Dan Deacon talks touring, working with Francis Ford Coppola and getting lost in radiant positivity with Siobhán Kane.
There is something special about Dan Deacon, perhaps it is his childlike fascination with the world mixed with an amazing ability to get things done, from comedy shows to orchestral compositions. He co-founded the collective Wham City in Baltimore in 2004 upon moving there, and though he had been in various bands before the move, (as well as the Conservatory of Music in New York) it is really Baltimore that seems to have captured his heart. Wham City’s reputation as a collective for experimental work precedes them, but it is really their coalescing of humour and serious-mindedness that makes them interesting, and they clearly state there are to be “no jerks” in their collective, which is always a good place to start.
Their tongue-in-cheek ethos of “fake answers to real questions” is actually an inverted kind of truth, because they are constantly and quite seriously redefining the boundaries of art, music and creative processes. Deacon is a real embodiment of this; his solo work, from Silly Hat vs. Eagle Hat (2003), to the twinkly poppy inventiveness of 2007’s Spiderman of the Rings is quite astonishing, more for the ideas and the fizzing brilliance of his own idiosyncratic take on classical composition and modern practices, but it is also more than that, even the names of some of his records Meetle Mice (2003) or Twacky Cats (2004) brings a smile in the darkest of times. His use of language is almost Edward Lear-like in inspiration, but then is fleshed out further with his own inimitable take on the world, full of mirth and goodness and positivity.
Perhaps these traits also make him a patron saint for bands that have benefited from his guiding hand such as the brilliant Future Islands, or in his collaborative work with everyone from Ponytail to longtime friend and collaborator Jimmy Joe Roche. It was actually a collaboration with Roche, Ultimate Reality (2007) that really distilled what Deacon is about, a film and musical project that is a philosophical, often psychedelic take on his vision of music and perhaps the world, and Roche is an able conspirator; with his amazing splicing of visuals amidst Deacon’s dreamy, layered, euphoric dancefloor soundscapes – the effect is quite staggering, and even features, creepily, Arnold Schwarzenegger. It is a world to lose yourself in, because it is warm and inviting, and intelligent and creative, yet sometimes completely incoherent, which means it has one foot in the more mundane reality of life as well (who stays coherent all of the time?).
When he released Bromst in 2009 he said that it was “a celebration”, and in some ways, it did pick up where Spiderman of the Rings left off, because of its genuine renewable energy; that is how Deacon’s music leaves you feeling, because like him, it is a force of nature, sustaining and inspiring, and again, gets its inspiration from real connection and community, he suggests that it is all much closer than we think, we just have to reach out and touch it. There is something earthy about that record, as with so much of his work – he is always inviting us to pitch in, whether at his live shows or singing along to ‘Crystal Cat’ while washing the dishes, absent-mindedly trying to hit that high note, we’re all part of the same movement.
There is no real way to place Dan Deacon; brilliant electronic musician, maverick creative, avant-garde composer, stand-up comic, but that is probably the point; and amidst touring, making his new record and working with Francis Ford Coppola he talks to Siobhán Kane.
Did having a herniated disc force you to reassess your touring, work output, and intense live shows seriously? Sufjan Stevens recently said that when he became ill, though it was stressful, it ended up being positive, because he had been running at a certain level for much of his life, and he wasn’t sure how to slow down and potter. I think it was my body’s way of telling my brain that that it needed some attention. My brain tends to forget that it’s in a body, that it is part of a body, and not just a wet computer. I need to re-remind myself of this from time to time, and if I don’t, I often end up getting hurt or sick. My shows had been getting more and more intense in a way that I didn’t see or realise, and once I hurt my back I realised I needed to address my live performances so that it doesn’t get out of hand. I like a wild show but I like dancing more than I like thrashing around. Somehow my concerts went from dance parties to crowds of people thrashing around. I’m in the process of changing that.
You have such an amazing approach to life, and so unbelievably alive and nurturing to other people. Do you fear death? I think more than a fear of death I have a fear of dying or illness. I try to write really uplifting and positive music for my live performances. There is enough in life to remind people of all the sadness and pain and shit, sometimes it’s important to realise there is radiant positivity and to get lost in it for a while.
