BANDSPEAK, Interview, Music

An Interview with Dan Deacon

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Since the early 2000s, Dan Deacon has been thought of as a sort of ringleader in Baltimore’s underground music scene. Moving to the city in 2004, he lived in the Copycat warehouse, where he started Wham City with Jimmy Joe Roche, Ed Schrader, and others. Located just a few streets over from the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), Wham City, a showspace and arts collective, made the Copycat into a pillar of the Baltimore’s underground performing arts scene. Their shows were often announced by fliers without addresses and “ye$” prices listed, a deliberate ambiguity. But once you asked around for the coordinates for the show, you’d tentatively open the door of what you thought was the right place, walk up a flew flights of concrete steps, and end up in someone’s surreal oasis that felt like it was floating just above Baltimore’s dull street lights.

Before interviewing Dan, I sifted through reviews of his albums, from Spiderman of the Rings released ten years ago this year, to 2015’s Gliss Riffer. Almost every single one used the word dense. It almost seemed to me like a blanket term, a way to pigeonhole his sound. But at the same rate, it’s not inaccurate: Dan’s sound is a layered, heavy-knotted psychedelia, notably developed from sculpting a sound, not building it. Since Spiderman, Dan has certainly tried different approaches: With Bromst, he fell in love with the player piano and the sound on Spiderman was widening and becoming fuller; With America, he shuffled Peabody students into a homemade soundproof studio to record orchestral parts; And with Gliss Riffer, he dissected samples and turned the effects down on his vocals. Even though each album feels different, they sound undeniably like him.

Spurred by a direct question about his interest in the player piano, Dan mentions how he’s finally learning how to write music for humans. He quickly notes his long-term obsession with Conlon Nancarrow, a composer who wrote complex scores for player piano, before mentioning that he was drawn to electronic music because it allowed him to hear his own music; when he’d written music for humans, it was simply unplayable. He then delved into the difference between a player piano—the self-playing piano you most likely imagine playing ragtime—and what he actually uses on his recordings: the Yamaha Disklavier Mark III. This Disklavier doesn’t read a roll of punctured paper like a player piano would, rather it operates on MIDI, and it even take floppy discs. Another major difference is the use of solenoids, magnetically-controlled pistons that strike the keys at a various set of velocities—resulting in a wider range of dynamics—and these solenoids can also sustain notes. The uncanny valley nature and mechanics of the Disklavier seem to endlessly fascinate Dan.

Dan recently composed the score for Theo Anthony’s Rat Film, a documentary about rats in Baltimore. I talked to Dan about his score for Rat Film amongst other things, such as Francis Ford Coppola, the Disklavier, Led Zeppelin scoring the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and more.

Boston Hassle: I want to talk about Rat Film. So, Theo Anthony asked you to compose the score at some point. I was curious as to how you started thinking about creating the score and how it developed. How did that change?

Dan Deacon: The initial conversation was about a specific performance Theo had in mind where he wanted to film rats, and then tables of electronics and someone wearing a VR headset. You see that in the film. But it was a sketch at the time and he wanted there to be music made with rats and didn’t really know how that would come to be. I started thinking about using Theremins, and creating an enclosure for the rats to move around in so if the rats moved from one Theremin to the next, it would change the pitch and the volume of the Theremin they were at. Well, all three [Theremins] actually. And that created this crazy drone, this sort of really wild noise music, and we recorded all the incoming sound and the voltage it created, and then we translated the voltage into MIDI. That gave me a lot of material to work with. And it started to dictate a lot of parameters within the music. Some of it was scored to picture, some of it was scored conceptually, and then it found a place in the film. And once I started seeing where Theo was placing things, because it was such an open process in the beginning that I really had no idea …

[Dan rustles around] I got to get out of bed or I’m going to keep yawning. “Pace around, drink some coffee like an adult.” [laughs]

… So once I found out what Theo started hearing what I was delivering and he started finding homes for it, that’s when things started taking shape and where I started to hone in on both the instrumentation and the method.

It seems like a turning point in creating the score was when you found a way to have these rats essentially creating data for you to use through MIDI. Is that right?

Yeah. We converted the voltage to MIDI because the Theremins put out both the sound of the Theremin itself, and voltage. And I converted the voltage to MIDI. Yea, [highly expensive china clamors in the background as Dan makes his morning brew] it gave us a lot to work with. It was an experiment where we weren’t sure what we were going to get or how it was going to turn out, and it went well.

There was also player piano.

That came about later.

Were the rats involved in that at all?

We used the data from the rat performance. It started with that rat data, and then I would like, sculpt it and adhere it to a scale, and that was basically for its rhythmic content. Not just the rhythms, but a pitch contour was taken from it as well, and peaks and lows, and where there’s a lot of variation vs where there’s no variation.

Using the rats to develop the score was a basis on how to create all these sounds. Is there anything like that when you go to create an album? Before you create an album, does it start with an idea that then develops into songs, or is it more of a collection of songs?

