INTERVIEW

Dan Deacon’s experimental party music has always been best experienced live, which is why DK Goldstein spent an evening with him and 500 noise fans in a south London warehouse.

Photography by Owen Richards

Photography by Owen Richards

DAN DEACON’S EXPERIMENTAL PARTY MUSIC HAS ALWAYS BEEN BEST EXPERIENCED LIVE, WHICH IS WHY DK GOLSTEIN SPENT AN EVENING WITH HIM AND 500 NOISE FANS IN A SOUTH LONDON WAREHOUSE

Dan Deacon is a noise musician, comedian, playwright, promoter and all-round party don. He makes chopped up electro beats and is a cult hero in DIY circles, but you’d never know this to look at him. In his dragon-emblazoned T-shirt and oversized blue specs, Deacon is an unassuming character who’s extremely polite and jolly. Listening to his erratic recordings, you wouldn’t put the two together and you certainly wouldn’t imagine the sheer madness that this man can evoke during a live show. But the thing is, to appreciate Deacon’s music, you can’t just sit back and relax, you have to witness the frenzied explosion of noise jar against the manic throng of people who lose all survival instinct as they happily fall on top of one another, while everyone’s sweat mingles with the grime of the floor. So with this in mind, we decided to spend an evening with Deacon, the electronic genius and grassroots beacon on one of his rare visits to the UK, at the old Bussey sporting goods factory in Peckham.

After he’s set up his table and duck taped everything together – only to be laboriously untaped and ripped apart after the show – we head to a gazebo in the courtyard and chat while Deacon works on a light fixture that usually forms part of his set. “It’s four lights that go doog, doog, doog…” he shows us, indicating the way they change from red to blue to yellow and green with his fingers and by making odd noises. “You’ll see, I have three others,” he adds before trailing off and muttering something about needing a longer screwdriver and peering even closer at the exposed wires, while a whiff of burnt plastic emanates from the case. We’d be offended that we weren’t getting his undivided attention if it wasn’t for the fact that he keeps apologising and promising he can listen and work, followed by a series of innocent smiles.

Having studied music at the State University of New York, Purchase, Deacon is something of an old hand at modifying, tweaking and fixing electronics nowadays. He did start out on acoustic-based music, but it wasn’t instant enough for him, and as we’ve already worked out, Deacon is a man who needs to be occupied all the time – waiting around isn’t something he’s prepared to do. “I was writing computer music in my spare time,” he tells us of his early stages at university, “but I started getting more into it than I was into acoustic music. I could just write something and it existed. If I wrote a piece for a cello I had to find a cellist and workshop the piece with them and at my school there weren’t a lot of cello players that were into experimental music, so it was difficult to get the ideas from paper to reality, but with computer music it was instant.”

Once Deacon had found his oscillator in the bin, which creates and bends repetitive electronic signals, he tells us he was drawn to the physicality of changing the pitch. “From there I started getting more stuff to augment or modulate the sound – a pitch shifter, a harmoniser and a delay pedal – and those were my first main things. Then I picked up a vocoder and everything fell into place.”

Taking influence from Devo and Talking Heads – “I feel like they both had really unique approaches to sound and performance” – Deacon became engrossed in the aesthetic of his live shows as well as the music. “I didn’t like the way performances went with computer music, they were boring,” he explains, “and I wasn’t into IDM [intelligent dance music] or techno shows, where someone just sat behind a laptop. I was much more in line with a wild, visceral show.” And what a show.

From the safety of the stage – because Deacon is on the floor surrounded by people – we witness the raucous energy first-hand. All lights are turned off bar Deacon’s fluorescent strobing skull, a bare light bulb clipped to the wires spilling from his table of equipment, which he considers a whole instrument, and the flashing lights he was telling us about earlier that make the room appear as though we’re looking through old-school 3D specs.

Considering the chaos of ‘Of the Mountains’ (during which Deacon gets his friend Severin Most to do an elaborate, choreographed Mexican wave-styled dance with the entire audience), the naming of Lion King characters, the tables and window sills lined with people by the time the hyper-synth echoes of ‘Crystal Cat’ comes around and the search for shoes, caps and jumpers after Deacon closes with the blip-heavy ‘Wham City’ (named after the Baltimore art collective he helped found), this has been a pretty tame show for Deacon. “Once I was playing in Chicago and the whole floor collapsed,” he elaborates later on, once his table of equipment is packed away and his crowd are busy swaying drunkenly to ’80s classics. “Luckily it was only a six inch drop and it was during the last song. The venue wasn’t very pleased, but it wasn’t my fault,” he grins with flushed red cheeks and a sheen of sweat across his face from an hour spent hunched over his workspace, spellbinding his audience.

“And this one time on my first tour we stayed at this crazy noise house – a house where noise people live,” he laughs – a deep, joyous John Goodman kind of laugh – when we ask what a noise house is. “Well, I’d call it a noise house,” he states. “Anyway, this ex-con had just moved in and he was real weird. All that night he just talked about how he wanted to beat us to death and it was frightening. The next morning, when we listened to the recording of that night – because we’d recorded our set – he had been standing next to it talking about how he fucking hated us and wanted to kill us.”

