Dan Deacon discusses improvisation, being part of the American system and supporting Prop 37

Photos by Mike Frash // Written by Molly Kish //

Showbams had the pleasure of speaking with Baltimore-based composer and electronic musician Dan Deacon while he was in San Francisco for his show at the Great American Music Hall.


Showbams: So, Dan, you started playing music in high school and finished your grad studies at Purchase University in New York, focusing on Electro Acoustic Computer Music Composition (that’s a mouthful), haha. There you studied under Joel Thome and Dary John Mizelle, both of which are very innovative conductors and composers in their own right. Do you feel that they helped influence your direction and where you are today?

Deacon: I think Joel was definitely a huge influence, Mizelle was as well but he was more of like “the bad cop,” and Joel was “the good cop.” I respond much better to “the good cop.”

Showbams: You put out a lot of work between 2003-2007, when you released two albums and a set of records made up of sine wave compositions, both of which were pretty lengthy pieces. Green Cobra is Awesome vs. The Sun was composed of slowly drifting waves and Goose on the Loose was made with a wave tech generator being processed through Digitech whammy and Line 6DL4. Doing this you really focused on the scientific aspects of musical composition for both, something very innovative at that time. Did you ever feel afraid that the music you were making would be hard to translate to the general public, or was it something you weren’t concerned with?

Deacon: I never thought the music would be heard by the general public, so it was never really a concern.

Showbams: Releasing Ultimate Reality in 2007 kind of brought you back into more of a composer role, in that you were producing music for others to perform. In this piece particularly, the music was set to images in a video produced by Jimmy Roche. Was this your first time collaborating w/him on such a project?

Deacon: No, Jimmy and I went to college and lived together for quite a while. We had been in the same collective after college, called “Wham City.” We collaborated on a lot of different projects, but that was certainly the first large post college professional project.

Showbams: Was it your first time tampering in the whole video spectrum, on that large of a scale?

Deacon: I didn’t touch any of the video work, that was all Jimmy. But, yeah it was definitely the largest scoring project I had done at that time.

Showbams: Looking at the current state of how you conduct your own show and also in reference to a lot of independent artists’ live performances, did you realize at that time how much of an impact that kind of work was going to make in the long run?

Deacon: Nope (laughs). I don’t know, I’ve never really thought about it like that. I think I’m really happy that I came up when I did, because it was sort of back when the internet was still like the wild West but very populated. It was sort of a very exciting time for independent music. Before independent media started falling in love with the idea of becoming main stream media, I feel like it was easier to take risks. I think if you look back at experimental or independent or underground music for the past like 20 years, you start seeing it get more and more homogenized. Even if you just look back 5 years ago, it was a very different game and a very different scene, I’m just really happy I got my foot in the door when I did.

Showbams: Your albums throughout the years have really contained numerous types of instrumentation, vocals, percussion and ensembles, both recorded and live. What goes into the process of choosing how you structure a complete song or album. When do you know when you are finished?

Deacon: With an album, it’s different than a piece. With a piece, I can tell it runs it’s course, I can just sort of start feeling like, “Well, there’s no where left to go with this piece.” It’s sort of like food. When you’re just making food and making it from scratch, you start to realize that if I keep adding ingredients to this, that it’s going to take away from the flavor rather than add to it. I think a song is the same way, in that if you just continue to pile on layers eventually it’s just going to dilute it to the point where the power is lost or whatever you’re trying to convey is so muddled. It can go with length or density … anything.

But an album, I can work on an album forever. Which is why I work with my producer Chester, who is performing tonight as well. Because he really helps me with the option paralysis, you know just being like ‘well you like these three, pick one of them and let’s move on.’ Do you know what I mean? So, it’s very beneficial for me. With Spiderman, I knew I had a record, with Bromst, I … I don’t know, every time I make a record I’m more and more self-aware of it because I’m always just building these collections of songs. I’d really like to go and make a record with the intention of just writing it all there and doing it. I never have done that before, and I think it would be fun!

Showbams: This past year, news broke that you were on board to score the Francis Ford Coppola film Twixt. Were you a fan of his when you were asked to come on board? Did the request take you by surprise?

Deacon: Yeah, definitely. I mean, c’mon. Yeah, it still continues to surprise me.

Showbams: I know during the process you bunked up with Val Kilmer on Coppola’s ranch up in Napa as well as doing a Comic Con panel with both of them. How was that experience for you?

Deacon: It was surreal. They’re both really down to earth for being of the status and caliber of artists that they are. Kilmer especially is just sort of like … I feel like we went to high school together even though he’s of a different generation. He’s just a really comfortable dude.

Showbams: Noticing titles of aforementioned work, lyrics and kind of a theme throughout, are you a big comic buff yourself?

