Q&A with Dan Deacon
Dan Deacon on the 10th anniversary of "Spiderman of the Rings" and "Ultimate Reality," the state of DIY, and more
Full disclosure: The last time I saw Dan Deacon I hugged him. It's not worth detailing in full, but here are the basics: He was DJing the last Best of Baltimore party, I was drunk, and he said some nice and important things to the entire crowd about the end of City Paper that everybody on staff appreciated.
It was also meaningful that, in the midst of prepping the record release of his soundtrack for Theo Anthony's "Rat Film" (out Oct. 13), releasing a 10th anniversary reissue of "Spiderman of the Rings" (released Aug. 25), and planning a show at 2640 Space where he and a 30-person ensemble will be performing "Spiderman of the Rings" and the experimental film "Ultimate Reality" in their entirety on Oct. 13, he took the time to DJ our little farewell soiree.
"Spiderman of the Rings" was Deacon's fourth album, but it was his first to be reviewed by national publications, including Pitchfork at the height of its taste-making power, helping to make him a national figure of American DIY in the mid-2000s.
It was a pretty interesting time for Baltimore's music scene, with acts like Deacon, Future Islands, Beach House, Double Dagger, and Ponytail, just to name a few, either in their nascent stages or really starting to hit the ground running. Ahead of the 2640 show, I talked with Deacon on the phone to get his reflections on that time and talk about the anniversaries of "Spiderman of the Rings" and "Ultimate Reality," his relationship with the press, the state of DIY, the influence of MySpace, changes in technology, and so much more. (Brandon Weigel)
City Paper: To mark the anniversary of "Spiderman of the Rings," on your Facebook page, you posted this picture from the release show that was taken by former City Paper photographer Frank Hamilton. It seemed like a really perfect distillation of that time in Baltimore, and I was just wondering what your thoughts were when you came across it again and what memories you had?
Dan Deacon: I remember thinking this is before I had a terribly bad back, and you can see why I developed one over the years. No, I don't know. This whole process has really been nice, like trying to find the original files, because I originally wanted to remaster it, but they're all lost, because I didn't think the record was—I didn't understand how the music industry worked at all, I guess I still don't, but I had no idea then. I just figured I'd have this to sell at shows. I didn't think anyone would hear it outside of that context. And I was a pretty crappy archivist, but I also didn't own a computer or a microphone, so everything I had to make the record was borrowed. And I didn't think, "Oh, I should get a hard drive so I can have these files, 'cause this isn't even my computer."
So trying to find them and going through every single external hard drive that I have and taking apart dead laptops and trying to read those hard drives, I found so much stuff from that period of time that I had forgotten about, especially songs that I've never released. It just really got me thinking about how different my music's become in the last 10 years and how the technology that was available to me really changed and shaped that.
And I was thinking about MySpace, like how shows were booked and promoted through MySpace, and how different MySpace is and was structured [compared] to current social media. I think there's a reason why there was a real boom in the emergence of the American DIY in the mid-2000s. I think a lot of it has to do with the side effects of people knowing how to navigate MySpace to do that, and that it was laid out for it. I think there's a reason why it changed other social media to be more closed networks.
That photo in particular, it definitely brought back a lot of memories, there's a lot of familiar faces in that photo, like Chester [Gwazda], who's a long-time collaborator, and Jimmy [Joe Roche], another long-time collaborator. I think how I used to play on the floor, and now I play on the stage. It was a very blissfully ignorant time, and I look back on it with fondness, for sure.
CP: You also posted a pretty long, heartfelt note about the anniversary. In it, you said this album "completely changed my life in every possible way." Tell me more about that. How did it change your life?
DD: Well, I was pretty broke at the time and just assumed I would always be and was fine with that. But this became like an actual job. Before this record, I didn't have even an ID. I didn't have a phone. I didn't have a bank account. I didn't have a credit card. I tended to only have whatever money I made that day. And this record changed that. I needed a passport. And I needed to do interviews on the road, so I had to get a phone. I had to get a bank account.
