Learning to Relax: An Interview with Dan Deacon
The world's most popular Wham City wonk who transcended his viral video notoriety to make transcendent pop music loves Less Than Jake. He also has a stress addiction, and his new album Gliss Riffer all stems from, of all things, a mixtape.
Dan Deacon is an electronic musician, wholly invested in utilizing an array of synthesizers and effects to bring new sounds to life. But to label his dense and, sure, danceable landscapes as "electronic music" is a bit of a misnomer. The umbrella is not only lazy (Deacon himself argued that you wouldn't call what guitarists create "guitar music") but more importantly, it is too broad.
Most modern music is created solely inside of Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) with Virtual Studio Technology (VSTs), making the terminology that typifies the genre obsolete. Deacon is more accurately a fully modernized composer, interested in pushing past the limits of current musical definitions, technologies, and aesthetics.
His breakthrough album, 2008's Spiderman of the Rings, quickly established Deacon as one of the leading artists in his nebulous field. Massive walls of infectious hooks filtered through distorted digital signals became his critically acclaimed signature as he manipulated known sounds into revealing new facets of themselves. In this way, Deacon is a waveshaping mad scientist, constantly exploring new ways to create previously undiscovered noise.
His follow-up, Bromst (2009), featured Yamaha's Disklavier, an update to the 1920's player piano that allows MIDI notes (grid-based notation in DAWs that tell virtual instruments which notes to play and how fast to play them) to trigger the physical keys. In Deacon's hands, the Disklavier earned its stripes. As his episode of Pitchfork's "In The Studio" revealed, the hammers of the piano couldn't attack and release quickly enough to keep up with the 32nd note/120 BPM MIDI. Paradoxically, metering the gauntlet resulted in more aural density.
For 2012's America, Deacon traded his reliance on automation and synthesis for the nuances of a human orchestra. When an instrument or musician couldn't stretch beyond their physical capabilities, Deacon had to accept the beauty of their being limited. The result was an expansion of the musician's scope: while writing and recording America, Deacon also helmed the film score for Francis Ford Coppola's Twixt and continued his orchestral composition with So Percussion.
Yet Deacon's new album Gliss Riffer finds him returning to his love of synthesizers, but not without a few tricks up his sleeve. Taking a few lessons learned from America, Gliss Riffer is more spacious, allowing the vocals to rise above the mix for the first time. Though the album was shaped with VSTs while Deacon was on the road with Arcade Fire, the final product features Moog's newest analog synth, the Sub 37.
Gliss Riffer marks the instrument's world debut, making this record an even more interesting moment in contemporary music. Deacon took time away from solving friend and collaborator Ed Schrader's computer issues to dive deep with us into how he shaped Gliss Riffer, the importance of being bored, the Tao of Bill Murray, aural subjectivity, the mechanics of his live show, and his love for Less Than Jake.
It was awesome to have this opportunity to look back at your body of work because I realized that though I devoured Spiderman of the Rings and Bromst when they came out, I slept on America. So, I got to hear that album pretty much for the first time alongside your new work.
Oh crazy, oh that's great!
And I loved the ethos behind it, transitioning to the other side of the spectrum and losing the quantizing and precision of the electronics. The freedom of having humans create the sounds and having to butt up against their own limitations. And in the press materials for Gliss Riffer, it says you went back to doing fully electronic but used analog instruments. So did you do this album without MIDI programming?
No, there's a great deal of MIDI, for sure. I started making a mixtape after America, just for fun, 'cause I was in the back of a van on tour all year. I didn't have a studio, but I had a computer and as an electronic musician, [that's] great! So I [started] dragging files from iTunes into Ableton and chopping them up and it'd been a long time since I'd done anything like that, so I was really excited. And I realized how much I missed making music that way; that's how I discovered making music in the first place. How I really liked making tiny microsamples, making a recognizable sound unrecognizable, and working with synthetic instruments. And how much I liked working by myself. Since Ultimate Reality, [since] 2008, everything has been a multi-person project.
So, it was fun to make a basically all-synthetic record [Gliss Riffer] after the process of making acoustic music, because it gave me a different perspective on electronic music. I wanted there to be more space between the sounds. Bromst was so dense and America is so dense, I was treating acoustic sounds as if they were electronic. [On Gliss Riffer], I wanted to do the opposite. I wanted to treat these electronic sounds, these samples, as acoustic sounds and give them space and room to breathe, so there wouldn't just be this cramming in there. And there are sections of great density, like "Take It to the Max" or "Steely Blues" or some larger sections in "Sheathed Wings", but it's a fraction of the tracks that were present on America and Bromst. I still like density and I like filling space, but I wanted there to be some room to breathe on this record.
