Interview: Dan Deacon

Interview with Dan Deacon

Dan Deacon


Though never exactly short on ambition, Baltimore-based composer Dan Deacon’s certainly upped the stakes with his latest album America. We caught up with the man himself for an interesting chat about apocalyptic anxiety, Francis Ford Coppola and the Annuaki aliens…

Questions and answers

Hey Dan, congratulations on the new album! How long did it take to write and record?

I started writing it shortly after the tour of Bromst, in the summer of 2009. ‘True Thrush’ started a while before that but it didn’t really take the form that it has until recently.

What did you want to achieve sonically on America?

Well, I knew pretty early on that I wanted ‘USA’ to be a longer form piece – this long, meandering, sorta epic – that would dominate half of the record. I didn’t wanna split up the movement; I wanted one continuous flow. So I had this idea in my head where [America] would be an A-side of pop songs and a B-side of one long song, that wasn’t necessarily experimental, but not so much pop-structured. I think that sorta shaped the way I looked at the record and set up this system of dichotomies and juxtapositions that ended up becoming the framework that the record lived in.

Could you explain the concept behind the album please?

I think the concept sorta evolved slowly in the process. Geography is the key influence for the instrumental aspect of things, and the lyrics are largely influenced by my frustrations with corporate culture in general, and globalisation and exploitation. A lot of that was fuelled by Occupy and Arab Spring and the student protests there starting to really make headway around the world. I feel that’s an underlying thing in society: people are starting to realise more and more that we’re at a precipice, especially with the whole idea of 2012.

What about 2012?

For a decade now, I’ve been thinking the world will end in 2012. I used to think it would mean all the volcanoes would explode, or there’d be some insane moon on a slingshot orbit with another planet and the Anunnaki aliens would come down. Of course, that was all insane delusion, but there does seem to be a shift and a change happening in the world.

Can you elaborate on that?

I think when people think of the end of the world they think of catastrophe, apocalypse, disastrous nightmares. But I think that everything happens sinusoidally; everything happens in sine waves. And if you think about the grand scale of time, things happen very slowly and I think we’re just in a shift in the sine wave.

I don’t know if it’s shifting downwards or upwards. It feels like we could either be entering into a new age of change and more pronounced and obvious feudalism, or we could be finally embracing the ideas that were laid forth in the ‘Magna Carta’, and actually have a world without exploitation.

Neither of those scenarios are gonna happen overnight but it does feel like one of those scenarios is going to come true. And I think that’s where the fear and the hope lie in the record.

So you see America as equally optimistic and pessimistic?

Yeah. You can’t have this blind optimism and hope that everything’s just gonna get better. You have to think what could go wrong, what is the problem, how do we address the problem and what is my role within that problem.

Is it important to you that listeners fully understand the concept behind America?

I’d rather people discover the meaning but I don’t want it to be preachy, or to slam my ideology down their throats. Not at all, because I hate when people do that and I think the best way that music can convey a mindset or an ideology is to be subtle. I want people to be able to enjoy the music however they want to enjoy it.

I treat my voice like another instrument – it’s heavily processed and chopped-up – so it’s sometimes hard to understand exactly what the hell I’m saying. But this is the first time that I ever printed the lyrics of any of my releases so people should get a sense of the mindset they were written in.

Do you have a favourite track on the album?

I really like ‘Prettyboy’ and ‘Rail’. They’re the ones that I don’t play live so I wrote them and think about them differently. We spent the most amount of time on ‘Rail’, and ‘Prettyboy’ evolved the most in the studio.

In the time between Bromst and America, you’ve worked on a huge range of diverse musical projects, do you think that they’ve informed the music that you’re making now?

Yeah, 100%. Prior to that year, the main influences I had were from the bands I was touring with: because if you see the same bands every night for weeks upon end, their musical ideas are gonna start to permeate your brain. So when I was working with So Percussion, I started to think about how the different performers were interpreting the different parts of a very loosely-structured score.

And then with orchestra, it was seeing how my music was being interpreted by them and then realising how important detail and subtlety are when you’re writing sheet music: you can’t just tell every instrument to play as loud as possible because you’re not going to hear the ones that don’t respond well. And then you have to think about range...

Do you usually score music?

No, I hadn’t written sheet music since college and I graduated eight years ago. It’d be like not writing any words in eight years, like, “How the hell do I spell anything? Oh my god...” (Laughs) It did quickly come back, like riding a bike. It was a nice refresher.

You worked on the score for Francis Ford Coppola’s film ‘Twixt’ too. What did you take away from that experience?

It reminded me about atmosphere. When you write an album, you create the context and the environment that the listener gets submerged in. But with a film, the visuals dominate the mindset of the viewer so you want your music to match that. It was a very atmospheric, slow-paced, eerie film so I focused mostly on timbre and drums to create this sorta airy, light music that I don’t normally write.

Do you have any ambitions in particular?

I’d love to actually break into the classical world. I’d like to hone my craft enough to get that done and to write a musical or an opera.

What’s been the highlight of your career so far?

I suck at stuff like this! I don’t know, it’s all been really surreal, and every aspect of it has moved really fast.

But I remember the first time I was on an aeroplane, flying over to the UK to do my first tour there in 2007 and it was just blowing my mind. Never in a million years did I think I would be flying across an ocean to play my music because people asked me to. I landed and immediately had to go and play this party Erol Alkan put on, and the next day I did two shows. It was like this whirlwind-mess of shows, and [the trip] just had this magical quality. I think of that moment a lot.

Also, I hadn’t been on an aeroplane since I was like six, so I forgot all about the aeroplane protocol. And I went immediately to my flight from the racetrack – where I’d played the Virgin Music festival – so I was disgusting: I smelt like hay and sweat and horse sh*t... Could you imagine sitting next to this asshole for five hours on a flight that was packed?! And there was this guy sitting next to me watching the craziest porno I’d ever seen, with this really awesome Arabic hip-hop. It was crazy. The highlight of my career. (Laughs)