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.
Terre Thaemlitz AKA DJ Sprinkles has produced some of the most striking and well observed electro-acoustic and house recordings over the last two decades. A prolific writer and educator in the field of non-essentialist transgenderism and queerness, owner of the Comatonse record label and DJ.
Anton Maiof caught up with him on the eve of Skylax Records’ re-release of the 2006 K-S.H.E. album Routes Not Roots to discuss the future of the industry, the eighties’ queer house scene, and why experimental music sucks in 2011…
I wanted to start off talking about Zeitkratzer, who came to my attention through the recent Whitehouse interpretations CD, and wanted to know how that came about?
I first worked with Zeitkratzer a little over 10 years ago. As you know from the Whitehouse album they do more acoustic renditions of electro-acoustic music. Between different types of confusion and me trying to interfere with their system, we made a rule that they would only do covers of my dance music rather than the Mille Plateaux stuff. I was in Berlin working on the arrangements, and from the recordings of the concert we put out the vinyl on Comatonse in 2001. Over the years they’ve been performing renditions of my tracks and the ones that came out on Skylax are from the Volksbühne collaboration. They know I don’t like to do live instrumentation, so they forced me to play piano and do the vocals on that one track. We’re playing with each other, it’s kind of a sarcastic thing where we’re pushing each other to do things that we normally don’t do, and it somehow works. I’m always surprised how good it sounds.
Reading through your website, a piece that stuck out for me was the hilariously titled “iPod is raping the rapists who raped my village”, where you are addressing the change of artists breaking out into new avenues that would have been considered career suicide 10 years ago. You don’t seem play live very often?
I wrote that when EFA was collapsing, and this coincided with the art world discovering sound art again and when there was a surplus of producers who were out of work in the music industry. But no, I don’t. I mean, the whole of my catalogue aside from the Zeitkratzer incidents is a critique of live performance and improvisation particularly because of my US background. My interest in electronic music is a reaction against the rock ‘n’ roll domination in America, which plays in my way of looking at pop music and pop culture. It’s anti-rock ’n’ roll and performance, I mean I parody it, the piano solos release of Kraftwerk and Gary Numan covers, they’re computer programmed but made to sound very human. Which is part of the whole trick. It’s fooled a number of people, I got an email the other day from a guy who’s pretty high up in the neo-classical world, even though it’s in the liner notes how they’re made, he didn’t read the text and thought they were real piano solos.
Why do you feel rock ’n’ roll needs criticising in such a way?
Growing up in the US, music to me was about cultural, social context and cultural application, and the music of the guys who’d beat me up was rock ’n’ roll. So I developed a taste in music that was something they wouldn’t listen to and that’s what led me to listen to techno-pop in the seventies.
For me in the nineties, the guys who would beat me up in school all listened to techno and drum and bass.
Well, techno is another thing because I’ve never liked it and it’s very important to distinguish between techno-pop and techno.
We’re talking Yellow Magic Orchestra here?
Yellow Magic Orchestra, Telex, Kraftwerk, Gary Numan, Devo, of course. That’s all very different from techno. Also, within the house world too, the house and techno scenes in NY in the eighties and early nineties were completely different, the techno scene was very white heterosexual. You had Junior Vasquez who moved between the two worlds, but in general, if you went to the Limelight to some techno party, it was all straight guys with their girlfriends dragged along. The house scene was more queer and more racially diverse and, for me, more interesting.
More interesting, how?
For me, the thing that is interesting about seventies and eighties queer music is that it pre-dates the pride movement. It doesn’t have this fiction about gays and lesbians operating in their own little isolated worlds, it’s more about the trauma of functioning in a hetero-sexist dominant culture, where the gay men’s lovers are straight, and that power dynamic is for me what makes it more real and more interesting rather than the post liberation parade stuff. I find the idea of ‘pride’ is a lesson unlearned, we’ve been a victim of somebody’s pride for centuries. That’s the whole problem. Really, investigating the systems of shame that form us rather than positing pride, we’re obviously formed more through shame and conditioned in that way. To tackle these systems directly is better than to put us into some kind of ideological bubble of pride and pretend all you have to do is feel good about yourself and the world will change. I don’t buy that.
