Dan Deacon parlayed a prestigious music degree into throwing sweaty dance shows that found him playing on venue floors and recording songs that sampled Woody Woodpecker’s god-awful cackle. The Baltimore electronic magnate has always been a curious, inspired figure, but his ambitions seem to grow with every new fan. His dual roles as composer and performer are melding into a formidable beast—a many-headed one, as his live act has morphed into a 14-piece ensemble. Furthermore, it turns out that his new album, Bromst—in addition to being a fine piece of meticulously crafted art-pop—originated not only as a self-fulfilling prophecy, but a treatise on the influence of a dangerous Illuminati-run mega-corp. The A.V. Club recently found Deacon hung over after a late night of music, articulate, but uninterested in mincing words.
The A.V. Club: Why do you think people assume music that inspires dancing lacks intellect or complexity?
Dan Deacon: Well, to get large groups of people to dance, there needs to be something accessible about the music. The beat can’t be too esoteric, but unless we’re talking about prog or etherealist composition, I think there’s something simplistic about most music. What’s completely insane to me is that people would consider music that’s simple to be dumbed-down. Couldn’t simplicity be a deliberate, smart choice? Those people aren’t really listening; they’re judging a song off of a beat, off of a pulse. I think as this generation of electronic musicians goes on, popular electronic music will be more and more accepted. It’s gonna get less confusing. You know, most people called rap stupid when it started, and it was one of the most innovative music forms of its time.
AVC: Is there something inherently subversive about having a master’s in music and doing what you do?
DD: I think it just depends on what you want to do with music. When I went to school, it was really just to immerse myself in listening to, studying, and making music. I came out like, “How is this going to be more than a hobby I’m always paying off debt for?” I could’ve sat at a desk and written pieces for orchestras that never would have been played, or I could’ve written music for me as a performer. I play electronics, and the places I was gonna be playing were bass clubs and house parties.
AVC: What draws you, as a performer, to the floor of the venue?
DD: One, it’s more fun for me, and two, the show isn’t about looking at someone perform. On my second tour, I played the stage, and it sucked—there was so much less dancing, people standing with their backs to the wall. Playing the floor at least had people walking up saying, “What’s that fucking geek doing?” There’s no drummer or sick guitar player; I play an oscillator with a big dial. There’s not much to do except watch me dance around, and I wanted people to watch themselves dance around, to have a feedback cycle of audience reacting to audience.
AVC: Live electronica too often amounts to watching a dude noodle with a laptop.
DD: If you’ve become a huge act and you’re still doing the same music you wrote with your friends when you were making zero dollars, you’re lazy. There’s one duo in particular—they’ll remain nameless—that tours with a ton of fake gear, and that pisses me off. Maybe I’m just jerking myself off by saying it, but I think what I’m doing is cool. It’s silly for me to keep playing with an iPod when those parts are playable by humans. Technology has accounted for a lot of advancements in art, but it’s also made a lot of people lazier. That laziness directly reflects onto the overall quality of the show, and because the audience is so used to it, they don’t really question it. For every single cartoon that used to be made, there was an orchestra playing in the background, but now… I recently saw a live clip of the Beach Boys where they were just playing the horn part on a keyboard, and it sounded like fucking garbage. There are thousands of people going to school to learn backup instruments. What the hell are they gonna do?
AVC: Hence you’ve been performing with as many as 15 players backing you. When and why did you decide to expand to an ensemble format?
DD: Bromst is a mixture of electronics and acoustics, and I thought it would be stupid to record 12-string guitars, mallets, piano, and horns, and then just do the same old tour. It also has a lot to do with the venues. When I started playing larger rooms, I tried to utilize the space by doing games and activities with the audience. Now that the tour’s bigger and I’m getting to work with guarantees, I can make a budget in advance and say, “Okay, I can afford to pay a drummer. Well, how much could I pay four drummers?” If tickets are going to be $10 instead of $5, I want to give people a show that’s worth $10.
AVC: You’ve long been a solo act. How much of a change is this?
DD: It was easier before, but I really do like seeing other people perform my music. It’s one of the most rewarding things for me, so it’s worth the extra work. That’s why I’m having the new record transcribed onto sheet music, so people can learn the songs and join us onstage. I love the idea of a high-school kid going to a record store, seeing the score, and then going home to learn a part on trombone. I think that’s a good way as a composer to influence the younger generation, and having the album exist in as many media as possible is so beneficial to the music’s lifeline.
AVC: Each of your projects seems designed to meet certain goals. What did you have in mind with Bromst?
DD: I actually began working on Bromst around the same time as Spiderman Of The Rings. In Baltimore, I was playing exclusively out of the shittiest PA systems that ever existed. I couldn’t play music that was dense and loud, but which also had delicate sounds, because they’d be squashed. Spiderman was made for that environment, and Bromst was basically this theoretical album, like if for some reason things ever changed. Spiderman’s reception came as a surprise, and suddenly I was in a different musical world with really good sound. I thought, “Well, now I need to take this to the max.” I started developing Bromst again, writing music that had more delicate sounds, and focusing on acoustics. When I first moved to Baltimore, I didn’t know anyone except for my four roommates, but at this point, people were familiar enough with my music, and I had more friends. It all just sort of fell into place.
AVC: You’ve spoken of your frustration at being labeled “wacky.” Did you intentionally abandon some of the absurdism associated with Spiderman?
DD: No, I just got most of that out on the first record, but those elements are there on tracks like “Woof Woof.” I mean, the beat is made of dog barks and cat samples and quacking. [Self-mocking.] So, come on dude, it’s still pretty goofy and wacky.
AVC: Fine. It’s totally bonkers.
DD: I do hate those labels. As soon as you call something “wacky,” people think, “Man, this guy writes bullshit joke music.” I mean, “Woody Woodpecker” was an absurd song to open a record with, but I just wish that one reviewer could have mentioned the counterpoint at the song’s end. You can have a table full of gourmet food, but the minute you put a box of Entenmann’s doughnuts out, that’s all people are gonna talk about. But I knew what I was getting into when I started pitch-shifting my voice and using weird samples, and I stand behind my choices.
AVC: You’ve said that Bromst has a narrative. What is it?
DD: Well, there are two different things going on. The music itself is very much about cycles, time, and what happens after life, becoming a ghost and stuff like that. I could talk about it for a long time and have it make no sense at all, so I’ll stick with the short version. The lyrical content is about the future. I think there is going to be a large paradigm shift in a few years, and it could either be to a new age of enlightenment and unity and we’ll be raised to a new level of consciousness, or it could be a return to a dark age of kings and mass, open oppression followed by a die-off of human culture.
AVC: So the Mayan calendar theory?
DD: I do subscribe to the 2012 theory, but regardless of the date, it’s hard not to notice that humans are polluting the earth with humans, that soon it’ll be difficult to get water to people and find land to grow food on. The infrastructures that hold up cities are going to be harder to maintain, and the resources that make it possible are going to be harder to find. I’m not even talking about oil; I’m talking about, like, steel. A lot of the tracks focus specifically on the [real] company Monsanto, and the idea that they’re controlling the world’s food supply in an insidious plan to starve everyone for the gains of the New World Order, which should be eradicated. I’d like to articulate all that a bit better, but, well, when I’m drunk I like to talk about this stuff a lot more.