Actually, I got my passport the day before my first European tour. I got it the day before the Virgin Music Festival at Pimlico, and then immediately after that got on a plane and flew to the U.K., which was my first time on a plane in years. I was so used to touring on a Greyhound bus. Up until March of 2007, right before "Spiderman of the Rings" came out, I was on tour with four other Baltimore, Wham City bands, and we were in a van that didn't even have seats bolted to the floor. When the brakes would get hit, all the gear would push the back row of seats into the middle row of seats. We had to sit with all of our knees interlocked, so we would just be kneeing ourselves in the crotch again and again just by the sheer inertia of equipment. And now I'm sitting on an airplane. So it was a pretty big shift.
I was starting to play clubs that had real PAs. I could mix a record on speakers instead of on the laptop speakers or headphones, because I didn't own speakers. Everything started to be different. It was like living in an insane dream. My life was really weird, and it continues to be and I'm very thankful for that.
CP: It sounds like being thrust into that could be equal parts terrifying and exciting. Which was it?
DD: Well, it was both. I was convinced the world was gonna end in 2012, and I was always of the philosophy that we should just go out partying. So I sort of lived that absurdist, nihilist lifestyle, which was, looking back, really stupid. I was definitely not facing a lot of things in my life that I should have. I really didn't see a lot of the music as escapism, but then I started to see the value in escapism and why it was there, and then that sort of started bringing more meaning for me into my own music and trying to have some sort of greater subtext rather than just it be surface.
I didn't even know that Pitchfork existed, let alone the reach they had, and other music sites of the same size. I was just so used to only hearing a band if a friend told me about them or if I saw them. So the idea of people reading a review and then deciding about if they were going to listen to it based on the review—also, since it was my first [big] record, I was excited to get reviewed. I'd never gotten reviews before. But I had to stop immediately, they were all horrible. Even if they liked the record, almost every single one would start off talking about how I was overweight or the clothes I dressed in—definitely how I was overweight and bald. I just kept seeing the horrible nature of music journalism creating these characters. And I just kept thinking like: "You're not even talking about the instrumentation or the sounds at all. This isn't music journalism, this is celebrity journalism for people who aren't even close to being celebrities. Like, what the fuck does this have to do with anything?" And it made me really disenfranchised with trying to reach a larger audience, because that seemed to be the way to do it, was through music journalism. I've always had a challenge when it comes to my own image and my body image. The way that music journalism highlighted that and amplified it in a very middle school playground kind of way, I just couldn't fucking deal. To this day, I never read any of my own reviews or any press. I just have to avoid them like the plague.
CP: It seems, even just in the last 10 years, that things have changed. It's hard to imagine that happening now.
DD: Well, that's great to hear. [laughs] I remember people talking about it on "America," which came out in 2012, and people being like, Yeah, they just love mentioning how you're overweight. They must have a gigantic thesaurus for fat people, because they've used every fucking one they've got for you. [laughs]
CP: I didn't remember that. That sucks. That's crazy.
DD: But it's also a drop in the bucket compared to what, I'm sure, every female musician must face and how anyone who's outside—I don't know, people just are obsessed with talking about other people's bodies, and that's what was so confusing to me.
When you said it could be cool and sucky at the same time, that was the main part, was just seeing how the press worked and understanding that some people were really interested in helping people discover music that they supported and other people were interested in clicks. And I had no idea how that world worked, and I just wasn't familiar with the idea that someone could be interviewing you even if they don't like it. They might be interviewing you because they don't like it. And I was pretty naive.
I was also disenfranchised with how people seemed to latch onto certain things. I got too sensitive about that for sure. I would hate when anyone would call the music "wacky." "Wacky," to me, was synonymous with insincere or stupid, and I just couldn't deal with it at all. I feel like it really went on to pull a lot of myself out of my own music. I rebelled against that, and I just shouldn't have listened. And I don't think it was until "Gliss Riffer" that I went back into that mindset of not worrying about—because the whole time I was making "Spiderman of the Rings" I didn't care, I wasn't worried, I wasn't thinking about what anyone was going to think other than the people in the room watching it.
