Originally published as the cover story in the Winter '09 issue of State of Mind
"Well‚ you know what? They say genius is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration. Well‚ when that perspiration goes out the door‚ I kind of doubt that we're going to see what I would call brilliant artists anymore." David Grisman -- Renowned Mandolin Player‚ Music Innovator‚ and Older Person
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When the changing of the guard happens‚ even the most open-minded can get left behind. If you haven't yet seen Dan Deacon perform live‚ then you're missing out on key stages in one of the greatest musical evolutions of our time. Rocking ecto-green sweatpants‚ a t-shirt from your Aunt circa Christmas '88 you tossed years ago‚ bathed in sweat from both him and the crowd‚ glasses taped together‚ slightly balding‚ slightly cresting gut -- he's easily one of the most beautiful sights your eyes could ever behold. To say his performance is infectious is like saying Cheez Whiz is yellow‚ you know‚ because that shit is really yellow. Opting to perform amidst the crowd‚ with his rig in the center of the floor‚ his table consists of keyboards‚ iPods‚ signal generators‚ harmonizers‚ and pedals compiled to create an onslaught of sonic ecstasy.
Collective consciousness is a constant underlying theme for Deacon: from his involvement with the Baltimore artist collective Wham City‚ to his successful acts of one hundred percent crowd participation‚ to the fact that he says "You know what I'm saying?" 20 times during this interview‚ Dan Deacon is striving for unity. Yet despite his apparent lack of concern over his physical image‚ and his honest lack of fear regarding people's reaction to his music‚ there is one notable distress. He is sincerely worried that people will think he's doing this all for the wrong reason -- that people will think he's a self-righteous dick using shock to make a buck. Fortunately‚ that notion couldn't be further from the truth. He's garnered a certain degree of underground fame with his 2007 release‚ Spiderman of the Rings‚ but most notably with his live acts of soul-transmutation‚ in which he takes no prisoners in making sure everyone in the room is part of the show. At times the floor will develop into 300 people running together in a circle‚ a synchronized crowd throbbing when no music is playing‚ or maybe just a dance-off between your local librarian and that teenage kid who mows your lawn.
But what at first glance can seem like apparent chaos‚ is a true master of music and performance taking control of his art. Studying electro-acoustic and computer music composition at Purchase's Conservatory of Music‚ Deacon became an expert in sound manipulation. Experimentation forged new possibilities‚ and responders struggled to find the right words to describe his music. "Absurdist" was thrown around a lot‚ as was "futureshock." But the latter seems to do the best job of describing it to the unprepared: this is only a future shock for those still holding onto the old; for the rest of us‚ this is future embrace‚ or present possibility music. With the ease that new music can be heard and passed around today‚ as compared to the lost modes of constant touring and word-of-mouth‚ older members of the musical establishment‚ like David Grisman and renowned blogger Bob Lefsetz‚ don't believe that a modern genius can be pushed hard enough to develop to fruition. Ironically‚ it's this modern possibility of having your music so easily accessible that pushed Deacon to so quickly grow his sound: videos gone viral on YouTube have over a million views‚ and nearly his entire back catalogue is available for free download off his website. It's been a fairly rapid path of change‚ and with his latest‚ Bromst‚ things take a whole other leap. First‚ the album is meant to be performed by an ensemble‚ rather than just Dan on the floor. The music itself is magic‚ doing things with electronic music that have never been done before. This is no techno; there is no "untz." This is an organic conglomerate of cycling ideas and melodies‚ with peaks that can be emotionally crushing. It's easily one of the best albums of 2009‚ and "Snookered" just might turn out to be one of the most important songs of the decade. This is the work of a new genius‚ and a statement of the new age. This is the new face of beauty.
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Adam King: So I'm about the same age as you -- I was born in '80 -- and there was that whole '90s rave/electronica/techno scene‚ which never appealed to me.
Dan Deacon: Yeah‚ same here.
