Like Tiny Bacteria Running Around: An Interview with the Dirty Projectors

[14 June 2009]

By Mehan Jayasuriya

To witness the Dirty Projectors live is to stand at the center of a pop maelstrom. Fragments of popular musical history whip by in rapid succession. Tempos speed up and slow down without warning. Melodies collide in unexpected and sometimes startling ways.

This might sound chaotic on paper but it’s not in practice, thanks largely to the commanding presence of lead Projector Dave Longstreth. Clearly the captain of his vessel, Longstreth nimbly guides his fellow players though the songs’ twists and turns, on toward the stunning three- and four-part harmonies that often lie on the other side. While the five other musicians who make up the band are clearly skilled in their own right, the Dirty Projectors remains very much a project in service of Longstreth’s singular musical vision. 

A few days before the release of Bitte Orca, I had a chance to catch the band live, at the Rufustival in Baltimore. Even though they weren’t headlining the daylong festival, it was clear that they were one of the main attractions. Bitte Orca is an astonishing leap forward for the Dirty Projectors, an album that’s every bit as catchy as it is compositionally complex. It now seems a foregone conclusion that after years spent as an opening act, the band will soon graduate to headliner status. 

The morning after the festival, I talked to Dave Longstreth on the phone, just as the band was driving South out of Baltimore. Throughout our conversation, I could hear birds chirping loudly on his end of the line. He was a disarming, if slightly thorny interview subject. He spoke slowly, sometimes laconically and peppered his speech with plenty of “ums” and “uhs”. He laughed when I used the word “deconstructionist”. He clearly loved talking about his band and his music but bristled when I imposed judgment on or attempted to categorize his work. At the end of our conversation, he thanked me for showing so much interest in his band. To these ears, it sounded like a wholly sincere expression of gratitude. 

Photo by Mehan Jayasuriya

Photo by Mehan Jayasuriya

So, I managed to catch your set at the Rufustival last night and really enjoyed it. Were there any bands that you particularly enjoyed seeing?
Oh man, we rolled in pretty much just before we played, so we didn’t really have a chance to see anyone. I really wanted to see the new version of Ecstatic Sunshine. I wanted to check out Chairlift too. I was bummed that I missed those guys. Wye Oak sounded pretty sweet, super good. That was pretty much the only set we were really able to watch.

Yeah, I was surprised that they had Ecstatic Sunshine play so early in the day. I would have thought that they would have been on way later than 3pm.
Yeah, true. I heard it was a new band that Matt [Papich] put together, that he’s trying out. It sounds like he’s switching up his tones too, he’s no longer going with those Roland Jazz Choruses.

So, you guys have been on the road with TV on the Radio for a few weeks now. How have you found the audiences so far on this tour?
Pretty awesome. There’s a lot about this tour that’s new for us. For the most part, so far, it’s been in Canada, in places like Saskatoon and Winnipeg, places we’ve never been before. People have been enthusiastic and really into it. So, yeah, so far it’s been pretty awesome. We’ve also played in a bunch of crazy venues. Like the largest mall in North America.

The Mall of America?
No, actually, the Mall of America in Minnesota is the largest mall in the United States. If you expand that to include all of North America, it’s this place in Edmonton—the West Edmonton Mall—which is bigger. They just have everything in this place. Trained dolphins, roller coasters, like four different Jamba Juices. We shot guns at the shooting range. It was great. You gotta go.

Where did you guys play inside this mall?
Well, you know, in keeping with this idea of having everything under the sun in this place, they’ve got this pretty great, 2,500 capacity rock club in there. I kind of felt like I was in the movie Idiocracy.

It’s funny that you mention Idiocracy. I just saw it for the first time a few weeks ago. I was in a hotel room in New Orleans and it just happened to be on the TV. I didn’t know what it was but found myself inexplicably transfixed and ended up unintentionally watching the whole thing.
Really? That was on TV? That’s a great movie.

Photo by Mehan Jayasuriya

Photo by Mehan Jayasuriya

So what’s the transportation set-up like for this tour? Do you guys get to ride on the bus with the TV on the Radio guys? Or do you tag along behind, caravan-style?
Yeah, we’re just in a sprinter van, which is like a large van. You know, it’s pretty good for what we’re doing. We’re chasing the bus, most of the time. The TV dudes generally hang out until 3 or 4 after the show and then they get on the bus and just sack out until the next day. It was rough for us, up in Canada, because we would play a show, hang out for a while, sleep for like five hours and then have to get on the road and drive all day. Now that we’re back in the States, on the East Coast where the drives are shorter, it’s much mellower now.

