Darwin Smith of Darwin Deez on his videos and his informal agenda as an artist
Darwin Deez (due at Larimer Lounge tonight) came to the attention of wider and wider audiences relatively early in the band's career with the release of its singles "Constellations" and "Radar Detector." The videos for both songs revealed a band both eccentric, quirky and capable of writing the kind of catchy pop songs with smart lyrics, the likes of which we haven't seen enough of since the 1980s.
Musically, the act is often compared vaguely to "classic rock" bands, but the vibe is more like early solo Donald Fagen, with a much more lighthearted sound and playfulness than some guitar rock band. If anything, there's a bit of R&B and reggae-inspired New Wave in the sound of Darwin Deez but without seeming like a throwback. We recently caught up Darwin Smith, the band's founder and frontman and spoke with him about the band's origin, shows and videos and his agenda as a songwriter.
Westword:How did you come to adopt the moniker "Darwin Deez," and how would you describe the band Creaky Boards?
Darwin Smith: My best friend and sometimes-bassist in the band, Michelle (aka Mash Deez), gave me the name. I felt it was authentic and also stylized in a way that was fun for people. Playing in Creaky Boards was extremely educational and fear-reducing. Watching Andrew, Creaky's leader and sometimes-Deez-bassist, manage, book and promote the band stateside and overseas was a rare, cool, perfect experience for me at the time.
How did you meet the current members of your band, and what do you feel each of them contributes to the project?
Greg [drums] and Cole [guitar], I met working at a vegan restaurant called Angelica Kitchen in NYC. Andrew I met on the Monday night Anti-folk open mike scene hosted by Lach. Greg is a pillar of emotional stability, and he keeps the beat. Cole adds flamboyance and style to our enterprise. And Andrew speaks with the purest rationality in all situations, takes brilliant photos and journals our experiences in rich detail for the Deez blog.
You're known for your signature dance moves as a live performer. How did dance become such an important part of your show, and what dancers have you admired or appreciated over the years?
It just felt right. It felt fun and like it hadn't been done before. Although I did steal it a bit from my friend Jacob Ciocci's band, Extreme Animals. So he's a dance inspiration. Very funny on the social dance floor. Michael Jackson is another huge inspiration. I've studied very closely his '94 HBO broadcast of the Dangerous Tour from Bucharest. He actually had a very small repertoire of go-to moves. That broadcast is really what should have been watched by everyone when he died instead of This Is It.
Was Miles Crawford thinking of your live show in any way when he came up with the treatments for the "DNA" music video or did you give Joshua Pelatzky any direction on his choreography?
Actually I think Miles had So You Think You Can Dance in mind when he made the "DNA" video. I know that show is in his heart in a way. I didn't direct either Miles or Josh.
The video for "Radar Detector" has some really innovative visual elements. Who came up with the idea for vacuuming up your shadow and that string of postcards around your head and Charlene Deguzman's head? What inspired the idea for someone being good for you in a relationship being like a radar detector?
The shadow-vac was my idea. The camera-hat-used-to-produce-scotch-taped-panorama was an idea Ace Norton found online. The idea for the metaphor was probably inspired by... I can't place it, actually... I was -- and am -- really into clear, simple metaphors, one per song, that haven't been used before. I know I got the idea to write that way from somewhere but I can't recall exactly. Usually I know the answer to questions like that though.
How much involvement did you have in the creative side of the video for "Constellations," and did you come up with the idea of connecting the freckles on that girl's arm with a pen? It also seems like it might be what one might imagine the backstage side of Carl Sagan's show Cosmos might be like if you could be there. Did that have any influence on the type of video you made for that?
I had very little input on the "Constellations" video. It was all Terri Timely. They are great. Carl Sagan/Cosmos was definitely the inspiration for their proposal.
Is that video with the black and white drawings for "Bad Day" something you were involved in making? What was the idea behind it, and who did the illustrations? It has a look similar to the artwork done for albums by Casiotone For the Painfully Alone.
I wasn't involved in Anika Mottershaw's black and white "Bad Day" video -- it doesn't represent me. She draws, and she likes us, and she just made it for fun, I think.
You make pop music, but have said you're not a fan of American radio pop. What pop artists of the past have you enjoyed, and are there any now that you do, and why? What would you say that separates your variety of pop music from the kinds you don't enjoy?
I love Paula Abdul's album, Forever Your Girl. I like Nine Inch Nails. It's a fine line between bad pop and good pop. It's subtle things in the writing and arrangements. It's a whole book answer. And it's also very subjective!
How did you encounter the music of Frankie Sparo, and what was it about his songs that affected you so much?
Jesus -- keep on firing away! The answer is a sexy, depressed, hipster, upper class woman named Lisa, who played Frankie Sparo on her radio show at Wesleyan during my freshman year there. As I recall, my friend Frank Lyon also knew about it. The thing that kills me about his music is the echoing guitars, the lilting melodies and the slow tempos.
Watching and reading some of your other interviews, it sounds like you're trying to do more than just write great pop songs. You were going to name your album "Songs for Imaginative People" -- which sounds like something we need right about now. What do you believe is so important about imagination and cultivating it?
Well, thank you... I think imagination is just the key to good entertainment for intelligent, soulful human beings. The most exciting lyrics to me are the ones that "show don't tell," which means they make your wheels spin in a very natural, daydreaming kind of way. When you write lyrics right, the listener effortlessly pictures the scene you are describing as they listen.
And when they are following on that level, rather than just conceptually or because they're very familiar with the subject/sentiment, they end up receiving the point of the song much better. Ergo they feel it more. And good music is music that moves people, of course. And I am just trying to move people with the music I write. And, technically, that means, yes, I'm just trying to write pop songs! Good ones, though.
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