And I was well aware that you can't please everyone in the room. You just try to win over the room in general. And you try to put on the best show you have—sometimes there's good shows, and sometimes there's bad shows. And I guess it's the same thing for recorded music. I either wish I had avoided the press entirely or I engaged in it and had any sort of dialogue. I really want to start this website called The Reviewer Review, where you can follow the consistency of a critic. And not in a trolling sort of way, more just trying to be like, Who can I actually trust? What are their tastes? You've got someone reviewing this record, which is this weird electronic-pop record, and then they're reviewing this doom metal record the next week, and now they're reviewing this singer-songwriter record. Are they just getting assigned these records? Or do they really have this diverse taste? And what are their tastes? I'm surprised there isn't an aggregate site for that at all.
CP: You mentioned there were things you weren't facing at that time. What were those?
DD: I was still just losing my mind about my mom dying towards the end of high school. And then I immediately went to college and started—I don't know, I always went home for the holidays and stuff like that, but I was definitely distant. And I really wish I wasn't. I didn't deal with that emotionally in any capacity. Music was a great way for me to get out of my head. To sit down at a computer and just riff, the same way that someone would with a sketchbook or that someone might go out and skateboard, it was the thing I did for hours every day to just meditate. It became an obsession. I would write music every waking hour, and then when I wasn't making it would be performing it, and when I wasn't doing that I was probably going to the Mt. Royal Tavern and getting wasted.
I do think, largely, the interview process really helped me—because you get asked questions about yourself constantly, every day when you have a record that reaches some sort of success. And it made me confront a lot of things about myself and think about myself and where I was. I wasn't broke anymore. I was in a position where I could help other members of my family the way that they had helped me.
I think a lot of people in their early 20s are like, "What is my life?" But I think a lot of it was just, and it's still a large theme in my work, thinking about how to process death and dying and what it means to see someone dying not as such a negative thing the way that our current culture views it.
CP: You touched on this earlier, you thought all the files were gone, but now it seems like you've found some?
DD: I don't have any of the recording files, like all the vocal files. I have all the Reason files, which are like the drum beats and the synths. That's why I couldn't remix the record. But I could do it live, and that's how this show came about, is finding these files, and then being like, one, seeing them and being like, "Wow, this is crazy. 'Snake Mistakes' is three channels. How is that possible?" A song on "Gliss Riffer" is, minimum, 48 channels of audio. I couldn't even imagine how I did this. Again, that doesn't count the vocals, because I don't have the vocal session, but I can't imagine I did more than two layers of vocals.
I just kept thinking how maximalist my music had become, and I didn't even remember the mindset of writing like I used to. And going through all these files really opened up a lot of sections of my brain. None of them were titled, like, 'Snake Mistakes.' They would be all a weird series of numbers and then some working title. So I had to open up thousands and thousands of these songs, some of them just like a one-second loop and others fully-formed songs or like 20-minute pieces that just ended up not going anywhere. And I'd go through, again, probably a thousand of them across all the different hard drives, until I would find the nine that made up "Spiderman of the Rings." The only one that was missing was the last track, 'Jimmy Joe Roche.' I have no idea what it was initially titled, but for some reason it's the only one lost to time. I don't know how that happened. Luckily, it's a pretty simple piece, so we can transcribe it.
CP: There's something about the impermanence of it, like someone who's lost old pictures or something. There's an interesting parallel there.
DD: At the time, music was ephemeral to me. It was made to be heard in the room, and if you didn't hear it in the room, it didn't make sense to you. That's what music was. Again, going back to MySpace and the technology of the time, you could have eight photos online. Videos were basically five squares, you couldn't see or hear anything. The physical technology of taking the photos—like almost everyone in the room was snapping pictures. But where were they storing them? There was no online storage space and they were using these tiny SD cards, probably deleting photos constantly to just save new ones. Also, every time that they got a new computer or something that old hard drive became antiquated. If you look back at pre-cloud storage or pre-iPhone or even before Flickr allowed you to have more photos or Facebook allowed unlimited photos, people weren't really archiving. It was a simultaneous massive abundance of digital material and no way to save it. It's almost like the early 2000s predated Snapchat because you would take a photo you'd put it up, and by the very nature of it you'd have to take it down if you wanted to show anybody anything else.
