It may be safe to say that Dan Deacon is a genius. The young electro-pop artist not only has classical education as a composer, but he recently released an interactive smart phone application for his fans to use at his shows. The Baltimore-based musician strives to continually push creative boundaries, and for this he has garnered a hefty amount of fans around the globe. Aside from recently releasing his eighth studio album, America, in August, Deacon is currently on the road and was nice enough to chat with me about his app, playing Carnegie Hall earlier this year, and how he hopes his music makes an impact on the world.
I think you officially became the coolest musician around when you created the Dan Deacon Smartphone App. I read that it was inspired by interactive pieces you’ve performed over the past several years, but can you tell me the story behind its creation?
Thanks! Well, I've been interested in audience interaction as a performance medium for a while--amazing things can be created with large groups of people. For a while I've been thinking of new ways to recontextualize the audience and making them the performers or focal point of the performance. When I was asked to play the Ecstatic Music Festival in 2010 I knew I wanted to try a larger version of a text score for audience I had written titled 'take a deep breath.' The piece is a short list of steps for the audience to follow, making them the ensemble. Many of the steps call upon their cell phones as a way of making sound (setting alarms, making feedback on speakerphone with the person next to them, calling people on speaker phone, etc). When we performed it at the Ecstatic Fest I was really pleased with the result of the spatial movement of sound the phones made. I started thinking about phones very intelligent as speakers, radio and lights and was inspired to create an app that could harness the audience’s phones as a unified light and sound ensemble.
What was the first show you played after in launched, and how did its “premiere” go?
The first public run was in my studio in Baltimore for about 100 people who were told to bring smart phones. We hadn't announced it or really told anyone about it, and it wasn't yet on iTunes or Google Play, so when they showed up we had to manually install the app on all the phones, which sort of freaked everyone out. But the first time we synchronized all the phones everyone let out this gasp and cheered. It felt really awesome. I remember looking over at Keith Lea, the main programmer, and we both knew the work had paid off and it was going to be sick.
How has the atmosphere/mood of your live shows changed since it launched? Do a lot of audience members use the app?
I only use it during one to three songs a night; it's not programmed to run the whole set only at key moments/songs. My shows often get intense so I chose songs that are less wild (“True Thrush,” “Ohio,” “Wet Wings,” etc) and we use it then. It certainly changes the mood. There's a lot of anticipation for those who have it. Lots of people seem to have it, which is awesome since its only really effective with a critical mass of about 25% of the audience. Otherwise it's just weird.
Your performances are known to be spectacular. Do you feel like the app usage has been distracting at all, or do you feel like it adds more to your performance?
It creates a lighting environment that prior to this never existed. Even for people without the app I think it's cool. If you just think about it as lights it makes a lot more sense.
You recently released America, your first album since 2009. From the sounds of it, you’ve grown up a bit in these three years—this seems to be your most expansive album—would you agree?
Sure, I would agree.
How was the making of this album different than that of Bromst?
I spent a lot more time in the studio, which was a first for me. Normally I use the studio as a way to document the live show, like a camera or something. But with this record I wanted to experiment more, write in the studio and change things. For example, I’ve been playing most of the album live for the past two years, but when I started recording the lyrics I wrote all new vocals line, lyrics, etc. If you find old versions of “True Thrush” online it sounds pretty different vocally than it does not (it also has no bass guitar line). Same with “USA.”
Your lyrics and music in America seem to contradict each other. You sing of macabre things but the instrumentation has a sense of hopefulness. What do you hope your listener gains from this dichotomy?
I think it’s important to not just pretend that everything is ok. I think a lot music has this growing trend of not giving a fuck, either in an agro “fuck the world” style or in a “lets party until we die” sort of mindset. To me both of those are total bullshit. I can understand the need to party but its important to not lose sight of the fact that we live in a world/country/culture where our direct actions lead to the constant exploitation of other humans and the planet. I also understand the fuck the world mindset but I think that plays into the hands of the very people who make people want to fuck the earth.
You made your Carnegie Hall debut this year. As a serious composer and music student, was this on your bucket list?
It’s something that I never in a million years thought would ever happen. My entire career has been a huge series of things happening that I never thought would come to pass (many people on youtube also feel this way about my achievements).
Tell me about this experience.
I try to keep really low expectations for things I consider a big deal. I started doing that when I opened up for Devo. Prior to that I always had Doug Funny style daydreams--grandiose visions of the future, shit like that. So when I finished playing and went backstage to see their van pull up and them get out with fast food bags I realized they hadn’t seen even a moment of my set and my heart sank, broke, vanished. But that experience taught me a lot and ultimately I think really helped me. So with this show, and most like it since, I assumed everyone would hate it and beat me up after the performance. But it ended up being really fun, stress free and a really amazing experience (I did that text piece ‘take a deep breath’ that I was talking about earlier). One of my favorite music writers Alex Ross wrote about it really positively and it really made my day. It’s still hard to believe that it happened. I should really get those so percussion guys a beer or a car or something.
A few weeks after this achievement, you participated in a massive Occupy Wall Street rally in Union Square. How did this feel after playing Carnegie?
It felt awesome. There was such an amazing energy there in the crowd. Everyone there was actually unified and passionate. They weren’t there for the music, they were there for the cause, but music has this amazing ability to change form in various contexts, so when there was a performance it was this massive group release. It was an honor to perform to that audience.
I know that you strive to inspire your fans to change the world for the better. How do you feel your music succeeds in this goal?
If I had to attack a goal to my music it would be to make the listener or audience member feel empowered and euphoric. That’s the kind of music I responded to. I think I never really got into punk or hardcore in high school because it always made me feel like shit. I can feel like shit just fine on my own. I don’t know, I know its corny but writing music and being involved in the underground and the Baltimore scene and Wham City really saved me from a dark place and I just hope my music and do the same to those who take the time to listen to it, it means so much to me.
Where do you look for inspiration?
I try to not look for it so much and let it smash me in the face like those bricks in Roger Rabbit. Inspiration is like that floating ladder of swooshing horse mouths hovering above you leading up to the moon as you lay on the desert floor. If you try to grab it they vanish but watch it way in the wind, it’ll take you right there.
What’s next for Dan Deacon?
I’ll be working on the next record pretty soon and also working on some non-pop music projects. I’d like to focus on the spatial movement of sound and really dive into writing for the app as a format and instrument combined. And I’d just like to experiment more and take what I learn from this tour and apply it to the next. I’m also going to try to get back into video/computer games because I’d like to start writing music for them but haven’t owned a console since SNES, and the last computer game I played was Doom 3D.