Dan Deacon pulls open two unassuming, boarded and chained-up doors to reveal his Charles Street studio. The walls are covered with wires of varying lengths, all hanging on top of a huge multicolor neon mural of oozing and exploding biomorphic shapes. As I absorb all the details, bits of awesome shit catch my eye and I immediately want to ask what all this stuff is for, but I focus on a sick dragon poster on the wall. A typical, high fantasy illustration depicts the craggy top of a mountain under a blue sky with a ferocious-looking, rather small dragon in mid-flight, above a giant, newly hatched egg.
I say something dumb like "cool poster," which, as you'll see in this interview, is enough to get Deacon's curious brain going.
"This poster's really great. But it bums me out that you realize it's just a baby, and that somewhere just off-poster there's a huge mama dragon," Deacon says, "and since he's a baby, he should have like, embryonic stuff all over him."
I think hard, and try to keep up: "Maybe it's like, this other type of dragon that scavenges homes inside something bigger's eggs."
"Woah, I like that! That has renewed the awesomeness of this poster."
It's a small aside but enough for Deacon to consider it world-changing. This is how our hour-plus conversation about his new record "Gliss Riffer," goes. It's been 11 years since the electronic-music dynamo moved to Baltimore with the Wham City collective, earning a national reputation for his creative, eclectic compositions and helping to spur a local artistic renaissance in the process. His latest record is ostensibly about stress and anxiety and sonically splits the difference between the sprawl of 2012's "America" and the sugar-rush energy of earlier work such as 2007's "Spiderman of the Rings."
Deacon, who DJed City Paper's Best of Baltimore party last year, definitely rambles, but he speaks with clarity and excitement about his latest project, and even when he isn't talking about "Gliss Riffer" in explicit terms, he's talking about something that informed the record.
Everything has something to do with "Gliss Riffer." Deacon picks up on a thread of thought and follows it for as long as possible, touching on questions about time and space, reflecting on the nature of music and sound, and, as he seems to be telling everybody he's talking to these days, how a Bill Murray video totally changed his shit up.
City Paper: When you spoke to City Paper last, it was when "America" was coming out. There seemed to be a sense that you were trying to challenge some of the perceived "wackiness" of your earlier music with that one.
Dan Deacon: I often think about how much the word "wacky" has plagued my career. In my mind, "wacky" is like, a mascot bear that's like, "Buy our paper towels!" and then gets kicked in the groin or something. "Wacky" to me seems to inherently have this connotation of like, stupid or ignorant or insincere. I like the lighthearted nature of my music. But once you incorporate those things into music, people think about it very differently. I think that's why a lot of musicians are like these pretend mystical creatures when in reality they're just like, "Where's my Coors Light!?" So, with "America," I didn't sit down thinking, "I'm gonna make my most unwacky record to date," but it was just after years of being like, "Why do I get called this?" Why are certain sounds OK and certain sounds not OK? Why is Timbaland and Aaliyah using a baby giggle sample not wacky?"
CP: Like, can just a sound itself be inherently wacky or not wacky?
DD: Exactly. I don't have any idea how anyone hears or sees anything. And I think no one really does. And I think that's the problem with such homogenized culture is that everyone thinks everyone is experiencing the same things but no one is. Like, my Facebook looks like nobody else's Facebook even though all Facebooks look exactly the same—like Facebook. Whenever I see somebody else's Facebook open on their computer I'm like, "Woah, what is this? It's so crazy!" I'm really into the Instagram discovery where it just shows you some random people's photos and then I just go to their pages like, "What lives you lead. What is the world?"
CP: I've gotten into that the past couple months. Just like, cruising social media to get an idea of people's lives that are nothing like yours.
DD: I've also gotten really into super-specific memes. I was finding memes for pipe fitters or particular kinds of programmers or all of these memes that were specific to one very tiny demographic. I really like the Alec Baldwin gender continuum memes. It's definitely someone who's studying gender studies or human sexuality in grad school and they're all about grad school and gender and the memes are so awesome because Alec Baldwin is such a dick. And I really like saved by the bell hooks. But there's a million of them. And I like the plumbing ones. I don't understand anything that they're talking about. Or ones for truck drivers. Sometimes, I just go on Instagram and search hashtag meme just to see whats up.
CP: I love that like, there are teenagers now that aren't into anything I cared about at that age. But I can go on Instagram and see so much of what they're about. It's crazy. It feels so intimate because you're really just seeing this minutiae. "Gliss Riffer" feels like that too. It sounds purposefully more personal. Is that in reaction to making a record as broad and loaded as "America"?
