Dan Deacon: America

That spastic weirdo knob twiddler has made an unapologetically earnest album about the state of America's psychic and physical landscape. It's not wacky, it's not pretensious, and it'll blow you away.

Dan Deacon


US Release: 2012-08-28
UK Release: 2012-08-27
Label: Domino

Dan Deacon has always been a fundamentally American artist, although the reason for that has perhaps shifted over the years. At the beginning of his musical career, Deacon’s America was the one cast the blueprint for postmodernism, the melting pot of cultures and traditions stewed together to create one odd compound function- America the land of the free, land where our blundered miswirings and social defects are proudly displayed as an act of pride. His references points were American, his crude humor was American, and his Horatio-Alger like grassroots audience-building was American. An early EP invented the neologism “twacky”, a combination of wacky and tacky, that some thought seemed to embody Deacon to a T.

Deacon was branded pretty early on as an outsider. Though he came from an artsy background studying electronic composition at SUNY Purchase, he was generally thought by many to be something of a puerile novelty act, a lovable eccentric to troll out onto those unsuspecting kids eager for LOLZ and dancing.

His live act seemed to be at times an act of regression closer to lo-fi punk than conceptual composition or the performance art an early press bio touted. His spastic early live performances included goofy stand-up shtick banter between songs. He traded in pop culture iconography, imagining a world where Woody Woodpecker, Captain Crunch, Porky Pig, and (Pink) Batman were as interfacable as any passerby. An early piece included the whole of Aerosmith’s Permanent Vacation layered upon itself. Hopping up and down behind a barrage of sequencers and pedals, he came across a kid tinkering with his toys, putting on a magic show for his friends, but actually pulling off a couple incredible feats in the course of a set. His earliest DIY albums on microindie Standard Oil Records were full of Tourette’s-like titles like “Totally Boner Eat Shit”, “I Have AIDS”, and the (sincerely) lovely “My Own Face is F Word”. No one would claim Deacon was short on imagination, but to put forth that the central thesis was anything but unadulterated fun would be ludicrous.

I started following Deacon back in 2003 when he was playing tiny venues like the Tuscan Café in Warwick, NY. Back then, he was billed as a noise artist and was often a brilliant outlier amidst the likes of his humorless cacophonous peers (of which I admit to being among), though his sets fused to the genre of noise better than one might expect. Despite his junk machine aesthetic, the one that made him the unlikely bedfellow of noise community and the one mode that has stayed consistent since this period, Deacon always had a bit of a populist streak in him. In those early days, his best known (and most requested) piece was a demonstration-sound piece called “Pizza Horse”, a song whose batshit lyrics made about as much sense as that title might suggest and whose dedicated absurdism inspired unlikely singalong sessions and communal dance routines.

At that time, Deacon was putting on top notch shows, but had failed to produce an album that delivered on the promise of his live presence. Taking Our Band is Your Life as his bible, Deacon blazed across the American landscape crashing on couches and playing in basements building up his fanbase from the ground up. Simultaneously, he become something of an early YouTube celebrity for two videos; his outlandish performance on the morning show of NBC’s Savannah affiliate and “Drinking Out of Cups”, an early stream of consciousness spoken word rant brought to life by an animation by Sifl and Olly creator Liam Lynch. Though these two clips raised his profile, they may have permanently cemented the image of Deacon as All American goon. By the time Spiderman of the Rings, an album finally worthy of Deacon’s mettle, dropped, he was already known as an effective peddler of cheap synth smut caked in the kind of early childhood fetish that would slowly reveal itself to be on the principal concerns of the post-noise diaspora and the late naughts indie regalia.

Though Spiderman got some rave reviews, few were willing to concede that the songs shone brighter than the shtick. This magazine even referred to him as a “hipster pied piper” and a “court jester for the indie rock set”. It has been a struggle to overcome this ever since. The first sincere attempt was sophomore album Bromst, a masterful album or gorgeous euphoric highs and epic rainbow splendor apparently about how Monsanto was causing the end of the world, or something like that.

Later, he became involved in forays into the classical world, composing a piece performed at Carnegie Hall, conducting a much lauded ensemble piece in keeping with his sensibilities entitled “Ghostbuster Cook: Origin of the Riddler”, and even scoring the next Francis Ford Coppola film Twixt. Concurrently, Deacon played a gig for Occupy Wall Street, leading a riveted hoard of activists through an inspired interpretive dance session.

