Back to the Future with Dirty Projectors

Back to the Future with Dirty Projectors

Dave Longstreth goes solo and embraces change with the new self-titled Dirty Projectors album. In this in-depth interview, he explains what it all means.
February 24, 2017, 5:43pm

Dave Longstreth does a surprisingly good Donald Trump. Or rather, he does a surprisingly good impression of Alec Baldwin's Saturday Night Live impression of Donald Trump. Sitting in the far corner of a cute boutique hotel in Manhattan's Greenwich Village and alternating between sips of a carrot-orange-ginger juice cocktail and a black coffee, the Dirty Projectors mastermind looks a little tired, a little tense, his face unshaven and hair artfully out of whack. In fact, he looks a little bit like almost everyone in New York City (and, presumably, a lot of people around the country) on the bright, crisp late morning almost exactly 24 hours before the inauguration of our 45th president. His Baldwin-cum-Trump—and enthusiastic fondness for the recurring late night mockery—feels like an all too familiar laugh-so-I-don't-cry reaction to a "crazy sense of doom" (his words). But in addition to trying to reckon with the new normal of constant helplessness, there's a great deal more on his mind: For the first time in 15 years, Dave Longstreth is going it alone.

Over the course of six studio full-lengths, Longstreth and his constantly rotating cast of players have been crafting some of the most engaging and beloved indie rock (whatever that means) of the 21st century, informed by borderless genre-leeching that posited Longstreth as the heir apparent to David Byrne. 2007's Rise Above—a reimagining of the Black Flag classic that was constructed from vague memories of the recording alone—introduced them into larger conversations (gimmick notwithstanding), but it was the mutant pop and R&B of 2009's Bitte Orca that Dirty Projectors earned their reputation as true innovators and trendsetters. They cemented that reputation three years later on the incredibly rich Swing Lo Magellan, but behind the scenes, Longstreth—and, in turn, the band itself—was coming apart. The romantic relationship Longstreth shared with vocalist and DP member Amber Coffman (who first appeared on Rise Above) was unravelling, and its inevitable dissolution left him shattered.

In the years in between, Longstreth found himself creatively rudderless and heartbroken, only taking on gigs behind-the-scenes lending a hand to friends like Joanna Newsom, Solange, and even Coffman herself. But through these collaborations—and a great deal of personal reflection—Longstreth began to find his voice again, toying with sketches of songs on a commuter train between NYC and Hudson. The songs really began to ultimately take shape on the West Coast, as Longstreth abandoned the familiarity of Brooklyn for Los Angeles, built himself a studio on the East Side out of an old cabinet factory, and enlisted the help of peers like Solange and Battles ex-frontman Tyondai Braxton to complete Dirty Projectors. It's the first self-titled album in the band's history and perhaps its most ambitious. The pursuit of truth, beauty and uncommon wisdom has informed nearly every Projectors release, but never have these values been sought in such unapologetically autobiographical ways.

"There's a certain school of songwriting, I think, where you should be a vague as possible, because people identify with the universality of U2 or something like that. This isn't that."

"There's a certain school of songwriting, I think, where you should be a vague as possible, because people identify with the universality of U2 or something like that," Longstreth suggests. "This isn't that." From the borderline voyeuristic "Up in Hudson" to the wounded reminiscence of "Little Bubble," Dirty Projectors' narrative arc details loss in nontraditional but familiar ways (denial, bargaining, acceptance and the rest all make unsubtle appearances), but its real achievement is how it manages to capture the experience of heartbreak in what feels like real time. And though much will be made of the personal lyrical details, its genre detours and mercurial eclecticism are just as important, reading like a particularly confessional, emotionally unscrewed mixtape. Gershwin and Joni Mitchell rub shoulders with screw music and nu-bohemian R&B, sometimes all within the confines of a single track. Both disquieting and comforting— yet undeniably present and engaging in both respects— Dirty Projectors is a kaleidoscopic document of Longstreth's strange, solitary new reality. For better and for worse.

