Right off the bat, Josh Dibb recognizes my name. The Animal Collective member and I had briefly chatted once before, but that's not why it jumps out at him.
I donated to his Kickstarter project in late 2009. "I don't know if that would have happened with everybody, but yeah, I feel like I'm pretty intimate with the names," he says at the start of our interview at Dooby's back in April.
That intimacy is not surprising given that the project became a source of controversy for Dibb and the band almost from the start. Initially, it asked for $25,000 to cover the travel expenses of Dibb, who performs under the stage name Deakin, to travel to Mali to play the Festival au Désert with "a small group of folks who will be performing with him and documenting their experience." There was almost immediate backlash, and it was decided the funds would instead be donated to TEMEDT, a group working to end slavery in the African country.
After the trip, there were scant updates on when backers would be receiving their rewards for pledging money, which in some cases included a recorded collection of sounds and/or a book.
Not long after Animal Collective released its ninth album, "Centipede Hz," controversy around Kickstarter flared up when singer-songwriter Amanda Palmer asked musicians to volunteer their time to perform with her onstage, even after she infamously raised seven figures for her new album on the site. The blog BrooklynVegan shifted the conversation onto Dibb with the headline: "remember Deakin's Mali trip Kickstarter? (the people who never got what they were promised do)." Dibb did interviews trying to explain the situation and sent an update to backers. As it would turn out, the promised rewards were no closer to coming.
Fast forward to earlier this year, when Dibb announced he was releasing a proper debut album, "Sleep Cycle," six years after the Kickstarter had gone live. The long delay in releasing a record was not due to indolence or irresponsibility, but rather, a debilitating self-doubt that for years, even before the Mail trip, had caused him to question his abilities and worth as a musician and, more generally, a person.
Those anxieties and the personal journey Dibb took to overcome them are chronicled in the six songs on "Sleep Cycle," a densely layered work of psychedelic art-pop. As of this writing, Fields Festival, the locally run underground music festival set to take place Aug. 19-21 in Darlington, Maryland, is the only live date scheduled, though Dibb says he hopes to book more shows soon.
During the course of our two-hour interview, Dibb took full responsibility for the mishandling of everything and talked about some of the setbacks he encountered along the way, including the death of a family friend and the flooding of his Meadow Mill studio space—which doubled as a storage unit for Animal Collective—in 2014. Most prominently, he discussed the "perfectionist self-defeating pattern" that plagued him for years, how the shame of the Kickstarter drama helped him overcome it, strengthening his skills as a songwriter, and his relationship with the other three members of Animal Collective: Dave Portner, Noah Lennox, and Brian Weitz.
City Paper: So how does it feel now that it's done?
Josh Dibb: Honestly, I'm still kind of absorbing it. I think that there's multiple angles of it. The Kickstarter drama of it is something that definitely feels—I mean, I take full responsibility for that part and I feel very relieved, for the most part, that it seems mostly taken care of. Just from that angle of that thing, it sucked. And again, it's my own fault. But it was definitely this thing that, throughout everything, even working on "Centipede Hz," and that being really successful, I think I always had—sometimes in really big ways and sometimes in smaller ways—this thing that was definitely bumming me out, and feeling really responsible for it. So it feels like a big relief to have that aspect of it done.
But I guess the bigger thing for me is more the actual music itself. The story of that actually predates the Kickstarter thing by decades. It really goes back to when I first started doing this, when I was a teenager. I've been feeling a really strong hole that I've never been able to get away from, of needing to figure out a way to make music using my own voice that felt honest and sincere and personal to me. It's been a challenge for a really long time to figure out how to do that.
The history and trajectory of Animal Collective has been a boon to that in so many ways, I've learned so much to be part of that and been so inspired by being a part of that. Obviously, I've had a lot of opportunities, being a part of that, that are really amazing. And I feel a lot of ownership over that story.
But I think as a songwriter, I definitely, from a very early age—I'd say within the first year or two of Noah and I making music together, which we started when we were 13 years old, like writing and recording our own music. Pretty immediately I was like, "Holy shit, this dude's really good." And then I guess I started hearing music that Dave was doing around the age of—it was probably 16 or 17, when he first played me stuff that he'd done. Both those dudes I just held a lot of respect for.