One of the things I really love about the way that you produce is that you use voice as instrument, through heavy processing. Like "Wham City" [on Spiderman of the Rings], you have this pulsing group chant underneath the entire song and the listener can catch the beginning of it but it takes seven minutes before everything drops and it's just that chant. And then you're like, "Oh shit, that's what this song is about."
[laughs] I like the way you think.
Well, the clarity allows gives more immediacy to react emotionally. On my first listen through of "Mind on Fire" [on Gliss Riffer], there's more clarity in that sample than you probably would have given it a couple years ago. I just immediately connected with it and it opened up a lot of the themes of the record for me.
Yeah, I wanted to treat the voice very differently. Like, I've always processed my voice and I did this record with just as much vocal processing, but [now] it's more about nuance than about distortion. Before, I used to use a lot of ring modulators or phase modulators in the voice, [but for Gliss Riffer] I was into different recording techniques. So instead of using a pitch shifter, I would do a varispeed technique like the Beatles did. To sing the melody outside of my range, I would slow the song down or I'd speed it up. Not only does that change your pitch but it also changes the whole structure of it. It makes it sound like it's coming from either a larger or a smaller chamber. Do you know what I mean?
And I had to do this with the piano as well because I busted a lot of the solenoids on the player piano, so I needed to compensate for it. I record[ed] the piano at different speeds, which made it sound like I had five different pianos or like a real big piano or a really tiny piano. And I think that's heard most in the beginning of "Take It to the Max" which is all repaired player piano, so it sounds like more of a percussion instrument. I guess the piano is a percussion instrument ... but it doesn't sound like a piano.
It's like these five different layers of these five different varispeed recorded piano tracks. And that really informed the vocal processing as well. It sounds like a completely different person because it's a completely different throat. And the software that I use has a throat lengthener, so it even further changes what the voice sounds like. I could have it be very high but then bring the throat length all the way down and it'd be a weird alto voice, rather than this soprano or tenor voice that it'd normally be. I thought it was fun.
Was this in Ableton? Or are you still using Reason?
Most of the record was in Ableton. There are some soft synths from Reason and there's some VSTs in there, but most of it's either hardware or Ableton.
Right, you got to use a Sub 37!
Yeah, it was real cool. And it was crazy, because it wasn't out yet and they didn't have a manual and we were polychaining it off the bat with three of the Sub Phatty's. We didn't know how to use it and the engineers were excited because we were just giving it a real crash course; we were throwing tons of MIDI at it and fucking with the waveshaping a lot. It was so fun.
Well, the way you talk about manipulating sound and creating sound, you really love that.
Yeah, that's the most fun for me. I like creating MIDI and creating melodies, but I love to focus more on the sculpture of the sound.
Is there anywhere on Gliss Riffer where the Sub 37 is particularly present?
The synths in "Meme Generator". All the arpeggiators in "Mind on Fire". All of the synths on "Take it to the Max". Definitely on "Learning to Relax". I'd say about half the record.
You were doing a lot of the work on the road. When you got in the same room as this thing, how did that influence the final product?
Well, I didn't want it to. I liked how the soft synths sound, I liked how the virtual stuff I had sounded. The way I work [is]: whatever I'm recreating, I want to make sure it's gonna surpass what I already have. So I try to match it exactly. To get to there, to get to this start point. And then from there you experiment, and you can A/B: here's the original, here's what we're experimenting with. That was the most fun, because there were parts of the synth I didn't know about, things we could open up when we paired them with three other synths and layered them on top of themselves. All these different harmonics came out. It really changed the process. "Meme Generator" had discernible vocals at one point. It had like, a verse and a chorus and I was like "You can't hear the synth. It's not adding, it's blocking." I thought that it sounded better as an instrumental, so I ended up cutting the vocals based on that.
When you did the "In The Studio" with Bromst for Pitchfork, you talked about how you don't prescribe a theme to a record while you're making it, but when you look back you can see the overall shape of things. What about for Gliss Riffer, what's there for you?
I think what emerged in the lyrical process was confronting my stress addictions and trying to understand why I have to apply stress to everything. Why I was using stress as a motivator and in a negative way, without realizing it for so long. I think the Internet really exacerbates it. Like, I was adding anxiety to things that didn't need to have it. I don't know why I was. And the lyrics have that tension to them, that anxious nervous feeling, and I think that counterbalances the music, which is very bright and glistening and euphoric.
