunrise in a moment, but anything else you’ve been doing?
In the time that I’ve been not touring as much, I guess I have been mainly writing and experimenting with music in ways I hadn’t had the time available to do. Working more with modular synths, did the comedy tour with Wham City, which was real good.
It sort of came at the right time, I think. I think the herniated disc was my body’s way of telling me, “You’ve been on the road way too long, and you can’t play the same insane show that you’ve been doing for the past few years.” At that point I was playing with my back to the audience, protecting the gear, and it was just getting more and more intense. I just wasn’t thinking clearly and my body was obviously telling me something. And it was good. It took something like that for me to… [a weird piece of paper appears] What is that?
Yeah, what is that?
Gregory St. Pierre, videographer: A drink ticket.
[Laughter, brief discussion over beer occurs]
But yeah, it just gave me the chance to focus on a lot of projects that I wanted to work on for a while. Plus, there was no need for me to tour so much because I had already done two full U.S. tours and a European tour for Bromst, no need to tour 8 months out of the year. So it was a good time.
“With a film, it’s great, because, especially in narrative film, there’s this pre-existing narrative that’s putting the audience into this other universe or other world.”
Good to know. Francis Ford Coppola, he has a little café up near San Francisco in North Beach. Let’s talk about Betwixt Now and Sunrise. How did that collaboration come about?
Francis emailed me at some point either last year or 2009. It said he wanted to meet me, and he invited me out to his vineyard in Napa. We met out there, and talked quite a bit about music, technology, and the state of our respective industries. Obviously we came from different fields and backgrounds. I didn’t know what to expect or what to think would come of it. And then, a few months later, those ideas and concepts that we were talking about came into fruition: He asked if I could work on this project with him, and here we are.
In terms of the music involved, how is it different from the work you have been doing with your albums?
The major difference is, the music I write and perform live is done to bring a very specific context to the fore. And I’ve been working with that a lot, trying to change context even with my “pop-dance” set that I’m most known for. I try to re- contextualize the space as much as possible and try to make it not just be the same venue that you go to see a band a hundred times a year. But it’s still the same sort of atmospherics: It’s chaotic, and it’s loud, and the audience is moving around and dancing or throbbing back and forth.
So something like the orchestral piece I did a few months ago, or the suite of percussion pieces that I did, it’s very different because the audience is sitting down, they’re not thinking about movement. They want to get lost in the music, but in a very different sense. With a film, it’s great, because, especially in narrative film, there’s this pre-existing narrative that’s putting the audience into this other universe or other world. That gives the composer a great deal of leeway to work with to help bring them in deeper, or pull them out back and forth, and to play with that. And you realize that the whole reason that your audience is there is to be entertained and to experience. It’s different from the visceral experience of a dance party.
Yeah, in the context of a narrative film, a good score… Like with Kurosawa’s work, he used leitmotifs to establish a single thread upon which to keep things consistent. Would you say you were working concepts like that in the development of the scores?
Yeah, probably. I don’t know. It depends on how we really want to execute this. I think it was going to be… There’s another element to the project that is still being worked out and refined. So it puts a lot into the air, and it makes what the final outcome with the music will be to be very different. But, rather than putting the idea and concepts on paper, I kind of want to sit down and see what flows out while watching the movie. I really love the way that Neil Young scored Dead Man, I think that it’s a great approach and it’s something that I’d like to do on this project. With the final execution of the score, it’ll make sense in the last stage of the concept, which is hard to talk around. That makes sense, right?
Yes, it actually does. I’ll admit losing my train of thought in the process… but it does make sense. It is what is, I guess. But there is another project you are working on with Francis Ford Coppola…
Actually, that was what I was just saying there. It is another element of the same project. As soon as the details of that get ironed out, we’ll announce. But announcing anything prematurely is foolish.
Oh yeah, of course. I mean I’ve seen political strategies fall apart because they jumped too soon. [Laughter] Consider that guy from Wisconsin. But yeah, let’s move on to Electronic Bus, which you were doing some work up in Ontario, a two-night gig. What was the context of that? It was at least written out as an orchestral arrangement.
There was one piece that was an orchestral arrangement I had written out for Pink Batman, but the other two pieces were just new pieces that I wrote for orchestra. One was a completely acoustic piece for a quartet of vibraphone, glockenspiel, piano, and harp. The other was a piece for electronics and orchestra.