So when‚ then‚ did this appeal of getting into electronic music happen to you?
Well‚ I guess I never really got into that kind of electronic music‚ and still haven't. I'm not really sure. I think the most electronic band I listened to was They Might Be Giants. That was in junior high and high school. And Devo would be the other electronic band. The guys in those bands don't consider themselves electronic music. I mean‚ Devo might in some degree. But anyway‚ I got more into computer music‚ and I think that's what naturally geared me toward electronic music. I was using a MIDI program and just writing music that was supposed to be for real instruments but on a computer. And then it already had that weird sound‚ and everyone always said it sounded like video game music. I realized I was never was going to get 12 saxophone players together to play a piece of music‚ so I wouldn't write it with a saxophone in mind. I started writing exclusively as a MIDI instrument. It sounded so fake; there was no need to make it sound real at all.
That's when I started focusing on timbre. And I think timbre is the main thing that you think about when you write electronic music‚ because you're trying to create new sounds or augment existing sounds to make them sound unique. One of the main focuses‚ the main impetus‚ of electronic music was to create new and unheard sounds back in its inception at the turn of the 20th century. Mainly‚ the way I got into live electronic music was finding two signal generators in the garbage‚ and then‚ a few months before that‚ a bunch of my friends and I‚ we dumpster dived often‚ and there were tons and tons of records that the library was throwing out. You know‚ more records than you could fit in the back of two pickup trucks. We just sat down there sifting. I was studying music‚ and there were composers' names that I remembered. I can't remember if there was one particular that… I guess A Rainbow in Curved Air really stood out. It was like‚ wow‚ this is really an amazing piece of electronic music.
This is when you were at Purchase?
Yeah. I was listening to a lot of modern influence. I wasn't listening to much minimalist music. I think a lot of atonal or serial or very noise-based. The composers would never say "noise-based‚" but non-tonal music. And then I started getting more and more into electronic music. I guess it sort of snuck up on me that I was writing a lot of music for electronics. It never really dawned on me. And I liked writing music that made people dance‚ and I hated dance music. But I liked to dance‚ and I liked throwing parties at our house. It was a very organic process that just sort of grew out of: I have a computer and these boxes‚ and my friends have pedals I can borrow. Why don't I try to make music with these? And I like to dance. Let's get people to dance. And it's fun to throw a dance party where the music isn't like dance music but everyone dances. Does that make any sense?
Yeah‚ totally. So why the switch now to a big band?
It's sort of a switch back‚ because when I was at school I was writing a lot for acoustic instruments with electronics‚ and I just wanted to get back into that. I got away from it for a few years because I didn't have any money and I wanted to tour just by myself‚ which was a lot easier to do‚ and now I'm in a situation where I can have people play the music and we can go on tour and actually come home without losing thousands of dollars. We can make the money. That's the main thing. When I first got out of school I was like‚ I'm never going to find people that are going to devote weeks of their time to learn something that when we play it there will be five people there. [laughs] That's a waste of everyone's time when I could be playing music just me‚ build up an audience‚ and then maybe hopefully one day I will trick people into liking my music. And then I can trick people into playing it.
[laughs] Good plan.
Thank you‚ thank you.
Is there any hesitation that you'll lose some of your fans or some people who go to a Dan Deacon show anticipating this raucous‚ all-involved scene on the floor? Is there any fear that those people are going to walk in and it's not what they want to see and they turn around?
I have no fear. I'm sure that's going to happen to some people. I think with the new album I'll both lose some fans and gain some fans. I think the same thing happened with Spiderman of the Rings. I think that happens with any band when a record comes out‚ unless they just keep churning out the same record and doing the same performance again and again and again. I try to say it as often as possible: don't have expectations of anything‚ and you won't be disappointed. Like‚ if you go to a movie expecting it to be fucking awesome‚ and it's not the movie you wanted it to be or it gets hyped up a bunch‚ you're going to be disappointed even if it's a good movie. You know what I mean?