Exclusive: Dan Deacon Wants You to Dance Your Ass Off
While many musicians like to shroud themselves in the enigma of their public personas or create lurid atmospheres through cryptic live shows, Dan Deacon makes his intentions quite clear: he wants you to ‘dance as hard as you fucking can.’ But not the mind-numbingly repetitive head nods and ass shakes that shape the landscape of ‘dance music;’ at a Dan Deacon show, you hold hands with the concertgoer next to you as you writhe on the floor, huddle on your knees, and pop back up in jumping jack formation as if to please some great forest god of the Druids. In Deacon’s world of performance, you will dance yourself silly, but you’ll also have some cathartic feelings as you pulsate.
Looking something like an actual Druid himself, the bespectacled, bearded Deacon is not someone who immediately strikes you as a tour guide to the rhythmic contortions of a transcendent dance party, but that’s precisely what he’s been trained to do. Emerging from an education in computer music composition, Deacon has solidly and consistently released music for over a decade now that fuses the worlds of electronic musical construction with classical acoustic instrumentation. The result? Music that has been painstakingly sonically engineered to get you to shake it.
For his latest album, Gliss Riffer, Deacon has turned more towards solely electronic composition, priding himself on making the entire album from his computer without the aid of real life instruments. Combined with the pop sensibilities so wondrously ushered to the forefront on lead single ‘Feel the Lightning,’ Gliss Riffer takes the meticulous soundscapes that Deacon has nurtured in his artistic tenure and filtered them through with a crystalline focus on simplicity; clearer melodies, clearer beats, and a clearer sense of the pure, uninhibited fun that defines Deacon’s sound. We spoke to Dan about just how different his new album is, why his live shows are so notoriously insane, and how it felt to tour arenas with Arcade Fire.
Did you have a particular idea or mindset when embarking on this album?
I think the main thing that got me fired up was making an album by myself again. I was working on a mixtape while on the America tour, and I was usually just sitting in the back of the bus, and I started poking around with an Ableton. I was just fucking with songs from iTunes, chopping them up, and coming up with all kinds of things. And then I realized; this doesn’t need weeks of horn arrangements and finding players for the instruments or anything like that, this is done. And that’s CRAAAZY. It’s like I was building spaceships and switched to building a house. And in a way this is closer to why I got into making music in the first place. I like to sit with computer software and get lost with creating music from it. The hardest part of writing songs for me is knowing when the song is done; I’ve got thousands and thousands of files that are something as simple as a riff that I can’t get to grow. Any decision you could make could be a wrong one. Anything.
Is there anything about Gliss Riffer that may characterize it separately from the rest of your work?
I would say it’s within the lineage, it’s not a right turn or an outlier. But I do think it is, I don’t know, somewhat very different from the others. I see it as…looking at all three albums, and seeing this building orchestral album. I reverted on the newest one to producing one by myself. I tried to make it the same way I made an acoustic album, or like a non-computer music album. There’s a lack of overall dance-y sounds, there’s a lot of space there. I had a maximalist approach to dance music that I think has been toned down. So after working a lot with acoustic instruments I thought it would be fun to take the acoustic approach even further in electronic music.
Let’s talk about the ‘Feel the Lightning’ video. Did you come up with that concept?
No, that was the director, Andrew Jeffrey Wright. He approached me with two ideas: one about the furniture having a party in an empty house after the people leave, and another that was essentially a psychedelic costume dance party. And my input was why don’t we put those things together?
Who were some of the bands that meant the most to you growing up?
I listened to music, but it wasn’t until college that I got adventurous with my listening. I got into They Might Be Giants, Violent Femmes, and early on I played trombone so naturally I got into ska. As I started going to school for music I got into Meredith Monk and Laurie Anderson, the more quote-on-quote ‘classical’ side of things. That totally tamed my experience of listening to modern experimental music when I began writing shortly after.
What was it like going on an arena tour with Arcade Fire? Did you know them previously?
We met them on the tour actually. I’d met Owen Pallett before. I did a remix for them, but I honestly didn’t have any kind of connection with them. Then I got an email asking to tour with them and I just immediately said ‘yes.’ I didn’t know even bands like Arcade Fire played venues like that, the kind of places that U2 would play. I played in the center of the room for every show with them, which was weird and cool, weirdly cool if you will. Like I’m playing music where Michael Jordan was shooting free throws. It’s just a very different way to think about a show when you perform as an opening act. For many of the people in the audience this might be their first show, so not only do I have to perform well enough to be tolerated by people who’ve never heard of me, but I also have to play well enough to get them to remember me.
So is that why you have such wild live shows? You have a reputation for some of the most interactive dance craziness around, when did you start instructing your audience to go crazy?
I guess that might be why, but like most things I feel like that started in college. I went to SUNY Purchase, which is close enough to New York but it feels like it’s in the middle of nowhere. It’s a really closed environment, so it’s a safe place to experiment and do dumb shit, which obviously college is for. And I started touring immediately after that. Now I’d been in bands since high school and stuff, but touring is like camping: everyone knows about camping but you don’t really know about camping until you go. Touring was this whole network that I got into and it was cool! There wasn’t a lot of electronic music happening then, it was a lot of noise music and I was making this party dance music that didn’t quite sync with anything else. The whole point of my show was just trying to get everyone to dance. And from there I started thinking about how the audience is the show, as in a show being good or bad based entirely around the audience and the psychology of the audience and what it means to be a performer and how the audience is a performer and so on. Phew.
Why do you think the distinction between composer and artist is so often made in writings about your work as a musician?
Well I wear a monocle and ride a horse. But other than I don’t know. I guess when I started I referred to myself as a composer, I wasn’t a singer/songwriter. I never thought I’d be writing music like this, I wrote this stuff because it’s fun, and the other stuff is just crazy, that would be insane to me. But I don’t know what I’d be called otherwise. Electronic music is just such a broad range nowadays you know? It can mean Skrillex or it can mean Missy Elliott. It’s impossible to know the microgenres, and I’m trying to understand the macrogenre as time goes on. There’s no midlevel descriptors; I do write music, and one who writes music tends to be a composer.
If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?
I guess melting down all the metal and pouring it back into the Earth. It’s a really specific answer but think of how much stuff has been ripped from the Earth, and what if we just put it all back?
Is there anything else you want the readers of Milk Made to know?
Making music in 2015 is a strangely difficult job, but the hardest part isn’t letting people know about the album or having them find about it, the hardest part is getting people to take the time to listen to it. It’s hard to find 5 uninterrupted minutes, let alone 40. Even if it’s on in the background, people would have a news clip or a Vine in the background as well. SO I’d like to say thanks to anyone who took the time to listen to it, whether you buy it, torrent it, or steal it. So thanks for listening and I hope you like it, and if you didn’t, that’s okay too.
Gliss Riffer is out now via Domino
Photography by Frank Hamilton