Photo: Frank Hamilton (Domino Records)

Maximalism, Not Nihilism: Electronic Composer Dan Deacon on the Necessity of Creating

Dan Deacon talks with PopMatters about the 10th anniversary of Spiderman of the Rings, Ultimate Reality, and his original soundtrack for Rat Film.
Dan Deacon
Rat Film (Original Soundtrack)
Domino Soundtracks

“I think about MySpace a lot” is an uncommon expression in 2017. Yet when I ask Dan Deacon to identify the conditions that led to his breakthrough success with 2007 album Spiderman of the Rings, he says that once-popular social networking site is the first thing that comes to mind. Today, as the Internet of Things progresses in transforming daily life into an unending Syncopatico session, it’s worthwhile to think back to the years before our present understanding of connectivity developed. To this day, I retain a circa-2007 Internet memory of Deacon detailing his gear for the Associated Press, but finding that interactive feature requires going back in time.

Spiderman of the Rings, newly reissued by Carpark Records in a 10th anniversary edition, marked a moment in Deacon’s career defined by his ability to use social networking to connect with listeners, venues and fellow musicians. Describing “how different the Internet was” in 2007, Deacon says, “MySpace was really good for musicians in a really weird way. You couldn’t really have that many photos and you couldn’t have many pieces of music at all, in the beginning, and the way they compressed them was insane. They sounded like crap. But you could — the Internet wasn’t as closed, you know what I mean? It was a very, just a different way of thinking about a social network.”

Deacon recalls touring as a one-man act, booking “whole national tours through just e-mailing people on MySpace” and says that “it was easy to book tours through MySpace and just go through MySpace and know where bands were located and venues could be. You could just go through people’s — you know, people have a ‘top eight’ — it would be like ‘these are my top eight favorite things.’ And that just doesn’t exist anymore on the Internet. I don’t know. That’s probably the worst example I can think of but the first one that comes to my head is how, for DIY bands, it was easy to discover this whole network of other musicians all over the country that you might not have ever known existed and then you could see who were, not mutual friends, but you could see in their top eight, like ‘Oh, I know this person and they know that person, maybe I can see if they can book a show.’ Stuff like that was really important back then.”

Another important aspect of Deacon’s career is his local music and arts community in Baltimore, which he says affected the content of Spiderman of the Rings and created a groundswell of recognition. He says, “I mean I wanted to tour because I really enjoyed playing, and it was fun playing in college and in New York, but when I moved to Baltimore it really changed. I don’t know; there’s no science to understanding why Baltimore is such a different and unique city for music and the arts in general. But the crowds at the shows I had here were very, very wild and intense. It really informed the frenetic pacing of the record.”

I mention an especially lively November 2007 show at Baltimore’s Lo-fi Social Club, a venue Deacon points out “ended up being my studio years later.” I ask how conscious he was of the potential for the frenzied energy of the crowd to turn into a more threatening kind of chaos. “Pretty conscious,” he responds. “But people were going to shows to have fun. I mean, even people go to hardcore shows to have fun but they’re still, like, thrashing around. This was a very different sort of movement.

“While it was very chaotic and people were dancing really hard, they weren’t really dancing like you would in a club, you know what I mean? And it was very intense, and people [were] pushing forward to see when I was playing on the floor, but it always had this vibe of positivity. I think one of the main reasons crowd participation evolved at the rate at which it did was to put these breaks in, and disperse the crowd, and create a circle in the center of the room and just shift the focus.”

Nearly any mention of Deacon’s performances from the years surrounding Spiderman of the Rings involves the crowd participation that was a key feature of his act at venues of all sizes. On the floor, or from a stage, he often appeared to be directing the physical activity of a very willing audience. To the contrary, however, he says, “It was probably them directing it more than me,” describing his role as “definitely always trying to gauge the audience. That was my main goal, was to understand the audience as best as possible and try to keep it on that brink of chaos the entire time.”

When “that brink of chaos” joined with Spiderman of the Rings centerpiece “Wham City” in live shows, the effect resembled the Yoshiwara club / dancing-as-the-world-goes-to-hell climax from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). “Wham City”, so jubilant sounding yet deeply nihilistic, is a complex song in which a chorus of voices fantasizes about an animal dream-world before Deacon declares, “I hope in my heart that we on a whole / Will die and the earth be left alone …. We’ve had our chance let’s move aside / Let time wash us out with the tide.” How strange it was to be part of an ecstatic crowd moving to an expression of yearning for a post-human future.

