On America and America
Dan Deacon is a brilliant Baltimorean maker of electronic music, wearer of sweaters, and hater of the word “wacky.” He’s currently touring the United States in a converted school bus that runs on veggie oil and has no air-conditioning or heat. We had to reschedule our interview due to cell-phone reception issues, so by the time we chatted, he was stuck in traffic in Phoenix.
Where are you?
Right now we’re outside Phoenix, so we have great reception. Earlier we were in the Petrified Forest National Park—it’s almost reassuring knowing that there isn’t cell reception out there yet.
How’s the tour going?
The tour’s going great. It’s surprisingly not stressful and really good. We’ve had a lot of time to actually enjoy the drives and the countryside, or the country itself. And the shows have been really fun. It’s definitely been a transitional tour, and I’m excited to sort of jump off from here.
It seems kind of long; is it long for you? I was trying to look at all the dates—it seems like you’re just going everywhere. Were you just in Europe?
I was just in Europe. And the tour is long—it’s not long by my standards, but it’s long for me in my recent history. I haven’t done a full US tour since 2009, so it’s been a while, and I figure if we’re going out, we might as well cover as much territory as possible. We tour in a school bus that we converted into an RV. Doesn’t really get the best speed going, so we try to keep it under 250 miles a day—it makes it easier for us to play a lot of stops.
We recently did a feature on men in rock—sort of an answer to Rolling Stone’s “Women Who Rock.” We tried to ask men patronizing questions that usually get asked of women artists. So I thought I would give you one: You have the best sweaters in music, obviously. Where do you get them, and what’s your style inspiration?
The best letters?
Yeah, every promo photo of you is in an amazing sweater.
Oh, well, cool. The one that I’ve been wearing currently my brother gave to me. I tend to get them at, you know, the place most people get sweaters: either as gifts or from thrift stores.
All right, dumb question out of the way, I apologize.
[Laughs] Don’t worry about it.
I did want to ask about the cover photo on your album. Where is that?
It is in Lake Placid. The back is of Bryce Canyon. My friend Adam’s dad is a photographer—we stopped at his childhood home when we were on tour. We were watching CSI: Miami and flipping through these photo books out on the coffee table. I got to the Lake Placid photo and I just knew that that was going to be the cover to the album. It was exactly what I wanted. It’s beautiful—I mean, it’s not like I even had that in my head, like, “Oh, I need a photo, I need a landscape.” We hadn’t even begun the album artwork and we weren’t done mixing the record, but as soon as I saw it, it was like, “There it is. That’s the record.”
And now it’s a flag?
’Tis. ’Tis many flags.
Are you getting submissions for the photo contest yet? Are people sending them in, or have you not started looking at that stuff?
We’ve gotten several hundred submissions. Some of them are pretty amazing, and others are amazing that people would submit them—that’s the beauty of the crowdsourced Instagram photo contest. It was sort of the label’s idea—it’s a fun idea that gets people involved. I’m really glad we made the flags—we sell them at shows for five bucks, and it’s definitely our top seller.
Do you still have any? Because they’re sold out on the website.
Yeah, I don’t know why that is. We made fucking thousands of them. They’re definitely not sold out.
Your new album is called America, and it’s being released in the fall of an election year. Is there a connection there at all?
No, I was actually really bummed—it was originally supposed to come out in the early spring. But right when we were in the mastering process—like almost done with the mastering process—we realized we needed to go back and re-mix. We kept having issues with the drum levels and certain elements that I knew would haunt me forever, so we went back, and it cost us about three months. Because of that, it had to fit back into the label’s album schedule. They didn’t want to, obviously, release two albums at the same time. One, it put me right up against the Animal Collective release, which I reaaalllly didn’t wanna do. [And] it’s not a record about the United States. Maybe it’s serendipitous in a way, but in my mind, ultimately the election cycle is a distraction—to me, United States politics aren’t what America is.
I also wanted to ask you about 2013, which you apparently did not believe would ever come and now you have changed your mind.
You mean ‘Year 0’? No, I’m just kidding.
[Laughs] What are you gonna do to celebrate in 2013?
I dunno if celebrations are in order… We’re not there yet. If you look at the scope of the universe or civilization, I like to think that everything happens in sine waves, you know, sinusoidal patterns. Sine waves don’t have jagged changes, they [have] all these gradual shifts. I feel like 2012 was that year. We’re starting to reach a very important point culturally where we’re becoming more aware—you can see that in the Arab Spring and Occupy, and even with the Tea Party. People are becoming more and more fed up with their current system… [and] vocalizing on a much greater level their disdain and distaste for civilizations or cultures that they’re a part of. That is also reflecting in personal change, which is what the record is about. If you’re dissatisfied with the system, don’t expect a government or a politician to change it for you—you have to make the change within yourself. I can’t complain about fracking if I want my house to be artificially hot in the winter; I have to come to terms with things like that, and realize what my comfort level means to the discomfort level of other people or the earth itself. Once I start addressing that with myself, I feel like I’ll start living in a greater harmony or balance and I think that’s what everyone wants to have: balance in their lives. As soon as I become aware of an exploitation that I’m linked to, it becomes my responsibility to unlink myself from that. I’m hoping that 2013 will be a year that I address issues past. Like, right now, most of my um… resolutions—I can’t think of any other word—revolve around food and fuel, because my industry requires me to eat shit food when I’m on the road because of the way it’s structured. It’s not like I can write Shell gas stations or Flying K and be like, “Hey can you guys try more sustainable, organic food and have products that aren’t bottled in BPA?” I need to make a concerted effort—and that’s what we do on this tour, we make a concerted effort. In regard to fuel, it’s the same way. That’s why we drive this school bus that runs on veggie oil, so we’re not just fueling the oil industry. That also means our bus doesn’t have heat or air-conditioning and those luxuries we take for granted. There’ve been days on this tour where we’ve been drenched in sweat, and I’m sure by the time we get to Denver on Halloween we’re going to be longing for heat, but those are comforts that we can live without. It’s just life changes and reflections—to me, that’s what Occupy is about. When I think about these movements, I think about how the banks aren’t going to change. The concept of greed and power isn’t going anywhere—you have to find a way so that your life diminishes their power. That’s all that anyone can really do.
