2016 is the first year that Convergence is appointing an artist-in-residence. Dan Deacon will be the person shaking the arty techy post, and he is the perfect man for the job. Deacon has driven contemporary electronic music, fuel injected with sweet pop, at full pelt for over a decade. This longer pitstop has come just at the right moment.
“This year I was like ‘I really only want to do a handful of shows’ – I was looking for places where I could do a residency. Then literally the next week we got this offer and I was like ‘ooh this is a good idea! I should keep doing this!’. So the timing was pretty perfect and that’s what feels really great… I never normally get to spend much time in London, so it will be nice to indulge in the city and the festival itself and to try and utilise my time there as much as possible.”
If you’ve ever seen a Dan Deacon live, this complete commitment to a new wild concept won’t come as that big a surprise. On stage, Deacon throws himself into his performance, an act which he compares to a kind of theatre rather than a straight gig. Interaction is a necessary part of a “structured happening”.
“A clearing in a crowd is such a beautiful thing,” raves Deacon “You see like, a giant crowd of people and all of sudden there’s a huge space and one or two people standing in the centre. I also like the risk of failure. I like knowing that it might not work but it could easily blow up in our faces, and that’s what makes it worth doing night after night. Even though I know how it should go, I have no idea how it could go at the same time. I like how that factors into the performance as a whole. The moment you give choice to someone that’s being entertained, it’s going to change the way they think about it. Even if they choose to not participate, that’s a choice.”
With Deacon it’s not just purely for entertainment purposes that he’s down with this crowd. He thinks philosophically it’s better to be part of the collective instead of an “us and them” relationship.
“For religion or sports it’s ‘we’. ‘We won the game’ ‘we believe this’, ‘we need a new coach’. Shit like that. No-one says like, ‘Oh I went to go see Animal Collective, we have a new drummer’, or ‘I saw Tom Petty, we should have played more songs off Full Moon Fever.’ But performers on stage think of audiences as a group – it’s like ‘Hello Cleveland, how are you all doing tonight?’ and it’s like ‘Yeah… we’ve collectively decidedly we are doing well!’ When you think about audiences in regard to how they are viewed from the stage versus how they are viewed from within, you can start thinking about the psychology of the audience a lot differently. I like trying to create situations where audiences go from ‘I’ to ‘We’ to ‘They’ to ‘Us’. So you need to make the audience the performer. And they can choose to be the performers or not. But there’s no unthinking that choice.”
Deacon’s participatory performances were worked out over time. During his early basement shows he would ramble on the mic between songs telling surreal stories to entertain his audiences. When he first dived into the crowd it was during a power cut.
“It was like the first show I did in New York that ever went well. People were dancing, it was packed. And by packed I mean like, 80 people in a room that should have held 40 but it was a big moment for me at that time in my life. And the power went out and I knew if this show stopped, people would have gone upstairs, they would have smoked cigarettes and I never would have got that room as full again. My set would have been done… there was no stage – and I could see the breaker box, people trying to move all the gear to get to it, so I just jumped into the middle of the room and said ‘ MAKE A CIRCLE, MAKE A CIRCLE, WE’RE GONNA HAVE A DANCE CONTEST!’ and I picked one or two people and started rambling off absurd rules, of how it was gonna work. Then eventually the power came back on, and as soon as the music started up again – the whole room was different. Now everyone wasn’t just facing the same direction. Everyone was looking towards the centre, at each other, not at me. And that was the whole point of it – they were the show, the audience had become the show. And that’s the big difference between rock music and DJ culture. Rock music is basically [traditional] theatre, you’re watching people perform on a stage – whereas dance music is you’re watching other people dance. You’re supposed to be socialising and interacting. My whole music is really more rock music culture but I fucking can’t stand that relationship.”
200 SHOWS AND 1000 DOGS
Recently, Deacon’s touring schedule has hit around 200 shows a year. Whilst the video for Guildford Avenue Bridge makes the whole thing seem wonderful in sped up by stop-frame photography, I wonder whether making this amount of repetition spoils the uniqueness of them.
“Well I was touring so much that I was really neglecting my studio practice. In both regards – my recorded work and trying to develop a new show – it’s something where you can’t be close to both of them at the same time. I couldn’t devote time to being in my studio if I’m always on the road and vice versa. I really just wanted to take as much time as needed to try to really dive in. Go through the notebooks where I’ve written something down in an airport like ‘What if like, we like, released a thousand dogs?!’ It seems like ideas like that are actually possible… the dogs one, not possible… worked out that one pretty quick.”
