Interview: Darwin Deez

Interview with Darwin Deez

Darwin Deez


Look out: the brains behind beatific indie-pop like ‘Radar Detector’ and ‘Constellations’ is back, and he’s brought his second studio album with him. We rang Darwin at home in North Carolina to hear how Nietzsche, Phil Collins and Autechre inspired Songs For Imaginative People.

Questions and answers

Hey Darwin, where are you today?

I’m at home in Asheville, North Carolina, which is this small town in the mountains that I moved to a year ago, after living in New York for eight years. I just got tired of the high-stress environment there and I didn’t really need to be there to compose and record this album.

Do you think the environment you’re in now has had an impact on the sound of Songs For Imaginative People?

Honestly, I don’t think so. For one thing, I really tend to work alone: I produced [the album] all by myself and I didn’t hardly have anyone else sing or play on it. And as far as the atmosphere goes, I really can’t say that it did, apart from one song called ‘Good To Lose’ that’s kind of about the lifestyle I had in the last year where I stayed at home and slacked off a lot.

But I don’t subscribe to the notion that place has a significant impact on where the music comes from. I think there are international differences: there’s a musical heritage that’s somehow in the water. Like, over in England I think people are better with melody – on average – than they are in the States. But I think if you took an English songwriter and moved them somewhere in the US, I don’t think that it would change anything, except for maybe in terms of lyrical content.

How did the process of making this album compare to that of your debut? Was it trickier?

There was a similarity between them in that once I got to the second half, I started to get a momentum going and it just started happening easier. But in terms of it being trickier, it’s just really daunting to sit down and be like, “Right, I have as much time as I need and now I’m going to compose an entire album and it’s gotta be my best work”. And before, I was writing music with no expectation: I didn’t have to deliver it to the label or to an audience that are waiting for something similar to what you’ve done before.

But if you begin something, great forces come to your aid, so it generally seems scarier and more daunting at the outset than it actually turns out to be. This album was a crazy adventure. I had a lot of fun with it.

When you’re faced with a blank canvas, where do you begin?

Well, it was different on this record. This time I mostly started with the lyrics first. The other thing was the guitar. For the past four years, I’d been composing on this particular guitar that had four strings, and non-standard tuning. So I started re-learning how to play a regular six-string guitar, just to make it fresh, and interesting, and exciting. And from there you just start playing around with what your fingers find.

I had so much of an idea that these songs were all to go on the same album so I wanted there to be variation been tempos and production styles. So there were times when the first thing I ended up deciding about a song was the actual tempo.

In terms of recording alone, did you find it difficult not having anybody’s input or feedback?

Oh no, no. I don’t want anyone’s input or feedback. I very much have my own vision of how things are supposed to go. Even if moments of laziness start to make their way into the recordings, I always end up sorta falling in love with those bits of imperfection. So it’s a strangely vision-driven, ego-driven process that I really like to do by myself.

Luckily, my friends that play in the band with me let me go off and be the visionary – be the mastermind – and write what I want, and then they show up to make it mega-good in the live setting. That’s why the band’s called ‘Darwin Deez’: I’m the artistic dictator.

Musically, it’s a lot more diverse than your debut. Were there any particular goals for this album sonically?

You said it. It was intentionally diverse. The first record I just wanted it to sound uniform and it ended up sounding the way it did and I liked that, and then on this record I just wanted to make sure it sounded diverse.

Did you have any specific musical reference points?

Y’know, the main reference point was the sound of my last album. I wanted people to feel that it was not too far away from that at times and then there were different reference points for different songs. The reference points for ‘Moonlit’ are Phil Collins and Huey Lewis and 80s pop.

Autechre were an interesting reference point too; I sample an Autechre song on the ‘(800) HUMAN’. I could have done my best to recreate those timbres and drum sounds, but their use of texture was just so perfect that I decided to sample that and re-sequence it using their original software.

I don’t work too much in terms of sonic reference points: I just focus on limiting my resources in terms of source material. So I didn’t use any acoustic guitar, there were a couple of synthesiser engines that I used, and a pretty limited array of drums and guitars. And from there, I just set myself free to get as much variation out of them as I could. I figured if I stuck to those [instruments] then I would end up with something that had a bit of cohesiveness to it.

Where did you find lyrical inspiration this time round?

I think the best pop music is about love, so eight-and-a-half of these songs are love songs in one way or another. Mostly autobiographical, with a bit of imagination and a bit of exaggeration.

But with the names changed, obviously?

No, I don’t change the names. And there are a couple of tracks on there with some lyrical references to existentialism too: one song with a Sartre quote and one with a Nietzsche quote.

It’s kinda pretentious I guess, but existentialism means a lot to me; it’s almost like a religion to me. I guess it’s not uncommon for writers to put their beliefs into music, like Christian music that’s all about the Lord. And I feel like the Lord to me is choice. That is the deepest that I can go; that moment of facing the abyss, of the possibilities at your fingertips, and of human life and what you can make of it.

That stuff really affects me emotionally, so I wrote a couple of songs about it. ‘Free’ is like a memoir of a certain time in my life when I was really bummed because of all the existentialist philosophy that I was reading – particularly Nietzsche – and I eventually pulled myself out of the mud.

Do you have a favourite track on the album?

I’m most proud of ‘Redshift’. I just think it has the most direct, emotional feeling to it, and it still has an original, very-me sound. I think it’s going to connect with more people on a deep enough level to be significant. Whereas maybe some of the existentialist songs will miss the mark for most people because they’re more cerebral. Music and thought are not the best; music and emotion is a better pair.

How’s the new material been going down at shows so far?

It’s interesting: you play stuff that’s not released and people really don’t know how to react yet. But we’ll see; the real test is when the record comes out. This record takes time to get into; it’s a lot of words and a lot of material, musically.

Y’know, I didn’t design [this record] to be acceptable on the first listen: I wanted to make something that people were going to be able to spend a lot of time with and get more and more out of. I think I needed to take a break from that goal of creating instant classics, and on the third record I can come back to what everyone wants, which is that instant pop timelessness.

So what’s the plan for the rest of 2013?

Touring, touring and touring; touring and touring; tour some more and then finish around December. I’m going to try to keep composing throughout the tour cycle to keep my creativity alive, and that’s going to be a huge challenge because it’s not something I did before. It won’t be so long between this album and the next one.

And I started working on my next mix tape in December. It’s gonna be a reworking of Last Splash by The Breeders. So that’ll probably be out in the next couple of months.

Have you got any new choreography sorted for the tour? Or any other surprises?

Always, always... For anyone who’s never seen us, the dancing is still sorta surprising and we have some lights that are gonna be added to the show at some point. Guitar solos; that’s gonna be a new thing. I never did any of that before, and this last year I learned how to do it and totally got into it. So there will be some excellent – subjectively speaking – guitar solos.

What’s been the highlight so far?

The highlights for me are just the memories from hanging out and having this adventure with my friends. It’s our dream come true to be able to do this. And also, getting paid advances by labels and publishers: that’s a super-highlight. That makes my life in a way. It makes my life work, if you will.

What would you like to achieve ultimately?

I don’t know I might like to make a million dollars. That would be cool. (Laughs)

And retire...

No, I don’t wanna retire. I wanna keep having adventures. Musically, I don’t know: the continual pursuit of beauty in song form? There are only seven notes in the major scale but there are infinite variations and configurations of beauty in music and I’m just gonna keep chasing them – like a dog chasing its tail – for the rest of my life. It’s the divine pursuit.