Interview: Dan Deacon on making music, performing and his 2013 UK tour
Musician combining maximalist sounds on record and extreme live performances
‘I’m so sorry, I have this really weird thing in my throat,’ Dan Deacon says, interrupting himself mid-flow to cough. ‘My voice is suddenly all… [does cartoon growly voice],’ he laughs. It’s still early I point out, calculating it’s not quite 11am in Baltimore, where he is. Maybe he needs a coffee?
‘Oh, I don’t drink coffee,’ he says, matter of fact. Actually, that makes perfect sense. Dan Deacon is probably the last person who should ever drink coffee. The music he makes is frantic, saturated, high-energy, kaleidoscope pop, a head rush of fast-forward percussion, sped-up beeps, helium vocals and driving drums. Surely the last thing he needs is any more stimulation.
‘Ha, yeah that’s probably totally true,’ he snorts loudly. ‘I guess you could say my stuff is pretty uptempo. I like to squeeze a lot of notes into a small space.’ Uptempo is a wild understatement. It’s like musical poppers, a blast of euphoria, with xylophones and pianos pummelled faster than human hands could ever play, layered with sighing vocals, and tempered with enough spaces and slow builds to prove this is very cleverly crafted stuff, not the ‘zany’ thing it might seem on first frenzied listen.
’Music is kind of like a mix between a puzzle, and cooking,’ explains Dan Deacon. ‘It’s like with food -- you know you’re going to want to add a lot of complementary ingredients. You don’t want to over season it, but you don’t want it to taste of nothing either – either way it would taste like shit.’
He says his music has a similar style to fellow Baltimoreans, Animal Collective, who he’ll be touring the States with this Spring. ‘We both make real weird pop music. Either it’s really mainstream experimental stuff, or else it’s really weird pop stuff – does that make sense?’
It does. Deacon’s maximalist pop songs know when to go bananas, and when to rein themselves sharply back in. They know when to slide into hyperdrive, but then abruptly snap to silence, a single crisp drum, or buzzing guitar squall. The yin to his electronic yang, his albums sit computer-made music alongside swooning, ambient, ensemble compositions.
‘I’m obsessed with a density of sound,’ he says. Besides his own solo work, he’s also currently composing for a 24-piece steel drum band at NYU, and a marching band in Providence, RI. ‘I’ve never done that before, it’s changing how I think about music, it’s awesome. All of that gets me psyched to work on other stuff too.’
His recorded music is only half the picture – he’s been making music for over ten years, releasing eight albums since 2003, self-releases at first, then releasing on American indies, and last year, graduating to America, his first release on Domino. Translating the studio-made stuff into a live setting is another project altogether. His live shows are legendary for their audience participation. Deacon likes to get in the crowd and start a ‘dance party’, ordering them to kneel down, have one-on-one contests, and now, he’s designed a smartphone app for the audience to use.
‘I want my shows to have the energy of a live rock band. I mean, you can see a guitarist move his arm, and hear the noise it makes, but there’s not always that human element with electronic music. I try and add physicality to the sound.’
Deacon knew over a decade ago he wanted to make his live shows stand out from the crowd. ‘I don’t know what it was like in the UK back in 2001, 2002. You’ll have been deep in the electronic game for years. But here, I’d be going to shows, and there was no performance culture. At all. It was a dude behind a computer. It repulsed me – I hated it.’
He’s keeping the details of the Glasgow live show to himself – admitting it’s part secret, and part whatever-he’s-in-the-mood-for on the night.
Does it bother him that people filming at shows and taking photos spoils the element of surprise?
‘Not at all,’ he says. ‘We live in an age of constant documentation. Our privacy is constantly challenged. And the internet means it’s a changing game – every day. Yeah, there’s maybe someone who’ll upload a video a half hour after the show, but to me, it’s still nothing compared to being there. It’s a different thing; a document. It’s like the difference between a photo taken at a protest, and being in the crowd.’
He’s excited to play the small, basement room of Stereo, and is hoping it’ll involve less red-tape than his last visit – playing Optimo’s New Year’s Eve party in 2007.
‘It was an awesome night. My main memory is I had to pay some electrician to inspect all my gear – back then I was making a lot of my instruments, so it was all this janky, falling apart, self-made shit. He came and put stickers on it, then a guy from the Fire Department checked it too. I guess they knew my gear back then was super unsafe,’ he laughs. ‘I managed not to electrocute anyone that night.’
Dan Deacon plays Stereo, Glasgow, Mon 11 Feb, dandeacon.com.