Interview: Dan Deacon

Interview by Alec Moss | Written with Ryan Costigan

WXJM Music Director Alec Moss had the opportunity to speak with Dan Deacon before his show at The Southern Cafe & Music Hall in Charlottesville on April 8th.

For the sake of getting clear audio of our interview, Dan and I decided to leave the venue while Prince Rama was performing and where we ended up was in a dark alley next to a film, theater and art studio by a dumpster. You can tell by all of his artwork, his brightly colored equipment, and just by looking at him, what a character he is. Throughout our conversation, he was so theatrical by way of body language, to express himself when he talks and all of the different voices that he uses to portray his inner-emotions of the moment he’s describing, which I did my best to capture in a written format.


Concert attendees block traffic in downtown Harrisonburg because Dan Deacon told them to during WXJM's 2013 Kool Aid Benefit Show. Photo courtesy of James Chung.

Alec Moss [WXJM]: My friend was telling me you played a show in Harrisonburg and the cops came, could you tell me about that?

Dan Deacon: Well, I like to do as much re-contextualization of the venue as possible, like doing audience participation, or playing on the floor where it’s appropriate, and just trying to see the entire venue as the performance space, not just the stage, and sometimes outside the venue. So for that JMU show we all went outside and started making a tunnel that people would put their hands up together and then people would go underneath, and I guess we were blocking traffic. Eventually a cop came and was like, “What the hell are y’all doing?” But it was kinda cool because the lights were flashing so it added this like party vibe to outside even though they were cop lights (laughs). They were chill about it, they were just like (deep, cop-voice impression) “get outta the road…” It was like a critical mass. It was by no means safe, but it was by no means dangerous. Does that make sense? Well… it was a little dangerous…

AM: Since you’re from New York and you’re closer to a bigger city, what drew you to a smaller city like Baltimore?

DD: Well for one, it was affordable, I could live there. Like, New York, to be like a broke working artist and trying to devote all of your energy to your work while also working a job is difficult. When I was living in New York for a little bit, all day at work I’d be like, “Oh! When I get home, I’m gonna do this! And I’ve got this idea!” And then I’d come home and I’d be exhausted so I wouldn’t do a tenth of them. So I was like, “I really wanna make sure when I get out of school that I’ll live in a place where I can live as uncomfortably and as cheaply as possible so I can just devote all of my time to making work rather than making money. So Baltimore is the perfect spot. Like, I moved into a big warehouse with some friends, at one point my rent was $180/month and we could have like one show a month to pay the rent. It was real chill.

AM: So that was a while ago, right?

DD: Yeah, 2004 I think.

AM: Was Baltimore a good place for your music? What has kept you there for so long?

DD: I can’t think of a different place to live. I like visiting a lot of places, but I always am like, I’m just so glad I live in Baltimore. It’s like the perfect size city where it is a city and it’s large, but it’s also small enough where you can really feel like a part of a scene and a part of a community. And it’s not so large like, “Oh, that scene is over here and this scene is over there!” Like they’re really merged. Especially now, the club-scene is starting to really merge with the experimental-scene and there’s an amazing improv-scene and radical “new music-scene” and then party-scene as well. It’s a really interesting mix of people and a very welcoming city, where you’re inspired to make the best work you can because you want to contribute to the culture of the city. Like when I go to New York, I’m always like, “Aw this room is gonna be full of people who are gonna be blogging about this show!” (Waving his arms around) “AHHHHH… And there’s so many people who are here for critical reasons! rather than reasons for enjoyment!” That doesn’t happen in Baltimore.

AM: I watched your Tiny Desk Concert and was wondering how you pulled off the piano?

DD: Well, I’ve been working with mechanical instruments since 2008. And that was my first time using a Disklavier, which is like the MIDI control, the player piano. So I’ve been fascinated with them and then I started checking Craig’s List anywhere within the region, and they sell, not for cheap by any means, but cheap for a piano and Disklavier, so I was like I gotta get one! Everytime I want to record with one, it costs just as much to just buy one, so I got it. And then I was like, well if I have it and I’m doing this thing (the Tiny Desk Concert), we should bring the piano. It was a slight nightmare, but the performance, I was really happy with. But just moving a piano is not an easy task. It’d be like, “Hey! We’re bringing the hot tub!” One day, maybe we’ll tour with it, but not this tour. I use it in a more experimental context, it’s on America, Bromst, and Gliss Riffer, but that was the first time I had done a pop performance with it. Like I’ve done some experimental performances, but never where I’m singing along with it.

