Musician Dan Deacon discusses the creation of his new album titled "Mystic Familiar" which took five years to create.
Chaos permeates much of Dan Deacon’s life. Inside his Baltimore home studio, it appears in subtle bursts: a tangle of cables linking his computer, synthesizers and other equipment together. When he opens the music software Ableton on his laptop to demonstrate how he built a key transitional moment in the “Arp” suite — a three-movement middle section of “Mystic Familiar," on his new album which came out Jan. 31 — it took a few times before the many tracks actually synced into an uninterrupted song.
“Total bastard, what are you doing to me? You’re embarrassing me,” he said to his set-up, his joking agitation (humor also heavily figures into his work) masking light frustration.
Understanding how Deacon makes music is confusing enough for a trained musician, let alone those totally unfamiliar with the digital technology he largely taught himself. His explanations broke his process down in ways non-musicians can understand, if only slightly.
“This is called a semi-modular synthesizer,” he explained, pointing to one of the cable-strewn digital boxes he plays. “This one, you can turn it on and play it without any patch [or sound made out of pre-programmed filters, samples and/or oscillators] at all. You could also patch it to get a new sound. So I fell in love with this patch that I was working with, and what I was doing was feeding the drums into the synth to give it this wave shape, which is called ‘envelope following.' You can kind of hear it if we go back to the beginning."
Deacon then moves back to the beginning, where the patch’s fast-moving melody indicates how the drums sync up when introduced. Later, he’ll show how a high-pitched saxophone passage, from Andrew Bernstein of local instrumental ensemble Horse Lords, adds an extra melodic layer to string one building crescendo into a lower, droney passage.
If all of this still sounds confusing, don’t worry. We got a video (above) that demonstrates a little more of what the always affable Deacon explained. And if you’re confused beyond that, don’t worry. That’s still part of the chaos that marked much of Deacon’s work in his adopted hometown.
In 2004, the Long Island native moved with some friends to the CopyCat Building in Station North and, without Internet or much money, cobbled together what would become the wildly DIY Wham City collective. As a solo artist, he built his fame on the strength of raucous live shows, where he often plays an elaborate set-up on ground level as the crowd swells around him. The musical signature he honed over 17 years, four solo studio records (not including the 2003 CD-R release “Meetle Mice,” re-released on vinyl in 2011) and myriad other projects mixes erratic synthesizer blips and heavily modulated vocals into transcendent compositions.
This disorder led to critical acclaim and sharing stages and studios with acts as varied as Arcade Fire, Miley Cyrus, the Baltimore Symphony orchestra and even theremin-playing rats. It also brought him some grief until, after the loss of a serious relationship and other major life changes prompted him to begin therapy and meditation, he learned to accept his anxious tendencies and its impact on his music. For instance, the title “Mystic Familiar” relates to how his lyrics and vocal modulation depersonalized his voice and made exploring the album’s “concepts of non-judgmental thinking and self-compassion” easier.
“The same way I was trying to fight my anxiety, hoping it would go away, it’s like fighting the ocean,” Deacon said. “The the ocean is going to win every time. You can’t fight the ocean. But once you realize that you can enjoy the ocean, you can swim in it, you can ride the waves, you can let it pull you and you can flow with it. It doesn’t become a struggle anymore.”
If he struggled with giving himself props where they’re due, Deacon has no problem talking about his city straightforwardly. He’s unreserved in his praise of local musicians like Abdu Ali and Butch Dawson who continue the legacy of fearless DIY creativity and show organization that Deacon helped cultivate with Wham City. He pulls no punches when admonishing the endemic “corruption and greed” in the city, as well as the “bullshit joke of a task force” that the Mayor’s office assembled after the Ghost Ship warehouse fire.
Overall, he’s unabashed in his love of Baltimore’s music culture, even as the spotlight on it shines less brightly since his time commanding it.
“What I like about Baltimore is that it often gets overlooked, and that overlooking forces the people inside of it to create without a lens of scrutiny,” he said. “The work that gets made here is from a real, true and personal point of view.”