Q&A: Dave Longstreth of Dirty Projectors sure does like Wikipedia
It was early morning when I got the e-mail confirming my phone call with Dave Longstreth from Dirty Projectors. It was to be at 9a.m. my time, the following day. I went to work and went about my business as usual when it hit me.
What does one ask the Dirty Projectors anyway? I went online to do some research- just a little digging around here and there so that I was up to speed on what the band was doing; you know, normal things. After about five minutes, I had given up and spent an hour just watching various live performances on YouTube with the occasional cameo of acute penguin video every now and then. A friend of mine popped up on my Google Chat screen:
Friend: Hey! How's Phoenix? What are you up to?
Me: Oh, it's alright. It's finally cooling down. I'm just sort of watching Dirty Projectors videos on YouTube trying to think of what to ask them during my interview tomorrow.
Friend: Dirty Projectors? That's freaking cool! Good job! And good luck, too. Isn't that guy like insanely smart or something? He's probably pretentious.
Me: I don't know. I've met him before and he was super nice. I don't know though...we'll see, I guess.
The next day...
Did you expect me to actually wake up on time for this? I rolled out of bed about 10 minutes before I was actually supposed to call Dave's cell phone. Bad allergies and all, I sneezed for about five minutes before making the call. How'd it go? See for yourself:
UP: Hi Dave, how are you?
DL: I'm good. How are you?
UP: I'm okay. Just woke up. You're going to have to excuse me if I sneeze from time to time; I'm just getting over a cold.
DL: That's totally cool. I've been there.
UP: Anyway, first of all, how are you? How was Europe?
DL: I'm good, Europe was awesome and it's good to be home for a little while.
UP: We last met at your in-store performance at Stinkweeds two years ago. A lot has changed since then. Congratulations on all the success.
DL: (interjecting) Whoa, you were there?
UP: Yeah, I was one of the very few lucky people in the audience that night.
DL: Yeah, that show was so sparsely attended, like maybe 15 people.
UP: I know, I was surprised because I knew that you guys were playing some bigger places and a week later I saw you play a packed show in L.A.
DL: Was that at the Ex-plex?
UP: Yeah, it was kind of weird, but a good time, if I remember correctly.
DL: Actually that time in Phoenix was our second time in Arizona. We played at the other one [Stinkweeds] maybe a year before and that was a really fun time. It was a really beautiful night and it was outdoors and the sound was great.
UP: Awesome. Anyway, Bitte Orca is becoming one of the most critically acclaimed albums of the year. It was really rather a surprise to me when I first heard it because it was unlike your other work. Can you tell me a little about the making of the record?
DL: Um, I think so. I'll try. It was we recorded in Portland, like last summer pretty much. A lot of the songs had been written while we were on an endless tour from the previous album [Rise Above], and yeah, we actually had a friend who runs Marriage records who was in the process of buying an old building. It was a huge old building that used to be used for laundry back at the turn of the century, when laundry still required horse-drawn wagons and huge machines. It was gigantic warehouse... an absolutely beautiful building. It was to be the new home of Marriage as well as a small publishing house- (stopping) long story short; there was a big room with about as big a football field and a bunch of smaller rooms. So we sort of set up in this big old building and created our own environment. It was pretty sweet.
UP: That sounds awesome. Now I have to ask you... I have been a huge fan for a long time and was wondering if we will ever hear any songs off of Graceful Fallen Mango live?
DL: (surprised) Whoa, now that's old...you had that album? I'm trying to think of what's even on that...there was "Spring is Here" and "Maggie and Me..." and I can't remember, it's been so long.
UP: Yeah, I've actually owned two copies. I first bought it in California years ago, but lost it when I moved to Phoenix and found it again at Stinkweeds on a total fluke.
DL: Oh my God, that's pretty impressive. Especially since there were only 500 of those ever made. Where did you get it in California?
UP: I found it tucked away at the Amoeba in Berkley when I was still in high school...probably around 2003.