AM: NPR was probably a good place to do that. And it’s close to home.

DD: That’s why we did it! ‘Cause we’re like, “We’ll never do this on late night… It wouldn’t make sense to do this on radio, even though it’ll sound really nice.” And we were like, “Well this is right in DC… Let’s do it!” And Bob and everyone at NPR Music care so much about music so they were like, “Yeah, bring the piano, sounds great!”

AM: Could you tell me a little bit about what’s going on on your board that you play with currently?

DD: The board for this tour is currently all MIDI controllers and we keep all of the hardware gear sidestage so it doesn’t get soaked in sweat. I’m mainly running Ableton, I don’t use any plug-ins ‘cause I just want it to run a smoothly as possible, so we use all the native devices. My Lighting Engineer, Patrick McMinn, is like a genius. We do all the lighting in Ableton as well, so that’s why all the lights are so in sync with the music. Most of the modules I’m using are from this company called FaderFox. I really like their FX3 series. Most of the table are FaderFox pedals. And another pedal is this foot switch with an expression pedal jack that we use to run the whammy off-stage by a company called Logidy. People are always dying to know, like “WHAT’RE THE MIDI CONTROLLERS?!?!?”

AM: I saw an old interview back in the day when you were on NBC news…

DD: (singing) Glooooorryyy daaaaaaayssss.

AM: In that interview, you mentioned how you grabbed a piece of equipment out of the garbage, so I was wondering, what influenced you to work with less traditional equipment?

DD: I was going through the garbage all the time. I used to go through the garbage to find stuff to sell. ‘Cause they were throwing out computers and monitors. Me and my friends used to dumpster dive all the time because it was insane what people throw away. And then I found this oscillator and it just had the cord cut, and I was like, “I bet this’ll work if I just splice a new cord in” and it worked. I had never played a synthesizer before, and it was just one giant knob, and it was so satisfying to just turn this dial and then hear the sine waves sweep. I had never done anything like it. It was so crazy! I was like, “I need a million of these!” (raising his hands to the sky laughing)

I was making computer music at the time, but only with a computer. I never had like a tactile surface. From there I was like, “Well, how can I change this sound? I wanna change it in a million ways: I wanna change the texture, I wanna change the pitch, I wanna be able to harmonize with it, I wanna be able to change the time with the delay pedal and the time with the mixer… That’s what got me into being like, “I want to do this all the time!” (in a very, deep/demonic/evil-scientist-like voice). Besides just writing computer music, which I was like, “I’m doing this all the time!” (in the same voice from before). It was just this weird, old, beautifully designed thing from the sixties and it was just really nice. And I can’t believe they threw it away, but I’m so glad they did!

AM: And you just made #1 last week on the college charts!

DD: Two weeks in a row! WHAT’S UP!

AM: Oh! It’s actually not public that you made it the second week!

DD: (whispers) Yeah, but I know it… Secret’s out…

For those who have been to one or more Dan Deacon shows, the tales of all of the crowd participation are old news, but it is quite the experience. After just a few songs, he formed a giant circle in the middle of the floor and selected two people from the crowd in which they were told dance a sassy as they possibly could and then pick one person to take their place when they were finished and the one rule was “No cowards”. Once you’re up there, you have to let loose. When it started, I was chosen as the first replacement and something about the atmosphere let my body go. After that, he brought the two initial people back to the center where he then split the room in half, instructing that that half of the room had to mimic their respective leader’s dance moves, but this time was different because if you were in the crowd and felt you could lead the crowd better, you could tap them out and takeover. This led to a frenzy and when his song was finished and the next song began, the entire place was jumping, and Dan was headbanging until his show was over.

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