For lack of a better term, Dirty Projectors truly “arrived” in 2009 with the release of Bitte Orca. While the band had amassed a devoted cadre of fans and become something of a critical darling (if being utterly confounding conveys that status) on the strength of their previous releases, particularly 2007’s experimental yet satisfying Rise Above. Bitte Orca resonated on another plane of existence, ending up on Time’s top ten list and making Dirty Projectors that much closer to the enviable problem of indie rock crossover stardom. The time of reckoning for the Projectors is at hand. The band’s next record, Swing Lo Magellan, is dropping on July 9. The album, produced from a recording retreat taken in a house in upstate New York, continues the development of Dave Longstreth into a warmer and ultimately more appealing songwriter. It also might be the album that cements Dirty Projectors as indie rock’s leading act going forward. Prefix talked with guitarist and vocalist Amber Coffman about the unique process that led to Swing Lo Magellan.
Was there a lot of pressure when you decided to make a follow-up to Bitte Orca?
I don’t know. I guess there is a certain amount of pressure when there seems to be a lot of people who care about what you do. There’s pressure not to disappoint those people.
You went to a strange house upstate to do the recording. How did the band arrive at this decision?
It started when we were in California. Dave got into this routine of going on these great hikes and bike rides and coming back and working on songs. This was at the beginning of the time when we were going to stop touring and begin to work on the album, so we just began to realize that you need to be in a quiet place to be creative. I think a lot of bands that live in New York have a hard time writing music here.
What was a typical day like in the Dirty Projector house?
There were a few different periods of time. There was a time when Dave was up there writing, and there were times that I would come up. There wasn’t really a lot of time when the entire band was there at the same time. There were a few days when it was just rhythm section stuff that he was recording based on the demos that he’d done. That was kind of a boy’s zone. Then there were a couple of weeks where we really focused on vocals. It was down a dirt road down a dirt driveway. It was really quiet. There were deer and bunnies and frogs, and a big pond outside.
How did you handle the meals?
The actual town we were living in, there wasn’t a grocery store there. We had to go to the next town over. There also wasn’t a lot of going out to eat either, which is something you get in a routine of doing when you live in New York City. We kind of took turns cooking. We made a lot of breakfast burritos. There were tacos and Mexican food. Nat [Baldwin] made a really good curry once. We just kind of took turns.
Were you in a total recording black out, or did you get out and enjoy nature?
Maybe we didn’t take as much time as possible to get out and enjoy the surroundings, but there was a town pool and it was free, which was really nice. We did try to make time to go there. There was a river running through the property we were staying on, and we could go down there and just kind of hang out on the bridge that was there. The grass ended up getting really tall. We could never get the person who mowed the lawn to show up. It was pretty hairy out there- a lot of wasps and bugs. But it was cool; we would go walks and stuff. And we would go outside at night and turn off all the lights in the house. There was a Jacuzzi, and we would sit there and listen to coyotes. It was awesome.
When you actually got down to recording, what was the process?
I would say that it was pretty intense, but really it was just focused. We had a lot to get through, and we would just power through. We’d work as long as we could before we took a break. The idea was to maintain a pace that was sustainable for us, but also allowed us to get as much done as possible.
Is Dirty Projectors a band that has a lot of recording drama?
Drama? No, not really. When you work really closely with anybody, no matter what the profession, there are always going to be moments when a person breaks down, but at this point we’ve been together and worked together for a long time. We understand each other pretty well and understand Dave pretty well. It’s pretty mellow, I would have to say.
When you listen to the finished record, does it sound like what you thought were making? Were you surprised at all?
A lot of the songs sound almost the same way they did when I heard the demo version for the first time. I would say that I was more proud and happy. I don’t know- I guess there were some pretty surprising things there in the finished version. It’s interesting, and something that I’ve not really thought about.
What part of the album are you particularly proud of?
I’m really proud of Dave’s openness, particularly in his lyrics and singing. He continues to push himself and discover new things. I’m also really proud of the songs themselves. I think they’re great.
The finished project is titled Swing Lo, Magellan. Can you give a little preview, etc?
It’s kind of wild. It’s a little dark, and I think it’s going to be a grower. It will grow on people, but I have a feeling it will catch them off guard at first. It’s hard to predict how others will receive it, but we’re really happy with it.
If I said it was the most accessible record your band has done, how would you respond?
I’d say that’s great. I think there are some vibes in there that Dirty Projectors hasn’t necessarily put out on a record before. Maybe that’s a part of what might draw some more people in. It’s a little more personal. But I really don’t know about accessible. People always say that about a band’s new record. I guess that’s a good thing. You’d rather go more than less. Accessible isn’t a bad word. It doesn’t mean “not cool” or something. I think it’s a good thing when you can touch people.
How did you decide to use “Gun Has No Trigger” as the single?
We just e-mailed back and forth about it, and people weighed in. We all feel pretty much the same about narrowing it down to a couple, and then someone might feel pretty strongly about another song and really push for that. I would say that it’s a pretty democratic process. Dave wants to know what other members and also friends and family of the band think.
If you personally were going to pick the single, what would you have gone with?
Well, we all agreed on that one right off the bat, and I probably would have stuck with it. We did just put out another single, “Dance For You,” and I actually really pushed for that one when we were throwing around a few different ideas. I thought that it was a strong choice.
What would make you happy with this record?
I hope that it shows people a side of Dirty Projectors that they never expected to see and that it brings some more people in. I also hope that we can keep doing what we’re doing as long as there are people out there who are loving it.
Swing Lo Magellan will be released on July 10, 2012.