I ask if that apparent contradiction between sound and subject matter is still part of his philosophy. “I think so,” he says. “I think most of my records are about trying to understand death and my role in society and society’s role on the planet and trying to realize that. Like on my last record, the track ‘When I was Done Dying’ is all about, in my mind, an idea about the process of being what you are before you’re born. Like, do you exist before you are born? And when I grew, up my siblings and I used to refer to before we were born as when we were dead. I don’t know. I like thinking about that a lot.”

Despite this emphasis on death, Deacon says he no longer endorses the kind of outlook featured in “Wham City”. “I’m not as nihilistic as I used to be ten years ago. I legitimately thought the world was going to end in 2012 with some sort of crazy pole shift and the Mayan calendar. And maybe it did. Maybe it’s just more sinusoidal than I thought it was going to be and less than a gigantic, all of a sudden human rate cataclysmic event.

“I think the main thing that got me out of that was thinking of how many things that I take for granted that are human concepts, like the concept of justice. We’ve never really seen a fully-fledged concept of justice and a concept of, I don’t know, just basic human rights. These things are ideas that someone had to think of and then convince other people that they were good ideas. We’ve never even gotten a chance to see them fully thought out.”

He continues, “The idea of society crumbling before we can get to possibly its greatest state would be a massive tragedy. Also losing the existence of math and music, all of that work for nothing seems to be so, when you think about it, so endlessly depressing.

“Obviously, it will happen. There will be a time when human beings don’t exist. I hope we’re not taken over by artificial intelligence or some sort of sentient nano-bots. I’d much rather go back to bacteria and plants. But I don’t want those things like I used to. I used to relish in them. It’s so much easier to think of your problems going away because of an apocalypse rather than because of time and work and energy.”

The success Deacon enjoyed as a result of Spiderman of the Rings could be seen as some measure of comfort earned by years of DIY effort involving time and work and energy. But he says he didn’t recognize any shift toward security at the time or enter into any ambivalence about the fruits of his work. “No, I lived pretty foolishly for years to follow,” he says. “Luckily, responsibility didn’t sweep in until years later. I can’t remember the moment, but I remember — because I stopped doing the second half to ‘Wham City’, which really displays that [nihilistic] ideology quite a bit — a few years after Bromst (2009), because I was still playing it, and I still do play that song. But I just wasn’t connecting to the lyrics anymore. I didn’t like the nihilism.

“I think to focus on the double-edged sword of success — one element of it was people were coming to the shows very, very fucked up. And I just couldn’t get down. It was very hard to perform. And I think it’s a big reason why I changed my music so heavily and didn’t embrace the EDM movement at all. I just couldn’t perform to those audiences. I would try to do audience participation — and this is when I was still playing on the floor. I would try to perform and people would be touching me and the equipment or getting pulled out on stretchers.

“It was impossible to do the audience participation. People were very, very, not drunk but just fucked up. I don’t even know how to describe it. I realized that I didn’t want my music to just be purely escapist. I wanted it to be something more. It couldn’t just be like a bowl of candy at a party.”

I point out that EDM now mostly seems to embrace the purely escapist aims of electronic music. Deacon, looking back at what EDM was years ago, says, “At the time I was ignorant to the music, and I don’t want to typecast an entire genre of music, but whenever I would play shows that were in that style, years ago, it was very difficult for me to walk away from the performance feeling like it was a good thing.”

As part of the Spiderman of the Rings reissue, Carpark has made available for the first time an official audio release of Ultimate Reality, which was an experimental musical video collaboration between Deacon and Jimmy Joe Roche. Deacon explains how his Ultimate Reality contribution grew from live performance concerns: “I was writing it around the same time as Spiderman of the Rings but I knew I couldn’t tour it because I was only touring music I could play live, solo. I wasn’t playing venues that had good PA systems. I knew to be loud enough over the drums it would need to be quite good. So that was sort of written for a specific performance, which was Whartscape, which was this festival that friends and I booked for about five years, and this would have been the first one.

“It grew from that. After the success of the Spiderman of the Rings tour, we were like, ‘let’s book another tour, and maybe we can do Ultimate Reality as the opener.’ And it sort of just came about that way. That was written as me trying to return to writing music for other people, which is what I went to college for.”

Throughout his career, Deacon has alternated between collaborative and solo projects, with his last LP, Gliss Riffer (2015) distinguished by his role as the sole producer. He characterizes that album as “me trying to focus on learning a lot of studio techniques. So that’s why I produced it. There’s still some collaborative element, like Andrew Bernstein is present on sax for the last track. I guess the record did come out a while ago, now that I think about it. But no, I still love collaborating with people and working solo. They both have their strengths and weaknesses. Jimmy and I just had another collaboration this year called ‘Bug Powder,’ a very different project than Ultimate Reality but still really fun to work with old collaborators.”