Sam [Herring] from Future Islands previously said that you once had an argument about happiness vs. sadness, that you felt happiness was a more powerful emotion, whereas Sam thinks sadness is, since happiness is more temporary, what are your thoughts on it now? I still think happiness is more powerful. It’s harder to hold on to, and to realise its scope while you are experiencing it. You can wallow in sadness. Powerful is probably the wrong word, but I think it’s easier to make people truly sad than truly happy, but it’s like fire and ice. They are both powerful beasts that shape the earth.
I wish you had been able to bring the Wham City comedy tour to Ireland, how did that come about, how did it go, and do you think you will do it again? Is humour essentially what binds you all together? We talked about doing a comedy tour in Ireland and hopefully we will! We want to get a web show up and running first and really get it down tight before we take it on the road again, especially across an ocean. As far as what binds us, it’s really just friendship. All of the styles of comedy and senses of humour are totally different from member to member of the collective. I think that diversity of humour is what makes it such a strong show.
How has the work with Francis Ford Coppola been going? It was quite amusing that he sent you an email to make contact, I am not sure why, maybe it is because he is ingrained in the consciousness like an old photograph. Francis is a real great person and a true artist. He is open to ideas and to experimentation but he still has a clear vision of what he wants. Working with him has been 1000 lessons.
Has working with him on the film score helped you to reimagine your own approach to music again, redraw the battle lines, look at recontextualising things? Totally. I’m excited for the next few weeks when the bulk of the work will really happen.
You have always made venues morph into your live shows, but this score is for a different audience in the sense that they will be sitting down, is it a real thrill working within such a context? Yeah, totally. It’s exciting to work within a different reality, the reality of the film.
How have you found composing for orchestra, with projects like the Electronic Bus? That was a great experience.The conductor Edwin Outwater really took me under his wing and helped me create two awesome new pieces for that concert. It showed me how much I have forgotten since college and how exciting an orchestra can be and how similar to a synth an orchestra is.
How did you meet Edwin? He is so fearless in his outlook, and is challenging so much of what already exists. Edwin sent me a message on Myspace a few years ago and we got to talking, and this idea of a concert with his orchestra came about. He is a really driven person. As far as collaborating, I think that has always been happening and those cross genres collaborations are what helps artforms evolve. Without them art would become a feedback loop.
There are so many projects of yours that seem to ask for a sequel of sorts, especially something like Ultimate Reality with Jimmy Joe Roche, could you imagine doing something else with that? You collaborated again last autumn in Holland with him when in residency there, how did that go? Jimmy and I talked about an Ultimate Reality 2. It would be much different, but I think it would be fun. Our residency in the Netherlands was crazy – 50% dream + 50% nightmare. The end result is a weird movie, which should be online soon.
Are you very organised? I’m not so organised. I have systems that work for me, but most of my life is a mess. Once a system emerges it’s great but until then it’s mess city.
I was reading a while back about the troubles in the arts community in Providence – the Great White saga, where there was a crackdown on warehouse spaces and artists live/work spaces and evictions. How do things stand in Baltimore at present in terms of spaces and the authorities? Baltimore doesn’t have many problems with the police as far as shows and spaces, but the main problems are poor transportation and dickhead landlords.
What projects are you working on at present? I’m working on the new record. We begin recording soon. I had a meeting with Chester [Gwadza] about how to go about recording this and planning for the tour to follow it. That and the film score are my main focus.
It is perhaps a tough question, considering your huge and diverse body of work, but are there any of your records that you hold as the most precious? I’m really into the new stuff I’ve been working on since 2008. I think it’s a nice expansion of the ideas on Bromst, but some of the tracks have a more pop sensibility, similar to Spiderman of the Rings. I’m excited for it to exist!
Dan Deacon plays the Button Factory on Sunday May 8thFriday August 5th with Patrick Kelleher & His Cold Dead Hands also on the bill.