DD: After the large scale of "America," the first thing I started working on was this mixtape called "Wish Book Vol, 1" and it was just collages and mashups and remixes. I was just dragging files from iTunes and putting them into [music DJing and sequencing software] Ableton and it was real fun. I hadn't done anything like that in a long long time and I just kept thinking like, "When this is done, it's done." Like, I'm not gonna have to clean files to export to a notation program and then separate the parts and transcribe them, transpose them for the right instruments, divide them up into the smallest number of parts, meet with the players, and then morph the parts some more and then layer them together and then edit them so they sound cohesive and then mix it with the electronics. There was none of that. And I liked that. I'm glad I made a record like that. I'm sure I'll make another one [like "America"] again. [But] it was very refreshing to be like, when this is done this is done. And I kept thinking, "This is how I got into making music."
CP: Doing it for fun, you mean?
DD: Making music just alone, by myself on a computer. And I was also learning new software for the first time. I'd been using [music-making and editing software] Reason since like 2001. So, now I'm using Ableton for the first time and there's all these new things that you can't do with Reason and vice versa and you can link the two together, so I'm like, "Oh my god this is like when Marvel and DC team up, this is amazing." And I kept thinking,"I like synthetic sounds, these drums sound fine, I don't need to replace these drums, this bass doesn't need to be a bass guitar or it could be, but I can play the bass, why don't I play the bass?" I was hanging out with William [Cashion, bassist and guitarist for Future Islands] last night. We were watching a band at the Compound and I kept thinking, "What if I only had to write bass parts?" And I often wonder, "How does a band make a fucking album in two weeks? How do they do it?" Well, they have someone writing the lyrics and another person writing this and I can't even imagine! I imagine being like, "Wait, that's the bass line you wrote? Really? To go along with this?" I just think I'd be a terrible, terrible collaborator. It takes years to learn how to collaborate with people. But I envy it so much. It's just a different skill set, a different way of approaching music.
I always think about how bands versus solo artists exist, especially now that I have a team I work with. Al Schatz handles everything sound-wise for me live and I also would invite him in in process to listen to the tracks [from "Gliss Riffer"] because he knew my music better than anyone else because that's his job, to listen to the music. He's also my best friend so I trust him a lot. And Patrick [McMinn], who does my lights and builds custom software for me, it's the same thing. I was like, "You two watch the show more than anyone else on the planet, what do you think of the record? Can you go down to Asheville with me to record the synths?" We recorded all of the synths at Moog in Asheville.
CP: But is making music alone really easier?
DD: In some ways it was, but in other ways it was a new set of challenges. Like, I'm the only person in the room. Which is horrifying and daunting.
CP: It puts even more responsibility on your shoulders.
DD: Before, when I was working with [co-producer on Deacon's "Bromst" and "America"] Chester [Gwazda], he would be like, "No, this is good, let's move forward." With "Gliss Riffer," I was like, "No, I should do another version," and sorta had like 80 different versions. I was just getting lost in a sea of options and I started attaching stress to the whole process and then I started thinking about why I was attaching stress to something that I originally started doing to relax and get out of my head. It's very easy for me to meditate with music where there's nothing in my head, not even the music, but it's there. And that's what I like about music: I like no matter what you're doing, your ears don't turn off. It's always entering your body and you're always hearing it. It's different from light or, I guess touch is the same way, you can't close your eyes and not feel touch. And sound is the same way, you can't close your ears. But imagine if you could. I guess we wouldn't have survived as a species.
CP: And if that was even an option, who would take it?
DD: No one would take it! People so often want to stop the sounds they can stop but for some reason tolerate the sounds they can't. Like, a dripping sink will drive someone insane but the sound of traffic you can't stop, or like on an airplane, you can't stop the sound of the plane but you hate when someone is talking. I always wonder what my music would be like if I didn't exist in the 21st century. I don't play the piano very well, maybe I would've learned. But I often wonder, because I make computer music. Would I have been a musician in an era before computers? Would I have been a great trombone player? Would I have discovered tap dance? I think I would've been more like the creepy preacher in "There Will Be Blood."
CP: What do you mean?
DD: I don't know . . . I just wonder. Like, "What happened to great tap dancers before tap dance?" I don't think anyone is, like, destined for anything, I don't know if I necessarily believe in that. Because if that's true, then we're also equally destined for every other thing in every other parallel existence that there could possibly be. Thinking of like, probability as a dimension. I often think, "Would I have been an organist?" Would I have written music at all? I don't live within the class that probably would've had access to these instruments. I don't naturally sing well enough to have excelled as a singer. Even if I would've been a skilled keyboardist, the chances of me touching or seeing a keyboard based on what I was born into would've been almost 0 percent. I couldn't see my parents selling a hog to buy me a violin. I try to think about that to make me feel more appreciative of the instruments I have available to me.