His Occupy tactics showcased the way in which Deacon as ringleader, “hipster pied piper” if you will, at some point transformed from an onanistic knob twiddler to a community leader, able to rally, build, and inspire mass group participation. What’s more, placed against the stale likes of Tom Morrello’s lame folk retread and Immortal Technique’s deterministic and didactic hip hop on the same Occupy stage, it was only Deacon’s elated and luminescent psychedelia that sounded like the unlikely future path forward.

So, here we arrive at America and while it’s unclear what the punters expecting twacky uncle Dan will think, this is his opus, a grand statement made without a trace of irony or shit-eating grin. Indeed, the LP is, for better or worse, about the state of America and hence is painted in a fairly broad scope. But while the album hints at the epic grandeur of an album like Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, America, at a scant 43 minutes and tempered in measured stripes, avoids the bloat of other concept albums by not trying to encompass all of America in cylindrical vinyl. The perspective here is Deacon’s alone.

Despite his ties to the Occupy movement and his vegetable oil powered tour van, Deacon hasn’t penned a diatribe against greedy bankers and bloodthirsty oil barons. Instead, he focuses on the landscape, the one encountered during his relentless touring regimen. This is a road album, propelled along by galvanic rhythms from the drum circle pounding of opener “Guilford Avenue Bridge” to the motorik stomp of “Crash Jam”. This is the same percussive vivacity that will find his audiences continuing to thrash and hurtle themselves about, but on America, the rhythm section is more singularly directional and less capable of getting sidelined into explosions of primal release.

Side B pushes further with the 20-plus-minute “USA”, which is like a transatlantic journey across the great divide, bridging the epic beauty of the natural world from the dystopian ruin of its unraveling in the course of its wayfaring. “I see the hillsides / Burning in flames / Everything’s gray / Nothing remains of / Places I loved / Nothing’s green Nothing / Grows / Everything burned / Everything was," Deacon sings on the opening chapter of the piece “USA I: Is a Monster”, looking out at a world that initially seems beyond repair.

At the reverse polarity is the utterly gorgeous “USA III: Rail”, a piece whose mellifluent melody is so bare-faced simple and clear that its structure contends again Terry Riley’s “A Rainbow in Curved Air” or Kraftwerk’s Ralf and Florian in the pantheon of subdued electronic minimalism. Flutes, bells, glockenspiel, horns, strings, and various other instruments rapidly interchange primary and secondary roles, exchanging emphasis like a flock singing together, like a community being built out of thin air.

In fact, Deacon did pull together a community of sorts for this album. A vast ensemble of musicians for this extended piece, including 22 musicians from the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University in his hometown of Baltimore appear on the four parts of “USA”, an act which shrieks of pretension. Yet, nothing on America feels forced, and notably, Deacon never loses that underlying essence of fun that has followed him throughout his career. Whereas minted rock messiahs enlist the orchestra pit to tier pointless layers of complexity on their tunes, Deacon seems to be conducting his players to all pull in the same direction, forming something that sounds like a sonic onomatopoeia of a passing locomotive.

It’s a testament to Deacon’s restraint (you heard me) that he can write intimate and complex music that still gets branded minimalist. Deacon relies on simple chord changes to motor his mechanics, but the notes themselves contain all the grime and rust, the spark plugs and fried currents that he can cram into them. The gritty texture of the synth bass on tracks like “Guilford Avenue Bridge” and “Crash Jam” in particular are nasty and snarled, industrial filth that simultaneously mimes the devastated vista and the mechanisms that brought it down.

Likewise affected as per usual are Deacon’s vocals. Deacon’s voice has always been an extension of the music’s electronically wired central nervous system, particularly on the dense, intense fever dreams of Bromst. Here is no exception, but you may be surprised how silicon smooth or tantrically zen he sounds blending into the psychotropic dawn of “Crash Jam” or the scrambled twilight of “USA III: The Great American Desert” respectively.

If the finale of “USA” in part “IV: Manifest” does not feels as ecstatically celebratory as Deacon is wont to get on prior tracks like “Of the Mountains”, it’s because the entire trip is poised to sound incomplete. The final lyrics on an album filled with desperation, self-doubt, and strangely luminescent glimmers of hope are “Things that I love fade out past my view/ The times are racing now I’m just glad I spent them with you/ Feel like I’m all flesh and no bone/ I’m not the shapes that I’m shown/ I hope I get it right”.

