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Dan Deacon talks TM, Oblique Strategies and synthesizers

Dan Webb
Dan Deacon is a Baltimore-based electronic musician and in-demand soundtrack composer. His most refined and fully realised album to date, Mystic Familiar, was released January 31 via Domino Recording Company.

Review: Dan Deacon – Mystic Familiar

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In a 2015 interview, you said that you don’t practice writing lyrics as much, because you don’t have a lot of confidence in your voice. I’ve noticed a big focal point of the press surrounding this new album is that it features your voice. How have you overcome the insecurities regarding your voice?
Oh I don’t know if I did overcome them. I think I still have them. But I think I wanted to use them as an asset rather than a deterrent. I realised that trying to fight against negative feelings or fight against any sort of anxieties I was having wasn’t working at all, so I had to embrace them. If I was feeling vulnerable about, not just my voice, but the songwriting or any other aspect of my life, I had to channel that and work through it and into it rather than trying to not. And, I think that sort of resulted in the first track being like, this like bare, stripped down, version of a song that normally I would never have done.

Your earliest work appears to showcase a carefree, unrestrained approach to music making, whereas in more recent years you’ve adopted perhaps a more structured and repetitive approach similar to that of maybe Steve Reich or Philip Glass. What role does structure and repetition play in your work?
Well, that’s a good question. Um, well I make most of my music on a computer… I don’t make any computer out of music, but I make a lot of music on a computer. And most of the software – I’ll focus in on a section. Either if I’m like, looking for a sound, or if I’ve recorded a long session with a player, or if I’m just building something from scratch. It revolves around a loop. And listening to that loop again, and again, and again, while like, making slight changes to various aspects of the sound. You kind of fall in love with that, or I do. I fall in love with that individual loop. And I don’t want to hear it just once. I want to hear it again, and again, and again. But I always want there to be these micro-fluctuations, and modulations and changes happening within it. And I think having been a big fan of minimalism for a while, especially that of the 70s, I definitely want to include that, and I love loop based music, I love beat-driven music. A lot of beat-driven music, I think it’s focused on repetition and loops, or asymmetrical repetition in particular. So I think that’s where the level of that comes from.

I fall in love with that individual loop. And I don’t want to hear it just once. I want to hear it again, and again, and again. But I always want there to be these micro-fluctuations, and modulations and changes happening within it.

Review: Jacob Collier – Djesse Vol. 1

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Cool. Now, are you aware of Jacob Collier?
I don’t know if I am.

Okay, he’s a UK based musician. He recently said that he’d like to see a move away from grid-based music software. I’m just wondering how compatible you feel your music would be with that?
Uh, well. I mean, there’s definitely – I love the grid. I think removing any tool from a toolbox is a mistake. But I agree with him, that there needs to be a diversity of methods. And I think it’s one of the many reasons I like working with human players and collaborators and recording improvisation, and structured improvisations, and then making music from that. I think getting out of the box is super important, and just as much as sort of think working in the box is. I’m a big proponent of any method is valid. But it’s like any, you know – I like to relate (it) to cooking. So I don’t want to eat the same thing for every meal, but I don’t want to take something off the menu if I like it, and think that I can yield good results. But you just want to make sure that there’s a diversity of methods and content.

What’s something that you’ve bought or acquired in the past five years that’s changed the way that you make music?
Oh, that’s a good question. Um, probably the ARP 2600. I bought a synthesizer. I bought it used off of this message board site in the States called Craigslist. And it’s a real rare and sought after synth. Saw it popped up on Craigslist in Baltimore, and me and my friends started freaking out. And thought it was a scam, but it ended up not being a scam, and it was formerly owned by a synth manufacturer in studio electronics. They did a bunch of real cool modifications to it that I wasn’t expecting. And we had to jump through a lot of hoops to get it. Like, the seller wanted only cash, and I didn’t have any cash, and I couldn’t take it out of the bank, but I had Euros. So I had to like – it was just like a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode. But, I think that synth gave me a – I never really owned a piece of nice gear before. That was like, the first time I ever owned a really nice sought after piece of gear. And made me really think about my relationship to equipment, and what I could do with it that I couldn’t do inside a computer. I definitely used stuff like that in the past, but normally on like a temporary basis. I’d go to like the Moog synth studio in Asheville and work with them, and they’d like, open up whatever they had, and I could use it. But it was very different than being able to just walk into my studio, turn it on and jam on it, and riff on it for a while. And that’s the synth that makes up the four movement suite on Mystic Familiar, called “Arp” 1 through 4. And I think that’s because that’s what I would do whenever I had a spare moment, when I wasn’t writing. I just wanted to riff. It was a lot of fun to riff. I guess like that composer you just mentioned, um, off the grid, and just on synth. Like an instrument. Because I don’t really play a traditional instrument. I can like, play a keyboard and bass fine, but not in a way that I would really feel comfortable songwriting. So the more I got to know the synths, the more I got into writing with, and having it be a – I don’t know. It’s just definitely changed the way I thought about making music. I think more so than anything else in the last five years.