It's not like MySpace archived your wall or anything like that. It was like a message board you had to post on and take down and put other things on. You could only have a couple of MP3s up at a time, and if you wanted to put a new one up you had to take an old one down. Everything about it was based upon the limits of storage that you had, either online or physically. There was no standard for proprietary hardware and card readers, and all of that shit. Everything about it made that era, I think, in many ways a very under-documented time compared to just a few years later, and even a few years before.
Because at least a few years before people were like, I have this camcorder, and I record every show with my camcorder. Or I have this film camera and I take great pictures with it because I know how to use it and I know how to get it processed. A couple of years later it was like, I got this new camera and it takes these great digital photos, and I store them on this little chip, and I need to put them in this little box, and that hooks up to my computer and maybe it works, but it only holds about 10 photos, so I delete it. And the same with video. Everything was sort of changing. I think I approached what I was making the same way, because I wasn't thinking about an audience, and again, it was largely a hobby. And a way to spend time and to discover self and to have a voice other than my spoken one. I didn't think about having an archive, it just didn't make any sense. And again, I thought math was gonna be gone by now. I didn't think we would have human beings on the planet, so I was definitely thinking in a different mindset.
CP: You described in your note, and also earlier, this "optimistic nihilism" that you had about DIY in 2007. And now here we are in Baltimore where spaces are getting shut down. There's the Crown, which is going nearly seven days a week, but it seems a lot of places have closed. What are your feelings about DIY now? Does it lean more toward nihilism? Or is it something else altogether?
DD: No, I just think it's different. And I think it's important to remember that the progression of culture is always moving forward. Looking back at 10 years ago, it's an insanely different time, especially if we're gonna talk specifically in regards to spaces and the city's tolerance of them.
We can use the closing of the City Paper as the same example. There's this vanishing middle of almost everything, and I feel like music and arts are a good indicator of what's to come. So I do definitely worry about this vanishing middle and this vanishing ability for people to have shows freely and comfortably and, despite what the city might think, safely in spaces that aren't a Panera Bread with a stage. But it's within those conditions that new subcultures arise and new subcultures grow. It's just how it happens.
There's been people that have been having the equivalent of punk shows since the times of ancient Egypt. It just happens. People rail against the cage you put around them. I don't want to talk about it too much, because one of the blissfully ignorant things was that we thought: "Oh, the cops and the fire department aren't reading the paper. They don't know." And then all the sudden things like Google Alerts came out, and it became difficult to discuss shows.
I remember when we first moved in and I was putting Wham City and the address of the Copycat all over the flier. I even taped to the police car outside UB, being like "They don't fucking give a shit! It doesn't matter." And they largely didn't, for years. Same with shows at—I don't feel like I can say certain spaces anymore, just because I worry about them going to some sort of database, which is creepy and horrifying.
But also I think the best way you can have a scene is to take it off the internet. Like I love a paper flier, and I love a physical flier, and it's important to remember, again, the internet was very different. It was a much more open internet. Facebook is a closed loop, it's very hard to find things that are outside of your immediate—what the algorithms decide that you're going to see or don't see, and what your circle of friends are discussing. That's known, and it's designed like that to make you go to it even more. It's just as true for the arts and for shows and for spaces you're aware about. There's always gonna be people, especially kids, who are bored at night and want something to do, and if they can't find it they're gonna create it. And I don't think that's gonna go away at any time, for any reason.
CP: I read an interview of yours in Pop Matters related to the anniversary, and you seemed to lament how people would come to your shows in those days and they would be totally fucked up. You said: "I realized that I didn't want my music to be purely escapist. I wanted it to be something more. It couldn't just be a bowl of candy at the party." Are there parts of this time in your career that you look back on and maybe have negative feelings about?
