Dan Deacon loves a challenge. Whether it's playing on the floor of a club when he's told he can't, herding a group of players onto a second-hand schoolbus to tour the country as the Bromst ensemble, or making a sweeping electronic protest record called America, Deacon's ever-inquiring mind asks, "Why not?"
He's the first to admit he has a Rube Goldberg-like tendency to go about things in the most complicated ways, and that he has long fed off of the stress that comes with that approach. It wasn't until fairly recently—midway through creating his latest album Gliss Riffer, a record as musically exhilarating as it is lyrically beset by tension—that it dawned on Deacon that he was addicted to stress. It had seeped into every nook and cranny of his life. He's since made strides to combat it. One result of Deacon's efforts to chill is "Learning to Relax," a highlight of the new album, and its warmest, most sentimental track, even if its recently released visual accompaniment by Alan Resnick comes with a seizure warning.
Elsewhere, Gliss Riffer delivers plenty of elements we've come to associate with the maestro of electronic eccentricity: layers upon layers of sound, pitch-shifted vocals, a couple of raucous instrumentals, and a truly psychedelic tale, in "When We Were Done Dying," that begs for a sing-a-long. Songs like "Sheathed Wings" and "Mind on Fire" also offer a propulsive drive that recalls fan favorites like "Woof Woof," "Lots," and "Trippy Green Skull."
Gliss Riffer, out next week, has invited comparisons to Spiderman of the Rings, Deacon's 2007 breakthrough, because for the first time in years, the musician has gone it alone. On his last two releases, the spectacular Bromst and the grand, dystopian America, there was seemingly no such thing as "too big." Deacon moved into acoustic instrumentation, brought in a crew of guest musicians, and worked with a co-producer, Chester Gwazda—all while growing a parallel career as a contemporary classical composer, with credits that include collaborations with the ensemble So Percussion and the Calder Quartet. But for a variety of reasons, it came time to scale back.
I recently talked to Deacon about his his decision to downsize on this record, how he plans to revamp his live show, psychedelia, and the words of wisdom he took from Bill Murray that helped him relax a little bit.
VICE: The last couple of records, it's been all about expanding, acoustic instruments, and working with other players. Was it nice to dial it back to electronics?
Dan Deacon: It was. It was daunting at first, because I hadn't been the only ears in the room in a long time. So there was a lot of doubt and confusion, and it was also like getting back on a bike I hadn't ridden since 2006. When I made Spiderman of the Rings, I made that by myself, but I also made it not knowing that anyone would really hear it. There was no consequence to it only being heard by like 40 people, 'cause that is what it was assumed it was going to be. Ever since, I've had this, Oh I better not fuck this up! sort of mentality.
How'd you start working on the record?
Right after America, just for fun, I made a mixtape called Wish Book, Volume 1. I was just like dragging tracks from iTunes into Ableton. And I hadn't done anything like that before, and I was mainly doing it just to go through the Ableton effects stack and see what all the effects do. I got really into the manipulation of pre-existing sound, and just making sound inside a computer. So I just started messing around with the instruments that were in there. I was like, "I like these drums! I don't want to replace these drums with real drums. I like these drums!" It was this real ignorant epiphany, where I was just like, "I could be making a new record right now!" And rather than be like, "And then I will of course source the orchestra..." it was just like, "Why have I added logistical complexity to everything that I do?" And I still want to make another album that is largely acoustic. But this was really nice, and just a different way of making a record.
And you've already played a lot of the songs on Gliss Riffer live?
I have. I've been playing it for a while. That's kind of the way I work. I like playing it live and getting a feel for it, then reworking it in the studio, and I redid this record the most in the studio of any record I've done. I didn't plan on getting asked to do the Arcade Fire tour last year, obviously. I had planned on recording that whole time, and that would have been the last month of recording. I'd been working on it for months, so when that tour came up, I didn't want to lose the momentum. So I did mix on the road, and I was tracking on the road as well, like some of the vocals on "Learning to Relax" were recorded in hotel rooms or like studios on days off and stuff.
My favorite was when this one show ended real early, and I'd just bought a pair of monitors, and we redid the inside of the hotel bathroom. Like, it was just the perfect shape to do it. It had this curved shower curtain, and one of the other walls wasn't parallel, so I thought, "Oh this could be acoustically interesting!" So I went and got as many extra pillows as possible, and I shoved them in the corners for like bass traps, then I got like five extra comforters and I hung them over the shower curtain, and I unscrewed the vents and shoved towels in there so there was no sound coming out, then crammed towels all throughout the door, and used the ironing board as like a table to get a little further away from the wall.
And I don't know, it was totally fun! It was the least professional thing I've ever done and maybe the most professional album I'll ever do! And that's when I realized, I'm playing these songs for the next month, let's change them up—let's have fun with them.
This record's been compared to Spiderman a lot in the press already, but it's different temperamentally, no?
I think the main similarity is that it was just me in the studio. Sonically I think they are very different. It's less dense, and I wrote these songs on the road. I mean, I wrote America after working with So Percussion for two large projects and making a piece for orchestra. So I had that kind of thing deeply ingrained in my mind. And I made this record after I watched some large-scale projects fall apart. Like I was supposed to go on that Animal Collective tour, and that got cancelled twice. And I was like, "What the fuck is going on?" The Met performance [in April 2013] got cancelled. That was like a year of preparation, there was a gigantic steel drum band, a marching band, and all these mechanical instruments and projection mapping. It was probably the largest project I was ever going to be a part of, and like the day before it was supposed to happen, it was like ,Oh, nope, not happening. So it just mentally crushed me, and I started to think like, "Why do I add such logistical complexity to everything that I do?"