Deacon: I used to be pretty obsessed with comic books in junior high and high school, but when I started getting into music, I sort of drifted away from comics and video games.

Showbams: That fall you embarked upon the Wham City Comedy Tour, where you partook in not only art and video, but also theater and standup. They are all performance-oriented, but away from the whole music realm. Are these secret talents or hidden passions you had or just something you fell in course with?

Deacon: I’ve always loved to perform, a lot of my music set is very performance-based. I like to think that music is theater, which is like the most pretentious thing anyone can say. Yeah, you know I just love to do it, and I knew I would be touring a lot on this album cycle for America. It would be a while before I got to do it again, so it was great to do those two comedy tours, and I hope to keep doing them.

Showbams: What were the most difficult aspects for you of said tour? Was it anything in particular or just being out of your comfort zone?

Deacon: I guess it was the comfort zone, it was getting used to doing something different. I improvised during most of them and really just getting used to improvising at that rate. Whereas I would do it like once every two months, doing it every night you start to slip into a routine and I feel like the routine was a hindrance. It would always work better when it was off the cuff. So, that was the challenge. It was to not go with what I thought would work, but to go with just what came naturally.

Showbams: Your newest album America, which just dropped on Domino Records, you’ve said is inspired by the country’s landscapes, your love for cross-country travel and your conflicted feelings about the world you’re a part of. During the production of which, you also were present at the Occupy Wall Street movement with Tom Morello, Das Racist and Immortal Technique amongst others. Given the current state of things in the U.S., what topics do you feel you most effectively cover in your album?

Deacon: Well, I try to not be overt about anything lyrically. To me, it’s more of a record about me raising questions to myself about what my role is in a system that I formerly used to see myself as separate of. I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that I am an American, I’m a part of the American system, I’m a consumer and I have this lifestyle. If I have this lifestyle, how can I do so without feeling conflicted and how can I reduce the amount exploitation and negativity that I contribute to the system. Do you know what I mean?

To me, the first step is in food and oil, since I travel so much and food is terrible when you travel. So, you start to realize how terrible the system is. I don’t know when this is going to air, but an issue that is very important to me that I know is affecting California and is something that I am trying to stress everyday of this tour is Proposition 37, “the mandatory labeling of genetically modified organisms.” It’s massive and would really change the world. I very much hope it passes, and I feel like things like that will just make people change the way that they think about the food they eat, start to think differently and start to become more aware of the other cloaks that are put on them by the oligarchs.

Showbams: What type of role do you feel artists play in shaping the future of things?

Deacon: Ultimately culture is the reflection of society and vice versa, so if artists are ambivalent towards the negative aspects of their culture, it perpetuates that. It’s like a feedback loop. But to me, it’s not just about any particular occupation or whatever type of occupation blah, blah, blah, etc. I feel like if anyone is aware of an injustice that directly goes against the fabric of their being and they don’t do anything about it, then that’s a tragedy.

Showbams: About your choices in separating the album, ‘America’ into two parts and wanting to make more of a rock heavy musical effort. What was the inspiration behind that?

Deacon: Well, I didn’t want to split them into two parts, but vinyl is the main format I think about when I’m putting out a record. We sell the most of it at shows and obviously we sell more digital copies and more digital copies are heard but I think about vinyl when I think about making the record more than other formats. There’s a time limitation with how much actual information you can put onto one side of a vinyl record and it’s about twenty minutes. I knew “USA” was going to be about 20-24 minutes long, so I knew it had to be one side of the record. I thought if it opened up the record it would be fatiguing and the other tracks would seem, I don’t know just bizarre after it. So I knew it ultimately would have to be viewed as two sides, but for me it’s not a two sided record. I mean it’s obviously a two sided record, and I don’t know, I was really into Low by David Bowie and that has a very stark difference. It just depends on the day that you ask me.

Showbams: Performance wise you’ve been known for incorporating your crowd into our overall performance, placing yourself on the ground floor amongst everyone, really encouraging and almost expecting the participation of everyone present. How is this important to you as an artist?

Deacon: The audience is a major factor in any performance. If the audience sucks, the show sucks. If the performers are terrible but the audience is great, the show is great. Since I started playing to audiences of no one, when I started playing to large audiences, I just kept thinking about how you can re-contextualize the audience and the room and have it be another element of composition, another element of the performance — and how you can create unique experiences that exist or grow organically, which I thought would be cool.

Showbams: Even to go as far as developing the iPhone app that I know is kind of a brand-new addition to the tour. Could you further elaborate for people who aren’t familiar with the design and purpose in the show?

Deacon: Well, I guess we invented is the word, an app … God, I sound like such a pretentious prick (laughs). We invented an app that synchronizes all of the smart phones in the room and turns them into a unified light and sound source. That creates unique spacial environments of sound and light that would have otherwise been non-existent.

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