DL: Yeah, Amber spent some time in NorCali so that makes total sense. She actually grew up in a small mountain town in Arizona for a while too.
UP: Do you know if it was north? Like maybe Flagstaff or Prescott?
DL: It was Flagstaff, actually. Yeah.
UP: Oh okay, that's neat. Are you guys heading over there on this tour?
DL: We've actually never been to Flagstaff. There aren't any places to play!
UP: There are some places, but yeah, on the tours that I have booked, I've had to play at houses mostly. It's a hard place to book sometimes, depending on whether school is in or not-- a lot of seasonal residents and snowbirds.
DL: Yeah, fuck, we'd want to go there sometime.
UP: Well maybe someone from Flagstaff will read this and contact you for a show next time! Alright, I have to ask you. How do you feel about being compared to Prince? After all, he does know how to play a ridiculous amount of instruments and he's pretty well known for the amount of control he has over his music. I often read all sorts of comparisons, but when I heard someone make a remark about how Bitte Orca sounded a little like a "sophisticated Prince record," I couldn't help but giggle a little and wonder what you would think of that.
DL: Yeah, I mean I really identify with Prince and in particular the male era...
UP: Excuse me?
DL: (laughing) I'm joking... I don't know if I am joking actually. He's cool! He's just got music coming out of him. The whole vibe is so fertile. I can dig it, why would I be offended by that? He's cool man, Prince, yeah he's way cool.
DL: I was. I've loved the Talking Heads for 10 years or more and David's vibe has always intrigued me, or actually, more so inspired me. In person and interacting creatively as people he's definitely inspiring. It was fucking cool.
UP: You guys singing together sound eerily perfect; like you're related somehow. I think it sounds great.
DL: That's really funny you'd say that. The funny thing is I laid my [vocal] track down first since it was the lower harmony. When you sing together you inflect your tone a little- if you don't then it sounds like Pavarotti and Bono trying to out sing each other. With that said, when he actually laid his track down and we listened to it, it turned out that my voice was what sounded like it was in the 60s and he sounded like he was in his 20s.
UP: I know that the compilation was created to benefit charity, but how did the collaboration come to be in the first place?
DL: Are you familiar with the Red Hot Compilations?
UP: I've heard bits and pieces of a few over the years, but I don't know the whole story.
DL: Well, (all of this is on wikipedia, by the way)...
UP: You just love wikipedia, don't you?
DL: Everything's on it! (laughing) Anyway, what happened was that the creators of Red Hot, Jon Carlen, started putting out these compilations; all of them have been for something charitable. Back in the 90s, my favorite song for many years was this song off of the compilation called "No Alternative." All these great grunge bands were on it like Pearl Jam, Better, Soundgarden...there was even a secret hidden Nirvana track in there, I'm sure. The song I loved was this Pavement song called "Unseen Power of Picket Fences." Lyrically, it was about the Civil War and R.E.M and it had the sweetest guitar riffs. But yeah, Jon Carlen and brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner, who make up half of the band The National invited us on. They knew we were fans of David Byrne and I think they either knew Byrne or people who worked for him and got him to jump on board.
UP: Very cool. I like that "Knotty Pine" sounds like it could have still been on your new record. Another thing about your new record that I wanted to talk to you about was hocketing. I know that you like to use this technique in your vocal arrangements and considering it's from what, the 1300s or something, I'd like to know how you got interested in that sort of singing style. What made you want to explore it?
DL: Oh, wow, well, (sarcastically) this is also on wikipedia. But the way I got interested in it is actually because of this awesome French label called Ocora Records. I think they have a website, and if you're into this sort of thing you should definitely check it out because I have found tons of great things on there. They have so much. You can get field recordings or all kinds of places around the world--weird Himalayan folk music, an extensive collection from Africa...anyway, hocketing interested me because essentially it is a way of sharing.
