AP.net user chokeychicken (Chad) recently conducted a great interview with acclaimed electronic music artist Dan Deacon, much thanks to him for doing so. Check that out in the replies, and be sure to go see Dan Deacon if he's playing near you soon; he's currently on tour with Animal Collective and he has one of the most unique live shows out there.
To put it simply, Dan Deacon makes extremely intelligent party music. Constantly aiming to produce the audio equivalent of "Bill Nye the Science Guy," he carves anthems for those that appreciate not only the sounds they’re hearing, but the tedious details that went into making them. And unlike most of his disc jockey counterparts, Deacon’s creations are a step above your average mash-up -- songs that refuse to take the little things for granted, allowing minute sounds and imaginative layers to take charge of the instrumental product occasionally littered with vocals so distorted, you’d never guess they belonged to Deacon himself. And if you see him in the flesh, come prepared; his shows involve fast music, furious dancing and every move that was strictly prohibited in Footloose -- an atmosphere combination that could knock your thick-rimmed glasses right off your face if you aren’t paying close enough attention.
Behind the interpretive dance parties and wild shindigs, however, lies a brilliant music composer who can go toe to toe on classical song structure with the best of them. This creates quite the double life for the man who has recently been recognized by both New York magazine and NPR; the former as one of the top 10 classical music performances of 2011 and the latter that described his latest effort as one of their favorite albums of 2012. But never keeping his background a secret, Deacon has allowed his two lives to clash on his latest effort, helping to create his wildest and most experimental album to date. It is this unusual combination -- the party animal and the mastermind composer -- that are forced to come together and create the beautifully complex offspring known as America.
AP: You certainly didn’t go the normal route for most musicians interested in producing electronic music. Tell us a little bit about your background in music composition.
Dan Deacon: I don’t know if there is a normal route for someone who studies composition. I might have just been ignorant to it, but I think the Internet has really helped that new music scene really grow in the last few years with things like the Ecstatic Music Festival, which helps new composers and experienced composers alike. When I got out of school in 2004, I had no idea as to what the hell I would possibly do as a composer; what ensembles would play my pieces, who I was write for, the venues that would perform them or how I would get funding outside of competitions. I didn’t know about any of that.
There’s nothing that says, “here’s what to do and here’s how you do it.” Even with something like film school, I still don’t have any idea how any of that works. In school, I was playing different shows -- a mixture of recitals, fluxes style happenings and parties. After school, I moved to Baltimore and started living in a party style warehouse space and began touring with the party style music I had created while in school. And that sort of became what I focused on; not necessarily consciously, it just happened that way. Eventually I just started thinking “I haven’t written a piece of Chamber music since school. I haven’t read a piece of sheet music in ages. All I’ve been doing is this party music.”
Since school I’ve really just been focusing on making music with a computer, because that’s what has been readily available to me. I could have continued writing sheet music like I did in school, but I just never encountered anybody from that scene while I was developing my music career in Baltimore. If I had written music in that style at that place and time, I might as well have been writing music in a foreign language -- even if people around me could read it, they likely wouldn’t have taken the time to do so.
AP: Which came first: the dance party or the composition?
DD: I think they both happened around at the same time. I was studying composition, but I didn’t start studying composition until almost two years into college; my first two years were just the classic debt-inducing liberal arts undeclared arts thing. And I was writing so much music as a hobby, my friends kept saying “if you’re going to spend all this money, you might as well do something you really love.” So I did.
AP: Your live show makes this genre of music look like the biggest party of all time; but when you were sitting in a liberal arts college classroom, it isn’t exactly the same kind of party. How did you handle the less exciting portions of your music education?
DD: I think to anyone who wants to secure a career in music composition, even the ‘less exciting’ parts are still exciting, due to your sheer passion for what you’re doing. I really enjoyed Music Theory and Music History -- and while those things may not seem fun on paper, they contribute to the ‘fun’ you see me having on stage during my live show. It looks fun because it is.
AP: You have this brilliant mind for putting pieces of music together to create that party, which can certainly be contributed to your educational background in composition. What’s the process like when you sit down to begin piecing together those songs?
DD: It changes from track to track, but most of the time I sit down at the computer and start to build layers, beginning with a line, a loop, or a baseline. Other times, it will be a micro-sample and I will see how many different ways I can arrange it. Some songs start quick, others start slow -- they each seem to construct themselves in a different way.
AP: In general, how long does it take to put together a single track before you consider it finished?
DD: The tracks on America for example, they all took insanely different amounts of time. But the thing about tracks that I include on my albums is that they are not truly finished until the week we actually complete the record. For instance, a track like “Lots” [track 3 on America] was done in a week, while a track like “Guilford Avenue Bridge” [track 1 on America] was written in a short amount of time but over a longer period of time; I would only work on it for a little bit here and there, but weeks would go by before I would go back and touch the file. And even still you have a track like “USA,” which was tweaked endlessly, but was largely done way before the rest of the album. Every track is completely different.