In the later stages of making the record, toward September, when I was wrapping up (but still had no idea how close I was to being done because I was freaking out about everything), I found this Bill Murray interview. It was him at the Toronto film festival talking about how his philosophy for working is just, you can do your best work when you're very very relaxed. And the more relaxed you are, the better you can do what you're trying to do. That blew my mind! That blew my fucking mind. Because up until that I thought relaxing meant like, just wasting time. You know what I mean? [But] relaxing is such a conscious effort. You don't go on Instagram to relax, you don't go on Facebook to relax.
Those get mistaken for relaxing so often. It becomes the practice of "Oh, I'm going to decompress by filtering in thousands of pieces of information." All that's doing is continuing to stress you out on a level you can't even address.
Exactly. And it means that I'm never actually bored. And boredom is one of the most important things. If you're never bored, your mind never wanders. And if your mind never wanders, you never get lost in thought. If you never get lost in thought, you're never gonna think something you wouldn't have thought otherwise. That [Bill Murray] clip really has become sort of like my mantra and really helped me deal with my anxiety and analyze other aspects of my life that I think could be healthier and. I don't know, I think it helped me finish the record. And it's not like I wasn't having any fun making the record: I had an amazing amount of fun making the record, but I was forcing myself to be stressed about it. I was like, finding reasons to be stressed. And that was the problem.
How has that filtered into your daily practices? Are you meditating or ...
No, I'm just trying to relax. [laughs]
What form does that take?
It's more of a what not to do. I mean, I still definitely have a stress addiction, I have a problem with stress, but I'm certainly more relaxed than I was a year ago. I don't know how to articulate it, which is why I guess why I write music.
Just switching tracks, to that NPR interview you did. The "NPRness" of it really struck me; questions like "Do you get a lot of flack for making all-electronic music?"
I think it was an honest question and maybe I was a little too harsh, but it's so hard to define what music is in 2015. Nothing really fits into any genre, especially since pop genres merged to pull from all spectrums. You know what I mean? Like, the phrase "Pop Music" doesn't mean anything anymore, "Indie" doesn't mean anything anymore, "Electronic" music could mean Wolf Eyes and Skrillex. They're both "Electronic" music. Half of Taylor Swift's catalog is "Electronic" music, almost all hip hop is "Electronic" music. But what else is it?
It's important to put into a category at a record store, but I always feel so ... whenever I go into a record store and I see my record in the "Electronic" section, I'll say "Oh this is weird." Or I'll see it in the "Indie Rock" section and I'm like, "Oh this is weird, too." You know what I mean? There's no, like, "Weirdos" section. Because I'm not experimental enough to be "Experimental", at all. But I'm also not pop enough to be "Pop Music" at all. I don't know what the opposite of a Venn Diagram is, but that's where my record's gonna get cataloged.
[laughs] It's hard to parse it all out. You address this in the NPR interview: we really are constantly surrounded by the influence of electronics. We own things that nobody could have ever imagined being a reality 15 years ago, even. And we're constantly surrounded by this buzz and white noise.
I mean, both of us right now have computers pressed to our faces.
Right! And ten years ago these phones would have blown everyone away. But it doesn't anymore because we just synthesize it.
Well, nothing blows anyone away anymore. [Silicon Valley] shot itself in the foot by being like, every year, "We've done it! We've created the future." You know what I mean? And it's like "... cool. Where is it? Can you get me the one that's twice as good? When does that one come out?" Technology has gotten so impressive that it's boring. I want eyeballs in my hands and I wanna throw them across an ocean. Like, come on, gimme that. There's very little magic in technology these days. I feel like when the contact lenses come out that are obviously the direction they're going in -- contact lenses that are communicating with you somehow -- I just think we're going to be like "Oh, of course. Uh ..." [laughs] But it's crazy to think, like, I remember the awe of the Internet. And everyone being like, "Woahhh what the fuck is this? This is crazy!" And now I'm like more in awe when I go somewhere and there's no Internet. It's like "Woahhh there's no WiFi, there's no service - this is awesome!" That's the awe inspiring thing, when you find a place where your phone doesn't work and you're happy about it.
Well, that's what I love about your music, and maybe that's the thing that makes it hard to categorize, but it's almost a series of field recordings. All of these noises that you've taken from these things that truly exist (sine waves, samples, etc), you take these things and shape them and manipulate them. You're interested in what happens when you fuck around with the stuff around you rather than accept it as is and let it be. There's an audacity to that, which every artist needs: to question and experiment. And it's in what you've done with Alan [Resnick] on "Unedited Footage of a Bear" and "Live Forever As You Are Now". It all feels like the
Well, I think curious nerds that like to make their friends laugh tend to make fun things.
What was your involvement with "Unedited Footage of a Bear"?