I think it’s the latter. When I’m working on a score, it has already a huge concept. It’s kind of like making a concept record. And the concept is “the film”. And with Rat Film, the concept became trying to make as much music out of predetermined elements, and those elements were determined by rats. With a record, a lot of that is me just writing. Whenever I set out to make a pure concept album, I never do. I always abandon the concept for the hope of writing better music—sticking to a strict set of rules for a “Dan Deacon” record, I never find it to be beneficial.

There’s broad concepts, like I want to work with a lot of acoustic musicians, or I want to record and produce this myself. But rarely do I sit down and am like, “this record is going to be about Alexander Graham Bell.” [laughs] It’s rare that that happens within that body of work. But it might someday. Maybe, with a collaborator, especially when the collaboration is a dominant element in the final act, and the music is a piece of it.

You also wrote the music for Twixt. How was it different working on Rat Film as opposed to Twixt? How was it working with Francis Ford Coppola as opposed to Theo?

They’re both great. But working on Twixt compared to Rat Film was night and day. Francis is a living legend, a luminary in the field. When people list greatest films of all time, or greatest directors, he’s on both of those lists. And [Twixt] was a small film for him late in his career. And the inverse of that is Theo was, at the time, very unknown. [Rat Film] is his first feature-length and it’s very early on in his career. And both cared very much, passionately, about what they wanted, but it was very different.

Twixt was also a collaboration. I co-wrote that with another person that I never met, and I believe they had no idea that it was a co-collaboration. [laughs]

They didn’t know they were collaborating?

Well, I don’t think they knew. They had sent Francis music and then they sent it to me to like chop-up, and make other music with. And I had one conversation with Osvaldo [Golijov], the other composer, and I was like, “yea I just got all the recordings. I’ll dive into them and I’ll start chopping them up and make new music out of it.” And he was just like, “What?!” [laughs] And I told him again, and he was like, “that’s interesting,” and hung up and we never spoke again. [laughs] There was a lot of crazy shit with Twixt. Twixt was a wild ride. I was glad to be a part of it.

The best part was getting to talk to Francis and have long conversations about the role of art and music, music and film, film and society, and technology. How both of our art have been married to technology. And in a way, I guess all art, but film especially is a product of industrial processing and chemicals. And music drastically changed in a very similar way when it becomes recorded. So that was really nice.

And I was new to this whole game. I had two records out but I was still touring and I was doing everything very DIY, and this project came about right after Bromst. I thought it was a kidnapping scam. [laughs] It didn’t make any sense—a weird e-mail from someone claiming to be Francis Ford Coppola, but it ended up being true. It was crazy. And I got to meet Val Kilmer and I became good friends with him.

You have this passion for film and you co-run Gunky’s Basement in Baltimore. You also have a visual aspect to your music. Do you think your interest in film, and how the sounds in film interact with the visual, has influenced you? And if so, how?

I think it’s definitely influenced how I both enjoy movies and think about creating music for film. A good score is an integral character that you want to hang out with but, again, it’s just like a good actor—never dominating unless that’s the goal. You know what I mean? Never watch the Lord of the Rings movies with headphones on. [laughs] It’ll ruin those movies for you. I had them on my computer when I was traveling a lot, and I had basically just those three films and then also Chinatown. And Chinatown is a masterpiece, it’s an amazing movie. And in the Lord of the Rings, a piece of paper blows off the table and it’s like [Dan makes emphatic, descending “DUNH DUNH DUNH” sounds, gradually speeding up and getting louder] and someone gives someone a glare [Dan makes a stretched “Myuaah” sound, like a villain]. It’s just so over-scored to the max, and it’s just fucking terrible. But I also love the music from it. But whenever I think about the Lord of the Rings music, I get the music from Jurassic Park stuck in my head. Like I would love a version of Lord of the Rings where all the music is taken out and Jurassic Park is put in there.

That sounds pretty good.

Or Led Zeppelin. [laughs] But [composing a score] is a fine balance. You can’t have too much of it. It’s like a strobe light. It needs to be turned on for key moments and other times, just let it chill.

I want to go back to the player piano. It seems like you’ve kind of taken that in as an instrument of choice. You’re not really pinned down to an instrument, in a lot of ways—you’re really interested in synthesis—but the player piano has cropped up on a lot of your recordings since Bromst. No one’s really using player piano [laughs]. But the way you use it is interesting. Why did you start using it?

