Living with America
In the middle of the floor in an otherwise empty King’s Cross Scala there’s a man up a ladder, adjusting a spotlight from its normal target of the stage. At the bottom of the ladder, Dan Deacon, composition graduate from the New York Conservatory of Music turned electro-prankster-maverick turned composer again, dressed in what can only really be described as sweat pants and a tatty cardigan, is arranging several synthesisers, sequencers and small boxes covered in day-glow electrical tape on a trestle table. There’s a set of cheap, mobile-disco-style traffic lights propped up behind him and, above the table, perched precariously atop a flimsy-looking tent pole, is a plastic skull that sporadically flashes a luminous Halloween green. In a few hours this whole ramshackle set-up will be surrounded by ardent fans – the only things on the Scala’s stage will be two drummers and a huge speaker stack. Behind his neon table, Deacon, still wearing the same jogging bottoms, will be conducting his latest musical communion, giving orders to his audience to kneel down as one, “like Rafiki from the Lion King was the only character in the only movie you’ve ever seen,” or dance off against one another in a huge, coordinated group hokey-cokey. Without fail, they will obey.
If this concept for a show – lights from Maplin, everything seemingly held together with gaffer tape and daisy-chained four-way power adapters, music emanating direct from the mosh pit, bouts of mass audience participation – sounds slightly unusual within modern, sanitised gig culture, not to mention fraught with potential disasters, that’s because it is. What’s stranger still is that once the gig is under way, like a far-fetched action movie that appears nonsensical on paper, something in the room makes everyone suspend disbelief for its duration and join in. The site of Deacon head-banging in unison with his front-row fans now seems an utter inevitability; any ickyness at the thought of being coerced through a round of zany dance moves is unfounded.
In short, the sense of triumph doesn’t just stem from a startlingly original, entertainingly bizarre spectacle, but also from how difficult it is to imagine something this madcap actually coming off. Then again, the same could be said of Deacon himself: here is an oddball of the highest order, wildly un-preoccupied with blending into any background socially, physically or musically, making records that are confrontational, harsh and complex, and doing so with an élan that only really makes sense once it’s witnessed.
However, if the rickety DIY aesthetic in his live performance is something that Deacon has cultivated to near perfection over the last ten years, his recorded output is going in the opposite direction: where once he was content making records called things like ‘Silly Hat Versus Eagle Hat’ that were blasts of 1,000bpm absurdist electronica, his latest album is simply and calmly called ‘America’ – and deliberately confronts all the meanings and evocations that that word conjures. Most impressively it contains a 22-minute ‘USA’ suite, inspired by his first trip outside the States in 2007 and scored subtlety, with considerable craft, for chamber orchestra (although still laced with electronic savageness). The four movements deliver melancholy and delicacy, and the result is like Fuck Buttons filtered through Aaron Copeland and Steve Reich at their most bucolic – a far cry from ‘Goose on the Loose’ and any number of his once-trademark raging bursts of white noise that sounded like armies of toddlers licking batteries.