You’ve worked a lot in the field of experimental music as well, and there seems to be a trend in the experimental world to raise the question or put up a mirror and then deliberately choose not to talk about the issue directly.
I mean, for most people if you throw out a noun, they think it’s thematic, but what about the subject? What about the noun? ‘Famine’, I mean what the fuck about famine? What are you trying to say? The noise scene seems to be a very simple invocation of themes and then allowing the audience to think about it. If you let a neo-liberal audience ponder a verb or a noun for an hour, in the end, so what?
Would you say that the topics you want to talk about come out in the compositional structure, given that it is mostly instrumental music?
Well, I definitely try to layer things. And I always generally combine some kind of text, image and audio, and they not only re-enforce each other but they also play off each other, so it’s not simply the text explaining the music or the music playing back into how the text functions. Music otherwise becomes too poetic, by which I mean it becomes too vague and imprecise. And that’s why it’s so easy to just suggest a theme rather than pinpoint it, it’s quite difficult to let people go deep into a subject than deep into a mood, there is so much mood stuff already and I don’t find any place in that world. The thing I can bring to a live situation is really to talk with people. They can hear the music at home; to me that’s how can I directly interact with the audience.
I had a conversation with a well known dubstep artist recently about how when he goes to a club he doesn’t want to see any performance.
It depends on the context. In a club I like the DJ booth, to be in that eighties style where you can’t even find it, you’re dancing with other people. These days, the booth is always front and centre as if we’re performers, and though from a critical perspective it is certainly a type of performance, it’s an extension of tape performance. Actually, because of fights around that subject I was actually cancelled from the release party for ‘Midtown 120 Blues’, because I refused to do a conventional live set, I insisted that DJ Sprinkles is a DJ act and that it’s appropriate for me to DJ at the release party, and so I was cancelled and wasn’t invited.
You were cancelled from your own release party?
Awesome, yeah? So this shit still happens. The conventions around performance and how this affects us economically are still very real, we have to talk about those conventions.
So, do you find you prefer doing the lectures? You’re one of a few people who have broadened out into other mediums than just music.
To be honest, I do have a better time where I can interact with people. I have fun DJ’ing but often the dynamics are something you don’t know. At least when I’m doing the lectures I know I’m stepping into something that might bore them but I’ll be able to talk with them about it and work through it. In a DJ situation if I’m playing late eighties NY deep house which is terribly mellow and people want this harder techno, they’re fucked, I don’t have it. There is a lot of hostility that comes out of that moment, I’ve had people throw bottles and push the turntables. People can be fucking assholes to DJs. So with performance, I’ll talk before and during the performance itself I’ll normally be way off stage so people can’t look at me. When I first started doing tape performance and at the same time doing this critique of drag performance and trying to get away from this idea of the campy drag show. Other people would be doing DAT performance; they would rock the mixer so I would do the opposite and just sit there playing back the tape. Now they all just sit there. They stole my act! So I started talking more, I’m trying to get people to think about their expectations around pleasure and performance. I can’t imagine anyone coming to my concerts and not being bored shitless, but there is a purpose to this boredom, it’s about trying to get away from the continual momentum that modern society insists that we all must have.
The feeling of being plugged in?
Yeah the chaotic overload, they way they mix up things on the news. The strategic placing of human interest stories with the economic stuff and finishing it with five minutes of sports to totally flush your feelings down the toilet before it’s over.
From an artist’s perspective, do you feel there is the same insistence with the work you do?
I mean, we’re given contracts that should be given to someone like Elton John from alternative record labels that make no sense with the economic scale that we operate at. The model that is held in the minds of the business people, the labels, the promoters is completely unsustainable.
So it’s important for you to run your own label?
Well, this way I can make mistakes as opposed to being a slave to the economics of sales.
Do you have ideas about what will happen to the music industry in the future?
