Dan Deacon: Ring Leader

Publish date:

Maybe you’ve been a part of this before:
You can’t see Dan Deacon, but you can hear him. He’s set up on the floor in front of the stage (if there is one) surrounded by 180 degrees of obedient fans—likely they’re teens, likely in the latest ADD thrift-store fashion—and Deacon’s calling out instructions in an anxious yet commanding and familiar voice.

He’s telling everyone to point their fingers down toward the ground. Now point at the sky! Now lower your arm, slowly, extend your finger, and point it directly at anyone not doing this. And, just like that, you’ve been (literally) fingered as a lamewad. How does it feel? In a room of 800 people, it doesn’t feel good. Even assholes don’t really like to be excluded.

To put it a certain way, Dan Deacon is very, very good at making people do shit. Like, say, making them leave a venue in the middle of a show. Everyone. The game is called “the gauntlet.” The room gets split in two and audience members link hands in the air over the gap, forming a kind of bridge. Those at the front of this bridge-tunnel—those at the front of the room, that is—race underneath the arm bridges to the back. At the back, you’re to pick a side and find someone to join hands with, thus becoming another link in the gauntlet. And, like that, the whole thing moves forward to wherever, occasionally outside… at least until the collective gets too big or too tired or too bored.

Deacon Bruise
Since 2006, when Deacon’s celebratory rush of tribalistic electronic pop, Spiderman of the Rings, arrived in a big surge of internet hype, mass actions like this have shifted from Deacon repertoire to Deacon lore. In 2008, you might even say the Dan Deacon live experience has eclipsed the Dan Deacon listening experience. Is listening to “Crystal Cat” now like a postcard of that time you lived “Crystal Cat” with an auditorium full of people? And this isn’t the same as being let down by a recording of a great live band. At a Deacon show you were a part of it; for 45 minutes you were a part of this intense, spontaneous community. With strangers. And how often does that happen?

It’s not even like dance music or a club full of 4/4s and great drugs. It’s the opposite of that. Dance music is cherished, rightly, as a sort of cultural safeguard of community, that thing that a thousand people can get behind at the drop of a kick drum. But this is more—it has goals, it’s about involvement. Since when has being a cog felt so good? As Deacon explains it, the audience is “something that can be composed for and improvised with, manipulated in the most positive sense into doing something they wouldn’t normally do.”

Surreality Check
A few days into 2009, I’m sitting on a couch in the third-floor living room of Dan Deacon’s Baltimore rowhouse. We’re just across the bridge from the Copycat building, the labyrinthine warehouse that housed the Wham City collective until a couple of years ago. A few beer bottles are scattered around, left over from a goodbye party the night before for a member of the Lexie Mountain Boys, an acapella-cum-performance-art outfit that really has to been seen to be properly understood.

Understand that Baltimore has the sort music community where everyone tends to know everyone. Rifts are scarce; competition is a non-issue; egos are generally “kept in check,” as Deacon puts it. If you feel excluded in Baltimore, it’s probably because you’re either shy or a dick.

The city’s lack of hierarchy makes Deacon a strange thing, a star in a town that doesn’t foster fame. Talking with him, it’s hard to tell if Deacon understands the measure of his success or if he’s just being coy. In either case, he’s disarmingly nice and earnest, and you get the impression he wouldn’t be too bummed out if only 30 people bought his new album, which, by the way, is called Bromst and is the sort of entry into an artist’s catalog that propels them to mass exposure. I tell this to Deacon, and he doesn’t seem to believe it, naturally.

The record is different from anything he’s done since studying composition at SUNY Purchase, and he’s worried it will be alienating to his fans. Spiderman of the Rings is a great album—and probably hasn’t been taken seriously enough—but its rep is as a party record. The vocals are dialed to chipmunk pitch; the synths are tweaked to cartoon-y levels; even the slow songs sound like accompaniments to nursery rhymes, complete with happy endings—it out-Quintrons Mr. Quintron, without even
using puppets.

A.D.D. It Up
Then there’s the expectation of those shows—their constant energy demands the constant energy of the album that birthed them. And Bromst doesn’t deliver that energy, at least not non-stop. The record functions more as a narrative. Deacon wants you to chill out and stand still for a minute and listen to it. And are the kids in the gauntlet listening to “Crystal Cat?” Maybe not so much. “It’ll be exciting to see if the people that got into my last record because it was… easy to party to, whether they’ll be into the record that sort of demands more of the listener.” He pauses again and adds, laughing, “[But] I’m not saying it’s, like, a challenge that only the strongest of minds can comprehend.”

In a way, it does demand more, if only in attention. Bromst has been in progress since Deacon started writing the songs on Spiderman of the Rings, intended as sort of compositional outlet that Spidey wasn’t serving. “I didn’t want to do another electronic album,” he decided. And after the quick success of Spiderman, he remembers thinking, “I’m in this position now where I think I can get people to play my music. I think I can record it properly.”

It took a player piano on a mountaintop for Deacon to realize that, yes, he could make Bromst work. Touring the U.S. in summer of 2007, he played a show in Whitefish, Montana, a small mountain town lapping at the edge of Glacier National Park. The show was at Snowghost Studios, where the likes of Matmos, Christopher Willits, and Death Cab for Cutie have recorded in the past. At the space, Deacon found a player piano, remarkable not so much for being a player piano but for being equipped with MIDI capabilities. So, here it was, this thing that could perform the piano parts he’d composed, when he thought they would have to be sampled. “Instantly I knew I had to come back to Snowghost and record pieces for that piano,” he says.

