Dan Deacon on Microsampling, Defying Convention, Upside of Baltimore Unrest

Dan Deacon, who headlines the Bluebird Theatre on Tuesday, May 12, makes unclassifiable music that plenty of people insist upon trying to categorize anyhow. His latest album, Gliss Riffer, collects computer-generated music with a stylistic range that encompasses every conceivable genre, as well as some that don't exist yet except in his own very busy mind.

But even though many of Gliss Riffer's themes are extremely personal, Deacon is hardly isolated from the rest of the world. He's based in Baltimore, and his take on the demonstrations that have taken there following the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray while in police custody earlier this month is emotional, heartfelt and fiery, calling into question the way the events in the city have been most commonly portrayed in recent days.

Note that our interview took place yesterday afternoon, prior to Baltimore prosecutors charging six police officers in Gray's death.

From there, the conversation digs into the music, with Deacon detailing his development from early recordings like Spiderman of the Rings to America, Gliss Riffer's immediate predecessor, which used more conventional instrumentation in an utterly unconventional way. Topics include microsampling, Illegal Art, the difference between his version of electronic music and EDM, and the benefits of being impossible to peg.

Michael Roberts: Are you in Baltimore right now?

Dan Deacon: No, I've been away for about a month now.

So you've been watching this from afar.

Yeah. It's a really bizarre way to be seeing what's happening. Like, my Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, all of my friends I know from there, that's dominating it. But most of the country is seeing it on mass media.

What do you think the networks and major news organizations are getting right in the way they're characterizing Baltimore, and what are they getting wrong?

I don't personally look at or read any mainstream news sources. They basically feel like a tool of the state, a propaganda wing of the police state. It seems to me that most people I talk to not from Baltimore are like, "Oh, it's such a shame about the riots." And while there are a sprinkling of violent outbursts, the vast majority of what's happening is an outpouring of community, an outpouring of people voicing their outrage with the police and the corruption in the system and institutional racism. But there's such a community effort, such a unifying of the city going on. People going, "We can't tolerate this." It's a shame, a tragedy, that it came about because six people killed another person...but out of that tragedy has been brought a true uprising. And I think that's a beautiful thing.

Obviously, the media wants to focus on burning or flipped-over cars or a smashed window. But that is one minute aspect....

You sound very optimistic. Do you see communities that might not interact with each other as much as they should coming together to address some of these issues in a way that could force changes that should be made to actually happen?

One hundred percent. And again, it's weird to not be there, because I want to be there so badly. There's two Baltimores. It's one of the most segregated communities I've ever been to, and it's exciting to think that might change. It's really making me check and understand my privilege based on my skin color and my gender and my identity as a whole.

The main thing I keep thinking about is that all human beings just want to feel safe, comfortable, connected to the ones they love and left alone by people they don't want to interact with. That's the goal of life — to feel content, happy to pursue what you want to pursue, to love the people you want to love and be the person you want to be. But for some reason, we live in a society where that can't be achieved by all people, but only by a small minority of people.

That's slowly beginning to shift, because the voiceless are getting voices through things like social media and realizing how large a population they actually are. So I'm trying to see the positive what's happening. And again, to refer to what's happening as a riot is, I think, a large misnomer, because they're protests. They're public gatherings and people voicing their opinions, and the fact that the mainstream media wants to focus on the slight violence of it is insane. Imagine the World Series. All of the coverage of the World Series is on the game, but there are thousands of brawls and fights and property destruction after sporting events. And that's a tiny, tiny fraction of the coverage. Someone may mention, "Hey, these crazy idiots did this dumb shit." But with a protest, it's the opposite. None of the narrative is on the actual event. It's on the small, sideline violence that's happening in parallel with it and not in conjunction with it....

All that's happened is that some human beings beat another person to death. And people want justice.

Your last album, 
America, dealt with some very big topics, and I can hear the passion in what you're saying. Can you imagine that what's happening now could inform your music down the line?