And I have kind of, not literally but like a genetic sort of hang-up on comparing myself to, whether it's famous people or people in my family or whatever, and so I think it became this thing that I—it was really difficult for me to ever put effort into making my own stuff without feeling the weight of, "This isn't going to be as good as anything John Lennon ever did," or whatever.
That's one example. It could've been my dad, it could've been Noah, it could've been John Lennon, it could have been literally anything. And I think that kind of comparative mindset was something that I've struggled with a really long time, and I think it just kind of kept me—whenever I confronted my own stuff, it just always felt like this weight that I didn't really know how to get past.
So I think, for me, that side of it, getting this record done and feeling mostly really good about it, and then having people seem to respond to it in a way for the most part seems like—Yeah, I feel that it's had an impact on people, actually far more so than I really had an expectation that it would. I think it's helping break a pattern for me that I've had for a long time. I feel a little lame talking about this stuff, because it's, on the one hand, How much is that really important when you're talking to someone about music? But it's been so much of what I've had to kind of grapple with to get this thing done.
The Kickstarter thing almost just became this [pause] I kinda wonder, I feel like if I hadn't created that situation and had it [not] turned into such a sort of publicly bad situation, I almost feel like the shame, that is what kind of pushed me to "I have to do this."
And I wonder if I hadn't done that, if I would have still come up with reasons why I wasn't ready to do something of my own. So in a way, it's been a blessing to have that. But it kind of took that level of intensity to push me to this place where I had to break through this really bad mental habit.
CP: You were talking about the pattern. How would you define that?
JD: Of my own, what gets in the way?
JD: I think it's a pretty classic kind of perfectionist self-defeating pattern. It's a way of touching on something that starts to feel promising, but then as soon as the rubber hits the road, in some form or another, it suddenly feels like there's too many miles in front of me to be able to—I'll never get there.
It's like hearing something in my head or starting an idea in a very embryonic state that feels like it has all these elements that I would want to be able to put in music. And then as soon as I'm like, "OK, well how do I actually do this?" mentally going to this place of just seeing nothing but the obstacles, to the point where it stops being inspiring and stops feeling like there's anything—like there's no joy in it, there's no anything. It just becomes this crushing, "I'll just never..." It just feels Sisyphean.
It's a pattern that exists in a lot of places in my life. I assume anybody that pays attention to the lyrics of this record, like a lot of that stuff comes through. I do feel weird talking about this stuff, but I don't really know why, on some level, I feel weird talking about it. I guess the nature of what I wrote, it's obviously what I'm thinking about it.
CP: Is there something about collaborating in the context of the band that makes it easier?
JD: Oh yeah, definitely. On one level, there's an incredible amount of freedom in [doing solo work], because you really are not bound to anybody else's influence. And there's definitely an element of working in a group where I think compromise is part of the process, and if you're not wanting to feel that, then that can be frustrating.
But I think the other side of it, for me, has been not having to sort of tackle every single moment of what's going on. To be able to bounce those ideas off other people that all have their own ideas and sort of create a melting pot that hopefully is the ideal best of all those elements, there is something that's—it's kind of out of your hands in a beautiful way that I've found, working by myself, that's just not the case.
CP: You mentioned "Centipede Hz" before. You guys really toured a lot with that album. I imagine that made it harder for you to clamp down on this project and see it through.
JD: Yeah, I think so. I didn't think it would be. I thought it was something I'd be able to tackle throughout. But yeah, I think a lot of my focus was there, for sure. And I think every time I got breaks, or there was a time where I thought I'd be focusing on that, something would come up in my life, whether it was real or self-created, that would just become the reason why, "Well, I can't tackle this right now. I'll tackle it the next break."
After taking a break for "Merriweather Post Pavilion," I think I came back into working with the band with a sort of intentionality that I'd never really brought to it before. It had always been something that I really—I left a lot up to fate and sort of in-the-moment reality. It's not to say that a ton of work didn't go into everything, "Feels" and "Strawberry Jam" and all that stuff. But I think that there was something about my approach that was a little bit more haphazard.