Noisey: The first piece of music you released from this record was "Keep Your Name." There's a lyric about Gene Simmons and "our band is our brand," and "I kept my name 'cause we're just different." So over the course of six albums under the Dirty Projectors name, why now the decision to self-title the album, and what does it have to say about "keeping your name"?
Dave Longstreth: I guess when I first started Dirty Projectors when I was 20 or something, I always imagined it would be this amphibious vehicle, and go with me wherever I felt like I had to go. And I always thought of it as something that would evolve and change, and there haven't been two albums that have had the same lineup on them. That was my concept about it when I was a 20-year-old kid or whatever. I think the last couple records, as my life solidified into a more specific or steady thing, that felt like it might have been changing, then all of a sudden, it turned out not to be that way. So I guess self-titling it, it's sort of like a new beginning. The record is a little bit finding me back where I started, but knowing the place in a different way.

That song also references "Impregnable Question" from 2012's Swing Lo Magellan — specifically the "we don't see eye to eye" sample. Why infuse that song in particular into "Keep Your Name"?
I think, uh…

I should probably preface this with the fact that my wife and I had our first dance at our wedding to "Impregnable Question."
Wow. Wow, that's amazing.

We were sifting through stuff and nothing seemed right. It's a short and sweet song, and we didn't want people standing around forever, so we landed on that one.

And then when I heard it in "Keep Your Name," I was like, "Well, that song's forever altered now."
(Laughs) Wow, well, like, that's something. Wow. That's crazy. Um, because "Keep Your Name" it is sort about togetherness and separateness, and the song is kind of like really going— it's describing just the upset, the moment of impact in terms of being like, "Oh fuck." I forget exactly how I started thinking of that, thinking of a disagreement as not seeing eye to eye. And then maybe I was like, "Oh, 'eye to eye.'" "Impregnable" is such a celebratory and joyous, that's like the closest thing to a "wedding song" that I've made, so it felt like to slip it in as an emblem— kind of like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or something. Where he's thinking back on these memories, that's kind of what it was like for me.

You've grown leaps and bounds as a capital-V vocalist since the last record. What kind of effort did that require?
Oh, a lot (laughs). And thanks for noticing. With this record, I gave myself time. All sorts of time. And thinking back on some earlier eras of the band when we used to— you know, super long practices, super rigorous— just a ringer I would put the band through. This time I feel like I did that to myself, put myself through that boot camp to try to… yeah. Just to come as correct with these songs as I could. I sang them a lot more before I recorded them. In earlier albums where my vocals were often times some of the last stuff that went down. It's like late in the recording, and you're like tired, deadline's looming. "I'll just throw down my vocals real quick, we'll get onto mixing, we're on schedule." That kind of thing (laughs). This time I took all the time that I put into working on all the vocals and everything and was just gonna try and do this as good as I can.

At the same time, you also use more vocal manipulation than you've ever experimented with in the past. What were the artistic choices behind disguising and/or elevating your freshly-honed chops like that?
Well I guess it came from different place in a lot of the different cases, but I guess a unifying thread— for example, on "Keep Your Name," I was trying to amplify the feeling of everything, and just thinking about the way the sadness, the mournfulness that comes out of chopped and screwed music, when you slow it down. And so I was like, "Well what if we did that heeeeere?" (Laughs) So that's where that was coming from. I just wanted to explore it, I guess in the same way that the album really involved chasing down a lot of feelings that I had, and trying to figure out where they came from, why I felt that way: How I could describe them? The singing was kind of like that too, where it was just sort of like, "Well, what if I do this to the voice? What if I do that to the voice?"

Speaking of vocals, there's only one female vocal take on the album, courtesy of Dawn Richard on "Cool Your Heart." Since Solange helped write that song, why the decision to bring in Dawn?
It was Solange's call. She had A Seat at the Table in the wings. The album had been in progress for a long time; I've been kind of perfectionist about like, "I think I'm done! No, wait a minute. I need to work on this, I need to rewrite that. So it's gonna be six more months. Actually, this song doesn't even belong on there, so I need a different one. And oh, I guess I can rework that other one that I abandoned 18 months ago." So it's been delayed for a long time. And in a moment where it seemed that the album was gonna come out before A Seat at the Table, I think that Solange just wanted to be like really direct and unified in the statement she was making. And she was like, "This is more of a summer jam." It has a kind of lighthearted feeling so she recommended Dawn. And Dawn I think ended up being perfect for it. It was awesome working with her, getting to know her a little bit.