This uncertainty at being “all flesh and no bone” and unclear on what shape the future will take is why America is not about the greedy bankers and the oil barons. It’s not about the way corporatism and war are deeply embedded into the fabric of our history. “No past / No Sense/ Brave Days/ Ahead," Deacon charges on “Lots”, fist practically pumping in the air in defiance of the impulses of Retromania that no one could ever accuse Deacon of subscribing to.

America is about the start of something. It’s not America the failed state or USA the monster. It’s about America the young, moving past its puerile stage into a richer terrain, thinking beyond the self and starting to pull in the same direction, reconsidering ideas branded too outsider, too hip, or too idealistic to take seriously, and conceding that we are only at the beginning of this grand experiment in order to form a more perfect union. Suffice it to say, if the guy who made “Totally Boner Eat Shit” can grow up, maybe America can too.


Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and Woodstock each did their stint as a lonely Mexican cowboy, it seems. These and other things you didn't know about A Charlie Brown Christmas.

How Would You Like to Be the Director of Our Christmas Play?

It's really a beautiful little movie and has affected my life in numerous ways. For years, especially when we were poor, we always tried to find the littlest saddest Christmas tree possible. In fact, my son Eli has a Christmas tree set up right now that is just one single branch propped up in a juice bottle. And just a couple weeks ago we were at a wedding, everyone was dancing, and me and my wife Amy and my friend Garth started dancing like the Peanuts characters do in the Christmas special.

-- Comic artist James Kochalka.

Bill Melendez answers questions with the sort of vigor that men a third his age invest thousands in herbal supplements to achieve. He punctuates his speech with belly chuckles and comic strip taglines like "Oh, boy!" and "I tell 'ya!" With the reckless abandon that Melendez tosses out words like pleasure, it's clear that 41 years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains one of his favorite topics of conversation. "It changed my life," he states simply, "being involved with this silly little project."

Melendez celebrated his 90th birthday in November. "When I think of my last 40 or 50 years, I can't believe it," he says, capping off his comment with that inevitable one-man laugh track. The curly-mustachioed animator was born José Cuauhtemoc Melendez in Hermosillo, Mexico, in 1916. "I was literally a cowboy," he says. "From there, I crossed the border and started growing up. Just recently I went back, and when I got there I realized where my home was: across the border. When I was a little kid, I would have killed myself had I known such a thing was going to happen. I'm one of you. Whether you like it or not, I'm one of you."

Melendez recalls his blind leap into the world of animation as though the story's end still managed to catch him by surprise. "I was working in a lumberyard, and one of my mates said, 'Hey, I read in the paper that some guy up on Hyperion Avenue is hiring young guys like you who can draw.' So I went to this stranger and said, 'Hey, I understand someone here is hiring young artists.' The man asked me for my samples and I said I'd show them to him tomorrow. I went home that night and made the samples. I brought them in the next day, and he asked me what art school I went to. I'd never been to an art school. He said, 'Well, you have talent,' and he hired me to work in a place called Walt Disney."

Four years later, after lending his hand to Disney canon fodder like Bambi and Fantasia, and after fighting for his new country in World War II, he spent the next decade or so hunched over the drawing board, producing animated commercials and industrials by the thousands, including a number of spots featuring syndicated comic strip characters. Among them were the Peanuts characters.

Of all the Charlie Browns in the World, You're the Charlie Browniest.

I was around 10 when it first premiered, and seeing A Charlie Brown Christmas for the first time was enough to prove even to a young child that a well-written thing is superior to most of what is out there. I'll probably be watching it again tonight or tomorrow, because I have a copy of it and a six-year-old daughter. She loves it.

-- Comic artist Gilbert Hernandez.

By 1959 Charles "Sparky" Schulz's Peanuts kids found themselves at the center of their first print advertising campaign, pushing Ford's new Falcon make of cars. As the story goes, the idea of using Schulz's characters came from a daughter of one of Ford's advertising people.