So, he enlisted his friends. Drummer Kevin O’Meara—a Wham City collective member and drummer for Deacon’s Ultimate Reality and Butt Stomach side-projects—and his dad, Rich O’Meara, rearranged the marimba parts on the record (of which there are many) so they’d be suitable for performance by actual human beings. Andy Abelow, a solo out-folk songwriter, performed the horn parts. Members of Ponytail and Ecstatic Sunshine played guitar. Chester Gwazda of Nuclear Power Pants produced the record. To perform the album live takes between 12 and 15 people and they’re all from the same Baltimore circle Deacon has been collaborating with, and organizing, since he was writing songs with titles like “Moses vs. Predator” and “Breast Cake/Penis Sleeve.”

Wharts and All
Bromst is enormous. It sounds a bit more like a Dan Deacon show feels than the self-contained electronics of Spiderman—that is, it feels human, three-dimensional, vulnerable. Plans for touring the record take it even further. Why not really open up the performance? Almost as an aside, Deacon brings up his scheme to print and distribute sheet music for Bromst to record stores along his touring route, and further put the parts online as PDF files—in short, every city would be able to provide its own Deacon orchestra. (He compares it to Daniel Johnston’s touring program, but it seems like he’s underestimating himself—rock band vs. small avant-garde symphony?) “ I think approaching everything like it’s a disaster waiting to happen is the way to do it,” Deacon says. “I think that makes it more exciting for the audience, when it’s always teetering. If it falls over it would suck, but if it goes the right way… it would be awesome.”

At this point we’ve moved onto talking about Whartscape and the Baltimore Round Robin tour, which share a similar ethos. Whartscape, a tiny festival of friends and friends’ bands, is the crown jewel of the Wham City collective, a group of visual artists, performers, and musicians that moved en masse to Baltimore from SUNY Purchase in 2004; now in its fourth year, Whartscape has turned into a destination event for art-rocking youngsters all over the East Coast. The third edition spanned three days and three nights, four venues, and roughly 50 performers, starting formally in an art-house movie theater and ending with the Baltimore police busting up a packed dance party in a 100-plus-degree warehouse space. The Round Robin tour is roughly the condensed version—as many Baltimore performers as possible crammed onto three veggie-oil-powered school buses for a two-week tour of the Eastern U.S. and Canada, performing two nights in each city in the round style (no sets, no openers, no headliners).

Both are feats of do-it-yourself organizational acumen, and it’s the sort of thing that drives Deacon. “Just seeing people try ideas that they wouldn’t normally try and making that project a vessel for that,” he says, “that’s the sort of mentality I like. The group of people that don’t really know what they’re doing but are confident enough to convince themselves that they can… and then the humbling process of realizing that they’ve taken on more then they can.”

This all makes Deacon’s standing in the music world oddly precarious. The ability to maintain these communities and projects seems to be contingent on a flourishing, and interested, underground. If Bromst is that record, the one that shoots him to the moon, what does it mean for these things he’s helped create? “I feel like the American mentality is that bigger is better,” he says, “and I got caught up in that for a while, but I think this size is best. I’d like it to stay where it is.”

“But I hope [all the people who] enjoy the music can come to the show,” he adds. “I don’t like the idea of esoteric anything. I don’t like the idea of secret knowledge or suppressed ideas or not allowing a non-educated audience to listen. That’s the death of culture.”

Dan Deacon's 10 Poorly Juxtaposed Pieces Mixtape

1. Neil Young “Out on the Weekend”
It’s just a beautiful song for when you are feeling a little down and want to stay that way. In the chorus, the electric guitar plays only one note several times. I love that.

2. Salt-N-Pepa “Shoop”
I was in seventh-grade science class and some girls sitting around me started singing this and I was thinking how badly I wanted to sing along but I thought they would just laugh at me. But when they got to the dude’s verse, I couldn’t help it and I just busted it out. It was beautiful.

3. Gamelan Jegog Werdi Sentana “Tabuh Gegenderan”
I don’t know what to write about this other than it’s utterly beautiful and totally fucking awesome.

4. Das Racist “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell”
A track that will last the ages.

5. Arab on Radar“Piggin’in the Pumpkin Patch”
The extended dialog between the two guitars in the intro is exactly what I want to hear guitars do—always.

6. Inuit Throat Singing “Katajjait”
A really incredible display of the human voice.

7. Future Islands “Little Dreamer”
This track should be a classic. The vocals just float atop the perfect bass and keyboards. One of my favorite songs from a current band.

8. La Monte Young “Dream House”
I wonder how different pop music would be if Kurt Cobain was photographed wearing a La Monte Young t-shirt?

9. Lou Christie “Lightnin’ Strikes”
Some of the most horrifying lyrics ever. The build leading up to the chorus sounds like overhearing a horrible crime. But that beautiful falsetto makes up for it.

10. Simon and Garkfunkel “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright”
I used to fucking hate this song so much. But this summer I listened to this album everyday and by mid-July it was by far my favorite song on the album.