Dan Deacon: No need to get technical
After his 2007 album Spiderman of the Rings put him on the indie electronica map, Dan Deacon went in a variety of different directions as he honed his interactive live show, even partnering with a business to develop a phone app that would sync to the shows at one point. Now, with Gliss Riffer, an entirely self-produced record of almost all electronic sounds, Deacon has returned to the process that made Spiderman of the Rings an underground hit. His first record to showcase his voice, it arrives after Deacon endured an extended bout of laryngitis. He spoke to us via phone from his Baltimore.
I think you played in a variety of bands before you started making electronic music. What inspired you to go in that direction?
Like a lot of people who get into electronic music, I grew up playing video games and being on a computer. When I found computer music, it blew my mind. I didn’t learn to play a traditional instrument so when I learned to play a computer as an instrument, it opened a whole new world for me. I swiftly fell in love with it. I found a program in college where I could make it my sole passion. It changed my whole life.
In 2004 you moved to Baltimore, Maryland and formed the collective Wham City. What was that experience like?
We had a bunch of friends move to Baltimore who didn’t want to live in New York City. We didn’t have the idea to form a collective. It was a group of artists working individually but also in a collaborative sense. I didn’t even know what a collective was when we first started getting called that. We lived together and would put on some productions together but largely we were just friends and that was the name of our group of friends. There’s a tradition of show houses having names and that’s how we got ours.
Is it still active?
It is. It’s not a location but largely exists as a comedy troupe. I’ll perform with them sometimes. Think of it as a drawer in a kitchen that’s full of rubber bands and candles and scissors and stuff that doesn’t fit in any other drawer. That’s kind of what Wham City was. Over time, someone cleaned the drawer and it still has a few of those things in it. Now, you can still throw a scissors and there’s a cup on the shelf they can go in as well. I’m kind of like the scissors that go in the drawer or in the cup on the shelf.
You do comedy or music with them?
Both. Normally I do comedy with them. I’ve been focusing on not spreading myself too thin. Starting, I guess, this year. I’m trying to stick with that. I think I’m going to fuck it up next year.
You normally tell a few jokes from the stage during your concerts.
I do talk a lot. Sometimes it veers off into an absurd monologue.
Talk about the writing process for Gliss Riffer. When did you start writing the songs and what were you going for?
I started writing the album in 2012, right after America came out. I didn’t finish it until 2014. That’s when I started getting my shit together. I was doing so many side things. I was doing classical composition stuff. I like doing that even though everyone thinks they can do it. I like doing all these different things. I would love to master one of them. If I quit social media, I would have two symphonies and a double LP out every year. I was struggling with anxiety at the time and coming to terms with that and trying to figure out what it was. I realized I was attaching stress as a motivator. Luckily, I saw this Bill Murray speech where he talks about relaxing and it really helped me and really motivated me. You hear the word relax all the time but for someone who is anxious and has stress, when someone says “relax” to you, it’s like a triggering word that makes you even more stressed out. That word had lost its meaning to me. I didn’t know what it meant. When he broke down what relaxing was, it hit me like a ton of bricks. I had forgotten. It just came back to me. Since then, I’ve been focused and able to live in the moment.
Do you see the songs as the outgrowth of America?
I see it as me returning to the way I wrote Spiderman of the Rings, which was all myself and largely synthetic, computer based music. Or at least electornic-based music. I hadn’t self-produced in a long time. I wanted to rebuild my chops and re-trust my ears. I would love to start working as a producer more. It was like, “Can I do this? Do I need a producer?” There was anxiety in doing that. When you’re making something and you’re the only person in the room, it’s very different than when you make something with someone else. I would wonder if it was good enough or if it sucked. I would work on the track a million times. I keep thinking about it like food. You have a tomato and you grew it. You got the seeds and put them in the ground and you have one of those weird metal things that tomatoes grow on. You remember seeing that first little tomato on the vine growing from this tiny little green tomato to a big ripe red one and you waiting until the perfect moment to pick it. You sliced it and you put on a salad or a sandwich and you ate it and you feel so satisfied and your friend you’re eating with doesn’t know you made it and they don’t give a fuck. How could they? It’s just a fucking tomato.