I guess it depends piece to piece, but that was largely Alan and Ben [O'Brien] and Dina [Kelberman] and Robby [Rackleff] (all of Wham City). I mainly just supplied music for it.
Do you find yourself in that position a lot?
Lately. I've been trying to focus. I was just pretty extended for a while. I was trying to do the comedy tours, and write this orchestral music, and work with some percussion, and also write music and tour that, and do film scores. I want to take the next couple years to hone and really focus on the live show and this music. And I guess that's what I've been doing since America. I still like doing these other projects, but I don't want to be foolish or naive about time. You know what I mean? Obviously we're all here for a limited amount of time and there's only so many things you can do. Like, I've been wanting to put out a piece for just ARP 2600 for a long time now. But I need to, like, make a list of things that I want to accomplish and try to accomplish them. And since I do a lot of stuff in a really roundabout peculiar way, it takes me a really long time to do it. So I just want to make sure I don't spread myself too thin.
And I'm sure that's the stress addiction. So, it must be nice to be able to separate it out now.
It is. It's also nice to hear the phrase "Fear of missing out" and know that it's such a common thing that other people feel. Like, until something becomes part of the terminology, you never know if it's you or everybody. I'm not so afraid of that [FOMO] anymore. I really like what I'm doing and what I have going on and I'm not worried about what other people are doing and what they have going on because I'm happy. Do you know what I mean?
Photo: Frank Hamilton
Where before, I was like "Oh, I should be doing this and gah, I wish I could do this and there's four shows, maybe I'll try to catch a set at every one of them." And it's like, why not just relax? I keep thinking how my life changed when I started: I've been touring for a long time and I love doing it. It's changed every single tour. But I kinda feel like I'm returning to the way my mind was, like, ten years ago, but I have the experience of the last ten years to inform it. Where before I was obsessed with the apocalypse, like, I wanted the world to end. I don't want that at all anymore. But I like living just as insanely.
You have to go through these really shitty growing pains, pushing yourself to the point of breaking, to be able to step back and be comfortable with the grey. To appreciate life without having to layer so much pressure on top of it.
I was at an art show for the illustrator David Shrigley. And I was thinking how when I look at art, I think about what it means. And I look at, like, a stream, I think it's beautiful. I don't think, like, "What does this stream mean?" You know? I'm trying to appreciate things for face value and I want my music to have that as well. I was thinking about that a lot, because you're the only ears in the studio when you're self-producing a record that you're writing. It's hard to not think of it as like, "These are my kids." Are these actually cool, beautiful kids? Or are these just weird creeps that everyone else is like, "Well we've got these kids out here. Yeah, I hate these kids." Do you know what I mean? The way I hear my own music is very different from someone who's hearing it for the first time, or didn't make it, because I hear the blank canvas. I hear every single layer and how they were made. And sometimes I worry, like "Is this going to be interesting to somebody who doesn't hear all the layers? Or can't hear all the layers?" I think that's why a lot of people latch onto the simplistic aspects of it because that's the easiest to latch onto.
There's no way any two people hear music the same way. We could be sitting in a room listening to the exact same record and all of us are going to hear it radically differently. And I'll never know how anyone else hears music. I'll never ever know. And that's both horrifying and amazing! I mean, it's bad enough that something becomes popular and everything tries to sound exactly like it. Like, going on tour with Arcade Fire I didn't really know their music beforehand but [then] I was like, "Oh! You're the reason all these bands sound like this! It's you guys! It's your really famous, popular music. That's what did it!" That's crazy to think about, you know what I mean?
I don't know, I just keep thinking about how it's impossible to think about what other people think of your own music. When I was in the studio, I was having this doubt, like "Oh my god, what is this?" And I had to just stop worrying about it. Just be like, I like this. I think this is good. That's why I started making music. I started making music because it was fun. It was fun and people seemed to like it, and why people liked it isn't for me to decide. I just need to concern myself with making it for as long as it's still for me to make.
I think that there are tangible reasons why people come out to your shows, though. When I was talking to my friends about the fact that I'd be speaking with you, every person was like "OHMYGOD, I saw this show that he did and it was so fucking cool he split us up and then two people had a dance contest ..." And there'd be variations. One night people misunderstood you and brought folks into the middle rather than switched off. But either way, they were engaged in something big and they really appreciate it.
What I like is the micro structure. That's why I like doing the audience participation, because that's what creates the micro change that makes tonight. In my mind, everyone in the room is a performer and the entire space is a performance space. Utilizing as much of that as possible can create situations that could otherwise never occur. I keep thinking about what we can add to the show now that we're using the stage and using the lights and using video and using whatever performance element we have; I don't want to remove anything, I just want to keep adding. I want to make sure that, like a cake, everything has ingredients.