Do you feel more optimistic than you have in the past?
I feel like optimism and hope are words that are easy to hide behind, or distract. It’s important to be positive and not to become apathetic and disenfranchised—without optimism or without hope, it’s easy to become those things. And I think ultimately, in a fear-based society, that’s their goal—to make you non-optimistic and non-hopeful so you end up apathetic and disenfranchised. But I don’t know if I necessarily feel optimistic toward the future—if you were to ask me if I have utopian visions or dystopian visions of the future, I do think the future is going to be dystopian. But predicting the future is a task I place upon no one. I’m certainly not optimistic when we’re stuck in traffic in Phoenix.
Yeah, I would say Phoenix is not a place to feel optimistic.
If we had been talking when we were in the Painted Desert, I would say, “Yes, I’m so optimistic, we are but a blink of an eye in the earth’s life.” But now that we’re stuck in traffic in Phoenix and I’m still wearing my thermals, I’m just like, “Fuck the earth, society sucks.”
I’ve read things you’ve said about how being weird and different can be commodified, can be its own kind of packaged identity, but then also that weirdos and people who are different are really important to society. It sounds like you have a complicated relationship to being an outsider or being different. Can you expand on that?
Sure. I think when you’re real young, when you’re not a teenager yet, the last thing you want to be is weird. If you’re weird at that age, you’re just fucked. Then comes that time in junior high or high school when people start to identify by how they dress or the music they listen to, and all of the sudden, you start to realize that no matter what you do, you’re gonna be weird or different. I felt empowered by it. But then I remember the first time someone called me a poseur because of the clothes I was wearing. And I was like, “Poseur? What does that even mean? What the hell am I posing as?” I feel like the word “hipster” is often used as the word poseur. When people say hipster, it has a thousand different connotations, but I think 9 times out of 10 they’re basically calling bullshit on somebody. It just makes people who don’t fit in to homogenized culture feel either self-conscious about it or empowered by it. I mean, I don’t think I’m a psychopath, but I don’t have a normal life. And it’s not that I don’t strive to have a normal life, but I certainly don’t strive to not have a normal life.
I read something you were saying about how tired you were of being labeled “wacky.”
Well, to me, “wacky” and “weird” are two different things. Wacky is like the mascot painted on the side of a slushy machine—a dog’s wearing a hat, and his tongue is hanging out the side of his mouth, and his eyes are googly, and maybe he’s purple with green dots. I mean, if that were a real-life dog, with flesh and blood, it would be weird. It’d be weird as fuck—horrifyingly weird. But “wacky” has this connotation like, “And you don’t even need to give a shit about this!” while “weird” can have an air of dignity to it. I haven’t been called wacky in a long time, so that feels kind of cool.
Your transitional record out of wackiness.
Feels good. Yeah, I’m sure with the next record I’ll start getting called a tight-ass or something, and then I’ll wish I was—the reviews will say, “We long for the days when this dickhead was wacky.”
Actually, speaking of that, can I ask what your favorite and/or least favorite descriptions of you or your music? I’m kind of fascinated by the language of music criticism.
I try to avoid any and all press about myself because I’m the perfect mixture of a self-hating narcissist, so I would just dwell on it way too much. Even the most positive reviews, when I first started getting reviews, I would read them and I’d be like, “What?” Like the word “wacky,” for example. So now I just don’t. It creates a feedback loop—it would drive me a different kind of insane.
Can I ask you a favor? I write a column where the music nerds in this office make me listen to really cool albums from the past, because I’m kind of… not cool? So this week, I’m listening to Siouxsie and the Banshees, and last week I listened to Pharoah Sanders. Do you have any suggestions for my next column?
Does it have to be old?
No! It can be contemporary. They’re all record nerds, so they keep giving me really old stuff, but I would love contemporary stuff.
Listen to Ed Schrader’s Music Beat—the record is called Jazz Mind. It’s not a jazz record. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find one of those music nerds who heard it, but it’s a sick fucking record.
Is there anything that I forgot to ask you that I should have asked you?
We have this app that I think people knowing about would be beneficial. It’s made to synchronize all of the smartphones in the room, turning them into one unified light and sound source for the concert. I think at the moment we’re the tip of the iceberg in this game. It’s been going really well, and I’m very excited to do it in Seattle; I feel like there are a lot of tech-heads in Seattle. It creates a pretty unique spatial environment for light—I’m really happy with the results. I hope people know about it. It’s a free app that they can get for any smartphone, and it’s real fun to do. It’s called “Dan Deacon.” We use it for a couple of songs in the set. Normally just one, because people’s arms would get tired holding up the phones for that long. It syncs all the phones, and it’s pretty sick.