Dan Deacon on not having a rider asking for snacks and touring as self-sufficiently as possible
Although the great majority of our interviews take place in advance of a show, every now and then, we get a chance to hang out with an act when it comes through town. Such was the case yesterday with affable and intelligent Dan Deacon, who took time out of his day to chat with us about a variety of subjects, from whether our society, if it still exists 500 years from now, will view John Cage in the same light as Beethoven, Mozart or Bach, to how he and his bandmates strive to be as self-sufficient as possible on the road, cooking all their own food, using vegetable oil to fuel their bus and (gasp!) not having a rider asking for snacks and such, like most every other touring act.
Westword: How did you come to score the music for the film Twixt? Did you work directly with Francis Ford Coppola, and what was it like working with him?
Dan Deacon: Yeah, he contacted me through e-mail and invited me out to Napa. We sort of chilled and chatted for a while. Over the course of a couple of weeks, he asked me to score the film. We dialogued quite a bit. We exchanged music back and forth in what we were going for. He has a knowledgeable background in classical music. His father was a composer who scored his early films.
He sent me the script, and I sent him stuff I thought would be cool to emulate or replicate, and we sort of went down that road. What I remember sticking out is "Black Angels," by George Crumb, which is a string quartet I really love, that I sent to him. Most of the stuff I did was more atmospheric. I haven't seen the final cut of the film, so I have no idea what made it in and what didn't.
On the August 2012 cover of Under the Radar, you hold a sign that says "YOUR APATHY IS THEIR REWARD." Was that statement your idea? What did you mean by those words, and what does that statement signify for you?
It was my idea. I just think we're designed to be apathetic toward the government, or the corporate takeover of the government. [We're] designed to be apathetic toward the military, to almost distance ourselves from what our country and culture is so it's easier for them to co-opt it, take it away and destroy it. I think it's especially true within youth and underground. They play right into it unknowingly.
There are so many people out there who think, "Voting is a joke; I'm not going to vote." That's the point: They don't want you to vote. They do everything they can to disenfranchise the demographics they don't want involved. By doing that, you're doing exactly what plays into their plan, their whole system. It's very easy when you live a counterculture lifestyle that you're not part of the culture, but if anything, it's more important that you rep that, because it shows that America isn't just a homogenized monoculture. It does have radical ideals and ideologies.
On March 26th of this year, you played at Carnegie Hall and did a tribute to John Cage on the occasion of the year of his 100th birthday. What would you say is the significance of John Cage to you as a musician, and what do you believe are his major contributions to music in general?
I feel like five hundred years from now, if our society still exists, Cage will definitely be seen in the same league as Beethoven, Mozart or Bach. He had a mind that changed the game and created a paradigm of what music can be and liberated a whole world of sound and silence. Without Cage, I don't think we'd have performance art in the capacity we do today.
There wouldn't be Fluxus, and I don't think minimalism would have come about. There's just a huge, massive influence from him. What he did helped propagate so many other artists that wouldn't have made to the forefront. The fact that he was always experimenting was a massive influence. It's impossible to think of the world without him. It would be like trying to imagine what society would be like without the steam engine or something.
Even if you despised his music -- which, as a composer, I think would be difficult to do -- his ideas and the conceptual value of his work are endless. There were people who were doing what he was doing at the time like prepared piano, but Cage brought it to such another level. Thinking about sound, for lack of a better term, formats and realizing all sounds were cool and valuable.
There is no such thing as a silent performance; there is always going to be incidental sound. Those things revolutionized the way that people interpreted work and interacted with it and what it meant to be a performer, what it meant to be a participant -- all those things were completely flipped and recontextualized. His conceptual work, his theories and his ideas permeated all levels of art and continues to this day.
Why did you root the music for America in "triadic harmony set to a fixed pulse" and what effect do you feel that has on listeners?
Ultimately it's music that's made for movement. I like working within major scales, major chords -- they're beautiful. I love dissonance as well. In regard to the music that I currently write, especially with America, that's what I framed it as. I guess what I was trying to say is that while it's rhythmically and harmonically all over the place, I still find it to be just not regular pop music even though it's framed within what pop music is.
Pop music sticks to a pulse and most of the chords are chords that you can hear in just about every song. Even though it falls under the realm of experimental pop music or whatever it's still ultimately pop music and should be listened to as such.
