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Dan Deacon On Computers, College And 'Electronic Music'

Dan Deacon's latest project combines his signature electronic sound with live musicians and instruments.
Shawn Brackbrill
Courtesy of Domino Records
Dan Deacon's latest project combines his signature electronic sound with live musicians and instruments.

Dan Deacon is one of the few pop electronic dance music-makers who is also consistently described as a composer. His music takes sharp turns — from raucous dance party to gentle orchestration and back, sometimes within the same song. He spoke to All Things Considered host Audie Cornish about the making of his new album America, hearing his orchestral music performed for the first time and phasers. Hear the radio version at the audio link and read more of their conversation below.

In college you studied electronic music composition. Where? What is a program like that like?

I went to a school called SUNY Purchase and the conservatory of music there. It was a composition program but the focus that I did was almost exclusively computer and electronic music. I studied under two people — one was Dary John Mizelle, who was a former student of Stockhausen and very much into the new complexity and making music as radically insane as possible. I liked studying with him, but I wasn't so into esotericism and the prerequisite knowledge that a listener needed to have to appreciate the sounds that were made, like post-serialism.

S o the first songs that you truly composed, did you do it on a computer?

No. Well, yeah, I learned how to write music on computer. I had a MIDI notation software program that I found on the family computer that my dad's friend built. I'd never seen a blank staff of music before on a computer. It looked exactly like MS Paint but instead of it being like you draw lines and circles and there was a paintbrush, it was like you can click in notes or rests and ties and clefs, and it sort of just blew my mind in a way.

It was really fun to click on notes on the staff and just hear how it sounded and play it back and then change it and augment it, and that's how I learned what chords were and how to read the treble clef. I was already in the school band playing trombone but that was just sort of like, "I get out of gym twice a week to be here."

It sounds like you really felt like you were coming to this later on.

Definitely. Then in college I was studying political science and drama studies, and I was just sort of like the classic post-high school American youth who felt like they had to go to college or they'd be relegated into the realm of shame. But then you realize that you're just tricked into getting this huge amount of debt. I was like "Oh! Now I'm just going to college for no reason and I'm tens of thousands of dollars in debt." And I was thinking about dropping out and then my friends were like, "All you do all day is write these midi files. Why don't you at least try to get into the music program?" And I was like, "Nooo, what are you joking? There's no way." Thank God I listened to them because it really just radically changed my life. I got into the program, and I'd already taken all of the required academic courses so all I had to do were music classes.

And you were still making music during this time, right?

Oh, yeah. And in that time I switched and I started handwriting everything. I started to hate the limitations of the computer and how rigid and quantized everything was. I wanted things to be loose and free, and I fell in love with fluxism and chance and the absurd nature that humans bring to something as serious as a concert. Do you know what I mean?

I was still writing computer music but not for school. I was only writing these pieces for two flutes that would never get played by anyone ever, and never will because they were just student experiments where it's just like, "I want them to jump in range! And I want it to be triple forte and five octaves lower than they can play!"

Your music does have this wonderful kind of layering that happens. When I think of a song like "True Thrush" --what goes into crafting a song like this?

Those are all live drums played by drummer Danny Bowen, and I wanted to mix them so they'd sound like synthetic drums but they have that human feel — they've got a groove to them. Not that you can't achieve a groove with a computer or sequencer, but it's just different.

I think that's the cornerstone of the idea of this record — it's not electronic music and it's not acoustic music. It's electro-acoustic music; it exists in both realms. I started working with electronic music because that was available to me. I had a computer and I could write that music. And I didn't have to worry about other people's schedules, and I could go on tour and if we were only making $15 a night I didn't have to split that with other people.

So, I was writing electronic music both out of a love for it and also just that it was all that I could write. I couldn't write a piece for orchestra because it would never get played, and I wanted to focus on work that would exist and people could hear and it would develop and grow and not just sit in a box in a closet.

Anyway, I didn't get tired of writing electronic music, but I started to feel its limitations because obviously there's differences between music that's made by a human being and music that's made by a computer. There's perfection — endless, limitless perfection that a computer has and because of that, that's its limit. Do you know what I mean?

A quantized beat is never going to have the same slight imperfection in timing that a human drummer's going to have. Even if they're a solid drummer, it's going to always not fall exactly ... they're not always going to be like 1.8356 seconds apart. They're going to vary back and forth. And you can do everything you want to make a computer sound like a cello but it's not going to sound like a cello.

The music [on America] takes the elements that electronic music has — which are precision and the timbres that electronics can create and those limitless soundscapes you can have — and it merges with the fragility of what a human can do and what human instruments and acoustic instruments can do. I think it's the meshing of those sounds that I find very interesting.

And you do on this album start to work with strings. "Prettyboy," is a good example of a song that starts with the electro-acoustic sound you're describing.

