The Audience Whisperer

Dan Deacon reflects on his musical offerings via record, in concert and with context

click to enlarge Dan Deacon - Photo:  Frank Hamilton
Photo: Frank Hamilton
Dan Deacon

Dan Deacon’s dense electronic soundscapes are not subtle. The longtime Baltimore (by way of Long Island, N.Y.) resident’s music teems with buzzing synths and maximalist beats, his processed yet oddly humanizing voice complementing instead of cutting through the mix. Deacon’s breakthrough album, 2007’s Spiderman of the Rings, ushered in a one-man sonic kaleidoscope — it moves from a relatively compact song like the trance-inducing “The Crystal Cat” (which sounds like Stereolab on ecstasy) directly into “Wham City,” a nearly 12-minute epic of ping-ponging synth lines and tribal vocals that brings to mind a soundtrack to an especially manic version of Super Mario Bros. Deacon has released three albums — 2009’s Bromst, 2012’s America and 2015’s Gliss Riffer — in the 10 years since Spiderman of the Rings, each a tweak on what has come before, while also taking on a variety of other projects, from film scores to art installations.

Then there are Deacon’s live shows, interactive affairs in which our ringleader often plays within the audience and directs those around him to get out of their heads and into the moment. CityBeat recently connected with Deacon to discuss everything from his breakthrough album to his reluctance to be lumped into the EDM scene.

CityBeat: You’re in between album cycles right now. What can we expect of your MidPoint set? Will you be pulling from your entire discography? Will you be playing new stuff?

Dan Deacon: When I’m in between (album/touring) cycles, these shows are the most interesting. It’s easy to make a set when I’m on an album cycle because I’m pulling from a new record. But it’s fun to experiment between albums. That’s when I really like to try out new material and change it really heavily. I’ll write a song and I’ll think it’s completely done, and then I’ll play it live and I’ll think, “This section needs to be twice as long or half as long” or “The drums need to be completely remixed” or “I don’t like how this part flows in the set.” So all that can inform how things are going to sit on an album to come. Or I could have a song that really works well live, but I know it will never work on a record. So I’ll be doing about a third new material that I’m experimenting with and trying to find more details within, and then two-thirds older material sprinkled throughout. 

CB: You’re known for your audience interaction and mixing things up depending on the context in which you find yourself. Why is that important to you?

DD: Live shows are mixes of a particular artist’s material across the board. I remember when I first took on the scoring job for Francis Ford Coppola (for 2011’s Twixt), he told me how envious he was of musicians. He said, “I make a film, and it’s the same film forever. I can go see Steely Dan and hear them play ‘Peg,’ and it could be different every single time — intentionally.” That really spoke to me. I kept thinking about how this is a valuable art form, and not only is it in constant variation of what it could be from either a recorded song (or) a performed song, but also the context in which people listen is so diverse compared to the way we watch film or read books or experience theater. Obviously there is great diversity within all those art forms as well, but music has this amazing ability of being so intermingled with so many different aspects of our lives.

CB: You recently released a 10th-anniversary edition of your breakthrough album, Spiderman of the Rings. What do you hear when you listen to it today? How have you changed since then?

DD: I look back on that time fondly and also with many cringes. I was very stubborn and my ideology was ridiculous. I was convinced the world was going to end in 2012 — maybe I’m not convinced it didn’t — and so I had no concept of future planning. I don’t know how anyone else reacts in their early 20s, but that was a period of my life that was very crazy, for lack of a better term, and it definitely shaped the way I traveled and toured and made music and what I was making music about. I’m glad I’m not that person anymore, but obviously after 10 years you’d want to grow. Every 10 years I’d like to look back fondly on those 10 years and yet still be glad that I’m still not standing in those shoes.

CB: You once said that Spiderman of the Rings was like an appetizer and that its follow-up, Bromst, was more like a meal. Do you still think about how albums relate to and play off one another when going into a project?

DD: That was the first time I had any coverage in the media, and I would kind of just go off the cuff. It’s not that I didn’t mean what I said then, but I was bewildered by the way people were internalizing and listening to Spiderman of the Rings. The main word that plagued me during that time was the word “wacky.” I hated the word “wacky.” To me “wacky” implied such a heavy coat of insincerity. It drove me crazy. 

It was also around the same time I was starting to be programmed on shows with — and introduced to — what would become the EDM scene. I was not used to playing in that environment at all, and when I performed to very inebriated crowds, it was really difficult for me to perform when I wasn’t playing in the crowd. I couldn’t get down. It was very hard for me, so I wanted to make something that was less easy to use as escapism. I became very self-conscious about being lumped into that scene. I just didn’t want it. It was disenfranchising to me as a performer.

I was like, “I have to make very distinct changes.” That led to Bromst and America, but also led me to like shedding a part of myself that didn’t give a fuck. And I don’t think I really got that back until recently, where it was just like, “I shouldn’t care what people think.”

DAN DEACON plays the MidPoint Music Festival’s Masonic Cathedral Stage at 7:30 p.m. Sunday.