I often think how exciting of a time it is to be making music. I think about what it must have been like to be a composer in like the late 1800s into the 20th century being like, we can have sounds exist, twice. Infinitely. Must have completely changed the game. There was a magic connected to technology which I think nowadays doesn't exist, or it's taken for granted. Like, I could tell someone, "I got a printer and it prints human hearts. It's a printer that prints functioning human hearts." And they'd be like "Great, can it print brains?" It's always like, "Whats the next step?"
CP: Which is an attitude that really perpetuates stress. So much art that resonates with me about that tends to use repetition and meditation as ways to alleviate anxiety and stress and "Gliss Riffer" does that for me.
DD: In regards to the anxiety and the loops, I do think repetition is a great way to get lost in something. I like that about time-based art, that it can take you out of your head. My favorite music, live or recorded, is something that I forget I'm listening to because it's brought me to a place mentally that I didn't even know I could go. That it steered my imagination, steered my consciousness in a way where I'm literally just like, daydreaming while listening to the music. What I like about music is that when you're reading a book or watching a movie, you're put into another universe and that's great, but in my mind, music does that but differently. It puts you in a different place in your own mind. It's so abstract and no two people are ever going to hear music the same way. They're going to attach it to their previous likes and dislikes or their particular mood or if they've heard it before or if they haven't. There's so many factors, and I know that's true for literature and everything, but I just find music to be so different from the other performing arts.
CP: Specifically, with electronic music, people seem thrown by it. They're accustomed to dealing with a "real" instrument and a "real" player and it pulls them out of the music unless they have an "authentic" context.
DD: I think that's why a lot of people have a hard time thinking about electronic instruments as instruments because it's hard to tell the virtuosity of a performer unless you are familiar with the process. But we are living within the first century of electronic music. It's still a very, very young set of instruments. Like, brass instruments took centuries to become anything that wasn't a gross-sounding joke. Organs started in like 250 B.C. and didn't start becoming like the shit for centuries later. And I realize technology moves fast but culture doesn't.
CP: Do you make music with those concepts of time in mind? It seems like it would be useful for inspiring different ways of listening.
DD: It just shows how much music has changed in such a short period of time. In the time of Erik Satie, if you weren't in the room where music was being made, you never heard music. Like it just wasn't on. Now I walk by the Hess station and they're playing the gas station radio network. That's crazy. Just music surrounds us. Sometimes, when I'm waiting somewhere and they're playing music, I'm like, "Do you have to? Do we really need music right now?" There's just an abundance of it. So you can think about how special it must have been, and how radical a concept it must have been to be like, "No, please, go about your business, I'll just be here, also playing music." Nowadays, that's not even a question. You go to a restaurant, there's music playing. You go to a bar, there's music playing. You go into a gas station, there's music playing.
CP: It's there to fill in silence. People can't stand silence.
DD: What is the music that nobody likes but nobody hates? That is mostly what gets played at stores.
A promo shot for Deacon's new album, "Gliss Riffer" (Frank Hamilton)
CP: "Gliss Riffer" seems like it's heavily about being more mindful and really present as yourself, from you who are in your body, day to day, to who you are on a more cosmic level. And there's a good deal of lyrical content about reincarnation. Like on 'When I Was Done Dying,'where the lyrics shift from focusing on yourself as a physical body to being an element of nature. How did you get there thematically? Is it all in the literal lyrics or is there something sonically to that brings out these themes?
DD: Lyrics tend to be the last step of the process. They're very informed by how the music went and the mindset that I'm in. I was very very anxious during this process. Anxious is like an understatement. I was attaching anxiety to everything and I feel like that comes through in the lyrics, but towards the end [of recording]—there's this Bill Murray clip we'll talk in a minute that's very important to this—I think the themes of "Gliss Riffer," as you described, emerged. I didn't plan on them being there but they did.
CP: I hear a lot of bittersweet elements in your music, especially on "Gliss Riffer." The way you combine lyrics about self-doubt with these jubilant melodies.