You do seem to like a challenge.
Yeah. I guess it was Jeremy Hyman [drummer, ex-Ponytail, Deacon's Bromst ensemble, Avey Tare's Slasher Flicks] who first talked to me about the idea of "stress addiction." And I thought, "Oh, what a crazy concept. I wonder if I have a stress addiction?" And he just looked at me, and was like, "Are you fucking joking? You are like the poster child for stress addiction. You can make lunch stressful." And I think a lot of people do this. I use stress as a motivator. You use a deadline as something to be a fire under my ass, and I used to feel good about that. I was like, "Oh I can get anything done at the last minute." But then I realized that I was addicted to the feeling. I would make things insanely stressful. Maybe it came from the ensemble, or maybe it came from Whartscape, or maybe it came from playing on the floor and being told it couldn't be done, and being stubborn about it... I don't know why, but music and performing used to be the thing that I did to escape those stressful feelings, and then I let [those feelings] engulf it.
It sounds like there's a fair amount of anxiety in the lyrics. Lots of references to screaming and bleeding and desperation.
I think that's fair. Definitely there is a lot of tension in the lyrics. And I was feeling that in my life. But the first track that I started and the last one that I finished was "Learning to Relax."
Which, true to its name, is more tension-free.
Yeah, I finished the lyrics, finished recording it after seeing a Bill Murray interview that was shot in September, at the Toronto Film Festival. And it was him saying, "I've got a really great piece of advice," or a secret, whatever. He said, "You do the best that you can do when you're very, very relaxed. The more relaxed you are, the better you are." He told this amazing story, and he was like, "If I wasn't relaxed, if I wasn't in the moment, that wouldn't have happened to me." And it really like blew my mind. Just hearing the word "relax," and the way he explained it really just tore apart my whole stress-motivated lifestyle. And I just kept thinking, "I have to finish this, I have to finish this." And then I started saying, "I don't have to finish it, I want to finish it." And everything shifted. And I was like, "This is fun. I like doing this." I just kept thinking about those times that I was onstage performing in front of like 30,000 people at a festival, and I couldn't even enjoy it cause I was worried like, "The monitors suck! It sounds like shit! What's going on?" I feel it really like changed my whole philosophy.
I think a lot of people think relaxing is like jumping on the iPhone and scrolling through Instagram or going on Facebook. At least that's what I did. I think the internet plays a lot into people's anxiety because they have this fear of missing out or—if you can't be bored, if your mind never has the chance to wander, it's never gonna get lost in thought. And you're never gonna think things that you never would have thought otherwise. So I think that really informed, one, the end of the record, and two, the way I am trying to approach the tour.
The wildest ride lyrically, is this kind of story song called "When I Was Done Dying," which just careens through all these psychedelic images. How did that come about?
Well, I do a lot of these rambling, stream-of-consciousness rants at my shows, and they're all pretty psychedelic. And I was listening to Joanna Newsom, Milk-Eyed Mender, and I was just so enthralled by how vividly she could paint this portrait in my mind of these boats, and this trip, and I was like, "This is amazing!" Her lyrics are fucking awesome. And then I was listening to Bob Dylan, and "Subterranean Homesick Blues" came one, and again it was just like really—but this is obviously way more absurd, just this absurd rambling that made no sense, but again so vivid and so upfront, and no chorus. Just like, here's this fucking crazy story. And I thought of those two records, and I was like, "I like psychedelic ramblings, I like saying them, I like making them up. I've never had a song that really embraced that format." And I just sort of went for it. And it was also around the sort of time that I also heard about the concept of the five bodies. Like, each time your body dies, your soul goes into another body, and the fourth body being like the astral body, where it's just surfing through the astral plane. I really like thinking about shifting consciousness... [which is what a] lot of this album is about.
You've got a few dates this month, but the real tour US is in April and May. Any plans for changes in the live show, in terms of audience participation, or other ways?
Yeah, I think when you add any performative element to the show, it's almost like, with new songs I have to add new things. There's only a finite number of things you can do with an audience like spontaneously. So I am overhauling the whole show. It's gonna be mostly solo, and I haven't really toured solo since maybe 2009. I've never done a solo onstage full tour. And since doing it now, I just really like it. It's so much easier to communicate with the audience. I don't know, I liked being down on the floor years ago, but things have shifted. Back when I played on the floor, I was like, the whole room is the performance space. Everyone in the room is both a performer and an observer, myself included. But why did I ignore the stage? Why did I go into a venue and be like, "Well where does that doorway go? Can we go out that door, and then go outside, and what about those stairs?" And now that I've fully transitioned to playing on the stage, I keep thinking like, "Oh the stage is cool! You can do a lot of things on the stage. Like, performances!" [laughs] And it's like, well, duh, idiot! But that's my roundabout way of discovering anything. I have to do it the hardest way possible to come back and be like, "Oh look at this, they've built a whole raised platform! We can like show them stuff on it! Look at that!"
You might take the roundabout way to get at something, but I've often thought that if you don't want to do this music thing anymore, you'd make an amazing teacher. The kind of professor where people would fight to get in his class.
[Laughs] I think about it—that's what I always thought I was going to be doing. I mean I never thought, "Oh then I'll start touring like weird music on Greyhound buses, and I'll somehow make a living out of it." I mean, you go to a school for the arts, and then you think, "Well, I wonder how long until I become a teacher." You know what I mean? But no, I don't know if anyone's ever said I would be a good one. Most people are like, "You're a psychopath, stay away from children."
Dan Deacon's Gliss Riffer is out February 24.
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