It’s critical shorthand that everyone (including we) are guilty of falling back on: saying one band “sounds like” another, rather than attempting to get at what makes it unique. And when a band that’s truly idiosyncratic comes along—like Dirty Projectors (playing Antone's tonight), whose Bitte Orca has received acres of critical adulation this year—that old music-reviewer standby becomes especially worthless, as everyone scrambles to find a way to describe something that, speaking honestly, sounds like nothing that came before it. Of course, that hasn’t stopped critics from trying. Here, The A.V. Club collects more than 20 incredibly disparate comparisons that have been employed to describe Bitte Orca’s scratchy, funky art-rock fusion and presents them to leader David Longstreth—who claims he never reads his own reviews—to see if he could make sense of them.
“In him we find a bandleader who fuses the anxious border-crossing intelligence of David Byrne, Frank Zappa's eye toward progressive arrangement and innovative guitar heroics, and Prince's ability to make music you might want to fuck to.” (Stereogum)
David Longstreth: [Laughs.] I’m interested in the idea of “border-crossing intelligence.” Is that even an adjective? It’s confusing. But yeah, David Byrne is a big inspiration. I’ve admired his stuff for 10 years or more. He’s amazing. Frank Zappa I fucking hate. I think that shit is so fucking nerdy. It’s technical in this way that’s really not musical. It’s not expressive. Yeah, I fucking hate that shit. In particular, I fucking hate Frank Zappa. And the last one is Prince? Well, Prince is awesome. I also like the idea that Dirty Projectors is music you might want to fuck to.
The A.V. Club: Has anyone ever told you that they fuck to your music?
DL: No! That’s alarming.
DL: Well, The Books I’ve never really heard. Sorry. Battles I love. We’ve opened for them in Europe back in 2007. I love their music and the kind of orchestrations they come up with—and of course, them as dudes. They’re fucking great people. And I love Tyondai [Braxton]’s new record, Central Market. Of Montreal, I really don’t know it that well, but I really like that Kevin Barnes has this endlessly expanding universe, and he can put almost anything into it, and it always ends up sounding exactly like him.
AVC: Do you see a parallel there to your own music?
DL: Well, yeah, that makes sense to me. His songwriting can be interesting in how changeable it is. He really puts things together that you don’t expect. But the song structures are way weirder than anything in Dirty Projectors, and I don’t think the songwriting is terribly alike.
“King Sunny Ade-meets-Jimmy Page guitar acrobatics” (Pitchfork)
DL: That’s flattering, but a little hyperbolic. King Sunny Ade is the West African guitar virtuoso. [Sarcastically.] And Page, well, you know, he’s just a lesser-known blues guitarist. But yeah, I think we all fucking love both of those cats.
AVC: Do you think the African influence on Dirty Projectors is overstated?
DL: Yeah, probably. One of the things I really like about West African guitar playing is the way it makes harmony linear. They’re really spelling things out and turning chords into melodies instead of just letting them be these hanging blocks of color. They become these jumpy, moving figures. I really love that, and I listen for that. But I don’t know, man. I feel like there’s a lot of shit that goes into our music. There’s some sort of ’80s, African zeitgeist going on right now, and it’s just an easy handle to get at the band.
DL: Antony has an incredible voice, and Green Gartside is awesome, so that’s cool. But you know, I always want to have some kinda balls and damage in my singing, and that comparison doesn’t work with that. So maybe that guy doesn’t hear that.
AVC: He’s also British, if that makes a difference.
DL: [Laughs.] I figured, what with the “cut-and-shut.”
“What if Glenn Tilbrook started singing like Freddy Mercury?” (Dusted)
DL: Who’s Glenn Tilbrook?
AVC: The guy from Squeeze.
DL: From Squeeze? Really? Is this guy British too? Well, whatever. I don’t give a fuck.
DL: That’s a little lazy. Beach Boys is just kinda your go-to vocal harmony band—especially given the fact that there are so many bands right now with guys in them who do legitimately sing like the Beach Boys. I feel like Amber and Angel’s tones are very, very different. They’re much less about that “warm, round” thing than a very linear, angular thing. That’s a little lazy, dude.
“’Two Doves’… bears a certain melodic resemblance to A-Ha's MTV-driven hit ‘Take On Me’” (allmusic)
DL: “Two Doves”?! [Laughs.] I love it! I’m so glad someone thinks that! I won’t say no to that. "Take On Me," that’s a fucking good song.
“‘Fluorescent Half Dome’ starts off sounding like one of Phil Collins’ classier moments” (Drowned In Sound)
DL: Ummm…. [Laughs.] Yeah.
AVC: I’m not sure what constitutes a “classy” moment for Phil Collins.
DL: Well, yeah. I don’t think that person knows either. It’s probably something from the second half of Face Value or something, one of those weird marimba jams. Or his cover of “Come Together.” But I guess I can see it in the synth tone. That Juno on that song is definitely from that era of technology.
DL: Well yeah, that’s really flattering. Fuck, we love Beyoncé’s “out there” tracks. But the only Kelis I know is “Milkshake.” Still, that’s an incredible song.
AVC: There’s a common assumption, especially with that song, that you’re trying to fuse R&B with indie rock.
DL: I don’t know if we’re really trying to fuse the two—and I’m actually not in an R&B phase right now. But Beyoncé is both my favorite and Amber’s favorite, so it’s definitely in there.
DL: Steely Dan is a band I’m not that into. Well, I guess I like certain singles. I was shocked to read somewhere recently that Jimmy Page, when they asked him what his favorite guitar solo of all time was, that he said it was Steely Dan’s on “Reelin’ In The Years.” That blew me away. Steely’s got some really sweet drum sounds and acoustic sounds and fuzz solos, but I’m not a huge fan of the songwriting—and the tone. This jaded, bitter coolness it has… That’s not a band that connects with me on a heart level.
AVC: From what I hear, it makes more sense when you get older.
DL: [Laughs.] Yeah, I believe that. We’ll see.
“Bitte Orca feels nothing less than a modern equivalent to Talking Heads’ Fear Of Music” (Uncut)
DL: That’s not my favorite Heads album. Probably Remain In Light is the one I’ve listened to the most. Fear Of Music, is that the one that opens with “I Zimbra”? Whether Bitte Orca is more like that one, I don’t know. That’s a compelling thing. Is he just saying it sounds like Talking Heads, or does he mean it in a deeper way—like in terms of the way the songs are put together and the actual arrangements, it really reminds him of Fear Of Music? It would be dumb of me to pick hairs and disagree with these things. So, yep. I like the Talking Heads. [Laughs.]
DL: That one’s gotta be British. It’s so hyperbolic.
AVC: Actually, we wrote that one.
DL: [Laughs.] Oh, you did? Oh, man. Well, no, that’s so flattering. Except for the Yes part. I’m not a huge Yes guy. But if the music were firing on all fronts and at every percentile, then hopefully it would sound like Mariah and Steve Reich, because that’s the best music ever.
AVC: You don’t have to pretend. You can tell us we’re idiots.
DL: No way! You’re not an idiot. Why would I call you an idiot when you’re saying the nicest thing ever? But you know, maybe it’s a silly thing to wish for as opposed to just work for, but hopefully the music doesn’t just end up being the sum of all these discrete parts of what came before, like we’ve been talking about. Hopefully it does something that none of these things do. I think that’s a good goal. Maybe we’ll get there somewhere down the line.