DD: A big theme of mine for many records has been that I have a lot of dystopian visions. It's hard for me to think about the future and see it as a place without exploitation or slavery or patriarchy or capitalism, maybe the four suckiest things. So, it's hard for me to envision a future without those things, and also I feel like anyone who was confronted with death early on in life, you become obsessed with it, and you try to figure out what it is or how it works. I kept thinking about how there's a physical body, consciousness, and memories which I like to think of as a separate piece. And if consciousness and memory aren't attached, then what is the consciousness? Because I would hate to have my consciousness attached to my memories if I wasn't in this body that perceived my time the same way. If I did become a tree or if I did become consciousness within something that we don't consider to have consciousness, because we don't have any ways to prove that it does or does not, to me, that would be hell. I would hate to have the same emotions as a human but to be a plant. I would love to know what plants' emotions are.
CP: The idea of being an embarrassed tree seems awful. I hope that's not how trees actually are.
DD: And people can justify what plants do with science, but I think it's amazing that trees wrap their seeds in enzyme inhibitors and then wrap them in food that animals like to eat, and animals eat them, can't digest the seeds because of the enzyme inhibitors that the tree put on them, then the animal walks away, shits out the seed in a little pile of seed food, and then the seed grows. That to me is real smart! But whether you can call it intelligence or just luck is I guess the difference. Maybe intelligence is the greatest of all lucks.
CP: The way we ascribe intelligence to something only has to do with comparing its abilities to our own and we have to pull back from that narrow way of thinking.
DD: So I do think about that a lot, and about psychedelia a lot. Some people think psychedelia is like "Uh, it's like a frog wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt and sunglasses and he's on a wavy moon." And that's awesome! I'd love to see that! But that's not what psychedelia is like. Psychedelics aren't good or bad. There's no good or evil. The same way that it's an aspect of nature and nature isn't good or evil, it just is. You can stare at anything long enough and find beauty and misery and happiness and pain in it. We turn cemeteries into these very solemn places when they should be places where you go to celebrate someone's life. Not to be like, "And now they're dead."
I feel like we have an odd concept with death. I like thinking about what happens when I die. When me and my sister talked about my younger brother and sister before they were born we used to say "When they were dead." When we were little, we just didn't know, because if you weren't alive you were dead. So we would always be like "When Pat was dead" and my parents would be like "Pat was never dead!" but to us he was. My mother's dead and I keep thinking like, is my mom just cruising the ether, just like waiting to hang out? Or is she experiencing time in every possible dimension and seeing in all dimensions and we're gonna hang out and it's gonna be like, "What's up, hey!" You can't have expectations about life or death. I think that's the whole point with life or death.
CP: There's stream of consciousness to some of the lyrics on "Gliss Riffer" (from 'Mind On Fire': "Happiness takes time and time is my life, and I have no time and I'm still alive") that also service that theme, I think. Being in the moment, for real.
DD: There's a couple of songs on this record that have that stream of consciousness and I think the only reason I could achieve them is because of Joanna Newsom and Bob Dylan. Particularly, the first track on [Newsom's] "The Milk-Eyed Mender" and [Dylan's] 'Subterranean Homesick Blues.' Both of those songs are such beautifully sculpted narratives of nonsense. Joanna Newsom's song starts with this very descriptive beautiful journey about a boat and then the second verse is just like, pretty much just really nice-sounding words, but you can still visualize them very well. It's so fucking good. I've never been on a boat like that but I feel like I have been after listening to that song. And Dylan's 'Subterranean Homesick Blues' is this insane psychedelic rambling where if it was happening it would be like—to see that depicted as film would be insane. But he so masterfully describes this completely absurd situation that I've never seen or experienced, but I can so easily envision in my mind. And I kept thinking about how lyrics have this privilege that other music doesn't have: to give context. You can try to imply mood or tone or anything with pure sound but you can state it with lyrics.
CP: You seem to be singing more here too.
DD: And I've never really used the voice in that way. I've always used the voice as another instrument. Cause a lot of the music I really grew up liking, I didn't know them. I liked how I couldn't tell what Kurt Cobain was saying in Nirvana. I could pick out a couple of words, but for the most part it was just a weird-sounding instrument. I liked Boredoms for the same reason. So I was sort of inspired by that early on, the voice was just something I would process. And I didn't really have lyrics, I was just like [hums a melody with nonsense syllables] and then, I'd try to put lyrics to them but didn't really care. So with this record, the same way that I'm just starting to understand how important the stage can be to a performance, I'm understanding how important the lyrics can be to pop music. So I think that's why the voice is so prominent on this. It could also be because I knew I was going to focus on the voice as an instrument I started thinking about the lyrics and then also helped to inform the stress and anxiety attached to it. Because they were very vulnerable. And that was something I wasn't used to or comfortable with. And another aspect of, like, self-doubt and confusion and being like, "Ugh I can just see the comments on BrooklynVegan now," but then, I had to just stop worrying about it.
