Dan Deacon has been an underground agitator since the early ’00s, when he first broke out of the local music scene in Baltimore. His academic background – he studied at the State University New York’s music conservatory – has endowed his bit-crunched and brash compositions with a sense of purpose and poise. In other words, he’s experimental without being a dick about it.
His eighth album America, aside from being one of his most most sonically naked records he’s ever made, is also a deeply political record which sees Deacon tackling the sort of issues that begin to take hold when you step away from the internet or look up from your phone. He’s even gone so far as to print the lyrics with the record for the first time. It’s an interesting development, and we tracked him down on a flying visit to Berlin to find out what’s behind it. Photo: Shawn Brackbill
Listening to this record, my first response was how beautiful and expansive it is— particularly compared to your earlier records, which felt much more processed.
Most of the music is geography-based. I feel like that’s one of the things that I get the most inspiration from. I’ve done endless road trips in the United States, you go from these city centers that are largely crumbling – many cities in the States are crumbling, old post-industrial, especially on the East Coast where I live. Then you drive out of the cities and you’re instantly in these beautiful wonderlands of earth. I really like that. I don’t drive myself, so when I do travel I look out the window. It’s these two juxtaposed influences: one being the music which is influenced by geography and the other being the lyrics, which are influenced by the other side of things…mainly my role in what I perceive to be a system that I don’t want to be a part of. But there’s no way not to be a part of it.
What do you mean exactly?
Most of technology comes out of comfort and ease; it’s trying to make our lives easier and easier. I think of it like a scale: that the more comfortable I am actually means I am making someone else more uncomfortable. Especially when you see those photos of piles and piles of old computers.
Like the “Intolerable Beauty” series of photographs by Chris Jordan which forces you to confront the amount of electronic waste we create. It’s profoundly distressing.
I can’t complain about fracking and the use of natural gas if I still want my house to be the perfect temperature. I feel like there’s a dialogue between the music and the lyrics. I wanted to retain an optimism. I used to be quite nihilistic and almost wanted humanity to fade into the ether and disappear off the earth.
Do you think the gradual shift from nihilism to hope could also be a product of maturity?
It could be. Probably. A lot of people are nihilists in their twenties…you start to become aware of your role in the system. You want the system to collapse, especially if you’re counter-culture, and most musicians tend to be, well, at least hoping that they’re counterculture. Maybe not. Maybe musicians now want to be the mainstream.
It’s strange how music is apolitical now. It’s reflected within the music press, once a platform for angry left-wing politics. A lot of music press is trying to have the next new thing and essentially that’s quite hollow. If there’s no substance in that then you’re just like the people who write “first!” in the comments.
That’s the nature of capitalism: new, new, new, new. Or Greatest Hits. The music press is conservative: look at their advertising base. People are advertising in those magazines for very specific reasons: because of the demographics that they reach.
You recently brought out a phone app. How does this square with your worldview? Your place in the system?
It doesn’t. I think it fits in with my general aesthetic, though maybe aesthetic is the wrong word. I think the basis of my work tries to revolve around changing contexts, and when I play live I try recontextualize the space as much as possible. I utilize the audience as if they’re another instrument, or another element of the performance so that they’re not just there to watch but to actively participate. However, if you put too much emphasis on the audience, it’s no longer an entertainment they signed up for because they internalize it differently. I like to think people realize they are both an individual and a member of a group: there’s no real division of those things in how we live our lives. We live our lives as individuals but also as members of a society, and that society has common rules and boundaries and codes and conducts. Even counter-culture has those rules. Do you remember when you used to be bored and you used to be able to think? Now you play a game or send an email.
You’ve called the record America – aside from the topographical reasons, you don’t call an album that without betraying a bald sense of ambition.
It’s a big word. I wanted a title that would serve many different emotions. Nobody internalizes that word in the same way. It’s a mixture of love, hate, pride and shame, especially within America. I can only imagine what this word means to Europeans, in the UK or Asia. But you’d be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t heard the word. A lot of Americans are obsessed with trying to not associate with being American, and that in itself is American. When Americans think of a stereotypical American they think of someone who is not them. “Oh it’s these Republicans from the South”, “oh it’s these New England liberals” etc. Especially within youth culture. A lot of politicians and corporations are like “this is what America’s about” and most of the time I’m like “no it’s not.” I wanted to contribute to that dialogue: America is also this. But it’s not a patriotic record.
…because Patriotism has certain connotations?
There’s no need for countries. It’s another way of dividing and defining people, creating these differences. Cultures obviously exist; there’s a difference between British culture and German culture. I could move to Paris and live there for 40 years and when I’m 70 I’ll still be an American who lives in Paris.
In the same way you can strive to construct an identity, but that doesn’t always translate to how people process you.
I think identity is a big theme on the record. More like me questioning my role and coming to terms what I’m to do if I’m to better the world. And the only way to better the world is to better myself, Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” sort of style!
Again, that’s quite a grand statement.
I’m not trying to contribute to some sort of dialogue when all you’re doing is creating candy. Candy is nice. I ate a piece a moment ago and it was great. At the same time, I can’t thrive on it. There’s so much sugar and insincerity within the indie scene and pop music. I wanted to create something that had an additional element. I want it to be successful in the sense that a group of friends can get together and take bong rips and chill but they can also really listen to it. And maybe it would cause them to ask some questions in their head. I think that’s the most important thing someone can do: get someone to think and to start asking questions.