Interview // Dan Deacon
“A lot of my music is very vast and expansive, taking ideas to the max,” says a sleepy Dan Deacon down the phone on a day off in Atlanta, Georgia, “and it seemed the lyrical themes were running parallel to the musical themes.”
It’s fitting that the Baltimore-based electronic maestro should speak from the road, as his latest album, America, was heavily influenced by the topography of his home country, observed from his passenger seat window while travelling its length and breadth in support of his breakthrough album, 2009’s Bromst.
He continues: “I’d been playing the songs for a while but I’d never really finalised the lyrics. I had the musical theme in the background, a lot of which was based on geography and travel, but as far as the lyrics go when I got into the studio I decided to scrap what I’d been doing live and go over it again.
“I utilised the studio as a studio, not just a place to document what I was doing but to actually write it and experiment with it, and just fuck around, which is something I’d never really done. I’d always go and just document.
“I was trying to trying to cull all these different influences, namely the road and this Ken Burns documentary called The West, and at the same time the Arab Spring had been going on a while and Occupy Wall Street had just sprouted up.
“Everything was falling into place and everything made sense, and the theme just seemed to emerge, like ‘this is what I’m interested in’ and that I should follow it rather than avoid it.”
Though Deacon has been heavily involved in the Occupy movement – he memorably helped shut down downtown New York alongside Tom Morello, Das Racist and Immortal Technique at last year’s Occupy May Day protest – little, if any, of the record could be considered overtly political.
In a sense, the most subversive thing about the album is not what Deacon says, but rather what he doesn’t say. In shunning cheap political statements and easy pot-shots at the ruling class, Deacon presents a hopeful vision of America as a land of contradictions where stunning geographical wonders sit alongside manmade urban desolation just as readily as millionaires stroll past impoverished protestors on Wall Street.
Deacon goes on: “I’m the kind of person where I don’t like anything shoved down my throat, so I didn’t want to shove any ideologies down anyone else’s throat either, but I wanted those ideologies to be present for a listener who wanted to take a greater meaning away, that it would be available to them.”
The New York native is nevertheless scathing of his peers – as well as those within the media – who seek to avoid any sort of constructive political or social commentary at the risk of alienating even a small subsection of their audience.
“There is a lot of fear of a work that has a polarising nature – the media doesn’t want to polarise anything, they want it to be beneficial to everyone so they can reach as large a readership as possible. The whole point of media is to try and be fair and balanced – and that’s a loaded term – to appeal to as many different people as possible.
“So when there is somebody with a polarised political view, and there is somebody who might say something controversial, I don’t want to say they’re weeded out… but I feel like pop music of a political nature has been systematically made lame ever since the late Sixties and early Seventies.
“I think a lot of musicians don’t want to disenfranchise anybody – pop music is safe and they want it to remain safe, and they don’t want anyone to not buy their record or not go to their show because of a political point of view or a social stance.
“I think that’s a modern trend – very recent. You see certain acts embrace [political music], but on what I would say are no-brainer topics,” he says, implicating acts like Green Day who vaguely took on George Bush at the height of his unpopularity and ran the proceeds all the way to the bank.
For Deacon, much of it boils down to the different ways that people incorporate music in their lives: “You also have to remember that music is largely entertainment, but music is also philosophy, it’s poetry, it’s a representation of culture – it can’t just be a vapid escape from reality.
“There are those elements included, but there is so much more, and the people that want more are there. There are people in the world who use music as their escape, or as a background to relaxation, and that’s perfectly fine – there’s an insane amount of music that could help sell jeans or be background music in a café – but there are so many more contexts in life that could be filled with music.
“In the end, it doesn’t matter. I’m going to make the music no matter what – if I don’t I’ll go insane – and if people like and appreciate it that’s amazing. I feel very blessed and humbled that I’ve been in this situation for years, but as an artist I have to take risks and I have to take a stand on what I think is acceptable within the lexicon of my work.”
Having toured America more or less non-stop since its release in September, Deacon’s Whelan’s show next week will kick of a two-month stint in Europe before he returns to the States to work on a top-secret new project (“I fucking wish I could talk about it!”) and begin tracking his next studio record.
“I’ve been working on a series of new pieces for a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York – I’m pretty psyched on that. That’ll be with my regular ensemble plus a steel drum band, plus a marching band and percussionists. Then I’ve got a new record written that I just want to get into the studio to record, to start experimenting with it and see where it goes. I’ll try to get that out early next year.”
Originally published in the Irish Sun on Friday, February 1.