Well in college I was really obsessed, and I would say I still am, with this composer Conlon Nancarrow who was writing all this unplayable music for player piano. And he was a recluse. His music didn’t really get discovered until later in life and I just loved how, at the time I was making computer music, largely because I was writing music that was unplayable by humans. And that wasn’t by choice, that was by ignorance. I was writing much too fast and dense music, or music that had too difficult of leaps and range for a human player. And so electronic music made all of that not an issue. Anything was possible with a computer. But with that, the endless possibilities of a computer, it became kind of, I can’t find a different term, boring. When anything is possible, nothing is special. It’s like an all-you-can-eat buffet, you might be able to eat everything, but maybe not all is good, or as rich as true. And with player piano, it was kind of the best of both worlds for me. One, I love the sound of the piano, it’s a beautiful instrument. And two, well I can’t play it [laughs] but I can program MIDI and I do have a unique approach to how I create synthetic sounds. And I think when I applied that to a mechanical instrument, it really opened up a lot of possibilities. And so I’ve been pretty obsessed with them ever since. I love the uncanny valley-ness of it. Like it stops to sound like a piano very quickly, the faster it gets or the more rapid it gets. Hearing a vast, dense piano being played super quietly is one of my favorite things; it sounds the least like a piano.

I mainly refer to it as a Disklavier because that’s the brand Yamaha makes. But it is easier to say player piano. People know what that means, they know it’s an autonomously playing piano, with a sentient consciousness and soul, and it just yearns to be considered a living form, but it was just trapped in a hell of piano-ness. [laughs]

Disklavier, that’s what you’re actually using?

Yeah, I use a Yamaha Disklavier Mark III.

How is that different than what I might think of as a player piano?

Well most player pianos, like when you think of, from back in the day, would take piano rolls—like rolls of paper with holes punched out that would indicate when a hammer would strike. A Disklavier, or other modern, MIDI-controlled, self-playing pianos, have solenoids inside, which are little magnetically-controlled pistons that can strike the keys at a various set of velocities and also sustain notes. With that you have a much greater range of what you can do. I don’t think a player piano in the past could have different volumes.

I wanted to talk about some your side projects. A few weeks ago, you played at High Zero, and you have a few times before, snd you’ve composed music for So Ensemble. Do you separate those performances from “Dan Deacon” release, or do they bleed together?

I do [separate them]. They bleed together personally. But as different musical outcomes I try to keep them separate. I don’t want to disenfranchise anyone that’s like going and expecting a dance party to walk in and it’s an experimental performance. Or me, bassoon, and self-made instruments, and we’re improvising and not doing any songs. I feel like there’s a difference between my song-based music and my improvised music. And there’also a difference between music I write for other players vs music I write for myself, or my own band.

Is it a different mindset?

Yeah, the biggest mindset difference is the audience. Like writing for a seated audience is very different than writing for a standing-room audience, or writing for an audience that is going with the intention to dance. All three of those things are different and they’re all valid, but I wouldn’t go into a seated theater and start playing my heaviest, most movement-focused music. Nor would I do it the other way around; I wouldn’t go into a standing-room venue and start playing like, two hours of ambient music that would be much better enjoyed sitting. So I think about that a lot and I think about how it fits and where it goes. I think the next record will have a bit more of marriage of all these ideas cause I’ve been working on so many different types of music. But we’ll see. Again, I’m sure I’ll destroy that concept. [laughs]

Is there anything else you can mention about your next record?

It’s in a real early stage. But the writing has been going really well and I’m really excited about it. Going back and getting ready for the Spiderman of the Rings ten-year anniversary show unearthed a lot of old files and I got to go in and see how I wrote those tracks. It really reminded me of how minimal my sound used to be. To see how “Snake Mistakes” or “Trippy Green Skull” were four channels each, within a Reason file and now, my tracks will be like 150 channels with all these groups, auxs, and bounces, and I just couldn’t believe. It really made me zoom in a little bit. How my music changed when I shifted from Reason to Ableton, and now I’m starting to use Reason just as heavily, so I’m using both software. And I feel like I know Ableton well, just as well as I used to know Reason. I think it’s going to be a nice marriage of the two. And I also just feel like I’ve finally started to grasp how to write for humans. [laughs] I normally write for computers and figure out a way to have humans play it, while now I feel like I’m writing parts that are playable by humans and I can really get more expressive within that rather than it just be like a maze you try to finish; it can be a path they can adorn technique to.

Was the Spiderman of the Rings show with a full ensemble?

Yeah, it was a 30-person band with strings and horns and mallets and drums and the player piano and singers. It was great. It was definitely a top-five show for me.

As you mentioned, Spiderman of the Rings just had its ten-year anniversary. Is there anything you miss about that time in your career?

I don’t know. I feel like anyone could look back on ten years and find things that they miss and would do differently or cringe about or are excited, and look back longingly. So, I try to think about it like that. It definitely put me on a path, and that path fractured out into a million different directions and I’m happy with where everything landed in this weird way. Does that make any sense?

I miss living that way; In a warehouse with a bunch of friends, and the wild west nature of things that we had. But I wouldn’t go back and live there again today. That moment existed in that time right then. It’s cheesy, but time’s like a stream. And you can only step into that stream once, then that water passes by and its new water that’s surrounding you.

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