"I think Sparky was flattered when they wanted to use his characters, says Schulz's widow, Jean, who now is one of the driving forces behind the Charles Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California. "It was a new way of extending his creativity. From the get-go Sparky always said a comic strip is a commercial venture. Newspapers put the comic strip in to sell newspapers. He would then bitterly say, 'No one considered comic strips art in the first place, so why would you get on your high horse about that?'"

When the time came for the characters to make their animated debut in a Ford commercial, Melendez was brought into the fold, and he brought along a cast of unknown child actors to voice the parts. The team reunited five years later, when Lee Mendelson, a filmmaker from San Francisco, requested two minutes worth of animation for a film he was shooting based on a Peanuts story line.

"I had done a Willie Mays documentary in 1963, A Man Named Mays, which had done really well," Mendelson says. "Then I was reading a Charlie Brown baseball strip, and the idea came to me: I've just done the world's greatest baseball player; now I'll do the world's worst." It's an old joke -- the same he used to open his 2000 coffee-table retrospective, A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition -- but it's one for the ages. "Two years later Coca-Cola called, and I thought they were calling to do the documentary," Mendelson explains, "but they said, 'Have you guys ever thought about doing A Charlie Brown Christmas?' I said absolutely. And that's how I got in the animation business." His executive producer role on that film was the birth of a career now well into its fourth decade.

"So Lee called Sparky and said, 'Well, I just sold our Christmas show," explains Jean. "Sparky asked, 'What Christmas show?' and Lee said, 'The one we're going to write tomorrow." Sparky said, 'If we're going to do it, we need to have Bill.'"

Melendez was brought into direct, and as with the Ford commercial, he gave the parts of the Peanuts kids entirely to children, many of whom had never acted. Getting them to learn their roles was a trying task, given that Schulz's script had his characters regularly waxing philosophical and tossing off words like ailurophobia (a fear of felines, for the record). Melendez had to teach the young actors long portions of the script phonetically. "Sometimes they didn't understand a word," he remembers. "They'd say, 'Just tell me how you want it said.' Then they'd say it, and I'd turn to the engineer and ask if he recorded it. The kids were all startled when they got screen credit and happily startled when they started getting royalty checks."

Melendez's also tried to coach a voice actor for the part of Snoopy, whose lines were limited to a handful of non-words. "I recited Snoopy's lines for the actor, and the actor turned to the engineer and said, 'Did you record that? Just use what Bill has done. I don't want to repeat your words.' " This happy accident left Melendez playing the role of Snoopy and, later, his yellow bird companion Woodstock for the next 40 years.

For the film's soundtrack, Mendelson and Melendez embraced Schulz's love of jazz. "Driving back from Sparky's over the Golden Gate Bridge I heard a song called 'Cast Your Fate to the Wind,'" Mendelson writes in The Making of a Tradition. The song was written by Vince Guaraldi, a jazz pianist from the beatnik-dense San Francisco neighborhood of North Beach. It had won the musician a Grammy Award for best original jazz composition in 1962. Guaraldi enjoyed Schulz's script and happily accepted his invitation into the Charlie Brown Christmas fold.

This Doesn't Seem to Fit the Modern Spirit.

The one thing that has always bothered me about the Charlie Brown Christmas special is that the other kids never admit to Charlie Brown that he was right about the little tree. They ultimately accept the tree, but no one ever says, 'Well, Charlie Brown, I guess you were right all along. We were idiots.' However, it's still cool to see a mainstream children's program show that is so stridently nonsecular, which could never be done in this day and age. Linus gets some good face time with all that shepherd talk.

-- Pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman.

Beyond the inclusion of Schulz's cast of wildly popular characters, 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas seemed a production earmarked for failure. The special's small crew was given a mere six months between the film's conception and its maiden broadcast. At his own insistence, Schulz signed up to pen the script, his first attempt at a screenplay. "He said that if he was going to get screen credit for something, he wanted to be doing something," says Melendez. "He was very proud and curious and didn't want credit where he didn't deserve it."

