The Dirty Projector's founder talks in riddles to Sam Walton
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.