AP: How do you feel about the fact that a majority of your tracks aren’t complete until the twenty third hour?
DD:I mean, that’s really how my entire life is. [Laughs] There’s just no other way to do it.
AP: Speaking of America, it’s very different from your previous records, in the fact that it’s much more layered. How did your background in composition and production play into how the new record turned out?
DD: It’s difficult to answer that because I can’t describe what my music would be like without my background because it’s always been there, you know? That would be like asking -- what if you grew up ... in England. [Laughs] I think the only thing I can say is that this record was heavily influenced by the year I spent prior to the record focused on things other than my ‘pop’ music, such as my orchestral and chamber music work. I started thinking more about detail, nuance and subtlety, which translated into some of the things you hear on America. I enjoy making--and listening to--music where you can get a different experience by focusing your attention on different aspects during each listen. That’s the reason I enjoy Remain in Light by the Talking Heads so much; there are so many interlocking parts, so many constant shifts within those voices. You can listen to that album again and again and again.
AP: What was the mental process like, as far as the structure of the songs as it relates to your background, when you were writing America? What were the factors that really determined how the final product sounded?
DD: Once a song gets to a certain spot, it’s easy to figure out if it’s going to have a traditional or non-traditional song structure; how it’s going to go, feeling out its length and how long certain segments are going to last and if the transition will be fluid or a deliberate haute transition. I can normally tell pretty early on what kind of direction a piece is going to go in and how it’s going to arrive at the ending. And if I can’t get there, that becomes the death of the piece.
AP: From what I understand, you used different software to create America than you used to create previous records. Can you go into the positives and negatives of making a change like that?
DD: For previous albums I used a program called Reason 3.0 mixed with Pro Tools. For America, we combined Reason 3.0 with Pro Tools, Ableton, and Max MSP. I did all the tracking, mixing, and processing for the vocals in Live and Chet [producer Chester Endersby Gwazda] did all the instrumental and drum tracking in Pro Tools. I really love the Reason soft sets, I think they’re great. The actual subtractor synth, fader, and scream distortion features in Reason are all really awesome too.
AP: In 2011, New York Magazine named the performance of your composition, Ghostbuster Cook at the Merkin Concert Hall in New York City as one of the top 10 classical performances of the year. How did that opportunity come about and describe the composition phase and actually hearing it performed live.
DD: Flake contacted me and asked if I wanted to write a piece for Soul Percussion and I said yes. I had worked with them before, just not in a capacity like that. We had done a few different concerts together and they helped perform Mallets with me at a show in New York. I started working on a piece for Mallets for two glockenspiel and two vibraphones. I gave them that piece and they deemed it unplayable. So we brought down the tempo and took some rhythmic patterns from that and started coming up with different ways to play those patterns.
AP: You’ve also had experiences in film scoring. What are some of the differences between creating songs for an album and scoring a film?
DD: When it comes to film scoring, that forces you to take your composition and place it in a universe in which it is not the focal point of. When I’m writing an album, it can go in any direction it wants; it’s not being grounded by anything. However, with a film, the music has to live within the contents of that film and the director has to say “yes, this is the music we’re going for.” The director has the final say on things like tone and vibe. When I’m scoring a film, I have to watch the film and score to the film. While that was going on, there were other compositions that I was chopping up and using as samples and micro-samples and trying to contextualize that. It’s a very different experience than I’m used to putting together an album.
AP: In a few hours, you’re going to transform the empty room upstairs [Bowery Ballroom, New York City] into something completely different. Tell me what happens during the first few moments you step on stage and make a connection with the audience that helps create the atmosphere necessary for your live show to be what it is.
DD: I try to make the audience feel as comfortable as possible; when I play solo, I often play on the floor because it just creates a nice physiological shift for both the audience and myself. It makes it easier to do some things and more difficult to do others. When I play with a group, we make full use of the stage because we are all wired together and I like to communicate with them on a much more immediate level. It’s the same sort of gist where the live show is supposed to be a place of comfort. I try to create an environment where it’s easy to lose your inhibitions but not lose sight of the fact that it’s happening. I put a lot of responsibility on the audience; they are the focal point during much of the performance. I try to create situations that couldn’t exist organically. So when the audience is with me and on the same page, it helps create that unique experience.
As far as my composition background is concerned, during the show I like about all the sounds and all the parameters of the performance. It’s important to remember that the performance of live music is theater. The venue and the audience are the only elements of constant changes every night while on tour. That’s the only thing that changes; the audience and the room. And if you can incorporate those elements into your set, if you can make them elements of the composition and elements of the performance, it can really add a new level that wouldn’t exist otherwise. If you shift things and make the audience the focal point instead of making the stage the focal point, you can create some really unique situations.