Has it been surreal being on a tour of this size? I know that not too long ago you guys were playing mostly house shows and crashing on floors…
[Laughs] Well, yeah, I mean we’re still crashing on people’s floors, you know? It’s a nice way of seeing friends and stuff. But yeah, it’s a different thing to play in front of a lot of people, like 2,500 people as opposed to 500. That’s still something we’re trying to figure out—how to modulate our show for a situation of that size.

Has that been very challenging—adjusting your show to fit a place that size?
Well, basically it’s the same; you’re playing music for people and trying to connect with an audience. The room sounds different—that’s the biggest difference.

Photo by Mehan Jayasuriya

Photo by Mehan Jayasuriya

Bitte Orca and more

Photo by Mehan Jayasuriya

Photo by Mehan Jayasuriya

Changing gears a bit, I’d like to talk about the new album, which people are obviously very excited about, myself included. The first thing that really struck me about Bitte Orca is how immediate and accessible it sounds compared to your previous work. Was it always your intention that this album would have a more polished sound or has your songwriting just naturally progressed to this point?
Yeah, I dunno, I feel like you’re asking a couple of different questions there. “polished” is a word that usually makes me think about the sound of something…

Yeah, like production.
Yeah, maybe you’re talking about the whole package? It wasn’t a super conscious thing, it’s always like a continuum, you know? Something a lot of other journalists I’ve talked to have asked me is, “Is this experimental music or is this pop music?” And my response is always I don’t really ever think of something as being one or the other—it’s all just music.

And maybe it shouldn’t be your job to decide what it is anyway? I mean, you’re creating music and putting it out there—I imagine that people will make what they will of it.
Yeah, I guess so, totally. Nobody needs to decide what it is really.

On the topic of classification, a lot of critics seem to use the word “deconstructionist” when describing what you do. To me, though, that word suggests a very specific intent or agenda. Do you think of yourself as taking traditional melodies and reshaping them into something else or are you just trying to capture these songs the way that they sound in your head?
Um, I don’t really know. It’s just writing. You write a melody and it sounds how it sounds and if that’s the way you want it to sound then it’s done. Or if it sounds a little bit different from how you want it to sound, then you tweak it. It’s not like there’s a very deliberate process or anything.

When I listen to Bitte Orca, I find that it evokes a pretty wide spectrum of pop music. A song like Stillness Is the Move” sounds like it could go toe-to-toe with Rihanna on the radio but then the next song, “Two Doves”, almost sounds like it could have been on Nico’s Chelsea Girl. Do you feel like this is just a reflection of your listening habits or were you intentionally trying to reference different eras of American pop?
Again, I guess it wasn’t all that conscious. But, you know, a curious thing about the present is the way that bands will be like, “We sound like Neil Young between 1979 and 1981”. That’s weird, because nowadays, what most people listen to is so wide-ranging. Like, I’m listening to everything from T-Pain to Neil Young from 1986 to 1991 and to me, it’s strange that a band would want to sound like one specific thing like that. People listen to all sorts of stuff—I’m surprised that doesn’t come out in the music that people are making more.

Photo by Mehan Jayasuriya

Photo by Mehan Jayasuriya

Angel and Amber both feature more prominently as lead vocalists on Bitte Orca. Was the division of labor during the songwriting process for this album different than it was in the past?
It was the same. 

Really?
I mean, it’s pretty much always different, the way a song happens when you’re writing. But yeah, it was pretty similar to how we’ve done things in the past. This time, I was pretty psyched about doing what the Beatles used to do, giving each of the singers a lead number. I tried to make something for each of them that would suit them really well.

There are some really intricate arrangements on this record. Has it been a challenge trying to do these songs justice in a live setting?
Um, no, actually. It just sounds different. There’s a lot of acoustic stuff on the record and so far, we haven’t really played any of that stuff or when we do, we play it with other instruments. So that kind of timbre gets lost. But when you play a song live, it loves to be something else. We’re not trying to do note-for-note replicas of what’s on the record. It’s always depressing when a band does that.

Do you think you’ll eventually try to do those songs live with acoustic instruments? Any reason you’re not using acoustic instruments live at the moment? Is it just more of a pain?
I’d be into it—I mean, we might try to do it on some of these shows that are coming up. It’s just tricky. Trying to amplify those instruments to get that level of volume.

There’s some speculation that this record could introduce the Dirty Projectors to a much larger audience. Have you noticed a sudden increase in the level of interest in the band leading up to the release of the new record? Or has it been more of a gradual, steady build?
Yeah it seems like a steady progression to me. We toured so much on Rise Above and it seemed like more people started coming to shows around that time. I don’t feel like we’re the kind of band that ‘blows up,’ you know? More and more people are interested but it’s been very gradual. We made a whole lot of albums and with each one, a few more people listen.

