"Try faking it," one card says. Draw another, and it exhorts you to "Honour thy error as a hidden intention." Flip through the whole deck and you'll be barraged with open-ended questions, advice, and cryptic statements like "Gardening not Architecture” and “Ghost Echoes.”
These cards are all Oblique Strategies, a deck of cards developed by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt in 1975 as a tool for fostering creativity. For musician Dan Deacon, the cards became his partner to help him finish his latest album.
After five years of doing film scores, working with the New York City Ballet, and curating film festivals, Deacon has returned to being a solo artist. His latest record, Mystic Familiar, represents a major departure from his older work. While it features the pounding rhythms, hypnagogic electronic-pop sounds, and just-drank-two-red-eyes-back-to-back energy that he conjured up with ease on records like Bromst and Spiderman of the Rings, it also finds him singing with his natural voice (sans effects and filters) for the first time and incorporating acoustic instruments into the mix.
Eno’s deck of cards served as a kind of collaborator on Mystic Familiar, helping Deacon transition into being a one-man band again.
“I did most of the production myself, so that could be a real nerve-wracking process, wondering if I’ve gone down the right path or making the right choice,” Deacon says. “The cards are a good way to visualize there being another person in the room. If I agreed with the card, I would incorporate that idea into the next step of the process. If I disagreed with the card, I would still try to find some way of using it. I’d try to understand why I thought it didn’t apply or how it wasn’t applicable. It’s the same way you’d be if there was a person there: You have to have a conversation about why you thought it was a bad idea.”
Deacon is in good company. Both Bowie and Eno used the cards to help guide them in the studio for parts of the Berlin trilogy of albums (Low, Heroes, and Lodger), and the cards took an even larger role in shaping Bowie's '95 album Outside.
The cards tap into a tradition of aleatoric music, also known as “chance operations,” in which artists use random processes like cards, dice, divination tools, cut-ups, or the natural world itself as inspiration for creating new material.
It's an approach to creativity that extends beyond music. The most famous chance operator of them all was the avant-garde composer John Cage, who used tools like the I Ching and star maps as a key part of his creative practice. "Get yourself out of whatever cage you find yourself in," Cage wrote. For him, leaving things to chance was a lock-pick that always got the job done.
“I was a real fan and follower of John Cage’s philosophies in college, and Eno’s cards seemed to embrace those,” Deacon says. “Chance has been a part of my process since the very beginning. I love leaving things to chance and seeing what can occur.”
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Basing the record around the occult concept of a familiar (an animal/spirit who serves as an assistant to a magician, acts as a conduit between them and higher forces, and can also become an extension of their will), Mystic Familiar finds Deacon communing with the forces of nature and going deep inward in his songs.
It’s some of his most personal songwriting to date, brought to life by unique sounds generated by his computer-guided player piano. What gives Mystic Familiar its heft is Deacon’s unadorned voice. He sounds small and sincere in the mix, an earnest voice trying to make sense of a wild cosmos raging all around him.
“I’ve wanted to do it for a while,” Deacon says about singing with untreated vocals. “It’s a texture that I’ve never used before. My whole compositional approach is exploration: find new sounds and textures. It seemed like the best idea was to look in my backyard first.”
Dan Deacon is scheduled to perform on Tuesday, March 10, at Crescent Ballroom. Tickets are $16 via Eventbrite.