There was a sort of a process that I started—I guess I sort of started when I took on the solo thing to go to play a show in Africa—that I think started then and throughout the course of that year, playing shows on my own and working on recording Dave's solo record that year, "Down There." I started to see I had been avoiding the responsibility of owning the [songwriting] process as opposed to feeling dragged along by the process.
And so I think doing "Centipede Hz" was sort of this new opportunity to take on that mindset and build those muscles. There was a lot of joy and excitement in that, and I think every step of the way I felt clearer and more confident in what those skills were.
There's no question the record that I just made would not—to me, it feels very realized as a very specific thing, and I don't think I had those muscles in 2010. I think that was part of what was really frustrating for me was that I—I would work on a song or perform it at a show in a certain way that was loose and improvised, and there'd be these nuggets in it that I knew felt like the right thing to me. But whenever I tried to kind of pull the essence out of it in a way that would honor the thing that I was hearing or feeling, I never knew how to do it. It just never felt like it was the right thing.
CP: You touched on this a little bit in your Pitchfork interview. What was the conversation when "Painting With" started formulating among the other three guys? Were you like, "I've got to do my own thing"?
JD: It was kind of mutual. It was Brian and Dave and I—they had probably talked to Noah about it a little bit. But I think they had some concerns about what the trajectory of things looked like at that moment—what I had on my plate and the way that I was handling it. And what, realistically, knowing me, it was going to take to get through that.
So we talked through the reality of what was healthiest for the group as a whole and what was healthiest for me to be able to make sure this thing that, for various reasons—everything from me as an individual musician and what it is I've clearly been trying to figure out on my own, combined with the reality of the Kickstarter thing and what that felt like, I think, for the whole band to sort of carry that a little bit—and we just kind of talked it through.
We've become used taking a year off in between records. And I think that feels very comfortable for us and, you know, Dave and Noah both have solo stuff they can do. Brian has some other kind of things to keep him going during those times off. And I've been working on solo stuff during those times.
We were at like a year at that point when we had that conversation, and I just think it felt like it stopped being about the band taking a year off and it became about the band waiting for me. That just didn't feel good to any of us. I would never want to ask those guys to feel that way.
CP: Take me through the writing process. I remember I saw you play at Ottobar in 2010, which I think was before you took the trip. How have the songs evolved from that point to the record?
JD: OK, so I had started writing those songs about a month before that show. I had no plans of playing that show, and about a week before I left [for Mali], I thought, I sort of feel a little crazy, literally having the first time I do this in front of people be in the middle of the desert. We managed to figure out how to set up that show, so that was the first show ever. I literally left the next morning at like 6 a.m.
I think one of the biggest and most important evolutions for me has been writing the language, words. Through the entire course of 2010, every show I played, I had a sense of the melodies—although those could shift sometimes too, but the melodies were more or less locked—but I would improvise the lyrics every night. There's a lot of reasons—I think every time I tried to sort of apply myself finalizing lyrics, they never felt like what I wanted to be saying, they never felt important enough.
There's people that fall in the "I listen to Dylan because I want to hear all the words he has to say" and people that are like "I have no idea. I love the song but I don't listen to the words. There's melodies, and maybe I'll a catch a word here or there and it adds to the overall vibe, but it's not the thing that's pulling me in." And I guess I fall more on the side of, when I listen to music, I really care about the words a lot.
So that was probably, in some ways, the biggest thing that changed from that time. A lot of the ideas and themes were there six years ago, but I hadn't come up with the right—I mean, there's certain lyrics that became locked in back then and ended up still on this record, but I think to be able to concretize the whole thing into a fully realized song, just from the perspective of language, was a big part of it.
I'm somebody that, for a lot of different reasons, I don't even know if I've parsed all of them through yet, when I'm working on something, in my head, I kind of hear every possible thing that it could be. Whether that's from the thing that it's trying to say lyrically to the arrangement to the energy of it. One of the things that can derail me is I feel this sense of wanting all of those things to be the case in a way that's impossible. And so I think that pushing myself to a place of accepting that this version of the song, it's going to commit to going this direction.
CP: It seems like the lyrics, or my read on them anyway, are very autobiographical, though almost in a meta sense. They couldn't have happened without—like the trip is referenced in there and all that. But this started before the trip?