"USA I - Is a Monster" will remind some people of the name of the late experimental rock band. But musically it isn't necessarily related. Why did you want to draw on the imagery of the USA as a monster for that part of the tetralogy?
When I started writing the piece, it was just a track I saved as "usaisamonster" because I was working on this drum riff that reminds me of them. The played a show at my house that was an epic, hour-and-a-half-long performance, and it was totally sick. When I wrote that piece, it was longer piece, and I kept thinking of that concert that they did in my old place, Wham City.
Eventually it drifted very far from that original idea. Plus the filename became so inordinately long because my computer would crash every fifteen minutes. I would constantly save new versions in case I made a wrong turn and go back to an earlier version. So I had hundreds of different files called "usaisamonster" dash, the date and a brief description. Then it got too long to read, so I just started shortening to just "USA."
I think that subconsciously worked into the influence, and I started thinking about geography and where the influence is coming from, and it morphed from there. When I was titling the individual parts, I decided to keep the "usaisamonster" reference. The lyrics in that part of the first section: "Nothing lives long, only the earth and the mountains." It's a Native American saying. Usaisamonster uses a lot of Native American imagery in their work, and it seemed to come full circle, so I decided to keep the title that.
"The Great American Desert," as a title, evokes a certain part of the USA well. What about those parts of America spoke to you, and is there a metaphorical significance of the title in a more general sense?
It's just such a psychedelic part of the world. I grew up on the East Coast, and I really love the East Coast. A lot of people have a desire to go west, and it's ingrained in American culture to go coast to coast and see the country. When you get into the desert, you start realizing how vastly huge the country is and how crazy and psychedelic the landscape is. It has a mystical quality to it, especially at night.
I've lived in suburbs and cities my whole life so when you get into the desert in the middle of the night and there's no lights on the highway and you go off a little bit, there's more stars than you could ever imagine in the sky. That couples with the canyons, the valleys and the insane desert plants that almost look like aliens in their own right. Such a psychedelic environment.
Keep reading for more of our chat last night with Dan Deacon
What was the inspiration for the video for "True Thrush"? Why did you stop at nineteen iterations, or perhaps even go that far?
Dan Deacon: There was a different treatment and director lined up for the video, and then, at the last minute, the director and I realized what we had wasn't going to work. So we pulled the plug. But you have to have a video; it's very important. I wanted to have one, so I thought about what I could make in a couple of days.
I'm really into asymmetrical repetition. There's this Wham City game we call Nipples My Garden, but it's really just a telephone drawing game. I think there are a hundred different names for it. So I called up my friend Ben O'Brien, who had made the "Woof Woof" video, and said, "We've got to do it with a meager budget, but we can shoot at my studio, and I think the editing would be easy." He agreed to do it, and we divided the song up into bars of eight. With the phrases of the song it worked out to nineteen.
We didn't want it to be too short. We really had no idea how it was going to turn out. We needed to make sure it's complicated enough that it changes, but we don't want it so complicated that it erodes too quickly. But we don't want it to be so simple that it doesn't evolve -- that it becomes too easy for them to solve.
When we made our first one we thought, "Oh god, it's going to get simpler and simpler from there." But it didn't. It got crazier and crazier and frantic. Different groups would latch on to different traits. Some people would just look at sets and forget what the actors were doing. Their movements would be more jagged. Other people would match exactly their movements or facial expressions or placement of objects.
We picked people we know from the arts community from Baltimore, different people from the music scene or the theater scene or visual artists and dancers, knowing everyone would interpret it very differently. The song is largely about homogeny. While it is about everyone trying to do the same thing, it just proves that it's impossible because people will interpret the same thing drastically differently.
How did you, if you have, reconcile the contrasting aspects of what America and being an American means to you? Did you arrive at a normative assessment of that meaning as well?
I don't think there will ever be a reconciliation. I'm more beginning to confront this and coming to terms with it. I feel this record is me attempting that confrontation with that idea for the first time on a real serious scale, trying to figure exactly what it means to be an American, and how, if I want to, live my life the way I do, how can I do it without adding to the exploitation or the suffering of others. It's so endlessly prevalent throughout our culture and society. Almost all of our comforts come at the direct discomfort or exploitation of either someone or something.
So finding achievable goals and steps within that I can do. Then ask, "How am I directly responsible for this, this, this and this." Then you realize like, "Oh, the food I eat, the clothes I wear, fuel I use, the type of building I live with, the technology I interact with, the job I have -- every single thing of almost every single person's life has all of these impacts.