Hmm. The first one reminds me of… what’s his name… Steven Reich, I think? I mean, how he handles small arrangements, in a way.
Yeah, there’s definitely elements of minimalism in the piece. I think it wasn’t so much like… um, yeah sure. [Laughs]
Well, I meant more that it reminded me not so much the context of what was being played, so much as what was being used in the arrangements.
What do you mean?
” I think one of the main things that end an art scene or ultimately bring on its demise, are as people get older, they stop self-identifying with what they create and start to identify with the job they have. The dream fades that one day, they’ll be something.”
Like, how he uses a specific set of instruments, as opposed to the composition itself. With this context in mind, do you think that’s what you’re moving toward in the next couple albums?
I’ve always tried to broaden the scope of what I do, and the sounds and instruments and the players I work with. I’m lucky enough to have a chance in my career to do that. For the past few years, I’ve been building a name for myself as a performer and composer. Luckily, there’s been some downtime to work with groups, and Edwin Atwater, the conductor of the Kitchener Waterloo Symphony, is a very adventurous and forward-thinking conductor, and it was really great to work with him. I hope to continue doing that. So yeah, I think, there’ll definitely be a lot more orchestral and, for lack of a better term, “art music” in the future.
Well, that’s definitely a good thing to go forward with, especially since with your style, there’s definitely a compositional element to it. It’s not just something you make live, it’s definitely something you sit down and write about.
Yeah, I think so. [Laughs]
In any case, going back to art mediums, let’s go back to Ultimate Reality [A 2007 video/music collaboration with Jimmy Joe Roche]. Is there any chance that you would go back to doing something like that?
Jimmy and I have talked about doing an Ultimate Reality 2, and me and Gregory St. Pierre, my current video guy who is eating spaghetti next to me, we’ve talked about doing a project that’s more collaborative than video to pre-existing songs.
So, more interactive media, perhaps?
Oh yeah. I work a lot with video. Honestly, I would love to work with some choreographers again. It was something I did a lot of in college. The film with Francis would be great because it has a visual element, but it’s different from abstract images. It’d be nice to work within a narrative concept, and within the confines of choreography again. That, I would like to do more of.
Moving on, a couple years ago you posted the video Drinking Out of Cups…
I didn’t post it. [Laughs]
Gregory St. Pierre: Wait, you didn’t post it?
DD: No I didn’t.
GSP: Then who did?
DD: Liam [Lynch] posted it on his podcast, someone ripped it and made a YouTube video, and posted it.
Well, that’s an interesting revelation right there.
GSP: So, who posted the video?
DD: Some kid.
GSP: Really? I honestly thought that…
DD: Liam made the video for his podcast, but it was part of his video podcast. But it was only in the context of that. And then someone just chopped that out of his…
GSP: So he did make the video, he just didn’t put it up.
Wow, that does change a lot of things right there. I think one of the things I noticed was that a lot of people responded with “Oh, this looks like you’re on acid or something.” And I recall specifically speaking with other writers about this at the time that, old history states you were involved in a couple straightedge scenes back in the day. So, with that context in mind, did seeing this response bother you?
I think it bothered me because it took any of the humor or the creative aspects of it, and found a false justification for it. It was like, “Oh well, he didn’t come up with this, he was on acid,” “Oh, this is funny because of this,” not because of some thought process that somebody might have had. And that sort of bothered me, because I do think it was funny. I like that people think it was funny, but I would like them to think that it was funny because… Well, nobody watches Groundhog Day and think, “Oh, that’s funny because you’re an idiot!” It’s the same thing here, “Oh that’s funny because you’re on acid,” and they’re laughing at you. The fact that I wasn’t on acid and have never done acid is something that… I don’t know if it bothered me. It was something that I made 10 years ago while I was in college. I never expected 15 people to hear it rather than 15 million on the Internet. So, I never give it much thought.
“I think the herniated disc was my body’s way of telling me, ‘You’ve been on the road way too long, and you can’t play the same insane show that you’ve been doing for the past few years.’”