Is that mostly exciting, having more people take an interest in your work? Or is there an element of pressure or something scary about it as well?
No it’s cool, I’m into that. It would be boring if it stayed the same.

Photo by Mehan Jayasuriya

Photo by Mehan Jayasuriya

Collaborations with David Byrne and Björk

You guys have been involved in some pretty interesting collaborations recently, most notably with David Byrne and Björk. What was it like working with such well renowned songwriters?
Well, that’s a pretty broad question. Maybe you want to be more specific?

Well, both Björk and David Byrne obviously have very distinctive, established styles of writing and performing. How do you approach working with someone like that in such a way that your own voice doesn’t get drowned out?
Well, each one was very different. With David, it seemed like it would be fun to sidestep the current embrace of the ‘80s Eno/‘Heads sound that’s getting regurgitated in various ways and to think of our collaboration more along the lines of the bel canto scene on the Nonesuch albums, like on Grown Backwards. The first song we wrote together was very much along those lines. We traded demos back and forth and then he wrote the words for it. That song became “Ambulance Man”.

That song was so easy to write that we just ended up doing another one, totally spur of the moment. That one ended up becoming “Knotty Pine”. He gave me some lyrics that he wrote back in ‘75 or ‘76 that never became a Talking Heads song and something about the meter of those words just suggested that kind of music to me.

And how did that differ from the nature of your collaboration with Björk?
Well, Björk is just a super open collaborator, she’s very trusting. And her interest in being involved seemed to stem from her wanting to learn and move outside of her comfort zone a bit. That, by the way, was so incredible to behold in an artist like her because she’s so, so amazing. So her being that way was inspiring for me and got me thinking that way as well.

With the Bitte Orca stuff, we were trying to make it as good as it could possibly be. We took our time—we spent about a year writing and recording those songs. It was pretty painstaking. So for the stuff with Björk, I wanted to get into the opposite spirit. We wrote all those songs in a week, rehearsed for five days and then just performed them. With both of those collaborations, we were just so surprised to be a part of them. We learned so much from both of them. It was pretty incredible.

Any chance that that suite of songs that you wrote with Björk will ever be performed again? Or recorded?
It’s possible, it’s possible. I don’t really know yet.

Any other collaborations on the horizon?
Well, I never expected to do anything like either of those two collaborations, so I don’t know. I guess it would depend on the person?

It sounds like you’re pretty open to the idea of doing more collaborative work in the future, at least.
Yeah, yeah, for sure.

Do you have a dream collaborator you’d like to work with? Like, if you could collaborate with anyone living or dead?
Um…not really.

Well, you mentioned T-Pain earlier. Would you be open to working with him, if the opportunity presented itself?
Um, yeah that’d be cool!

I’m not sure I want to imagine what that would sound like.
What would it be called?

It would probably have some numbers in the title and at least a few “Z"s.
Yeah, what’s his latest one called?

I think it’s Thr33 Ringz.
What’s the one before that? Epiphany? The one with “Tallahassee Love” on it? That one is a really good album.

Photo by Mehan Jayasuriya

Photo by Mehan Jayasuriya

Is there any chance you guys will do another project like Rise Above, where you rework someone else’s songs?
No. I mean, that was totally one of those one-of-a-kind things. It just had to do with how I felt about Damaged. It would be so stupid to do that again. [Laughs]

I take it you listened to a lot of Black Flag growing up.
No, not a lot of Black Flag. A lot of Damaged but not really anything else.

Okay, final question. What’s on the horizon for Dirty Projectors? Anything in the works aside from endless touring?
Um, well, there’s some ideas, you know. Right now, it’s mostly about touring. I’m starting to get psyched about some other things but right now, those are just little ideas, they’re like tiny bacteria running around.

Anything you feel like talking about? Or would you rather keep your cards close to your vest?
Definitely the latter.

Photo by Mehan Jayasuriya

Photo by Mehan Jayasuriya

A veteran of many a cold winter, Mehan was born in Montreal and reared in Southeastern Wisconsin. After four years spent earning a degree in Japanese literature at the University of Chicago, he spent a year living in Japan before finally landing in Washington D.C. A technology policy activist by day, Mehan spends his nights listening to, watching, photographing and writing about music. You can visit his personal website at http://www.mehanjayasuriya.com.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/like-tiny-bacteria-running-around-an-interview-with-the-dirty-projectors/