Darwin Deez is known for a catchy and unpredictable style in which indie rock meets electro-pop. With the release of his fourth full-length record, 10 Songs That Happened When You Left Me With My Stupid Heart, the Brooklyn-based artist has quietly put together nearly a decade's worth of interesting, thoughtful and unusual music.
Ahead of his show at the Larimer Lounge, Deez spoke with Westword about writing breakup music, personal limitations inspiring creativity, guitar fatigue, and a card game he once loved called Android Netrunner.
Westword: It sure seems like the new record is inspired by a real breakup. Is that the case?
Darwin Deez: Yeah.
Is it difficult navigating an actual breakup and a record that’s at least partly about it?
No. The songwriting was finished like over a year ago.
How do you think that the relationship ending affected the final product, then?
Well, there are some spiteful songs. There’s some spite, for sure. But I like a little bit of spite in my songwriting. It’s good to sing some...you don’t want saccharine, you know? You don’t want overly sweet. You want some bitterness mixed in so that it’s true to life.
Both parties have to be okay with that, right?
With being bitter on some level?
With some of these songs having bitterness to them and those songs being put out into the world.
I mean, I’ve written songs about her before, so there was probably an understanding based on that.
Why do you think this album is a necessary step for you artistically?
The next step is always a necessary step. It was just a next step. I don’t think I’m heading anywhere, so it’s not necessary in that sense. But there’s always the next step, and this happens to be the next one. I’m not going anywhere; I’m just going.
Do you ever wonder about where "next" is for you, though?
I’m definitely exploratory as an artist. The thing I always hear so often is artists saying, "Oh, I don’t want to just put down the idea in my head. I want to put the sounds in my head down on a medium." That’s not how I experience creativity at all. It’s much more like, here’s a fraction of a song in my head. Now, let’s put it down and see what comes out of it if we let it grow — like a flower in a sandbox.
Let’s let this fragment of an idea grow through the recording process and thinking about it and playing with it, and see what comes out of it. I'm very exploratory.
And it’s like, if I’m not going somewhere, I can’t repeat myself. I’m too bored — so it’s like a self-motivating thing, where it’s, "I can’t do the same thing again. I’ll be bored with it."
Well, what sorts of things with this album were exciting and new for you, and not boring?
I’d never really composed on a piano before, and I have some of those on the record, and that was interesting. It’s better to compose on an instrument that you’re not so familiar with. Your skill — the limitations of your skill — end up helping you, creatively. Any limitation is a help, creatively.
Interesting. How so?
When I pick up a six-string, I get distracted by all the things I can do with it, and none of those things is songwriting. It ends up being a hindrance to songwriting. That was part of why I had a three- or four-string guitar ten years ago. I was like, let’s see what I can do with three strings.
It gives you walls to bounce off of, you know? If you have every instrument and chord and voice in the universe, it’s overwhelming. I wouldn’t know where to start.
Did you learn to appreciate your own limitations over time?
I wouldn’t say it took me time to appreciate. I’d say I noticed it right away.
Going back to sitting at the piano and composing: Why was this the first time you had tried it?
Because I really, really suck at piano, I guess. And also, I guess I really liked the sound of guitar and was exploring that. I got a bit tired of the sound of the guitar, and I think everyone is kind of tired of the sound of guitar. Everyone is doing synth stuff now.
Also, I had already done a lot of songs on guitar already for the album and thought, "These are okay... . I wonder…"
If you see your peers veering away from guitar, does that influence you at all?
Um…I’m trying to think of peers, creatively. Probably the most relevant peer creatively at the time was probably my former roommate, who is also a songwriter. He was into using the guitar more at the time. That was probably the closest person orbiting me at the time.
I’m kind of a loner. I don’t collaborate very much. I don’t really share my music with other musicians. Not for feedback, certainly. If I make something and am stoked about it, I'll play it for people, but don’t criticize this — I’m not ready for it. I just want to share it at that stage.
I don’t interact with anyone in my creative process, usually.
Is that a personality thing? Is that just a creative-process preference thing?
I think the creative process for me, personally, is self-contained. It’s an exploration into forms and feelings and words. Even if someone was there, I’m still going to be doing the same thing.
I don’t find that there’s...I have so many voices inside my head, and so many different perspectives on any given line of poetry or music, that to have somebody else’s personality and feelings that you have to think about, it’s just way too much information, in my experience.
I guess it just comes down, again, to my own limitations and how that’s freeing, you know? I can only do what I can do to make a song.
Did you pick up any weird hobbies while writing this album?
No. I had a hobby before it and it turned into an addiction, so I had to stop it. And that was before starting the process of making the album.
What was the hobby?
It was a game — like a card game. It’s called Android: Netrunner. It’s a little bit like Magic: The Gathering, but not collectible. It didn’t have that aspect to the cards. It's cyberpunk without all the dragons and stuff. It’s very cool, a very stimulating game. Electrifying to play. That’s why I played too much.
About as electrifying as a card game gets, maybe?
Well, you know, it has elements of poker in it, so you tell me. You’re not betting for money; you’re definitely playing the person, not the card, you know? You’re playing against a person, which is always an interesting element to a card game.
It can be pretty interesting when games really pit you against another person.
Depending on the way the game is set up. This game does involve and allow for bluffing and stuff, which I thought was really fun.
Are you a big fan of poker and other games involving bluffing?
I enjoyed watching the world championships one time. It was cool.
I think I’ve only ever seen it on at like two in the morning.
Yeah, I find that fascinating. I like the idea [that] these people have decided to...they’re the real professional gamers, before this generation, before the E-Sports generation of professionals.
It’s so rock-and-roll — just saying, "I’m going to do this thing just for fun and will make money out of it. Watch me." It’s kind of cool. They’re like rock stars, in that sense.
And then there’s like blue-plate chess at the top level. They are more like athletes.
I don't think I could win any money playing games.
Imagine being good enough at an intellectual game where your limitations are your physical body and you have to work out your physical body to make your brain perform better. That’s crazy.
There was a guy that I met who was on that level with Android: Netrunner. He was competing in the international championships a couple times. He was a real sweetheart. He was a music fan in the U.K. We hung out one time and enjoyed being fans of the game.
It’s a nerdy game. A lot of boys play it.
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You know who plays Magic: The Gathering? Cole from DIIV. He used to be a guitar player in my band for a couple years.
That’s how it seems to go. Everyone is in everyone’s band.
Yeah, a little bit. It’s fun like that.