A STATE OF GLISS BLISS
Deacon’s previous album, America combined his studio electronics with live recorded full orchestral scores. It was an ambitious and exhausting project as the music tried in some form to capture the energy, ambition, industry and sweeping geography of the country as at scrolled by in the tour bus window. His new album Gliss Riffer (out a few weeks ago on Domino), in many ways is a return to the innocence of earlier forms combined with the experience of his previous ambitious concept album. If there is an underlying theme to Gliss Riffer it’s wanting to enjoy making music again. Don’t think that he’s taken his foot of the gas though, Learning To Relax, for example is not the kind of meditation tune that Relinquistix would release.
“A lot of people feel think relaxing is sitting on the beach or meditating. But you have fun when you relax, you relax with friends. You can only really be yourself when you’re relaxed. You can’t be losing your mind at a club and be relaxed. You have to be comfortable with those things. You can’t be inhibited, you can’t be anywhere but the moment. And the only way to be truly in a moment is to be relaxed. I had forgotten that. I was using anxiety as a motivator, something I was addicted to. And it was consuming me and ruining the things I loved most in my life. And I started remembering that relaxing doesn’t have to mean emptying every thought in my head – but seizing the moments that seem to be worth savouring.”
Gliss Riffer isn’t completely one speed and tone. Meme Generator contains a shattered vocal and a driving beat but it is balanced by mellow vocal wood-instrument-sounding synth lines and the album closer Steely Blues similarly breathes bliss. The album is a definition which Deacon found to sum up his dualistic approach to making music.
INSPIRATION AND INNOVATION
“Gliss” is short for glissando: the glide from one note to the the next and a reference to Deacon’s own musical education.
“I studied composition at the Conservatory of Musical Approaches College – a small weirdo state school in New York. I became very interested in the root of minimalism. I liked the honesty of minimalism, it was upfront about its process and wasn’t trying to push anyone away. I was really against the esotericism of the avant garde and I liked the openness of experimental music. Finding minimalism then getting into computer music – the absurdity really fuelled my malleable brain in my early 20s.”
“Riffer” is a reference to Deacon’s rock roots – the endless appeal and simplicity of a classic guitar riff. What’s interesting about this is rock and pop as at the forefront of his approach but art is its beating heart. The music that appeals to Dan Deacon enlightens and engages rather than being passive and passé.
“I think most people who have a drive to create, from a young age are doing it for two reasons. One, I think you’re trying to solve a puzzle – that’s the building block approach. The other is trying to make something that you’ve never heard or seen before, and trying to take the puzzle and augment it – to make something new out of it. The music that interests me the most is when I’m hearing sounds I’ve never heard before, or approaches to making music I’ve never heard before. And the most magical thing has been in front of my face my whole life and I’ve never noticed it until someone pointed at it. That’s the best – for lack of a better term – experimental music there is. It is rooted in the familiar but is so bizarre that you wouldn’t have seen it unless someone made it appear.”
As part of his artist-in-residence duties he’ll be in conversation with Mary Anne Hobbs (someone whose radio presenting career has also straddled rock and electronic music) on Thursday at 2pm. He will also be leading a masterclass with Guildhall Young Arts Academy. His advice to musical students will probably touch on his musical method.
“I go into these things riffing – pretty free form. I’ll probably talk a lot about how it’s important to never be comfortable. Comfort is the death of art and innovation. You kind of always want to feel like you could be dead by your own work or your audience or the world itself. I’ll probably talk about how I got to where I am. Of course I never expected it, you need to be ready for the road to open up or vanish at any point. ”
FLIPPING THE TRACKS
Before Gliss Riffer was released the individual stems were put out on his Soundcloud account in one way this was to pass on how the songs were constructed in another way he was passing on tracks so that the would mutate and grow with the help of his audience.
“That’s how I listen to the music. When I’m making it I listen to every part, I like listening to other people’s stems so much of music is made of samples pulled from other music… It just seemed like at this time, music should exist in as many different forms and possible, and I really liked hearing everyone’s different remixes. You learn so much from hearing how other people approach your sound, or how approach music at all.”
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Article first published on the Convergence website.