JD: I think [the trip] really only gets referenced in 'Just Am.'
CP: But the album's also talking about your evolution. 'Golden Chords' is about accepting your voice. Being able to settle into the headspace where you're good with the process of writing the songs.
JD: Yeah, and I mean it's meta—I wouldn't actually want to reduce it to just being about being a musician or even creativity. I think it's themes that apply to living in general, and whether that's just how you approach any job you have in life, how you approach family, relationships, I think those are all things that are being touched on there.
I think they're just about human processes I've seen in a lot of different people and myself—sort of [the] struggles of to just be OK being human, you know? That kind of stuff has been on my mind a lot for a really, really long time—far, far predating that trip or anything before this set of music was even realized. It's stuff that I think about a lot, because it's been necessary for me to kind of self-analyze and develop tools and skills sets as a human being and how to navigate through the ways that I've come to see the world.
CP: Was part of this for you learning when something is done and when to sort of let it go?
JD: Yeah. Or just deciding that something needs to be done. I had one friend that just was like, You've been struggling with this for so long. I think you need to just decide that there is a date at which this is done, no matter what it is. It doesn't matter whether it's two songs or 10 songs. It doesn't matter whether you like it. You just need to decide that whatever it is on this date is what it's going to be.
That was a really scary challenge for me to take on. That wasn't new to me, but I think it really pushed me to—I felt responsibility to this person as a friend. I knew that where they were coming from was the right place and that they, knowing me, knew that this was very likely the thing that I needed to push it over the edge.
That process pushed me to confront the idea of perfectionism and what that even means. There's no question to me that, moving forward, I feel a possibility now that I don't think I've felt before, because I can actually see how—I don't think what I made is perfect at all. I could pick it apart endlessly, and did up until the moment that I was like, OK, I'm committing to this commitment I made to this person in my life that. This is the thing.
CP: So you set a hard deadline?
JD: I set a hard deadline, yeah.
CP: What was the day?
JD: It was Jan. 1st of this year. And to be fair, I did a little bit of tweaking the week after that. But all the tracking and sequencing and everything was done. After that point, the mixes were basically there, but I did a little bit of listening through and being like, Ah, this transition should be a little more this. But for the most part, yeah, Jan. 1 was it.
CP: I know musicians don't read their reviews a lot, but did you happen to read the Pitchfork review?
JD: I did, yeah. I did.
CP: I have a feeling you know what I'm going to ask about. The idea of you being the "mysterious member" and "perceived expendability." What are your thoughts on that?
JD: I found it important for me, even though I think it seemed, on some level, counterintuitive. And some people in my life, when they found out I was reading reviews and stuff, were kinda like, "What the fuck are you doing?" I was basically reading everything that I could find.
It gave me a perspective on what the purpose and value and meaning of music writing really is for me, at least as an artist. In both good and bad ways. I'm actually honestly still kind of formulating a lot of this stuff. It's been on my mind recently, trying to understand, so I don't know if I'm fully as articulate about it as I want it to be. And I kinda want to be careful, too, because I don't want to sound disrespectful to what a writer does or anything.
I sort of realized all that stuff, ultimately, is actually really meaningless to me. It has nothing to do with the reality of my story, or my life, or what my relationship is with Dave, Noah, and Brian. I think actually the most shocking place that I really ran into that was less that and more seeing a lot of comparisons between what I had made and "Painting With," some of which were very negative about what they had done. I sort of found that to be so—upset is the wrong word, but it was actually really shocking to me that that was even a point. Of course, there's a relationship, and it's not that I don't think that music writing shouldn't acknowledge the cultural realities of something being made, but it's things like that or the stuff you're talking about—I don't really actually see what that has to do with the music.
I've seen stuff like that written in the past, and it sometimes would feel weird, because I would feel the sense of like, well [pause] yeah, maybe it would bring up a certain, I think, defensiveness or something, because I knew that there was not really anything that I could point to on any record that we've done where I could be like, "No, don't you obviously see my value here?" In reflection, why should I have had to defend that?