This discussion of collaboration brings us to the project Deacon is currently promoting, which is his original soundtrack for Rat Film, a documentary by Theo Anthony. The Rat Film soundtrack is the inaugural release for the Domino Soundtracks label. Deacon describes his approach to film scoring as being freer than other contexts for composition. “Scoring is very fun for me,” he says, “because I feel like I really limit the music I play live. And maybe I shouldn’t and maybe I’ll change that but right now I’m pretty stubborn about it. So I tend to only write music that I think I can play live or that I know will be played live by a different ensemble.

“But with both those bodies of music, I still want to embody what I think of as my aesthetic. When I’m scoring for a film, that goes away for me, that limitation of placing it within a particular context or universe is gone, and I can just write whatever I want. The film informs the mood and the vibe and the overall new context.

“It lets me experiment at a rate that I probably wouldn’t with my own music, and that’s probably a weakness in my compositional practice. But I think it’s why I love scoring a film, especially around when I’m working on other solo music, because everything I do is going to inform the future. So with Rat Film, specifically, that was very different from other scoring projects that I’ve done because Theo was very open to — it was a very, very experimental process.

“I was ignorant of essay films and experimental essay films. It’s not a documentary, but it has many documentary elements. It removes journalism from documentary film and that is something that I was ignorant of, so I learned a lot about cinema in the process and watched a lot of really amazing, groundbreaking films of the past that informed Theo’s process.”

Going into detail about his own process, Deacon says, “I just started diving into textures and sounds that I thought would be appropriate. Then we would get together in my studio and I’ve got a couple of different screens so he could throw up the edit while I’m writing and then he would tweak the edit and I would tweak the writing and we’d throw it in a different spot. Nothing was too important to keep. Everything was always something that was worthy of being auditioned but also 100 percent ready to be thrown away.

“That lack of anything being too good — like there are pieces of music that I really enjoy that didn’t make the score because they didn’t fit the film. That would be different on a record, like they would have just been on there. So it was really liberating to work in that process.”

Rat Film is being promoted as “a portrait of Baltimore as a laboratory for both rodent and human populations alike,” and Deacon says the premise of the film provided “a lot of conceptual framework … we used rat brain impulses from a rat with a sensor on its hippocampus. So the triggering of these rapid-fire pulses coming out of it became the rhythmic content that I would apply to a player piano.

“We also staged a performance with rats in a triangular cage that had Theremins on each side of the enclosure. The rats would run around this clear enclosure and as they moved it would change the pitch content. I would use that to score certain sections, trying to use rats to create as much of the sound as possible, and then also converting that frequency data to MIDI and then using that data to apply it to many other instruments… I don’t think I would have been building enclosures with Theremins and having animals create content or write lyrics for me. So this film helped me think in a broader sense of what I wanted to do musically.”

Long sections of the soundtrack album are exceptionally tranquil when compared with much of Deacon’s discography. He agrees with this impression, saying, “It’s a very different tone, across the board, and I didn’t realize it at the time. Now that it’s getting close to coming out I see how it fits parallel to some of my previous body of work, but it’s definitely a different tone.”

When I ask him if there’s any aspect of his process that has remained the same in the decade since Spiderman of the Rings, he repeats a phrase he’s used many times throughout the years: “I’m very logistically impractical.” He elaborates, “I still struggle with knowing when to rein an idea in. I went from the success of Spiderman of the Rings to putting out Bromst and being known as a solo performer to touring with 15 people. That was insanely challenging and in hindsight a bad idea. It was super fun. I’m still glad I did it. But it was a bad idea.

“Last night I did a performance, a side project for an experimental set that I do and I had to reinstall all my software like 40 minutes before the set because I had destroyed my computer trying to get it to work and then completely pushing it to the max. I wish I had more of a graceful sensibility but I don’t think I would be me if I did. Like when I go out to lunch I like to invite, I don’t know, ten people, and have it be a big thing.

“It’s hard for me to know when to — when it’s the right mode. Does that make any sense? I’m very much a maximalist in most approaches. I think that’s why I like to collaborate because a lot of people are like, ‘Whoa, whoa, why does it need ten trombones, how about uh, one trombone, that sounds good right?’ I tend to be a ten trombones kind of guy.”