In room 511 of the Wythe Hotel, a converted former factory on the waterfront in New York City’s Williamsburg district, one of the most feted young musicians in the world is waiting on a phone call. “Yeah, this is where we do all the press stuff,” sighs David Longstreth, leader of the Dirty Projectors and recent Bjork and David Byrne collaborator, when he answers my Skype call, before checking with his people that yes, I am allowed to be calling and indeed (the implication is “thankfully”) this is only going to last twenty minutes at the max.
Longstreth isn’t a fan of interviews. In 2010, he admitted they bother him because of the “endless repetition”, and for a man of his considerable musical restlessness, it’s understandable that repetition would be something of a buzzkill. After all, Dirty Projectors, whom Longstreth has skippered in various incarnations for the last decade, has in recent years become one of the most intriguing groups in the world, creating music that is so stylistically diffuse as to be almost uncategorisable, and certainly not lacking variation. Equally, Longstreth has revealed himself – albeit in his own oblique manner – to be fiercely intelligent, a thoughtful musician with almost borderless tastes, allergic to anything derivative, constantly questing for original sounds, or at least a combination that hasn’t been tried before. If the tedious rigmarole of promotional interviews irritates even the blandest of pop stars, Longstreth doesn’t stand much of a chance.
Unfortunately, however, when you are responsible for such knotty, dense and absorbing records as 2009’s breakthrough ‘Bitte Orca’ – an album greeted by critics (including the present one) with a hail of adjectival contradictions but almost universal praise – and narrative avant-garde works such as ‘The Getty Address’ (an orchestral concept album about Eagles singer Don Henley, obviously) and ‘Mount Wittenberg Orca’ (a Bjork collaboration sung, duh, from the point of view of a whale family), then next month’s release of the relatively straightforward ‘Swing Lo Magellan’ is likely to prick ears.
Because Dirty Projectors’ seventh album is a break not just from the conceits of the past, but also from much of the musical abrasion too: it contains, variously, Beatlesy piano ballads, funk-tinged earworms and Dylanesque folk-rock ditties that tend to go verse-chorus-verse-chorus; its lyrics, prosaically but prettily, proclaim to “want you by my side” and implore the listener to look for the meaning of life by dancing, something that hasn’t been so strenuously suggested since S Club 7’s ‘Don’t Stop Moving’. While it would be a stretch to call ‘Swing Lo Magellan’ populist – it once again pushes the boundaries of songwriting in challenging and frequently beautiful ways, albeit with subtler manipulations than hitherto – it also ain’t ‘Trout Mask Replica’, which, perhaps fittingly, makes it another record in its author’s cannon that’s hard to pin down.
Indeed, Longstreth too seems unable to explain where exactly ‘Swing Lo Magellan’ sits, both among his own body of work and that of his peers – or if it should sit anywhere – and accordingly his response when called to talk about it is, broadly, to shut down. In our hurried 20 minutes down a crackly trans-Atlantic phoneline, he accuses me of “missing some pretty basic complexities” of the album, and that I must “look harder” for lyrical themes, and most of the enthusiasm for his latest baby is masked in sarcasm, riddles and intentional contradictions. The impression is of a man frustrated by having to constantly explain himself, when to him his musical communication is crystal clear.
Sam Walton: “You named the album after Ferdinand Magellan. Who’s he? What’s his story?”
David Longstreth: “What’s his story? [laughs] Well, you tell me man.”
SW: “Well, on Wikipedia it says he’s a 15th-century Portuguese explorer who circumnavigated the world. What drew you to him?”
DL: “Well, the music really draws heavily on some baroque European traditions, with those lutes and the troubadour sound of the whole thing, a lot of court musicians and interludes with the jesters…”
SW: “Lutes? The jesters?”
DL: “No, sorry, I’m joking, that whole thing’s a joke. [pause] Magellan, well, you know. He’s just a figure that you might invoke – he might cast a vapour over these songs, or a shadow or whatever – in the same way John Wesley Harding cast a shadow over that Dylan record. He was an explorer, but today, what are you exploring in a world that’s totally gridded, totally mapped, and inscribed from front to back?”
SW: “The mood on ‘Swing Lo Magellan’ seems to be toward shorter, prettier and more direct songs than ‘Bitte Orca’ and previous Dirty Projectors records. Do you agree?”
DL: “Not really, no. Maybe it’s just the contrarian streak in me, but I like to look at what I was just doing and then do the opposite. I spent the last few Dirty Projectors records really obsessed with different kinds of surfaces and textures, shimmering fabrics and tapestries of guitars, interlocking female hockets, using band members as avatars for myself – all sorts of cloaks and veils and vapours of that kind – so the riskiest thing I could do was just write using simple tools to say simple things.
