Dan Deacon’s New Year’s resolution is to stop drinking alcohol and start smoking more weed. He didn’t like that alcohol was damaging his brain and liver every time he drank it, but he likes when his brain is different.
“There are so many things on this planet that make our brain different that it should be different from time to time,” he thinks. He’s particularly sensitive to coffee, a mind-altering substance he only started regularly consuming within the past two years, and makes his brain flit from big idea to big idea so quickly it’s almost impossible to keep up. In one brief moment during our conversation, he leaps from talking about the logistical challenges of concert scheduling to how everything is made of stardust and the universe is constantly expanding and contracting, and then he stops himself and says, “this is getting really out there.”
“I should never tell long rambles when I’m on coffee,” he concludes.
Dan Deacon isn’t like other pop musicians, if a pop musician is even what he is. He’s a self-described “fat bald guy who makes weird non-dance music.” He’s a conservatory-trained, chamber orchestra-pedigreed composer and an engineer-level sonic perfectionist (he’s built makeshift isolation chambers in hotel bathrooms to record vocals, stuffing pillows in corners to absorb sound), but his live shows tempt disaster by encouraging audience participation to the extent that they become performers. He’s intelligent enough that he probably could have been a physicist or computer scientist if he didn’t have such an anti-authoritarian temperament. He wants people at his shows to have so much uninhibited fun that they forget they have bodies and minds.
His new album Gliss Riffer is his eighth overall and fourth since his breakthrough, 2007’s Spiderman of the Rings. It feels like the culmination of his career to this point, from the kooky experimentation of early tracks like “my own face is F word” and “Lion With a Shark’s Head” to the sophisticated, widescreen orchestration of his previous album, America. After that album’s ambition, Gliss Riffer marks an embrace of simplicity and relaxation new to Deacon. Working mostly by himself for the first time since Spiderman of the Rings, he recorded most of Gliss Riffer in his home studio in Baltimore, where I spent an afternoon with him in early January. He told me he was nervous to do such a long interview, but once we got talking about things like how ska is the least sexy genre of music and the important lesson he learned from Bill Murray, the time went by quickly.
Street art on Franklin St. in Baltimore
As of 2013, Baltimore has 16,000 vacant properties. The only obviously new building in Dan’s neighborhood is a McDonald’s. At night, you can walk the streets and see almost no one. The city feels bleak, almost apocalyptic. Some blocks at night will be totally abandoned except one house with the lights on, spiting the darkness. At the same time, the desolation creates possibility. Baltimore has long had a thriving DIY (short for Do-It-Yourself, a punk ethos of independence and self-reliance) art and music scene. Dan moved to Baltimore in 2004. He and his friends founded Wham City, an arts collective that used to be a physical space in the Copycat Building on Guilford Avenue. Bands like Beach House and Future Islands came out of this time and place. It was a time of explosive creation and fun, when Dan and his friends would pack 500 people into a warehouse space for a show every weekend. People would climb up the walls and hang off the ceiling.
“It had a real Wild West feel to it.” Dan says. “Looking back, it was insanely irresponsible,” he says, “and we only got away with it because we didn’t realize how insanely irresponsible we were being.”
In 2008, Rolling Stone anointed Baltimore the best music scene in the country, and Dan was Wham City’s ambassador, writing its national anthem and bringing his friends along with him to prominence. That fall, he organized a Round Robin tour, where 29 Baltimore acts went on the road together, setting up in a ring around the perimeter of the room and alternating songs.
That was the peak of that era. By 2010, Baltimore was underground again. And today, Baltimore’s mid/late-aughts heyday is moving into legend. Most of the acts mentioned in this 2008 Impose feature, like Thank You and Double Dagger, are defunct. A lot of people moved away (“when I hang out in Bushwick, it’s like I’m hanging out in Baltimore in 2009,” Dan told me). Most of the big warehouse spaces, including the Copy Cat, were shut down. The scene contracted, and Baltimore bands shifted from wild dance music to more quiet, meditative stuff. To borrow the language of the Round Robin tour, every night was Eyes Night.
It’s after 11pm on a Sunday night at Tribal Haus, a house where noise musicians live in an otherwise quiet residential neighborhood, but a show is just beginning. Dozens of young artsy types with kitschy thrift store clothing and DIY haircuts drink 40s and smoke joints and talk about whatever project they’re in the middle of. Tribal Haus is a shithole. A sapling is sprouting from the gutter, because when the landlord shows up, he’s more interested in trying to get people to sample his homemade liquor than performing maintenance. Bands play in the living room while the house’s two dogs push people out of the way to get to their food bowls. On the porch, I was introduced to Stewart Mostofsky, owner of Ehse Records, a label that puts out releases from many underground Baltimore bands and founder of the Fields festival, an art and music festival featuring Baltimore talent.
“Dan embodies the positive energy and generosity of the Baltimore DIY scene,” Mostofsky tells me when I ask about what Dan means to the community. “Dan’s love and affection for art and artists is a reflection of this community spirit.”