I don’t really play a traditional instrument. I can like, play a keyboard and bass fine, but not in a way that I would really feel comfortable songwriting.

I understand that you used Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies cards as a method for stimulating creative ideas for this record. You’ve also previously stressed the importance of boredom in the creative process. Aren’t those two ideas somewhat incompatible?
Uh, yeah, I would say they are (laughs) in contradiction. I was definitely bored many times over the past five years. But it’s hard to be – like, when I’m in the studio, when I’m by myself – and I made this record by myself, at least from the production standpoint. Um, sometimes you hit a wall, and you need to make a choice down two very different paths, and there’s thousands of instances like that. They can become very darkening, and you start wondering ‘did I go down the wrong path, should I go back, have I changed something that I shouldn’t change, have I whittled this down too much, have I put too much on?’ And the cards became a familiar voice in the room, that I could basically have a dialogue with. I would draw a card, and I either found it influential and I would meditate on why I thought it was a good prompt, or a good question. Or if I disagreed with it, I didn’t want to just dismiss it, I was trying to treat it like any other collaborator. I had to justify why I thought it was a bad choice. So I’d meditate on that until I felt fully comfortable. And there’s a way of setting intentions. I think boredom and intention are two very different things. So while like, I think boredom is vital to get into a state of creation, and to find inspiration, I don’t think you necessarily have to be bored to get there, but I certainly think boredom helps the mind wander. But when you’re already in the zone, there’s still all these choices to be made, and like any aspect of life, sometimes it’s great to get external advice or prompts that can help you guide you down the path.

Sometimes you hit a wall, and you need to make a choice down two very different paths… They can become very darkening, and you start wondering ‘did I go down the wrong path, should I go back, have I changed something that I shouldn’t change, have I whittled this down too much, have I put too much on?’

In 2009 you toured in a bus powered entirely by vegetable oil, in an effort to reduce your carbon footprint. This interview is taking place against the backdrop of a catastrophic fire season here in Australia. What more, in your opinion, can be done on an individual level to combat climate change? Is all hope now futile?
I think the biggest thing individuals can do is to make sure that the way that they interact with large corporations is in line with their ideals. And I think that can be really challenging, and it’s something I am trying to work on. Like, of course individual health is vital, but we have to start holding large corporations accountable. The amount of pollution that the shipping industry causes dwarfs that of I believe the entire individual population. I could be completely wrong, but uh, it’s a statistic I’ve heard, and it’s horrifying. And it’s daunting to think about the amount of industrial and commercial waste. And so much guilt and pressure is put on an individual, and sometimes I think that makes people think that the problem is insolvable, specifically to make it easier for corporations to continue the process. And I think people holding themselves accountable is excellent, and it’s a great step. But we need to make sure that where we spend our money, and who we spend it with, that they spend it with our ideology in mind, and within whatever intentions we want the world to exist within. Here in the United States, the least I know that, the most evil of corporations, I believe they do have a very short sighted, and don’t have global interest or the environment, or I don’t know, even human wellbeing in mind. And every time I buy a product from them, or have something shipped to me by them, that I’m contributing to that. And I think that’s going to be the largest shift in my life, is making sure that I align myself in a way that isn’t directly a part of the problem, while thinking that if I change my habits at home, it’ll help. Because I’m still enabling much more gigantic habits elsewhere.

I understand for this album you were heavily inspired by David Lynch’s writings on a commercialised for-profit version of meditation. Why should anyone pay for knowledge which has traditionally been provided for free?
I don’t think they should. I’m not a proponent of TM (Transcendental Meditation). I don’t practice TM. What I like about David Lynch’s book, Catching the Big Fish, was that it phrased meditation in a way that made sense to me. And it would help me realise that it was okay to be bad at it at first. I used to think it was impossible for me to meditate, and that I just would never be able to do it. And then after reading that book, um, which at times it is way too much like an ad for TM, I completely agree. And just so we’re 100 percent clear, I don’t practice TM. I’ve never taken a TM course, and I don’t think meditation is something that needs to be paid for. Um, but everyone finds their own path, and if some people want to pay for an app on their phone, or to buy a book, or to take a course, I’m not going to judge them, how they get there. Some people pay to go to university, some people pay for private instructors. Exercising is something that you could do without any guidance. Or you could find information for free online, but many people benefit from taking classes, having a personal trainer. But I just found the words of Lynch, and his views on meditation specifically applied to an artistic practice, to be very beneficial.