“I don’t know if that’s more direct because I don’t know if that’s the way we take in information now; maybe music is better consumed as perfume at this point – a band will dispense a reliable scent that you can chose to wear out with you one day, and people can do with it what they will. It’s got nothing to do with me. All I’m saying is that you’re asking whether these songs are more direct, and shorter and prettier, and that, to me, is ignoring some pretty basic complexities surrounding the whole album.”
SW: “What are those complexities that I’m missing?”
DL: “Well that’s what I was just talking about – you know, the idea of what the function of a song is. What is the function of a song? I think it might be to be worn as a perfume.”
SW: “So are these songs simply the latest scents from Dirty Projectors, to be listened to until they wear off?”
DL: “I don’t know. Whatever. Maybe we ought to move on.”
SW: “Right, okay. What were you hoping to achieve, musically or artistically, with ‘Swing Lo Magellan’?”
DL: “I just follow what interests me. Here, I got obsessed with what a song is, what a song can do, what a song can mean.”
SW: “What would you like a song to do or mean?”
DL: “I’d like a song to be a stone that you can hold in your hand, that has a weight and a definite gravity, and a colour and a shape.”
SW: “How does that desire for substance mix with your suspicion that songs are worn as perfume these days?”
DL: “[pause] There’s no way of knowing.”
SW: “Did the success of ‘Bitte Orca’ affect how you wrote ‘Swing Lo Magellan’? Did you feel a need to make it a notch better than its predecessor, or did that side of things not cross your mind?”
DL: “Well, ‘Swing Lo Magellan’ is a better record than ‘Bitte Orca’. ‘Bitte Orca’ was like a mission statement, but it bit off more than it could chew. ‘Swing Lo Magellan’ is a deeper record in every way – it’s more musically inventive, albeit in a less bombastic and less show-offy way, it’s more elegant musically, and the lyrics are way better than anything on ‘Bitte Orca’.”
SW: “Lyrically, what were you writing about on ‘Swing Lo Magellan’? The lyrics feel quite romantic and intrepid to my ears.”
DL: “Romantic? Right, well you should look closer. You know, it’s a pretty wide-ranging album in terms of the themes that come up. It’s like ‘Revolver’, where every song is a world unto itself, different than the one before it in its thematic style, what it’s about and the way it’s produced. There’s no overarching central theme.”
SW: “Do you think there’s anything that makes ‘Swing Lo Magellan’ feel like a coherent body of work then?”
DL: “[laughs] The themes, probably. Yeah, definitely the themes. Also, the spirit of the recordings, the spirit of the songs themselves. It’s an album that’s about a moment. The recordings are about a moment, and the songs themselves are about our moment, right now. It’s a very different kind of moment in our culture right now.”
SW: “What moment is that?”
DL: “I don’t know really. [pause] Maybe we should move on again.”
SW: “Okay. What about the spirit of the recordings, that you said unites the album? It sounds like quite an ambitious, excitable, almost happy record.”
DL: “A happy record – very good. Yeah, the recording is pretty wabby, you know. It’s pretty wabby-sabby.”
SW: “What does that mean?”
DL: “I just mean that it pushes forwards in this delicate thing, in this purposeful fragility, this wispy little dried leaf of a moment. We were trying to capture that.”
Perhaps the “dried leaf moment” is the moment Longstreth was trying to articulate earlier on, but we’ll never know, as halfway through my next question, he interrupts me. “Man, I’m sorry I’ve got to go do another interview now,” he says, sounding genuinely apologetic. He tells me to take it easy, and hangs up.
It’s an apt way for our conversation to end: amid the dismissive snorts, wild, semi-poetic ramblings and jumbled philosophy all reminiscent of Apocalypse Now’s Colonel Kurtz, Longstreth also knows what he has to do – stop, thanks, bye – and achieves it without self-consciousness. A similar service, one imagines, is maintained within Dirty Projectors too: for all the difficultly and discomfort Longstreth clearly experiences articulating how his music sounds, or saying what he wants it to sound like, his records are testament to an astonishing level of musical articulacy that almost negates the need for him to be another rent-a-quote gob for hire. Indeed, for every Noel or Jarvis, whose interviews became more entertaining than their recorded output years ago, Longstreth represents an intriguing opposite, utterly unbothered about social approval, obsessed with musical minutiae and strangely compelling for all the accompanying intensity and unexpectedness. And ironically, for all the obfuscation, the message is simple: even if ‘Swing Lo Magellan’ contains the straightest answers of any Dirty Projectors album so far, don’t go expecting a similar response from its creator.