Dan Deacon's No Longer Making Music Like He's Trying to Run Out of a Burning Building
We talk to the Baltimore musician about the new LP and Bill Murray, plus listen to Anamanaguchi's exclusive remix of "Feel the Lightning."
"I wish I could stay here feeling forever before I must go" Dan Deacon sings on "Feel the Lightning," the lead single off his new album, Gliss Riffer. The clarity of the vocals and sentiment here is pretty disarming. When I first heard and interviewed Deacon a decade ago he was living at the Copycat Building, a former manufacturing warehouse turned free-wheeling artists hive located a few blocks from Baltimore's train station. There, Deacon and like-minded friends he met at Purchase Colleges in New York, nurtured their Wham City collective, a shambolic assortment of musicians, visual and performance artists, filmmakers, writers, comedians, designers, and general mayhem-makers, whose seriocomic approach to art making didn't harbor the grudges that might separate Hollywood movies of the 80s from avant-garde composers of the 60s. You liked what you liked.
Deacon's hyperactive music often felt like the most confident example of this open-minded restlessness: his live shows sincerely proved electro-acoustic experimentation could be as immediately appealing as bubblegum pop. Deacon spent the past decade whipping up rhythms and noise into a bubbling morass of vibrating energy, his vocals just another ricocheting sound in the sprawl. Deacon was Baltimore's canary in the indieground music coalmine of mid 2000s digital-native consumers, a solo electronic musician whose three-ring circus of a live set was equal parts hardcore pit, Animaniacs jamboree, and Living Theater experiential transformation. And on this album he's being downright meditative, following the above with "Wish we could change it to before we changed it, what did we know?" Gliss Riffer is a real suckerpunch of an album, where Deacon reveals himself evolving into a multimedia auteur in the Björk model: a sound artist who just happens to make dance-friendly, emotionally potent pop songs.
New York quartet Anamanaguchi spotlights Deacon's pop exuberance with its remix of "Feel the Lightning"—premiereing below—transforming it into a kaleidoscope of shimmering rhythms and swirling textures that puts a symphonic swell behind the song's contemplation. Noisey caught up with Deacon while he was in Baltimore working on the stage shows for his upcoming tour to talk Bill Murray, the intimacy of the new record, and overcoming with anxiety.
Noisey: It's been almost exactly 10 years since I first interviewed you at the Copycat Building, when you told me about that Greyhound bus tour that so informed your live set. I bring that up because touring has played no small part in your own creative story—the shaping of the early live show, America in part inspired by the miles you've logged touring. And I gather that you worked on Gliss Riffer in part while touring with Arcade Fire?
Dan Deacon: I did—there were several days where I was recording and mixing in hotel rooms. Bathrooms tended to be the best because they were the most isolated and they were smallest rooms and easiest to control. I would go and ask for as many extra blankets and pillows as they would give me. I would bring in the ironing board and set the computer up on that and the speakers on the sink. I'd hang comforters over the shower curtain to block some refraction and stack the pillows to avoid bass traps. It was fun.
Is there a relationship between touring and your own process? You still tour pretty healthily and the live experience of your music is a big part of how you interact and connect with your fans. Is that just the nature of being a working musician these days?
I started touring before I really had records. I had Meetle Mice and Silly Hat vs. Egale Hat, but those are student works that I couldn't play live. So I didn't even think about them as records. My live show was all material I hadn't recorded yet because I didn't have the means. So I feel like my sound was really informed from touring because after doing it so much I wanted to make a record that sounded like what I was doing live. That might be true for a lot of bands, but I think that's why it's so ingrained in my life—I never saw it as a recording project.
Has the material changed from your own perspective and experiences, as the spaces and the venues change? I mean, Baltimore warehouse space Floristree, even when overstuffed is not the Verizon Center or the Barclay's Center, where you played last fall.
The changing of scale definitely changes the way you think about sound. When I first started it was these raw spaces with these completely raw PAs and I was doing the best I could to get the loudest sounds out of them. And I'm not in that situation any more. I feel like this new record isn't as focused on the density of sound. When I first started working with nice PAs and venues that had good systems I was greedy kid in the candy store. I had this love affair with density because I could finally have it. And [for Gliss Riffer] it was fun to think, How can I write with restraint? How can I write with space?
I get the impression you think pretty critically about what you can do with your music—what your own expectations are of it. I don't mean commercially, more what it means for you. America had its political thoughtfulness, not in a Minor Threat or Dead Prez sort of way but in a way of taking stock of where we are, as a country and a populace. For you, what is Gliss Riffer exploring? Is it coming from an idea space or was it coming from wanting to work on things mostly by yourself again from a different place in your life?
I think the production approach really informed the narrative of the lyrics. I never really thought about having a stress addiction or problem with anxiety until working on this record. And I never thought of it as a negative thing. I always used to think, I work best when I'm trying to find my way out of a burning building. And that was main motivator and I realized that had replaced the fun part of making music or going on tour. I had imposed this stress on it to try to give added motivation when it wasn't needed. I became addicted to the release of the stress rather than the fun part of making music and touring. The large ensemble was completely impractical but I really enjoyed doing it. Playing on the floor was the same thing—when I first started it was fine. Tons of bands played on the floor, didn't matter. But when I was still doing it when venues and festivals were saying I couldn't and I was just doing it to prove a point, it became stressful. And I never realized it was.