By doing this, it will change the show and the way I participate with the audience, or the way the audience participates with the show, but there will still always be the role of the active participant or passive viewer. And I like that choice. I like starting each show with a ritual. I like starting each show with you deciding whether to participate or not. Because [with] most entertainment, the biggest choice you have is where you're going to sit and watch. I like a show that confronts you from the beginning with "MAKE A DECISION!" Either way, you're choosing: you're choosing to participate or not to participate and both are fine and both are great and both are needed. Because if a bunch of people perform, you need someone just to observe. You know what I mean?
And I like how that changes the psychology of the audience and how it causes the audience to realize that they're both an individual and a member of a larger collective. Because a performer thinks about an audience as just a group. They don't think of them as 300 individuals. And an audience member doesn't think about themselves as a mass, as one collective. They think about themselves as individuals in a crowd. So when you play with that back and forth, when the audience becomes performers, it's constantly shifting what the role is: who's creating, who's observing, and where it can go next. And I like that. I don't make "Experimental" music, but that's an experiment, every night. It's an experiment because it can fail. If it can't fail, it's not an experiment. And I like that risk. When there's a risk for failure, it's much more exciting. Sometimes it fails, but most of the time it goes well, but it never goes the same way twice. The macro structure might be the same, but it's those micro structures, those nuances that emerge, those are what I like about it.
As you're creating music, as you worked on Gliss Riffer, what media have you been consuming?
Well, I've just discovered Spotify ...
You just discovered Spotify? You've probably been getting checks for $0.15 from them for the last three years.
Well, I get more from Spotify than I do from the radio or YouTube, so ... [laughs] Anyway, I've got spindles full of CDs. Like, fucking spindles of them, and my computer doesn't even have a CD player anymore! [With Spotify] I've been listening to music I haven't listened to in a long time. I like the immediacy of it. And I can understand why people are pissed about it because it's shifting music from being a commodity but culture constantly shifts and changes, and it goes in tangents and it goes in directions you would never expect. There's traditions, but there's also the constant augmentation of that. Sure, it's weird how the whole 20th century focused on the recording of music and a whole new art form came about. That's not going away, but the idea [of] ludicrous piles of money for a handful of people is gone.
What's been in heavy rotation for you?
I've been listening to whatever I can. Brian Eno: I listened to him in the process. I really like Before and After Science, I think it's a great record. It's cool to know that he knew he was going to start releasing these ambient records, but he'd been working on this pop record for so long that he had to finish it before he moved on. Which might be a little telling of what I have planned ... I really like Holly Herndon, I think her stuff is really incredible. Saw her at Moog fest and it was amazing. She also played with Craig Leon, who I was introduced to in the last couple years and really love his music. I really like Takako Minekawa, especially Cloudy Cloud Calculator. I've gotten really into Joanna Newsom in the last couple of years, largely when I was working on this record. Her way of conveying lyrics is so amazing and the stripped down nature of her very specifically tamboured voice matched with the very specifically tamboured harp. It's really interesting. So, I guess that's what I've been listening to. And Less Than Jake.
Oh, dude, always Less Than Jake.
Well, I played this festival and it was just me and my sound guy, Al. I'd never gotten a driver's license, so he was driving and was like, "I'm pretty tired, man. We gotta stop and get coffee." And we were talking about Less Than Jake earlier and I just bought it on iTunes. It was before I got Spotify, because now I would've just streamed it. So maybe Less Than Jake got $8 from me. And we're both just singing along and pumping our fists. For a while, I couldn't stop listening to Losing Streak and Pezcore and Hello Rockview and all that shit.
How about movies or books or anything. Do you find you listen to music more than anything?
I don't think so. I think that's a new thing and I do owe a lot of that to Spotify. Like, when Missy played in the Superbowl I was like "Oh, where's my Under Construction CD? I don't know ... oh! I have it in the Internet!" Which is great. I've been watching The Master a lot. I really like watching movies the way I listen to a record. It's fun to listen to a record multiple times in short periods, and I watch movies the same way. The Master is just such a crazy movie and I love the score and I just love the storytelling and the arc. And I've been watching Barry Lyndon a lot, as well. I think both of them are really amazing period pieces and character studies about lives that I can not relate to in any capacity, but also paint such a vivid clear picture of what I would think that time period was like. I don't think a lot of people show the true brutality of the past. People think that the present is brutal when the past is equally brutal. If not more so.
Splash image: publicity photo by Frank Hamilton