Dan Deacon has broken into wider pop consciousness over the years, but he’s still weird. His idiosyncratic take on electronics—whether it’s solo computer music or instrumental arrangements for touring ensembles—stays allied with the experimental realm through his ongoing courtship with the elements of chance and failure. And while the Baltimore artist’s widescreen sonic psychedelia transmits easily into home listening, he places a high premium on the live experience. His shows are known for fostering high energy—even hysteria—through the hyper-kineticism of the music itself (the video for new single “Learning to Relax” comes with a seizure warning), and his ever-evolving methods for directly engaging audiences and radicalizing the performance space—we should know, as he played the Electronic Beats Festival in Cologne in 2013 (this year’s lineup was announced earlier today). It’s a relevant topic for Deacon, as he’s currently touring Europe in support of his latest album, Gliss Riffer, which arrives via Domino on February 20 in Germany. We caught up with him ahead of his performance at SchwuZ in Berlin tomorrow to talk crowd dynamics and collectivity, smartphones on dancefloors, and standout shows from his early days.
You have a new album coming out next week, Gliss Riffer. We’re interested in the process of making it, of course, but also in its influences. We interviewed you about the concepts that informed America a while back, and we know that some of your other records were inspired by specific ideas.
This one started as more of a musical process. The first new music I started working on while on tour for America was a mixtape of mainly mashups, remixes, and collages. I was dragging music from iTunes into Ableton—I’m still trying to teach myself the software—and I hadn’t made music like that in a long time. Typically, I write everything and transfer it into another voice, like an acoustic instrument. But while working on this mixtape, I was like, “Wow, I like this. This is really simple and fun and when it’s done, it’s done. I’m not going to have to export any parts, transcribe them for sheet music, arrange them for humans, and then find players and book studio time.” I learned to write music by experimenting on a computer, and then in college I stuck with it because I was having a hard time finding people to play the music. I like synthesizers, I like drum machines; I don’t need to replace them with strings and brass or live drums. I hadn’t produced a record by myself since 2006, and that was mainly so I had a document of those songs to sell at shows before anyone had any idea that I existed. There was no pressure attached to that record, and there was no concept of a career or sustainability. So I made this new record in the same way I made Spiderman of the Rings, but informed by the last ten years.
I also wanted to approach it as if I was making an acoustic record, but with electronic sound’s space and delicacy. I used to just throw sounds into a box and let them coexist in whatever way, but with this one, I wanted to sculpt the sound a bit more and make it less dense. Voice was the main acoustic instrument on the record. I really love Elton John, but whenever you see a live clip of his performances it looks like an Elton John impersonator who can’t really sing, because he’s naturally lost his voice. There’s no way I’m going to have my voice when I’m older, because I’ve been abusing the hell out of it for years and years, so I figured I had I better do something with it before it goes away. If I heard that accordions were being outlawed by the UN and would all be destroyed in a massive raid by 2020, I’d start recording as much accordion music as possible. I know I’m doing that to my own voice—my range is always getting smaller and more diminished by sheer usage.
How does working mostly with computers rather than composing for and staging ensembles translate to your live show?
I’m playing solo for the first time. I work a lot with the audience, and after years of trying to come up with performance environments with that in mind, I see the stage and the whole venue as a performance space, and every person in the room as a performer. The way a performer thinks of an audience is as a group, a collective, but an audience member sees himself or herself is as an individual, as one person in a crowd. I like playing with that idea. By turning the audience into performers, they start thinking of themselves as “we” instead of “I.” You see that in sports environments, where people refer to themselves as “we,” as in, “We won the game.” But no one ever goes to a show and says, “We went to see Animal Collective. We played all our best songs.” We don’t think about music that way. But when the audience members realize that they are both a person watching and a person creating, it becomes a “we” activity.
Right off the bat, the show engages the attendees with the option of choice. You choose to participate or you choose not to, and either one of those is valid. Most of the time when you go to be entertained, you aren’t making a choice, and once you put choice into the mix, it’s a completely different psychology. It’s a fine line between participation before it drifts from entertainment and enters into the line of chore. I try to skirt that line as much as possible, and that’s where risk enters. Once you incorporate a chance element of audience, you run the risk of failure. When a show that is completely mapped out and everything is planned, there’s no experiment or risk. The one thing that keeps my music in the experimental realm is that it can fail, and that’s what keeps it exciting.
In what way are you planning to engage your audiences on this tour? You had a Smartphone app that you were using at one point…
It’s best experienced in person. That’s a cheap way of answering that question.
Well, we were curious about whether you planned to use the app again because Electronic Beats is most closely involved with Berlin’s club culture, and there’s a real stigma around having phones on the dancefloor. Clubs often institute no-photo policies or discourage phone use. So in that context, it was interesting to us that you encouraged cell phone use during concerts and integrated them into your shows.
It’s insane to try and control the way people want to experience something. Smartphones exist within the fabric of our culture, and they’re not going away. It’s just another generational shift. A while ago, concertgoers sat in chairs at a performance and watched quietly, even if they were at a Little Richard show or something like that, and between songs they’d clap and go wild. That changed into screaming while seated the entire time the performance was happening, and then that changed into standing and screaming the entire time. I’m sure people were like, “Could you please sit down? I’m trying to sit in my chair and scream.” Then chairs vanished, and mosh pits and stage diving and stuff like that occurred.
A big reason it sucks to use your phone at a show is because there’s no good way to do it. We’re trying to put a piece of modern technology into performance practices that were largely devised in the 1800s. I think we’re on the cusp of new artforms, and entirely new fields of art that we’re not engaging in yet. We now have rooms of people who have very sophisticated equipment. Why not utilize them? We have the ability to transmit sound and light and video and pinpoint them in a space. You can either embrace it or be upset about it, but it’s the melting iceberg in the room. With that said, I don’t use the app anymore.
So what’s interesting to you these days? What are you experimenting with in a live environment?
For the first time, I’m really using the stage. I don’t know if I’ve ever played onstage in Berlin, because I usually play on the floor with the audience. I used to think about the whole venue as a performance space, except the stage. I brought my own lights and would set up in a weird spot in the room, but I’ve started realizing how idiotic it was to not use that portion of the room for anything except as a platform for audience and photographers. I can understand now how stages evolved over thousands of years, and that’s really opening up a lot for me. What can we do with lighting techniques? What equipment can we use now that it’s not going to be put on the floor and get completely smashed and destroyed? There’s a larger theatrical element to the show. It’s a work in progress, but I’m excited for the set to grow and shift and change with that in mind, with the concept of the entire room as a place for performance actions.
Someone in our office said they remember seeing a lot of your earlier appearances in New York, particularly the times you opened for DEVO and noise musicians. These days, you’re playing much larger venues and headlining bills, but do any of those shows from five or ten years back stand out?
I remember playing this really crazy warehouse space full of beautiful weirdos in Detroit, and it was really fun. Midway through the second or third song—and normally I get pretty lost in a performance and I don’t even know what’s happening—I looked up and everyone was screaming and smiling so big, and I had a strobe light going, and it just looked crazy. I just stood there, shocked. The energy the audience was giving was just so much. I was like, “I could sneak out of the room right now and this could just go on forever.” It wasn’t the craziest show I ever did, it wasn’t the most extreme, but it was the first one where I recognized what was happening.
Dan Deacon plays in Berlin on Friday, February 20 at SchwuZ, full info and tickets here.