I don’t practice TM. I’ve never taken a TM course, and I don’t think meditation is something that needs to be paid for.

How does your approach to composing film scores differ to recording an album?
Well, they’re pretty, I’d say very different, how they both live within the realm of composition. Um, my music, I tend to have no writing collaborators. I’ll work with various performers for parts, but when you’re scoring a film, even though I’ll be the one composing the music, the director and in many cases, the editor have very big, um, beyond editorial, input on how it goes. Both, like tonally, um, arrangement wise. The atmosphere and vibe that should be coming from each cue. So really becomes a really nuanced and unique project to project, uh, relationship, and collaboration. And I think that’s what I like most about it, is that every single time I work on a new film project, it’s a completely new process, and starting from scratch and building up a vocabulary, and calling together influences and hearing like how they wanted something to sound. And then sending them something, see how they use it. And focusing in on trying to find the common grounds to best have music play a role, a small role, in a much larger project. Where when I’m making my own record, that is the entirety of it. The music itself is the focal point. Where in film, the music can be the focal point at times, but for the most part, it’s another flavour in a much larger recipe.

What advice would you have for emerging artists who are trying to cut through?
To tour. And to tour however you possibly can. Particularly within, around from where you live. Um, have shows in your house, have shows in any space that you can possibly have shows, and find like-minded artists. I think the, the Bandcamp search feature is a really amazing resource to, uh – I’m using it right now to find acts to open up for me on my upcoming tours in cities where I don’t already know anyone. I’m like, well, there’s this amazing group of people who are putting their own music out there, and self-releasing, and self-publishing. And luckily I can search by city, and genre. But I guess just to make sure that you’re putting your own voice into it. And I know a lot of people say that, but I think a lot of people say it because it’s true. And the more of yourself you can put into your work, I think the more it will resonate with people.

Bob Dylan once said, “you can write a song anywhere. In a railroad compartment, on a boat, on horseback. It helps to be moving.” Given the amount of time you spend on the road, would you agree with that sentiment?
Uh, I do. I think it’s a combination, I guess to go back to the boredom. While I love to travel, it certainly gets pretty boring a lot of the time. So writing really helps, and I love writing on a train. I think writing on a train is one of my favourite things. Uh, I still tour on that bus that you mentioned before, that uh, veg-powered bus. It’s a vehicle I always tour in in the States, and I love writing on that. It’s one of my favourite things, is to curl up in my bunk and try to, you know, you’re going to be sitting on it for seven, uh… you might as well try to write in that time.

If you could collaborate with any artist in any medium, who would it be, and what would you create?
If I could collaborate with any artist, in any medium? See, right now, I’m trying to think about all of the weirdest mediums of art. Um, like, uh, I don’t know if they count as artists, but like, every time I’m watching, uh, I don’t know. I’d have to think about it. This is a (laughs), this is a good question. Um, I don’t know, I really liked collaborating with Justin Peck on the… oh, this is for all of history?

Sure, yeah (laughs).
Or is this, so living or dead?

It could be either. However you’d like to interpret the question.
All right, all right. This is, and does it need to be an individual, or can it be a group?

It can be a group if you like, yeah.
Okay. This is getting, this is getting good. Um-

There’s no rules here (laughs).
(Laughs) Gee, I work better within confines… so I’m trying to find where exactly I am in this. Um, this, I don’t know. I really love, and for some reason my brain just keeps going to ‘parade’. I love a parade. Um, I love hearing music travel down the street, and blend with all the other music around it. But I don’t think – I don’t know any parade artists, so I can’t really speak to that.

Maybe you could work with a filmmaker, or another musician on a parade.
Yeah, those I thought, those I thought might be – (laughs) I think people want to know, like, which great parade enthusiast I would want to work with. Um, I think it would be Merce Cunningham, I think I’d work with, the famed choreographer. Working with choreographers and dancers is one of my favourite things to do, and when you asked the question, they were the first name who popped into my head, and then I started trying to find a weirder thing. But I think Merce. I think Merce really changed the way experimental music and contemporary dance, uh, you know. There was a huge, huge, influence on, not just 20th century dance, 20th century music. And it’s hard to imagine, like, the work of John Cage, or Christian Wolff, or a lot of that New York scene being what it was without Merce Cunningham’s dance behind it. All the way back to early John Cage, when they were doing like, the, Black College Mountain happenings, and that whole crazy tour with (painter) Robert Rauschenberg. Um, yeah, I’m going to go with Merce Cunningham.