I think a lot of America and Gliss Riffer are about identity. America was about me figuring out what it meant to be an American, especially because I think a lot of the American youth grows up disenfranchised with the concept of what America is. It's impossible to think, "It's the home of the brave and the land of the free. Everyone's free." Because very clearly that's not the case. It's not reality. And I think the older you get, the more you realize how different everyone else's reality is from yours and how your country is, like, the oppressor of the world. You start thinking about, "What is my role in that? How can I not participate in that? How can I make being an American to be positive?" Because someone sat down once and said, "How can we make America be this?" and they achieved that. But how can you make it be something that leads to what you want it to be? How can you contribute to make it into the America you want to exist?

With Gliss Riffer, the whole record is on a smaller scale. That record is much more about "Why do I always want to get out of my own head? Why am I anxious? Why do I constantly have stress? Why am I so stressed about everything else?...."

You've spent most of your career making electronic music. Then, on America, you used acoustic instrumentation and a lot of musicians. But on Glass Riffer, you've returned to the do-it-yourself, laptop computer approach. Was part of the reason you did that is because the process of making America, even if it turned out to be a really satisfying album, was slower and more laborious than it is when you're by yourself and you can instantly change course if you feel like taking a different direction?

I think the latter. The fact that I could change direction at any point was what was really appealing. That was one of the things that got me into making computer music and being a solo artist in general. But the new album was just kind of a different fit. I guess I started thinking about making this record after making America. I was putting together a mixtape called Wish Book. I was just dragging tunes in from iTunes into Ableton, the software I use, and I kept thinking, "Wow, when this is done, it's done. I'm not going to have to export the MIDI as sheet music and arrange it for players and then find the players and have the players learn it and go through that whole process. When this is done, it's done." And that was why I got into making computer music. I just wanted to make it, wanted to hear it.

But you become obsessed with sound, and you want to hear as many sounds as possible. And there are certain sounds a computer can make and there are certain sounds a computer can't make. And there are certain sounds acoustic instruments can make and certain sounds acoustic instruments can't make. And with America, I was making an acoustic record, but from the standpoint of electronic music. I recorded every instrument individually, in isolation, in a completely dead room: no reverberation, so we could layer them, chop them up, make loops. So while they were acoustic instruments, it was largely approached from an electronic perspective.

With Gliss Riffer, I wanted to do the complete opposite. I wanted to make a record of largely synthetic sounds being approached as you would acoustic sounds. When you think about it, you can't have an orchestra play at full volume the whole time. Players fatigue, different instruments have different volumes, different ranges of instruments have different volumes. But with a computer, you can make any sound at any volume last forever. So I wanted to pick up on the process I used doing acoustic music and apply it to electronic music. And what came out of it was the space, more room for the voice, less level of density, and just a different sonic caliber than the other one.

So you view Gliss Riffer less as going back into your comfort zone than applying the lessons you learned with America and taking music you were familiar with to a completely different place?

Yeah. I didn't want to go back and make another record like I'd done before. That would be impossible. Every experience you live through changes the way you think or make art or express yourself. It would be impossible for me to go back and make, say, Spiderman of the Rings again. I wanted to make a record the way that I made it, but I wanted to apply what I'd learned. That made me completely rethink the way this record worked.

I'd say it's much more like America in its approach to sound than it is like Spiderman. But the way I made it is much more like Spiderman than it is like America.

You've talked about your use of microsamples on the new album, which I found really interesting. I remember when DJ Shadow's Endtroducing came out and I thought, this is a really fascinating approach and I can't wait to hear what other artists are going to do with it . But then the damn lawyers got in the way and that was the end of that. So do you see microsampling as a way to take a collage technique that has fallen out of favor for reasons that don't have anything to do with the music and push it forward?

I want to be able to take every kind of sound that exists to make something new. And imagine if a set of colors was illegal — some colors were against the law to use. That would be insane. But somehow within the realm of sonic-based art, you can't use certain sounds, because someone else owns them. And so much of what sonic art is all about is taking sounds that existed in the past and making something new out of them. That was the tradition. Theme and variation — quoting exactly what the theme and variation was. And then all of a sudden, with the commodification of music and the capitalistic approach to music, that started being impossible. Music became a physical commodity that could be mass produced, and people started very quickly changing what music was to them. And it becomes less and less of a physical object and more and more a concept. But I think people are slowly beginning to return to the idea that you can make something out of anything. I think for someone who's nine-years-old today that twenty years from now, when they're 29, it'll hopefully seem insane to them that Biz Markie was sued for using a sample to make something completely new out of.