Seeing everything from the most ridiculously glowing stuff that was very sweet but absurd to me, to the most viciously negative stuff, and then everything in between, I think it actually helped me sort of realize the—obviously, people have the right to, and there's a value in talking about how they feel about something or giving a reflection on it. And obviously those things have an impact on how other people hear things, and that is something that's important to acknowledge, but I think at a certain point I realized how little that has to do with the process of what it is that I would be doing as a musician.
CP: After realizing earlier live recordings weren't what you wanted to send out as a Kickstarter reward, when did this become an actual solo record? How did that happen?
JD: It really wasn't until the middle of last year—I guess I went into the studio to record 'Footy' and 'Good House' in March of 2015. It was the first time that I was going into a studio to work with another person to record my own stuff, and I think it was the beginning of me confronting the reality of what was possible and what was not possible, and seeing what a finished product could start to feel like.
I said the thing about lyrics and words being really important to me. It's been a big shift for me to get to the point where I really was finalizing stuff. Even doing 'Wide Eyed' on "Centipede Hz," I had not committed to the lyrics until literally the day of tracking the vocals. It's been really hard for me to do that, so the same kind of thing happened in March of last year when I went to Rare Book Room to record those two songs. I was like, I'm paying money to be in a studio, I need to write the final lyrics, I have to do it.
And doing that sort of helped me start to see that there was a way to make decisions and push them to a certain place. Then I was able to start to actually see the themes of what the songs were and feel like a certain amount of clarity about what the point of the record was meant to be.
CP: What were those themes? How would you define them?
JD: [Long pause] My hesitation is more, there's a certain type of way of talking about it. I guess it's kind of about chronic depression and anxiety, and the ways that view of the world can become this—it colors everything when you see the world that way.
It feels a little overly simplistic or a little bit—I have a very love-hate relationship with like certain types of language around this type of stuff, but I think it's a spiritual or a psychological sense, like the difference between being awake and being asleep. The amount of powerlessness that some people have over that and also the amount of power that we actually have over that.
It's not even necessarily depression, but I've gone through a lot of phases in my life. I guess that's sort of what the album title is referencing a little bit, of just going through states of being what I know is my best self. Yeah, just realize myself, my life and the possibilities of my life in a way that has hope and movement and progression, versus times the view is so stuck that there's no movement.
For people who have not experienced that, I think it's really hard to understand, and it's hard to actually be sympathetic to people. I've even found myself, having been through it a lot—sometimes you know somebody who's going through something like that, you just want to be like, dude, just fucking stop. Stop thinking this way, it's clearly not sane to be viewing the world this way. But it's hard to do that when you're in that state.
The thing that's been the most validating to me about this project being a quote-unquote success is I get a lot of messages from people. I've had music and art be something in my life at times when I thought I did not know how I could possibly perceive the world differently again. Hearing the right Incredible String Band song or reading the right poem, or whatever, have helped me see something differently and see a light again that I didn't think was possible. And I get—I mean literally like today—I've gotten messages that, they make me cry. People who are hearing this record and are carrying that stuff, and it's helping them remember how to be who they are.
I remember the first time that I was like, OK, this is done. I knew that there was no more I was going to do to tweak the way that it sounded. I just had to accept that it was what it was. I put the record on. I laid down on the floor and listened to it. It was the first moment that I really realized—it was like the healthy part of myself talking to the sick part of myself.
CP: Taking everything into consideration, would you do it all again?
JD: I guess I don't really see it quite that way. I definitely feel like it's hard for me, at this point, to imagine having it happen a different way. I think I kind of alluded to some of that in earlier parts of the conversation—I feel like on some level it may have been some of the more stressful aspects of how all of this played out that maybe pushed me to the point where I did push past certain stuff that maybe, if things had been more comfortable, I wouldn't have. I think that's part of what went into the decision about not being part of what ended up becoming "Painting With." I think there's a way that probably could've engendered in me a certain sort of complacency about things being OK on one level, and being like, Oh, there's this other thing that I really want to deal with, but I'll deal with that when I get to it.
There's been a certain reality of the discomfort of having to confront things like not being on the tour or working on—I love Animal Collective and I love being on tour with those guys and I miss them a lot. You know, we talk almost every day. I text with Dave all the time, stay in touch with Brian a fair amount.