There may not have been any death threats tonight, but Deacon wasn’t 100 per cent happy with the performance. “I got into it by the second half,” he confesses, a little disheartened, “but at the beginning there were some people who were really inebriated at the front. They were falling into the equipment, unplugging cables and screaming in my ear. I know when I play on the floor I’m opening myself up to a lot of risk, but I also expect a lot from my audience, especially the people who fight their way to the front. When people don’t get it or they’re just too fucked up to stand it’s depressing because I don’t write my music to be escapist and I don’t like music that’s strictly Dionysian. I want it to have meaning, a positivity and a safety. I think when someone’s that fucked up the people around them don’t feel safe, I don’t feel safe, and it’s hard for me to get lost in the moment. But by the second half I feel that those people either had to go vomit or passed out,” he says, slightly more sprightly, “because in the second half it was fun.”

It’s been just over a decade since Deacon began pursuing this direction of music and he’s proud to inform us that he’s never had a day job. Well, except when he got addicted to raw milk. “It was the only time I had a job,” he chuckles, “to pay for my milk habit.” He insists it’s good for you, but it’s illegal in his state of Maryland and therefore not so easy to find. “I had to buy it from this weird dairy share and it wasn’t expensive but it was another cost and my budget at that point of my life was no cost. I didn’t buy anything,” he says, astounded. “If a piece of equipment broke and I couldn’t fix it I just couldn’t use it. It was exciting. Like, when I was on tour and the car broke down – it was an eight-week tour and we were four weeks into it – I’d profited $400 but I couldn’t fly home because I didn’t have an ID and the train was too expensive. The bus was $400 to get home, but it was also $400 for a 30-day pass. So I could finish the tour, but it would mean 20-hour days on the bus, but I did it and it was the best choice I ever made in my life. It solidified that I would be doing this for a very long time and it’s a long story, but long-story-short, I haven’t had a day job…other than those two weeks when I had a milk habit.”

For now, Deacon will finish the tour – of which Peckham was the only UK date, but he’ll be back in May at the Barbican’s Reverberations show – and get back to working on the film score he’s writing with Osvaldo Golijov for the new Francis Ford Coppola film Twixt Now and Sunrise. “It’s a gothic romance horror movie, so it’s a very different kind of music to what I’m used to writing,” he reveals. “It’s dominated my year and pushed my album plans back a few months.” So, despite having two LPs worth of music ready for his third album proper, he hasn’t even begun to think about how he’s going to record it, or whether he’ll use any innovative instrumentation like, for instance, the MIDI-programmed player piano that featured on his last record, ‘Bromst’. The piano delivers a saloon-esque sound and mechanically plays itself, which Deacon had it do at an incredible speed and can be heard best half way through ‘Slow With Horns/Run For Your Life’, in which the piano part was split into 24 separate lines and pieced back together.

However, he always makes sure he has time for his arts collective. Deacon tells us that as soon as he gets back from touring he’s performing at a Wham City comedy event. “We did the Wham City comedy tour a few months ago,” he informs us, “and we’re in the process of making a weird TV show. Plus, I wrote a play for the 10-minute play festival and I still help on the record label that doesn’t really exist, but does in some capacity.”

Comedy is an aspect of performance that Deacon loves, but doesn’t do all that often as he tries to put the majority of his focus on music. “I think within a year I’ll have more,” he affirms. “I have one video online called ‘Drinking Out of Cups’ [a short monologue by a crude, know-it-all lizard] that is pretty popular in the viral realm. I think a lot of people get it for the wrong reasons, but I think it’s pretty funny. A lot of people think I was on acid when I made it, so it takes away from the creative element that went into it, because people are like, ‘This is funny because some guy on acid made it’ rather than, ‘This is funny because someone’s brain came up with it’, you know what I mean? But I have another video in the works called ‘Cool Shoes’, which is going to be pretty good, I’m excited about it.”

Something else that’s coming up for Deacon this summer that he’s neither excited nor unexcited about, as he’s professed he’s not a fan of birthdays, is the big three oh, but one thing is for sure, he’s not scared about turning 30. In fact, he laughs off our suggestion that he might be. “I’m pretty happy with how my life’s turned out,” he beams. “A lot of people reach 30 and question what they’ve done or where they’re going and I’ve never been concerned with that. Maybe it’s because I went bald when I was 18.” Here we’re treated to another Goodman chuckle before he continues. “Not as bald as now, but I started going bald when I was 18 and it made me question age and think about it a lot.

“Also, that’s the benefit of starting in composition because most of the composers that you really like get better as they get older. A lot of pop musicians lose their fire after a while because they’re so obsessed with youth culture, but I hate youth culture so it doesn’t matter,” he jokes. “No, I don’t hate youth culture. Again, I don’t really think about age as a construct.” He goes on to tell us that he always wanted to be an actor or a comedian when he was younger and started studying music on a whim. “I was just going because it seemed like that’s what you’re supposed to do with your life; go to college, but I didn’t think I’d be here doing this. I never thought I’d tour Europe,” he admits, still surprised after eleven years in music. “Maybe I’d be a little more worried about turning 30 if I hadn’t made it here yet.”

By DK Goldstein

Originally published in issue 27 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. April 2011

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