Music

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

Photo by Mehan Jayasuriya

The Dirty Projectors' Dave Longstreth discusses Bitte Orca, his recent collaborations with Björk and David Byrne and the art of discharging firearms in Canadian shopping malls.

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

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

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

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