Dan Deacon: The Avant-Garde Pop Artist Feels "Out of Place" Everywhere He Goes
Dan Deacon's dentist must love him.
When I called and spoke with Dan Deacon earlier this month, he was in the middle of his tour and didn't know where he was (he guessed somewhere between Georgia and North Carolina). Deacon, who is known for many weird side projects and his bizarre, experimental music, has become a popular figure in the indie music scene with avant-garde electronic albums like Bromst and Spiderman of the Rings. His latest album, America, is split in half, with poppy songs like "True Thrush" and the other half is an instrumental ode to the ambiguity of this beautiful nation and it's darker political climate.
But Deacon is also filled with a healthy amount of humility, making him one of the most thoughtful people I've ever interviewed. His perspective is both insightful and refreshing. We didn't have space for the whole thing in this week's issue (out Thursday), but we've got the whole thing here on Up on the Sun.
Up On The Sun: So I heard your van runs on vegetable oil. Did you know the band OFF! was arrested for stealing cooking oil in Phoenix? So just be careful.
Dan Deacon: Stealing is a strong word for that. We tend to source it beforehand. We know the "spots." But it's getting harder and harder as people try to comodify it.
I love the title of your newest album [America] and what you've said about it, because I totally feel like that, too, that strange paradox of disenchantment and affection. Do you think the future for America is optimistic?
I don't know. If we stay on our current path, no, I don't think so. I think people need to grasp a hold of their reality. It's sort of what the record is about, it's me trying to get a grip on my own reality and my status in the world. I can't pretend I'm not a part of it. I think that's ultimately what the record is about. In regards to the rest of the country, yeah, I think people need to realize the system sucks because we allow it to.
Do you think people will realize that?
I don't know. I hope so. I wouldn't say I'm optimistic for it. But I think more and more, if you look at things like Occupy or even the Tea Party, more and more people are getting frustrated and voicing their opinions and that's ultimately what's important. A dialogue between the people of a country or culture and the problem they have with it. Even if I don't agree with their opinions, it's important.
We live in such diverse culture, to voice opinions and to have the opinions of many be expressed. I think that's the turning point because I think people are growing frustrated enough to not just vocalize their complaints but actualize their complaints.
Are you still hoping for the end of the world?
Nope. [Laughs] I don't know. It depends on what you mean by the end of the world.
Um, nuclear apocalypse. How about that one?
No, I would never vouch for a nuclear apocalypse. It would be terrible.
[laughs] I have apocalyptic fantasies because I think it's ingrained in most Catholic heads. The culmination of that religion... I don't want to talk about religion. I'd rather there be a paradigm shift in consciousness than an apocalypse.
What's your favorite apocalypse scenario? Heat death. Heat death is when the universe reaches total entropy. There is no longer heat.
That was in an Asimov story. It was called ["The Last Question"]. It was about a computer they built to solve the problem of heat death and it lasted for billions of years trying to figure out the problem. By then, heat death happened and the computer solved the problem and it said "Let there be light."
[Long, awkward pause.] Bum bum ba!
Every part of your musical identity is thought out from your triptastic music videos to your Vantastic van to your beard to your broken glasses. Do you consider yourself to be a really thoughtful guy or does all this insanity come spontaneously?
I like to put thoughts into the works that I do. I don't know if my beard really has thought, it just grows out of my face. I shave it whenever I cut my hair. There is a lot of spontaneity in the work. I think I work best under pressure.
Do you have a lot of pressure and deadlines? I tend to put too much on my plate in all situations in my life. I take on a lot of projects or responsibilities and I like to make things logistically infeasible for some insane, sadistic reason. Does Wham City have a lot to do with that?
I'd say Wham City is a factor in it, yeah. It's another time sponge and project that I love working on. I'm bad at segmenting my time, which is why I took three years to put this album out.
Are you relieved to have it out now? Oh yeah, very much. The way a record exists is so weird. It exists in my head, then it exists in a demo form on a computer, then it exists in its finalized form, then it exists to the label, then it exists to the press, then its exists to the public, then it exists trying to get more of the public who didn't initially hear about it to hear about it. It comes in waves. "Lots" has been out since May or June, a very long time and it's still a new song in the catalog. I've been playing this song live for a couple years now, so even though it's a "new" song, it still has this weird energy and vibe.
Which is why I always try to keep the set a third old material, a third just released material and a third unreleased material. I think it keeps the set fresh and me fresh and it's a nice mixture of old, now and new.
I think that's a good equation. I like when bands do that, they don't do the Radiohead route where they don't play anything old. Radiohead does that? I didn't realize that. They've been a band for decades, I can relate to that.
So a while ago, I noticed Jimmy Joe Roche directed a few of your videos. I've seen some his stuff before like Toothbeef Sandwich and never made the connection before. Let me tell you this made me insanely happy. What's your relationship like with Jimmy?
We were good friends in college and lived together, worked together and collaborated a lot in college. When he moved to Baltimore, he moved into Wham City and we just kept working and we just had a strong working relationship. And we're tight bros.
