Dan Deacon on life in America, Occupy Wall Street, and the music industry

Categories: Q&A
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Dan Deacon is in the middle of nowhere. When he answers his phone, his tour bus is somewhere between Cheyenne and Denver -- a long, flat stretch of road surrounded by endless miles of brown fields. Off in the distance, the Rocky Mountains loom large, but here closer to the Wyoming-Colorado border, there's little more than the occasional rock formations or oil rigs. The reception is poor, leaving Deacon's rasp of a voice to cut in and out. Indeed, at one point, the call drops entirely.

But, given Deacon's latest album, America, which he released this past summer, the surroundings couldn't be more appropriate. The album is a far cry from the electronic dance music he's most closely associated with -- music that's lush and vibrant, and that slowly unfurls itself. America was inspired by Deacon's many cross-country travels, and it does a striking job of capturing the various beauties and contradictions of the landscape, decorated by sweeping flourishes of brass and strings.

Deacon returns to Minneapolis Saturday for a show at the Cedar Cultural Center, where, among other things, concertgoers will be able to engage proceedings with a new app that the Baltimore native has developed. Gimme Noise caught up with him to talk about the inspiration for America and life in the music industry.

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Gimme Noise: Broadly speaking, your new album is about--or at least inspired by--America. What prompted you to take on such a big idea?

Dan Deacon: Well, I was influenced mostly by the geography. Through cross-country travels, you travel the country and stare out the window, and it's a very inspirational landscape. I wouldn't really say the album is about America. [But] lyrically, it's mainly me raising questions to myself and trying to identify with being an American, realizing there's positive and negative aspects to it as well. And realizing I've been almost conditioned to not identify with that and to be apathetic towards my country as it slowly gets destroyed by corporate interests and the military and shit like that.

I hate to say that it feels more mature than some of your earlier work, but it does feel more conceptually serious or idea driven. Would you agree with that?

I think it makes sense. I was much more immature five years ago. Hopefully everybody, over the past five years, has grown, and sees the world a little differently--some level of self-improvement.

Are there any particular changes in yourself that you think are reflected in this music?

Between Bromst [in 2009] and America, I worked a lot in the non-pop world--the quote-unquote classical world--and really fell in love with writing for acoustic instruments and music with that sort of instrumentation. There's this subtlety and delicacy to those acoustic sounds that rubbed off quite a bit, more so than other ones... I never really dived into the world of strings and brass since I was in college, which is, what? Eight years ago or something. It was great revisiting them; it felt like there was this section of my brain that was hibernating and got awoken.



The orchestral influence is pretty noticeable, as are the film scores you've worked on. Do you think those had an effect on your approach from a more compositional or conceptual standpoint, too?

I think it was the dynamic and the subtly and delicacy, mixed with the roughness and maximalist approach I have to layering and density and sound. I think that was the biggest thing. When you write a piece for an orchestra, you can't have all the instruments be full blast the entire time because, for one, you're going to fatigue quickly, and two, the brass section full blast is way different from the string section full blast. They have very different dynamic arcs.

You were involved with playing some shows at Occupy Wall Street last year, and earlier you mentioned something about corporations. Can you talk a bit about how those things worked into America?

Definitely in the collective consciousness, there's this dissatisfaction toward the current state of being in this country, both on the left and the right. [And] I feel like I'm part of that population who feels frustration and anger with the system, if you want to call it a system or whatever. And as I was working on lyrics for the record at the end of the summer last year...Occupy sprung up, and it was very, very inspiring. I drew upon that, and it was exciting to mix the record at that point knowing I was going to call it America.

The record isn't overtly political at all, really, but do you see your music being able to make a political difference? Or is it more a matter of speaking about your own reality?

I think speaking about my own reality is the way I can have the most political influence. I don't respond well to overt political statements. I'd rather see something presented to me that raises questions in myself, and that's what I'm going for here. The record, as you said, isn't overt, but it has those undertones. Ultimately I'd rather have people think for themselves and raise their own questions, and if my music can make people ask questions, then I'd consider it a successful political record.

Would you say, then, that the album is a positive one? Maybe optimistic?

I would say that musically it's optimistic, but I don't know if I'm personally optimistic about the country. I'm very, you know, elated when you see things like Occupy spring up, or Anonymous, or WikiLeaks -- these modern-day Robin Hood-type figures, who don't just want to smash the system but want to improve it and make it something that's a little less exploitive towards everyone, and not just this pyramid scheme. Know what I mean?

Oh yeah, I definitely do.

But you can't just have blind hope, or blind optimism. Someone will just use it as their political slogan. No politician is going to change the world, and no one's going to improve your reality besides you. The questions I raise to myself on the record are me trying to come to terms with a system I otherwise would try to distance myself from, and that I can't distance myself from.

In a similar vein, you've also always been committed to working on the more underground or independent side of music. How do you feel about the realities of working in the music industry these days?

Well, there seems to be this large wealth fetish in the music industry, even within the underground. I feel more and more like the underground or alternative or independent scene-- which used to, I think, pride itself on being an actual alternative, and try to be as far away from the mainstream as possible -- is now almost reveling in it and diving headfirst into being as mainstream as possible.

Do you think that's made it harder for someone like yourself who wants to stay truer to those older alternative ideals?

I feel fortunate to have come in before that shift. I mean, the internet was in full force, and it clear that that's what the music industry was going to be, but it still had a wild west mentality. It wasn't homogenized... But the consciousness has shifted. The desire is to be the next Lady Gaga and not, I don't know, the next Butthole Surfers.

So do you feel like you'll try pursuing any of the ideas from America in the future, or maybe go in some new directions?

That's the funny thing about the recording cycle: I finished the record almost a year ago, so it's a year old to me. But now I'm doing interviews and thinking about it all the time. I'm in the middle of working on two pieces, one that's a site-specific museum piece in New York, the other a club mix [laughs]. I'm having fun with both. I like to take time after a record to experiment, to see the influence of the road and tour. In the meantime, I'll say a lot of nonsense in interviews, and later on we'll find out what's true and what's not.

DAN DEACON plays at the Cedar Cultural Center this Saturday, November 3, at 7:30 pm. With Height with Friends, Chester Endersby Gwazda, and Alan Resnick. All ages. $14/$16. 612.338.2674.


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