The way you use sounds, I can't imagine anyone being able to come to you and say, "I know where it came from." Has that happened on the new album?

No, because most of the samples are, like, a tenth of a second long. I wouldn't love it if that happened, but I like talking about it, because it's such a large part of the process. I like working with synthesizers, I like working with acoustic instruments, and I like working with pre-existing sounds. Like, some of my biggest influences in college were, like, Negativland and John Oswald and the big Plunerphonics scene — using pre-existing sound and making collage-art with sound. Like the whole Illegal Art label. That whole world of sound-making is not only beautiful but important to the period it existed in as a commentary on "This type of music is for some reason illegal. It's illegal for us to be making this art." That's an important point to make about what it's like to be making art within a capitalistic structure, where certain ideas and concepts are, for lack of a better term, outlawed, and if you try to use them, there can be massive consequences.

What techniques did you use on the new album to alter your voice? Some of them sound like very primitive voice-altering technology, like Vocoder, and other things sound very cutting edge.

There's a much larger use of Vocoder on this record. On previous records, like Spiderman and Bromst, it was a pitch-shift pedal, a ring modulator. Which really just made it totally unintelligible, where there was no way to figure out what I was saying. And for the most part, I was just making gibberish sounds. I was thinking of the voice more like a synthesizer than as a way to convey content. But I think the main thing that was different on this record was that in order to change the pitch of my voice, I used a vari-speed technique. You actually change the speed at which you record and you sing normally. Sort of like the Chipmunks.... I guess the technique was invented by Les Paul, where if you change the speed you record at, it changes your pitch. And within a non-extreme range, it sounds like this human/non-human voice. And then I apply this throat lengthening and shortening technique to really give it a different character. Again, it sounds slightly more human and slightly less human at the same time.

And then there were some tracks where I did no vocal processing other than reverb and pitch correction. There's no delay, there's no pitch-shifting. Just many layers of the voice.

There are male and female sounding voices on the album. Did you almost think of the different voices as characters?

No, and I try not to gender-type the sounds, either. I don't think of a low pitch as male and a high pitch as female, just like I don't think people think of the left hand of the piano as the boy hand and the right hand as the girl hand. I think it's the way I approach my voice. I think of it more as a carrier wave for an instrument. I don't consider myself a singer, so I want to alter my voice in as many ways as possible and I want to change my pitch. Because I've always been pitch-shifting my voice, I see it as something that's not attached to my identity.

In that way, then, the voices are basically a variety of delivery systems for your lyrics?

Exactly. Like on Spiderman of the Rings, I'm not singing any of the lyrics. Those are all other people. And I think if you approach music as, "What's the best texture for this sound?," sometimes it doesn't need to be my voice. And when it is my voice, sometimes it's my voice heard regularly and sometimes it's my voice altered. But the human voice is such a weird instrument. It's the only instrument that has an extra parameter of sound. Every other instrument, it has the parameters of pitch, amplitude, duration and texture. The human voice is the only one that also has content. And I've never really exploited that. I felt like I was a sculptor and I all of a sudden realized that wood could do something completely different than stone could. It blew my mind. I was like, "Why the hell haven't I been doing this?" It was like, the lyrics could completely change everything about a song....

There's a really wide variety of material on the new album, from the twisted, layered pop sound of "Sheathed Wings" to "Take It to the Max," which put me in mind of Steve Reich and Philip Glass....


Is it weird to you, given all that, to have your work categorized as simply "electronic music" in so many places?

I think when you're in the middle of something, it's hard to figure out what side you're really on. And I understand the need to define something. That's the way our society is structured. There are a lot of definitions. I do make electronic music, but it's weird. I make electronic music you can dance to, but I don't make EDM. And I make music you can dance to that wouldn't get played at a dance club. I make music that's too weird to be pop music, but too pop to be avant-garde. And I like that, I like being in the middle. I feel like when you're in the middle, you can experiment a lot more. You can take risks you wouldn't otherwise take.

If I was making a straight-up pop record, I probably wouldn't have put "Take It to the Max" or "Steely Blues" on the record. But I really like those songs. I'm like well, "People are going to think it's weird anyway, so I might as well not care how it's perceived."
Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.