Well, I don’t know. From the technical side, I have to say, even though I’m involved in computer music, I’m not the most high-tech person. There was some talk a while back that everything was going to be server-based and you would purchase download rights; maybe that is how it’ll go. Of course, the industry will always find a way to preserve their economy, but will that economy provide for producers? Of course not. I only perform out of necessity and if I didn’t have to I wouldn’t. So I’m only interested in producing commodities. To tackle these systems [of shame] directly is better than to put us into some kind of ideological bubble of pride and pretend all you have to do is feel good about yourself and the world will change. I don’t buy that. from a critical perspective out of consumer fetishism, and that comes more from being a collector and a consumer myself.
What do you think drew you to the sound world of the K-S.H.E. project?
The theme ‘Routes Not Roots’, is about critiquing the natural associations around music, particularly that house music is very black rootsy music when most producers these days are white Europeans, and what does it mean to me as a white kid from the American mid west who then DJ’d in transsexual clubs in New York and now DJs in really de-sexualized clubs in Japan as a foreigner? How do we manage to lose all these signifiers? So one of the interests I have coming from the US and growing up in Missouri, which was a very racist part of the world, was the parallel of African-American jazz and blues with the white world of country and rock, and how these came about through segregation, the influences were clearly going both ways. There is a way in which we listen to the music with a kind of prejudice where we read race into it. So one of the things I did with the album was to re-contextualise country music breaks as African-American house music. On the one hand, that was a reference to growing up and also to one route of how I came to house music, and to complicate the race associations around sounds.
The subjects of your lectures are mostly about gender and sexuality issues and changes, and I’m wondering what drew you to Japan and how the experience changed you?
I think that the changes that we go through are completely unexpected and different from the reasons why you might move somewhere and it’s a little complicated to boil down one’s reactions to a digestible single response, because it involves economic factors and many different things. The important thing is not to say, “oh well, I always really loved Japan”. The biggest thing was I never really expected to have an opportunity to leave the United States, I was really unhappy there, I feel physically safe for the first time in my whole life. One of the wonderful things is having a perspective and seeing what problems you had because of something in yourself or what was culturally based, and to experience that was something I’m really grateful for. The first 6 months I was in Japan, I couldn’t figure out why I was on edge all the time, and actually I had to learn from the body level how to feel safe, I was 32 years old, it’s amazing. That’s a life changing experience.
How do you find being an artist in Japan?
Well, I don’t identify as an artist or a musician in that sense, I am someone who exists off media economies and in that way I play the role of artist. I DJ now and then and I have some electro-acoustic concerts, but I don’t perform here very often and I am still very reliant on European funding.
There seems to be a weight of sadness or melancholy to the K-S.H.E. tracks that comes out through the sparseness and repetition. Was that deliberate?
Yeah, it’s the melancholy of what I consider to be the tragedy behind so much of the house scene and especially the trans-gender and queer house scenes which are just so much about poverty, drugs, prejudice and so many things that are underlying this attempt to dance, and that was something I’m always very tuned into. I don’t drink or do drugs, so all my experiences were from a very sober perspective, which only increases the depressive nature of it all. Even the ‘Stand Up’ track is totally house to me and about that time and those issues. But as a consumer, I like weird releases.
Do you think we could be part of the last generation who treat an album as a whole listening experience with modern day consumers picking and choosing tracks from mp3 sites?
Well, it’s strange that the concept of the album is very in flux right now. The theme of my next project is really questioning the role of the album in the mp3 era. I found out that the largest mp3 file you can open is 4 gigabytes, at top quality that’s 29 hours and 40 minutes, so I did a piano solo that exact length called ‘Meditation On Wage Labour And The Death Of The Album’. It’s a meditation on this economic labour crisis for producers to produce endless amounts of content while our advances and royalties are going down.
We all leave our fingerprints everywhere. Usually they go by unnoticed, because usually they are not that important. But then there is this certain someone that picks up on a simple fact like that and creates artwork that just totally makes sense and makes you think “oh what a witty idea, why the heck didn’t I think about that?”
American artist Kevin Van Aelst had such an idea and recreated fingerprints with every day objects, such as mustard, weenies, wool, pie, yarn, cassette tape, sugar or even simply scribbled it on paper.
Kevin was born in Elmira, New York and currently lives and works in New Haven, Connecticut. Photos of his can be seen weekly illustrating "The Medium" in the New York Times Magazine. But for now, concentrate on these inventive fingerprints.