UP: That label sounds awesome. I'm actually really into found sounds too. What do you mean by sharing? Also, 90% of the reviews I read for Bitte Orca were positive, but I think there were a couple written by these older men in the Midwest somewhere that made fun of hocketing a little bit--saying that you overdid it or that they just didn't understand it.
DL: They said that? Really?
UP: It's online! Not quite wikipedia, but I think it may be google-able.
DL: Well, fuck that! (laughing)
UP: I know, right? (laughing)
DL: It's an idea of sharing. Me and Amber singing in harmony is one way of sharing melody. If we broke up the component notes, it's another way to share. It's has so much do to with communication and community.
UP: Well, I think it sounds awesome.
DL: Yeah on that label, there's even stuff like the music of pygmy tribes of Burundi...pretty out there.
UP: Oh, cool. I've never heard that before.
DL: Actually, another thing about hocketing is that it's from church music, specifically from places like Notre Dame.
UP: Is it within the French choral tradition sort of?
DL: Exactly. It's beautiful.
UP: Your band seems to be hitting up many peoples' Best Of lists this year next to albums such as Grizzly Bear's Vekatimest, the new Animal Collective, and no on. In your opinion, what are some of the best albums of the year so far?
UP: I'm glad you're a Dan Deacon fan. He put on one of the best shows I have ever seen.
DL: With the big band?
UP: Yeah, it was pretty surreal.
DL: We actually got to play with Dan on the first date that they played as a huge band. It was December 8, 2008, and it was really cool. I mean, it was a total departure in some ways but also a natural growth. I didn't see him again this year but I have been hearing how amazing it's gotten.
UP: Definitely. Oh, hey, I also wanted to ask you about another superstar collaboration you did this year in New York. I just saw the videos of you performing at the Housing Works benefit with Björk and wanted to know a little about how that came about.
DL: We had met Björk in London, and we went to this after-party and danced to Usher and Beyonce until really late and that was cool. Brandon from Stereogum is also a board member for this NPO [Housing Works]- they were having a series of concerts this year in the bookstore so he knew that we loved Björk so he asked us both. I was kinda thinking of what would be cool to do...it seemed like writing new music would just be the coolest thing ever.
UP: Do you plan on releasing it at some point?
DL: We have yet to do anything with it, but there are about six or seven songs I'd like to say that maybe some time will be released.
UP: It's great that you've gotten not one, but two opportunities to collaborate with artists you admire for such great causes.
DL: It's been a good year.
UP: Alright, well, seeing as though we've been on the phone here for some time, I'm just going to ask you one more thing if you don't mind?
DL: Sure, ask away. I've just been in the house. I had to wake up early to move my car at 8a.m.
UP: Well, its 9a.m. my time right now and I just rolled out of bed to talk to you so I feel your pain. Would you like to play a quick round of word-association with me?
DL: Uh oh, okay...I'll try...
UP: Now, it has to be the first things that pop into your head, no thinking about it and trying to be clever.
DL: Haha, okay. Let's do it.
UP: First word- Comic Book
DL: Terror Twilight!
UP: Oh, a bigger Pavement fan than I thought, huh?
DL: Am I? It's the first thing I thought of!
UP: If I am not mistaken that is the second Pavement reference in this interview.
DL: I guess I am then. Haha, what's next?
UP: First thought!
UP: Haha, alright. Last one, first thought, don't forget. Wax.
DL: (thinking a little) uhm...a shelf. Don't ask why, but really the first thing that popped into my head was a shelf. It's the banal truth.
UP: (laughing) Okay, I'll take that. Well, thank you for taking the time to talk this morning. I'll be looking forward to seeing you again in a few weeks. Would you like to tell our readers why they should come out and see you?
DL: Well, if you've got nothing better to do, you should come to our show.
UP: That's not a good way to sell your show, but let's hope people come out anyway.
DL: Yeah, it'll be fun. I hope!
You can catch Dave Longstreth with the Dirty Projectors at the Rhythm Room in Phoenix on October 28.
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