DD: Of course. I think if anyone were to reflect on 10 years of their life, they'd be like, [uptight nerd voice:] "Hm yeah, look at that." [laughs] It's a decade of my life! I'd be a complete liar if I was like: "Everything was amazing. Every choice I made was perfect and everything I did was good."
Even in regards to that, that was my rejection of the proto beginnings of EDM. I'd play a show with
But it also just allowed me to maintain being the artist that I was. I didn't want to be a DJ, and I didn't know how to be a DJ, and I wasn't a DJ, and I'm still not a DJ. Luckily, I think because of that, that constant dialogue about it also amplified the fact that I really wanted to be a composer. And I feel like that helped my music reach people like So Percussion and the Kronos Quartet, and that really helped go down that path, which has been really fruitful.
So I look back at that time, and I don't know of a way how I could have avoided it. I was making electronic music right when, I don't know, the powers that be were deciding electronic music was going to be treated the same way as rock or hip-hop or country, that it was gonna be, finally, a viable genre that they could promote to the masses. And I just didn't want to be a part of it in any capacity. I look back sometimes and wonder, Could I have been like the Mr. Bungle of that scene for kids who wanted to find stuff that was not—and maybe I still was, I don't know.
It was weird, because I didn't fit in with that scene at all, but I also didn't really fit with the Animal Collective, Black Dice, New York scene. It was just electronic music that didn't really fit, and that's how, in many ways, I still feel. I'm not a DJ. If I play a show with someone like Bassnectar, I might as well be the guy with the acoustic guitar. But if I play a show with, we'll go back to Animal Collective, it's a super-hyper, dense dance party that doesn't make sense in that context. I think my whole career has been trying to find what crack I can slip between and hope to grow in.
CP: In '07, you had "Spiderman of the Rings," it was taking off. So how did that lead to releasing the DVD for "Ultimate Reality," a collaboration with your good friend Jimmy Joe Roche?
DD: We had made it and performed it at the first Whartscape. And then we did a show at the Walters, where it was like a Wham City night at the Walters, headlined by "Ultimate Reality." I can't remember what year that was. I think all this was 2006. I don't remember what our initial plan was, other than it was fun to make and it was a cool collaboration and we did it once in New York and another time in D.C., at the Corcoran Gallery.
But we didn't really perform it out that much, and then after the success of "Spiderman of the Rings," I was already working on "Bromst," I had half the tracks written for that. But I knew these tracks weren't going to go on that record, and Jimmy had already compiled this incredible video. So Todd [Hyman of Carpark Records] was open to the DVD, and the most amazing part about it, and he was right, he was like, "I don't think anyone's gonna buy this DVD, but I think it would be cool to make." And he was 100 percent right. [laughs]. People don't really buy video-art DVDs.
For a brief period of time Netflix had it, back when Netflix was DVDs. They used to buy copies of it. They would even describe it as like "collages of Arnold Schwarzenegger films such as 'Predator' and 'Terminator 2.'" And I was just like: "What? How can you say that? This is completely illegal, everything about this release is illegal." And then I started realizing that you could rent DVDs from Netflix and just report them lost in the mail, so I just kept posting on MySpace: "'Ultimate Reality' is on Netflix. Just get Netflix to buy it and then don't return it and say it got lost in the mail." And then of course Netflix stopped carrying it.
But yeah, that was definitely a proto-"Bromst," because that was my first time writing for other people since college. And working with Kevin O'Meara and Jeremy Hyman really opened up my whole brain in thinking about writing for percussion in very different ways. I was always obsessed with percussion-heavy bands, especially the Boredoms or Lightning Bolt, but I was confined to the speakers that were at the places I was playing. That's why most of the drums on "Spiderman of the Rings" are very blown out, distorted sounding drums, 'cause that's how they were going to sound coming out of the speakers anyway, and if I could square wave them, they'd get a little louder.
Now I was playing good systems and having access to PAs, so hearing live drums in that context, on the "Ultimate Reality" tour, was very illuminating. That's where I was trying out a lot of new material for "Bromst" and finished the record shortly after that came out, or right before the tour? I can't remember, my history is hazy. That was also the first time I worked with Chester Gwazda. Chester recorded the drums for that session and then he went on to help me engineer and produce both "Bromst" and "America." So it was the beginning of a large transition for me, musically, like a period of time that I would say started with "Ultimate Reality" and ended with "America," where I was trying to write larger and larger and more and more dense pieces that were a mixture of electronic and acoustic instruments.