CP: "Just do it!"
DD: I started making music as a hobby. And then I started making music in school because I knew I was going to be broke, so I might as well go to school for music. And then I started touring just because it was fun. And then I kept doing it, because all of sudden it started to pay my bills. It was always something I did because it was fun and I did because I liked doing it. But as soon as it became my quote-unquote career, I started attaching stress to it. And I remember when Ian MacKaye spoke at Whartscape, he said, "I've done everything I could to make sure my band was never my source of income. I never wanted to make my living off of my music." And at first I was like, "That's fucking crazy, that's like, everyone's dream, everyone who makes art." And then it blew my mind because I never wanted to have to be like, "Uh, I better write a good song so I can pay the rent, I hope the album does well so I don't go back to only eating canned food." And I was like, "Oh my god, this is what I do. I've taken something that used to be just for pure joy and I've attached burden to it and consequence," which changes everything about the process. Now that I've started to feel more aware of its presence, I feel much more liberated.
CP: Because you're able to acknowledge it and intentionally set it aside?
DD: You just have to realize it. It's like trying to plan a picnic and trying to control the weather. You can't. Have a picnic. Don't worry about it. If it rains, have the picnic another day. You can't plan out your life like you can schedule tweets, it's just how it goes. You can't force inspiration and you can't download the PDF on how to write hit songs, you just have to do it. And you have to not worry about the consequence as long as it feels good to you and you feel comfortable enough showing it to people that you care about, why care about anything else? And I know that's easy on paper and it was difficult but then luckily I saw this Bill Murray clip, which I told you I'd get back to.
CP: OK, yeah, so this Bill Murray clip.
DD: Scott and Eric from the Maryland Film Festival posted it on Facebook. And it was just Bill Murray doing like, a Q&A, talking about his philosophy on his life and career and this particular part that really resonated with me was like, "You can do the very best you can when you're very, very relaxed. The more relaxed you are, the better you are." And that really blew my mind. Because I was very like, deadline-motivated and stress-motivated and I was like, "Oh, I'll just wait until the last minute and then fuck it, I'll have to do it." Terrible way to live. But I feel like everyone lives that way. We're trained and conditioned to wait until the last minute. Even though I'll be like, "OK, this is due in four months." And months leading up to it, I'll lay in bed like, "Oh God, fuck oh no." Like in the morning or at night or any time when I could just be doing it. But it's just like, "No no, I gotta wait." Which means I'm never relaxed. And then when I try to relax it's just to get me out of my own head. Which means a distraction or time wasting. Which means I'm not ever bored. If I'm never relaxed and I'm never bored, it's a terrible combination if I'm trying to be creative. Because you need boredom to have your mind drift and if your mind doesn't drift then you never get lost in thought. If you never get lost in thought, then you never think things that you wouldn't have thought otherwise. So if you're constantly not relaxed and constantly never bored, what the fuck are you doing? And that was my whole existence. And so that's why I was like you try, in situations like that, you try to control the smallest aspects of your reality, like shutting that door, or rotating that cup, or like fixing the cuff of my pants because those are things that I feel like I can have control over but I would think like, "I have a piece due for orchestra in a month. I haven't started it. I should have spent years on it."
CP: I relate to this a lot. It's like we consider anxiety this outside force we are afflicted with, but it's ultimately a way of thinking, which we can try to change or at least, adjust.
DD: I remember having a performance at Carnegie Hall and being like, "I don't know what I'm gonna do. It's in like three weeks, I have shit to do everyday for the next two and half weeks. Am I really gonna write a brand-new piece in three days?" And the three days I had I spent, two days of it I spent being like, "fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck" and that was like my life since 2009, everything about it, including the making of this record.
CP: How do you find your way out of that thinking?
DD: I feel like someone I owe a lot to in this record is Jeremy Hyman, who was the drummer for the band Ponytail and was a drummer for me for a while. We have very, very different temperaments. And I really love working with Jeremy. And he was the first one who told me I had a stress addiction. We were on the tour for "America," it was 2012, and someone else was talking about stress addiction. And I was like, "Oh, I wonder if I have that." And Jeremy was like, "Dan, are you joking? You definitely have a stress addiction. Get real. It's clear you have a stress addiction."
CP: That's what friends are for.
DD: Of course. One hundred percent. So yeah, thanks Jeremy. And that changed a lot for me, Jeremy Hyman and Bill Murray, two smart people.