Is he doing any videos for you coming up? I don't know. We talk about a lot of projects, but I'm not sure what videos are in the mix and he's working a large museum show at the moment.
You've created a few videos that went viral. You're like OK Go, but with way more talent. What's it like waking up in the morning and finding your latest single has hit the front page of YouTube? It feels a little crazy. It gives it a weird place. I don't know how to describe it other than that.
Newsweek wrote this article about people that became famous on the Internet really quickly and how it creates this, like, psychosis. The guy that did Kony 2012 video, like lost his mind. It's this whole phenomenon, the pressure of so much fame on the internet drove him a little nuts. Have you ever felt that way?
Um, I don't know. No. I mean, definitely there are times that I feel like insanity starts to escape me, but I've never had anything like the Kony 2012 video. For awhile, I had a couple of my own videos and a successful single that ... were very much in the underground. I've been doing this for a while and it grew organically amongst those weird things. So, no, I don't think so. But I don't know if anyone ever notices if they're going insane. Isn't that the whole point of insanity?
Good point. Do you think being an Internet celebrity actually means anything these days? [laughs] I've never really thought about it. I think we exist within a time when everyone's always at the cusp of being something like that. Many people have that desire and some people have that outcome without ever wanting that desire. The Internet creates a lot of opportunity for situations like that. For some people, it's exciting and for some people it's a byproduct of what they do. Do you know what I mean?
But I don't know. The word "important "is a wild word. I really like the song "What What (In the Butt)" by Samwell, but I don't know if it's "important." That's the thing about you -- I don't even think of you as a musician, I think of you as so many other things first. Like, a creative force in itself. Your music is the best part, obviously, but you're pretty layered. Do you think music genres are irrelevant these days?
I think genres get more and more irrelevant and I think more and more instrumentation is becoming more prevalent. To think of the way people injest music these days, especially when they're just being exposed to music, very young people in middle school or junior high are discovering "weird" music for the first time or music that's not just on the radio. Starting to really get into musical taste. I could be wrong because I'm not 13, but I feel like genre is much less important. It's much more about sound and discovery.
I remember that period in my life when it was important, when it was vastly different. The Internet didn't exist in the capacity that it did, and I don't even know if MP3s were invented yet. It's exciting to see as people become more and more educated is the only word I can think of because the more you listen to music, the more you educated you are about it. The less important genre is to you and the more important sounds and ideas are to you.
I think that's starting to happen more at a more rapid pace. But who knows, I could be totally wrong. I could be homogenizing because there's so much on the internet that it's difficult to find what you actually like and what appeals to you. Maybe there was a Golden Period of the Internet, sort of how people look back at the West before it was homogenized with the United States and it had it's own culture and unique foothold on the world before it became annexed in.
The internet has that vibe where you can tell it used to be easier to find things and move around more freely before everything was put into channels and networks like Facebook or Twitter. But then again, you have things like Tumblr where people still have the freedom of a homogenized form and pass ideas around very quickly. It's an ever-changing game and that's what's so exciting about it.
Do you think it's weird that you're asked to perform in classical music settings? Do you feel out of place? I kind of feel out of place everywhere I go. [laughs] I went to school for composition. Not that I have a background in clinical, classical music but it's definitely something that I strive to do and perform more within that context. I've been looking forward to doing more. I've been very happy with the outcome with the start and I've had a lot of great opportunities come my way and I'm very thankful for it.
I'm glad. I would love to hear some of the classical music stuff that you've done.
Some of it might come out next year. We recorded a piece over the summer with percussion with about 30 percussionists. We're excited to start mixing it this winter.
You've been on a lot of labels. Which one do you think understood your weird vision the best? Why do you keep switching?
I was only really on two. The ones in the early days were more just DIY style. I enjoyed my time with Carpark Records and switched to Domino for a number of personal reasons and I'd really rather keep it as that.
I'm still good friends with Todd who runs Carpark. It was a tough choice to make, but it was a choice I had to make.
Those are all my questions. Anything you'd like to add?
We made this app and it would be great if people knew about it because we use it in the performance. It synchronizes all of the songs and turns them into the light show for a portion of the set. It's a free app that you can download for iPhone or Android and it's been pretty exciting working with it. I'm excited to develop more stuff like it.
To me, it's important that people think of them less as phones and more as just lights. You know what I mean? I think a lot of people have a hang-up with phones. I myself have a hard time with the prevalence of technology on our everyday sort-of life. A lot of technology, anyway. People tend to like a lot of history's greatest hits. Especially since they're casting light, it doesn't require everyone in the room to have one, but if we reach a critical mass and about 25 percent of the people have the phone, it creates a really unique and I think beautiful spacial environment lightning-wise that wouldn't otherwise be able to exist, so it's enjoyable for those that have the phones as well.
It really annoys me to go to a concert and have people on their phones the whole time. But if you made the phone a part of the show, it solves the problem.
It is distracting. Culturally, phones are there. There's no way we're gonna remove them and people aren't gonna not use them so we might as well find a way to incorporate them into our work rather than pretend they don't exist.
Dan Deacon is scheduled to perform Thursday, October 18, at Crescent Ballroom.
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