CP: You're playing both at 2640 on Oct. 13. I was curious—I looked at your schedule and this is only a one-time show, right?
CP: Was there a reason for not trying to tour with it or just making it a one-off?
DD: Well, yeah. There's a number of reasons. One, it didn't come together until about last month. Finding a day that would work with my schedule and the crew's schedule, and then, like you said, it was extremely hard to find the right venue in Baltimore. I love the Ottobar, but the Ottobar is not the venue for this show. Nor is Soundstage. I wanted to do it in a DIY space, all these songs were written to be played in DIY spaces. This is the first date that we could find that 2640 had open. They've got a pretty busy calendar of events both private and public.
This is gonna sound terrible, I wanted to do it only in Baltimore. I didn't care about bringing it to New York. This album, to me, it's very much a time capsule for my time in Baltimore. And looking back, I'm sure a lot of people who were at those early shows—I don't know how many of them still live here. Because you know so many people, after college, immediately move to cities like New York or L.A., and I fucking hate that, it drives me insane.
Plus, if I did it here, I could do it exactly how we would want to envision it, and that's luckily how we're doing it. It's gonna be about a 30-person ensemble and I'm super excited. Mind on Fire is going to be bringing a large winds and strings section, and I'm playing with long-time collaborators Jeremy and Kevin on the drums, and Rich O'Meara on the mallets, a large horn section of people throughout the community. And trying to do that elsewhere, as much as it would be great, but it's definitely a one-time thing.
It's fun to think that we're gonna realize these songs in a very different and new context 10 years later, in sort of a way I've always wanted to hear them. They weren't written like that originally. The reason why I wrote music for a computer is 'cause a computer could play it. I don't play guitar, I don't play piano. And I write music because it was fun to listen to, and the computer would play it back for me. That's the best part about making music is getting to hear it. When you can hear it by it being realized and performed by another musician, especially one of great skill, it's insanely rewarding. So I'm really excited to do this big ensemble show in Baltimore. I haven't done in awhile, and I think it's gonna be a cool night.
CP: You're in this period of reflection with the anniversary, and I was wondering, what are your thoughts on life as a Baltimorean in these last 10 years and your experience in the city?
DD: Oh, I can't imagine it having been anywhere else. It's slightly impossible. It's like saying, What if I was born in the 1550s or something? I really love it here. I love seeing how the scene is becoming so much more inclusive and growing and just more aware of how large the city is. There's also things that are still frustrating—to walk by large vacant buildings that have been vacant for the last 10 years that could easily have been rented and they're just not because some fucking out-of-state slumlord would rather just speculate on them. That is still insanely frustrating.
It all sounds cliche, but there's a beauty here that's not in any other city, and I'm very thankful to have been able to live and to be able to live here and continue to live here.
The Crown, I think, has been one of the most important things that's happened to this city in a long time. I remember when the Talking Head closed and how terrible that was, and looking back, the Talking Head was great, but The Crown is important. Spaces like The Crown are vital. And I'm excited to see, hopefully, more spaces like that pop up throughout the city that aren't just for one particular demographic but for a spectrum of people. That's something that's definitely happened in the last few years in Baltimore that you look back on, and it's great when I go to a show now, to feel that it's both a crowd full of people that I've never seen before and a crowd full people that I'm friends with. People always tell me how small Baltimore is, I'm like, "You're fucking crazy." Baltimore is not small in any capacity. [laughs] Quit the bullshit. Your particular scene or clique might be real small, but the city's fucking huge.
CP: I think that's it for me. Anything else you'd like to add?
DD: No, I can't think of anything else, other than just saying thanks to anybody from that time 10 years ago that gave my weird music a chance. I'm sure the PA I was playing out of sounded like shit and I was a psychopath, and I appreciate you taking the time to listen.