Dan Deacon has endured months of touring the open road, frequent electrocutions, and too many basement dance riots to count. So it was surprising when Baltimore's premier electro-pop comic almost missed this interview due to mere turkey-induced food poisoning. In typical fashion, though, Deacon rose to the occasion, speaking to The Stranger by phone from his bed, where he was convalescing and watching The Terminator.
Are you feeling any better?
A little bit, I still feel like total shit. I ate this expired turkey; I'm pretty sure that was it. I realized about midway through the sandwich.
You did your first U.S. tour on Greyhound buses—this epic tour, out on the road with no money.
Yeah, I'm slowly transitioning out of that life, but that was the first time I was ever truly independent and relying only upon the resources I had on me at that exact moment. I kind of fell in love with traveling, the idea of independence, and America. I know a lot of people are disenfranchised with what it means to be American, but it just felt so good.
You were reading the book Our Band Could Be Your Life?
Yeah, I was reading it on that tour.
Somewhere I heard that you said you'd never listened to those bands before. Not even Black Flag at a party?
I hadn't really, no. I'm sure I'd heard some of their songs but didn't realize it was them. I think the only band that I had heard was Butthole Surfers, but I hadn't gotten to their chapter in the book by the time I got on the bus.
Before you went on that tour, you were the singer in a ska band, right?
Well, way before. That's like saying before you went to college you were born. I kind of don't want to talk about that; it's not really relevant at all. I feel like it's just something embarrassing that I did in junior high that the press now loves to exploit.
I don't want to exploit you like that, I just thought it was funny that you had been making ska music without listening to punk, and I was wondering if Huey Lewis and the News were an influence of yours.
[Laughs] I wish it were Huey Lewis and the News! I guess in high school and junior high, I listened to a lot of They Might Be Giants and Violent Femmes, and then I got into ska because I played the trombone. It seems like when you're in high school and you play a horn instrument, ska music is the coolest thing in the world. Then I guess I got into Mr. Bungle, which is like the gateway drug to nontraditional music, and that's when I stopped being into ska.
When you're touring constantly, what is it like when you get home?
It always feels nice to go back to a space that's familiar and see people who know you outside of the context of being a performer—seeing friends, visiting family. I'm pretty active in the Baltimore arts community, so it's nice to get back to work on that, which is kind of why I'm not touring as much these days. I can only play on the weekends, and I'll probably do only one or two major U.S. tours a year. I feel like for about four or five years, I did nothing but tour nonstop. The foundation has been laid. I'd rather just do shows that are quality over quantity.
All of your shows are pretty nutso, but what's been the craziest?
There was one show I played in Chicago where the floor collapsed and I got horribly electrocuted. I get electrocuted a lot, so that wasn't a big deal, but the floor collapsing was pretty scary.
The last time I saw you play, there was this whole section of the crowd that looked like it came from a fraternity. I had never seen so many bros at a show before, but they really get down with Deacon!
Yeah! A lot of noise-based DIY bands are really esoteric and protective of their scene, but I think that communities would be a lot better if more people were exposed to weird and radical culture. It's nice to play at a place, like a warehouse space or a loft, and have people be like, "I didn't even know things like this existed!" I grew up on Long Island, which is a pretty culturally devoid place, and I remember the first time I went to one of those places—it just blew me away and radically changed my life.
You have a degree in electroacoustic composition. If you weren't touring the country, would there be any use for it?
[Laughs] I don't know! I used to mainly write Fluxus-based, open-structured improvisations for small and large ensembles. I'd probably still be doing that, making no money, eating out of the garbage, and getting food poisoning a lot more frequently.
This turkey wasn't from the garbage, but it's there now. I used to eat exclusively out of the garbage for three years and only got food poisoning once from eating a rotten sweet potato.
What would be your ideal job if you weren't making music? Doctor?
Yes, I'd be two doctors. I don't know what I would do. I don't really like the idea of working for someone else. I'd like to be back in school. The academic setting is really nice, and I'd like to learn some new software and have available players who I could work with. I guess I'm slowly drifting out of pop music. It sort of happened by accident, like a phase I was going through. The next record and the next national tour I do will be full ensemble, mallet percussion players.
Your shows are always a big party, do you ever feel like you're not able to rise to the occasion?
Sometimes when I'm really sick, exhausted, or jet-lagged. But normally as soon as I get down in the crowd and feel people in the front are really excited, it's really easy to feed off that energy, which is why I like playing on the floor. You see a lot of bands going through the motions on the stage, but it's hard to just go through the motions when people around you are grabbing your head, patting you on the back, and screaming along. It really gets you pumped.
Bumbershoot has you playing at the Exhibition Hall, which is sort of this isolated cave room, where they can put edgy, non-family-friendly bands. Are you going to do anything controversial or non-family-friendly?
[Laughs] I don't know! I tend not to do anything that's controversial to families, because I love families.
You won't be biting the head off a bat?
I don't want to do that. I like bats, too. I'll put the head back on a bat—for a family.