How does that connect to the recording process?
I keep thinking, “Do I like these songs because I know the process I went through to make them? And do I doubt them for the same reason? Will people like this song even though I’m the only one who knows what went into it and that making the closest thing to giving birth that I will ever do is the creation of art? What the fuck am I doing?” There was a lot of that in the process. I had to stop thinking about that. You have to tell your friend that you grew the tomato so they eat it with a different appreciation. I want someone to hear my music and just like it. That’s why I like making weird music that’s rooted in a pop format. It helps listeners who don’t’ have a music education to dive right in. I don’t want my music to have an esoteric knowledge. I want people to appreciate it on the level of just hearing it. You don’t need to know it’s based on arcade languages or something like that.
What inspired you to sing on most of the songs?
I lost my voice earlier that year right before I went on the Arcade Fire tour. It was horrifying because I like talking. I kept thinking that my voice is going to expire. You can’t get Elton John in the ‘70s. That instrument is gone. Even though his voice still exists, it’s not the same. What if that happened to pianos? One day, all pianos disappeared from the earth. You would be like, “That sucks. I wish I had appreciated pianos more.” I started thinking of the voice as an instrument that was going away and I started appreciating it more. I started thinking about what makes the voice unique. Every instrument can convey pitch, amplitude, duration and texture, or a wide range of textures. The human voice is the only one that can convey content. It’s the only instrument that doesn’t just imply emotion but can state it outright. If the trombone can do something that no other instrument can do, I would use that. I never used it as a conveyer of information. I normally use it as something that provides texture. I fell in love with that idea. That got me into lyrics. The first song I dove into lyrically is “When I Was Done Dying,” which is probably why it’s so verbose. It’s gotten me into lyrics. I like lyric-heavy bands like They Might be Giants. But I also like Nirvana and the Boredoms and Lightning Bolt because I don’t know what they’re saying. I love the human voice as something that provides sound. I love Brian Eno because most of his lyrics are written phonetically. I love the lyrics themselves but I love that the voice is there. I’m trying to find a balance.
“Steely Blues” is rather ominous sounding. What inspired it?
It was originally a shorter version that was the score to a dance piece in a video show. I liked how it went. I liked playing with the saxophonist, Andrew Bernstein, who plays in a band called the House Lords and is also a great composer on his own. I thought it would sound cool with some sax layered on tap. I’ve been into Auto-Tuning and taking out specific notes. Some would pass through just fine and sound like an acoustic instrument and others would sound quite synthetic. I didn’t want to work with a major scale on that one. I like to leave the last track on the record hinting where the next track would go. I’m not sure I did that with America. After coming out of “Take it out to the Max,” which is a major scale, I wanted to go with something different.
You’ll be heading out with the Flaming Lips and Miley Cyrus. Talk about your expectations for the tour.
I try to have zero expectations about anything that I do. I find that they are the root of disappointment. I try to go into it open-minded. I want to be open to anything. I think that’s how you have the most fun. It will be wild to be in that moment. I will try to ride that out as long as I can and see what that’s like.
Upcoming 2015 Shows
Cleveland, OH – Grog Shop
Chicago, IL – Riviera
Columbus, OH – Rumba Cafe
Detroit, MI – Fillmore
Cincinnati, OH – Madison Live
Washington, DC – Echostage
New York, NY – Terminal 5
Providence, RI – Fete Ballroom
Burlington, VT – Arts Riot
Portland, ME – SPACE Gallery
Ithaca, NY – The Haunt
Kingston, NY – BSP Kingston
Philadelphia, PA – Electric Factory
Boston, MA – House Of Blues
Houston, TX – Houston Free Press
Brooklyn, NY – Brooklyn Bowl