At Tribal Haus, the intimacy of the Baltimore scene becomes apparent. There are about 60 people at the show, and Danny Clark, a young musician who records as Jessica Ashley Rachel and moved to Baltimore after graduating high school in 2013, estimates that he knows 75-80 percent of them. And Dan Deacon, even though he’s ten years older than most of the people here and has toured with the Arcade Fire, remains involved in the community. The next day, when I mention to Dan that I stayed with a friend who’s part of Odwalla88, a purposefully obtuse, recently-formed performance art project, he exclaims “good band!”
Dan Deacon knows everybody. I met him at Canteen, a café near his studio, and he briefly talks with almost everyone there. The owner comes over, and Dan inquires concernedly about his health, because he knows he had had the flu. They discuss Dan’s plans to have a listening party to celebrate the release of Gliss Riffer. Canteen is a fitting place to commemorate the release, Dan says, because the café played an important role in the record’s creation. When he was recording over the summer in his un-air conditioned studio, he would take breaks at Canteen to literally and figuratively chill out. He would drink some coffee, then go listen to what he had worked on with the new perspective the coffee gave him.
The heat in Dan’s studio isn’t working properly today, so it’s very cold. Dan nervously fidgets with pen caps or whatever little piece of plastic there is lying around. We sit next to his piano, which appears on Gliss Riffer as a player piano at various pointsand as a bizarre percussion instrument at the beginning of “Take It To the Max,” a sound he made by putting kneaded erasers at the edges of the piano’s strings.
He built the studio in 2011 to record America, for which he needed his beloved isolation room, a padded, totally echo-free chamber that he demonstrates by clapping his hands and flashing a proud smile, like a dad showing off his new car. He wouldn’t be able to have a studio like this in New York. Having his own laboratory has helped him take his time and relax, something that’s been a struggle for him all his life.
Baltimore DIY is a tight-knit scene, and while most people respect and admire Dan, not everyone is a fan. At Tribal Haus, I talked with Brian Nicholson, an acquaintance of Deacon’s and notorious curmudgeon in Baltimore’s DIY community. He described Deacon’s music, not inaccurately, as “sexless” and “summer camp,” electronic dance music with its black and gay history stripped out. Deacon agrees that his music is sexless, but takes issue with Nicholson’s characterization, saying that his records and performances are sexless by design.
Deacon began his career in the noise music scene of the early-00s, a very macho, aggressive community. And he liked to dance, but he never felt comfortable in the sexualized atmosphere of clubs. Dan describes himself as having body issues, and doesn’t like to be pressured into feeling like he has to conform to traditional masculinity. So his music and performance evolved into a rebellion against his own discomfort with performative gender. His shows are inclusive and unselfconscious and playful. No one has ever been turned away at the door.
“I want to make a non-sexy music you can party to,” he says. “I feel like there are a lot of people who feel that way, who just want to have a good time and not have to think about their bodies and not have to think about themselves as sexual beings.”
But despite agreeing with parts of Nicholson’s argument, the criticism upsets Deacon. He tells me his heart is racing. Dan Deacon is a sensitive, anxious person.
“If I had a sigil, it would somehow represent anxiety and stress,” he says of how pivotal a role those things play in his life.
His career has been fueled by stress. The creation of and touring for Bromst and America were, by his own admission, needlessly complicated and difficult. On the Bromst tour, for example, his live setup changed from just him and his table of electronics and an iPod to a fourteen-piece ensemble. They traveled in a school bus that ran on vegetable oil, which was environmentally friendly, but only went forty-five miles an hour. So the tour was twenty people crammed into a bus who were always late even after driving all night. And he dislocated his shoulder. He just wasn’t taking care of himself. And all the stress was of his own creation.
He became fixated on what could go wrong rather than what was going right.
Music, the very thing he used to relieve anxiety and stress, had become fueled by them. He needed to relax, or else he would burn out. He needed to learn how to do nothing.
Dan’s partner is a therapist, and they’d constantly talk about anxiety while he was making the album, where it comes from and why he needs it and why he can’t relax. There’s a song on the album called “Learning to Relax,” and that’s where Dan is at in his life right now. It’s why he’s smoking weed more. He’s trying to listen to more music, play more board games, and just sit still for a little bit. He doesn’t meditate, but he likes to just sit and think.
“If your mind is always on a path, it can’t wander,” he says “You need to get lost in the fucking woods to try to find your own way out or to find somewhere you’ve never been before.”
Dan is 33 years old and at a turning point in his career. The first part was fueled by anxiety and stress,and he’s in the process of finding the fuel for the next part. The crazy days of being broke and reckless are behind him. The end of the anxious period and the start of the relaxed period happened in the middle of the production of Gliss Riffer, when he saw a video of Bill Murray talking about how he does his best work when he’s relaxed. Somehow, it makes sense that Bill Murray, an icon of playfulness and sadness and controlled chaos, would be Dan’s spiritual guide. Like Bill “no one will ever believe you” Murray, Dan really wants everyone to have a good time.
Gliss Riffer is out 2/24 from Domino.