Dan Deacon has a disarmingly modest countenance that stands in sharp contrast to his music: the gnashing 22st-century surf-metal of Spiderman Of The Rings, the hypnotizing feelgood clockwork crescendos of Bromst, or the venn diagrams of old and new instrumentations in his latest, America. Anyone who has seen Deacon live will remember his sound – often stark, grandiose, synaptic, anxious, wheedling and cartoony all at once, waves of sound cascading down on the audience like slices of meat falling from a blade’s edge. He sings in toggling voices like Lenny Bruce, quaking like a kid who sticks his finger in the same electrical socket over and over. But in the flesh he’s gentle and sarcastic, jerry-rigging his sentences with hilarious, un-ignorable imagery, rosy-cheeked behind huge plastic glasses in a well-loved hoodie.
Deacon is generous to a fault: he announced after Hurricane Sandy that all proceeds from his two New York City shows would be donated for recovery efforts. He gave us the better part of his first hour in New York while setting up at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, then told the audience he came straight to the venue to find a shrunken version of Rob Schneider backstage, which spurred a lengthy investigation of “my own greatest moment of cowardice in my life”. Sure enough, he demanded that attendees investigate their own moments of cowardice, turned the lights on them, and then goaded them into dancing. (Then, two days later, he told a crowd at the Bowery Ballroom that the Williamsburg show was “Like an entire audience of Scrappy Doos.”)
Steve Macfarlane: So you don’t make music-
Dan Deacon: I don’t.
Steve: (Laughing) You don’t make music that’s specifically supposed to be “fun” or “funny” anymore. Right? Your pieces have gotten longer, they’ve gotten more ambitious. Did you make a shift after Spiderman Of The Rings, which you’ve described as a party record?
Dan: It’s the sort of lifestyle I was living at the time. Let’s party, the world’s gonna end, was sort of my foolish early-twenties nonsense.
Steve: You don’t feel like that anymore?
Dan: No. I’m glad. I’d be dead. I mean, that was seven years ago. I feel like people change a lot of the time. So I feel like it was just a gradual shift throughout time and [I] slowly stopped wanting the world to end.
Steve: Based on most of the stuff I’ve read about America, people dissecting the lyrics on the basis of history, the aesthetics of the music being inspired by landscapes, mountains: what would you want someone who had never been to the United States, and who would never get a chance to visit the United States, what would you want that person to imagine listening to the album?
Dan: I wouldn’t say there’s any specifics but the main thing I think I pulled inspiration from is the constantly shifting gradients. Where you can drive through six hours and it all seems to be pretty consistent but it’s gradually shifting and changing from forest to plains to mountains to desert to coast, even after you go up the coast, everything’s constantly shifting, and just the size of it, encompasses the full width of the continent and multiple mountain ranges, just a crazy, geographical delight.
Steve: You don’t think of yourself as a “political artist,” do you? You don’t get up on the stage and tell everyone to buy this one type of lightbulb, or whatever.
Dan: Sometimes I do. If I’ve got something to say I tend to say it, but I think it’s better to let people make choices on their own, or to let them know what their choices are. I feel like once someone becomes aware of something, to pretend that it doesn’t exist is– that’s when it’s a travesty. Like, if there was a guy over there beating a dog with a bat, and we were just pretending that it wasn’t happening, that’s like us pretending everything that we’re touching right now isn’t made by slaves. Do you know what I mean? Once you have that understanding, you have to acknowledge it in some capacity, or you’re just; you are the owner of slaves. [But] you can’t just go out and start shouting to people on the streets, especially in New York – people are like “shut up.” So, I feel like, if you’re in a position where people listen to you, or you have a certain influence, it’s better to open up a dialogue, or a series of environments where they could raise questions on their own, rather than be like, “You Have Slaves!”
Steve: That seems to be the way they did it, let’s say, fifty years ago.
Dan: Yeah. Everyone wanted to be John Lennon. And he did really amazing with it, but he was already, at that point the king of music. And he did it really well. But it just didn’t really translate; it became preachy. I also think there was a concerted effort to make sure that only really shitty protest music got popular on the radio, so people are like, “Oh, Gawd. Political music sucks!”
Steve: On the mic at shows and in interviews, the apocalypse is kind of a repeated theme. But your music is always building to these euphoric crescendos – the vibes are always affirmative.
Dan: I try not to think about it anymore because it’s just crippling. I feel like there’s a growing opportunist world of prepping. Where people are cashing in on this paranoia. There’s nothing wrong with preparing for calamity, being ready for it; there’s a difference between that, and exploiting people’s fears. I feel like I was about to dive into buying 600 pounds of wheat. That’s what I’d get my sister for Christmas. I dunno; I like to feel good. There’s enough to feel like shit about. I think it’s easier to make people feel melancholy, and downtrodden, than uplifted.
Steve: So you’re splitting all the proceeds from these two shows – half go to Red Cross, the other half to Occupy Sandy. Why both?
Dan: If I picked just Occupy Sandy, I think a lot of people would’ve been like: What!? If I just picked Red Cross, the Occupy Sandy supporters would’ve been like: What?! I picked both organizations because they both cover not just a specific region. It’s the entire neighborhood, or zone. Occupy Sandy is killin’ it. And it’s hard to imagine what the relief effort would be like without them. It’s incredible. I never trust the news, and I thought the storm was just sensationalist hype, until, we didn’t even see until a couple days later, the flooding, the devastation, like, holy shit, this is real. So how do you come to a city, that’s in that sort of space? I dunno. It also seemed like a weird time to just come to New York and be like, “LET’S PARTAAAAAAAY”. You know what I mean? It also didn’t make any sense to postpone shows for it. So we were like – and by “we”, I mean all the little mes, sitting at the little me table, cutting up and eating a dead me, and being like, “What can we do..?” It just seemed to make the most sense without making people feel weird – it’s a very euphoric, celebratory music.
Now, imagine that’s the state for like six months. And there was no gas. And there was no shipping. It would become the dark ages very quickly. It would be horrific. Morality would quickly erode. I feel like it’s important for people to, not understand that, but comprehend that it could happen, they realize the importance of community. Humans are pack animals. While we’re individuals, we’re members of a collective. It’s that dichotomy, it’s always butting heads. Humans survived the toughest times in history because we band together. And it’s hard to think that if there was a collapse, that we would do that. What instincts would kick in?
Steve: Movies would tell us it mostly breaks down, but there are a couple acts of kindness along the way…
Dan: From the attractive ones. If they’re smokin’ hot, then yeah, they’re saving it. Will Smith’s all you need. Two naked Will Smiths. Save the world. No, I dunno. It’s inevitable. It’s gonna happen. There are volcanoes. There are massive earthquakes. There are superstorms. Even if it’s ten thousand years from now, it’s gonna go down. At some point humanity is going to be faced with a shit storm. An actual storm of shit. (Chuckles)
Photos by Barbara Anastacio