Oh yeah, there's the sequencer of the synth floating around in the delay and the phasers.

They're actually called phasers?


They sound like what they're called.

There's three types of things that I make sound with. One's a computer and one's electronic hardware and the other [is] acoustic instruments.

I think most composers who write new music don't want to limit themselves. They want to have everything on the table; they want to use samples and electronics and computers and synthesizers and virtuosic players, and for the first time I had that available to me. I could sit down and was like, "All right, we can actually achieve recording a slew of string instruments and brass instruments. We have the time; we have the facility. Let's do it. Let's not take that bassoon and make a synth sound like a bassoon or not even sound like it but just give it the harmonic qualities and keep it in that range. Let's actually try it on the bassoon and see if that works."

You premiered your first orchestral works with the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony. Is that really the first time you had written for such a big group of live instrumentation?

It was the first time I had written for it and it was performed. I wrote for orchestra in college but again they were really unrealistic. Not that this piece wasn't unrealistic as well, but this was the first time it ever happened.

Writing music is like any language — if you don't speak it or write it for a while you start to forget it, and I had forgotten almost everything except for the basic nouns and verbs of what the essence of writing music is. I've been doing it so long with a computer and in a computer I can tweak it in its own language. I'm not looking at a page of sheet music, I'm looking at a piano roll and I'm looking at automation lines and things that look more like bar graphs. It'd been a long, long time since I'd communicated with players.

So that collaboration with Kitchener-Waterloo and especially working with So Percussion really — the experience sort of shook me. It just showed me how much I had forgotten and how the nuance of an instrument — like if you're going to write for a cello, don't just make it sound like the MIDI demo you have of the cello, dive into it. What can the cellist bring into it? That got me excited about working with people.

What are some of the challenges for you in this collaboration?

I think the extro to "Pretty Boy" is a great example because it was originally written for three bass clarinets. The line that ended up being a bassoon part is very fast and dexterous. The player was like, "I don't think this is really going to work on bass clarinet. I mean it could, but to me it sounds more indicative to a bassoon." And we were like,"Bring in the bassoon!" And they were right and it worked out great.

Victor Ruch, the violinist — with every player we would show them the parts. Basically we gave them just the pitches and the rhythms; we just give them the basic information of the notes. And then we'd try it out in the studio and we'd experiment with different articulation. With Victor we were like, "All right let's just have you interpret this part. If you feel the need to slur, go for a slur. If you want to swell or shrink down, go for it." And that really paid off. I feel like his approach to all the violin parts really brought a new life to them.

He was one of the first people we recorded and sort of set the tone for how we were going to work with all of the other 30, some odd players that we brought in.

This album, it's titled America,and I'm curious if that's inspired by politics or geography?

I would say it's inspired by both. The music is definitely inspired by geography. I do many, many cross-country trips a year because I tour, and it's hard to — you could really despise every aspect of what you think American culture is but it's hard to deny that the land itself is beautiful. Do you know what I mean?

I can hear that in the titles. ... The first one is called "USA I: Is a Monster."

That's named after an old favorite band of mine [ The USA Is a Monster], who sort of inspired the beginning of that piece. They played a show at my house and it was this epic, raging show where they just kept playing and playing and playing.

One day I sat down at the computer and I was like, "Let's write something long." And I ended up saving the file "USA Is a Monster" thinking about that performance. Then my computer was terrible — it would crash every five minutes so I would save constantly and since I would save constantly I'd save all long file names, and I couldn't find anything cause it was called "USA IS A MONSTER_THE DATE_THE LONG DESCRIPTION OF THE CHANGE," so I just started calling the file "USA," and I think it started subconsciously affecting me.

I started thinking more about the U.S. then I was [the band] USA Is a Monster. So, that influence started happening. I started thinking about the desert at night, and a lot of these things I think came across subconsciously. I feel like my brain plays horrible, fun tricks on me, especially in the writing process, because I don't really like to sit there and think, "And now I will depict this beautiful lake in sound." It's not really how I work.

Maybe we are used to more cinematic approaches to things like the aerial shots in the movies. The closest you come to that is in the song "Rail." I thought I saw men working on the railroad in some movie about immigration at the turn of the century. Is that wrong?

There's no wrong way to interpret music. Your musical brain is different from anyone else's. I used to have a hard time when people would be like, "Yo, when I hear your music, I hear something that you never hear." And I'd be like, "No! YOU'RE WRONG." And then I was like, I'm wrong. There's no way I could ever tell anybody how to hear music — I don't even know if this microphone is the same color as you see it. There's no way to even begin to interpret our realities other than the few basic things that we have in common. Like, we seem to agree on temperature.

You've talked about wanting to produce music where the value of the music is in the music itself — the music is not necessarily telling a story. And then I come to this part of the album [the four-part movement called "USA"] where I feel like I'm very much in the middle of a narrative.

