August 28, 2012
A Composer Is No Longer Tuning Out
By JAMES C. McKINLEY Jr.
BALTIMORE — Dan Deacon has always been fascinated with the apocalypse, and until recently he believed the world would end in December 2012, when some think the Maya calendar predicted Armageddon. That belief made him somewhat apathetic about politics and the environment, he said.
He wrote party-like-there-is-no-tomorrow songs over manic dance beats, with absurdist lyrics and titles like “Pink Batman” and “Woody Woodpecker.”
“I used to think, we have had our run, let the bacteria take over, reboot the system,” he said with a laugh, as he sat in his studio in downtown Baltimore. “I realized that was just a cop-out.”
Mr. Deacon, who turned 31 on Tuesday, is an electronic composer in the minimalist tradition who also draws on rock influences. He says he has begun to care about what happens to the earth and to the United States. That newfound sense of civic responsibility permeates his album “America,” which was released by Domino Records, also on Tuesday.
“I’m just as much part of this system that I despise and hate and wish would end, but my apathy toward it and my nihilism toward it isn’t going to change it,” he said. “Ultimately we have to fix ourselves. I can’t complain about fracking if when I get cold in the winter, I turn the heat on.”
“America” is not an overtly political album. It contains no protest songs or pieces that talk explicitly about the Occupy Wall Street movement, which Mr. Deacon supported to the hilt. (In May he coaxed thousands of protesters to dance in unison during a rally in Union Square in Manhattan.)
But the lyrics describe Mr. Deacon’s struggle with his own apathy. One song, “True Thrush,” talks about a soul trapped by a need to conform to society. Another, “Lots,” is a call to action over a frenetic punk-rock beat: “One choice to make/Get ready to go,” he sings.
The last half of the album is a 22-minute, four-movement suite about the United States, a dark love letter of sorts to the country. Sweeping major-key motifs ride over tribal drums, inspired, he said, by the landscapes he has seen while touring on trains and buses. The uplifting melodies are juxtaposed with descriptions of hills in flame. A repeated refrain expresses a romantic epiphany about one’s smallness in nature: “Nothing lives long/Only the earth and sky.”
“The inspiration for the music is love and admiration for the land itself,” he said. “But it’s impossible to think about the land without the history of it, and that’s a mixture of guilt and shame.”
Friends say Mr. Deacon is maturing, both as a person and as an artist.
“He’s trying to do big things that will sound good 20 years from now,” said Ed Schrader, a Baltimore musician who has known Mr. Deacon for years. “I don’t think Dan wants to be perceived as this guy with a trippy green skeleton at a dance party. I think he’d like to move more in the direction of David Byrne meets Philip Glass.”
A bearded, burly man with owlish glasses, Mr. Deacon gained wide attention in the indie-music world in 2007 for his “Spiderman of the Rings” (Carpark), in which he merged the pumping beats of electronic dance music with the minimalism of composers like Steve Reich and Terry Riley.
That record featured whimsical dance anthems like “The Crystal Cat” and “Woody Woodpecker,” a song that used the famous laugh of that cartoon character in out-of-sync phases to create dense rhythmic patterns. Back then, he said, he used to write lyrics by chanting nonsense over tracks at warehouse parties, and he was famous for asking the audience to form conga lines or to perform humorous dances.
But he didn’t like being described as a party starter, and he returned to more avant-garde compositions on his next studio album, “Bromst,” in 2009. He also started performing with an ensemble, weaving acoustic musicians into his pieces.
Touring in Europe taught him to love being American, after years of despising his homeland, he said. Working on the score for Francis Ford Coppola’s film “Twixt” led him to experiment with a greater dynamic range in his music.
“Nuance was the theme of the last couple years,” he said. “Me discovering — Woah! — it doesn’t always need to be as loud and as fast as possible.”
He paused, realizing how simple the statement sounded. “I had these really simple mind-blowing epiphanies,” he said sardonically. “Like, ‘Wow, I’m an American!’ and ‘Dynamics rule!’ ”
Mr. Deacon also began composing for contemporary classical musicians and fell in love with the timbres of traditional instruments. In 2011 the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony in Ontario, Canada, gave the premieres of his first two orchestral pieces: “Fiddlenist Rim” and “Song of the Winter Solstice.” In New York he collaborated with So Percussion, the Brooklyn quartet, on a long-form percussion piece at the 2011 Ecstatic Music Festival.
“He’s been steeped in the world of avant-garde and contemporary classical music as long as he’s been making this electric pop music that he does,” said Adam Sliwinski, a member of So Percussion. “He sees all these things as organically compatible.”
Those collaborations persuaded him to use acoustic instruments on “America,” he said. All the drum parts on the album are played by human beings. Brass and string players perform most of the melodic motifs, even those that are written to sound computer-generated.
“I want to make a record that’s very acoustic-driven but at the same time has the quantized computer-music feel that I like,” he said.
Mr. Deacon grew up in a large Roman Catholic family in Babylon, N.Y., where his parents ran a small pest-control business. His mother died of cancer when he was 17, forcing his father to go on public assistance.
“After my mom died, I was disenfranchised completely,” he said. “I didn’t trust the medical establishment. I didn’t trust the government.”
He learned to play trombone and tuba in his high school band and later sang in a local ska combo. At Purchase College of the State University of New York, he studied musical composition, and after graduation he and some other musicians moved en masse to Baltimore, where they rented cheap warehouse space and formed the Wham City arts collective.
Talking to Mr. Deacon is like trying to track a bumblebee. His mind races off on tangents and down bizarre paths, and he is quick to tell a joke at his own expense. He holds many of the beliefs common among the hipster, DIY set. Elections are purely theater. The major parties are nearly identical. Big corporations are threatening democracy and homogenizing culture.
“The main thing I think about lately is a return to an age of kings and how horrible that would be,” he said. “Corporations are the new kingdoms and they are dominating more and more.”
These days he says he tries to live conscientiously. He avoids buying clothes made in sweatshops and eats locally grown food. He and his band mates cook their meals communally on the road, buying from local farmers’ markets. They tour in a school bus that has been converted to run on diesel made from cooking oil.
“We don’t do well up mountains, so we take a lot of weird routes sometimes to avoid inclines,” he said. “And we get all of our grease from behind restaurants.”
Mr. Deacon said he still thought the end of the world might come in his lifetime, but not from a cataclysmic event this December. A more likely cause, he said, is a dark age brought on by slow environmental degradation, not unlike the world depicted in Cormac McCarthy’s novel “The Road.”
“The apocalypse is happening daily,” he said.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: August 30, 2012
An article on Wednesday about Dan Deacon, an electronic composer whose new album “America” is out this week, misstated the order of two songs on the CD. “True Thrush” and “Lots” are the second and third tracks, not the first and second. (The first song is “Guilford Avenue Bridge.”)