"That's exactly what the Beatles would have done... using the newest technology to practical ends, expressive ends."

But then on the rest of the record, the absence of female vocals, you kind of have to think of that as somewhat deliberate.
(Sighs) Yeah. It arose out of, I think, the circumstances, and working on these songs by myself in a very solitary way. It felt true to the feelings that I was embodying to keep it that way.

The vocal manipulation stuff also seems like a nod to rap music, not just R&B. You've cited Drake as an influence, you shouted out DJ Khaled in a press release— how much does this album owe to current rap and hip-hop?
I had an experience working on (Rihanna, Kanye West, and Paul McCartney's) "FourFiveSeconds," and it changed the way I was thinking about some of that stuff. When I went in, there were a bunch of sketches of 'Ye and Paul McCartney just like jamming together, Paul playing just random, Springsteen-y chords, and Kanye's just kind of freestyling over it, scatting little melodic snippets. And I took this one that felt like it had a verse part and a chorus part, and I was like, "Oh, if you make a bridge, this is gonna be a song, this is gonna be a cool song." So I wrote the bridge to that, and it became "FourFiveSeconds." As the lyrics took shape, I think at that time Kanye's idea was like, "This is my Ram. This is my domestic record. And I like, sing on it." So it was like Kanye singing, and it was amazing how—I was super into it.

A bunch of months go by, and I hear from Noah Goldstein, who is Kanye's engineer, and he was like, "OK, I have some news: This became a Rihanna song." So I listened to it, and they had just taken it in Pro Tools—I don't know if you use Pro Tools— just using elastic audio, this plug-in, kind of pitched the whole thing up a fourth, so it was in Rihanna's register. They just pitched the whole thing up. And it was the same original guitar take. If you listen—I forget what channel it's in—my rough version of it, I had made these three-part vocal harmonies that go along with the chords, and I was like, "It would be super cool if the harmonies themselves were pitched down, kind of like slowed down." So I had actually sung the three-part harmonies up a fourth, and then slowed them down to fit in the bridge. And they had knocked them back up a fourth, so my vocals were just like (singing in falsetto) "aaaaaahhh!," like normal. And they're still there if you listen. But it seemed so crazy to me that they didn't replay the guitar. If you know Pro Tools, you can hear the elastic audio artifacts, that weird thing in the second verse where Paul was like "uh!" became this (squeaks) "angh!," this weird sound, and I was like, "This is so crazy, that they're just like letting the elastic audio—," but then I was like, "Fuck! That's exactly what the Beatles would have done." You know, using the newest technology to practical ends, expressive ends. It's there, so use it. You push it, and it's in the service of the song. It's in service of the feeling. And the feeling is informed by the tools that you're using, the tools available to you.

And it sounds so simple, but it's kind of at odds with the way a lot of people make rock music, really trying to get a certain kind of sound, and it made me realize how much artifice was involved in that. So I just got excited about using all the tools, all the things that are there now, and the newest technologies. Because I think they have something to do with the texture of the present, you know? And it's an amazing and beautiful— so much of the music we make now sounds so incredible.

As a songwriter, these songs start and stop with you. Even though you work well with others, is there something that irks you about having ten writer credits on a single track?
No. Like with big pop albums right now?

Yeah, sure.
There's different models, and one isn't better than the other. The idea of the kind of singer-songwriter who also is the performer came into vogue in the 60s with like Dylan and the Beatles, who were just singular characters. But before that—I've been listening to a bunch of the Gershwin songs recently, the songbook of George and his brother, and the music of that era—making a musical, or making an album or something was more like making a movie. Every different aspect had a different person doing it. The lyrics are somebody, the song is somebody, maybe the verse is somebody else, the arranging is by a totally different person, and it's sung by the star, so it is a little bit of a return to that model. And I think it's made some great music, and I that there are so many different ways of doing things. It doesn't bother me. The other thing is that often times you see 20 writers on a song just because there are samples, that kind of thing.