If you actually sit down and think about this, it's crippling, horrible and daunting. If you accept that's what reality is and you have to change it and you do it in small, workable goals, it is possible to create change. I think most people think hope that policy or governments will bring change but that's never gonna happen. The only person that can change your reality is you.
And you can only change what you can change.
Exactly. The moment you become aware of your role within something you're opposed or against, that is the moment where you have to figure out how you can augment your reality to fit the lifestyle that you want to live rather than the lifestyle that's been comfortably prescribed.
Why did you feel compelled to write a kind of statement of what America was about for the first page of your website?
I just wanted people to know where I was coming from on America on my own terms. The media is a very helpful way of getting that out there. Unless it's a direct Q&A style interview, you often get the writer's interpretation of what work is, and that becomes the reality of what it is to people, and they interpret it based on an intepretation.
I try to avoid music media as much as possible because I think it creates kind of a feedback loop, and I think it's best for me to stay away from it. I just wanted to put my thoughts and ideas with the record, so people could have a direct conduit to the idea and where it was coming from. Visual artists get to do that all the time.
How do you stay connected to the DIY world these days, and why is that still important for you at this juncture in your life?
I still try to do it on the touring level as much as possible. [The reason] we don't play a lot of DIY spaces or house shows is that most of the time they're very small. Sometimes when I try to play them, they get shut down or busted, or many people wouldn't get to go. We try to tour in a way that fits that lifestyle as much as possible. We cook and make all our own food. We don't have a rider and ask for snacks. We just want to get it ourselves and get things that are organic and fair trade and healthy. We tour in the bus, and we don't use diesel; we use vegetable oil.
All three bands this time tour together, and all the bands share members and gear. In Baltimore, I try to book shows and go to shows as often as possible. That's just the scene and community I'm in. I'm happy to reach into another world, "mainstream indie" or whatever it's called.
The last show we did Salt Lake City didn't sell alcohol, and the audience has been the best it's been all tour. The Bluebird obviously sells alcohol. Even DIY spaces in Denver, even though they don't sell alcohol, a lot of people go to those shows to get fucked up. So there's a lot of different levels to what DIY can be and what it means. Different places have different levels of corporate and mainstream and punk.
I think it's important not to lose your roots and not lose sight of the future. I don't want to lose a hold of where I came from and the roots and ideology that got me where I am today. But I also want to reach as many people with my music without having to compromise what I'm writing.
Having, to some extent, come from that DIY world myself, you do run into some attitudes, now and then, of a sense of being more pure than that commercial or mainstream world. What do you think those who embrace the DIY world the strongest could learn from the more commercial or academic music world that you've experienced that would be positive?
It's always important to never feel pious. I think there's a lot of entitlement in all of the different factions of the music world. A lot of DIY spaces view themselves as better than a bar or whatever. Ultimately a legitimate, legal music club is pretty fucking DIY, and they take a risk of losing a massive investment on making a building and a business where people can go.
So I think people associate legal venues with anti-DIY. There's a lot of amazing legitimate venues and a lot of amazing DIY venues. There's also a lot of complete shithole legitimate venues and complete shithole DIY venues. I remember in the early days rolling up, and people were like, "Yeah we have a DIY space, and it's pretty sick." And then there's no P.A. and there's no one collecting money for the touring bands. How are you any different from McGoobie's Pub that has the Coors Light sign in the window but they make sure the band's going to get some money.
Everything has its positives and its negatives. The same way with the academic scene. It'll be interesting to see what DIY means ten years from now. One thing I think that's unsustainable that makes sure only the wealthy tour is the five dollar model. If shows are only five dollars, how do they expect bands that aren't independently wealthy or have some secure money to fall back on, how can you expect them to tour the country?
I understand where they're coming from, where you can't let the corporate economy dictate the price to the underground. But at the same time, when that five dollar ticket price first came about, it was because it was fair for all parties involved. It was fair for the patron and fair for the band. Now it just seems that there's a very large imbalance between how that money works. Back then five dollars was two hours of minimum wage, and gas was under a dollar a gallon. Now gas ranges between about four and five dollars a gallon, and minimum wage is seven dollars an hour so it's a very large difference.
In my opinion, people should be spending their money within their local scene and their local community as much as possible, so that people rise above that level of poverty that's been established. There's no reason the working class and the artist class need to have such completely different pay scales. It just doesn't make any sense. Both have their value to society.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.