And I started realizing that for a long time I had a hard time not feeling anxiety about going into the studio. Why am I so stressed? And I realized I was trying to get that same feeling—that I needed it to work. Luckily, toward the end of the process I saw this interview that Bill Murray did, where he says "You're the best at what you're doing when you're very, very relxaed." And that simple piece of advice blew my mind. I realized, I'm never relaxed. Never when I'm working or trying to work, which is most of the time. When I was in the studio it was fine, everything was awesome. But when I woke up in the morning I felt, What do I have to do? If I don't make it perfect today I'm not going to be able to buy groceries next year—like making an album is like applying for your job again. But that Murray clip was really inspiring and informed the philosophy I live by now—more like I did 10 years ago, when I was just touring and it was fun and I had nothing to lose.
Did this realization lead this album to be more personal? It feels intimate and personal, I don't mean in a confessional singer-songwriter way. And are you vocals cleaner on this album? That feels more personal as well.
It is more personal—that wasn't my intention, it just came out that way. And I started realizing that toward the end of the process. And the vocals, there's no pitch-shift pedal on it. I do pitch-shift but I use a varispeed technique, like the Beatles would do, record at a different speed and then line it up. The Chipmunks are also very well known for that. I still love vocal manipulations but I wanted the words to be clearer. I wanted people to understand the lyrics or at least have the chance to understand the lyrics. For a while I didn't care about the lyrics because I grew up not caring about lyrics. What I liked about Nirvana and the Boredoms was that I couldn't understand a word they were saying and I could just listen to the music and I liked the voice as an instrument.
You're using vocals both as sound and for their lyrical content in interesting ways here. In "Mind on Fire" there's that buried loop that seems to be repeating, "Happiness takes time / Time is my life / I have no time / Am I still alive," and that's a rhythmic component, but it kind of feels like that internal voice that tells you not to eat yellow snow as a kid but begins telling you other things a grown up. And that's a pretty reflective moment. Did songs start from an emotional place or a sound place for this record?
I used to write lyrics and come up with the vocal melodies live and just say gibberish. If you go back and listen to Spiderman of the Rings, like "Okie Dokie" or even "The Crystal Cat," they're just nonsense. I'm just trying to fill space with my voice. And every record after that has been the same thing except I replaced the gibberish with words. Starting with [America's] "True Thrush," that was the first record where I decided I'm going to write the lyrics in the studio and throw out whatever vocal melodies I have live. And that process informed this whole record.
Do you feel like you have an interest in lyrics now because you have something you want to say with them that maybe sound can't convey?
I really like having these psychedelic rants and lyrics can be that. I remember hearing this one Joanna Newsom song off The Milk Eyed-Mender and thinking these lyrics are awesome—what is this crazy story about this boat? I could so vividly imagine the scenario she was painting and I loved it. And I was listening to Dylan and "Subterranean Homesick Blues" came on and this ramble was more vividly absurd than a cartoon—again so easy to imagine. I know they're both amazing lyricists, but I guess that's why I found inspiration in them. And that's when I immediately started writing "When I was Done Dying." At first I was like, I'm going to make an all-folk record.
Because that wouldn't have been stressful.
[Laughs.] That would have been insane and I didn't do it, obviously. But I did start thinking about lyrics more and about why do I talk so much during my sets? Is it because there isn't any lyrical content that I'm conveying and I do want to get something across? I do like talking. I do like performing. And I'm obsessed with layers. I keep thinking about the voice and the stage. Because now I'm playing on the stage and my whole philosophy toward performance was—everyone in the room is a performer and the entire venue is the performance space—yet I completely ignored the stage, which is where most performance happens. If I'm not ignoring the stairwell or the middle of the room, why ignore the stage? I know it's a very simple epiphany that only a person of insane ignorance would have, but now I'm like, THE STAGE. It's the same thing with the voice. The human voice is an instrument that cannot only convey pitch and timbre, but content. If I could have a trombone talk, of course I would. So why wouldn't I have my voice convey another element? Why would I limit what it's conveying?
Finally, I wanted to ask you about the Steely Dan song title joke that closes the album. Have you had that up your sleeve for some time? Because in my head I like to think that you're sitting around, listening to Aja, singing along , and were like, wait a minute… [Steely Dan have a song song called "Deacon Blues."]
I've had the idea for a long, long time. When Google first started to be a thing of relevance in 2002 or so and I was playing shows in college and I had a web page, I would Google my own name and see where I was on the internet. And Steely Dan just crushed me for years. Fuck you, Steely Dan. And so I thought I would contribute to that with this next record and that's "Steely Blues." I knew I was going to call something that down the line and I don't know why I choose this track. I didn't know what to call it. It's not blues in any capacity. I had been listening to a lot of Steely Dan, so I think the time was right.
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