Rick Rubin kind of egged you on to make this a breakup album. How did you two get linked up, and did you ever consider asking him to help with the project?
I forget how we connected. I was looking for mentor-type figures, I guess? Because it was a moment where I was like, "What do you do?"

Lost, yeah.
Yeah. And so it was really helpful to be able to go and talk to Rick. He does that with so many people. I guess going and seeking him out there in Malibu, I didn't really have a clear idea in mind. I thought it would be cool if he… it was cool to talk to him initially, and I got from him what I needed.

I'm also interested in the artwork surrounding the release. The "Little Bubble" single artwork is reminiscent of the Bitte Orca artwork, except the bubbles are empty. Even though Dirty Projectors has always been a rotating band with you at the center, does that image represent some kind of longing for the way things were, at least with Orca and Magellan ?
Well that emblem, those two kind of bubble shapes, for lack of a better word, has been one that I've used a number of times, first with Slaves' Graves and Ballads, and so I guess I've found it to mean different things at different times. I like the idea of it as two cross-pollinating dreams, and I think that's what is represented on the Bitte cover. I don't know. Because now that I say that, I don't want to reduce it. And I appreciate the fact that there's an image in my life that changes meaning like that, and I don't wanna get too concrete about the way it's descriptive. But yeah, it seems like a good kind of picture of Dirty Projection as well, in that like a bubble like that, like a cloud is like a dream, but then it also, like… it obscures. You're right about the "Little Bubble" artwork: It is empty.

On the official sleeve, there's a similar image, but it seems crafted out of wood—
It's actually a ceiling at the studio I made in LA. It's in what I thought was going to be the drum room. Do you play drums, or record at all?

I played drums, I had a high school band. I wasn't very good. But I can play. Kind of.
Yeah yeah, like when you record drums, what they say is like, if you have a lot of different planes, the sound waves bounce around, and it gets a richer sound. So I made this kind of crazy coffered ceiling in this little room that had all these different planes in it, and it looks really cool. I think because the room is exactly rectangular, in the end, for drums, it doesn't sound that sweet. We record guitars in there and stuff. But the cover is those bubbles cut in black plexiglass, just reflecting the ceiling. They're kind of mirroring the ceiling.

"I want it to say 'yes.' I want it to be an affirmation of love. And hope."

It's something that Bobby Bukowski, who is the director of photography on the "Keep Your Name" video, when we were talking about like, "Here are the images, here's how were gonna shoot it"—he shot an Oren Moverman film with Richard Gere here in New York City, I can't remember what it's called (2014's Time Out of Mind)—and he was talking about how one way of conjuring the aura of the city was to put planes of plexi between the lens and the actors sometimes. There were like, reflections of little lights, and car headlights, and it also just sort of… occasionally afforded a wooziness to it. So we got into that on the "Keep Your Name" video, and he got a sheet of black plexiglass for that. In the third verse, he's shooting into the plexi, and for me, that was like, crazy. I was so into that! And that's how I was like, "So, if we cut those bubbles into the black plexi to reflect the ceiling…" That's how that came about.

I know frequent DP contributor Mike Johnson handles drums on this record, but did you feel interested in or obligated to reach out to former DP players for this?
I'm in touch with everybody. We're family. It was useful to play stuff for Nat (Baldwin) and talk about it, play stuff for Mike, play stuff for Olga (Bell). But I think that they get that this is a moment, and there are other moments, and the road is long.

Lastly, you mentioned that "Up in Hudson" is also an elegy for the Obama years. Can you expound upon that?
That was in a press release. That seems a little grandiose for me. It's a personal story, it's not a particularly… you know, it's not about Obama. But it does feel like the ending of a lot of things right now, and I'm glad that the record aligns with that in a way. I feel like the record, it says—it's important to me, too—I want it to say "yes" at the kind of baseline, fundamental level, like the pitch of the blood in your veins or whatever. I want it to say "yes." I want it to be an affirmation of love. And hope. Even though there's a lot of negative shit, and dark shit, and, on the record, sad shit. I guess I'm feeling like we, going forward, we have to be committed to an inclusive vision of community.

Photos by Shane McCauley and Jason Frank Rothenberg, courtesy of Dirty Projectors

Illustration by Adam Mignanelli

Zach Kelly is a writer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter.