Before Dan Deacon moved to Baltimore from New York in 2004, the aspiring musician burned compilations of his home recordings onto blank discs to distribute at shows. He never viewed them as actual albums.
"It was more just like, 'Oh, let me see how much I can fit on a CD-R, and I'll try to sell it at the merch table,'" Deacon said on the phone recently. "When I got out of school and I moved to Baltimore, my entire life changed in a very metamorphosis kind of way."
Released in May 2007 by Washington's Carpark Records, "Spiderman of the Rings" was Deacon's first full-length album as a Baltimore resident, and essentially the starting point of his career.
Before touring with Arcade Fire and Miley Cyrus, before playing Carnegie Hall and NPR's Tiny Desk Concert, before scoring a Francis Ford Coppola film, there was "Spiderman," a meticulously composed, nine-track expression of digital absurdity and exuberance. When Deacon toured the country in support of it, he cemented his status as a must-see live act. He didn't just perform the off-kilter, maximalist party songs, but played ringleader to sweaty, choreographed dance-offs between audiences.
Dan Deacon first heard the term "stress addiction" a few years ago, and the Baltimore-based experimental-pop artist wondered aloud if it applied to his own life. Nearby, the former Ponytail drummer Jeremy Hyman looked back in disbelief.
"Spiderman" is also a quintessential Baltimore album — audio documentation of Deacon and his creative cohorts, the Wham City collective, cultivating a new underground arts scene from the Copycat Building and using it as their playground for music, comedy, theater and whatever else they could imagine on a budget.
"Like 'The Little Rascals' on mescaline" is how Deacon, a West Babylon, N.Y., native, describes the time now, before clarifying, with a chuckle, that he's never tried mescaline or been a member of "The Little Rascals." Still, you get the point.
Late last month, in celebration of the album's 10th anniversary, Carpark re-released "Spiderman" along with, for the first time, "Ultimate Reality," the soundtrack Deacon made for a 2007 video project he did with Jimmy Joe Roche and Jeremy Hyman. In the following conversation, which has been edited and condensed, Deacon looks back at the "Spiderman" era and also talks about what's next, including his next album and the score for Theo Anthony's new Baltimore documentary, "Rat Film," due Oct. 13 via Domino Soundtracks.
What was the process like when it came to put together this "Spiderman of the Rings" re-release?
You never want to spend too much time thinking about what already transpired. You always want to try and think about a fresh context. But I don't know, "Spiderman of the Rings" was a real, obviously turning point for me in my life. It changed the way that I thought about music and the way music could be. It opened my music up to so many more people. It's hard not to think about it.
Oh, I'm the wrong person to ask. Someone who makes something always sees the flaws of it, and more and more flaws come throughout the years. Now the flaws are sort of endearing, and I like them. It's nice to sit back and think about writing the music. I was living in the Copycat [Building] at the time, and I didn't have a computer, so I would go and use my roommate's computer when he was working. … Then I'd burn a CD of whatever I worked on so I could listen to it on a CD player in my room while he was using his room, and then I would practice to that. When he went back to work, I would alter the files.
Well I can't, so I'm going to say no, I wouldn't [laughs]. Yeah, of course. But that's sort of the point of making an album: At some point you have to finish it and then move on to the next one. You can sit in your bedroom and tweak and mix forever. It's super fun. It's why I like doing it. You can always loop a section or see if another voice can be there or double it on another instrument or strip it back. But at some point, it has to be done. That, to me, is the hardest part.
How much has Baltimore changed in your mind, compared to the "Spiderman" days?
It's very different. Ten years is a very long time. I don't know, because my moving here came with an ignorance to the city. But to me, the city has changed, and I have changed in the city and the city has changed me. But it's also really nice to see the cycles of the way scenes and systems work. The only thing that I look back on and be like, "Oh, those were the 'good ol' days,'" there were just many more opportunities to play in warehouses and that's changed quite a bit. That's a shame, because those spaces were really incredible.
A warehouse fire that killed at least 36 people this month in a multi-use arts space in Oakland, Calif., and the shuttering of the Bell Foundry have thrust Baltimore's existing-in-the-shadows, do-it-yourself (DIY) music scene into the light. Artists, their supporters and city officials agree the debate around such spaces is complicated, with issues involving public safety, affordable housing, the value of artists and the appeal these facilities have, despite a sometimes-questionable legal
Looking forward, how did you get involved with "Rat Film"?
It was the perfect timing for me. I had just finished [the album] "Gliss Riffer," and wrapped up touring it. I had been wanting to work on a record that fits more of the "experimental" side of my work. But I'm always so focused on putting out albums. I love putting out albums that I can perform live at my shows. My shows have a certain environment, so I write music that I think can be put into that environment — maybe to a fault. Maybe I should experiment with the show more.
But when Theo approached me about the score, I was like, "This is perfect." The film started as a short and it just kept expanding, and shifting in different ways. He was like, "It's about rats, but it's not really about rats at all." I was like, "I'm sold! A movie about rats but it's not really about rats at all? I'm in!" [laughs] But just everything he was saying and how it was unfolding, seeing the sketches of what the idea would be, just really intrigued me. I could tell it was going to be a large, consuming project but it felt like the film was going to have an energy behind it. I sort of dove in head first and am really glad I did because it really did open up a lot of passages in my mind that had been covered in cobwebs and got me thinking about music differently, and encouraged me to set up a studio in my home.
What itch did it scratch creatively that you hadn't tapped into recently?
I knew it wasn't going to be psychedelic party music, but it also wasn't giving me such a clear-cut, on-the-nose, "we need tension here" and "this needs to be scary." It was much more abstract and required more of me to put a tone to it. It was more challenging in that respect, but it was also more fun and more rewarding. It wasn't a traditional scoring process. Theo was open to just about everything. I wouldn't sit down and watch the film, and write while I'm watching it. I'd just watch everything he gave me and I would just write as I was inspired with whatever came to my head after the fact.
There's another big project, a collaboration, that I'm pretty excited about getting announced soon. At this point, I'm in the early stages of the middle of the next Dan Deacon album. After that, I have no idea, which I guess is the exciting part.
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