To say, Would I do it all again? It's like, on some level no, I would really love to be on tour with the band right now. But I genuinely accept, and maybe even realize, that it's probably the way things had to be for me to be able to have done this thing, which in some ways to me is more important than—I would almost say it is definitely more important than having been on the next Animal Collective record. Even as a member of the band, I think doing this and being able to start feeling a certain amount of confidence and possibility in myself and what I can do is probably gonna feed my capacity as a member of that group. That's really important to me too. So I think it all feels necessary.
There's definitely elements of it, or moments in time that, I wish in some ways hadn't happened and certainly were painful or uncomfortable, but that's how life is.
CP: What was interesting, I don't know if you heard this from other backers, but it was almost like I was riding it out with you to a much smaller extent. People would tell me, Oh, you gave that guy money and nothing came of it. Did you hear that from other people?
JD: Yeah, for sure. Actually, yeah. I feel like throughout this conversation—and I don't know if it feels appropriate as the way that an interview is supposed to happen, but I mean do you feel like hearing the stuff that I'm saying honors the reality of what it was from your perspective? Honestly, feel free to speak candidly. Do you feel like both before you talked to me about it, throughout the entire process, and then now that you have talked about it—does it all make sense to you? Does it seem like I'm reflecting back to you a reality that meshes with what your experience of being on the other end of it was?
CP: Yeah. I mean, definitely. I was wondering and wondering when the album would arrive, and there was a point where I kind of had written it off.
CP: I was like, There's 50 bucks I won't get back, oh well.
JD: Right. I mean, I assume that was a lot of people, for sure.
CP: I don't remember ever getting too worried about your intentions with the money. It seemed, like you said, that you were pretty upfront about that in the description of the page itself.
CP: That was never a concern for me. And then I got the posters, and it was like, Alright this is cool. But the album, I didn't know.
CP: I think I actually found out via the press release I got. And so reading and finding out that it was going to be released, after all this time, felt exciting.
CP: And then reading the first interview you did, I think that really put it into place and the context. It was like, Alright, well, I can understand this.
JD: I'm sure everybody has different reactions to it, and I've certainly seen people—and that's what I'm saying, there's part of me when I talk about this stuff that [is uncomfortable]. You know, I'm really good at hearing critics in my head, so I know that there's people who are just like, Who the fuck cares? Stop whining about your, whatever. Talking about being depressed or whatever the thing is. But I guess I'm curious, from your perspective, if it feels like a justifiable explanation of what was happening throughout all that. I guess you kinda already said that.
CP: Yeah, it did. But also the fact—I mean, there are so many Kickstarter or other fundraising sites where nothing happens. The reward never comes. And people are just sort of taken. And you know, it took a long time, but it's here, and that's really great.
CP: So that sort of validated it for me. But hearing you talk about it also, I thought, offered a lot of insight. I don't have any sort of [creative outlet]—I write, but that's such a week-to-week grind. I've never tried to take on a long-term project and then have it be so consuming. What you said made a lot of sense.
JD: Yeah. It was such a weird blessing and a curse. Like I wonder if I had managed to launch a Kickstarter but I was an unknown artist, and it had been successful, but I'd done the same thing, would that have been more pressure? The reality, the kind of stuff you were talking about with the type of observation the Pitchfork dude made, of just like people wondering about what my value is in the context of this band that a lot of people see as important or at least has had a lot of cultural impact or relevance or something.
There's no question, a lot of this stuff has been in my head throughout all of that. In some ways, that's been maybe like a good thing to push me to a certain place. In other ways it's been like, Fuck, I don't want to have to prove myself like this. It's like, as much as I've done with the band that I feel so proud of—yeah, I feel a tremendous amount of ownership and pride.
CP: Were you aware of this perception, for a lack of a better word, that was referenced in that article?
JD: Yeah, a little bit. There's no question that taking off "Merriweather" was tough. That one was tough. This one was actually not as tough. This break, I know why I'm taking the break. It just was really clear to me what it was about. The "Merriweather" one was not, I was not in a good place. I didn't have the perspective on this being like, Oh, well you're taking a break, and it's kind of an intense choice, but you have this to do, and this to do. It was me asking myself: What is my value? Do I even belong as part of this thing? I think that probably was the beginning of even being aware of that in myself, like asking myself that question.