Despite the Ford commercials that gave birth to the collaboration, and Coca-Cola's strong sponsorship presence in the special, Schulz's script centered around a pensive Charlie Brown attempting to find the true meaning of Christmas. "The 1960s were when Christmas first began to start the day after Thanksgiving," says Mendelson. "There was an irony to this, given the commercialization of the comics. That wasn't really his doing. He said, 'If people want to buy stuff, that's up to them. I'm not in the business of making stuff and selling it. I'm in the business of making a comic strip, and if people want products, then so be it.' "

"We're all a little schizophrenic in that way," adds Jean Schulz. "You live in this world, and you despair. If you think at all, you're always wrestling with this. I think that's exactly what Sparky was expressing." The special opens with a characteristically distraught Charlie Brown, speaking to the perpetually blanket-wielding Linus on a snow-covered version of the brick wall, the bald third-grader's preferred location for vocalizing his ever-present inner despair. "I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus," he begins. "Christmas is coming, but I don't feel happy."

In case that wasn't enough to threatren the film's commercial potential, the producers added one final nail to the prime time coffin: Schulz's script called for Linus to deliver a subdued monologue at the film's climax, a word-for-word recitation of Jesus's birth, taken from the Gospel of Luke. "Bill said, 'You can't have the Bible on television!' Sparky said, 'If we don't do it, who will?' By the time that Coca-Cola and CBS saw it, they had no choice but to play it. They had nothing else to put in there."

What the roomful of executives saw upon the first screening was a shock -- a slow and quiet semireligious, jazz-filled 25 minutes, voiced by a cast of inexperienced children, and, perhaps most unforgivably, without a laugh track. "They said, 'We'll play it once and that will be all. Good try,' " remembers Mendelson. "Bill and I thought we had ruined Charlie Brown forever when it was done. We kind of agreed with the network. One of the animators stood up in the back of the room -- he had had a couple of drinks -- and he said, 'It's going to run for a hundred years,' and then fell down. We all thought he was crazy, but he was more right than we were."

I Never Thought It Was Such a Bad Little Tree

That show is probably the closest I've ever come to having any interest in religion. That part where Linus quotes from the bible is extremely touching and very deftly handled. I was raised in a nonreligious household, and that was a moment that actually had some religious significance to it just because Schulz expressed it so well.

-- Comic artist Seth.

Upon its airing, the special received a 50 share. The network immediately ordered four more films from the team. "We watch it every year to make sure that it actually happened. We thought it would be on one time and be gone," Mendelson says. "The message is simple. Schulz wanted to do a show on the true meaning of Christmas. Any good writer like Schulz deals in truisms and things that are timeless. There are themes about unrequited love and bullies. They work as well now as they did in the 1960s, and they'll probably work for another 50 or 100 years as well."

"I think it touches something in the viewer. We didn't do it on purpose, but there's something ethnic about it," Melendez adds. Schulz expressed his own surprise that the film found its way into the canon of holiday classics. "He would say things like, 'I never thought it would be around 25 years later,'" Jean remembers. "One of the reasons that Christmas is so great is that back in 1965 there were no VCRs or DVDs, so you saw that show once, and you had to wait a whole year to see it again. And when it came on, it still held up. It was still charming."

Forty-one years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains a towering if unassuming presence in holiday TV. It's an oasis of sincerity, managing never to be drowned out by its overzealous neighbors' rush to cross-promote themselves. It's a quiet testament to what children's programming could be: introspective, unpretentious and, above all, respectful of the intelligence of its target audience. "Children's programs were held in low regard by everybody -- including me," says Melendez. "But I realized that it wasn't just for kids. I was dealing with adults. They were giving me suggestions and criticism."

For a film with an anticommercial message, A Charlie Brown Christmas produced its own market bonanza. But it still suggests the spirit of its writer, who sensed the real magic of Christmas was not in the spectacle of lights, commerce and big aluminum Christmas trees, but in those fleeting moments of silence, which seem to become rarer with each passing day. "They weren't afraid to have quiet," Jean says. "Most of the time when the kids are walking, it's very quiet. We came out of a new animated movie one day, and Sparky said, 'I missed the quiet places.'"

Over the years, the Schulz-Mendelson-Melendez team created more than 75 half-hour television specials and four feature films, and five Peanuts films have been made since Schulz's death, in 2000, at the age of 77. Outside of the films, Peanuts continues to be an incredibly lucrative license for its owners, United Features Syndicate. "If Sparky had the volume of stuff crossing through the office that we have today, it would have driven him nuts," laughs Jean. "He probably would have walked through the office and said, 'We're cutting all of the licensing off. I don't want to do it anymore.'"

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