Well, I mean, it just reminds me of this French-Canadian guy who regularly does these videos on YouTube of… basically, he plays these hacks of Super Mario World, but the way he talks, like doing so many non-sequiturs and such. Sometimes, I’ll show this guy to friends, and they’ll be all “Oh, he’s awesome,” or “Is this dude on drugs or something?” And what’s funny about that is that, too, is that he’s really straightedge, he doesn’t drink either. But he certainly doesn’t do drugs, and that’s what throws people off.
I think a lot of people take what they don’t understand and try to relate it to drugs. Zappa got accused of it all the time and he was completely straight. A lot of stuff that can’t be understood is placed into the realm of drugs, which makes the mind change.
Looking back now, I’ve been trying to do research on another project about Elephant 6 and all the other art warehouse collectives that were happening in that time period. And it surprises me that, of the current art warehouse projects that still remain, the only one that really seems to be thriving at this point is specifically Wham City. How does it feel, being around such a major community?
Well, the thing is, it doesn’t exist in a physical space, it’s a group of friends. But yeah, it’s great, it’s nice to see so many people are still self-identifying as artists. I think one of the main things that end an art scene or ultimately bring on its demise, are as people get older, they stop self-identifying with what they create and start to identify with the job they have. The dream fades that one day, they’ll be something. And I feel like in Baltimore, it’s a good atmosphere to not think that way. People are still self-identifying with the work that they make, it’s affordable enough where people can work jobs to make it easier for them to live off of their art, and there’s enough of an active arts community to feel like you have peers to see your work and to see new work, and to build off of that and have your work be an influence to others. I think that’s what makes Baltimore a great place to live and work for an artist.
Oh, definitely. I think the art community aspect is important. It reminds me of what happened with Providence: The early part of last decade, there was an active arts community, and then it just fell apart at a very moderate pace. And for a while after, there wasn’t much of an arts scene.
Well, they got screwed pretty hard.
Yeah they did. I mean, I grew up south of Providence, so I was quite familiar with some of the things that happened.
GSP: Where abouts?
GSP: I’m from Cranston.
Oh, Cranston! That’s cool. But anyway, they really did get screwed over. Especially, in the end, with Fort Thunder…
I’d say more so with Fort Thunder, especially after the Great White Incident. After the Great White shit went down, all the warehouses in Olneyville got vacated, and it took a long time to find a landlord that was willing to let people have shows there. I remember when Kites were coming through Purchase and they stayed at my house. They were talking about how everyone got evicted in the middle of winter and it was 80 people in live/work spaces.
I remember that! It made the news and all that. They got evicted on what was essentially the coldest night that anyone could remember. It dropped below 0 that night, which doesn’t happen in Rhode Island. But yeah, the Great White Incident definitely played a big role in that.
It was huge in the altering of the underground throughout the whole United States. That was when the Chicago scene really got reined in. Art spaces and underground venues across the country were getting screwed over by the fire departments in a very different capacity all because of a fucking has-been metal band with pyrotechnics they shouldn’t have been doing in the first place.
GSP: I could see the fire from my house.
You definitely bring up an interesting point, because that really brought things down in Providence, though things were already in decline at that point because of [Mayor] Buddy Cianci’s arrest. There was no active patron of the arts at that point to defend them. Anyway, moving on to performances, how was last night’s show?
It was great, it was a lot of fun. At times, it was stressful. The equipment was fucking up a little bit. I flew from Baltimore to Iowa, and Iowa to here, and our luggage got lost. When it got “lost,” I think they searched it and did something weird to it because when we got it, none of it was packed up the way it was supposed to be, and it was all kind of fucked up. Some things were giving me guff last night, but we tried to tape it all down and look through it today at sound check, and everything seemed to be working fine. But yeah, the show was a lot of fun, and the crowd was really good. I hadn’t played much since Halloween. So, last night’s show was great.
In regards to tonight’s venue, which is a bit smaller, do you think there is more a sense of intimacy involved?
Yeah, I think it was a really good idea to do two 500-capacity shows, rather than one 1,000-capacity venue. It’s just a very different atmosphere and vibe and show. I love playing at the Great American Music Hall, which is somewhere between 500 and 1,000, and that’s where I’ve been playing at the last few times I’ve been here. But every venue has its own context: You can make a venue of 70,000 feel intimate as long as you approach it with that sort of mindset. Still, it’s nice to play a room of this size, it feels good.
[Photo: Joshua Rothhaas]