By Wesley Case, The Baltimore Sun
3:52 PM EDT, August 24, 2012
Dan Deacon is obsessed with apocalypse.
From a dilapidated couch in his Station North practice space, the city's best-known electronic musician and composer quickly rattles off a list: the United States' "growing military stronghold," drone warfare, genetically modified foods, fracking to produce oil and natural gas.
"We're living in constant flux, and there's this growing stranglehold on our individual liberties and our collective liberties," Deacon, 30, said. "It's almost a Balkanization of the United States."
Can this be the same Dan Deacon who, five years ago, released the album "Spiderman of the Rings" — the Dan Deacon who loved partying and creating amusing art with the rest of the Wham City arts collective?
If the recession marked the end of the party for America, it also awoke something in Deacon. He performed at an Occupy Wall Street event in New York's Union Square, and he grew interested in the Arab Spring protests and last year's Egyptian revolution. There was a noticeable shift in his music, which became more serious, more classically influenced. He toured with an ensemble, released the darker, denser album "Bromst," and scored a Francis Ford Coppola horror film.
But Deacon's sunny, optimistic side returns on his new album, "America," due out Tuesday. The album is Deacon's attempt at merging his compositional side (he made his Carnegie Hall debut in March) with his other half, the side that initially made him famous as Wham City's rambunctious freak-out maestro and de facto leader. "America" embodies this split-thinking: Side A is five stand-alone tracks of Deacon's quirky pop, while Side B is a cohesive four-part opus titled "USA I-IV."
Deacon is trying to achieve this balance, all while addressing the social issues that consume him. It's a sign of his maturity — but also a daunting task.
Given what he sees as the heightened class warfare of the past few years, "it's insane to think we're this civilized society that treats people well," he said. "But that's the dichotomy: I do love this country. What I love about it is the land that makes it."
Cross-country traveling helped melt his malaise, he said. Deacon speaks with awe about the United States' shifting landscape. Something as simple as seeing mountains triggered an epiphany of sorts, helping to inspire him to create "America." In the process, he said, he fell back in love with his country. He realized American culture wasn't "just Walmart, corporate greed and war."
"It's also the American DIY, jazz, huge movements of experimental music," he said. "It's this huge, crazy experiment that is putting all these cultures into one small area and watching them create a new culture daily. There's very few places in the world like that."
Topically, songs on "America" — such as the driving single "Lots" and the euphoric "True Thrush" — are fueled by Deacon's expanded outlook. But his re-evaluating didn't stop at the lyrics. Deacon went back and studied his first two albums, saving the elements he still enjoyed while sifting out the parts that no longer resonated with him.
"I thought about the essences of those records I'd like to keep, and then apply those to the ideas I've been working on over the past few years — the orchestral work, the collaborations with [New York quartet] So Percussion," he said.
"America" bursts with raw energy and confidence. The first half finds Deacon reaching for transcendental pop seen through his trademark grandmotherly glasses. It features tracks dedicated to and inspired by Baltimore, such as the industrial opener "Guilford Avenue Bridge" and the '80s sci-fi-esque "Prettyboy," short for the reservoir in northern Baltimore County.
The sweeping, nearly 22-minute long "USA I-IV" marks a noticeable shift in the record, achieving exuberant highs after building with texture and dramatic flair. It's a powerful statement from someone finally appreciating his country, warts and all.
"Nothing lives long, only the earth and the mountains," Deacon sings on the first section. Later, he sings, "Leave the light on for me, I'm coming home / Hell if I know places I shouldn't roam."
Perhaps it's not surprising that a product of Baltimore's arts scene — Deacon has had a huge hand in building that scene but is always quick to say he didn't do it alone — initially inspired the album's second half.
"I named it after one of my old favorite bands and a show they did at Wham City, which used to be in the Copycat [Building]," Deacon said, referring to the now-defunct prog-noise band USAISAMONSTER. "I was thinking about this epic performance they did, where they just played forever."
Deacon has always found inspiration from his fellow artists, according to Future Islands' lead singer Sam Herring, who moved from North Carolina to Baltimore in 2008 after years of urging from Deacon.
"He's very much community-oriented," Herring said. "He has continued to take his friends on the road to help elevate them. Dan's had a big impact [on Baltimore], but he's stayed humble because he knows he couldn't have done it without his friends."
Deacon is eager to release "America" and to perform the new material on the road. While some musicians become enraged when their records leak early, Deacon was excited and relieved by Internet commenters' positive reactions to the album.
Online, the indie music world can be as snarky and mean as a Hollywood gossip site. Deacon, who has battled food and weight problems for years, knows this only too well.
On a blog post announcing his tour dates from last year, the comments from readers of Brooklyn Vegan, a popular indie-rock blog, turned to vitriol in describing Deacon's appearance.
"Dan Deacon looks like a big fat baby ... that said, his music is pretty fun," from Anonymous was one of the more measured comments about Deacon's weight. He says negative comments hurt him because they're about his looks, not his music.
"There's no right or wrong way to look," Deacon said. "With that said, I'm not very thrilled with the way I treat my body and the way my mind interacts with certain addictions to foods. ... But don't put it on my music."
Improving his health is on Deacon's growing to-do list — which also includes a world tour until December (there's no Baltimore date as of now; he plays D.C.'s 9:30 Club on Nov. 17) and helping when he can with various Wham City projects, including a TV show pilot.
It's been eight years since Deacon, a Long Island native, moved to Baltimore and started Wham City with friends from the State University of New York at Purchase, where he attended the Conservatory of Music.
"It was a serendipitous time in the mid-aughts," he said. "Exciting energy. I feel like we were a big part of it, but I think a lot of groups were a part of it."
"America" proves Deacon — whose experimental music has been criticized by some as gimmicky or one-dimensional — is still refining a sound wholly his own.
Brooklyn and New York City come up, as they always seem to when talking about American arts scenes. Like a die-hard Orioles fan discussing the Yankees, Deacon speaks up for the perpetual underdog. He's seen bands start here and leave for hipper pastures. It doesn't bother him, except when they claim to still be a part of Baltimore's scene.
"There's a lot of bands that used to be here and aren't anymore, and there's no way we can associate them with the community that is the [Baltimore] scene because they're not feeding off that energy," he said.
He stops just short of naming names. "I shouldn't have said anything," he said. "You know who I'm talking about."
He's far from bitter about any group's success. It's just that Deacon has grown protective when it comes to Baltimore. Above all else, he's thankful he found the greatest city in America, as some city benches still read, because it never fails to fuel his creativity.
"Baltimore wouldn't be the same city if it didn't have these boarded-up buildings and this rotting decay that feeds this vibrant community and this life and the people that make up the city."
Wham City's presence has progressively widened in Baltimore, according to Deacon. It's a testament to his love and vision for the city. When asked if he ever considers leaving to see if he could duplicate his impact here in a new city, he pauses.
"Sometimes," he said. "But I'm not that person anymore. It was eight years ago when I moved to town and wanted to try and start something. It's not that I don't want to do it again, but I don't want to repeat myself. I'd rather push on into new directions and see what I can do."
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