This record definitely has a narrative to it. It would be program music rather than absolute music, which are the music terms. I'd say it has simultaneous, sort of juxtaposing narratives.

The one narrative — the music — is the celebration and inspiration of the geography, and the lyrical narrative is one of frustration and confusion and anger toward where the culture is going in regard to corporatism and complete corruption and lack of faith in the government.

No one's pumped on the American government or the direction of America right now. You could talk to someone in Occupy or a Tea Party rally or someone who's not even involved in politics and be like, "So, do you think things are going well in the government?" I don't think anyone would be like, "Yeah, man! It's going great. I love what they're doing. Love the Congress. Love the president. Love the Supreme Court. They're all just killing it. I love it. Can't get enough." You're not going to find that anywhere.

The record is political in nature, but it's subtle because I don't think the way you can get someone to start thinking about themselves in relation to an idea or a problem is to point at them and be like, "You know you're directly responsible for the exploitation of others?" No one's going to want to hear that. I don't like hearing that, but it's important for me to realize that. And this record is a lot of me questioning my role in a society that I don't necessarily agree with. How do I change myself to better that?

Music has the beautiful luxury of being able to mask ideas and put them in a frame and put them in a sphere of context that would never otherwise exist. So, while I'm talking about issues that I think are heavy or intense or sad or rage-influenced, they're framed in a way where the music is very inspirational and uplifting to show that it's not without change; it's not without focus and future.

Is there a song that, as you're making this argument, comes to mind?

I think "Lots" is the most concise example of that or "USA IV," where we have the layering of the vocals where it's basically dialogue with myself about all of these topics.

It 's not always clear what you're saying.

I treat the voice like any other instrument. The lyrics don't really stand at the top. I really loved Nirvana and one of my favorite things about Nirvana is I have no idea what Kurt is saying most of the time. It's a voice; it's a human voice. I love The Boredoms and I have no idea what The Boredoms are saying.

But with this record I wanted there to be lyrics. Some people might be like, "I still can't understand a word you're saying," but to me it's like they're like naked in the wind — they're just out there.

What do you say to people who are dismissive about electronic music? I hear you often being someone who talks very much about what you think your role is and what kind of music you're trying to make and what you want it to say. Do you ever feel that kind of criticism?

I don't really feel that criticism, but I think it's insane that people still call electronic music, "electronic music." It's like calling guitar music, "guitar music." It just doesn't make any sense. Electronic music has been in the musical vocabulary for 60, 70 years now. The majority of pop music is made almost exclusively electronic[ally]. People talk about how it's permeating the mainstream but it's been in the mainstream forever.

When people think about electronic music, I think they mainly think about music without vocals that's beat-driven that you're made to dance to. I don't think they're thinking about Britney Spears or the majority of hip-hop or Devo or Talking Heads or anything like that. All of those bands use heavy elements of electronics; they also have guitars and vocals, and people associate those sounds before they associate the electronic instruments.

When you have an artist that's using a majority of electronics and there's no guitar, no drums and the voice is running through delay and pitch-shift and stuff like that — it's all synthetic so we just focus on the synthetic nature. But to me those timbres have existed for so long now that it'd kind of be like people saying, "I can't believe they're allowing trombones in the church. Can you believe it?" "These brass bands [are] just nuts, never going to last." "This piano, who wants to hear notes louder and quieter? I don't want to hear it. I just want all of my notes played the same. We've got harpsichords, we don't need these pianos." That's sort of the mentality I feel when people are like, "Electronic music, do you think it's going to last?"

I wonder this as you get more and more into this orchestration. You're encountering these audiences now and I wonder how it's going?

I think it's going well. I think most people who are interested in new music and new sounds are open to any sound source. We're constantly swimming in this sea of sounds — of sirens and cellphone beeps and pre-recorded music outside of gas stations. It just permeates our system; there's always sound coming in, and nine times out of 10, it's synthetic. We live in this weaving of music that we don't even realize. You think of [ John] Cage sitting there listening to his environmental sounds and how different that is now 50 or 60 years later and how much more chaos there is that surrounds us.

We are being conditioned to exist in this synthetic, chaotic-based environment and I think our music is starting to really accurately reflect that. I think minimalism in pop art obviously existed in a time when mass reproduction was entering into this sphere and permeated everyone's way of thinking. Now, we live in a time period where that is the case but there's also constantly morphing change and constantly augmenting chaos amongst uniformity and homogeneity. So, I guess this is sort of how I think about my own music.

When you first heard a symphony performing your music, what was that like?

It was completely insane. A lot of my career is me sitting there thinking, "This is insane. How is this happening? How am I no longer the guy who has $2 and is Dumpster diving for food?" It's surreal and it's very exciting and it felt like it woke up a hibernating part of my brain that I didn't know existed.

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