And then certainly, anytime you would see that referenced in any sort of forum, writing or whatever, it was inevitable to feel this sense of—or, yeah, to question my own worth in that context.
CP: Was it kind of bittersweet to see that record take off in such a huge way?
JD: For "Merriweather"?
JD: Yeah, yeah. It was tough. I mean, I love those guys, and like I said, I've been in awe of what all of us can do. And I'm not diminishing Brian just because he's not a songwriter, it's harder to pinpoint, but especially Noah and Dave in terms of just being songwriters and innovators. And so from that perspective, I was so proud and really psyched.
But on the other hand, I wanted to be doing it too. I didn't really have as much of an understanding of what was wrong. I felt it was like, What's wrong with me that I'm not part of this? That was more the question, which I don't think was the right question to be asking. I think that that was the question was the problem. That was the weight of the thing I had to be grappling with.
I think from the moment I heard [the songs live at South Street Seaport in New York], I knew. It wasn't a matter of knowing how successful it was going to be, but there was something next-level transcendent about it that felt new and exciting, to me, in the context of our band.
There was a gutting element of just being like, I fucking really want to be doing this right now. What's my hang-up that I'm more focused on all these negative fears? Again, going back to what the record is about, you look at a situation and most of the things that you see are everything that's wrong. When you see that in yourself, it can be like an impossible maze to get through.
That was the thing I was grappling with at that time, in the context of trying to make music with people who were trying to collaborate in a positive way. Rather than being able to tune out all the sort of like, "I'm not good enough." "Fuck, this part's really bad" or whatever the thing was, to just focus on the stuff that I knew actually and, in hindsight, know that I was really capable of. All I heard, at that time in my life, was just a lot of negative thinking.
CP: That's so interesting too because "Feels" and "Strawberry Jam" are also incredibly well received.
JD: Oh, I love those records. I'm proud of both those records but "Strawberry Jam" I am in some ways extra proud of. And I listen to it and hear how it sounds and know how much of a role I played in that, and what the energy of the time was and kind of what was going through it. I'm amazed at how little of that I understood at the time.
And like not just [how] little of it, it was like a negative version of that. When we were working on that record in the studio, there were days I thought I should just leave. I was like, I should just let these guys do this. I'm getting in the way, I'm making this hard. That's not what was happening. I mean, the only degree to which that was happening was that I was spending time thinking about it. But the reality of what I actually was doing, when I was doing it, was stuff that I'm really psyched about and makes that record something I am really proud of.
There's a certain helplessness that I felt in terms of what creativity was to me, like I just didn't feel like I had any control over it. And I think that's the thing that, going into "Centipede Hz," sort of what I've been learning and teaching myself through that process, and up through finishing "Sleep Cycle," it was getting out of that way of thinking and really just focusing on what's possible, and what am I really doing—it's just a really different way of thinking.
CP: Is that what led to you taking a break you think?
JD: At "Merriweather"? Yeah. I was in a really mentally unhealthy place. I couldn't see anything positive in what I contributed as a person, not just in music, just as a human being. A lot of pain around the death of my father, which had just been like they year before that.
That was sort of, in a way, the catalyst to push me to this place of feeling really hopeless. I was grappling with a type of negative thinking that was so overwhelming and so outwardly visible to other people, it was genuinely dysfunctional.
Most people in my life, I think, felt the sense of there's only so far that trying to be supportive, whatever that meant, whether that meant being sympathetic or trying to be helpful or trying to encourage—whatever different technique that somebody came up—to a lot of people there seemed to be this point where it's, you have to make a choice for yourself to move in a different direction or do something different.
That was clearly so overwhelming to me at that time. The only way I got through the process of recording "Strawberry Jam" is that the songs were already written for the most part. Most of the things that went into that record had already been made, so it was more just a matter of executing it and a certain amount of in-studio creativity. Even within that, I did some stuff on the record that came up in the moment that everyone was psyched about or that we changed at the last minute, but for the most it was already there. I think that if I had tried to go into a brand new writing process at that point, it wasn't—Yeah, I just wasn't very functional in that regard to that point.
This interview has been edited and condensed.