Desaparecidos' Denver Dalley on writing Read Music/Speak Spanish and the artistic use of racial slurs

Categories: Q&A
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Photo by Zach Hollowell
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This week's print edition features a portion of an interview Gimme Noise conducted with Denver Dalley, the guitarist responsible for countless anthemic punk riffs on Desaparecidos' sole album, Read Music/Speak Spanish. For the uninitiated -- or those with fading memory -- this is a project Dalley hatched with Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst a decade ago. Its bleak (and catchy) contents include one of our top Minnesota songs of all-time, "Mall of America."

As the band nears the launch of its 2012 reunion tour Thursday night at the 400 Bar, plenty of the themes of this politically defiant album still reign -- especially in an election year. Read about the polarizing effects of their album, the songwriting process, and a racially charged tune that they kept under wraps.


So when the band first got together back in 2001, what drove you guys to make this politically and socially loaded record?

We were all pretty young and just energetic back then -- and angry, I'm sure. I think it just kind of fit. At the time it came out, everyone was really, really scared to say anything that could be remotely construed as anti-American. After 9/11, all the marquees were "God bless America" on all the restaurants. And I think it was refreshing to say, "Obviously this is a great tragedy that has brought us together, but at the same time we should still be able to criticize constructively what the American Dream has become." And that's mainly in regards to people like us growing up in the Midwest. 
 
And when the album came out, it was received a polarizing fashion. Do you think that would have been interpreted differently had it not been so close to September 11?

Well, we never really toured on it or promoted on it directly. We did like a five-week US tour on our own. We kind of started to go our separate ways, and then we did a two-week stint on the East Coast with Jimmy Eat World. It's one of those records that kind of gets passed around. It just came out at a time when everyone was walking on eggshells, and it seemed so against the rules to say anything that could be interpreted as anti-American. 

Did you guys come together planning for a Rites-of-Spring brand of punk for the sound Read Music/Speak Spanish?

The ideas and sound kind of coincided. For a lot of those songs, Conor or I would come in with an idea for a riff, and a lot of times we would have the whole thing completely finished within 20 minutes. It was a chemistry that just kind of happened. We purposely rush-recorded that album to give it kind of a live feel, and you can obviously hear that it's kind of a rushed recording. 

Desaparecidos is inevitably discussed as a piece of the Conor Oberst canon, but listening to the work you've done, especially with Jade Tree Records, the guitar parts seem more akin to your background. Did you and him have a pretty democratic writing process?

Yeah, Conor and I were the chief songwriters. He obviously wrote the lyrics and everything. I would say six out of those nine songs were ones that I kind of came up with. Then we would put those pieces together and each make the individual parts our own. But it's collaborative, and we all have our parts on it. "Happiest Place on Earth" is one that Conor really came in with. A lot of the times, it would just click and be a very quick process. It was never, "oh, this is So-and-So's band, and they have the final say."

Because Desaparecidos' music was so ideologically loaded, did you guys ever have disagreements on what social or political platforms were being displayed in the music?

We were all pretty much on the same page. There's one song [that's not] released that had a lyric that was from the perspective of someone more closed-minded, and so there was a racial slur in it. And we all kind of discussed it. But there wasn't a moment of "we should" or "we shouldn't." It was just kind of an interesting debate that we all had. And we decided that it should stay that way with thinking about Dylan and "The Hurricane" and John Lennon with "Woman is the Nigger of the World." There's a reason that it's used. This song was a song about Mexico, and we just wanted to make sure that it came across that it came across as intended and that it didn't come across as offensive. Ultimately, we all agreed. And ultimately, we trust Conor's judgement, because he's the lyrics man. 

Desaparecidos play a sold-out show with Little Brazil on Thursday, August 9, at the 400 Bar; 612.244.5563


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